Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jess Roden | In A Circle

Give or take a month or so, it’s taken nearly two years to get from there to where we are now. And, within that journey, suitcase life became very much part and parcel of the whole.

So, at this particular point in the burgeoning process of pulling the Project-X rabbit out of the hat and while being of budget-conscious frame of mind, I’ve checked into modest accommodation not too far from the studio.

Indeed, it’s no more than a couple of miles away from where the singer of songs and I munched happily away on a pile of popadums while concocting what we reckoned might be… a… bit of… a… plan.

Besides, I figured a quiet night would give me a few hours to get my head around some more of the music that we’ve been digitising before trotting westward chez JR for post-lunch discussions; we’re slowly arriving at the point where we’ll be shortlisting those that have made the grade and confining those not worthy back to the cupboard.

However, I’d only been inside the Hotel Splendide long enough to unpack, uncork a glass of the well-chilled and spread my spreadsheets (detailing all the work we’d been doing in the studio) over the bed before another visit to reception was rendered necessary. Or, rather, what passed for it – this splendid hostelry being on the unassuming side of wallet-threatening in terms of a home from home for the night.

Uber-drat… my carefully planned evening of reviewing work thus far was not running to plan… at all.

It took a while to attract the manager of this emporium’s attention – his gaze being fixed to the PlayStation machine that’d been hooked up to an oversized tv-screen on the other side of what served as his office.

He was playing carton golf.

Eventually, a little louder-than-discreet cough was enough to put him off his stroke whereby his ball landed ever so satisfyingly in a digital bunker. Hello, I grin (reckoning that his position in the pixelated sand looked frightfully tricky), My room is flooding.

He stared at me with a mix of disbelief and annoyance criss-crossing his face, his jaw opening and closing soundlessly much like an out of fresh-water-Salmon would.

Nevertheless, digital Phil Mickelson put his machine on pause and, blowing air like a beached whale, grudgingly trudged after me – all the way back to my room. There we halted as I struggled through various jacket pockets, searching for the key while the audible drip, drip, drip of water splashing happily away could be clearly heard behind the door.

There was enough water pouring through the extractor fan, right above the lavatory, to render needless any thought of pulling the chain should I require the use of said appliance – it’d be like peeing in a heavy rain storm. Ahh yes… the beached whale exhaled loudly… that would be the people in Number 5 taking a shower. Would you like another room?

We trudged back up stairs, down a few steps and up some more before suitcase, self, spreadsheets and the well-chilled were finally installed overlooking the rumbling thunder of mid-summer traffic below. With no air-conditioning and the nonadjustable heater set to maximum, the only thing for it was to open as many windows as possible. The thunderous rumble immediately turned to a Niagara-roar – time to take spreadsheets, headphones and self off to get something to eat .

But, not before perusing the book of words pinned to the back of the door – from which I gleaned that da-management weren’t much bothered if anything was stolen from one’s room. Paragraph eight stated that they’d not be liable for anything nicked that was valued at over fifty notes and nor were they insured for the contents of cars or horses.

I look about me and, before shutting the door firmly and trousering the key, confirm a Shetland Pony wasn't hiding in the shower cubicle.

A police car wailed in the background as I crossed the road that was nearly obliterated from view by a passing cloud of high-grade ganja; safely over to the sunny side of the street, it took but moments to size up the local culinary delights. It was a choice of one from one.

Settled beneath an abstract Himalayan scene that had somehow been stenciled onto cheap hardboard, it took mere seconds before two grinning waiters brandishing identical menus quickstepped across the shagpile that only a visually impaired person would have chosen.

There was a gay couple to my far left, both busy with their mobile ‘phones – perhaps searching out alternate dates since it quickly transpired (via the one with the restaurant-carrying voice and fringe of over-floppy hair) that he wasn’t planning on going home with his companion.

The later-than-me influx of customers included an all-girl group who brandished their ‘phones with aplomb taking picture upon picture of each other studying the menu. With fingers and thumbs set to dexterous, multiple Facebook profiles were being updated long before their starters arrived.

To my right another couple settled in – and, it was immediately clear from their touchy-feely, stroke me / stroking you / sit on the same side of the bench that they would place the Greek island of Lesbos fairly high on their summer holiday shopping list.

Given that they were on the next again table and I’m dining alone while being studious with my spreadsheets, it’s wasn’t hard to overhear their conversation. Within three minutes they’re discussing particularly intimate and very recent… errrr… occurrences… that… occurred… in a shower… Ah yes… they’ll be the occupants of Number 5.

The next afternoon, JR and I are seated at a table at the top end of the garden; there is a bit of a breeze getting up that’s rustling the tops of the Silver Birch trees that line the far end of the greensward.

As much as we’re starting to narrow the choices down now there has also been a mutually agreed consensus, a rationale behind that making of choices in place from day one. The tune, the song, the performance – whichever it may be – has to stand up in its own right all these years later.

In effect, that means making choices on the basis of fast-forwarding ourselves further into the future and being able to collectively look back and say; Y’know what… that’s actually not bad at all.

And, right now, we’re back in amongst those tapes that emanated from those sessions at The Fallout Shelter, the studio deep down in the basement at the back of Island’s London HQ in St Peters Square.

I have to say, that I don’t remember – until I heard them recently – that we’d actually finished many of these tunes. I thought they were still awaiting final vocal or finished mixes…

Attention is diverted for a moment. Perched on the fence is a pair of Squirrels intently studying the bird-feeder that’s suspended from the about-to-be-shorn Cherry Tree. They’re trying to figure out a way of bypassing the latest Roden-anti-squirrel device that has been deployed in the ongoing battle to defeat the enemy’s attempts at extricating food that’s not been left out for them. Bloody rascals… Y’know, they’re a lot more intelligent than you’d give ‘em credit for. This latest gadget we have looks like it could be the one tho’; its kept them out for a good couple of weeks but, you never know, they’ll probably figure it out. Another coffee before we get back in to it?

Two more cups of the well-frothed are placed on the table and we return to the subject of some of the songs that I’ve unearthed that would – had it not been scrapped – have constituted the first JRB album. The breeze has notched up a bit, rattling the sunshade against the table centre… or is my leg involuntarily twitching; much more of JR’s super-strength coffee and I’ll start to astral-project.

The Steve Smith album wasn’t finished – there was probably more material to add to it, but I think there was probably a sort of… a kind of impatience starting to develop in that I wasn’t having hits… and the band had been in the studio for a couple of months and there was a feeling of… ‘this ain’t gonna get him a hit either…’ which was, probably, a fair judgment on a musical level.

The entrance to that particular studio was to the side of the canteen – oft-presided over by Lucky Gordon, one time pimp to one of the Profumo Affair’s central characters, Christine Keeler – and where many of Island’s acts of the time recorded including Bob Marley, Aswad (who were almost fixtures there), Eddie & The Hot Rods, Steel Pulse, U2 (recorded a number of B sides with Steve Lilywhite who began his career there), Rico, King Sunny Adé, The Snivelin’ Shits, Rebop Kwaku Baah, as well as non-Island acts such as The Smiths (Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now was recorded with the then in-house engineer Stephen Street), Shriekback and countless dozens more.

Yes… that’s Steve (Winwood) on In A Circle. I’ve known him for years and… he must’ve been hanging about or whatever and y’know, we just wanted a keyboard player and, in some ways, it would have been very nervous for the band approaching him, I’m sure because he was a very busy guy – but, anyway, we’d got to a stage where we had a whole bunch of material but there was something lacking… so we asked Steve to come down… and he said, yeah.

He was just magnificent. There was a couple of passes and, basically, that was it… he just knows what to do, especially when it comes to Hammond.

Some days later we’re sitting at his dining room table – its boys night in and the hour is late; the remnants of our meal has been cleared away to the kitchen, two glasses of the well-chilled are before us as are two computers. Their respective cables stretch across the bare wood before trailing along the floor boards while various lists adorn random scraps of paper, post-it notes struggle to adhere to screen-edges and, in my open notebook track-listings are starting to take shape. Song titles have either been scratched through or have a tick beside them; other lists are emerging – the whole is slowly starting to take shape… So, which version of In A Circle do we go with?

JR looks back to the bigger of the two machines and scrolls down a bit and presses play. As the song moves from the extended chorus to where the Sax and Hammond start to interweave, he says, Has to be the one with Steve… don’t you think? For me, there’s something really special here.

Absolutely… Don't think anyone's heard it before either 'cos I'm pretty sure that it wasn't part of the cassette that Webbo had up on his site for a bit… I’d say, it’s a better version too… I pause. I mean… just listen to that, it’s just… floating… So, that’s a tick to that one…?

Yep… He agrees, That, Holmes, is a definite tick… So… moving on… what do we reckon for track four then..?


Kev Moore said...

I imagine treading this path, laden as it is with history, and a myriad of unfolding surprises, has been a supremely enjoyable revelation, Neil.

Winwood on this's just amazing, these treasures, unearthed at last. When one thinks of the money thrown at developing vacuous non-entities these days, projects like this are so important.

Oh - - and I do love your storytelling!

"The contents of horses" - that would adequately describe the hotel's insurance policy, then!

Flo Rowland said...

Hi Neil. My name's Flo, I work on BBC Introduing in Hereford and Worcester. We received some info from you about Jess a while ago and the 5 CD anthology. Any chance you could send us a copy? I think the presenters thinking of doing a feature.
My email is:
or find Flo Rowland on facebook.
All the best,