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5 tracks producers need to hear by… Mutt Lange

Shania Twain
Shania Twain. (Image credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns)

From early tentative steps with Graham Parker, through multiple tracks for never-quite-massive City Boy, it was perhaps when Mutt Lange landed the producer gig on AC/DC’s Highway to Hell that the magic truly began to happen. It’s hard to imagine a producer more prolific and more successful than Lange, with his ‘79 to ‘89 output minting a wall of world-famous platinum discs. 

But it doesn’t end there - some of Lange’s biggest hits were still decades away…

So, if it’s pop or rock you want (or more likely a little bit of both), you’ve come to the right place. Here’s our pick of Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange’s classiest cuts, with our essential list of connoisseur-ready ‘further listening’ to follow. Let’s rock.

1. Shania Twain - Getcha Good

Let’s go in late with the man at one time best known as Mr Shania Twain… 

Nope, we’re not going for Man I Feel Like A Woman. We don’t care if you’re Brad Pitt. Instead we’re passing over the duo’s entire global smash Come On Over album that made Twain a household name in favour of the lead single from its eagerly awaited follow-up, Up! 

I’m Gonna Getcha Good is the ultimate bar-raise in Lange’s quest to update Twain’s country twang for broader international pop appeal. It’s arresting, brilliantly produced and catchier than a certain virus… In fact the entire Lange/Twain written and Lange produced Up! project is interesting and unusual in that Lange actually crafted three distinct versions of each and every one of the 19 tracks on board.

Sorted into Red, Green and Blue versions, each was designed to max out the album’s potential demographic - this being the sequel to the biggest selling album by a female artist after all - so depending on territory Up! was a double album, consisting of two discs from Red, Green or Blue. Buyers in the US and UK got the Red and Green versions, while the far east got Red and Blue. 

While all three complete albums were supposedly devised simultaneously (there is no ‘correct’ version with others being ‘remixes’) it’s the Red mixes (forming the Red album) that are perceived as the lead, ramping up that bold country-goes-pop sound that saw Lange at the top of his game.

Come On Over had worked the magic of updating Twain’s traditionally twangy (Marmite...) country tones for a broader pop audience - her classic You’re Still The One just missed our list - but on Up! (in Red flavour) Lange goes one step further, amping up the tech by usurping guitars for buzzy synths or at the very least sampling and chopping them up and piling on the effects. (The ‘going pop’ is a trick Taylor Swift similarly pulled off years later - her country crossover breakthrough album even going so far as to be called Red. A coincidence?)

As an insurance policy against going too far, the Green version of the album has a more traditional country vibe, full of finger picking banjos and ho-down fiddles.

And it doesn’t end there. In an attempt to make Twain truly global, the Blue version - included in the far east - carried radical reworkings of the tracks that incorporate full Indian and Asian arrangements that mess with timing and tempo. It’s all expertly recorded and produced, but to western ears might sound like a remix too far. We’ll let you decide which you prefer.

Up! was a huge international smash (No 1 US and No 4 UK) and plans were soon afoot for a follow up. However, Lange and Twain were mixing business with pleasure from late 1993 - the pair were married six months after meeting - so it’s a great shame that they acrimoniously parted in 2004, leaving Up! as the last record of their work together. The breakup effectively stalled Twain's career and nixed potential further global smashes.

2. Boomtown Rats - Rat Trap

Contrary to popular belief, Mutt Lange did NOT produce seminal ‘80s massacre-inspired classic I Don’t Like Mondays. This single track was produced instead by 70’s production mainstay Phil Wainman. Lange did, however, produce the rest of album The Fine Art of Surfacing, and the two albums prior to this, meaning that the band’s biggest, best-known hit was their first non-Lange production.

However, of all the punk-becomes-new-wave late ‘70s riot ‘n’ angst produced by Lange and the band (Someone’s Looking At You, Like Clockwork, She’s So Modern) we’re going for the amazing Rat Trap.

What at first may seem like a fairly simple punky thrash is surprisingly complex, with movements and stop starts (and distinctive slapback delay all over the vocal), a stripped back verse consisting of just bass and voice (if it sounds this good, why add more?) and that blistering saxophone solo both in the track’s break and, cleverly, its intro, too. 

Speaking of which, we’ve opted for the band’s classic No 1 performance from Top of the Pops for our link rather than the video, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s great to remember what a fresh blast post-glam ‘new wave’ circa 1978 really was, and secondly, to be reminded that the UK Musician’s Union held a vice-like grip on the music industry, stepping in to quash any attempts to under-pay or undermine the thousands of struggling musicians on their books. So, when Rat Trap hit UK number one, the MU insisted that the track’s original saxophonist (Alan Holmes) be found and re-employed, expressly forbidding any other band member from miming his part ‘live’. When the band were unwilling (or simply unable) to find Holmes, lead singer Bob Geldof got around the ‘no sax’ ban by miming the part on a candelabra instead.

Also worth noting that the band delight in ripping up posters of John Travolta at the start of their performance, as Rat Trap had just deposed Travolta’s divisive smash Summer Nights as number one after seven long weeks of torture.

3. AC/DC - You Shook Me All Night Long

Damnit. How do you choose between Back In Black or You Shook Me All Night Long? Yup, the entire, essential Back in Black album from AC/DC is a Lange creation, their seventh in total and the first to feature Brian Johnson on lead vocals after the tragic passing of Bon Scott.

Lange had produced the band’s equally legendary sixth, Highway To Hell, after Atlantic records sought to bring the band out of their dirty rock rut and over to a wider audience. However, early sessions with Jimi Hendrix producer Eddie Kramer saw band and producer at loggerheads and soon machinations were afoot to oust Kramer and kickstart the failed sessions. Story has it that the band demanded a day off from Kramer, only to sneak into the studio to record six demos which they sent to Lange, hot from his work with The Boomtown Rats.

Lange saved the day, tutoring the unpredictable Scott on vocals and providing the distinctive BV’s that would become his trademark. After Scott’s demise it was Lange that suggested Johnson as a replacement and the seventh album took shape in record time. The band were so hot from years of touring that principal recording at compass point in the Bahamas took only a month, despite Lange developing his reputation as a tough task-master and putting the (more receptive) Johnson through his paces to achieve vocal perfection.

Debate still rages as to whether the song features any of Scott’s lyrics, with the band stating that Scott’s input to the planned seventh album wasn’t used as they didn’t want to profit from his demise. However, the line “She told me to come but I was already there” is widely credited to Scott, appearing in his books of lyrics at the time. Scott does not share a writing credit for the song.

You Shook Me was Johnson’s debut single as lead vocalist but, while hailed as a classic alongside the album that bears it, it only actually reached number 38 in the UK, and subsequently 46 and 42 in re-releases (number 35 in the States). Meanwhile Back In Black was never officially released as a single in the UK (37 in the States), finally reaching number 27 in 2012 only when the band’s back catalogue finally appeared on the chart-registered iTunes.

Don’t let the bewildering performance of the singles give you the wrong idea, however; the entire span of Back In Black (also featuring Hells Bells) is hard rock production perfection, and is currently the second best-selling album of all time after Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

4. Foreigner - Waiting For A Girl Like You

It’s difficult to describe what an influential and important album 4 from Foreigner turned out to be. Produced by Lange in 1981 it came to unite and define ‘80s (soft) rock and set the tone for the pop/rock/metal-in-its-most-palatable-and-combustible-form to follow. 

4 - named as the band had recently lost keyboardist Al Greenwood to become a four-piece and it was their fourth album - should have been the band’s next bumbling, posturing, semi-hit. However, it went on to shift over seven million copies in the US alone thanks to incredible singles like this one. You can snicker all you like but this track is LEGEND.

It’s a little known fact that the album’s synth textures - giving the whole project a new-for-rock hi-tech sheen - were provided by the then unknown keyboard player Thomas Dolby (who would go on to have monster hits of his own in the shape of She Blinded Me With Science, etc). Famously, Dolby was contacted by Mick Jones and jumped at the chance of working with The Clash… however it turned out to be a call from Mick Jones of Foreigner, much to his disappointment…

However, enthusiasm from Lange (who’d heard his demos and came gunning for him) and a welcome $500 a day retainer from Atlantic Records persuaded Dolby to get on a jet, join the floundering sessions Stateside and help save the day. Instructed to get the sound he had used on his demo for pre-fame track Urges, Dolby was handed a menu from a local hire company and told to get in whatever he needed. His main weapon of choice at the time was Roland’s Jupiter 4, which he bagged alongside a brand new Prophet-5 and a vintage Minimoog. 

Dolby worked on ‘Waiting’ through the night, the band having long since departed, filling the spare tracks on the multitrack with ideas, not least adding an entire new synthetic intro to the track (inspired by 10cc’s I’m Not In Love) before busting out that keyboard riff…

When Lange and the band returned at 11am the next day to hear the results they were delighted and Dolby was given free reign to sprinkle similar magic all over the album.

Incredibly, despite living large in memories and effectively defining the ‘power ballad’ genre, Waiting wasn’t a number one. It actually sat at number two for ten weeks through November 1980 to January 1981 - behind Oliva Newton John’s Physical for nine weeks and then Hall & Oates’ I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do) for the tenth…

Miraculously, the song became a formula the band could repeat and sister track I Wanna Know What Love Is (the lead track from the band’s next, Alex Sadkin-produced fifth album Agent Provocateur) did break the spell and give the band the number one (US and UK) that they deserved.

5. Def Leppard - Animal

Get the rock out of here!? We have to pick just one? OK. The hair-metal-defining Photograph? Or the glossy sheen of Hysteria? The off-the-chart bombast of Pour Some Sugar On Me? Or the stratospheric trickery of Let’s Get Rocked? Nope, it has to be the animal attraction of (and I want, and I need, and I lust) Ani-mole.

Once again we’re a little lost for words as to how clean and clever this sounded back in 1987. Animal made more ‘fashionable’ tangibly programmed records feel fake and plastic while simultaneously Cinderella-ing the saggy world of rock with new razor sharp cheekbones, buns of steel and lustrous blonde highlights. It’s raw, it’s real… but let’s not go in too heavy, eh?

Lange defined the Leppard sound, creating the new clean modus operandi for a whole host of metal wannabes with 1983’s Pyromania. It’s an album that harks back to the band’s 1970s glam and hard rock influences, putting distance between itself and the british heavy metal scene of the time. The combo proved to be a huge winner Stateside, with the album reaching number two in the States, where it mattered.

However it’s follow-up Hysteria that really minted the mold and pushed The Leps over the top. After the success of the Pyromania (their third) the band had found themselves tax exiles and disasters such as drummer Rick Allen losing an arm in a car accident in an overtaking manoeuvre gone wrong (left hand drive Corvette, right-hand drive UK roads…) threatened to derail and muddle the band’s hard work to date. Even Lange played his part in derailing Hysteria, quitting early on after suffering from exhaustion.

However the band and producer eventually came back tighter and stronger than ever in 1987. Lange’s ever more hi-tech approach totally in tune with Allen’s new, digital drum kit (Allen now focusing on hi-hat and cymbals while his foot provided the snare) delivering what’s arguably the band’s best drum sound ever.

Animal is a track with everything (including - remarkably in the video - a shirt for guitarist Phil Collen). Instant, ear-grabbing intro, solid verse and pre-chorus that’s so good it’s like the song has two choruses. The genre-defining tapping ride cymbal during that chorus, the stretched thin like wire wall of fizzy guitars and that breakdown and solo. If you’re writing or producing rock, do study this textbook. And please, let’s all collectively doff a tasselled stetson to that amazing fake ending at 3:43… 

It’s rock. It’s pop. It’s magical mysteria.

Extended remix: grab a bulging bag of the choicest Mutt cuts… Here’s more essential Lange listening

The Ipswich FC FA Cup Squad - Ipswich Get That Goal

Incredible but true. We’ve all got to start somewhere, and this 1978 ‘gem’ is Lange’s writing and production debut after the fledgling musician formed a friendship with fellow South African (and Ipswich midfielder) Colin Viljoen. BTW: Ipswich did indeed get that goal, beating Arsenal 1-0 in the ‘78 cup final.

City Boy - 5705

This late ‘70s smash was by far the biggest hit Lange crafted for the falsetto-loving pop rock combo. Listen in to Lange’s early effort in creating the hair-metal harmonies that would be pure gold for Def Leppard years later.

Graham Parker and The Rumour - Hold Back The Night

Raw 1976 pub rock from the master of the genre. Lange produced the entire Heat Treatment album, this cover being its biggest single.

Bryan Adams - Can’t Stop This Thing We Started

OK. Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, Lange did produce (Everything I Do) I Do It For You - the song that, after seven weeks at the top in the States and an excruciating 16 likewise in the UK,  threatened to wipe out any affection for the lovable Canadian. However, the breezy rock/pop of subsequent single Can’t Stop put the smile back on our faces.

Worth noting that Everything I Do appears as this track’s B-side. Just in case you’d not bought it yet.

Billy Ocean - Get Out Of My Dreams (Get Into My Car)

Time to go pure pop for a moment. Despite its dubious, abduction themes, the clean, hi-tech, shine on Dreams (synthetic synth brass, chunky Yamaha DX7 bass…) is as pure as the driven snow, and totally ‘88. This is the calling card of a producer able to throw the production sink at a track without the listener batting an eyelid.

The Cars - Drive

Yup, this world-conquering monster is indeed a Lange production. But, after this list of hits, you could have guessed that.

Editor-in-chief, Tech Group