Friday, 24 October 2008

Whoops, I'm on Radio 4...

"Maybe it's because everything else is really loud now. In bars, or a car, or on headphones when you travel by tube - you're just never going to notice Charlie Watts' hi-hat or Joe Strummer's delicate fretwork. Record companies think: if I leave any quiet bits in, I'll lose the public's attention!"

"Can you start again from 'In bars'?"

"OK." I clear my throat and unwittingly make a effeminate squeak.

"In bars" my voice has now taken on a desperate tone, "I'll do that again.."
"Whenever you're ready"
"In bars OR in a car... oh bollocks... excuse me."
"That's OK, take your time..."
Christ, who wrote this shit anyway? For a moment, I feel like Orson Wells in those infamous frozen fish adverts, then I realise, it was me, I wrote this shit. It's all my fault.

I'm in a plush studio in BBC Broadcasting House, recording a 'column' for the arts programme Front Row. A&Rmchair has caught the attention of some people there and they've suggested I do one of their spoken columns on some aspect of the music business. I pitched a load of things and the thing they've gone for is Remasters. If you've ever attempted to get any of your writing accepted by radio or newspapers, you'll know how it's actually the pitch that is most of the work: the persuading, the levering of call returns, the attempts at constant politeness when you want to scream: WHY AREN'T YOU GETTING BACK TO ME? In this case they were astonishing swift and the pitch was the easiest thing.

But of course, as every glass-half-empty person knows: nothing is ever easy. What occasionally happens and happened in the case of this column, is that once the pitch is accepted you discover that the point you wanted to make is not as straightforward as you thought and
it's consequently much harder to write than you originally envisaged.

It turned out that my argument - about remasters being effectively the same record only a bit louder - was not quite right.
Earlier in the week, the Guardian had asked me to write something about the EU's findings on the health risks of having your personal stereo volume up too loud, so I was getting into volume quite deeply. And the more research I did, the more I discovered about the 'Loudness War' that's going on in the music mastering industry. Mastering has always been about making Everything As Loud As Possible but with the increasingly sophisticated digital compression available, there seems to be a demand to make every album release like a TV ad - IE something which cuts through any background noise.

This means that if it's an old record (and by old, I mean pretty much anything before the mid-nineties) it won't bear any relation to how it sounded when it first came out, because every light brush stroke, every whisper and every cough is brought up to the levels of a kick drum or powerchord so that rather like this sentence there is no light and shade, no nuance or subtlety and eventually after a while it just becomes an unfocused background noise which anyone over the age of 16 finds they need to turn off to preserve their sanity.

So back to my 'column'. Just as I am punching the air with joy that I might be on Radio 4, I start getting the fear that what I've proposed this isn't a brief, pithy column where I can pretend that I'm as funny as David Quantick, no, it's actually a lengthy, detailed article where I should talk about Metallica and Elbow and the the Loudness War and get quotes from mastering engineers from the US and the UK and I bring in loads of my own experience of cutting records... and you know what, suddenly I find my prose becoming a bit laboured and worthy and I realise that I'm writing something for a trade magazine. Bugger.

In the I end, I think I manage what I think is a fairly acceptable balance between facts and a bit of observational humour. Something like this blog, I hope. Except I don't anticipate - blimey, you'd think by now I'd start planning ahead wouldn't you? - that the tweaks and rewrites I make should actually be typed into the script I'm reading from. As it is, I am now sitting facing the microphone surrounded by sheets of A4; some are print-outs of my original piece emailed to the producer, some have her suggestions on in blue, some are my hastily-written-on-the-tube notes which, like all my handwriting (even the the variant of it where I use a quill and vellum), are completely illegible.

As I read off my A4 spread, my head is bobbing about like Bruce Foxton as I look for the relevant sheet. It's no wonder I'm talking bollocks. Fortunately, the producer is a total pro, she makes me feel as if I'm actually quite important to the programme and even sends another producer away who wants to use the studio we're in. The fact that we've been in here for days and the actual presenters now want to come in and record tonight's programme is kept from me.

I quite like it though - being in a studio when it's me doing the recording. All my life has been about going to studios where someone else is doing the recording - I'm the just the person whose organised it, just the person who's putting the cash up for it. There've only been a couple of times I've actually appeared on recordings myself and then they were brief. The first was when Neil Hannon was making his second
Divine Comedy album in The Church in Crouch End - incidentally, I'm not counting the first DC album as it is indie rock and not really part of the cannon.

I was friendly with him at that point, having tried to sign him but ultimately leaving it to his very capable label Setanta. The album, Promenade, features a track called The Booklovers and Neil had an idea to overlay the lyricless verse parts with the imagined voices of famous writers saying things they might have said. Everyone who popped by the studio was asked the same thing: pick a couple of writers from Neil's list and say something appropriate to them. I picked Mark Twain because he wrote my favourite book Huckleberry Finn and JG Ballard because I had just read Crash at the time (by the way, if you haven't read it don't be put off, it's much better than the film). So I did a terrible Southern accent for Twain and said "but I can't even spell Mississippi" and for Ballard I uttered the expression for dashboard which Ballard uses time and time again in Crash - normally when someone is having sex on one - "Instrument Binnacle". It is worth tracking down the album for the track Tonight We Fly which is the sort of song which continues to work on your body even after all the hairs on the back of your neck are standing up. Hannon's an underrated genius, who will eventually be recognised as such - I bumped into him several years after my recording experience with him. He was in John Lewis looking at fridges with his wife and I was still so star struck I didn't know what to say - no white goods gag came to me in my moment of need. But despte being proud to share an album with that song,
I have to say Booklovers is probably one of its weaker tracks.

The second time I feature on an album is on Stephen Duffy's I Love My Friends, the second record he made for my label Indolent. He asked me to shout 'Oi!' on the track Something Good, so he could mix it in with his own lyric 'shouts'. I really went for it with every ounce of South East London yobbo I could muster, hoping my vocal prowess would possibly lead to more invitations from him. Sadly it wasn't to be, largely because, we never made another record together. You see, I was required to drop him by BMG (Indolent's paymaster) before that album was even released, a tragic story which most A&R people probably have some variation of. On the CD booklet of the few copies we originally manufactured,
Stephen had dedicated the album to me but when Cooking Vinyl finally released it six months later, my name was inevitably missing from the label copy. Still, do try and hear this album (it still sounds amazing 12 years later) and you can hear my attempt at being a yob - albeit fairly low in the mix

I haven't heard the finished Front Row column yet. The producer has to edit it together and insert all the music I talk about - let's hope those remasters do actually sound different from the original otherwise we're all buggered. And let's hope I get invited back into a studio soon, I think I've finally got the taste for it.

NB: The piece was broadcast last night (Monday 27 Oct) so if you want to listen to it, go to the Front Row website, click on the Listen Again button for Monday's show and you'll find me about two thirds of the way through.


  1. I unexpectedly heard your piece on Radio 4 and was interested in the content. I also felt you had a good radio voice and hope you have the opportunity to do more.

    Music (and voices) can be strongly evocative and whether digitally remastered for loudness or not, can open up memories of precious life experiences.

    Not having heard your voice for twenty years I was still surprised that it took me (away from the dishwasher and kitchen mess) straight back to when I was 18 and I met you in London during the holidays from York University when you were best mates with my then boyfriend. We were the quirky jazz loving lefties, you the cool music junkie. My essence and yours probably hasn't changed much despite decades of digital remastering...

  2. Nice job on R4. But Page is stone deaf now. His band always sounded better on vinyl.

  3. Hello Jill!

    thanks for your kind words about the column. Of course I remember you from all those years ago too - probably nearer to 30 than 20 (argh!) I'm seeing Robert's parents in a couple of weekends - I'm still very close to them. Hope all is well with you, feel free to drop me a line on the email address! Big cheer. B

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