Steve Lillywhite told Guns N’ Roses, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’
Of course, saying you walked away from Chinese Democracy is no biggie - dozens of music makers came and went during that album‘s 13-year gestation period - but Lillywhite turned down the chance to produce Appetite For Destruction, a record with global sales approaching 29 million. It's the kind of disc most people in his line of work would gladly give their eyeteeth to list on their CVs. Lillywhite doesn’t regret his decision for one second - for him, it all came down to Axl Rose’s voice.
“If I don’t like a singer, I’ll say no to a band,” says the genial, British-born Lillywhite. “Guns N’ Roses are a perfect example. I realize that half the world considers Axl Rose rock royalty, but to me, he’s just a bad pub singer. They made the record they wanted to make without me, so it was all for the best. You can‘t dwell on what you didn‘t do. It’s what you did do that matters.”
The results speak for themselves: over the course of a three-decade-plus career, Lillywhite’s efforts - debuts by U2 and the Dave Matthews Band, plus groundbreaking releases from XTC, Morrissey, Peter Gabriel and dozens more - have defined an era. “I’m thrilled to know that so many people have connected to this music,“ he says. “But to me, making albums is ultimately a very personal experience.”
According to Lillywhite, the art of record production functions best when it mirrors a marriage. “Bands are like families,“ he says. “Sometimes you like your family, sometimes you don’t. But at the end of the day, you have to deal with it. Basically, I’m a ‘people person,‘ so I’m very fortunate to have chosen a profession that was a good fit for me, because you have to be a ‘people person’ to do this kind of thing well. One day I’m a friend and honorary bandmate, the next day I’m a therapist and kind of a den father - no two days are the same.“
Even so, since making his first recordings, Lillywhite says that his goal has remained constant: “I want to capture greatness,” he states. “There’s never one way you achieve that, but that’s what makes this a fascinating and challenging job. Every album is a new chance to do something different and exciting.”
He thinks for a second, then adds with a laugh, “Of course, it always helps if I can tolerate your singing. If the voice is there, then we‘re halfway home!”
Read on as Steve Lillywhite talks us through 16 of the most important and memorable albums of his career. First up: Ultravox