Soon after Steve Lillywhite arrived in the studio to work with U2, the Irish quartet played a tune that had a great hook and no worthwhile lyrics.
Almost daily they tried different words, even completely rewriting the tune. “Then Bono came up with ‘hello, hello’ and we figured ‘well, that’s today’s version,’ ” Lillywhite says of the making of “Vertigo,” a record that has earned the veteran producer three Grammy noms, including producer of the year.
The band played various versions for friends and visitors, and only after they complimented the “hello, hello” version did the band start to think they may be onto something.
“It was the same with ‘New Year’s Day’ (in 1983) — you knew you had a good song, but no one had any idea it would have the life it has had. There wasn’t a white light moment — not that you necessarily have those.”
Should he stumble upon a “white light” moment now, the beneficiary is likely to be Columbia Records, where Lillywhite, 50, has been working as a senior VP of A&R for the last three months. He has yet to sign an act — “soon” is all he would say last week — but he does have an idea of what he will bring to the label.
“First I listen to a voice. If I can’t hear the voice, I won’t get into the songs,” he says, dishing advice he has lived by for three decades. When he decides to work with an act, either as a producer or during his two-year stint with Mercury Records in London a few years ago, “I’m always looking at the internal soap opera factors within a band. You try to (improve) the weak points. Our job (as producers) is to try to help turn the very good into the truly great.”
Lillywhite’s credits on popular rock albums are so extensive its hard to imagine a personal collection without a Lillywhite production.
His work starts with Ultravox in 1977 and ends with the debut from Razorlight and U2’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” his sixth album with the band. He has produced XTC, Peter Gabriel, Psychedelic Furs, Big Country, the Pogues, Simple Minds, Dave Matthews Band and Morrissey, among others.
He plans to approach A&R the way he learned to approach record making.
“There was a time in the early ’80s when I thought I had a sound,” he says, seated in a bare conference room at Sony BMG’s Gotham headquarters. “It was the big drum thing. Then I made ‘Field Day’ with Marshall Crenshaw and realized I shouldn’t have done that. It humbled me — made me realize I shouldn’t go in with preconceived ideas.”