Abbey Road 50th Anniversary edition

The last time EMI flogged us a copy of this record was in 2009, 40 years after its release. The last time EMI flogged us a copy of this record, EMI still existed, but is now defunct, broken up, off its twig, kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil. It is an ex-corporation. The last time EMI flogged us a copy of this record, its producer, George Martin, was still alive. Then, we were told, it was a remastering, an improvement on the original CD release, which had been – we were now led to believe – substandard, rushed, whatever (even though The Beatles were among the last artists to release their music on CD, and then later on digital download). Of course, this is all just marketing. The real reason for a 50th anniversary “remix” is that they can renew mechanical copyright for another 50 years.

A remix is different from a remastering, how? Mastering is when you take the final mix and bounce it down to a stereo file, optimised for playback on consumer equipment, EQ’d to sound as sweet as possible, compressed and limited to sound loud but not too loud, with a dynamic range designed to fit within the limitations of the playback medium. Mastering is an art separate and distinct from record production and mixing. A mix engineer and a mastering engineer are often different people, different sets of ears listening for different things.

A remix, on the other hand, means a return to the multis, an opportunity to adjust the levels, to spread the stereo field. For example, the bass can be more prominent, or the bottom end more pronounced, or the instruments more cleanly separated across the channels. In 1969, still, the vast majority of music fans were buying the mono release; stereo was for nerds and millionaires, more or less.

And, lo, it came to pass, that there was a new Martin on the block, and although the kid was responsible for one of the worst things created in the Beatles’ name (the Las Vegas extravaganza, Love), he was once again allowed access to the vaults to tweak and twat about. 

If I sound cynical, it’s because I am. Of course, the real ears behind this are those of the remix engineer Sam Okell, and the Martin name is a rubber stamp, a message of reassurance to tell us that this is okay, really.

Abbey Road was already one of the Beatles’ best-sounding records. Only Please Please Me really reveals its limitations, they always sounded great; and from A Hard Day’s Night onwards, really great. So did it really need a remix? Not really, although it makes a bit of sense to separate the duelling guitars on “The End” a little bit, or to give the thing a boost for what passes for modern music systems.

Does it sound better? Better than the 2009? Better than the CD before that? Better than the vinyl? I’m not one of those people who thinks he can really tell the difference. My hearing tops out at 16kHz these days, and I’ve always had a bit of bass blindness. Couldn’t hear the kick drum when I played live with a band (maybe it was nerves).

The truth is, the equipment I listen to music on now is much, much worse than that I used even back in the 1980s, and ever since my oldest was born I’ve been without what you’d call a proper stereo. But then that’s the story of my life. Completely obsessed with music but usually listening on substandard equipment. A mono record player that couldn’t even combine the two channels of a stereo record into one, so that I never even heard the guitar solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” until some time after I first bought it. My dad had a second hand stereogram, with a melted front panel (from the heat of the valves), and it sounded warm and woolly. And then eventually I got myself a NAD turntable, amp, and speakers. Not the greatest components, but the best I’d ever had or have. But then, in the 1980s, we started buying CDs, and then we’re later told that those early generation CDs were bad, badly mastered, too rotten deep down in the bits. And so then we get the remasters and the “Mastered for iTunes” and…

It becomes problematic. If, in 1969, people were listening to Abbey Road on ropey old mono record players, in 2019 we’re largely listening to compressed music on cheap earbuds, or playing through a few bluetooth speakers dotted around the house. The car speakers. Apple airpods. I do have some grown up studio reference monitors, but these are not really for relaxing listening, nor are they convenient. While the industry has been after perfect sound, the audience has been looking for the cheapest, most convenient, most portable way to listen to music: and always has.

So who is this really for? It’s for the corporation that owns the new mechanical copyright; it’s for a new generation who don’t know the original and couldn’t tell the difference; and it’s for anyone who wants to spend some time thinking about this music.

Every ten years, we need to think about Abbey Road. Is it their best? Some have said so. Is it better than the sum of its parts? Definitely. I’ve always taken note of the semi-detached Lennon. I like “I Want You (‘She’s so Heavy’)”, but if you look at it sideways, it’s someone who can’t be bothered to write lyrics anymore. Put it together with “Don’t Let Me Down” from earlier that same year, and he’s a man in full retreat from Dylan’s listen to the words, man, and he’s playing games with repetition. He’s got that, and “Come Together” and then it’s all blink-and-you’ll-miss-it on Side 2. I love “Here Comes the Sun” but I’ve never been a big fan of “Something”, and there isn’t really a song on Abbey Road that I’d happily listen to, on its own, as a song. Which makes it a great album, because it needs, still, to be listened to as an album and not a collection of individual songs. “Polythene Pam” is as flimsy as cellophane, but it it slides between “Mustard” and “Bathroom” beautifully.

Back in 2009, the narrative was still that the group wanted to put out “one last” good record. That turns out to have been as much of a myth as the one about how Paul first met John at the Woolton village fête. Now we’re being told that they had no such thoughts about Abbey Road and this was just “the new record”, which only became, in hindsight, the last record. The way this narrative changes is interesting. It drifts with our “turns out” times. It still blows my mind that they recreated the Please Please Me cover shot in early 1969, the one that was later used on the Blue album. Something was in the air throughout that last year, from the day Ringo left the band during the White Album sessions, to that final bored/board meeting when the not-yet-thirty Beatles couldn’t agree on next steps.

In addition, this: part of the current narrative is that “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is rubbish. It’s certainly the case that the song took a lot of takes over several days to record, but there’s nothing wrong with it. Paul’s genius for creating lyrics out of the vernacular – always his greatest gift – is evident here: “Can I take you out to the pictures, Jo-o-o-oan?” But also: “Painting testimonial pictures…” and the innuendo of “Late nights all alone with a test tube…”

Finally, the extra tracks and demos. Ever since the Anthology, it’s been clear that The Beatles weren’t Bob Dylan. They weren’t leaving any good stuff off the records in the way that he has done. So I’m happy enough grabbing a listen to a couple of them on the YouTube and don’t feel I’m missing out if I don’t catch ‘em all.

Advertisements

Thank God almighty, we are free at last!

Shout it from the rooftops, for it has come to pass.

In the latest update to the iPhone operating system, iOS 13.1, there’s a radio button control in the Settings>>Music section that allows you to Show (or, more importantly, not show) All Purchases.

I’ve been complaining since February 2016 about this most vexing “feature” of the Apple Music app, and I’ve been hoping ever since the introduction of iOS 10 that it would be fixed. (This is over and above my intense dislike of Apple Music as a streaming service. All I want is an app to play back the music on my phone that I put there.) I’ve even spent time with Apple Support, but even explaining the problem seemed impossible: it was like talking to a Westworld robot about something it had been programmed not to see.

Tl;dr: even though I curate my own playlist for my phone, and tell Music not to ever use mobile data, it would still regularly start playing the first alphabetical song in my “purchased” items, even though it wasn’t downloaded onto my phone and even though I was miles from the nearest wifi (in my car, for example).

Honestly, the number of songs-that-begin-with-A which have been exiled to the Siberian salt mines of never-want-to-hear-again because of this bug. All victims of the cloth-eared marketing monkeys who (almost certainly) wanted to socially engineer Apple Music streaming signups.

But here we are in the Autumn of 2019, and it really seems as if the problem might be fixed, with that simple fucking radio button.

Time will tell, of course, but the two screen shots above, one from 2016, and the other from today, tell the tale. The greyed out tracks in 2016 are the ones that would play against my wishes, even though mobile data was off. And now: no greyed out tracks. That’s the list of “Songs” not just “Downloaded Music>>Songs”.

I wonder how long it will be before I can bear to hear “Above the Clouds” again?

Autumnal Sounds

I used to have a theory about country music, which I don’t think holds up, but it went something like the following. There are off years and on years: every other year, there’s a raft of great records; every other year, not so much. If such a theory were to hold true, then this year feels very much like an on-year. Mind you, it took till summer’s end for most of the good stuff to kick in.

Terms of Surrender

Let’s start with the most recent release, out today: Terms of Surrender by Hiss Golden Messenger continues MC Taylor’s prolific run of releases (more or less an album a year for 10 years). Preview tracks included “I Need a Teacher” (which I think is objectively great, even though I am a teacher) and his personal “Happy Birthday, Baby” message to his daughter. If you listen to the words, this is intense stuff. As he admits in a Rolling Stone magazine interview, after his father’s heart attack and a bout of depression, he started to think about mortality and what he would want his final recorded words to be. These intense songs about love and personal crises have the distinctive sound of HGM, a unique vibe that is restful to the soul and beguiling to the ear. Nobody else quite sounds like Taylor: he’s almost a genre in himself.

Threads

I was there at the start of Sheryl Crow’s solo career, with Tuesday Night Music Club, which had its moment back in 1993. But it was only a moment, for me, and I lost interest in her output after that. Unlike MC Taylor, she does not sound particularly distinctive to my ears, and I couldn’t really pick her voice from a line-up. On Threads, her purported last record (why?), she pairs up with a variety of celebrity friends to perform songs across a number of genres. There’s something for everyone here, and there’s a lot of it, to the extent that you could pick a dozen or so of these songs and make yourself a great album. The pick of the bunch, for me, is “Prove You Wrong”, performed with Stevie Nicks and Maren Morris, a terrific, barnstorming, singalong country-rock track. Then there are numbers with Bonnie Raitt & Mavis Staples; Chris Stapleton; Eric Clapton, Sting, & Brandi Carlile; Jason Isbell; Keith Richards; and so on. It’s not a bad collection, and reminds me a bit of the Don Henley solo record of a few years ago.

Every Girl

Wow. Trisha Yearwood released her last proper album of new music, Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love in 2007. Two thousand and seven. And after a run of strong records in the 90s and early 00s, her productivity had slowed considerably before then. Her last really strong set was Inside Out in 2001, and then there were just two more before the Long Silence descended.

The silencing of Ms. Yearwood’s extraordinary voice coincided with the horrible descent of country radio into its current state of decay: a format that will play a record by literally anybody with testicles and a baseball cap, even if nobody knows who the fuck they are and only their mum and 70 high school friends bought their record; but will not play music by a woman, even if she’s selling out stadia (Carrie Underwood) or going platinum (Miranda Lambert) or objectively better at music than anybody else. Trisha Yearwood’s vocal technique rivals Sinatra’s.

So is it any wonder that Yearwood, Faith Hill, The Dixie Chicks, et al all stopped releasing records around the same time?

But here she is, back: and it’s a strong set. Fourteen tracks, killer vocals, terrific songs, everything we’ve been missing. The title track, “Every Girl in This Town” is an instant favourite, and there are whiskey songs, lonely songs, and duets with the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Garth Brooks, Patty Loveless and Don Henley. Welcome.

The Highwomen

All of which leads to this. Listening to the radio while she was on tour, Amanda Shires idly decided to determine the ratio of male to female voices on country radio stations. She knew it was bad: everybody knows it’s bad. She thought it might be as bad as 10 men to one woman; but as she took notes, she realised it was much, much worse. Nineteen. Nineteen tracks by men, followed by a lone female artist. And then the whole thing cycled around again. She phoned the radio station. “Why don’t y’all play more tracks by women?” Well, they have to be requested. And then voted up. On Facebook.

But how are people going to request/vote for something they’ve never heard?

Catch 22.

Country radio is full of excuses as to why they don’t play women. There’s no demand (see above); listeners, particularly women, complain (um, fuck ‘em); they’re not really proper country, it’s more, you know, Americana. Etc. Furthermore, the problem of only one woman at a time being allowed onto the playlist encourages female artists to act as if they’re in competition with each other.

Enter the Highwomen: Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris. It’s hard to underestimate how powerful that lineup is. Brandi Carlile was nominated for 6 awards at the 2019 Grammy’s, and won in three categories. Her last three albums were #1 in the US Folk chart, and the most recent two were also #1 on the US Rock chart. Meanwhile, Maren Morris has a huge hit album on her hands, following her previous hit album, and unlike the others, has even had a #1 single on the Country Airplay chart. For her to align with the others is a powerful show of solidarity. Amanda Shires has won Americana and Grammy awards and rocked the Americana scene with her 2018 album To the Sunset. The fourth member, Natalie Hemby is less known for her own recordings (although I have her record and love it), but has written many songs for other artists, including no less than 5 #1 Billboard singles.

And here they all are, with this terrific, knock-down, take no prisoners, collection of brilliant country music, which is already both #1 on the US Country chart and #10 in the mainstream album chart.

The highlights for me are the title track, a reworking of Jimmy Webb’s original “The Highwayman”; “If She Ever Leaves Me”, a drop dead gorgeous lesbian love song; “My Only Child”, a heartbreaking song about not being able to have more children; and “Loose Change”, a classic I’m-too-good-for-you number. It’s an unapologetic set of songs by women and about women in the great, long tradition of country music — a genre that Ken Burns’ new documentary series will show has always given equal status to female artists.

Needless to say: highly recommended. This needs to happen.

All good children: Mark Lewisohn’s Hornsey Road

Went to see Mr Lewisohn’s cutely-named talk about Abbey Road in Northampton. If you’re familiar with his books, you know that nobody knows more than Lewisohn about The Beatles, and I went in expecting the Full Trivia: the anecdotes, rumours, related events, cardboard cutouts and hidden extra tracks.

And that’s what you get, give or take. You could characterise this show as an extra-long Ted Talk, complete with a not-too-awful PowerPoint (Cooper Black was the typeface; Avant Garde – or even a Garamond – might have been a better choice, in keeping with the Apple Records house style) which nevertheless seemed to teeter on the edge of disaster on occasion. My suspicion is that it was playing from a Windoze* PC with a spinning disk HD, and that the occasional video glitch was the disk waking up.

Lewisohn structures the approximately two-hour talk around the chronological recording of the Abbey Road tracks, many of which were already complete long before the summer-of-’69 sessions at EMI Studios. “I Want You” – without the (She’s So Heavy) addendum, which was added in August – was the first to be recorded, in February 1969, and that not even at Abbey Road, but at Trident. Shockingly, Lewisohn doesn’t share this gem:

The song was done in an overnight session on February 22, 1969, at London’s Trident Studios. With the amps turned up high, band received a noise complaint from one of the studio’s neighbors in the Soho area of the city. The take has John Lennon exclaiming, “What are they doing here at this time of night?” Then he adds: “Well, we’ll try it once more very loud. And then if we don’t get it, we’ll try it quiet, like it might do it the other way. OK. The loud one, last go. Last chance to be loud!”

https://www.forbes.com/sites/markbeech/2019/08/08/beatles-reveal-unheard-abbey-road-treasures-50-years-after-cover-shot/#10535b8b2e8a

Which is not me quibbling so much as acknowledging that this is the comprehensive-but-not-exhaustive version of events, the Lewisohn-lite version that (it turns out) has appeal to a more general audience as well as people who already know most of this stuff but like to hear the stories again, because the story of The Beatles’ 1969 is basically King Lear with better tunes. Paul is Lear, obvs, with the other three cast as ungrateful daughters, although Ringo is clearly Cordelia in this arrangement. All good children go to heaven.

One thing I do think Mr Lewisohn got wrong is the question of the Beatles’ esteem in the eyes of the British public. He uses evidence from the Daily Mail to suggest that Britain had fallen out of love with the Beats by 1969. Well. The Daily Fucking Mail, as it’s known around here, has always found time to add hatred of The Beatles to its poisonous drippings. Because of course it would. And as for the music press, I’m pretty sure they were predicting that the Beatles were “over” from about January 1964. Like the proverbial stopped clock, they were, eventually, right. The mainstream press of course fed the suspicion and fear of their readers: that’s their stock in trade. But the charts don’t lie.

So: a burning incense stick (George’s favourite brand), a stage set you could get in a small van, a slightly shonky PC and a borderline tasteful PowerPoint. Add to this the recordings themselves, played in edited isolated-tracks versions, so we can hear Billy Preston’s uncredited Hammond organ, or Paul’s frankly incredible vocal on “Oh! Darling” or his frankly incredible-sounding acoustic guitar elsewhere. Or George’s rather plodding bass-lines. Lewisohn foregoes commentary on the musicianship or most of the more technical aspects of the recordings, which is probably for the best.

It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt

The best bits for me were when he revealed the fruits of his painstaking research. John and Yoko went for a nostalgic road trip that summer and wound up interfacing an Austin Maxi with a tree somewhere in Scotland. All this is known, but what Lewisohn adds is the exhaustive tracking of the route by means of local newspaper reports along the lines of, “Yoko Ono visited the Post Office in Sodderton Chutney and bought some sweets”. Which is both hilarious and brilliant in equal measure. So there’s a map of the purported route, and later on the story of the missing bed leg, and so forth.

Another precious moment came when Lewisohn delved into the history of Mean Mr Mustard, who was the Abbey Road equivalent of Mr Kite; and Polythene Pam, who was this album’s Eleanor Rigby. Or something.

I reckon I could have written him a better ending (his kind of petered out to an awkward round of applause). But how do you even end this kind-of Ted talk? I’d have gone for the serendipitous circularity of this record. The first track recorded, “I Want You”, was bookended by the “(She’s so Heavy”) vocal tracks, the last thing The Beatles recorded together until “Free as a Bird”, and the last time Lennon and McCartney sang into the same microphone in EMI Studios.

And no, they didn’t know it was really the end.

But that cover photo? The perfect one out of six, with the other five sort of shit? Miraculous.

*©The Interwebs Flame Wars ca. 1991

Turning off the streaming tap

So, as previously noted, I (re)signed up for a 3-month trial of Apple Music. I was thwarted in my reasons for doing this but kept the trial going because the kid is on a rockandroll roadtrip and probably making use of it. But!

It makes me sad.

I’ve also revisited Spotify, taking them up on a 30-day trial of the Pro level, mainly so I could spam a friend with playlists, but Spotify is even worse.

Let’s stipulate from the outset that I’m predisposed to hate all the algorithmic recommendations. Apple Music’s recs, far from being insanely great, are insanely insane. And Spotify’s are equally offensive. What really bugs me about Spotify though is how badly it works. If I’m building a playlist and want to (+) a song to it from, for example, an album listing, it keeps bouncing me away from the listing so that I have to tap the screen THREE FUCKING TIMES to get back to where I was.

…And other user-hostile behaviours, such as finishing a playlist and then immediately starting to play random shit without so much as a by-your-leave.

But that makes me angry rather than sad, and the source of the sadness is somewhere else.

Always sensitive to my own moods, I went through several stages of grief with this free trial. For the first week or so, I was adding stuff to sample, things I’d normally skank from YouTube or steer clear of. The new McCartney album, for example. I’d normally not muster much interest, but I gave it a listen. Quite good, I thought, for a Paul McCartney album. But as Greil Marcus (?) once said of Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque, it’s good in the way that, say, Elton John is good, and when you’re Paul McCartney/Bob Dylan, that’s simply not good enough. So you give it a listen, and you think, litotically, not bad. And then you think, but will I ever listen to any of it ever again? And you think, no. No I won’t.

So then I stopped adding things, because it made me sad and I was wasting my time, and I felt reluctant to play any of the stuff I had added, because it felt artificial somehow, like I’d been placed in a simulation of my life in which I had access to things I was only vaguely interested in but that all the things I really loved were behind some kind of glass wall, tantalisingly close but unavailable.

It was as if I was thinking, well I’ve got this trial, see, so I’m obligated to ignore you, all my hard-won musical friends, and hang around with these mere acquaintances, just because that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.

As if the music collection I’d painstakingly built up over 40+ years had less value than this free stuff that was streaming like diarrhoea from the arse of a corporation that presumed, using maths, to know better than me what I would like.

Because music should be famine, not feast. Having taste means filtering out all the mediocrity to find the good stuff, not sticking a hose in your mouth and turning on the tap.

So then I stopped playing most of what Apple Music was offering and went back to my own owned and downloaded music. Because the reality is that over the month or so I’ve been on the trial there have been precisely three songs that have appeared that I intend to download/buy when I cancel the trial.

This isn’t just my problem. This is everyone’s problem. I genuinely fear we’re doing something horrible to ourselves with this always-on, everything-available culture. We’re already closely resembling those infantilised fat people living on out in space in the Pixar movie Wall•E. The hosepipe is streaming into our gaping maw and we really should fumble for the tap and turn it off.

The Beatles – All These Years: Volume One: Tune In by Mark Lewisohn

My reaction to the news of this book, back in 2013 when it was first published in hardback, was probably not uncommon: does the world really need another book about The Beatles? I had read so many, from the Hunter Davies authorised biography that was published before they even broke up to the lush hagiography of the Anthology doorstopper. And so I noted this and ignored it, thinking both that I knew it all and that my interest in the subject had been saturated long ago. Furthermore, I was convinced that of all the things about The Beatles, the stuff about them before they were famous was the least interesting. This book only takes us to the end of 1962, and I didn’t think I’d want to know any more about this period.

But Lewisohn’s forthcoming stage show about Abbey Road prompted me to look – and think – again. And now I don’t have to have yet another huge tome creaking on the already overloaded bookshelf, now I can just whack it on the Kindle, I decided to give it a read.

It will not come as a shock to anyone who has read this that I was wrong: the world definitely needed this book about The Beatles. When you read, in other biographies, They grew up in Liverpool; or, Ringo came from one of the rougher parts of town; or, Paul and John met at a church fete, John was impressed that Paul could play “Twenty Flight Rock” – when you read lines like that, you have no idea how much more you could know, not just in terms of trivia, but in terms of a deeper understanding and a greater appreciation of just what The Beatles achieved. As David Hepworth is fond of saying, The Beatles are underrated. And when you read this book, you understand just how profoundly true that is.

I mean, the old line that gets trotted out, that record companies turned them down, saying, “Guitar groups are over”: that’s just something we’ve accepted all these years. But ask yourself: what guitar groups? There were the Shadows, and, um? Look at the pop chart for the end of December 1961, the week before the Beatles’ recording test at Decca. Here is a list: Danny Williams; Frankie Vaughan; Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen; Sandy Nelson; Pat Boone; Acker Bilk; Russ Conway; Bobby Vee; Petula Clark; Neil Sedaka.

Sure, there were no guitar groups, but not because they were “over”: because they had never been. There were solo artists, instrumental groups, even vocal groups, but there were no bands. There were no artists who both played instruments and sang. With harmonies. Who wrote their own songs. Decca turning The Beatles down was akin to the robot in Westworld, programmed to say, “It doesn’t look like anything to me.” It was because The Beatles were so new, so different, perhaps, that the people at Decca couldn’t even see what they were. They were hors categorie.

And so this book. I’m 56, and I’ve been listening to the Beatles almost all my life. One of my earliest memories is of running home from primary school with the guitar riff from “I Feel Fine” running through my head: my first involuntary musical imagery, my first earworm. My favourite Beatles record is still Beatles for Sale, because that was the one that was already in the house when I was growing up. And the first record I ever bought with my own money was The Beatles 1967–1970. What I’m trying to say is, I peaked early with The Beatles. By the time I was 18, I’d listened to so much, from the dodgy Star Club December 1962 recordings onwards, that I was positively steeped in Beatle lore. My clothes stank of The Beatles, like a 40-a-day smoker. And then, just as I turned 18, Lennon was killed, and I dived deeper.

I know the story like you know the story of King Arthur or Robin Hood. It’s part of the founding mythos of these islands, as fundamental to us as Plymouth Rock is to the USA, only with fewer genocides. So it would be impossible for Mark Lewisohn to make me read this book as if I didn’t already know the story, to read it as if it really was touch and go, that they might not make it, that the peril was real.

But I did.

To read this is to be immersed in 1950s Liverpool, Hamburg in the early 60s, to feel the precarious weight of every single event. But Pete’s not a very good drummer: what are they going to do? George Martin really isn’t very impressed and doesn’t like “Love Me Do”: is that it, then? Have they missed their chance?

I can pay no greater compliment to this book than to say – as I read the climactic chapter, the account of the recording of their second single, in their third session (with Ringo) at Abbey Road (and as my daughter played Blonde on Blonde in the room behind me: a marvel that came along less than 4 years later) – as I got to the line I knew was coming, when George Martin flicked the switch on the talkback microphone and said,

‘Gentlemen, you’ve just made your first number 1 record.’

Lewisohn, Mark. The Beatles – All These Years: Volume One: Tune In (p. 808). Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.

that tears sprang spontaneously into my eyes.

So now I join the legions of George RR Martin fans in demanding the immediate publication of the next volume. Will it ever appear? Has he lost the plot? Will he die before it’s finished? What is he doing organising a stage show when he has a bloody book to write? Etc.

Band Made, Part 2

(part 1)

A year or so later, we decided to put out a single, which turned into an EP, which was simply a way of maximising bang-for buck (the budget was £500). You were allowed 6-minutes per side of a 45 rpm vinyl at the pressing plant we used, so we hired an 8-track Fostex machine (which used quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape) and re-recorded four of the songs from our first 14 – which had been put out separately as a cassette release called Mr Mystery/The Proper Stranger, mainly because I couldn’t settle on one title.

The EP was called Welcome to Weston-Super-Mare, mainly because there was a picture of a big lit-up sign saying just that on the cover (there was a reference to the town in one of the songs). The cover was printed by a small firm, but the printing plate had been created by my Dad. It featured the aforementioned picture, and on the back the track listing along with a prose poem written by me that began, This summer night of luscious wind and rain…

We tried to get some interest going in the single. The local newspaper came round and took a photo, and then printed a story full of factual errors. We took copies to the local radio station, which were promptly given away as crap competition prizes (winners complained, I heard). Somehow, a copy made its way to BBC Radio 1, and a DJ called Janice Long played the first track, ‘Is It Any Wonder?’. I learned about this afterwards, because obviously I never listened to Radio 1: someone who knew someone jumped out of their bathtub when they heard it. So that was my three minutes of fame, over.

I was always unhappy with the electronic drum machine on our early recordings, but ironically, twenty years later, as I reached the natural end of my third period of songwriting and recording, I’d come around to the idea, and you can hear similar machine sounds on my last few recordings. My main objection, as I said above, was that I really struggled to play at the machine-generated fixed tempo. I always felt it was a case of putting the cart before the horse. Analogue music has a natural, if slight, variation in tempo, which is totally lost with the rigid programming of beats-per-minute. This is not an original complaint, but while I did get better at playing in time over the years, I wish I’d played less: one chord per bar, or on the off beat only, something like that. As to playing live with a drummer, that was when I really discovered my limitations.

I hated performing, found it horribly nervewracking, and I was never confident playing with the others – had a bad case of imposter syndrome. I couldn’t even hear the drums through my nerves when we were playing live, and I couldn’t improvise when Pete and Curly decided to go off on one. Still, there were some good nights, though it was never destined to come to anything. We were 3/4 of a good band, and I always saw myself as the weakest link, which is a shame, because I don’t think I was that bad, and if I could have shaken off those feelings, we might have gone somewhere. Reading about the early days of the Beatles (without for one second comparing myself to them), it’s clear that Lennon, for example, was often vamping in the early days, and it was only really the 7 million hours on stage in Hamburg that honed their abilities. Even then, nerves might get the better of them, leading to fluffed solos and harmonies. 

Then again, we didn’t have a manager, or someone to carry the burden of booking gigs and doing the marketing part. That might have helped, but who would want to manage us?

Our best gigs were probably in the Vaults bar in Stony Stratford, where we had two or three good nights, having worked up a couple of cover versions as well as my own songs. By this time, I was living in Milton Keynes with my then-girlfriend, a relationship that lasted about five years. But with both her and Jim gone from my life (long story), I made the decision to apply to University, to sell the house (lost money on it, bottom of the market) and move on. For the last few months, alone in the house we’d shared, I ended up with most of Pete’s recording equipment in my back bedroom. By then, there was an 8-track Fostex reel-to-reel recorder, a (16 channel?) mixing desk, and a variety of other things. Between us, Pete and I recorded a few more songs, but we never played them live. The band was quietly retired, and I (briefly) went solo, performing songs as well as short stories when I was asked to do readings.

I did most of the recordings on my own: had grown competent enough with the equipment that I could operate it without help. I didn’t understand most of what I was doing, and didn’t have an inkling for how the mixing desk really worked, but everything was connected up and I knew which buttons to push.

But when the house was sold, the equipment all had to go elsewhere, and when I started at University, I stopped doing music altogether. The catalyst was an open mic night that Roy and I went down to. Roy was a proper musician who had a proper band, and he wanted nothing to do with this open mic crowd, but I thought I’d show my face. I did a song, but decided then and there that I hated the scene and the people, and all the boys who thought they were Jesus with an acoustic guitar.

It goes back to my lack of affect as a singer. I didn’t fit in with all those intense people who took their music so seriously.

And I gave it up for years, till (for professional reasons) I had to learn all about computer recording technology and MIDI, and I rediscovered my love of recording. It started as a way of me getting to grips with the software and its requirements, so I could give the sales team enough knowledge to sell the stuff over the phone. And I eventually became pretty competent in using Pro Tools, and converted my garage to a home studio. It was a neat set up: a few really nice microphones, a small mixing desk, a computer interface, some expensive monitor speakers. And I must have written/recorded 100 or so songs – some cover versions – and they weren’t all bad.

My earliest attempts are incompetent: the drums (now MIDI programmed, triggering sounds from sample collections and virtual instruments) were awful to begin with, and the guitars were fairly crappy, and my arrangements lacked imagination. But over a few intense years I grew more confident and occasionally did something I thought was good. Once I relied less on strumming guitars and thought more about how everything worked together, I did some nice things. Nothing is perfect, and nothing really sounds professional quality, but as I said above, I was overcoming the handicap of having almost zero musical talent.

Occasionally, Pete would drop in to play some bass, just like the old days, but mostly I’d do that kind of stuff myself. A couple of people from work contributed sometimes, but the bits that make me smile the most are the tracks where I’ve overcome my own limitations and played some half-decent guitar, or through serendipity have managed a nice combination of sounds. Painstakingly picking out MIDI notes on a keyboard and creating what sounded like piano: that sort of thing. My favoured mix turns out to be a fairly quiet drum track with a brushed snare, some piano, some tremolo electric guitar, bass — and a slightly emotionless vocal.

Around 2006, I changed careers, and eventually ran out of ideas and time to do the music justice. Software stopped working, hardware got outdated. My freebies stopped being authorised because I was no longer working for a dealer, and my last few recordings really relied on a much limited set of options, which wasn’t a bad thing. But by then the song ideas had stopped coming. I’d exhausted my backlog of memory and emotion: a lot of those songs had been written about all of those days long gone. The system could have gone on working for longer if I’d not updated the software, but it only takes one moment of madness, and you can screw the whole thing. 

There remain two more things to mention. The last time (I think) I saw Jim, I was commuting home to Buckingham from Nottingham, and I passed a petrol station on the A5. Standing by one of the pumps was a biker, in leathers, helmet off, blonde hair. There was a familiarity to his posture, a kind of curvature of the spine and the shoulders that made me certain it was Jim. It was a mere moment, I was passing by at 40, 50 miles per hour.

And it was before that, in the first flurry of social networking, that someone I’d been at school with passed Jim’s work email address to me. It turned out that – more than a decade after he’d returned from a post-divorce trip to Australia full of beans and full of plans to return, to emigrate, as soon as he possibly could – that Jim was still working in the same job he’d had since he left school. In the same period of time, I’d given up my first job, done three university degrees, a host of different temporary jobs, and started a whole new career in a different part of the country.

I think he was just back from the pub, or he’d surely never have entertained an exchange of emails. I was honestly surprised he was still working at the same place, sitting in the same office, getting on for 20 years after he’d started. But he hadn’t changed.

‘I’ve got to get a plan,’ he said, as if the trip back to Australia was still on his mind. I was actually embarrassed for him. It was no skin off my nose if he was still working in the same old job – all jobs are a shitty imposition on our free time, so who fucking cares? But to read him still talking about escaping in the same old way, using the same old words, was disconcerting. Anyway, I’m sure as soon as he sobered up he regretted the conversation, brief as it was.

I think his employer closed down in the end, and I believe (only because it was mentioned in the blurb of a television programme I never watched) he moved on to train as a firefighter at an airport: ever the hero in his own mind, I guess.

My fingers are soft now. I have a really nice Taylor acoustic guitar that my daughters play, but I haven’t picked it up for years. It’s sad, but my current job consumes all my creative energy: sometimes I feel as if I’ve been performing for five hours in a day (because I have). There’s no energy left for making music. Maybe when I retire.