Craig Leon: Ghost riding on Sirius B

October 2013

How do you get from Debbie Harry to John Fahey in one step? Answer: Craig Leon. Producer of records by Blondie, The Ramones and Suicide, among others, Leon also made a trio of synthesizer records in the early 1980s. One of these, Nommos, was recorded for John Fahey's Takoma label. Released in 1981, it became a crate digger's classic, bootlegged on anonymous white labels and now fetching around £50 second hand. It has recently been reissued by Superior Viaduct, but this time without Leon's permission, and at the time of writing he claims he is financially out of the loop (although Superior Viaduct have paid mechanical publishing fees).

In the early 1980s, Leon says Fahey was looking for synthesizer records to release. Despite its reputation as primarily a blues, folk and American Primitive label, Takoma released a wide variety of music, particularly in its later years after it was sold by Fahey to Chrysalis. Recordings on the label – which began with the likes of Fahey, Robbie Basho and Bukka White – went on to include an album of patriotic synthesizer songs by United States Of America frontman Joseph Byrd, a New Age record by Playboy bunny Barbi Benton, and a spoken word record by Charles Bukowski.

Nommos is a concept album inspired by the creation myth of the Dogon tribe of Mali, the result of Leon's visit to an exhibition of Dogon sculpture and art at the Brooklyn Museum in 1973. The track titles on Nommos are taken from the names of the statues he saw there (one of which is pictured on the Peter Saville-designed album cover below). Their belief system revolves around the star Sirius, which has a sister star, Sirius B, that is undetectable without specialist equipment. Sirius B wasn't discovered by Western astronomers until a few hundred years ago, and was only photographed for the first time in 1970, and yet it's been part of the Dogon's creation story for thousands of years. The Dogon creation story goes that the Nommos, from Sirius B, visited Earth thousands of years ago, and left a great body of knowledge.

Leon's musical interpretation of the Nommos myth centres around an album of metallic, machine-driven polyrhythms. Drop the needle, and half the room will demand to know what it is. The rhythms fall in and out of phase, the snare edges crunch like foil, and warm, flat clangs are synthesized in a motorik forward motion.

"One of my primary loves is folk music," says Leon, "but I didn't want to try and make an African album, I actually wanted to make what the folk or pop music on the Walkman of the guys coming down from the sky might have been... it's not an overt attempt at African music, but it does use very basic African rhythms as a root. I tried to get the earliest things we had on the planet, not in terms of sounds, but in terms of the simple modal chords and melody lines."

The album was made largely on an early version of the LinnDrum drum machine, run through an Eventide Harmonizer, plus a clutch of Roland synthesizers, with vocals by singer Cassell Webb, Leon's wife. He estimates that when it was released in 1981, Nommos only sold around 15,000 copies, a small amount 20 years ago.craig+leon+nommos

When we speak, Leon isn't happy about the recent reissue. He had attempted to talk to license holders Concord, but says he is still financially cut out of the Superior Viaduct release. Takoma's rights have been passed from pillar to post since its dissolution, caught up in a number of sales and acquisitions after it left Fahey's hands, and the rights have ended up under the umbrella of large publishing company Concord. This meant that in order to license the reissue, Superior Viaduct were not required to contact Leon at all. Leon licensed it himself from Takoma's previous owners in 1995 with the intention of reissuing it himself, but the rights have changed hands since then, and his license was for Europe (not the US, which is where Superior Viaduct have issued the LP) so to try and prove he owns the rights would mean going to court.

"Now that I work in classical so much, you plan projects further into the future. Things are that much slower in getting off the ground, so three or four years ago I put [my reissue] in the can," he says.

However, according to Leon, his disagreement with Superior Viaduct was largely down to their declining to use his remastered version. He says the label originally contacted him to write sleevenotes, at which point he asked them not to reissue Nommos, as he was planning his own reissue project with extras, a DVD and a book. Leon says Superior Viaduct then refused, at which point he offered them his own remaster, which he says they also turned down. But Superior Viaduct says that this is not what happened, and that they were never offered the remaster, they used tapes from Concord's vaults. Steve Viaduct, label head at Superior Viaduct, said that he contacted Leon after the licensing deal was agreed: "Unfortunately, he disagreed that Concord owns the rights," he says, "and he declined to be involved. In fact, he said that he would boycott our release and he became quite hostile in his emails. I gave him the contact information for Concord, and Concord later informed me that the matter was resolved with the artist. Please keep in mind that this was several months prior to the release date."

"A lot of it is very vague as to what the ownership actually is," says Leon. "Superior Viaduct got Nommos from the current owners of the Takoma catalogue – that's about five generations down the line from the actual Takoma I was involved with – and now it has nothing to do with John Fahey or the estate."

It doesn't help that Leon hasn't had positive experiences in the past when it comes to the remastering of albums he has worked on. The eponymous 1976 Ramones album he produced was massacred in one remastering process, and none since have been like the original release. This he can dismiss, but when it comes to Nommos he says: "You say 'well this is the vision', and they say 'well, this guy we have is the best remastering guy in the world', but he's not, if he's not consulting the guy who originally wrote it. I don't wanna hear his interpretation of what I did – I wanna hear what I did!"

Many of those seminal albums Leon worked on as a producer were remastered badly in the rush to repackage the output of iconic rock and pop from the 70s and 80s. Producers end up in a dilemma: a badly remastered record potentially wipes that producer's identity from the record, and yet they're likely to still get a credit in some form, meaning their work could end up unrecogniseable from its original. Whether that has happened with the Superior Viaduct release though, is yet to be decided, as while Leon wasn't consulted on the remaster, he also hasn't heard the resulting record.

Craig Leon didn't start off as a producer. He originally trained as a keyboard player (which is where the interest in synths came from), and started out in the music business as an A&R man for the Sire label. Suicide lost him his first job before he'd even started. "I was interviewing for a couple of record companies," he says. "One of them, which will remain nameless, said: 'Tell me if you see anything good, and we'll think about giving you a gig.' So I went to Max's Kansas City and saw some horrible glam rock band, but Suicide were the opening act, and I thought they were great. So I went back and said that if I was gonna sign something I'd sign Suicide, and the record executive kicked me out!"

Instead, he ended up producing the first Suicide album, which is namechecked as an influence of epiphanic proportions by everyone from Mika Vainio to Henry Rollins. One day in the late 70s, Marty Thau rolled up at Leon's house in Vermont and told him to pack a bag, because they were going to the studio. The pair travelled back down to New York, and "all of a sudden, I was doing this album, without ever knowing what it was," Leon explains. The album he produced was Suicide, and the sound of that first release has a lot to do with his input. Two things were on his mind when he went into the studio: Can's "Yoo Doo Right" from Monster Movie, and dub studio techniques, following a stint in Jamaica working with Lee Scratch Perry and Bob Marley. "I was thinking about making an Americanised rock 'n' roll Can," he says "and I'd also gotten tremendously into dub – into repeated echoes and echoes feeding back on themselves, spring reverb."

Instead of using a straight delayed reverb like Jack Clement developed at Sun, Leon pushed the echo on Alan Vega's vocal as if it were a dub record. "Then I did the same thing on various parts," he explains, "and I tuned different frequencies. They were playing live and we brought it all in through the console – I overly EQ'd certain frequencies and then fed them into delays and echoes, and brought them back and recorded them onto other tracks. So they were playing live, with everything coming out of one speaker and one mic, and I put that onto 14 or 15 tracks where each thing was treated differently. So all those effects were going on live – it wasn't added in the mix, it was done while they were actually playing."

Along with Cassell Webb he performed this feat of mixing live, for a 1981 show in Minneapolis, which was documented and bootlegged as Ghost Riders.

Now, unexpectedly for a man who worked with Alan Vega and Joey Ramone, Leon has moved into working largely on classical music and TV projects, and is currently working on a number of classical and country recordings. He plans to record a new version of Nommos, this time by processing the sounds of an orchestra, which he says was the original intention for the record but he didn't have the funds at the time. Earlier this year a version of Nommos was performed in St Petersburg at Aposition festival (a video of the performance is here), with Cassell Webb singing vocals. It has also been included in the soundtrack to a ballet by choreographer Karole Armitage's Armitage Gone! Dance company, and there are noises about a possible show in Berlin. Leon now works largely for major labels on long term projects with budgets in a different universe than the majority of releases mentioned in The Wire. As a result, short run vinyl-only reissues seem small and somewhat insignificant to him. "To be honest, I haven't dwelled on Nommos a lot," he says. "A series of circumstances have made it go into revival at the moment, but I'm usually thinking more about the things I'm doing now, rather than what I did 30 years ago."

Leon will be releasing a CD package of his rerecorded version of Nommos, coupled with another of his 80s synths albums Visiting, plus extra artwork and sleevenotes, in February 2014.

I wish I hadn't purchased the Superior Viaduct LP.

Feb 14 ......already marked on my calendar.

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