Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Size Matters

So... where were we..? Ah yes, I'm heading off to Scotland to meet up with the first band on my touring list - Inner Circle.

They'd already been around the block a few times having originally signed to Trojan in the early-seventies and the original line-up had included Stephen 'Cat' Core and Michael 'Ibo' Cooper who would go on to form Third World. Thus, the band that signed to Island during 1977 or so were really the three originators - Roger and Ian Lewis and Jacob Miller.

And these guys were... hmmm... how does one say this politely... impossible. Ok, they were absolutely massive - each a man-mountain in his own right. Who ate all the pies? Inner Circle did.

The album has the same title as the single - Everything Is Great and both are already making waves; the press reviews have been favourable and the single's being played to death on the radio. It is, as they say in pick-of-the-pops terms, bubbling under. So far, so OK.

And, the guys - with slim Joe Ortiz, session guitar whizz with impeccable credentials and slimmer Bernard 'Touter' Harvey, one of Marley's legion of keyboard players - among their numbers are out on tour with one of Scotland's finest, The Average White Band. First stop - probably the most hostile audience known to mankind; the Glasgow Apollo - if they don't like you, you're dead meat. No questions asked - this lot lead with their fists first and ask 'how ya doin' Jimmy' as you lie on the floor. Why do Scots' call everyone they don't know Jimmy? I've not a clue but... they do.

So, since we're a bunch of Jimmy's, it seems to me we need to make a bit of an impression. I've done my bit by gathering all of the local Scottish movers and shakers down to the venue, showtime's not too far off and, from seeing them play before (that must've been in London though I have no clear memory of that show) I know they can deliver live. But, still... there's something gnawing at me, this is the AWB's home audience... we've gotta do... something special.

Bing... brainwave. Scotsmen wear kilts. Half an hour from showtime and how the hell do I acquire a kilt; size in this instance doesn't matter as one-size fits all... in a wrap-around sort of manner. Enter Stewart 'Ding-Dong' Bell, Island's local bloke in Scotland. He knows someone who knows someone else who'll procure the article in question. Huge sighs of relief all round. Now, to convince Jacob that it'd be a bit of a beezer wheeze for him to march on for their encore - Gawd, I was confident that they'd get one - wearing... a kilt. Expect the unexpected as they say.

Jacob's up for it but Ben Foot, who was tour-managing this little lot wasn't quite so sure. His concern being, what if it doesn't work - have we got a fast enough car to make good our escape? Eventually Ben relented - his father I think was Sir Hugh Foot and Governor General of Jamaica at some time... but, I digress.

Their opening act goes really well and the crowd are baying for more. Now's the moment... and, as the opening bars to Everything Is Great wash out from the PA, enter stage right... Jacob Miller, a conservative 18-stones in weight, topless, stage-sweat glistening over his overly large torso, dreadlocks cascading down his back, with his bare belly bulging out and over... a... kilt.

The crowd stood as one and simply went mental. The first in a series of nights when everything really was great.

A few days later and we've wound up in Leeds. Which means that the show must've been at Leeds Uni. One of the more legendary venues on the touring circuit where - does one even need to mention this - The Who Live at Leeds was recorded; possibly one of the finest live albums ever. We have the afternoon off and some bright spark mentions that Leeds United are playing at home.

And, since every Jamaican is soccer-mad, its necessary to find a way of acquiring tickets for everyone. Enter Tony The Greek. Its more or less his home turf and sure enough he knows someone at United and tickets are ours. So far, so OK. The bus is outside the hotel we all hop on and off we go - we've just got enough time to see the game before heading off to sound-check, the guys are in buoyant mood... this is English First Division Football and something of a much-anticipated treat for them.

Well, it was until we got to the ground and encountered the turn-stiles.

We all queue up in amongst a stack of Leeds' faithful, slowly edging forward toward the entrance and all goes just fine until Roger Lewis gets completely stuck in the turnstile. It won't move forward, nor will it move back. The game is but five minutes from kick-off and there are dozens of fans waiting to get in. We hear the roar of the crowd as the teams run onto the pitch while Roger struggles with the turnstile. It won't budge and the fans behind us are, at best, becoming restless.

Eventually, turnstile operative-bloke unlocks the device that has trapped our over-sized bass player and we're in and heading for our seats. Leeds are playing Norwich and... Norwich score early on. And, we're in amongst the hard-core of Leeds fans.

Not much of a problem in itself - other than the Norwich player who scored was black and Leeds fans - in that day and age - weren't used to having massively dreadlocked Jamaican's in their midst.

A Jamaican scores (for the opposition) and what do fellow-Jamaicans do..? They celebrate. Not exactly the wisest thing to do in amongst the home team's supporters.

Racial abuse was, sadly, rife at that point and so... since a couple of the guys were wearing their yellow satin tour-jackets with everything is great emblazoned across their backs, the Leeds faithful equated us all to Norwich supporters - yellow being their primary kit-colour.

Black and dreadlocked, wearing the wrong team-colours and celebrating the opposition scoring - a clear-cut recipe for disaster. It was until both Tony and I quickly dished out a few tickets for the evening's show to pacify the blokes behind us who'd taken to suggesting in no uncertain manner the sort of boat that Jacob and his cohorts ought to take back to the West Indies.

We wound our way around Britain - the football match against the AWB guys after soundcheck at in the main hall of Lancaster University another memorable highlight - and ended up playing dates in France and Belgium where, so far as I was concerned, my days out on the road with these guys ended - I had to get back to the UK and head off with the Hot Rods. After that last show in Belgium, they gave me a little gift... a show-poster, signed by all of them. Jacob's inscription said simply; For Neil, a brother from the heart. It hangs in the dungeon (office) at Merle, a memento for when everything was great.

Sadly, the big-fella died in a car crash in March 1980. Jacob and I last met shortly before that, in New York, the night Marley played his first ever show at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. But that, as they say, is another... story.

Set The Tone

It was Voltaire who said…

I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Good fella, Voltaire. So… on that particular note… I reckon this whole ‘blogging’ malarkey is pants.

Why? I’m just off the phone to Tony The Greek. And, he has encountered the same problem as me; the last three of these darned things that I’ve posted make no sense. Doesn't bother him but, it annoys the heck out of me.

Its because of the way it works … that the last shall be first… and, the only way in which the last three ‘blogs’ I’ve posted make any sense at all is... if… they're read in the proper order... ie, one, two and three.

Equals… to a casual passer-by who has stumbled across these ramblings of mine on the trotoir of the internet, what I’ve tapped out lately reads as… nonsensical.

There is one small consolation however – while Tony has quite an audience for his own ramblings, I don’t.

Maybe its better that way.

I’ve confused enough people in my life, so maybe I have to revise my own method of ‘blogging’.

Added to which I find I actually hate the word.

So, from now on, this’ll not be a ‘blog’. I don’t exactly know what it’ll be but… blog, it won’t be. Maybe a compendium of thoughts – I realize that’s not quite as snappy a title but, hey ho… Anything is better than something that reminds me of an unfortunate occurrence that overtook my brother many years ago.

After a particularly healthy intake of ferociously-spiced food from the Indian sub-continent one evening, he was en-route to Cirencester early the following morning. Nature, needless to say, took its course but, ever so slightly faster than he'd anticipated.

Whereby, moments after the first abdominal rumblings started, he was desperately forcing his buttocks to stay shut.

Clearly a stopping off point was required on an immediate basis. He finally (as in just in time) found a filling-station that boasted a rhyming word with blog only to discover that the door was locked.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Midnight at the Oasis (3)

I have paused long enough, drinking in the external history while imagining the internal.

There is a soft click as the catch releases and I press the heavy door inwards. Am I really expected or… is this just some kind of mad figment of my own imagination? It seems that I am. Could I wait a few minutes as Chris is completing a mix for… the voice trails off and I’m left wondering what sort of magic is being brewed up in a room somewhere above my head.

Basing Street’s a strangely incongruous place… in that studios never really feel like what one imagines they should do. They’re places of work, thus - in a sense just musical offices. Abbey Road – as one example – looks quite amazing from the outside, all white portico columns with that big black heavy door just across the street from London's most legendary pedestrian crossing upon which the Fabs were so famously photographed. Yet, inside… its quiet with a vague air of reverence; the studios where they recorded are… big, big, big… but… while they do exude something special, they’re still just... work places.

Nestled deep within an all-enveloping sofa, I start to wonder who else has sat here; which lyrics have been written on scraps of paper as the author (or authoress) has relaxed, seeking wisdom in words while watching someone’s guitarist shoot pool with another band’s drummer on the table opposite. I’ve never – from then to now – quite got the hang of pool; bar billiards yes, pool not quite.

Perhaps, I muse, this is the sofa on which Bob Marley sat; maybe it is just here that Jimmy Page reclined, working out the arpeggios to his solo for Stairway To Heaven that was recorded at Basing Street with other parts of Led Zep’s magnum opus recorded at Headley Grange in Surrey during 1970… did he, did they know at the time that they were recording history… or, for that matter, does anyone?

I think, at the end of the session, when the engineer and producer have that first rough mix assembled one knows if track X is special. But, that’d be about it. Historical – no… how could you? Besides, its but time that informs that.

For instance, its not as if one marches in through the door and strides to one’s place of work with that thought in the back of one’s mind… is it? A little like a Steinbeck or a Voltaire, an Aristotle, or a Hemmingway, and what about Dickens or Shakespeare..? You don’t consciously sit down, pick up pen and paper, dip one’s quill into the ink stand of imagination with an over-riding first thought of… ok, here I go, I’ll be creating a bit of history today just as soon as I start to write. Nope, you write what’s in your head, what’s on your mind… you can’t do any more than that.

Yet, here I am in a place where history has been made (recorded in this instance); just the same as being at – say, Sun Studios in downtown Memphis… the literal birth-place of Rock and Roll. Where Jerry Lee Lewis inflamed a piano – was it ever meant to sound like that? where Elvis told studio owner Sam Phillips – ‘I don’t much sound like no one else, really’ while being met with quizzical looks until he opened his mouth and sang, where Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Rufus Thomas and dozens of others created music that, in time, has become a cornerstone of all of our lives that can best be dubbed… living history. None of us – fans or workers at the mill of music – would be here today if it wasn’t for those… pioneers.

The receptionist pulls me from my reverie and tells me to go up. I ascend the spiral staircase and enter a darkened room. There at the console (mixing desk) is CB, hunched over in full-on concentration. The engineer – the late Alex Sadkin who, tragically, later died in a car accident during 1987 (justifiably famed for his work at Compass Point Studios as much as his production work for Grace Jones, Joe Cocker, Duran Duran and former Josef-K, Paul Haig as much as mixes he did for Neil Young and Talking Heads) , is hovering nearby.

They’re working on a new record. Memory-lapse from then until now precludes what exactly but, given that this would have been mid-to-late seventies it might well have been something from one of two Marley albums – either Rastaman Vibration or, more probably, the mixes for Survival that was ultimately released in 1979.

I stand and wait. The mix – and for the life of me I can’t remember what it was, is played back a couple of times before Alex leaves the room and CB and I sit opposite each other. We talk for half an hour or so during which I’m asked if I have any leanings toward working in A&R – this comes as a bit of a surprise since, while I’ve always considered I had a decent set of ears, becoming part of that coterie has never been anywhere near my agenda; after all, that sort of job is for people other than myself.

CB’s opinion was a bit different and he told me that he felt that anyone who worked at Island was some form of A&R guy… it didn’t really matter what you did or where you did it, we all had ears and that, so he reckoned, was the most valuable thing about any of the staff employed.

Our chat – nice as it was – ends and I leave wondering what, if anything has been achieved.

A couple or three weeks later and I’m back in at St Peters Square HQ on a Friday evening. Knocker and I meet up and he tells me that I’m to have a new job; if I want it, that is. I’ll be out on the road working the length and breadth of Britain with the occasional foray into Europe – advancing all of the touring acts that we have on behalf of the record company and… if I come across any record or unsigned act that I think is worth HQ knowing about, be sure to bring the details back with me.

My first tour is actually two-in-one with both acts out on the road at the same time; 20-something dates across Britain and the Low Countries with Inner Circle who are about to have a bit of a hit with ‘Everything Is Great’ and 30 or so shows with Eddie & The Hot Rods who’ll be out on their own, headlining British tour with their own big record Do All You Wanna Do more or less at the same time; my role is to drop in and out of both of the tours – and this’ll be how my life will be for the next X months.

Inner Circle’s own tour starts the day after tomorrow in Scotland…

‘Better get ready, Corey’ Knocker tells me… ‘it’s a long drive to Glasgow’.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Midnight at the Oasis… (2)… Let your Yeah be Yeah

Enveloped by the bible-black darkness midway along an almost anonymous late-night Notting Hill street, I halt outside what was once – who knows how long ago – a church. It’s still a place of worship in certain respects; but not in the conventional sense. Get down on your knees, boy; this is hallowed ground.

I pause because the sheer volume of history within this former church-turned-studios stops my steps – to me Basing Street Studios is as significant a place as being on the battlefields of Edgehill or Crecy or watching the moon rise above Ardvreck Castle in the far, far north of Scotland. Those are places where – for reasons I can’t really quantify – I’ve felt some strange sense or form of affinity. Here, in an otherwise anonymous west-London backwater, I’m feeling it all over again, its washing over me like a dawn mist off the sea; I wish I had the vocabulary to express it better.

Trawl back through a wealth of stone-ground, bona-fide classic albums and there, within the credits on the sleeve, will be a line saying ‘recorded at…’ or ‘mixed at Basing Street Studios’… Steve Winwood, Free, Mott The Hoople, Robert Palmer, Bronco, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Fairport Convention, Roxy Music, Traffic, Spooky Tooth, Jess Roden, Marianne Faithfull, King Crimson – among a plethora of other Island acts. But, not just acts signed to that label – Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, The Eagles, The Clash The Who and dozens upon dozens of others.

In latter years, where Band Aid’s Do They Know Its Christmas? began life, proving that rock’s hierarchy had more long-term healing ointment per square plectrum than the politician’s offer of sticking plaster; where ZTT and Frankie Goes To Hollywood curled up together informed by the Art Of Noise under master of ceremonies Trevor Horn; where The Pet Shop Boys and Madonna rubbed faders. Subjective a comment this may well be but I’d argue that Basing Street was / is (probably) in the top five most influential recording studios of all time – worldwide.

Step back in (my) time a little… to a normal midweek day in February or March 1973; we’re gathered together for one of our normal monthly EMI sales meetings – location, an upstairs room in The Kings Head hotel in Horsham, Sussex. The middle of a fairly anonymous small English market-town, the hotel is all late-sixties chic; plush (for the time) velour, deeply carpeted and has an overriding scent that manages to combine furniture polish with steak and kidney pie, gravy and chips. EMI’s southern area sales force (of which I’m but a junior member) are all grouped around a table, presided over by Jimmy Parmenter – he’s our kindly boss, ruling our rowdiness with the benign smile of an elderly schoolmaster from a bygone age.

EMI’s sales arm (at that time) had deals with a number of Independent labels – and the marketing or sales heads of these labels come by to present their own releases which, frankly, are far more exciting (to my ears) than listening to what the EMI bods have to say about their own, in house, new releases that we’ll be traipsing around the shops with for the next month or so. The bloke from Charisma has been and gone and then the chap from Island arrives. This was always the moment within any of these meetings that I looked forward to the most.

Fred Cantrell walks through the door in jeans and jumper – we are all in suits tho’, in the summer months we’re allowed to take our jackets off. Today, the jackets are on and we’re all wearing ties. The meeting has already become wearisome, lunch is not far off and I’m bored; we’ve not heard anything yet that is very interesting. But, with Fred’s arrival, I sit up and start paying attention.

He begins by saying that he has something rather special to play us and, from his deep-sided denim bag pulls out a white labeled, 12” circle of vinyl. I wonder what this might be. The volume on the hotel’s all-in-one stereo is cranked up to loud and the needle clicks onto the edge of the vinyl, crackles for a few moments and then… Oh shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit… what the fxxk is this…?!

The record starts with an absolutely spine-tingling wha-wha’d treble-inflected series of guitar notes before a scrunching bass-line drops imperceptibly in, as the hi-hat and kick-drum shuffle alongside an organ whose ethereal chordal-echoes counterpoint the guitar, before that indefinable but lop-sided shuffling chakka-chakka high-end of the rhythm guitar underpins a voice and harmonies to become… Reggae like its never been heard before.

Holy Mother, this is… sublime.

I’m transfixed; Fred is sitting there with his eyes closed swaying gently while the others are around the table are wearing expressions that clearly say… this isn’t going to be an easy sell-in.

Easy or not isn’t the point; this is music that hasn’t just pushed the envelope; its smashed the bloody barricade.

The record stops, and Fred holds up the sleeve. There is uniform discontent within the ranks – it won’t be an easy sell say the older and (according to themselves) more experienced amongst us; its Reggae and for Reggae records you need a sleeve that has – at the very least – a topless lady adorning it. Better still if its budget priced. Not gonna be easy, they continue… and anyway… who are the Wailers exactly, and who is this… ummm, what’s his name…. Bob Marley?

Fred looks a bit disheartened while distributing the accompanying sales blurb and finished copies of the sleeve. He catches my eye as I stare at mine, fascinated – I’ve never seen a record that’ll be contained in a perfectly reproduced cardboard version of a Zippo lighter before. His eye-contact asks, ‘but you like it, don’t you?’ I grin in response, no words need to be said; great music doesn’t need verbal explanations.

After he departs, I look at the back of the sleeve as everyone else readies themselves for their Prawn Cocktails, over-cooked Steaks and two pints of Bitter and see that the record was recorded in Jamaica but was mixed at… Basing Street Studios. I sit there alone for a few minutes before joining the others downstairs, day-dreaming. I wonder what Jamaica’s really like and… maybe… maybe one day I’ll get to go to Basing Street too

Fast forwards a year and a bit; Jimmy Parmenter and I are facing each other across two pints of beer in a pub in Esher. I’ve asked to meet him in order that I can offer up my resignation face to face – my time as being part of EMI are days of future passed.

In the space of two weeks I’ve read an article by Melody Maker’s Rob Partridge entitled Island of Dreams that outlines the labels history and convinces me that those clandestine, early evening telephone calls I’ve been fielding should be taken seriously; I’ve been asked if I’d be interested in becoming part of the about-to-be-set-up Island sales force.

Fred Cantrell and I meet in St Peters Square; its my first time inside the building which simply buzzes with activity; not unlike an unruly bees-nest and totally unlike EMI where everyone has their own offices and high-heeled secretaries appear to have to pluck up courage to ask their lord and master if they’ll take this or that telephone call. Here, so it seems, everyone sits around large tables, organized chaos reigns, music is playing constantly and… it actually feels like what I’d always imagined a record company to be; where the music actually comes first.

My visit doesn’t last very long; Fred is thirsty and it’s the end of a long working day. We get into his car and drive toward the pub he has selected for us to have a bit of a chat. We get as far as the Cherry Blossom Roundabout of the great West Road – the old A4 that abuts the M4 to the west of London and, stuck at a red light he asks, ‘So, you fancy the job then?’ My reply is in the affirmative before the light changes.

June 1st 1974 – the night that the Kevin Ayers / John Cale / Nico / Brian Eno concert at the Rainbow was recorded (yes, I was there) was my first full day as an Island employee.

That was the day I traveled one small step closer to being inside this mythical building that had been credited on so many album covers which I'd stared at for so long.

I think of all of this as I walk up the steps, readying myself to sit down with another long time credit on so many seminal albums.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Midnight at the Oasis… (1)

Why did I end up with this mad kind of roving role? My own fault, pure and simple. For a couple of years and more I’d been trolling around the South Of England – that was my ‘area’. From Southampton to Haywards Heath; from Newbury to Banbury; from Chippenham to Brighton. That was where my slew of record shops lay; the ones into which I pre-sold all of our new releases.

We all had weekly ‘cycles’ whereby, if it was the second Tuesday in any given month one’s day involved visiting shops in (say) Staines, Esher and Camberley; if it was the third Wednesday then I’d be anticipated in Horsham – this was always a great day, brew-ups that involved urns of tea, not just pots; smoking as many ciggies as one wanted propped up against the shop's counter indulging in lengthy musical discussions with Phil, the manager of the best record store in that part of the UK. Afternoons that inevitably ended up with a drink or five in the pub where, ultimately, the pre-release order would be placed.

However, after months of doing this I’d started to feel that there was something more – was my life to really be just a sales-bloke; wasn’t there more; hadn’t I anything else to offer? I felt I had – we had all these bands out on the road and… maybe there was a way that I could combine (sort-of) being on the road with them and promoting them upfront at the same time on a local level…plus, I’d started to want to travel a bit more – mainland Europe was just across the Channel and… we had bands touring there and there would be record stores; radio and tv stations and… so, wouldn’t this be a good idea? I thought it might be, but… would anyone else at St Peters Square HQ have faith in my germ of an idea?

Fear and trepidation rising like bile in my mouth, I broached the subject one Friday afternoon with Knocker. He was formerly but nominally in charge of all of us – yes, our boss but nominally since we were, in those days, given so much rope that we could have, all of us, hung ourselves many times over. Such was life at Island that any misdemeanors weren’t punished by being fired on the spot, one was given a second or third chance – a far cry to how it is now in business of any kind.

Knocker had been christened as John Knowles, he’d a bristling beard and had a way of putting his point across that usually involved the F-word placed handily at the start, middle and end of each sentence. One knew where one stood with Knocker – a bollocking for under-achieving a monthly sales target was just that, praise for a difficult job well-done was equally dished out – tough and fair in level measures. Knocker Knowles - a true maverick in a non-conformist world.

He also had a fistful of improbable tales – many bound in fact with some that have become absolute legend; from his days detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure for GBH – Knocker, of course, being of the opinion that the Magistrate had dished out a tad heavy-handed custodial sentence as, so far as he (Knocker) was concerned he’d simply incurred a little facial damage to someone he’d come across in a bar who’d unwisely attempted to make a play for his then girlfriend – hence the moniker of Knocker. And then to his method of distracting an audience from an otherwise not-too-brilliant a show-case by Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers at London’s Dingwalls – Knocker simply climbed up onto the bar in the club packed to the gunwales with free-loading media people and paying punters and pissed all over it.

And Knocker’s advice while we sat and talked through my dilemma in the Cross Keys over a pint of 4X – handily situated over the road from St Peter’s Square? Go and see CB, have a chat to him and see what he has to say.

While Knocker spent his days mainly in St Peter’s Square which meant that he’d run across Blackwell on a pretty regular basis, this, for me was near-enough uncharted territory. He was – still is – the man; I was just blokey-bloke from Hampshire selling in new-releases that, more often than not, contained CB’s name emblazoned amongst the credits: album such and such produced by:

We’d met a few times but that was about it. He seemed like an amiable enough chap, appeared quite shy and not too scary, was quietly spoken and given to wearing sneakers with no socks, willing to listen while one chatted away inanely about this or that.

But… he had (well, for me anyway) a real aura. And, to be honest – I was in awe of this aura; after all, CB had founded this skinny little label back in 1959… I’d have been seven years old when he was putting out his first records; as I grew through teen-dom and started collecting records, mysteriously, my collection started to become a bit like the Island Book Of Records… pretty much every single one had as its centre the trademark-pink Island label.

Before long, I’d buy as near as dammit anything on Island, my reasoning being, while I may not have heard of (say) Head Hands & Feet, the label thought it was worthy enough – thus it’d probably be pretty good. And, generally speaking it was. Quality = Island Records – or that was how I saw it. And, i don't believe I was alone in that thought.

And now, here I was, still a record-collector at heart, working for them – for him really – when… if I’d been able to I’d have probably done it all for free. How amazing was that… being properly recompensed to indulge one’s hobby. Allowed into the sweetshop? Hell no, this was more like being paid to be at the best coal-face on the planet.

But, aura or not, nerves jangling or otherwise, I had to wander back around the corner from the Cross Keys, let myself in through the front door with its stained glass window that reflected the current centre of those mostly-magical 12’ vinyl albums and head upstairs – 'cos that was where the big-boss held court.

We shook hands and after a few general pleasantries had been exchanged I asked if we might have a bit of a private chat. CB coughed his pre-conversational trade-mark cough and, with old-fashioned courtesy replied, ‘certainly… how about meeting up at Basing Street?’ That was fine by me, Basing Street was the mid-sized studio complex in Notting Hill from where most of the seminal records had been concocted over the last few years – for me, this was like being invited into the back-room of the sweet-shop; for Chris – a matter of convenience since it was where he worked.

But then came the unexpected; could I be there the following evening… at midnight? Of course I could if this was what was required. It’d take a bit of explaining to my then partner as, after all, business meetings are, more usually, conducted in conventional business hours.

However, this – as I was slowly starting to work out – was hardly a conventional industry that I’d become involved in. And anyway, for me this wasn’t business… how could it be? Business meant corporate and how could a company that to all intents and purposes ran on instinct as much as it did with the ethic of making it up as we all went along be… corporate. Nope, this was a fun in capitals place to work. So, if I was required to be at place X at midnight... so be it.

As midnight approached, I buzzed the buzzer at Basing Street and explained I was expected…

Living in a cardboard box…

A coupla weeks in and I’m still totally confused by this whole ‘blogging’ culture – it seems as if one simply talks (= writes) into a vacuum. So, with that in the back of my mind, I reckon I might as well carry on… would anyone mind? I hardly think so because, so far as I know, just the one person thus far has found my little blade of grass in amongst the millions of tufts that lay lady lay across the big brown bed of the great green prairie otherwise and better known as the world wide wait.

So… where was I? Oh yes… the mysterious affair of styles… contained in brown cardboard boxes.

These dirt-brown-cowboy boxes (remember, they’re the ones containing the badges and t-shirts) we’d load into our cars in the aftermath of those monthly Sales Meetings. They shared boot-space with other similarly-styled boxes that we’d all collect from our St Peters Square HQ; boxes full of pre- and new-release albums and white-label singles with which we would tempt record stores, radio library people, local disc jockeys and up and coming movers and shakers in local television.

This really was like being allowed into the sweet shop and un-pocketing the key to the safe where all of the truly sumptuous goodies resided; the Trufle-factory of music. Nirvana – oh yes, as near to earthly Heaven as its possible (in my mind) to get.

And, these aural delicacies offered up the possibility of… a bit of... trade; a little like Native North-American Indians meeting up with Settlers at recently established, improbably named far-flung frontier posts. Fort Baxter anyone? They’d exchange fur-pelts, beads and tobacco in exchange for land and Winchester repeating rifles; our currency was contained on 12 inches of jet-black vinyl. Were we meant to? Who knew, who cared? No one was watching. And, besides, it was what was in the grooves that counted - more GrooveMeister Colonel than Witchfinder General.

These white-label pre-releases were absolutely superb for bartering – shop owner X had an otherwise near-enough impossible to acquire import of artist Y’s new album that wouldn’t be out domestically for at least six months. No problem, here’s a copy of Z and, moments later, artist Y’s new record was in the boot of my car, eager to get acquainted with its owner’s turntable.

And, because we had the hottest pre- and new-releases on the block… it was like being in a Ferrari on pole position at any Grand Prix as the guys from (say) A&M’s or Transatlantic’s own salesforce looked on in envy from their rear-of-the-grid Torro Rosso equivalents.

This was also, of course, long before the days of cds; when 8-track tapes were de-rigueur. Looking back, a pretty useless invention actually since no-one seemed to have figured out how to avoid the really frustrating element when a track was broken in half because of the way that the 8-track tape was configured. Thus, there was that annoying wait until the 8-track clicked in again and then, resumption of tune A – always played at the setting marked unfeasibly loud.

Thank goodness 8-tracks are now more: they took up far too much space plus, more often than not, the tape itself ended up wound around the internal spools of the 8-track-player, resulting in long spaghetti reels of tape all over the front footwell of one’s car. One can find 8-tracks nowadays behind plate-glass windows in emporiums such as The Design Museum in London – worth a look but not much point in that last, nostalgic glance over one’s shoulder; that was a form of technology that’s now as extinct as a VelocirRaptor.

We were and yet weren’t (in the time honoured acceptable meaning of the phrase) traveling salesmen; more Magnificent Seven than Famous Five – though there were only the six of us covering the entire British Isles. Because, the only door to door that any of us did was bowling up unannounced at a compadre’s house and, doubtless, scaring the wits out of that person’s wife or live-in lover by walking in as if one owned the place and demanding gallons of tea, endless bacon sandwiches and, quite often, a bed for the night.

And, my position within the whole scheme of things..? While the others covered their own bits of the UK, I’d been given more of a roving role whereby I moved around the country upfront of all our touring bands – often dodging from one tour to another that also included forays onto mainland Europe. I blame CB (Chris Blackwell) for that - but thats another story... or blog.

My allotted task? Advancing all these tours / bands on the run on behalf of the record company; and that meant making certain that everyone who counted – from local radio people to store-owners and their staff; from the home-town press to tv folk were not just acquainted with band G’s imminent appearance but were also down at Ballroom Q to witness the performance and report on it and – with regard to the record store people – to push the accompanying record as much as they could to the local populace.

Hardly a hardship since, by and large, I was out with bands or acts that I’d have gone to see myself anyway; thus convincing all of the above was barely something one had to screw up one’s eyeballs and concentrate on – it was the exact opposite of thinking of tumble-dryers to halt premature ejaculation. Oh no, this was driven by outright passion and enthusiasm; like I said, we inhabited the best sweet shop in town.

This, in turn, quite often meant driving colossal distances; people who routed tours in those days weren’t quite as savvy as they’ve had to become in this Millennium and it wasn’t unusual to have a show in Bournemouth followed by another in Newcastle followed by the next day in Cardiff – sometimes by way of Bruxelles or Ghent.

And, as much as I should be ashamed to mention this, there was at least one occasion when I actually rang the reception desk at the hotel into which I’d checked in asking not only what the date was, but what day of the week it was and… in which city I had arrived in; the lady at the Holiday Inn in Newcastle was kindness and understanding personified when I explained that I’d prefer not to be disturbed for the next 24-hours – though doubtless laughing like a hysterical hyena when she’d replaced the receiver in its handset. Who, after all, arrives in the middle of a night at an urban hotel in a sprawling metropolis unable to remember where they are… maybe its because all Holiday Inns the world over look exactly the same. I put it down to tiredness and humping brown boxes.

My brown boxes lived in the boot and across the back seat of a vehicle began life as a Ford; variety, colour I recall not – but, I do know that it was none to clean a Ford – car-washes-are-not-us could well have been this itinerant Island salesforce’s motto. So, hardly a babe-magnet but, nonetheless, it got me from A to B generally via Tony the Greek’s house in Manchester. Which, quite often – possibly more often than his wife, Marie would have preferred – became home from home.

These, in turn, were more often than not, nights without end that inevitably involved strange goings on – a sort of penance undertaken in exchange for a modicum of sleep in a bed.

Otherwise - and during the middle of yet another re-run of Where Eagles Dare (Tony had a video-player, a rare luxury in those daze), how was it that one became embroiled in manhandling a cast-iron, full size bath-tub down a narrow flight of stairs in the middle of a power cut one particular night, egged on by the long-suffering Marie handing out a seemingly endless supply of sandwiches; she must have found it easier buying whole sides of bacon from the quantities we ate.

Ah well, it made a change from shifting all those bloody boxes around and kipping across the back-seat, rolled up in a duvet, parked up in a lay-by midway through another endless night journeying from one end of the country to another.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Expect the unexpected (part 1)

Thats a phrase that rings true now as much as it did when first I came across it – as much as I had imagined I’d had a proper education, it wasn’t until I unwittingly signed up to the school of hard knocks did anything like my education in realism begin.

Oh dear, Neil… feeling sorry for yourself today… Project X not going too well..? No, far from it, actually. Its trundling along fine thank-you so much for asking.

Ok, then… if you’re sure?

I am… Ok… So lets get back to that base thought… thats a phrase that landed up emblazoning one of the more sought-after small-sized lapel badges during those halcyon days when Stiff Records’ empire struck back… before it struck out in a welter of self-implosion; when the sunny-bright ideas pretty much dried up and, ultimately, the records became not terribly good.

That badge was almost as good as the t-shirt they invented that spawned another button and which hit home in more ways than probably Robbo’s fertile mind ever imagined it might: emblazoned in large white letters on a pure black, made in China, t-shirt were the words… If It Ain’t Stiff, It Ain’t Worth A Fuck. I wore it with a great deal of pride and did I care that it got me physically ejected from a bar in Bournemouth one mad mid-Summer’s evening – not a jot, it just emphasized – to me – why I should and would wear it. A recent convert to the driving-range of life where anything could (and generally) did happen... where the real ethic behind everything was... make it up as you go along.

And that, in my view, is about as good a work ethic as it gets.

Was there a route map - hell, no!

We were in uncharted waters and had a hand on the oars... the tiller was manipulated by those older and a bit wiser than us down in the bowels of the vessel.

Working for them (Stiff) since we (that is Island – my paymasters) had a distribution deal with them, meant that I had boxes of these badges (and dozens of others with similar slogans) as well as further boxes filled with more of the self-same black t-shirts with the annoyingly apposite pub-bouncer-unfriendly logo. It appealed to Stiff's anarchic modus operandi for promoting their ‘product’.

I hated the word ‘product since, to my way of thinking, that meant baked beans and, I for one, wasn’t about to equate a new 10” disc cut on brown vinyl by Wreckless Eric as… something I’d find on the well-stacked shelves at Woolworths. Eric had, so far as I was concerned, cornered the market in nasal-intoned nihilism – angst riddled with vitriol as only a post-acne’d late teen who didn’t know which way was up could convey.

Did I want to go the Whole Wide World with Eric… sure I did… and I got what he was saying – totally. And, still, to this day its just a great record; a sore-throat raw, absolutely stonking, dry-stone-wall of a tune, a dirge-like canticle to love almost out of reach. And, there it is, standing the test of time, out there right now on YouTube, still as good as it was the day it was presented to us at one of the Island Records Sales Conferences. Maybe not up there in that many people’s all time Top Twentys but nonetheless it remains now as much as it did then as a relative breath of fresh air in an otherwise sterile musical atmosphere.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Reach Out... He'd Be There

Its a bit like talking to oneself, this whole 'blogging' thing... altogether very weird.

But, it sort of occupies me during the downtimes I'm currently enduring with regard to Project 'X'. Today's emails have all been sent, the responses are awaited upon, today's slug of research has been done until I'm boss-eyed from squinting at the computer screen and, so what do I do..? I write... more.

Shit, what a sad life I have.

Long ago - when just a teen, I'd escape every couple of weekends (Sundays to be exact) from school. My parents would come and collect my brother and I and we'd head home for Sunday lunch and that miserable wait until it was time to get back into the parental voiture and head off to school. Boarding school was a bit like that - you'd long to escape for the day or the short half-term break and then agonise about one's return.

And, the only upside was that, during those miles ridden in the back-seat of the car, Alan Freeman and Pick Of The Pops would be transistorised into my teenage-ear. Oh joy... who would be Number six this Sunday evening, what would the new entries into the Top Ten be?

Often times it'd be something that didn't much appeal but, fairly frequently, my young ears would quiver in excitement as something so entirely new would brave the crackling airwaves and I'd sit, mesmerised over three minutes thirty seconds or so of... glorious sound.

That first earful of the Four Tops 'Reach Out..." was one such. Its pretty much impossible to put into any vocabulary the effect it had on me - profound is an over-used adjective, it comes close but doesn't get anywhere near at the same time. And, what that song - among many others did was channel my own, pubescent, thinking... this was a business I just had to be in... somehow, some place, some-when.

As luck (and I mean luck) was to have it... thats what ultimately came about... from collecting records with my hard-earned to actually being paid to be a miniscule cog in the wheel of that industry. Oh joy, a little like entering the sweet shop and being told you could eat all you wished. Yet, i never once grew sick of indulging. God willing, I never shall.

From the sublime to the ridiculous - fast forward many, many years.

By this time, I'm working as head of publicity for Arista in the UK. Clive Davis has recently signed a group who (amongst few others) actually deserved the status of... legends. I have to meet these chap, talk to them about their forthcoming interview schedules, photo-sessions and so forth and I'm quaking.

I walk into the room. There at the end, staring out of ther window is a large black guy in a suit, broad shouldered and slightly greying. He turns.

'Good afternoon', he says, 'You must be Neil. My name is Levi Stubbs from the Four Tops'.

Levi breathed his last just a few days ago - just like true love that always endures, their music will live on for always.

Is There Anybody Out There..?.

Hmmm, well… so no one responded. Did I really expect anyone to? Nope, not really...

Its hardly surprising since the internet is like a vast open prairie; no direction home. My ‘blog’ must be like a small blade of grass, sitting out there in a tuft of other grasses, blown by the wind, rustling in anonymity. Mile upon mile of similar tufts making up a greensward vista that stretches to the far horizon.

Because, or so it seems, everyone has their own internet presence nowadays. Google pretty much any friend, relative or work colleague (let alone anyone who’s had their own five peco-seconds curled up beside the fame-ball) and somewhere out there – their very own web presence. In a world where privacy is valued, there can be privacy no more; and in downtime computer-time, its terribly tempting to open the door to Pandora’s box.

And so, as always, curiosity kills the cat – and... finally giving in and seeing what the limitless storage vault of the web holds on oneself is a pretty strange reality-check. As Toad once famously said, ‘surely... there can’t be any harm in just… l o o k i n g’.

What do I find..? Hell's teeth... for a start, I find I’m in amongst a whole heap of places I’d never imagined myself to be. For example, it appears that I’ve been exhibited at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. That, I confess, came as a bit of a shock. But, incredibly, its true (pointless telling un-truths on here, one just has to look something up to see if its fact or fiction). I’m rather a long way away from Ohio so there isn’t much of an opportunity to go look see in person – thus, I have to take Google’s word for it but… in amongst a recent U2 retrospective exhibit there recently, it appears that a letter from self to Larry Mullen Jr written presumably aeons back and – I’m guessing here – sometime upfront of them growing from boys (sic) to men, thus maybe around the time of the Unforgettable Fire had been hoarded in his attic and, dug out and… offered up to the curators in Cleveland.

Larry was – perhaps still is – an inveterate hoarder of ‘stuff’ Mind you (looking back), he had something pretty special to hoard and – as much as Bill Wyman did the same for the Stones’ early years, then young Laurence did the same for his little band out of Dublin. He kept everything of interest that came his way. After all – and this’d apply to them both – how long did they imagine things’d last? You just don’t at that point in your career…everything you do is a first and, a memory worth holding on to.

The first series of your own shows, the first trip out of the country – to London in their case; the first provincial dates; making their first record and seeing it for the first time all wrapped up nicely in shrink-wrapped covers (yes, I found the article regarding that too – Mike Gardiner’s report from Record Mirror) when he and I and a photographer who’s name I can’t remember (other than the fact that she slept through the whole of Belgium) traveled to Groningen in Holland, me with a box of 25 pristine copies of the Boy album in the boot of my car; the first time they’d set eyes on the fruits of their labours.

And yeah, I hoard stuff too… innumerable scrapbooks filled with old concert ticket stubs; flyers from shows; tour itineraries, yellowing faxes from the days before the internet was a distant dream away; tickets and photo-passes from shows that have passed into myth and become legend – what price my two tickets for Bob Marley Live at London’s Lyceum ballroom on the hot sweaty July night that Arthur Ashe won at Wimbledon?

Everything has a price… tickets for a Nirvana show that never happened (since Kurt shot himself, thus enforcing its cancellation) are being released on the internet 100 at a time; the show’s promoters making more money from collectors than ever they would had the show gone ahead in the first place.

But, is everything for sale or should it be treasured? Do I – for example – really need to keep a framed copy of the first ever U2 poster; after all it could only really be hung in an office – its hardly suitable for anywhere else in the house. Yes I do; firstly Larry gave it me, second it holds treasured memories. Its nothing to do with either its value or rarity – I doubt if more than five original copies survive; its because its special… to me.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

To blog or not to blog

Ok... I confess and own up. I am a blogging virgin.

I have friends who blog – all of whom tell me it is rather therapeutic. One is a writer; he ‘blogs’ as he runs into the writer’s wall – when inspiration for his new novel dries up. Another ‘blogs’ about the inner-workings of Land Rovers. One is telling his life’s story in what I imagine will become an almost never-ending blog – and, its fascinating stuff too. Another ‘blogs’ about the ridiculous nature of the 21st epidemic that is … celebrity culture. Now, that I get – is there anything more distasteful? Actually, there is – I had it to eat near Arcachon in the South West of France a year or so ago in a fish restaurant. Obviously, I should have known better than ordering a meat dish in a place renowned for its seafood – I did too, but still persisted and the plate of gristle-ridden fat surrounded by an unidentifiable gloop calling itself a sauce arrived. It (essentially, the meat from the head of a young calf) may well have been a local delicacy but it was (to my stomach) as inedible in as much those who crave their five-minutes of fame are derisory.

So… this blogging culture; I can understand the need to write down one’s thoughts on any given subject. After all, if you have an opinion, then why not voice it? It’s a free world – well, more or less. And maybe – having written just those few words within which yet another topic has arisen – that’s what the whole point of this about. It’s about commenting and sharing one’s opinions on subjects that matter to oneself.

And so – comment as therapy? Yes, I get that bit too – after all, writing down one’s thoughts in this most public of forums could be construed as some form of therapy. You get the shit that’s bothering you off your chest and Mr, Mrs or Miss Angry has let go their discontent in a satisfying manner; a little like someone with stored up flatulence quietly unleashing their trapped wind by firing off a deeply satisfying silent fart in a choc-full Japanese subway at rush-hour. Satisfaction and relief for one, pretty unpleasant for everyone else in a confined space.

So, there I am, investigating these ‘blog’ things on the unconfined space of the world-wide-wait, feeling a bit like Christopher Columbus searching the uncharted waters of a brave new world. What, precisely, am I looking for?

I start to do some research and come across a whole slew of newly written ‘blogs’. Hmmm, these look interesting. No... wrong. I scroll down yards of hyperspace until, in the absolute desperation of frustration, I click on one at random. And, then wonder why I did… because… I wonder what, precisely, is the point of this posted by Slipknot Fans – ‘if you don’t like them then deal with it, cause we do’. Ok, jolly good. A day later and I check back to see if any other Slipknot fans have joined their throng – oooops, sorry lads… nope. But, I understand it matters to these guys; they’re teenage fans and want to tell the world in their own way. ‘Cos no one understands being a teenager – least of all anyone older. And, in this blogging era what better way to strike out of acne'd bedroom prison?

The thing is, we were all like that at some point in our lives. It’s just that being a teen perennially means that you can’t (and absolutely foot-stampingly won’t) accept that anyone has been there before you, yourself, has. After all – how on earth could a middle aged old fogey be expected to like Slipknot, with their thrashing, crashing, power chords, brow-beating drums and ejaculatory guitar soloing. It’s hardly Sinatra swinging to the melody of Basie’s Big Band is it? And that’s what old people listen to… isn’t it?

Actually no. Well, certainly not in any home I’ve ever owned or lived in. That’s not to say that a daily dose of Slipknot is high on the evening agenda as I walk through the door in eager anticipation of a glass of the well-chilled and a bit of a sit-down. Why? Rather because I prefer something with more of a tune to it than listening to a howling banshee facing imminent castration.

Ahh – so that’s me then? Middle-aged, grumpy old bloke – who prefers something tuneful over something new or… challenging? Again no… I rather feel I have something of a Catholic taste in music and happily take in anything from whatever genre. After all, I’ve been schooled pretty comprehensively from working within the business of music for thirty-five-plus years.

Unlike rap fan, Andrew Vactor from Urbana in Ohio who was up against his local Beak recently for playing his music of choice in his stereo on wheels way too loud. Ok, I get that – it can be pretty tedious hearing the breaking bass beats from a mile away but, haven’t I been guilty of the same sin myself? Yes M'lud… Long before CDs existed in cars everyone used tapes – married to the loudest systems matched to the biggest speakers a Ford Cortina’s back parcel-shelf could hold. Driving through a small, sleepy Irish market-town in the early-seventies with Traffic’s Low Spark playing at head-turning volume, playing imaginary drums on the steering wheel. Yes… I stand accused – guilty as charged.

But, this was a Beak with not just a heart but a PG Woodhouse sense of humour; who offered the offender a reduced fine on condition he spent twenty hours listening to the more dulcet offerings of Bach and Beethoven. MC Andrew from Ohio lasted a quarter of an hour – maybe he should have been offered some easier-on-the-ear Puccini instead or was it considered that uncool in his ‘hood’ to listen to greatness; music that’s lasted hundreds of years… simply because it’s… good.

Because, music – if its any good at all... will stand the test of time. If thats not the case, then why does my own teen-daughter have songs by Roy Orbison and the Beach Boys on her i-Pod snuggled up to unsigned bands which she likes that she’s found on the internet? ‘Cos the songs, the tunes... call 'em what you will - are good, that’s all.

Music has and always will be a constant within anyone's life, wherever they may be situated on this peculiarly developing planet of ours. From nomadic tribesmen roaming the African Veldt to the young rap artists in the concrete canyons of uptown New York; from the Aborigines of the Outback to all of the fledgling bands creating music in their parents' garages, spurred on by dreams of on-line streaming a headline show at London's Royal Albert Hall.

But no matter what, no matter where - it is the song / the tune that remains.

And that’s my blogging opinion.

So… I guess anyone can do this blogging thing but… does anyone read them? Clearly someone must do – for example, the Huffington Post is now so widely read that it’s become one of the primary sources of news for any self-respecting journalist looking for a breaking media story. And that started as a blog.

But, who would read this..?

And… why?

So... here’s my first blog question – is Northern Sky by Nick Drake or Waterloo Sunset by Ray Davies the greatest song written in the last fifty years?