Monday, 1 December 2008

We're shit-hot because we've got the combined age of 150

"Can either of you sing?"
"No, not me" says Russell.
"Yeah, I can do backing vocals," I pipe up.
"Ok, let's try it," says the engineer.

So there I am in the booth, with a pair of what we are now calling 'cans' on my head. And if they weren't slipping about on my balding head, I could kid myself that I was in a proper band with a record deal, a manager, and a big future.

In reality I'm in a studio in Willesden that my brother has booked to record some of his songs. He's doing it for fun. OK, so maybe like everyone who loves pop music, he's harbouring some delusion about suddenly being discovered, despite being in his late thirties - like those guys in Fever Pitch saying they could have played for the England squad if they had the breaks - and, as they later point out, "if it wasn't for the crapness."

Me, my brother and my rhythm buddy Russell (he's on drums, I'm on bass - like a Guardian-reading Sly and Robbie, or, if you like, a younger, slicker Bruce and Rick) - we're here to have fun and the studio engineer seems to understand this. What's strange about this for me is that it feels massively unfamiliar - I've been to studios hundreds of times in the past twenty years, demo studios in old warehouses, which gradually found themselves in upmarket areas, rehearsal rooms in worrying backstreets in Liverpool and Manchester, home studios and pre-production suites, top flight studios like Olympic and Townhouse (RIP) and Metropolis with plush loos that you could imagine Madonna or Clapton having a poo in, residential studios all over the country (many of which no longer exist), studios high up in skyscrapers in New York, and studios tucked away in the most unexpected places (did you know there was one round the back of Hammersmith Apollo?) and studios I have idealised for years like Eden (RIP) where Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe recorded This Years Model and of course, Abbey Road.

But for all this experience of being the organiser, the one who was either paying for the session or visiting the artist at work to hear their stuff, the feeling of going to the studio to play something myself is completely different. This is the first time I've done this since, well, blimey it must be late mid to late 80s. Scary. And equally, I haven't played bass for a lifetime. I've borrowed my wife's bass guitar for the day - a beautiful white Fender Precision that she used to play in her alt-country bands in New York. I remember when I met her for the first time in the Luna Lounge on Ludlow St and she told me she played bass. It was precisely then I knew I had to marry her.

Actually, judging its immaculate condition I'd say that she spent less time playing the bass and more time using various snazzy cleaning fluids on it. There is not a scratch or blemish - like our house before we had children. Most bloke's guitars get that lived-in look that our home has taken on since Esther arrived and Maddy started practicing her murals - our front room, for example, looks like Joe Strummer's guitar.

Recently I've been playing a bit of guitar again myself. I bought some new strings for my old Sigma and cracked open some old songbooks, you know, the usual ones, Bowie, Beatles, Dylan, Costello. It's been lovely. I've never noticed how adaptable John Lennon makes Dm7 - it's in both Girl and Strawberry Fields, but sounding completely different in each. When I used to write songs, using a minor chord was essential but I couldn't stretch to anything more complex. Those Beatles guys, they made it look easy.

I wish I'd played more of other people's songs when I was in my teens and 20s. Instead, I would strum chords whilst singing and come up with 'songs' that we would play in my bands. I never had the discipline to play other people's songs apart from the Clash or course, whose songs it was really easy to play and whose chords patterns I now realise I copied for all my 'own' tunes.

This was all happening before I got my first scouting job and I remember my mindset at the time: out there, in the music business, there were all the successful artists and there was me. I never thought that there would have been thousands of me's all over the world, all writing their three chord plodders and playing in rehearsal rooms. The moment I started scouting and took a look at the mounting pile of demos which I had to trawl through, I gave up making my own music. Clearly I was in it for the glory and not for the pleasure of playing. Now it's different.

The only time I let my former hobby of playing guitar cross over into A&R, was when I once lent my Sigma to the guitarist from Sleeper - an exceptional player called Jon Stewart, who like the rest of the guys in the band had to suffer the ignominy of being known as a Sleeperbloke. Anyway, he was quite fond of the rock and roll lifestyle at the time and when he returned my guitar, it was in two pieces. He eventually repaired it for me but I'm still not convinced that supergluing the headstock ever brought it back to its former glory. That'll teach me to mix pleasure and business.

And this separation of private and professional mindset was still in evidence as we travelled to Willesden to record the tracks.

"We've got five hours," said my brother,"That's way too much time to record three songs. I mean, each song is only about 3 minutes so we should have loads of time..."
"Yes," I absent mindedly said, "We should probably record ourselves live - you know, get a live feel, so it sounds like a real band playing together - don't want to do too many overdubs."

I think what my brain was attempting to rationalise was the fact that five hours is nowhere near enough time to do even one song properly - particularly if, like us, you had never played together before and in Russell and my cases, barely knew the songs. OK, there are all those stories about 60s bands recording their records in three mnutes - like the Animals recording their entire debut album in one night off during a tour - but that was then; a different planet. In all my experience of putting bands in studios to record, it's been a two to three day booking for two to three songs, with sometimes a further day added on to look at mixes which invariably always need a recall.

So there we were, four and a half hours later. The incredibly patient and gracious engineer Sean, had gently suggested we try two instead of three songs and we'd just about managed it. Russell and I had pulled a couple of good grooves out of the bag and only ballsed it up about eight times before we got a decent take.
"For never having played together before, you guys are good," Sean said generously.
"We'll we've got a combined age of a hundred and fifty so we know our shit." suggested Russell.

I then managed some backing vocals and they came out pretty well - my voice not sounding too strangled and just about working alongside my brother's. It was certainly a highlight for me. As Sean attempted a mixdown in - I kid you not - the last 20 minutes, I found myself slipping into musicianly, rather than A&R mode. Sure, I coudn't break a lifetime's habits so like an A&R man I stood directly between the monitors and nodded along sagely. But it took all the self control I could muster not to sally forth with, "I can't hear the bass, can you turn the bass up?! - and the backing vocals are too quiet! - more of me Me ME!!"


  1. Ben

    It's Catherine here. We used to stand on top of big piles of turnips imitating David Bowie sleeves. Remember? Does the phrase 'Roll and Butter' stir any memories?

    Anyway, just heard you on Radio 4 and you were fab.


  2. Catherine, how could I forget? I saw the originator of 'roll and butter' only a couple of days ago - looking craggily handsome as ever. Glad you liked the 4 thing - hope all is well with you. Bx

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