When John Fryer knocked on the doors of Blackwing Studios in South London, looking for a job, he didn’t know that he was walking onto history’s stage. On his first day of work, Daniel Miller was using the space to record covers of rock standards for his Silicon Teens project. As Miller found more artists for his Mute Records label, Blackwing became his go-to studio and Fryer graduated from engineer (usually alongside studio boss Eric Radcliffe) to producer. Look closely at the credits for Depeche Mode’s Speak & Spell and A Broken Frame, Fad Gadget’s first three albums or Yazoo’s Upstairs at Eric’s – Fryer’s name is there. He wrote and performed on the seminal Fad Gadget album, Under the Flag, and provided the definitive mixes for numerous Depeche Mode recordings.
4AD, another independent label that played a key role in shaping the styles of the 1980s, also found its way to Blackwing and Fryer. While often given assignments to produce artists like Cocteau Twins, Lush (to whom he introduced the magic of distortion) and Clan of Xymox, Fryer was also one of only two permanent members of the 4AD house project, This Mortal Coil, together with label founder Ivo Watts-Russell. They redefined the sound of late night listening, fusing romanticism and darkness in a way that made love and pain part of the same sonic palette. The Mortal Coil project drew in key figures from 4AD’s roster, recast and reimagined its own songs or cover versions, and could be said to have been the label’s heartbeat.
Fryer’s work attracted the attention of Trent Reznor, who picked him out for production work on Pretty Hate Machine, the album that launched Nine Inch Nails. Other artists followed, from Vancouver’s Moev (who spawned the Nettwerk label, home to Skinny Puppy and Sarah McLachlan) to Sweden’s Ashbury Heights, looking for a touch of the studio magic that had made Fryer’s previous work so successful.
Fryer hasn’t stopped producing, but these days he’s also involved with some musical projects of his own. In 2011, he released Noise in My Head, an album with vocalist Rebecca Coseboom, as Dark Drive Clinic, which included the contagious “Silhouette.” His new project, Silver Ghost Shimmer, a duo with Pinky Turzo, has released two videos with songs infused with ultra-retro stylings.
Muricidae, a collaboration with Louise Fraser, offers a tantalising refresh of the chorus-and-delay sound that made This Mortal Coil and The Hope Blister so intriguing. The visuals for Muricidae were developed by Roxx of San Francisco-based 2spirit Tattoo. The choice of a tattoo artist over a commercial artist reflects the maverick spirit that Fryer brings to his creative work.
John Fryer is presenting a rare DJ set, covering his work for Mute and 4AD, at the upcoming event, A Secret Wish (London, 19 April 2015).
10. Depeche Mode – Just Can’t Get Enough
Fryer worked on the first two Depeche Mode albums, together with Eric Radcliffe, and provided mixing support on several later releases. Speak & Spell was the record that made them a global force, propelled by Vince Clarke’s infectious pop songs and a distinctive sound that distinguished them from the po-faced stoicism of Ballard’s synthetic children, John Foxx and Gary Numan. One of his distinguished credits is for the second single from Speak & Spell, which has become an 80s icon in its own right.
9. Fad Gadget – Life on the Line
Fryer produced two albums for Fad Gadget. Under the Flag, which came out in 1982, refined the instrumentation to keyboards, drum machine and voices, creating an organic sound that tied together a string of classic songs, including “Love Parasite,” “For Whom the Bells Toll” and this track, which Fryer co-wrote with Frank Tovey.
8. Cocteau Twins – Sugar Hiccup
It’s not Fryer’s fault that Elizabeth Fraser sounds like she’s singing the line, “Sugar hiccup my Cheerios.” Her vocal style, while beautiful, can also be impenetrable. Apparently, the correct line is, “Suggar Hiccup, on she reels,” inspired by a racehorse of that name. In any event, the ethereal, misty guitar drones and soaring lead lines of Cocteau Twins owe a lot to Fryer’s studio craft.
7. He Said – Pump
The story is sometimes told that, among Wire’s members, Colin Newman was the conventional one balancing the uncommercial artistic experiments of Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert. That is a little too neat a description, which is probably based upon a comparison of Newman’s solo material to some of the Lewis-Gilbert releases as Dome, Kluba Kupol and P’o. The truth is that the three musicians are equally capable of recordings that fit pop structures, but they all resist conventions to different degrees at different times.
Of the group, Graham Lewis’ place along the continuum has most consistently been at the balancing point between beauty and obscurity. This single, released in 1986 as a He Said project, leans more to the former. With Angela Conway providing backing vocals (see AC Marias, below), “Pump” is a sophisticated but unpretentious pop track. Fryer’s studio work gives the song both warmth and room to breath.
6. Clan of Xymox – Stranger
Dark electro warriors Clan of Xymox were an important signing for 4AD, but it was through John Fryer’s remix work on two tracks – “A Day” and “Stranger” – in 1985 that the Dutch band found their way into the alternative dance clubs. Layered with sampled and processed choral lines and propelled by a rhythm track that is never tiring, “Stranger” is like “Blue Monday” for Goths.
As singer Ronny Moorings remembered for Unruhr, at the time of Xymox’s Best Of compilation:
The mixes were done in London’s Blackwing studios with John Fryer being a co-producer. These studios had already then a name for having bands like Depeche Mode and Erasure always recording their albums there. Nine Inch Nails even wanted to record with John Fryer after listening to our records!
5. Wire – Eardrum Buzz/Ahead
As a mixing engineer, Fryer has helped to shape the sound of many iconic records, from M/A/R/R/S’ “Pump Up the Volume” to Pete Murphy’s “Final Solution.” These two tracks show off Wire’s live sound and were released as part of a limited 12″ single to accompany “Eardrum Buzz” in 1989.
4. AC Marias – Just Talk
AC Marias was the short-lived project of Alison Conway, who recorded a single album for Mute, together with her then-boyfriend, Bruce Gilbert of Wire. The production credit for the album is given to a super-group of John Fryer, Paul Kendall, Gareth Jones and Bruce Gilbert. The roles aren’t elaborated, but Paul Kendall recalled to Wireviews:
One of my favorite records of all time. I was a bit sad that I didn’t get involved in the mixing process, but I think John Fryer did an absolutely marvelous job. The pecking order of involvement, if you discount Bruce, was Fryer, me and then Gareth Jones. I did a lot of recording and experimentation with the sound and Fryer just pulled the whole thing together. He also did all the vocal recording.
Gilbert was himself a significant influence on Fryer, and they worked on a number of iconic recordings together, including those of Dome and Duet Emmo. Fryer was also in the chair for the soundtrack commissioned from Gilbert by dancer Michael Clark, The Shivering Man.
Conway went on to focus on videography, making music videos for Mute and other artists, but she left behind a sterling sonic legacy of her own.
3. Muricidae – Away
With LA-based Louise Fraser on vocals, Fryer has refreshed the atmospherics of This Mortal Coil and The Hope Blister for a new project, Muricidae. Named after the rock snails that leave behind complex and attractive shells for interior designers to find, an EP is on the way in the spring. As this early release hints, there is more space(echo) to be explored.
2. Silver Ghost Shimmer – Soft Landing
The strength of Fryer’s own songwriting comes through clearly in another of his current projects, Silver Ghost Shimmer. Another California singer, Pinky Turzo, provides the vocals for SGS. “Soft Landing” was the first release for SGS, and it combines elements of The Shangri-Las with decayed glamour in a smudged-lipstick kind of way.
1. This Mortal Coil – Song to the Siren
Originally recorded by Tim Buckley, “Song to the Siren” in its This Mortal Coil incarnation is widely regarded as one of the most perfect pop songs ever released. Featuring Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins on vocals, the pain and poignancy of the original is lifted to serene heights in Fryer’s hands. It is immaculate iciness incarnate.