'Best of Times Worst of Times'

Sunday Times magazine article 16th January 2005

One of the UK’s most successful record producers, Robin Millar knew he would eventually lose his sight to a hereditary disease. Now 54, he recalls how he convinced the world that nothing was wrong – until a life-changing recording session with Sade in 1985.

I’d known there was something wrong with my sight for as long as I could remember. As a child I could never see properly in the dark, and I had these black blobs that moved around with my eyes. It’s called retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that gradually kills off the cells in your eyes. I knew what was coming: all the males in my family had it. But I thought they were brilliant blokes. Completely fearless. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t too bothered by it.

The first time it really hit home was on my 16th Birthday, when I spent the whole day at the Moorfields eye hospital. The professor eventually sauntered into the room and told me I was going to go blind and there was nothing they could do about it: “You’ve probably got 20 years, or a bit longer if you’re lucky. Meanwhile, if you want to trot down the corridor, we can fit you up with a white stick and a pair of sunglasses on the house. Cheerio.”

I’d always been a religious boy, but that day smashed my faith to pieces. Every night for two years I cursed the name of God, Jesus Christ, and anybody who knew them. I was in so much pain. Not physical pain, but this terrible mental suffering. That’s probably why I identified with the blues so much. I’d always been involved in classical music and singing, but when the blues thing kicked off in the 1960’s, it got right under my skin. My guitar became a tool to express my pain.

The blues helped me do a lot of soul-searching. One day I finally thought I’d understood something very important: if you’re lucky enough to know about your future, then you need to get the most out of life until the day comes. I’m talking about travel, girls, fast cars, success.

So I took my guitar and went to Paris. I busked on the underground, played little club gigs, did the odd studio job, then landed a job as an assistant at the Chateau studio, where people like Elton John and the Bee Gees recorded. I’d worked out a set of rules for myself. It was all about adopting a fun, positive, gracious, modest, friendly, passionate way of life. And it worked. I went out with a former Miss World. I was involved in a tabloid scandal concerning a Guinness chairman and some lesbians. I sailed across the Med. I started a Ferrari rental business. And between 1984 and 1986 I had seven top-10 albums.

I knew the day was coming when I’d go blind, but my success helped me ignore it. As an older, wiser man, I know that’s not the answer. You have to make sure you get the structure and philosophy of your life in place to deal with not being able to see. Which means asking for help. But there’s an embarrassment involved with going blind. You try to convince the world you can cope.

For many years I convinced the world, and myself, there was nothing wrong. I was recording Sade’s second album when I finally dipped below the point where I could see. During those few weeks in 1985, my eyesight got steadily worse. We were in a studio in Camargue and it was full of mosquitoes and ants. I kept getting bitten, but couldn’t see what was biting me. It was a deeply, deeply distressing time. I was too vain to ask for help, and I was too vain to tell the band what had happened. Instead, I had a stand-up row with Sade and went back to London. I completely lost my bottle.

This was the only real depression I’d had since my 16th birthday, and it tested every relationship I had – business, friends and family. Some friends fell by the wayside and, sadly, it also led to a split from my partner and two children. I guess I realised I needed to live on my own. I needed everything set up just the way I wanted it. That way, if I tripped over something, I only had myself to blame. I’m not afraid of asking for help any more. I live very close to my new partner and her two children; I live very close to my ex-partner and my own children. I have someone to come and help me get ready in the morning and I have cars to pick me up and take me to work. It’s like a large extended family of helpers.

I often think to myself: “What would I say if someone told me I could have my sight back tomorrow?” And you know something? I’d have to think long and hard about that. I’m 56 and I’ve had 20 years to get used to being totally blind. I’ve got very good at it. For instance, my hearing and pitch have become supersensitive. Boy George said I had the best ears in the business.

The list of things that really piss me off about being blind is pretty short. One: never having seen my children. I feel that because I can’t look into their eyes, the bond between us is incomplete, and that causes me daily anguish. Two: not being able to fully commune with nature on my own. And three: not being able to look at a woman’s bottom.

Interview: Danny Scott

'I raged against being blind . . . until I realised I had to take responsibility for my life'

Evening Standard article: Date Thursday 10th June 2004

Making a success of your self is twice as difficult for someone with a disability. So how did Robin Millar conquer his blindness to become one of Britain’s most successful records producers? This is his inspiring story.

My childhood was normal apart from the fact that I was born with Retinis Pigmentosa, which causes progressive blindness. With the small amount of vision I did have I could just about recognise places and people within a couple of feet, but night-time was always entirely black so I have never seen a star. I lost my sight completely when I was 35.

Despite my disability, I am, and have been, a very happy man. My blindness hasn’t stopped me from living my life to the full. My parents believed that to survive I had to take some hard knocks early on and insisted I went to a normal school, Enfield Grammar. I used to have some spectacular accidents … falling off walls, endless collisions with lamp posts, and I was constantly being hit in the face by unseen cricket balls.

My dad even encouraged me to take up boxing. And I dare say that some of the times I used to go off to Brighton on my bike he and my mum were probably wetting themselves with worry. My parents did 101 per cent the right thing for me – which is why I now go around talking to schools about how important I think inclusivity is: that people with all sorts of “weirdnesses” and ” wonderfulnesses” should be included in mainstream schools.

On my 16th birthday I went to Moorfields Eye Hospital for tests. At the end, the doctor said: “Well, you’re going blind, there’s nothing we can do about it and it’ll probably take about 20 or 30 years before you lose your sight altogether. Pop down the corridor and get yourself a free white stick and a pair of dark glasses.”

Taking the bus ride home I missed my stop and ended up going right to the end of the line. I was just sitting and staring at the white stick and glasses in disbelief. I never used them. I had been devoutly religious – but suddenly I was full of rage and anger.
It took me two years to realise I had to take responsibility for myself, that I had to sort out my own life.

Apart from my poor eyesight, I was a typical teenager – I liked football, I went out with girls and I was a massive music fan.

The only untypical thing about me was that when I was 17 my older sister Rose married Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor. I spent my teens hanging out with the Stones and other members of the music scene.

I went on tour with them and even sat in for Bill Wyman on bass rehearsing Tumbling Dice. My parents encouraged me to get a qualification so I went to Cambridge to study law. I left with a masters and got a job with Polydor Records – the only “proper” job I’ve ever had. This lasted only a short while because I simply couldn’t see well enough to deal with the amount of reading and writing involved.

Around this time my heart was broken by a girl I wanted to marry. Her parents were uncomfortable because of my blindness and dissuaded her from being with me. Devastated, I went to live in Paris and spent the next six years there, working in music studios, playing in bands, even doing a bit of nude modelling.

I got involved with writing a musical with a friend called Marek. Unfortunately, the show never happened as the producers ran off with all the money, about £60,000. However, a girlfriend’s brother – who was extremely rich – paid for Marek and me to record one of the songs. Atlantic Records heard it and Who Needs Rock ‘n’ Roll shot to Number One. For 18 months, my life was a blur of cars, girls, booze and non-stop fun.

But in 1979 I settled down and married Ellen, a girl from Texas. I launched a luxury car-hire company, Rent-a-Ferrari, but the business went down the pan and my next venture was setting up Power Plant recording studios in Willesden.

One of my first projects was making a record to mark 10 years of the Chilean solidarity campaign. I have always been committed to raising money for charity through my work. Loads of great musicians performed on the record, including Tracy Thorn of Everything But The Girl and the saxophonist from a band called Pride – which later turned into the Sade band.

Pride’s manager insisted I hear a few of their demos and we ended up recording two tracks: Smooth Operator and Your Love Is King. These versions ended up on Sade’s Diamond Life album. This was a fantastic period. After Diamond Life I went on to produce Eden, the first Everything But The Girl album. Then I was asked to work with the Style Council, Randy Crawford, the Christians and Fine Young Cannibals.

Power Plant went from strength to strength. By the time I was 35 I had a string of multi-platinum discs, a wife and two lovely kids, £6 million in savings and a chauffeur-driven 1965 Bentley. Then, while recording Sade’s second album, Promise, I lost my eyesight altogether. It had deteriorated fairly rapidly over about two months but when it happened I was totally unprepared. I withdrew into my shell and felt very much like that petrified 16-year-old again.

Instead of just explaining to everyone around me that I was now fully blind, I kept quiet and tried to carry on. After about six weeks I couldn’t take it any more. I went into the studio and just exploded. I started ranting and raving.

CV Robin Millar
Born: 18 December 1951; St George’s Hospital (now the Lanesborough Hotel), Hyde Park Corner; mother – Anne, nurse; father – Bruce, army doctor

Married: Ellen 1979; children – Scarlett and Crusoe

School: Enfield Grammar, Enfield, north London 1963 – 1970

University: Cambridge, Law MA, 1970 – 1973

First Job: assistant royalty manager at Polydor Records, 1973 – 1974

Employment: Resident in Paris as musician engineer and producer, 1975 – 1980; founded and developed Rent-a-Ferrari, 1980-1982; founder and chairman of Scarlett Group, which owned Power Plant and Maison Rouge Studios in London, 1982-1990; worldwide chairman of RePro, 1991-1999; founder of Artsmedia, 2002; owner of Whitfield Street Street Studios, 2004

Charity Work: raised more than £250,000 through putting on concerts and producing records for the British Lung Foundation, Artists Against Apartheid, Chilean Solidarity Campaign, Namibian Freedom Fighters, Oxfam, Patron of Unicef

Other: visiting lecturer in commercial music, Surrey University, The Royal Academy of Music, London and Centra Musicale,Italy. Brit Awards Judge since 1993