Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"Spare a talent for an old ex-leper..."

We (Songs from The Blue House) did a pop show the other day at The High Barn in Great Bardfield, which is where we originally turned up some years ago to do a set at their beer festival, the fee for which we negotiated down to a day's recording at which we did a version of "(Don't Fear) The Reaper". This set in motion many trains of endeavour, not least the one which lead to us featuring in The Word Magazine as a bunch of Rock Dads (I've gone on about this at length before many, many times) which in turn meant that our friend James Kindred, who we'd corralled at short notice to do the accompanying photo for us, got sent a press pass to the Latitude Festival in order to do some shots with Peter, Bjorn and John. He put them in deck chairs eating ice creams if I recall correctly, and his submission featured in the next issue. Kind of serendipitious, I reckon.  

Anyhoo, long story short, we were belatedly launching our cunningly-titled album 'IV' at the gig and decided to do a chronologically-based set list starting with the first song we wrote and finishing some hour and a half later with the most recent. Since there's a fully-automated 69-track digital studio right there it seemed a shame not to record the whole thing for posterity, and once the engineering voles had cleared enough space on the hard drive (in the old days we'd just have taped over someone's precious once-in-a-lifetime, life-savings-consuming two inch demo master tape and left them weeping at their inability to cough up the £50 required to preserve it for a month in storage, but then I suppose that's progress for you) that's what we did.

In the great tradition of epoch-defining live albums (I'm thinking All The World's A Stage, On Your Feet or On Your Knees, or perhaps Showaddywaddy's Live in Germany) we'd now like to put the recording of the gig out as a CD or download or somesuch. Which is where you come in.

We have decided to employ the phenomenon of crowdsourcing (as opposed to crowd surfing - that didn't go so well that one time, but then I blame the supper club-style seating plan) to provide some lowly sound engineer with the means by which to both feed his family and to be able to afford the electricity required in order to be able to switch the studio equipment on for long enough to be able to fix that sloppy tuning in the second number and put enough EQ on the audience mics that we don't have to use the second-hand crowd track from The Adicts' Rockers Into Orbit. I hear we're going to leave in that bit about percussionist Mick Harding being able to kill a bear with his man hands.

Here's a link to the Kickstarter page, which details a number of enticing packages that you can invest in, and which also features a short video explaining our predicament vis-a-vis finance in which I end up threatening Our Glorious Leader with a battery powered drill. Yes, it's safe, it's very safe, it's so safe you wouldn't believe it.             

Monday, April 15, 2013

Amazing Adventures in Time and Spaceward.

There’s been a gratifying response to my last post regarding The World Service and our adventures in The Big Music, to the extent that some folk have expressed an interest in uncovering the actual sound recordings that we made at the time. From a dusty corner of his digital archive, my good friend James Partridge has been kind enough to retrieve and host delicately preserved copies of these artefacts, wrapped carefully in old newspaper and bubble wrap, and I am pleased to be able to offer you, dear reader, the opportunity to hear these things and make your mind up regarding our merits (or otherwise) first hand.
First, a bit of background. The World Service had been in existence for a couple of years by the point we made these demos, although principally in a slightly different aggregation to that on the recording, the former line up’s career having concluded when the self same James had invited our then bass player to join his band and he, Steven ‘Kilbey’ Mears, had agreed. Singer Stephen ‘Wendell’ Constable and I split the band, reformed without telling the drummer and started looking around for suitable replacements, which led us to recruiting one Donald Hammond on bass, his brother Gibbon (later to become a pivotal bass-playing tri-corner of Songs from The Blue House) on keyboards while Gary Forbes, second cousin of Simple Minds’ bass player Derek, became our drummer. Eagle-eyed SftBH completists will have already spotted that this is the line up referred to in the lyrics of Start One of Your Own (still available for digital download 

With a rather overweening sense of ambition we then booked ourselves into Spaceward Studio in darkest Cambridgeshire for a couple of nights to do some recording. As we rolled up in a pair of cars overloaded with guitars and amplifiers the freshly-signed The Bible, featuring Boo Hewerdine, were having their gear loaded out into a considerably larger van. We nodded cheerily at him in the pub while we waited for their crew to finish vacating the premises at which he looked a tad startled and disappeared a bit further into his greatcoat. It probably would have been relevant to mention that Steve and I, in our capacity as fellow employees of Andy’s Records, had spoken to him on the phone on a hundred occasions, but we didn’t think to bring that up at the time.
Here are just a couple of vignettes from the sessions, which were perfectly curated by in-house engineer and recording producer Owen Morris. “I hate doing guitars” he remarked at one point as he nonchalantly swept a palms-width spread of extremely expensive faders up to ten so that Steve could put his coffee down on the end of the mixing desk. Posterity does not record if this is how he then introduced himself to Noel Gallagher prior to mixing Definitely Maybe.

I mentioned in my previous blog that there were shiny prizes on offer in the Rock & Pop Competition and I ended up taking one home in the shape of the ‘Best Song’ award for I’m Sorry. I don’t remember saxophone player Jane Leighton (as was) doing any more than two takes on anything and so that double tracked end solo with the third harmony and grace notes added was in all probability recorded in pretty much the time it takes to listen to it, a feat which I still find astonishing.
The End of The Rainbow is a snapshot of what was happening politically in the mid to late eighties from the viewpoint of a twenty-something singer-songwriter and one which I’m not at all embarrassed to stand behind today although as I point out to myself toward the end there, “You don’t get a medal for watching the news, reading the paper, or singing the blues”. In hindsight, Eric Clapton CBE may beg to differ.

The last song on the session – Danny Whitten’s Legacy - involved Gibbon playing the grand piano in the studio’s live room while we monitored his performance from around the corner in the gallery. After a few fluffed takes, tension was rising perceptibly as we were all well aware we were on a fixed budget in terms of both time and money. It also hadn’t worked in our favour so far that someone had pointed out that the rolling chords he was attempting to string together most closely resembled the theme from popular Sunday night vet-centric family entertainment All Creatures Great and Small. These were the days of rewinding tapes and possibly compiling a serviceable final version from a number of performances, not digitally click-and-pasting them to where they should be on the visual laser display unit, and so we were literally running out of space in which to store his work so far. As another take succumbed to the combined pressures of expectation and performance-related anxiety there was a significant pause, an intake of breath, an exhalation. Finally a voice floated ethereally through the monitors from the other side of the wall. “Don’t shoot me” he began phlegmatically. “I’m only the piano player”.

You can listen to The World Service here;
(Tracks 1-6 recorded at Spaceward by Owen Morris - the Constable Mix of "Far Away" is because Steve didn't like the effect Owen put on his acoustic guitar at the start of the song and so he (Owen) asked him if he (Steve) thought he could do any better. It had been a long night. Tracks 7-10 recorded with the Neale Foulger/Steve 'Kilbey' Mears rhythm section on Tascam 4-track at at The Portaloo, Clarkson Street, Ipswich by James Partridge). 

There is a splendid Spaceward Studios archive online from which I stole the photo of the desk above, and which includes some pictures of Owen, a story about how Iron Maiden’s first demo got wiped, a shot of Julian Cope recording Fried and a list of bands who recorded there which as well as us (“demo”) includes Stiff Little Fingers. They recorded Alternative Ulster, which I’m not sure Mr Wendell realised at the time.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Empire Song

It was what, eighty-six, eighty-seven? Mr Wendell and I were in the fullest flush of our baggy shirts and pixie boots period – he more so than I, as I was still coming off the back of a serious Neil Young phase (still am, always will be) and so I trended toward the checked shirt and tasselled scarf rather than the suede that he favoured, shielded behind Blues Brothers shades but both of us in thrall to The Big Music. It was the fag end of the Thatcher years and so we had more than enough to keep us going in terms of targets for our lyrical barbs - Rod Stewart and Sun City, the French and Greenpeace, sexual politics which I barely understood (and am still working on) and politicians who were “…scanning the map for an island to defend”. The big beat of Mel Gaynor and the fierce Celtic hotwired soul of The Waterboys were our touchstones. Spitting Image was on the television, John Hegley was on at Glastonbury and Billy Bragg was putting out singles about The Diggers. These were heady times indeed.
In the middle of all of this we (were) entered into what was officially termed The Celestion Suffolk Rock and Pop Competition. Due to enforced line-up changes we only had five songs rehearsed at this point, which we played in every round. The biggest, most epic one of these was called ‘Empire Song’. “Stand straight, stand tall you can fight them all” ran the chorus “’s an attitude of mind. But your pleas for reform won’t keep you warm, and what you’re looking for, you won’t find”. We were non-com observers – grandiose, bellicose, living in a world of faux-grandeur that allowed no compromise between the new gold dream and the tumble on the sea – I, the lyricist, Wendell my willing accomplice mouthpiece. Take that, Bono! The song also had a lovely D-C-G chord progression in the verse that lent itself to a arpeggiated part on the electric guitar which I very much enjoyed phasing and chorusing in that 80’s way, over a majestic backdrop of big snare, twelve string guitar and sustained Hammond organ chords.

We made it as far as the final of the competition and, knowing that we were up against the finest that Suffolk could produce (or at least the finest that had entered, had hit the various judging panels’ buttons and who had all turned up in time for each round) we knew we had to exert a bit of what we referred to in our off-message moments as stage presence if we were going to take home any of the various trophies on offer. We had, after all (spoiler alert) beaten our main competition all hands down in the semi-final and were looking to repeat the experience (it’s complicated – I think a precursor to the Duckworth-Lewis method may have been involved). They, similarly, knew they were going to have to up their game.

Settling into our not-at-all rehearsed routine Wendell and I threw shapes, postured, jumped on and off monitors and, during one contemplative post-middle eight section, spontaneously sat together on the edge of the drum riser. I picked out harmonics, he faux-wearily addressed the state of the nation in song. The verse built, the chords achieved a certain stridency…I felt a hand in the small of my back. It gently urged me forward. “Up” it said. “Up, and let’s take these fuckers on”. To the casual observer we probably looked like a couple of hectoring students caught mid-SU bar debate (neither of us were students – the hectoring part is still open to what I suspect would be a very short discussion) sharing a microphone stand picked out in the stage centre spotlight. In our heads we were Jagger and Richards, Strummer and Jones, Tom Robinson, Mike Scott, Paul Weller in all his badly-fringed red wedge fury. “Stand straight, stand tall, you can fight them all, it’s an attitude of mind!” we shouted in unison. “But your pleas for reform won’t keep you warm, and what you’re looking for you won’t find”. I’ll remember the moment of that proprietal hand pushing me forward, reassuring me that we were in this together and that here was someone who really, truly believed in me until death or dementia take me.

We came second.                 

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

"No, It's spelled 'Nosmo King'..."

As an increasing number of these entries seem to do, this one broadly kicks off “Of course, back in the day…” You could probably Google that phrase and find this blog coming up top of the list. I’m not going to though; I refuse to read any further than the first occurrence of the phrase “If you Google…” in any article ever, as that gives me a pretty good idea of where the research for it was done. Mind you, some people refuse to read beyond the first instance of a semi colon, especially in the opening paragraph.
Back in the day, when I toiled unceasingly behind a number of counters of an award-winning chain of record shops, there were label catalogues to check through in order to ensure that we had the right selection of top-selling platters (and a few staff favourites) available to the casual browser at any time. I used to love doing checklists as it meant I could spend an awful lot of time reading sleeve notes, memorising catalogue numbers - Kiss’s Love Gun was PRICE 69, as it happens – and at one point I could rattle off the entire Black Sabbath discography in order, including the NEMS stuff, and give you the Judie Tzuke back catalogue in ILPS number order as a result of my time delving through the racks. Not a great party trick, I’ll admit, and subsequently I spent a great deal of the early eighties single - principally, I suspect, because that was my party trick.
These were the times when coming back from the shop floor with a list of browser dividers which needed replacing with the legend “M’Head” scrawled carelessly upon it would garner you a withering look and the enquiry as to whether you were referring to Medicine Head, Motorhead or Murray Head? The sleeves in our TV advertised section bore the legend ‘625’ as that was the number of lines broadcast on an analogue television. It was that kind of atmosphere – look, you’ve seen ‘High Fidelity’, right? But then, if it hadn’t been for browser ordering and poor transcription, I would never have had the opportunity to live through the chucklesome but perfectly factually accurate receipt of the one intended for the jazz section headed “THE LONELIEST MONK”.
In order to locate those hard-to-find or even impossible-to-imagine customer requests however, one needed to employ a combination of low cunning, a genuine sleuthing instinct and to not be too proud to call on fellow staff members’ arcane knowledge of (say) the solo works of ex-members of Trip. You also needed a voluminous tome called The Music Master. Once you had identified the album being requested, the artist, or even the label you could refer to the listings within before attempting to track down a current distributor with whom you (a) had an account and (b) weren’t on stop with because their bill hadn’t been settled for a couple of months due to some administrative oversight. Even in the case of scenario (b) you’d probably still take payment and issue a receipt (basically an IOU if truth be told) as that might help bump up the outstanding balance to the point where they would accept an order from you since it would actually be worth sending out a box of stock by Securicor. Amazon, their one-click ordering and everyone’s opinion on their tax affairs was still some way off at this point, as you may have guessed.
The thing is, with so many independent labels having sprung up over the years, the publishers of the Music Master couldn’t possibly monitor every operation and their release schedules to ensure that they were genuine, let alone update deletion dates, which is why there is a cassette-only release by a band called gods kitchen on House of God Records, catalogue number GK29 in the 1991 version, and in all subsequent editions, called The Boy Who Loved Aeroplanes. Today, if you want, you can look it up on the worldwide web and have it downloaded to your computer like *clicks fingers* that. Of course, back in the day...