From Paul McCartney to James Taylor and now Hans Zimmer, super-producer Peter Asher has always been guided by his faith in others’ talent
By Bliss Bowen
When Grammy-winning producer Peter Asher was still in his teens, his pop duo Peter & Gordon enjoyed a modest 1964 hit with “A World Without Love,” a song written by Asher’s sister Jane’s then-boyfriend, Paul McCartney.
By the late 1960s he was working as A&R director at the Beatles’ Apple Records label; by the ’70s, he was managing James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt and producing acclaimed
albums by Taylor, Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and J.D. Souther.
In both decades, Asher worked at the center of historic moments —the British Invasion, and the songwriter-dominated California soft-rock explosion that refashioned American music. Did he ever feel he was helping shape pop culture? The answer is a polite but emphatic no.
“I don’t think you look at it in such large-scale terms as changing pop culture,” he says in the crisp, smoothly modulated British accent that remains even after four-plus decades living in America. “It was full of thrills and excitement and all that, but you didn’t think you were changing culture.”
Still, Asher’s career in the pop music world has been remarkable by any metric you care to use. That he continues to be a creatively active force is admirable. To give his current projects their proper due, it’s necessary to review the accomplishments that preceded them.
Born in London in June 1944, Asher was a child film actor in his native England before he reached a double-digit age. (Sister Jane remains a successful actress.) When his duo with former school chum Gordon Waller broke up, he shifted into production after McCartney invited him to Apple Records — and when Apple artist James Taylor’s first album commercially disappointed, Asher quit the Beatles’ label and moved to the United States to manage Taylor. Such was his belief in Taylor’s talent. And such was his commitment to melodic pop craft and vocal artistry.
The albums he produced for Taylor, Ronstadt, Raitt, Souther, Andrew Gold, David Sanborn, John Stewart, Kate Taylor and Tony Joe White during that ’70s heyday have mostly aged well, as have later recordings with Raul Malo, Jane Monheit, Morrissey, Aaron Neville, Randy Newman, and Wilson Phillips, among others. For much of the ’70s and into the ’80s, Asher was a ubiquitous presence in studios, album reviews and articles. In 2015, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for “services to the British music industry.”
How do you follow that kind of winning streak? You don’t. You just keep working, and leave critics to delineate between wins and losses, art and commerce.
These days, Asher maintains a full-time consultancy at Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio in Santa Monica, where he’s worked as music consultant on films such as “Madagascar 3” and “Man of Steel.” After producing Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s albums (2013’s “Love Has Come for You” and 2015’s “So Familiar”), he is now working on the production of the Grammy-winning duo’s Tony Award-nominated musical, “Bright Star,” which opens next month at the Ahmanson Theatre.
Witty and conversationally engaging, Asher’s descriptions of producing the original Broadway cast album are hilarious. Words burst forth so fast it’s hard to catch them all, as if he has too many stories to share in his allotted time.
This weekend he’ll regale audiences with some of those stories alongside fellow British ex-pat and celebrated Everly Brothers/Emmylou Harris guitarist Albert Lee during a three-show run at McCabe’s. Onetime client Kate Taylor — James’ sister — will open the shows, which are a variation of Asher’s multimedia “A Musical Memoir of the ’60s and Beyond” presentations.
“It’s just two guys with acoustic guitars, one of whom is a virtuoso and one of whom markedly isn’t,” Asher wisecracks, cheerily adding, “We welcome questions and complaints and heckling.” He marvels at Lee’s “extraordinary” fretboard prowess: “He’s super self-effacing and charming and smart and soft-spoken. There’s not an inch of rock god about him.”
The tone will be somewhat lighter than it was for “Musical Memoir,” in which Asher recalled growing up in the “very grim environment” of post-WWII England as its empire was shrinking.
“We had rationing until 1956,” he says. “We all looked across at America as this miraculous, shiny, Technicolor, luxurious lack of shortages. I don’t think I had particular dreams of wealth, fame or success, but I knew I wanted to go to America. I’d read Downbeat magazine and circle the jazz clubs I’d go to when I got to New York, and had a poster of the New York skyline on my wall.”
The longtime Malibu resident sees uncomfortable similarities between Britain then and America now.
“No question,” he says. “Britain is still a fantastic place even though this ghastly Brexit mistake is like round two. But apart from that, being the most powerful country in the world isn’t the only thing that matters — ask people in Sweden or Denmark, where everything works and they have a great time and get health care and their lives are generally better. The bad thing is you get furious people going, ‘We have to be great again’ — no, you don’t. It’s fine. You can find a new role. In the sense that they mean ‘great,’ I think Britain is great, and America is great for sure. But ‘great’ in the sense that everyone has to do what we tell them to? That’s over. And that’s not a bad thing.”
Earlier this year Asher began hosting SiriuxXM’s all-Beatles program “From Me to You,” but he tracks what’s currently happening in pop music too. He calls himself “a huge Ed Sheeran fan,” and raves about Sarah Jarosz (“completely astounding”), Benny Blanco, Alessia Cara, Bruno Mars, and Fallout Boy’s Patrick Stump.
“I’ve never been a believer in this ‘they don’t write songs like that anymore’ theory of old-age grumpiness. I’m not saying I’m not old and grumpy, but I don’t get grumpy about the state of music because I think there’s tons of great stuff. People go, ‘Oh no, it’s all computers, there won’t be any great musicians.’ There are incredible musicians. People can learn to play anything a machine can play, so in a way computer use has opened up talent that has expanded into live music. Drummers can play stuff that no drummer would ever have been asked to play had he not heard a machine play it first.”
Regarding his own distinguished career, Asher gives himself credit only for “taking advantage of any opportunities” that materialized.
“When I was a philosophy student at university, I didn’t think I’d suddenly be a pop star. When I was a pop star I never had any ambitions to be a manager — and suddenly I was managing the hottest new singer-
songwriter in America, though they hadn’t invented the term yet. When I started managing James, I didn’t expect to develop a management company that would end up with lots of cool people. Undoubtedly, there’s good luck and coincidence and hard work, and I think there’s also spotting where to place your bets — ‘this is important’ and not dithering about your decisions. ‘We’re going off to America with no money because I believe that James Taylor will be a star.’ I could have been wrong, and then just slunk home. [Chuckles.] Luckily that didn’t happen.”
Peter Asher & Albert Lee with special guest Kate Taylor perform at McCabe’s (3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica) at 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17; tickets are $30. Sept. 15 and 16 shows sold out. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit mccabes.com.