The hand that rocks the radio

Record producer Mark Opitz overcame a tough childhood to work with the top Oz rock acts.
Record producer Mark Opitz overcame a tough childhood to work with the top Oz rock acts.

HIS name might not be instantly familiar. Yet his work is aired daily, multiple times, on commercial radio stations all over the country.

Since he began toiling behind the decks in the late 1970s, Mark Opitz has helmed the recording of a handful of Australian rock's seminal moments. In fact, he is arguably Australia's most accomplished and celebrated producer.

However, like most in his trade, despite a resume that includes Reckless by Australian Crawl, What's My Scene by Hoodoo Gurus, Take a Long Line by the Angels, Don't Change by INXS, Science Fiction by the Divinyls and Forever Now by Cold Chisel, he is hardly a household name.

In fact, the art of rock music production remains something of a mystery to the average music fan. Although the role of producer is crucial to any album's sound, with the exception of some mostly eccentric exceptions - think Phil Spector, George Martin and Rick Rubin - producers mostly toil away in anonymity.

Music fans may see their name credited on an album's liner notes, but rarely does the recognition go beyond that.

Melbourne writers Jeff Jenkins and Luke Wallis were acutely aware of this when they began pitching a biography of the Brisbane-bred, Melbourne-based producer Opitz to various publishers a couple of years ago. Wallis, an employee of radio and digital company MCM, had conducted an interview with Opitz, who is now 60, for a radio show. He was astonished by the anecdotes about some of the biggest names in Australian music - as well as internationals Bob Dylan, Ray Charles and Kiss - he divulged.

Opitz fondly recalls the temperamental Charles, for instance, sauntering around his LA studio with an enormous beer stein that comprised, in equal measures, gin and black coffee.

Jenkins and Wallis could not shake the feeling that Opitz's remarkable career, which had exposed him to the biggest names in music globally, would make for an enthralling biography.

Jenkins, a respected Melbourne journalist, says Opitz is responsible for creating the soundtrack to his formative years. He was ebullient at the prospect of exploring the stories behind those acts. Opitz, meanwhile, says: ''I'm privileged to have somebody to do this about me.''

The book, Sophisto-Punk, is the culmination of hundreds of hours of interviews and research by Jenkins and Wallis, who would regularly visit Opitz's Port Melbourne residence armed with a six-pack and compile his stories.

Opitz was eager to ensure it was not merely a tale of decadence or a bland coffee-table rock book.

''I wanted to make sure it was the story of a journey that I have been lucky enough to observe,'' he says. ''There is some stuff in there that you could say is embarrassing to friends of mine …''

As a journalist, Jenkins was pleased with another of Opitz's stipulations: anybody mentioned at length was offered a right of reply.

''I wanted corroborative evidence,'' Opitz says. ''I'm sick of reading books that should be called 'as I remember it'.''

Australian Crawl frontman James Reyne, who rarely speaks of his former band, talks candidly between Opitz's recollections. As do Jimmy Barnes and various INXS members. Cold Chisel's Don Watson disputes some of the memories.

Sophisto-Punk begins with an unflinching look at Opitz's childhood with his brother in various boys' homes in Brisbane. This poor, arduous beginning helped shape his work ethic. We read of his time working at the ABC behind the camera from 1972 and his rise through the local music industry. His big break came in 1977 when he began work as an engineer on the AC/DC album Let There Be Rock.

It was about then he met Barnes. Opitz worked with Cold Chisel on the demos that were knocked back by the label EMI.

The book chronicles his recording of Cold Chisel's masterpieces, East and Circus Animals, their camaraderie and why their relationships began to disintegrate.

In 1999, Barnes, whose solo career was stalling after an explosive start, entrusted Opitz with producing another solo album. At the time, Barnes was consuming an eight-ball of cocaine and an ounce (28 grams) of marijuana daily.

''It was a horrible time,'' Opitz says. ''It was a very tough album to make. Jimmy was afflicted by a lot of demons in doing that record.''

Drugs, particularly cocaine, are a recurrent theme. How common are they in the studio today? ''It has changed now,'' Opitz says. ''In the early 1980s, coke was just another drug and we were all young and stupid. But it wasn't good for recording. I didn't ban it. But I said to people, 'If you want to do coke in the studio, do it in front of me. Don't go off to some room and be antisocial'.''

Perhaps the most intriguing stories are about INXS. Opitz describes the band's humble beginnings, what made their music so popular, the changes in the group's personalities as their popularity expanded, and the hedonism of tours. He also ponders the death of Michael Hutchence and the band's decision to continue.

Jenkins says Opitz has a remarkable memory. ''It was great to work with someone so rational and logical,'' he says. ''Nothing was off limits.''

Sophisto-Punk is published by Ebury Press.

This story The hand that rocks the radio first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.