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.