30 years ago today – Wednesday June 14th 1989 – was one of those special days I could never forget as it’s the best documented day of that year and right now I’m feeling kinda weird thinking “was it REALLY 30 years ago when I did that mad session for my first album?”
Quick bit of scene setting. I was 16, doing a stupid course called CPVE in the 6th form and my schooldays were ending in July 1989. Since September 1987, I had been writing songs and trying to sing. I had bugger all vocal talent nor could I play anything, not that I let that stop me pursuing a musical path thanks to taking GCSE Music. My feeling was, once I left school, my music path would come to an end and this was how my archiving began in the first place as I thought it would be nice to have some keepsakes of me blundering through music in my schooldays for future kids/grandkids (that were never to come!) to maybe have a laugh at. In January 1989, I came up with the dumbest idea of them all – why not record an “album”? My best mate Derek had left school, was doing a YTS placement and learning guitar. We were collaborating on odds and ends so again, thought it would be nice to capture some of this stuff on some kind of cassette “album”.
What I didn’t realise or know that my journey was only just beginning as when I left school, well… you know how it is… one thing led to another as I started performing, more songs were written… and so forth hence where I am today.
It was basically a vanity project which I took very seriously. Between January and May various recording sessions took place, mostly at Derek’s house generally of an acoustic nature. The only problem was, my recording equipment was crap. However, I had a music teacher called David Parker and he was amazing as he granted me unlimited access to the school’s music block. He owned a Tascam 4 track tape machine on which I carried out various experiments and it was obvious I was gonna need it to record a whole load of things for the album. By the time June began, I only had three tracks which I deemed usable and albums usually had around 14 tracks so there was a major deficit. To make matters worse and more pretentious, I’d been telling everyone this album would be “released” on June 20th. The clock was ticking and I’m a man of my word.
So it was decided to complete the album using the 4 track. Derek booked a day off and I wrote a letter to David Parker explaining the situation, listing a bunch of items we would need for this epic recording session and true to his word, he ensured everything was available.
It was a ridiculous day. We managed to record no fewer than 11 tracks in around 5 hours if one discounts an hour for dinner and brief breaks. True, some of the stuff was of a basic nature, very short tracks, essentially musical jokes.
The header image above proves that yes, I kept a log of everything we did that day, noting the starting and ending times of each track. In all there was around half an hour of material, most of it with overdubs. As is obvious, we raced through these things so a lot of it was literally done in one take. We were holed up in a cupboard like store room which was soundproofed.
A handful of memories of the day… The morning was devoted to shorter skits, much of it extremely STUPID as the centrepiece of the album was a “Mad Medley” which strung a host of these quickies together. We blazed through them and then at 11:19, in just 8 minutes the most remarkable track was recorded. David Parker owned a Sitar and Derek was keen to use it on the album somewhere. There was just one snag – Derek had never touched a Sitar in his life.
We unpacked it from the case and Derek connected a pickup which he would use on his acoustic guitar for amplification. He plugged the output into his digital delay pedal. That had a stereo output which went direct into the 4 track. He popped on the headphones and told me to run the tape. Over the next three minutes, he plonked away, managing to pluck out some basic kind of a tune. He was treating it all with live effects I couldn’t hear so what I was hearing was pretty boring and rudimentary. He came to a stop, ordered me to rewind the tape and I switched the pedal outputs to tracks 3 and 4 and he went straight into an overdub. When he ended at 11:27, he threw off the headphones with a big smile and exclaimed “that’s the best thing I’ve ever recorded!” He twiddled with the dials on the 4 track then handed me the headphones to listen to what he’d done. It was astonishing. Every note he plucked was looped and sometimes he manipulated it so you had swirly loops slowing down or speeding up. What was most important was it sounded genuinely musical. It took balls and sheer nerve to play something he’d never played before and make something triumphant out of it. Even now, 30 years later, I still enjoy listening to it. Being trippy in nature, we called it “LSD”!
We had a lunch break following that and then came the most memorable part of the day as I wanted to do a LIVE session with Derek’s mate James playing the drums. We had to set everything up in the largest music room and as it was dinner hour, passers by noticed something was obviously gonna happen as there were the drums, guitar amp and me placing microphones in front of them. Problem. Where was the drummer? James and I didn’t quite get along. He was working with Derek as an acoustic duo and got roped in to play on some of my sessions which he did most reluctantly. He’d agreed to help out on this session but decided to hide somewhere in the school in the hope he wouldn’t have to play. So, I had to go off and search for him then frogmarched him to the music room to do his thing.
Then it dawned on me we had a major problem. The school only owned 2 microphones (SM58’s) and I was using them to make this recording. Fine… except I was intent on singing live and there was no way I was gonna be heard. In desperation, I had to plug my headphones into the amplifier’s microphone socket and use those as a microphone! The fact it was going through the same amp as the guitar… well… we were busking all this.
Meanwhile, an audience had assembled in the room. I hadn’t expected this and this made me feel rather intimidated. We were to record 2 numbers – Marc Bolan’s “20th Century Boy” which we all knew and had done some acoustic recordings of a couple of months earlier and a blues thing called “Groovy Blues” which was gonna be completely improvised on the spot. We did the cover first and it went OK except my vocals were inaudible so would have to dub vocals on afterwards.
“Groovy Blues” should had been an embarrassing disaster. My levels were readjusted so I was finally audible and we simply went straight into the thing. It rambled on for nearly 6 minutes during which Derek had to play three solos. What I wasn’t expecting to do was play bottleneck slide solos. The audience sat there bemused by all of this, at one point even clapping along with the beat. Whenever Derek began his bottleneck antics, one could sense some weird kind of hush in the room. He wasn’t playing particularly brilliantly but as he came towards the end of his third solo, he suddenly went mad, screeching and squealing away on the highest parts of the fretboard making this bizarre sound. The audience sat there almost in shock and even James broke into a smile, which trust me, was a rare sight. There we were, three teenagers doing this dumbass crude blues jam and Derek again managed to do something weird that elevated it into something special. As the song ended, he repeated the weird noises, faded it in and out and the audience burst into applause. At that moment, Derek looked across at me and never forgot the look on my face – he said it looked like I was gonna faint as I wasn’t expecting audience approval!
After that, we dubbed on a bass part and the vocals on “20th Century Boy” which we used to open the album. We planned to dub on bass on “Groovy Blues” but decided against it as it had a special vibe about it. What was all the more ridiculous given I’d recorded it using 2 microphones pointed directly at an amp and the other at the drumkit, I managed to get a great sound, capturing the nice room reverb and when mixed properly, one can close one’s eyes and be back in that room and hear what everyone was hearing.
The afternoon saw us racing through a few more tracks which had some peculiar moments and by 15:10, we were done – 11 tracks completed. I mixed them all down 2 days later then spent the next few days editing the album master at home and sure enough, it was completed and ready by June 20th. Apart from Derek, absolutely NOBODY was interested in it.
Yes, the original 4 track tapes still exist…
Listened to today… I dunno. It’s all rather haphazard and clumsy. My singing is bloody awful, some of the jokey tracks are not at all funny, falling into the “pathetic” category BUT it does have a handful of moments like those described above that make it worthwhile. It’s a weird audio snapshot of me as a 16 year old and yes, it does embarrass and bewilder me but at the time, I fully believed in what I was doing and it is what I intended it to be originally – a souvenir of my final days at school.
And you know something? It’s always been my firm belief that music should be FUN. Yes, a lot of what we recorded on this day 30 years ago was lame but one can hear us having fun and I clearly remember the fun and laughs we had recording all this stuff. I also believe that the journey is more important than the destination as that’s where the magic happens. Yes, the end result might be crap but how we get there… God, I could fill a book full of tales of the fun and games we had recording those things. There have been a few periods where I stopped having fun, most notably the idiot punk band I was conned into fronting between 2006 and 2007… in spite of the fact I was miserable in that band, I stupidly and defiantly carried on and the result was by the time I left, I never wanted to do music again. That was an important lesson – the moment something ceases to be fun is the moment to walk away and do something else. You can’t FAKE IT where music is concerned.