TRUTH WILL OUT
Music Biz Memoirs
5. The West End Studio, continued
The desk in Studio 1 of this West End complex, the largest of the three studios, was reputed have been the one used for the making of Bowie’s Hunky Dory. This was the only studio large enough for full-scale recording, and I spent a lot of time in there as well. My station was as usual seated beside the tape machine, but this time facing the back of the console (i.e. with the engineer facing me) instead of behind the engineer as in the other two control rooms. Producers varied between people who, on rare occasions, had to play many of the instruments, because the band couldn’t, and men who just kept a watchful ear on what was going on. One producer of the old school, reading a tabloid newspaper spread over an unused section of the desk, looked up from his paper in the middle of a session in this studio one day and told me “You’re too intelligent for this job.”
It was astonishing really how, among the hubbub of the control room, someone could say “OK, let’s take it from the top” and your finger would be on the rewind button practically before they had finished the sentence. Or, after you’d been working on a song for a few hours, spin the 2” tape back to, say, the beginning of the second chorus without looking at the clock, as if guided by a kind of sixth sense. One definite boon for all concerned when going into the studio is to prepare a few copies of a “song sheet,” a simple print-out of the lyrics with generous margins, to which can be added time readings.
Several sessions I worked on in Studio 1 were with Colin Blunstone and Dave Stewart, not the Eurythmics Dave Stewart but the other, recording a cover version of ‘It’s My Party’ amongst other things. Pretty unfortunate for him, as the other Dave Stewart I think was just becoming known at the time. Most notable though were the sessions with Tom Robinson, who sat one day on the settee at the side of the control room with a 14-year-old lad across his lap. I’ll not forget his look of bewilderment – that’s certainly how I remember it – as he looked around at the other people in the control room trying to gauge their reaction to the situation. Us studio staff played “Ignore the elephant in the living room” and carried on with our jobs, but the incident was a lively source of gossip throughout the building. That gossip was the source of the information that the boy was 14 – he certainly looked it.
Some time later I made my greatest mistake, agreeing to work on a session with the studio owner. There were two Freida brothers but the other was never seen. According to the gossip, the one we did see, Nigel, was a heroin addict and this accounted for the scruffiness and generally run-down state of the place. (It was eventually established that he was responsible for the mysterious, and frequent, appearance of small change on the floor.) He came on all charming one day and asked me if I’d be willing to help out on a session he was having with some friends of his. Thinking it would do me no harm, I agreed.
The session started late in the day, a few days later. The first surprise came at the beginning, when I learnt that the mics and desk had been set up already, presumably by someone else at his request, and we were ready to record. Then I asked what tracks we were recording on: “All of them.” Normally the only time a 24 track tape machine is set to record on all tracks is when it’s being lined up or a tape is being erased – even backing tracks rarely use more than 16. So every track on the machine was flashing red for ‘Ready’ as if the thing had been set to self-destruct.
The material was something like jazz fusion but really it was just a glorified jam session. Once the session got underway Nigel sat behind the desk making a few token adjustments, but it was obvious that was all they were. The tape machine was running at 15ips, which meant a reel lasted 30 minutes.
Early on the tape would end and the musicians would come into the control room and ask how it was, and Nigel would mutter something like “That’s not it” and they would trundle back into the studio to strike up again. As the hours wore on he just sat there and gouched. (For the benefit of those fortunate to be unacquainted with such things, “gouching out” is what heroin users do when under the influence. Seated with their head buried in their shoulders, they resemble a contented cat in slumber.) Sitting there playing at being an engineer, he often had to be roused from his stupor when the tape ran off the spool at the end. After 10 or 11 hours of this charade, going over the same reel of tape over and over again, and with every light on the tape machine burning red to testify to the lunacy of the situation, so had I. Falling asleep on my stool and being by this time the middle of the night, I was desperate for my bed. I was trapped, I couldn’t even offer to do it properly because there was no remote – the tape machine couldn’t be controlled from the desk. After almost collapsing onto the spinning reels a couple of times I did the unforgivable, told the studio owner I couldn’t continue any longer, and left. Presumably this spelled the end of the session though all I’d done since the start was thread the tape, wind it back and engage record.
Shortly afterwards, when the Chief Engineer was away on holiday (he had a penchant for trips to South America) I was fired. For a few days I refused to accept it, so they got a maintenance engineer even cheaper, but then I gave it up as a bad job.
After that I was unemployed for around a year, finally getting a job doing maintenance again at a residential studio in the Surrey countryside. That had some pleasant amenities, like iced coffee on the terrace of a morning and the occasional dip in the swimming pool. There was an SSL desk and a field of horses which had been allowed to go wild. “I’ll sort them out” I said confidently (my grandfather had owned lots of them) but when I went near it was obvious that they were very happy as they were, thank you very much, and I certainly wasn’t going to achieve anything without several helpers and a lot of hard work.