Half Deaf, Completely Mad: The Chaotic Genius of Australia's Most Legendary Music Producer

Tony Cohen, John Olson

Half Deaf, Completely Mad: The Chaotic Genius of Australia's Most Legendary Music Producer
Black Inc.
30 May 2023

Half Deaf, Completely Mad: The Chaotic Genius of Australia’s Most Legendary Music Producer

Tony Cohen, John Olson

‘The most obsessive, single-minded character I've ever seen, outside of the mirror’ —Nick Cave

‘I first met Nick Cave … at Richmond Recorders in January. I appeared shoeless, red-eyed and late. As usual. The grand piano was overflowing with bits of metal, microphone stands, anything that wasn’t nailed down. “That should sound interesting,” I said. It was the start of a great love affair.’

Maverick music producer-engineer Tony Cohen defined Australia’s punk and rock sounds in the late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. His long and celebrated career took him from the studios of Melbourne and Sydney to West Berlin and London’s Abbey Road, working with innumerable bands up until his death in 2017.

In candid reflections, Tony shares details of his decades-long relationship with Nick Cave (The Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) and provides behind-the-scenes access to recordings by Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, Cat Stevens, Jim Keays, Lobby Loyde, The Ferrets, Split Enz, Laughing Clowns, Models, Magazine, The Reels, The Go-Betweens, Hunters & Collectors, Cold Chisel, Beasts of Bourbon, The Saints, X, Michael Hutchence, The Cruel Sea, TISM, Paul Kelly and so many more. 

Half Deaf, Completely Mad is a hilarious, tragic and triumphant memoir that reveals a chaotic genius who lived hard and LOUD.


As a wannabe hippy, young Tony Cohen found enough trouble with his school, parents and the law for his family to decide to help him find a job in the music business. Obsessed with music, he did work experience at Armstrong’s in South Melbourne – one of the first studios in Australia. His job consisted of fetching coffees, manually copying tapes onto cassettes 200 at a time, and pressing ‘start’ and ‘stop’ on recording machines when the engineers told him to.

He worked his way up to production assistant and on some not very memorable records, but soon found his way under the wing of Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum. Cohen helped Meldrum record Supernaut on their first single, ‘I Like It Both Ways’. Showing enough proficiency, and also being cheap, Cohen produced their debut album. He also worked with Meldrum on The Ferrets debut record, and ended up an in-house producer at Richmond Recorders.

One of the bands that he was assigned happened to be The Boys Next Door; he found the house grand piano filled with metal rods, screws, curtain rods and thought to himself, ‘This should be interesting.’ The most detailed parts of this book are the years working with Nick Cave and The Birthday Party as together the band and their producer changed the sound of music and the way it was recorded. There were very few times Cohen heard an idea that he wouldn’t try.

In many ways the hero of this book is Mick Harvey, who herded the cats, focused the chaos and got the work done. Without him, The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds would have been very different.

In between recording The Boys Next Door and The Go-Betweens, Cohen ended up living at Richmond Recorders and sleeping underneath the piano for nearly a year. When The Boys Next Door come back to Australia as The Birthday Party and record Prayers On Fire, his burgeoning amphetamine and heroin addictions met up. The next few years found him in Berlin working with The Birthday Party, Crime & the City Solution, and Einstürzende Neubauten. As his health and stamina deteriorated, he came back to Australia and spent a few years recovering.

Cohen’s full discography includes The Cruel Sea, Dave Graney, Robert Forster, TISM, and The Beasts of Bourbon. Half Deaf, Completely Mad is an amazing story of his life and his art.

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