Rico Conning has written for the French icon, Francoise Hardy, and recorded Dusty Springfield, but don’t mistake him for an aging contemporary of Phil Spector.
Conning started out with a guitar, a trombone and a dream in 1970s London. That brought him into the storied space of Blackwing Studios, where his band, The Lines, once showed up as Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet were recording “Only You.” Like Yazoo, The Lines put out two albums with the help of Eric Radcliffe and John Fryer before coming to a conclusion. Inspired by the experience, Conning moved into studio work, quickly developing a reputation for his technical skills and musical ear.
In his new role, Conning went from living in a London squat to working in legendary studios for the Mute and Guerilla labels. He took Depeche Mode and Erasure to the American dancefloor with his 12″ remixes, which drew in the DJs and kids dressed in black. At the same time, he made mixes for Sting, Bill Laswell’s Material, Pankow and Coil, while recording Pere Ubu, Wire and Renegade Soundwave.
As a member of William Orbit’s inner circle, he was closely involved in several of Orbit’s solo albums and key parts of the Guerilla Studio output. Together with Orbit and Laurie Mayer (whose solo album he produced), Conning was a member of Torch Song. As that project faded, he revisited the lost third album of The Lines, which he restored from his base in California. His own solo album, Frogmore, came out in 2017.
10. The Lines – White Night
Written by Conning for his post-punk band, The Lines, “White Night” has a storied history. Conning, himself, explains the origins:
A severe bout of ‘flu had me bedridden and feverish to the point of hallucination. A spiral-shaped riff revolved in my throbbing cranium, with a simple 4-note motif threading through. A somewhat wafting melody, which crucially went up as the riff went down, had me realizing, as I awoke from the fever, that I had something quite good.
The Lines didn’t achieve major success in London, but they left their mark: “White Night” went on to be covered by Torch Song and Brix Smith’s Adult Net. Dubstar’s Sarah Blackwood recorded a version with William Orbit, but Laurie Mayer ended up singing on Torch Song’s version – as featured in The Texan Chainsaw Massacre 2.
The Lines released their third album, hull down, in 2016.
9. Test Department – Faces of Freedom 3
Test Department occupied Guerilla to record their album, The Unacceptable Face of Freedom, in 1985. South London’s original left-wing metal-bashers asked Conning to remix the track, “Fuckhead,” which then appeared (uncredited) on a single release under “Faces of Freedom 3.”
Conning and Test Department worked together again for their 1987 album, Terra Firma, which involved a lot of strong Belgian beer and a piano.
8. Depeche Mode – Strangelove (Blind Mix)
Conning created three iconic mixes for Depeche Mode. The Black Tulip Mix of “Black Celebration” emphasised the majesty of the original track. The New Town Mix of “A Question of Time” came next, rattling club speakers with rhythms, gentle moans and detuned leads. It set a high bar for remix work but was topped a year later by Conning’s rework of “Strangelove.”
The Blind Mix appeared on the limited edition 12″ version – scooped up by Sire for the US release – and it turned the boys from Basildon into a funky, slick dancefloor spectacle. At the time, Gore’s songwriting was at its peak, Gahan’s vocals were unfazed by drugs, and Alan Wilder’s arrangements were magic. Conning worked alongside Daniel Miller for this mix, which decluttered the original and lifted an already excellent song to another level.
7. Martin Gore – In a Manner of Speaking
When Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore came up with the idea of making an EP of cover tunes, he asked Conning to produce it.
Gore’s selection included a track by Winston Tong, the Tuxedomoon collaborator. Coincidentally, Conning had worked with Tong on his single, “Theoretical China,” which included a super-group of session musicians: Jah Wobble (PiL); Alan Rankine (The Associates); Stephen Morris (New Order, The Other Two); and Dave Formula (Magazine, Visage).
Gore’s version was considerably simpler: a bare vocal and a couple of synth patches were all that were needed to rival the original.
6. Wire – Eardrum Buzz
The mighty Wire were one of the assignments that Mute gave to Conning. The job was a dream come true for Conning, who had been heavily inspired by the work of Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert in their Dome side project.
“Eardrum Buzz” was the lead single from IBTABA. Conning took it away, polished it to a sparkling shine, and returned a bright pop track aimed at the charts. It narrowly missed its target, but it hasn’t been tarnished by time.
5. Frank Tovey – The Brotherhood
When he moved on from his Fad Gadget persona, Frank Tovey started making music for the people, rather than popular music. Conning was signed up to co-produce Tovey’s most overtly socialist album, Civilian, which – perhaps in a backlash against the commercial intentions and production polish of the first Tovey album, Snakes and Ladders – saw the synths and computers traded for guitars and drums.
4. Front 242 – Gripped by Fear
Belgium’s finest export, after beer and chocolate, Front 242 turned to Conning for a remix of “Gripped by Fear.” The version he turned in was a dance track influenced by the au current house sounds of Guerilla Records.
3. Swans – New Mind
Conning turned up just as Swans were about to change state. Michael Gira had recruited the singer Jarboe to join the act, and it transformed the band’s sound. The album they made with Conning, Children of God, showed a turn towards gothic rock, as evidenced by the single, “New Mind.”
2. Laibach – Opus Dei
Conning travelled to socialist Slovenia to record Laibach, carrying equipment and banknotes. The band surprised him by shifting direction from their earlier work, going for a cover of Opus’ “Live Is Life,” in English and German. Confounding expectations is what Laibach do best, and recasting a trite German pop song as a military march in the shadow of the mountains where Tito’s partisans fought could hardly have been obvious.
1. S’Express – Mantra for a State of Mind
Conning’s work at Guerilla kept him in the swim of the London club sound, and he was part of the team working on Mark Moore’s epic, “Mantra for a State of Mind.” It narrowly missed the top 20, but how many 11′ 33″ dance tracks can you name that reached higher?