Sunday, April 06, 2008

"We'd like to do a song that's been very kind to us..."

In the world of Songs from The Blue House, we are preparing for another assault on the hearts and minds of the great listening public by winding up into the release of our version of Blue Oyster Cult's seminal classic "(Don't Fear) The Reaper". At a meeting some time ago with our beloved record company this was to be a combination tie-in vinyl seven inch, CD single and download as well as an upload of our performance of the song at the album launch gig last year to YouTube.

As of now this has been downgraded slightly in that it will certainly be available as a download, but we're still waiting to hear if anyone at the studio has had time to look at the live footage yet, let alone edit it all together into a seamless performance-based file for posting on the web. Reading yesterday about how Jimmy Page had to recreate the ambience of Madison Square Gardens at Shepperton for some of the close ups in The Song Remains The Same, I'm also concerned that the shirt I wore for the gig has lost a couple of buttons since then and so any retakes we need to do present the potential for horrible continuity errors. Possessing the twin virtues of impatience and compulsive worry, as I do, you can probably imagine how I'm feeling at the moment. 

We are hoping to use our forthcoming gig at The High Barn in Great Bardfield (home of OBRC) next month as a launch party. I'm sure everything will come through in time - it usually does, and I then manage to enjoy the sensation that there was really nothing to worry about all along. The second album turned up on the morning of the launch gig for instance, which saved us the ignomy of having a big sold-out gig for which there was no actual tangible product to be presented. Same thing with the download, really, as it is unlikely that folks will be sitting rapt in the audience with their laptops, all ready to simultaneously hit the 'buy' button after a dramatic countdown, possibly involving streamers, party poppers and a big back-projection of a stopwatch, and besides, I understand the wireless coverage out there is awful. 

The genesis of the song's arrival in our repertoire is a tale long and convoluted. I distinctly remember Our Glorious Leader James messing about with the riff in the studio for the 'Too' sessions after a bit of tuning up and remarking that it would be a good thing to try and reinvent, and after we'd done a beer festival for what was then merely our favourite venue and not OBRC, the payment for which was a day's studio time, we thought it would be rather a laugh to have a go at it. 

Anyone familiar with the original album version will note that there is a lengthy middle section involving wailing guitars, and since we are principally an acoustic-based folk/country/bluegrass/blues/pop crossover hybrid (there isn't a genre sub-section on iTunes, we've looked) this was clearly going to be somewhat of a challenge to pull off. As in so many of these situations however, we simply rang Fiddly Richard and told him that he'd have to do something with it, and then contacted then friend of the group, now stalwart associate member and songwriter, Tony 'TT' Turrell with a view to filling in the gaps underneath. 

I had an idea that he could do something like the piano intro to Genesis's 'Firth of Fifth' while Fiddly wailed away over the top of it and since he can pretty much play anything at the drop of a hat (his 'Theme from Roobarb and Custard' is a thing of wonder) he acquiesced, came round to The Blue House, showed us a few things which we applauded warmly and then arranged  to meet us at the studio. The combination in the final version of his rolling piano chords underpinning Fiddly's swooping solo, underpinned by Helen's ghostly counterpointed flute and the cymbal swells really is quite an aural experience. Naturally, that's the bit we've dropped from the single/radio edit version for reasons of time and concentration constraints.... 

It's a lovely barn, The High Barn, and so we determined to record as live as possible in the centre of it, with TT at the grand piano on stage being flanked by Fiddly and the fragrant-and-charming Helen Mulley, who was to add spooky flute, and the rest of us, including two (count 'em) banjo players seated in a circle down on the floor of the barn. Tony 'Ellis' Winn came up with a banjo intro which we all loved, and we settled down to enjoy a day's mucking about in the studio. 

People came and went, bass player Gibbon and Helen improvised some backing harmony vocals, Hel introducing the elusive 'blue' note to proceedings, Pete 'Radar' Pawsey enjoyed his usual studio technique, which involved running the track over several times while he blew, hit, strummed, stroked and stared at various things (the look on producer Chris's face as Radar unpacked what looked like a child's zither and proceeded to hammer on it for a bit while trying to get a level is still one which some members of the band treasure as their favourite moment of the day) and Fiddly improvised and practised until he'd got several takes that we thought we could work with. 

Rough mixes taken away and listened to, Chris very kindly agreed that we may as well do the whole thing properly if we were going to do it at all, and so invited us back to finish off some percussion and do some mixing once everyone's ears had recovered slightly and so we, naturally, turned up with a drummer and the news that we thought it could probably do with a proper rhythm track. Now at this point you may have sensed a slight flaw in our plan - you'd think that the sensible point at which to lay down a drum track in these days of computerised mixing desks, click tracks and digital edits would be at the point we recorded the basic backing for the song, wouldn't you? And you'd be right. 

Paul 'Reado' Read however is a man who is unlikely to shirk a challenge and so having listened carefully to the sound of some musicians sitting in a circle in a barn and playing a song some of them barely knew while trying to monitor a piano some twenty feet away committed the tiny yet significant tempo changes, lapses in concentration and fluffed intros to memory and, incredibly, managed to play along with the whole track as if he'd been there in the room in the first place. His only bone of contention being that there should be significant amounts of cowbell present in the final mix. 

For those of you who have seen the YouTube footage of that sketch featuring Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken, "More cowbell", I can assure you that it is a barely-fictionalised account of what went on that night. Then, of course, those nice people at The Word magazine ran a competition to find a bunch of 'Rock Dads' and since we pretty much fit the bill, we sent them a version of it, and blow me if we didn't win! An experience to treasure, not least for the little things that went unremarked at the time. 

As an example when, having waited for Robert Plant's crew to finish their lengthy soundcheck before we could load our gear on stage Reado then soundchecked his drums and cymbals by playing part of the mid-section of Led Zeppelin's 'Moby Dick', it was probably an in-joke too far for most of the anxious waiting audience. ). Then, when we were putting together the track listing for our latest album 'Tree', James and I kept coming back to the fact that we had this old thing in the bag somewhere and if we didn't drop it somewhere into the mix it'd very probably be lost for ever. 

Patient and with good grace as ever in the face of our ideas, our friend and engineer Simon Allen went delving through the hard driven archives to dig out our performance, dusted off the files, reformatted the mixes, tweaked, tuned and remastered the thing so it sat kindly next to our more recent efforts and probably wondered what else we'd come up with before he could relax and stop doing fourteen hour days for us. 

And so, with a little fanfare heralding our hopes and dreams of a foray into the pop charts, we are nearly ready to thrust ourselves upon the pluggers, producers and publishers of the industry, all because James decided one day to fool around with a half-rembered riff. It could all have been so different. The other thing we used to muck about with was Robyn Hitchcock's 'Brenda's Iron Sledge'. I wonder how things might have turned out if we'd gone with that one....?

You can listen to, buy or make a gift of the album version here:

p.s. In the great file of "what might have been", I am reminded that Reado stepped up to the plate and offered to get us back on when The Waterboys didn't turn up. One of the great regrets of my life is that we didn't get to do our covers of 'Medecine Bow', 'The Whole of The Moon', 'This Is The Sea' (complete with Sweet Thing' segue)' and 'Fisherman's Blues' and get off before anyone noticed... :-)