Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Two Ronnies

I received Luke Haines' book `Bad Vibes' for my birthday, an excellent choice by Sarah it has to be said. I tore through it in a day and thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm sure glad I wasn't in a band with the miserable bastard though.

He tells of his own personal journey through the music business, (as leader of The Auteurs and beyond) very truthfully, and is a great read. For the descriptions of Oasis' `Don't Look Back In Anger' as "a brainless, oafish anthem about nothing at all" and The Verve's `Bittersweet Symphony' as "the musical equivalent of a child's colouring in book: simpleton lyrics about life sometimes being good and sometimes being bad" he earns my special admiration...

Meanwhile back in Dusty Rainbows land, it's December 1989, and the Honey Smugglers are completing 3 songs in 3 days at Raezor Studios in South West London. We're recording in a 24-track for the first time with development money generously provided by a major record label, and it's sounding excellent beyond our wildest hopes. For the first time our individual parts are distinguishable from the rehearsal room murk we're used to.

Having recorded our tracks quickly and with spirit we move swiftly on to the mixing with Bernard the engineer. It's a tricky process which can make or break a song, and long hours are spent balancing the instruments in relation to each other. The state of the art computerised desk remembers every setting and fader movement, and after a day or more of moving towards the goal slowly but surely, viola ! ...sorry, voila !..everyone is happy with the final mixes. The studio standard monitor speakers are small Yamahas designed to give a definitive reference point should a band wish to record the drums in one studio, the vocals in another, and the bass trombone parts in yet another. Throughout the mixing process these speakers are the only ones we've heard the songs on.

By now it is well into the evening of the last day and friends and well wishers, (including some chums from late 80's popsters The Muscle Shoal) have started to appear, aware that the end is in sight, bearing bottles and smokes. It is the moment we've all been waiting for...time to hear it on THE BIG SPEAKERS. They are so huge they literally go from floor to ceiling in the control room, on either side of the window to the live room. Luke Haines reckons the official jargon is the `Ronnies' (Big speakers=Biggies=Ronnie Biggs=Ronnies). I'll therefore take that to it's logical conclusion and call them the Two Ronnies, given that they come as a pair.

The long hours of intense concentration are at an end, and it's time to party. When we get to the last of the three tunes, `Listen' the party is in full swing. I will never forget the feling of sheer unassailable joy at hearing this massive sounding THING we have created. I don't even care if nobody else ever hears it, it is the culmination of everything we've been aiming for in our 18 month life as a band. We sound absolutely bloody fantastic, and no-one can take that feeling away. Nobody can talk over it because it's too damn loud. It's loud, but it is as clear as a bell. You can feel the bass through the floor and in your ribs, the massive drums propelling it forwards, the soaring vocals bathed in reverb, the entire contents of the percussion box moving and shaking, and the gwirling, growling Organ are all there surrounded by their own halo of magnificence. If only you could invite the whole world to this studio right now to share this.

In the control room dancing breaks out, mile wide smiles abound, wine is drunk and life doesn't get any better. Three days ago this didn't exist, and now we've made something which will live forever. The massive size and quality of the speakers make it a wonder to behold. The moment is cherished, so much so that it remains clear to me virtually 20 years on.

You never forget your first experience with The Two Ronnies.

At the time I'm working at the BBC, and the next day is the Christmas party at the BBC Club next to Broadcasting House. I've spent the whole day at home listening to a DAT tape of the mixes from last night. It's not the same on my speakers. At the BBC party that evening, Sarah, Russell and I are robbed of the prize of a CD player in the raffle because Russell's number is being called out while he's in deep conversation elsewhere in the room, despite the fact that we know it's his. It goes to some girl who doesn't even work there anymore. CD players are a big deal in 1989, and more importantly I HAVEN'T GOT ONE. We leave the party in disgust at the injustice perpetrated upon us.

We go up to Russell's office on the fifth floor of Broadcasting House where he has a bottle of Scotch stashed away. Russell has not heard the recording yet. We put it on the hi-fi in his office in all it's digital glory. It sounds fantastic. We've had a lot to drink, so we open the door and blast it out down the stuffy, curvy corridors of the ship-shaped front of this bastion of the broacasting establishment. Fuck them all ! This is rock'n'roll and we'll show them ! One day we will rule the world !!

It's approximately 9.30 in the evening, and along in Studio 5A, a mere 100 yards from Russell's small archive selector's office, Radio 4's flagship arts programme `Kaleidoscope' is being transmitted. The clearly illuminated red light is a major clue to this. I'm at this point thinking it would be an excellent idea to give them an exclusive first hearing of the grooviest thing they'll hear this week or next, or the one after that, and set off down the corridor with the DAT tape.
I peer through the glass at the faces gathered around several beautifully suspended microphones, discussing goodness knows what, and wonder what I'm really going to do next.

At this moment I am brought back to sanity by Sahra and Russell who point out that it's likely I'll never set foot in Broadcasting House again if I even attempt to open that studio door. My glittering media career will be at an immediate end. Yours truly having finally seen sense, we retreat to Russ's office, and by way of compensation and still drunk, we manage to get the volume control on his amp all the way up to ten. The noise is deafening, but it still can't compare with the Two Ronnies.

The next day, Russell can't do any work because apart from a crippling hangover, his speakers are putting out an indistinct and pathetic flapping sound. We'd royally blown his woofers and tweeters to bits the night before and no mistake. He calls BBC premises department and they send a little man to replace the equipment without so much as a question as to how they ended up in this sorry state. People in the office remark about the incredibly loud music which could be heard the night before on the other side of the building. Our lips are sealed.

Put this on the biggest speakers you can find, but it still won't compare with the Two Ronnies !

Listen Link Below

A Little Something...

As you know, I play with Radio Massacre International, which is a very much a group effort and all the more exciting for that. Lately I've taken to recording a few things at home, some of which might end up being adapted by the band, and some of which will constitute my winning entry in the race to release a solo album before Duncan and Gary can get round to it. How prog is that ? I always thought it really funny that when Yes went up themselves in the mid-seventies, everyone in the band insisted on doing one, including the drummer. His was rubbish of course, as was surprisingly perhaps, the guitarist's. The singer, keyboardist and bass player won the day...not that you probably care !

In fact I do have an album ready to go called `New Church' for which I just need the artwork finishing. Meantime I thought it'd be fun to post a brand new thing hot off the presses, which I recorded on March 1st. There's no grand concept, it's just interesting that whenever I fire the gear up I usually end up with something a few hours later. It won't change your life but you might find it a pleasant diversion for 5 minutes or so.

Listen/Download here:

Friday, 6 March 2009

Tunes I Never Tire Of #5: 10cc - I'm Mandy Fly Me

It's been a busy few weeks, and all quiet on the blogging front. Much of my time has been spent making tweaks to some new RMI pieces, distilling the essence down to something releasable and repeatable on discerning hi-fi systems across the globe. I love getting the music `back to the lab' for analysis and scrutiny, although believe me, listening to a synchronised crossfade edit too many times in a `late night frame of mind' can do your head in. We largely record everything live to multitrack in the rehearsal space we have used for many a year in Stockport (Greater Manchester).

By coincidence, a thread on Progressive Ears got me digging around for the magnificent and mind blowing `Consequences' by Lol Creme and Kevin Godley. These two left 10cc at their height and spent over a year holed up in the studio making this boxed triple album which cost an amazing £11 in 1977. It is now largely regarded as a grand folly, an indulgent failure and typical of 70's excess (yawn yawn). Well me and my mate Nige were two of the seventeen people who thought it was utter genius. Aside from the incredible music and out of this world recording techniques, what's not to like about a playlet entirely scripted and performed by Peter Cook in a multitude of voices ? can't teach ducks to dance.

Most of the work on it was done in Stockport, as were the early 10cc albums I inevitably graduated towards after unlocking `Consequences' once again. My listening for the week therefore has all originated in this proud Lancashire town, which is possibly the only place in the world to boast both a viaduct and a pyramid.

On reading up on 10cc's Strawberry Studio, I was quite flabbergasted to learn that it was the first commercial studio to be built outside London. I had no idea. I knew it was groundbreaking, but it seems amazing now that if you were a band from Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow you had to go to London to make a record, even up until the late sixties.

I love the way that the four members of 10cc bought an empty space, started equipping it, and whilst messing about with drum sounds to test out their new multitrack machine, by sheer fluke ended up with `Neanderthal Man' (naming the band Hotlegs) and having surely one of the most bizarre No2 hits ever.

This was the springboard for 10cc, they honed studio recording to a fine art as nobody had done before, yet they never took their eye off the charts. In retrospect, those of us privileged enough to first become aware of pop music between 1972-77 were absolutely spoilt. The bar has never been raised as high since, and never will be again judging by the state of the bands we're churning out these days who seem to be more interested in their hair gel than spending three weeks overdubbing vocals in the spirit of sonic exploration. I absolutely recommend this article on the making of the legendary `I'm Not In Love' which will make you hear it once more with fresh ears. It was and is a towering achievement.

The following year, 10cc came out with `I'm Mandy Fly Me'. It was similarly epic but is now far less familiar to the majority of the population than `I'm Not In Love'. This is thanks to modern radio's oldies policy of choosing one or two hits by name bands and discarding the rest as if they never happened. It's easy to forget that bands like 10cc had 10 or 12 chart hits. In their quest to sound more like everyone else than everyone else, the oldies stations' entire music databases are now probably dwarfed by the number of songs on most people's I-Pod Nanos, and far less diverse.

The song is a poignant and personal tale of a guy on the street whose life is going nowhere, until he sees a poster for an airline with the hostess beckoning "I'm Mandy Fly Me". He gets whisked away and finds himself in the plane with Mandy which then crashes over the sea. He survives and is rescued by Mandy, only to find her missing and himself deposited back on the street staring at the wall. They really don't write them like that anymore.

More than anything it's the mixing and the construction of the song as a mini movie which makes it such a triumph, and there can be few more seductive introductions to any record....awesomely phased and panned white noise, backwards and forwards zither strokes swirling around the stereo image, as the introductory melody soars over the top. Is it played on a state of the art synthesizer they could no doubt afford by this time ? Is it heck, it's somebody whistling along to a Fender Rhodes electric piano. You try and better it !

The main feature is a great lead vocal by Eric Stewart, you're there with him in the story. There are carefully crafted changes of pace, key and scene. It's cinematic, and flows seamlessly. It stretches the boundaries, but never risks alienating the pop audience. It could be heard regularly on wonderful Radio One in the glorious early summer of 1976.

Listen and marvel one time at these four geniuses from sunny Stockport who went to the moon and back on behalf of pop music.