Bear with me, dear reader (if you do in fact exist) as I delve into the fading greyness of my hazy memory banks to recount a strange, strange episode in my professional life.
As previously recounted, I spent most of the 1970’s developing a business, Buzz Music, in Hereford, a sleepy and forgotten but extremely beautiful English county town a ten-league-boot stride or so from the Welsh borders, half an hour’s drive north of Kingsley Ward’s famous (infamous?) Rockfield recording studios in Monmouth.
From humble roots as a small record shop, Buzz had stretched and yawned it’s hippy wings and spawned guitar, drum and keyboard sales departments, a large flightcase factory and touring PA rigs, putting us at the heart of the anarchic two-tone and new wave music scene of the late 1970’s. I could write chapters about my madcap adventures with The Selecter, The Beat, Bad Manners, The Pretenders and more, but will spare you this indulgence. Suffice it to say that these were crazy days – the archetypical sex, drugs and rock `n` roll years of ill repute. Please kiddies, be warned – such a lifestyle is seriously prejudicial to your health and should be avoided at all costs. Stick to liquorish and pussycats, don’t inhale and live a quiet, uneventful life. Otherwise…you might end up like me (heavens forefend). Those days are far behind me now but I wouldn’t have missed them for all the microphones in China.
Back to the plot…
Like Icarus drawn to the sun, Buzz reached for the skies and eventually burned its wings. The collapse was slow and painful as my partner, Alan, and I spent a year working for the receiver to pay off the company’s debts. We succeeded, but emerged in 1978 broke and jobless.
By this time, I knew how to coordinate a rock and roll tour, knew the promoters, the sound rig and lighting suppliers and found I could turn a buck applying my knowledge and contacts for the benefit of clients. So it was that I found myself scraping by with a series of tour production gigs that kept the wolf from the door.
One fine day, totally out of the blue, I received a call from a Mr. Ian Tilbury, self-styled impresario and artiste manager. One of his clients had recently moved to a small village outside Hereford and wanted to hire some bits and pieces of recording equipment to make a demo of his next album. Could I supply a Brennel Mini 8 recorder and a Roland space echo, a DI box and some cables for a couple of months?
Indeed I could, I replied, at a price. A deal was done (I could sub hire the eight track and the margin would pay at least a week’s rent), and I arranged to deliver. And who was the client, I asked?
Roy Harper, came the reply.
I drove the equipment to Roy’s farmhouse– The Vauld – in the village of Marden with my hands trembling at the steering wheel. For this was my one, true musical hero, a man who’s Magnus Opus – Stormcock – was rarely off my battered turntable. I was about to meet my musical god. It was a feeling that I’ll never forget, a high that ranks with any I’ve ever had before or since.
Roy had bought The Vauld with the proceeds of a large EMI advance after renegotiating his Harvest contract following success in the mid 1970’s. Part of the deal was that EMI supplied him with a recording console – one of only three dedicated studio desks built by Jeff Byers under the ‘Midas’ banner. Very Neve-like and built like a battleship, this was a quirky twenty four input, eight buss beast bristling with transformers. It was somewhat idiosyncratic but (as I now appreciate) it sounded great.
Roy had converted the old Granary behind the farmhouse into a grand annex, including a gallery where the Midas lived. By this time – 1978 – he had parted company with EMI after the failure of the horrifically expensive ‘Unknown Soldier’ album (initially recorded as ‘Commercial Breaks’ but revamped at great cost after EMI’s cold response). In typical Harpic fashion (Harpic being Roy’s nickname in the bizz) Roy had retired from the music scene to breed sheep (an occupation for which he was utterly unsuited) and smoke dope. Meanwhile, he had fallen out with his longstanding manager, Pete Jenner, and entrusted his career to the slick but shadowy Ian Tilbury.
Roy’s coffers were pretty well exhausted by now, but Tilbury claimed to have Geffen Records hanging by a string, hot to trot, ready waiting and willing to sign with a huge advance, subject to…subject to hearing demos of the next album. There was insufficient dosh in the kitty to put Roy in the studio (in no uncertain terms, as I was later to discover) so the cheap option was to let Roy loose with an eight track, his old Midas, a Shure mic (yes – one mic) and some bits and pieces. Ian was confident that a set of polished demos would result.
I unloaded my bits and pieces from my trusty old Volvo, tugged my forelock with trembling fingers, humped the Brennel upstairs via the tradesman’s entrance, hooked the machine up to the old Midas and made sure that everything was working fine. I recall that Roy seemed confident that I could leave him to it, and Verna, Roy’s girlfriend, made me a cup of scented tea before I tugged my forelock once more and hit the road for Hereford and home.
I had met the great Roy Harper. What’s more, he seemed like a nice guy. Lovely gaff. Ah…what a memory for the collection.
I slept well that night.
Two days later I received a phone call. Apparently Roy was having some problems recording electric guitars (he was experimenting with a couple of early Tokai’s sent to him by the importer as a mark of respect – another fan. They were exceptional Fender copies…better than the real thing, I’d go so far as to say). Like a sloppy Labrador at his master’s beck and call, I headed back for Marden, The Vauld and Harper’s modest home studio.
‘I can’t seem to get the DI box working,’ muttered Roy, his forehead creased into an uncomprehending frown, his finger pointing at the small metal box on the floor.
‘I’m not surprised…’ came my reply, wide-eyed and horror-stricken.
This was the moment when I realised that, musical genius or not, matters electronic and mechanical were not Roy Harper’s forte. Lying on the carpet was an MXR DI box with one cable going to Roy’s guitar, one cable going to the Midas desk, and the third going from the XLR output to…to the mains. For reasons best known to the Muses of Marihuana, Roy had decided to slam a mains plug on to one end of a mic cable and plug a redundant output of the DI into the 240v mains supply. That he lived to tell the tale is remarkable.
One thing was crystal clear. This man should never, ever, EVER be left alone with any kind of electrical appliance, let alone the spider’s web of cabling associated with a multitrack recording rig.
And that is how I was called upon, by force of circumstance, to apply my fairly extensive live sound engineering skills to a humble recording rig. As of that moment, I became Roy’s demo engineer.
Over the course of the next two months, I visited The Vauld every evening after my other freelance duties were done, with double-bubble at the weekends (thanks to the tolerance of my longsuffering girlfriend, Annie Jay). Personally, it was anything but a drag as Roy, Verna and I became friends. I found Roy one of the most cultured and learned musicians I’d ever met; beneath the surface, he was miles from his eccentric public persona. Thoughtful, considered and…well, to be honest he was (and probably still is) somewhat bonkers in the best tradition of English eccentrics. Musically, though, the period was an education that went beyond any I could have hoped for.
By this stage in his life, Roy had made half a dozen (or more) albums and had probably done more gigs than most successful artists do in their lifetime. The bulk of his previous recording had been done at Abbey Road with a roster of engineers that reads like a who’s who of recording alumni – Alan Parsons, John Leckie, you name them, Roy had worked with them. Whatever anyone might think of Roy’s voice, he was a singer with few peers, capable of effortlessly and meticulously double, triple, quadruple tracking a vocal in one, two or three takes. He could instil a degree of emotion or subtlety or finesse to his extraordinary lyrics without parallel. His guitar style was extremely personal, and although not an ‘educated’ player, his style has influenced hundreds of acoustic musicians down the years. Moreover, he had a unique way of leaving gaps in an acoustic track, ready to overdub a related part and build up the backing with crossed rhythms and guitar harmonies, creating a rich patina against which his voice could weave and soar.
For a young, naïve makeshift engineer, the experience of working with such a sophisticated and practiced musician provided an education without parallel. As a studio virgin, of course, I wasn’t aware of how privileged I was to work with someone capable of such intense and relatively faultless performances, take after take. The recording rig was basic to the point that any experienced engineer would cringe. There was no click track, no sequencing, no computer (computer? Roy would have had a heart attack) – nothing other than the Midas, the Brennel (with no autolocate, of course), a pair of Tannoys, a Delta Lab DL1 delay/modulator (for Roy’s electric guitar) and (I think) a Roland Space echo for reverb and delay. Yet over the course of those two months, Roy and I recorded what was later to be released as an album – Born In Captivity.
I contributed a lot of ideas to the arrangements and even sang backing vocals on one song – Stanley – but take no credit. I’d aways arranged the songs in all the bands I’d played in, and enjoyed chipping in ideas and making suggestions. They talent was Roy’s and Roy’s alone. But somehow I engineered the sessions and achieved a passable result, sufficient to meet with Ian Tilbury’s approval and conviction that the tapes would swing the Geffen deal. Tilbury remained bullish about this until, that is, his cheque for the gear hire bounced and he disappeared to America having mortgaged Roy’s house to the hilt (by virtue of the Power Of Attorney Roy had granted him during a particularly dumb and trusting moment) and pocketed the proceeds.
So there we were, Roy and I, me an avid fan, the two of us good friends, a decent set of demos in the can and…and Roy staring ruin and bankruptcy in the face. Drastic action was called for.
Enter John Leckie, engineering genius and human being par excellence. Out of the goodness of his heart, John came up to The Vauld and rerecorded some of my demos and polished others (a few were left alone, inflating my ego hugely). He did a superb job given the lack of gear, but then John Leckie will ALWAYS do a superb job without complaint or fuss. (Come on, some of you ‘credible’ superstars – get John on the case with your next album. He’s too modest to hustle his credentials, but he has more talent and musical ability in his little finger than most ‘happening’ producers who seem to dominate to plumb jobs these days). Meanwhile, I was preoccupied with an extremely time consuming but surprisingly lucrative tour production gig. Despite this, Roy’s predicament remained at the forefront of my mind.
By this time – 1979, I guess – I’d established an enviable reputation for providing top class sound, lighting and logistics for UK and European tours. I knew the ropes, and could usually skim twenty or more percent from other quotes and come in on budget.
I was offered several potential tours by major record companies, but could only take on one. I recall that I whittled the options down to two possibles – a new EMI band that offered a decent profit and an Arista act that intrigued me. I submitted a reasonable budget to Simon Potts at Arista but he came back to me with an alternative proposition; the band in question was not a priority act, and Arista were looking to trim costs wherever possible. If I was prepared to undertake the tour production and coordination at cost, he was prepared to agree a contract whereby I would get 20% of any profits the tour generated. Now, as all you pros out there know, agreeing to such a deal on an unknown act is tantamount to commercial suicide. Bands lose dosh on the road in the early stages of their career, and the dates that the band’s agent had booked hardly left much scope for profit even if they sold out. However, I really liked both the band and their as yet unreleased album and went with my gut instincts. Although I was skimping and scraping to make a living, I negotiated a bonkers contract with Simon Potts and Arista. I’d do the tour at cost, but would pocket twenty per cent of any profits generated.
And the band?
An unknown act called Haircut 100.
The week before the tour hit the road, Haircut’s first single raced to the top of the charts. Hysteria broke out. The tour gigs were swapped for larger and larger venues, and as many punters were locked out as could be shoehorned in. And then the tour was extended. The clubs were cancelled in favour or Top Ranks, and then municipal halls were added – larger and longer and longer and larger. I recall sitting with Simon Potts at the back of the (then) Hammersmith Odeon on the first of five sell-out nights, looking at Arista’s sales figures. Two weeks before Christmas, Haircut’s first album was shifting one hundred thousand copies A DAY. Eat your heart out, Artic Monkeys. This was the 1970’s. When an album shipped big, it shipped B-I-G. And the band put on a great show, night after night. Sadly, they couldn’t cope with the pressures of so much sudden success and record company politicking destroyed the goose that laid the golden egg. After my involvement, the band bombed in Europe and the States, Nick Heyward (a decent talent) was persuaded that his future lay in a solo career and that was that – another ink blot on the history of pop.
So I had brass in pocket, the opportunity to take my foot off the rent-gas and a continuing belief in Roy Harper and what I genuinely believed was a great album waiting to be recorded. But Roy needed a manager. He was broke, The Vauld was close to being repossessed by the bank and there was no sniff of the promised Geffen record deal in the air.
A longstanding friend at the time was John Mostyn, formerly manager of The Beat (and later manager of Fine Young Cannibals). John was currently at a loose end, so I drove him out to see Roy and we spent the afternoon chatting. Fingers crossed, I drove John back to Birmingham, imploring him to take Roy on as a client. As we hit the outskirts of Brum, John shook his head. He didn’t believe sufficiently, he confessed. Roy just wasn’t his bag. However…he turned to me and winked…why didn’t I manage Roy? I had the belief John lacked. I knew Roy. And for the first time in years, I had filthy lucre in the bank. And after all, management was a combination of common sense, efficiency and industry contacts. I would learn the rest in time.
Why not indeed?
And that’s how I was persuaded to embark upon one of the more crazy episodes of my life…
(to be continued…)
Roy Harper; Born In Captivity/Work Of Heart Science Friction HUCD008