Craig Leon

Craig Leon: Punk’s Forgotten Crusader

Andy Beta

By Andy Beta

on 07.02.14 in Features

Raised in the swamplands of Fort Meyers, Florida, Craig Leon got his start in the shadow of the famous Miami recording studio Criteria — his little studio handled the overflow. When record companies noted his handiwork in the early ’70s, Leon relocated to New York City, where he began to work with the newly formed Sire Records, which primarily imported hit European acts like Chilliwack and Climax Blues Band. Invigorated by the downtown New York scene in the 1970s, Leon was an early booster of bands like Suicide, Television and Talking Heads, bringing these bands to Seymour Stein’s attention. And when it came time for celebrated CBGB acts to record their debut albums, Leon was behind the boards. His CV includes the first documents of New York punk: Suicide, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Blondie and the Ramones all recorded with Craig Leon, and his name also appears on the earliest Bomp Records singles. New York punk wouldn’t have been the revelatory musical force it was without Craig Leon there to capture such lightning on wax.

Concurrently, Leon was also dabbling in electronics and working on his own music. Inspired by an exhibition of Dogon tribal art he saw at the Brooklyn Museum in 1973, depicting an extraterrestrial visit from entities named Nommos from the Sirius B solar system to the Malian tribe, Leon himself envisioned what such music might sound like. The result, Nommos, released in 1981, was part punk and part avant-garde, with cues taken from Jamaican dub, German kosmische, classical and early beat music. Full of luminous synths, ring-modulated live drums and white noise shards, it was as ethereal and alien as its inspiration. And while the album sold few copies at the time, it now fetches a hefty price online, leading to two unauthorized versions being released without Leon’s approval. To right matters (and to get around a copyright loophole), Leon and his wife and collaborator Cassell Webb took the original score, tape loops and synth patches and rerecorded his debut.

This month, RVNG rereleases this rerecorded version of Nommos as well as its follow-up, Visiting, compiled together as Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1. Originally released in the early ’80s on John Fahey’s Takoma Records, both albums soon slipped into obscurity, yet remain visionary nearly 25 years later. Leon now makes a living recording the likes of the Luciano Pavarotti, the London Symphony Orchestra and virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell.

We spoke with Leon from his home in London, where he talked about the similarities between punk and classical, how dub influenced the first Suicide album, and how the earliest Ramones’ gigs were performance art.

How did you wind up moving from Florida to New York City in the early 1970s?

I worked for a New York A&R guy, Richard Gottehrer, who brought a band that he was having trouble with down to my Florida studio. He recorded an album with them in England and he had scrapped it. And he basically wanted a vacation in Florida, so he dumped them in my studio instead. They rerecorded the album back in New York City, but it didn’t top the stuff that had been done in my studio. So he then offered me a job to come up to New York and work as his assistant at Sire.

Coming from the south, did you take to New York City?

The two mystical places you could move to if you were living in a hellhole like the Everglades were New York or San Francisco, because those were the happening places.

‘[The Ramones] would play one long song divided up into many, many little sections. That was their gig, 20 minutes long, and they would just play until they were too tired to play anymore or just quit in disgust.’

Was punk happening at that time?

At that time in New York, there wasn’t a punk thing. The early magazine Punk was the only thing associated with that name. But then I think there was a flyer Suicide made for an early show for the Mercer Art Center in 1972 that said: “A Punk Band.” I searched out the literary and art scene and the avant-garde music scene in the city.

Richie soon made me an A&R scout, but the things I wanted to sign were not necessarily commercial. The first artist I was actually interested in signing — I had read some of her poetry — was Patti Smith. I went down to the Lower East Side looking for her with the view of bringing her in to Sire, but she was already working on her own record deal and Sire couldn’t compete.

Who else did you see back then at CBGB?

I actually went to Max’s Kansas City more than CBGB in the beginning, as I was more interested in artists and literary people like Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg than music. But the bands that were more literary I gravitated toward. But then after one particular night at CBGB, I brought two bands to Sire’s attention: the Ramones and Talking Heads.

Oh, wow.

The Ramones I had been following since 1975, but only later were they in shape to actually show to Seymour. They were a band that no one was interested in, and Talking Heads barely existed and were very new. Besides the people that were in the other bands watching each other, there might have been five people in the audience. Maybe six.

Were they hard sells?

Both were. Talking Heads not so much, but it took a long time for the Ramones to actually get signed to Sire. You’ve got to realize their show was a performance-art thing; it wasn’t a series of songs like a rock band from those days. In those days, it was prog rock and the Eagles, and the Ramones were absolutely raw. They would play one long song divided up into many, many little sections. That was their gig, 20 minutes long, and they would just play until they were too tired to play anymore or just quit in disgust. And that was the end of their set. They didn’t know how to start or end their songs, so they would just run them all together. I saw something in there though; I thought they were this mutation of the real spirit of rock ‘n’ roll and we didn’t have a lot of it going at that time.

‘Suicide was the first band I wanted to sign. My boss said, “Get out of here.”’

The era of early- to mid-’70s New York City you describe reminds me of Will Hermes’s book Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, where he talks about how the seeds of punk, minimalism, salsa, disco, hip-hop and more were sown in the city at that time. Since you were there, I wonder if you saw much cross-pollination of different genres?

When I recorded the first Blondie album, we were sharing the studio with Eddie Palmieri. They were doing the day and we were doing the night. There were these big boxes of Latin percussion sitting around so everyone in Blondie would grab these gourds and shakers. That’s why you get all this Latin percussion on songs like “Sex Offender.”

You also recorded Suicide’s first album?

Suicide was the first band I wanted to sign. My boss said, “Get out of here.” Nobody would sign them. What Suicide did and how they generated their noise was unlike anyone else. They basically had a bunch of old things that the keyboard player Marty Rev had found in the garbage that he rigged up together. They essentially played live on that first album and like the Jamaican dub guys, I would do all of the echoes and the repeats feeding into each other.

You knew about dub reggae?

I had known Bob Marley from Miami when he recorded in my little studio, actually, in the early ’70s.

When I listen to your own album Nommos, it only really reminds me of the first Suicide album.

Structurally and musically they are not very similar. Suicide was an extension of rock ‘n’ roll and the New York art scene, and I wanted to do Nommos with an orchestra. I also used real drums. I may finally do that now — get the orchestral version done so other people can play it when I’m not around. Aside from that, there were these German bands that I liked very much that I tried to get Sire to import from Europe: Can, Ash Ra Tempel, Neu!, Faust. Kraftwerk is a band that I liked very early on. Those bands were an inspiration for the album.

Were you disappointed that Nommos didn’t really sell?

I don’t really care if whether things sell or not. I just kind of do them. If they sell, fine. If people like them, that’s fine, too. But I was quite astounded when people rediscovered Nommos, thanks to Julian Cope. [Cope waxed rhapsodic about Nommos on his Head Heritage site nine years ago — Ed.]

What made you want to revisit Nommos and put it together with your second album Visiting, for this set?

I always had a soft spot for them and I just kind of wanted to preserve them. But Takoma had been sold many times over and in the meantime, I put it back together again. I couldn’t find the actual master multitrack tapes of it, but I had a number of loops from it and I had the actual patches stored and so I digitized everything that I had from it so I could play it again. Now it will see the light of day. And if 50 people like it, fine, if 5,000 people like it, wonderful. It’ll be there if people want it, which I think will be really nice.

Knowing that you recorded so many classic punk albums and now record classical orchestras, does the former inform the latter?

Someone who was working on her doctorate about punk recordings asked me, “What mics did you use and where did you place them on the Ramones?” So I gave her a whole diagram of the studio and listed all the mics. And she said, “That sounds very conventional.” I then told her I just got back from the studio at Abbey Road and I was recording the London Symphony Orchestra and here’s a list of mics where I was placing them and it was exactly the same thing!