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“The Public Rarely Gets It Wrong”: Steve Lillywhite’s Favorite Songs

Mar 09, 2017

The six-time Grammy®-winning producer (U2, The Killers) shares 6 key songs by his favorite artists and from his own career – including everyone’s favorite Christmas song.

Over the past four decades, producer Steve Lillywhite has helmed albums and tracks by some of the greatest rock artists of our time, including Peter Gabriel, the Rolling Stones, the Pogues, Talking Heads, the Dave Matthews Band, Chris Cornell and the Killers. To many, however, he is perhaps best-known as the longtime producer for U2 and one of the chief architects of the band’s epic sound through several distinct sonic stages in their career. Here, the legendary producer picks six favorite songs that shaped him and that he himself helped shape.

Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run”

“I have always loved the Wall of Sound aspect of music which was started by Phil Spector, but Born to Run took that sound and turned it into a band. The E Street Band was probably the best example of a band being more than the sum of its parts, a ragtag group of misfits who got together and made magic out of Bruce Springsteen’s songs. The middle of the song where it breaks down, with the passion of the 1-2-3-4, is as good as rock and roll gets. Apparently the story goes that CBS were really trying hard to make a radio edit (the song is 4 minutes, 31 seconds long) but couldn't find anywhere to cut because the tempo was continually changing... my kind of record!”

Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”

“I know I’m choosing well-known songs, but it runs with my theory that the public rarely gets it wrong when deciding what is a classic. This entire song was done on a 16-track 2-inch tape by the charismatic [producer] Roy Thomas Baker. For me, Queen are the second-best band in the world after the Beatles, and have a guitar player who I don't think gets half the credit he deserves. Forget Clapton, Beck, etc. – Brian May doesn’t just play, he thinks sound, which is something you must consider when talking about the best guitar players in history. Couple that with Freddie, and you know the rest!”

Yes, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”

“Trevor Horn is a producer’s producer. My hero. Someone who is fearless. I always say this thing about what I call ‘the $10,000 orchestra overdub.’ Most of us work within the mind frame that if we’ve spent all this money on a recording, we must try to make it work in the mix. If it doesn’t work, we distort it, or we flange it, or we trigger it from the bass drum – anything to make it work because it has cost us so much! Trevor doesn't care about that. He is fearless and works tirelessly to make the art work. He destroys it to improve it.

“Yes are one of my all-time favorites, ever since Time and a Word in 1970. When ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ came out it completely amazed us all with these new perspectives of sound. When the middle break came, I remember listening to it about 20 times to work out how it was done. I still have no idea, although the Fairlight had a lot to do with it apparently!”

The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl, “Fairytale of New York”

“It's not often we are lucky enough to work on songs that become more and more popular as the years go by, but ‘Fairytale of New York’ has been voted Britain’s favorite Christmas song. Duet vocals are rarely recorded at the same time and this was no exception. We recorded the music in two parts. The vocal and piano intro was done first: it was recorded live together in about five takes, and the best version was chosen. The band then recorded the rest of the song. I love the many parts of this song, and it includes my favorite all-time lyric when he says ‘I coulda been someone,’ and she replies ‘but so could anyone.’ A classic.”

30 Seconds to Mars, “Kings and Queens”

“I always love ambition in an artist because it allows me to help guide them and realize their dreams. 30 Seconds to Mars are as ambitious as they come. When I was presented this song by Jared Leto it was a long sprawling hodgepodge of great ideas but no real focus on what was important. I went through and trimmed it and really sculpted it into the great song it became, and I am proud that it has become one of those ‘sporting broadcast’ songs you still always hear on TV, years after release. A truly great band.”

U2, “Vertigo”

“I had enjoyed a long career with U2 by the time they asked me to take over the production duties on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. We decided that a song called ‘Native Son’ had the best single potential. I wanted to recut the song to give it the U2 magic and asked Bono to do a vocal along with the backing track. Halfway through a take, Bono puts the mic down and comes to me and says he won’t be able to sing that song for 18 months going around the world. So then started a long period of chorus searching. We must have auditioned twenty different melodies, lyrics and rhythms for the chorus. The final version, renamed ‘Vertigo,’ was no eureka moment. It was just the version we seemed to play the most. It’s a great raw track, and the first song the Edge had ever written with bar chords!”

Want to find out more about Steve Lillywhite’s music production philosophy and methods? Check out this interview where he reveals how he works in the studio.

Also discover which favorite songs were picked by Adele and Metallica mixer Andrew Scheps and by producer and ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler.