Mike Chapman, The Aussie Production King Of The 1970s

Mike Chapman, The Aussie Production King Of The 1970s

Mike Chapman Debbie Harry
Mike Chapman and Debbie Harry in the studio during the recording of Parallel Lines (Photo by Roberta Bayley/Redferns)

Mike Chapman might not be a household name to the average music fan, but the Australian producer’s succession of pop hits in the ‘70s and ‘80s puts him in the league of George Martin, Phil Spector and Quincy Jones.


Born in Nambour, Queensland in 1947 and growing up in Buderim and Mooloolaba, Chapman found work as a teenager at Brisbane’s Mark Twain Theatre Restaurant. After failing an ABC audition as a radio announcer, the 20-year-old packed his bags for Swinging London in June 1967. While his band Tangerine Peel met with limited success, a fortuitous meeting with a “rich English kid” at the club he was working in led to a prosperous partnership. Songwriter Nicky Chinn had already seen a couple of his compositions included in the Peter Sellers and Goldie Hawn film There’s A Girl In My Soup, but the Chapman/Chinn partnership exceeded any expectations despite the pair’s differences.

“He was into James Taylor, Carole King and Joni Mitchell … all of the things that I couldn't stand,” Chapman told Sound On Sound in 2008. “I was more into great pop songs like The Archies' "Sugar, Sugar" and all of the Creedence Clearwater material; anything with a big old hook, guitars and a great beat… Nicky Chinn didn't understand any of that.”

Mike Chapman Nicky Chinn
Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn (Photo by Gems/Redferns/Getty Images)

In 1970 the pair hustled a meeting with Rak record label owner Mickie Most, a well-known producer who’d already notched up ‘60s hits with The Animals, Herman’s Hermits and Donovan. While Most vetoed the four initial Chapman/Chinn compositions he was played just seconds into each prospective tune, the songwriting pair’s "Tom Tom Turnaround" caught the 32-year-old’s ear. A subsequent hit for helmet-haired Australian group New World in the UK (#6) and Australia (#12), it kicked off a golden run of ‘Chinnichap’ successes.

“My job was to come up with the hits, come up with the hooks,” Chapman stated in the Pop Britannia documentary. His was a world of pantomime pop, often crafted backwards by hitting on an absurd title before nutting out the lyrics and melody. A vibrant antidote to the drab England of the era, between 1973 and 1974 the pair notched up 19 hits in the UK top 40, including five number ones. These included Suzi Quatro’s "Can The Can", Sweet’s "The Ballroom Blitz" and Mud’s "Tiger Feet".

Far from being guaranteed success stories, many of the Rak acts assigned to Chapman and Chinn had already experienced commercial failure. Surrey’s Mud had existed since the mid-‘60s with little acclaim, Sweet failed to break through while signed to Fontana and 22-year-old Suzi Quatro’s former band The Pleasure Seekers had seen limited success on Mercury Records.

In the hands of Chapman and Chinn, the acts were given diamond-coated lifelines. As well as the aforementioned tracks, the pair also oversaw hits such as Arrows’ "Touch Too Much", Mud’s 1974 UK Christmas number one "Lonely This Christmas" and Sweet’s “Block Buster!”. In an intriguing case of soundalike singles, Sweet’s Block Buster! kept Bowie’s The Jean Genie off the top of the UK chart despite both featuring a near-identical guitar groove (said to be influenced by Muddy Waters).

While success was swift, some acts were more open than others to the Svengali Chapman/Chinn processes. Having found their feet as a hard rock group, Sweet loathed the idea of recording bubblegum pop songs. Swallowing their pride earned the Sweet their first platinum records, but Chapman told ABC radio in 2006 it didn’t make it any easier to work with the group.

“The reasons the records sound so good is because we didn’t get along,” Chapman explained on Richard Fidler’s Conversation Hour. “The attitude on those records came from them looking at me and thinking, ‘We don’t want to sing your stupid songs’… We didn’t like each other at all. In their own heads, they wanted to be Deep Purple.”

Mud were less vocal about deferring production decisions to their masters, with Mud guitarist Rob Davis showing respect for the Chinnicap formula when interviewed by Sound On Sound in 2002.

"Chinn and Chapman always did things quickly,” Davis recalled. “"Tiger Feet" was made in a day. In that era, production was all about enthusiasm -- getting the band and whipping them up and making them routine a song, and getting the vibe and the enthusiasm into the track."


After enduring the throwaway and innuendo-filled sounds of successful Chinnichap singles such as "Funny Funny", "Little Willy" and "Wig-Wam Bam", Sweet broke free and produced 1974’s Sweet Fanny Adams album away from the influence of their kingmakers. While the album yielded no hits in their homeland, a cover of the 1961 tune "Peppermint Twist" made it to number one in Australia.

While his former star pupils soldiered on without his Midas touch, Chapman was busy cultivating a successful relationship with Smokie (including "Living Next Door To Alice", a number one single Down Under) and moving his home base to the US. Punk’s arrival failed to excommunicate the Chinnichap production team from the singles chart, with the pair’s 1978 releases including Racey’s "Lay Your Love On Me" and "Stumblin’ In", Suzi Quatro’s hit with Smokie’s Chris Norman, which peaked at #4 in the Billboard Hot 100 and also went to #2 in Australia.

Perhaps hastened by Chapman’s move Stateside and Chinn’s deteriorating health due to drinking, the Chinnichap partnership dissolved around the time Chapman began work on arguably his most critically and commercially fruitful project: Blondie’s Parallel Lines.

After cutting his teeth on the equivalent of glam nursery rhymes in the early ‘70s, Blondie created an opportunity for Chapman to work on sophisticated, iconic pop. With his subjects having a love of everything from The Velvet Underground to Motown, reggae to disco, Chapman was able to extend his production palette beyond the flippant A sides of his Rak days. It can't have hurt that his new charges exuded New York cool instead of resembling a bunch of Blackpool darts players, either. 

The initial meeting between Chapman and Blondie’s key duo of Chris Stein and Debbie Harry saw the producer sitting on the pair’s bed at the Gramercy Park Hotel to hear the demos for what would become their commercial opus, 1978’s Parallel Lines. “In the next half hour I heard one creative and beautiful song idea after the other,” Chapman wrote in the liner notes for a 2001 edition of Parallel Lines. “They were all there, the embryos of a musical masterpiece.”

Mike Chapman Debbie Harry
Mike Chapman and Debbie Harry backstage at the Philadelphia Spectrum (Photo by Roberta Bayley/Redferns)

Even so, getting from the demo stage to the finished studio recordings was an arduous process. While this was one of the first projects Chapman wouldn’t write for, the band was unaccustomed to working with such a hands-on producer. Chapman admitted in his liner notes “rehearsals were hard”, since Blondie’s previous producer Richard Gottehrer had often asked for just one or two takes of the songs on the first two Blondie albums. “I raised the bar to a point they didn’t even know existed,” Chapman said. Band arguments – both internal and with Chapman – occurred daily.

“Making Parallel Lines was a whole different experience compared to the previous records,” Debbie admitted in the liner notes to Parallel Lines’ 2008 Deluxe Collector’s Edition. “Mike Chapman had us working long hours and we did take after take until it was perfect, so it was labour intensive.”

Despite the hardships, Harry knew Parallel Lines was worth the effort: “We were very optimistic about this album and we had a lot of confidence in the material.”

“The joy that the creative process brought to us all more than overshadowed all the pain,” Chapman agreed.

The commercial success of "Heart Of Glass", the first self-penned single lifted from the album after initial covers "I’m Gonna Love You Too" and "Hanging On The Telephone", consolidated Blondie’s status as a power pop group second to none. "Heart Of Glass" was the third best-selling single in Australia in 1979, with even John Lennon raving about the song in a postcard to Ringo Starr as “great and simple”.

Blondie saw Chapman achieve something he’d wanted for years: US acclaim. “When the Blondie stuff came out it was ubiquitous,” he told ABC radio in 2006. “It was particularly satisfying to me as I’d been working very hard for this US success.”

Chapman appraised the success of Parallel Lines in a 1979 issue of Rolling Stone with impressive braggadocio: “There's loads of hits, it's a great album, but who gives a fuck. It's easy, you see. When we go into the studio, we go in and make hit records, and it just happens. We don't think about it. If you're going to be in the music business, you gotta make hit records. If you can't make hit records, you should fuck off and go chop meat somewhere.”

Parallel Lines was the first of four albums Chapman would record with Blondie, but in spite of later successes including the thrillingly diverse sounds of singles "Union City Blue" and "Atomic" (from 1979’s Eat To The Beat) and "The Tide Is High" and "Rapture" (from 1980’s Autoamerican), Chapman found Blondie a difficult beast to tame.

“They were chaotic,” he admitted on ABC radio in 2006. “The drugs obviously had a lot to do with the monsterism. The more coke, the more heroin they put in there, the more monstrous they became.”

In between his Blondie commitments, Chapman was notching up further chart-toppers. A Chapman/Chinn co-write Blondie turned down recording became one of Racey’s final successes, with "Some Girls", a number one hit for the UK band in Australia.

Another 1979 song released by Racey would earn a new lease of life in 1982. Renamed from "Kitty" to "Mickey" when recorded by former film choreographer Toni Basil, it became an Aussie number one – perhaps thanks in part to its memorable cheerleader music video. In a Guardian interview in 2014 Chinn lauded it as “our only truly multi-generational song and one that has never gone away, cropping up in commercials and movies and odd things all over the place”.

As the ‘70s drew to a close, Chapman notched up one of his biggest single successes, overseeing The Knack’s debut Get The Knack after edging out proposed producers including an eager Phil Spector. “We spent $16,000 and made the record in 10 days,” Chapman told ABC radio in 2006. “The record company gave me $550,000 to make it and I came in with $530,000 change.”

On the back of the single "My Sharona", which went to number one in Australia, the album sold half a million copies in less than two weeks and hit the top of the charts in the US. Released less than a year later, Chapman oversaw the band’s follow-up, …But The Little Girls Understand.

“I think that’s where my career started to go down the drain,” Chapman admitted to the ABC’s Richard Fidler, but his post-Knack track record included an impressive run of success stories: the producer wrote Pat Benatar’s hit "Love Is A Battlefield", Tina Turner’s trademark hit "The Best" and Divinyls’ "Pleasure And Pain", as well as produced albums by fellow Aussies including number one albums from Australian Crawl (1982’s Sons Of Beaches) and Baby Animals (1991’s self-titled debut). Despite the difficult working relationship with Blondie, Chapman even returned to the fold to take on the lion’s share of production on Debbie Harry’s top 10 solo album Def, Dumb And Blonde in 1989.

Could there still be some additional Chapman hits to add to that impressive discography? In 2006 while back in Australia for Christmas, the musician told ABC radio he had “that fire in the belly still. I’ve got to write – it’s therapeutic”.

Awarded an Order Of Australia in 2014 for his services to music, Chapman's run of platinum successes and songwriting hits is significant. To quote his song made famous by Tina Turner, you could say his extensive catalogue is "simply the best'. 

Brisbane’s Mark Twain’s Theatre Restaurant’s loss has been pop music’s eternal gain.




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