Sean Kelly of the Models calls him a “shit stirrer”. James Reyne says he’s “just as much a psychologist as a record producer”. Jimmy Barnes says simply: “My career wouldn’t have been anything without Mark Opitz.”
They’re all talking about a producer who twiddled the knobs for some of the greatest bands in Australian rock history – Chisel, the Angels, the Divinyls, Kiss, INXS and AC/DC, to name a few – and who has made many of the behind-the-scenes decisions, from dropping in lyrics to coming up with killer arrangements.
Opitz is such a legend in his own right, in fact, that a book has been written about him (Sophisto-Punk: The Story of Mark Opitz & Oz Rock by Luke Wallis and Jeff Jenkins, from which those starry quotes were taken). You’d think he’d have run out of yarns by the time Time Out makes his acquaintance, but happily not. And someone who has been a label manger, A&R bloke and top-rung producer can provide an awful lot of insight into the music industry.
While he spent much of his career in Sydney (first as an apprentice with Vanda & Young at Alberts, then running his own phenomenally successful Rhinoceros Studios), make no mistake – we’re claiming Opitz as our own. “You could say I’m the prodigal son,” he laughs at this.
Born in Burwood, before being shunted around Croydon and Upwey, Opitz’s early family life sounds a bit like Paul Kelly’s ‘To Her Door’ (of course, he produced Paul Kelly too). But things got progressively grimmer when his single mother moved her sons to Brisbane and they wound up in a boys’ home. It was in that dorm room, alongside 54 other lost souls, that he discovered escapism, through the form of the radio. (And, he says, having to adapt to blend in with scores of disaffected kids made dealing with bands in the studio a breeze.)
“I came from humble beginnings but I had big dreams,” he says. “The radio was a lifeline to those dreams. When I was a kid there was the big old radio set at the front of the dorm, then when I was a teenager I had the little transistor under my pillow. I’d have my ear over it and my study book closed on my chest: ‘Aw, the poor boy’s fallen asleep studying.’ Bullshit! I was listening to ‘Tin Soldier’ by the Small Faces.”
For Opitz, songs germinated into movies in his imagination. “That’s what happens now in the studio,” he says. “I take people’s scripts and I try and turn them into the vision that suits them and gives them a mystique. And that was my dream when I was a kid. Be the best director in Australia, or be the best record producer.”
THE SYDNEY YEARS
Upon moving to Sydney from Brisbane, he scored a job at the ABC, working his way up. “I got taught the golden ratio in terms of vision. I wanted to be a director, so I started as a cameraman. I worked on music shows, the opening of the Sydney Opera House, War and Peace for the BBC. We won a… what do you call those things? An Emmy. For The Carol Burnett Show.”
To pursue his boyhood ambition of being a record producer, he defected to EMI, where he was stationed in the mastering department. A necessary skill to learn, to be sure, but he tired of it quickly. He was promoted to label manager for Capitol Records in 1976, working on releases by Paul McCartney & Wings, Helen Reddy, the Band and Dr Hook.
Inspired by the success of Molly Meldrum’s Countdown, Opitz convinced his boss at EMI that the record company should have its own show. “We were funnelling all these videos into Countdown from EMI’s various labels, made over here, in England and America. I asked how much Countdown paid for them. ‘Oh, nothing – they’re promotional videos.’ I thought, ‘Oh, I see. So the ABC are running this show where 80 per cent of their content is high quality production and free.’ So I said to my boss at EMI, ‘Why don’t we just run our own TV show? Call it The Rock Show?’ He said, ‘Well, go and do it then.’
So he did. In Brisbane, Opitz recruited a radio DJ and shot the show out of Channel Nine's studios. Each segment lasted thirty minutes and solely broadcast EMI clips. "About two thirds of everything you saw on Countdown was EMI anyway," he points out. "We had about 20 labels. So we ran that into the regional country – we didn’t try and put it on the main network. Then by the time MTV came along there was already a ready source of high quality videos from Australian bands to feed into it, because MTV needed content 24 hours a day. It became a new income stream for bands. Russell Mulcahy was making videos already like ‘Scary Monsters’ for David Bowie and Queen, so there he was, ready. Then you had people like Richard Lowenstein. People who were prepared for MTV could get their chance.”
Before too long Opitz realised production was his calling, and so started assisting EMI’s house producer – but got sacked when it was alleged he was using the studio for personal gain. (In fact, he was producing mates’ demos for free, which were later released without his knowledge.) This turned out to be quite fortuitous, as his next employers – legendary production duo Vanda & Young – became his mentors. Under their watch, at the legendary Alberts Studios, he would work on AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock and Powerage, the Angels’ Face to Face and No Exit and the Reels’ self-titled disc among others.
His connections led to producing Cold Chisel’s seminal East at Paradise Studios in Sydney, which resulted in a long association with the band, and with Jimmy Barnes in particular. In 1982, Opitz bought into the Sydney studio, Rhinoceros, which would become his Australian base until the mid-’90s.
These days, Opitz lives a charmed life in Port Melbourne, a street back from the ocean, but until the move in 2006 – with his Melbourne-born wife Natalie – he was only flying in to work on albums.
“To me, Melbourne bands made university hobby music to get girls,” he says mockingly of arty acts such as Boys Next Door, the Sports and the Models. With all the major record companies based out of Sydney back in the ’70s and ’80s, bands who were really serious about a music career gravitated there. Opitz favoured the lifers who did everything with heart and guts, such as Chisel and the Angels. He dubbed those Sydney bands ‘sophisto-punk’ (us proles would call it “pub rock”), and this phrase became the criteria whenever he was recording. “Any tough decisions you come to, you ask, ‘Does it meet the sophisto-punk criteria?’” he explains. “It’s an easy box-ticker.”
Over the years Opitz would have his mind changed by a select few Melburnians that he was recruited to work with. The Models, for example, he had originally dismissed as being “style over substance”, but wound up becoming lifelong mates. His tactic when recording Out of Mind Out of Sight with the band in 1985 was to get hammered with them on tour as a mate, then flog them hard in the studio. Kind of a good cop, bad cop in one.
Working with Australian Crawl on Semantics in 1983, any differences were thrashed out on the ping pong table. Naturally, this was all just to get the band in the right psychological mindset. “Number one, keep the record company out of the fucking door,” he details. “Number two, make sure everyone’s relaxed and comfortable. And make sure they get the best take as possible.”
When it came to recording the single ‘Reckless’, he remembers having to encourage James Reyne to be proud of the lyrics. “He was embarrassed about them because he’d pieced them together, but they had mystery and imagination: ‘Meet me down by the jetting landing, where the pontoons buff and sway…’ – you can make up that movie in your mind, and it’s better than a movie that was given to you because it’s got so much more scope.”
Noiseworks recorded their self-titled debut with Opitz at Platinum Studios in South Yarra in 1987. “I flew down for a couple of months living in what is now the Lyall Hotel and getting shitfaced every day like you would not believe,” he laughs. “We already had one song, ‘No Lies’, in the can from Sydney. I knew that was a hit and we needed to come up with a couple more. They were experienced players so they knew how to get their shit together. Jon Stevens had already had a solo career in New Zealand.
“Instead of a handshake we would down a bottle of vodka in 17 seconds,” he recalls of their typical day. “Then we’d walk down the long hall to set up our cricket pitch.” This was a majestic era, in which studios came with hot tubs (put to good use by Chisel and their groupies) and a top producer could afford to spend half a day concocting elaborate practical jokes – of which Opitz was the master.
“This was a better way of getting everyone really happy and relaxed and then jamming songs out,” he protests. “Out of that chaos came a song called ‘Take Me Back’, which became the second single. It’s about a girl who was kidnapped in Queensland. Jon wrote the lyrics about her thoughts: 'All I want to do is go back to my family'.”
Did people think it was a love song?
“Yeah,” he laughs, “like all great songs.”
MUSHROOM AND MOLLY
In 1997 Opitz took over A&R at Mushroom, before Michael Gudinski sold the label to Rupert Murdoch. At the 1998 farewell bash – ‘Mushroom 25’, in which 56 acts rolled on and off the MCG’s stage – Opitz met his second wife Natalie, which prompted the eventual move to back to his home town.
Their first date was at one of Molly Meldrum’s legendary Christmas party. “His house is Molly-ised,” says Opitz. “It all has an Egyptian theme. You can’t leave; you say, ‘I’ll just do a quick circuit’ and you’re there forever talking to people you haven’t seen in years.”
Meldrum and Opitz have had their differences – most memorably when Meldrum very publically alleged that the Live Baby Live LP Opitz recorded with INXS was not so live after all – something both band and producer vehemently deny. “From some discussion with Juno Roxus that he’d got mixed up in his head, he thought we were overdubbing on it,” says Opitz. “We weren’t, apart from tiny technical things that went for a second.”
Despite that, Opitz has the utmost respect for Meldrum, and considers Countdown to have been “one hundred per cent” important to a band’s career back in the ’70s. “When we needed a face he stood up. Mind you, he wanted to stand up. But Countdown wouldn’t have been Countdown without Molly’s personality and presentation. Yes, it did have videos when no one else did, but to keep people entertained and influenced, it needed a central celebrity. He wasn’t a musician, but he was a giant fan. That’s the thing: your audience are all fans and they saw a giant fan doing what they wanted to do, letting them know the news. He really pushed Australian music into our culture. They even hosted their own awards show. I’ve got four of their awards upstairs!”
Opitz believes the head and heart of the country’s music scene has shifted from Sydney to Melbourne, thanks to the rise of independent labels, the wealth of touring companies, and of course to Michael Gudinski, whose ‘360’ model he produced in Mushroom changed the face of the industry.
“Records do not lead to youth culture revolution anymore – it’s multifaceted,” says Opitz. “You cannot be a record company alone any more and be that big; you need to cover touring, merchandise, publishing…
"You’ve got people down here in Melbourne who are real – not corporate marketers, but real people like the lord master Michael Gudinski. He’s definitely one of the most benevolent people in the music industry. The head of other major labels might take their two or three million dollars a year from the international company and put it in their pockets. Michael will take a few millions dollars out of his pocket and put it into his company.”
PRESERVING MELBOURNE’S MUSIC HERITAGE
With efforts underway to commemorate Opitz’s friend Chrissy Amphlett and also Rowland S Howard with Melbourne laneways, the producer has some thoughts about how to preserve the musical history we risk losing as people and venues alike disappear.
“I think this is the perfect opportunity to state that Melbourne has a chance to cement itself really in the arts culture,” he says. “It has one of the best art galleries, but it needs to have an official hall of fame – or something like a museum where memorabilia can be contained, because the current hall of fame is run by ARIA, which is a record company thing [and doesn’t have a physical presence].
“Gudinski’s exhibition Music, Melbourne + Me [at RMIT] was a good, credible base to build from. Sydney hasn’t gotten to this yet, but it would be so easy to do in Melbourne. The 'National Museum of Music', or whatever you would want to call it, would become an authority – in the sense that it can encapsulate charities like Support Act [which offers financial support to former musicians and crew who don't have superannuation to fall back on] and be open to donations. Many things could shoot off it – not only a museum, but a Melbourne tour. Amphlett Lane, Skyhooks Close… Otherwise all that history is going to be lost. Or if not lost, decentralised.”
These days Opitz co-owns production company One Music Asia with engineer Colin Wynne and is whisked around the world for projects he picks and chooses – but he has no desire to own a studio again. Nor does he need to. It was Opitz who provided the soundtrack for Seven’s INXS drama Never Tear Us Apart, painstakingly pieced together from the entire INXS back catalogue, released and unreleased, and demos, including the albums Opitz produced.
It was at Wynne’s Brunswick Studio, Thirty Mill, that Opitz sifted through old INXS demos to score the story of Andrew Farriss writing the new material. “I’m proud of ‘Need You Tonight’ because that took forever. It’s the scene when Andrew is sitting with his guitar, trying to come up with the riff. I started off with a real demo and recreated it complete with the clicks. Then Andrew finds the riff, gets frustrated, gets it, the phone goes… these moments all came from the real demo and I had to find them and put them in the right place. Then it goes to the studio version – and to the viewer it sounds great; you haven’t noticed there’s a piece missing. Then Andrew says, ‘No, there’s something missing.’ I drop in that missing guitar part and you think, ‘Of course! That’s what was missing.’
“In part two there’s a scene where Michael is sitting at the piano with Andrew and they start playing ‘Never Tear Us Apart’. I went through the archives and there was absolutely no piano for that song, but I found a MIDI track from an organ that he played, but he’d left a MIDI track on it as well. So I plugged the MIDI track into a grand piano sample. That MIDI played the piano and we had to add a couple of low notes for it to make sense. That resulted in a hint of ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ without doing the melody. Then I trawled through all the outtakes of the song from the Kick sessions and built an entirely new Michael vocal. I found a softer one, then I edited that into the Wembley Stadium show for the outtro.”
After the show aired, the band’s back catalogue dominated the iTunes charts – but that’s nothing unusual for Opitz, whose greatest hits are permanently circulating the top 50. Time Out tells him about an interview with INXS’s manager Chris Murphy before filming started, saying he was hoping this series would get the band back into the stadiums.
“Four years ago people laughed when Chris Murphy said – and I quote – ‘I am going to take this band back to number one,’" Opitz says. "I’m not saying I didn’t have a little snigger myself. But I reminded him of this fact just recently. He stopped John Butler, Bruno Mars and all these other people from getting to number one. Bruce Springsteen is in the country playing to sell-out crowds and his record’s only at number 24. Two shows on TV and INXS are selling hundreds of thousands of copies. There’s no way in the world the band could have done it themselves, even being super talented – they needed a Chris Murphy to make it work.”
1952 Born in Burwood
1971 Studio trainee with the ABC
1974 Producer at EMI Australia
1977 Producer at Albert Productions
1980 Head of A&R at Warner Music
1982 Produces Shabooh Shoobah – the first of four INXS albums he’ll work on
1983 CEO and producer at Pacific Deluxe Productions
1997 Head of A&R, Mushroom Group
2001 Launches Smash Management
2003 Launches audio production company The Best Seat in the House and records Kiss Symphony: Alive IV
2008 Director of One Music Asia
2014 Produces soundtrack for Seven’s Never Tear Us Apart