TRUTH WILL OUT
Music Biz Memoirs
4. The West End Studio
Following a circular letter, I got my next job at a studio near the British Museum. It soon became apparent that I’d come down in the world, because it certainly wasn’t as prestigious a studio as the Virgin one. The big difference was that I was now a tape-op (tape operator). No doubt the studio manager had been hoping to get a maintenance engineer on the cheap and this was why I’d got the job above all the other hopefuls. (Some of the better known studios get, or certainly got, forty letters a week from people asking for such a job, particularly after a photo of someone posing behind a recording desk appeared in the media.) The studio manager said he was from my birthplace of Bridlington, though this common link failed to produce any rapport. A potential explanation was provided later, since not only did he manage the studio but also a band called, if memory serves me right, International Rescue. The band had high hopes of a record contract and sometime later a deal was signed. As soon as the advance was paid however the manager did a bunk with the money, around £100,000, and was never seen nor heard of again. That put paid to their hopes of stardom.
My first session, now being supposed to stay in the control room throughout, was with Marianne Faithfull. There were three separate studios in the complex and she was in the smallest, Studio 2, the control room of which was so cramped that the desk had been custom built to be as vertical as possible, to save space. Even so, it was a squeeze to move between me seated at the multitrack and the back of the engineer’s chair. I did three or four days standing in for their regular tape-op, a chubby chap called Reno who was sick (and who was sorely miffed when his credit on the album eventually appeared as “Rino”). Faithfull would regularly emerge from the lavatory next door sniffing, and the interminable sessions would drag on with an American sycophant in attendance saying things like “It’s great, but it’s just not you, Marianne.” Later they spent an entire week recording percussion overdubs then erased the lot. Presumably such indecision and time-wasting was the reason she had been booked by the record company into this, relatively inexpensive, studio.
Even though it wasn’t up to the high standards of my former place, it was a mine of experience and my apprenticeship as a tape-op stood me in good stead later on. One of the memories I have, to which studio people will certainly relate, is setting off on a sunny morning to catch the tube, which went underground round about Earls Court, surfacing briefly into sunshine at my destination and then disappearing (metaphorically if not literally) underground again when you reached work. Excepting perhaps a trip to a sandwich bar, you did not emerge again until a good time later, by which time it was invariably dark. Hence the term ‘studio pallor.’ When you’re working in a studio, and spending all the hours God sends there, it seems nothing special, but when you’re out of that environment you can miss it like hell.
Followers of popular music may think it tremendously glamorous, but the day-to-day work of recording is generally humdrum. The difference between a professional and an amateur is that the professional knows when something is wrong, and usually what is wrong, even after he’s heard the song several hundred times. If, say, a mix-down takes 12 hours, and the song lasts five minutes – well, “go figure” as Americans like to say.
Another factor is that there is almost always a right way and a wrong way to do something. Doing it the right way takes time, and in a professional studio the time is taken to do it the right way whether the material is destined for immediate obscurity or is to be the next Big Thing, because ultimately nobody knew what was going to be a hit and what was not. Some of the biggest hits of yesteryear have been impromptu ditties recorded at the tail-end of a session, or with similarly unorthodox origins. Costing little to make they can be the most commercially successful. At any rate, so I was told. Much of the material passing through the doors of the average studio is unremarkable, such as library music, no-hopers, patches to tracks, remixes and the like. To the studio staff it’s just a job to be done, although obviously it helps at the afore-mentioned parties to “casually” let drop that you’re now in the studio with Freddie Mercury or someone. I suppose this studio, scruffy and badly maintained as it was, was above average in this regard.
One memorable session in Studio 2 was with Steward Copeland, in his then role of talent scout. It was a late session doing guitar overdubs but the young guitarist was completely off his head on drugs. He played incessantly, with me on the multitrack winding back to the beginning of the track, him playing all the while, then setting off again and struggling to find the slightest pause in the unremitting thrashing and howling guitar which would allow me to drop him in again. All our attempts to get him to stop playing, even for a moment, were ignored.
Several days were spent in Studio 3 with Scritti Politti; later the album (‘Wood Beez’ etc.) was reworked in America or somewhere but I’m sure a lot of the material remained. I was a Guardian reader then, and got on well with them, being invited back to their house to spend the night since we were back in the studio together the next day. I declined, largely because working so many hours you need to spend a short time completely away from it. I think the house was a squat in Islington somewhere – I called by once when I was passing on my motorbike but no-one was at home. Some time later I was at a venue in South London on my own, the place being notable since I’d done the sound there once or twice for a band I knew. The sound desk was up high on a balcony, far to the left and I being the true professional had made several trips away from the desk to check what the sound was like where it really mattered, instead of staying to pose behind the sound desk, as would so many. Anyway, on this night I saw one of Scritti Politti, the one whom I’d now call a wigger, with dreadlocks (Tom?), bopping around a sparsely populated dance floor. It was a quiet night. Pleased to see someone I knew, I hailed him from the side, only to be completely snubbed.
It was in that same studio, with little more than a veranda for a recording area, that I got a “big break” and blew it. How I wish I could forget the name of the artist, like I’ve forgotten so many others! It was Hardy Hepp, supposedly big in Norway, or Denmark, or somewhere with his brand of yodelly MOR (“Middle of Road” music). He went round the studio collecting the names of everyone who was even remotely involved in his album for a credit list which must surely have reached epic proportions.
Hardy Hepp and I installed ourselves in Studio 3 ready for the start of the session but the engineer didn’t show up, and this was my chance to step into the breach, from then on likely to be employed as in-house engineer rather than tape-op. The session got underway but soon I discovered a track with masses of extraneous noise – spillage from other instruments – which Hepp insisted contained essential percussion. I’d never come across a track as badly recorded as this, and spend about 15 minutes trying to do something with it, before Hepp, suspecting he was being short-changed with an inferior engineer, went running to the studio manager who called in another engineer at short notice. When he finally arrived it took him half an hour to make the track useable. The solution, from memory, was heavy equalisation of a limiter side-chain. It was a naff track recorded at a no doubt naff studio, but I should have risen to the challenge, especially with my technical background.
The Stray Cats, Japan (who were, by their own account, big in Japan) and the Exploited all passed through Studio 3 while I worked as a tape-op there. Discussions were held on the various methods of maintaining their spiky hairstyles – apparently egg-white was very effective, but stank after a while. The Exploited made relatively few appearances in the control room, preferring to hang around in the recreation area (what there was of it). Once the engineer called in one of the band to comment on something, since he I’m sure didn’t have much idea what they are after, what sound they were trying to achieve. Big John stood a few feet inside the control room doorway, listened to the track, thought very ponderously then made his pronouncement: “Yeah” or some such, giving me the definite impression that he didn’t have much of a clue either. Alright, I confess, I was being a snob, and I now appreciate that the base male instinct that was apparently Big John’s only reference is, in its aggregate over the mass of the population, the only hope for the white race.