Fame, Part 8: The Conclusion (…or is it?)
So I have to admit to being nervous in the studio. Going into the studio is stressful enough, knowing that Hugo was going to be the drummer was sufficient to send me to the toilet for bowel movements and…Oh, did I mention that we would be recording at the BBC studios in Abbey Road and that in the studio’s reception you get to see the original tape machines the Beatles recorded with?
Pretty frikkin’ awesome n’est pas?
We met up in London and the first major surprise was when Hugo showed up and was introduced to us all. Maybe some/many of you aren’t familiar with Gang of 4’s music or how they looked. Hugo on-stage was this huge skinhead bearing a malevolent scowl that dared you to look him in the eyes. He was every inch the archetypal neo-nazi, neanderthal thug, except of course he was a socialist and was far from a thug. I couldn’t believe that this friendly, mild mannered and very well-spoken gentleman was actually Hugo. His civilised nature was further reinforced when he and I agreed to go to the off-licence to buy some beers for the session. I selected enough Stella lager to keep the lot of us going whilst Hugo engaged the shop owner in a conversation about the most acceptable Chardonnay on offer, anything in the region of £!0 to £15 a bottle would be fine apparently.
Hugo Burnham, wine connoisseur, who would have thought it?
We returned to the studio to be greeted by a horrible caterwauling noise. It was an unearthly racket yet some of the words I seemed to recognize. It was Hilary and her two chums warming up their vocal chords.
Simon’s eyes met mine, Hugo looked vaguely uncomfortable whilst Herbert, chilled as ever noodled something Sowetan on his bass. None of us said it but I know we were thinking the same thing; “these girls cannot ****** sing.”
What followed was horrendous. An endless series of re-takes, overdubs and desperate attempts to rescue something from the musical abyss we had descended into. In the end both band and engineer agreed that we had achieved as much as we were going to and left it at that. Four songs, none of which I would be proud to have my name associated with were duly dispatched to the BBC for transmission.
Two weeks later Kid J played the session and it was only then that I realized how truly abysmal it was…no, reminded me since I had done my best to erase the whole fiasco from my mind.
How bad was it? Let’s put it this way, Kid made no comment after playing the first three tracks at intervals during the show, and after the fourth all he could say was; “Well that was Heartbeat, at least they’ve got some interesting song titles.”
I could have died with shame.
I parted company with Heartbeat a little while later and joined Edinburgh band The Twinsets.
The Twinsets were fronted by two peroxide-blonde, Amazon-like femmes. The girls, sisters Gaye & Rachel were huge. Totally feminine, perfectly proportioned but when they had their hair sufficiently tall and wild they absolutely towered over you…and their demeanor wasn’t exactly demure. The girls liked a drink, more accurately they liked several drinks washed down by several more. A review of the band once stated that “these girls could drink a German trawler crew under the table,”…and they could. The band’s drummer was the girls’ father Norman, who was notable mainly for the regularity with which he sank into the blackest of depressions. These depressive spells rendered him practically catatonic and could strike at any moment, including midway through a gig where he would whisper to a band-mate..”I can’t go on.” It took a lot of gentle handling to keep him going. The Twinsets had garnered quite a lot of local interest, a loyal fan-base and
attracted some attention from record companies down south.
Quite how John Peel got to hear about us though I don’t know, but anyway one day our ‘manager’ announced that the Beeb had offered us a session on the Peel show.
I had joined the band some six months previously, after leaving The Flowers/Heartbeat and wasn’t seen as an improvement by some of the group’s longer serving fans. One of the attractions of pre-me Twinsets gigs was that you never knew what was going to happen next, whether the band would manage to show up, complete the gig with a drummer or if Gaye and/or Rachel would offer some heckler on-stage for a fight.
We once played Saughton Prison in Edinburgh…now this wasn’t a gig for the faint hearted and there were some serious villains in there. Inevitably as soon as we came on the girls caught the inmates’ attention and there were inevitable calls for the girls to “get ’em off”, that and much worse.
To Gaye and Rachel’s great credit they gave as good as they got, taunted and barracked the prisoners back (much to the discomfort of the prison guards who must have thought that a riot was going to kick off) and we left to a good ovation.
Musically the Twintubs (as they were affectionately nicknamed) were…****** abysmal to be honest. Stylistically they aimed for a punk’d- up 60’s garage vibe, in actual fact they were just a car crash…but they were fun. Some fans believed that when I joined, the fun kinda stopped, you know, songs started and ended where they should, the band became much tighter and professional…you know the kind of stuff most other bands aim for….but this wasn’t the Twinsets that so many had come to love. To them I’d say…you didn’t have to play with them and put up with the carnage pre and post gig and I make no apology!
Born John Ravenscroft, John Peel was an unprepossessing figure. He had previously hosted a late night radio program called Perfumed Garden and played all that was best / worst from the world of progressive rock and hippydom. He was largely ignored by even the majority of BBC radio listeners and his cause wasn’t aided by a laid-back laconic style which may have suited the laid-back sound of America’s west coast but it didn’t exactly make you want to….do much at all to be honest.
The events of 1976 in England, by which I mean punk, changed all that.
Peel, in his highly readable autobiography (sadly this had to be completed by his wife, since John died suddenly after a short illness.) stated that by 1975 he was becoming tired of the ever increasingly irrelevant crap he was being asked to play by his audience and ever more frustrated at how rock in its myriad forms, was rapidly disappearing up its own ass. He had grown bored of musicianship for musicianship’s sake….as had a significant number of disaffected people sitting at home.
When punk first showed its acne’d face, Peel was one of its early champions. He would play home-pressed vinyl sent to him by hard-pressed punk bands…anyone from as near as the kids around the corner to bands from as far away as Lands End and John O’Groats, they could all count on getting at least one play on his show, and Peel developed a special affinity for The Fall who he saw as the personification of punk’s ‘do-it-yourself, stay true to yourself’ attitude. He didn’t restrict himself to punk of course; he opened his listeners up to World Music and reggae too.
It was quite usual to have Joe Gibbs’ Africa Dub Chapter 3 following ATV’s “You Bastard’ this having been preceded by a track by The Drummers of Burundi…it was an eclectic mix.
Peel recognized that some bands who sent him demo tapes didn’t have the funds to record their own singles yet showed sufficient merit to be given a helping hand. Other bands sent him singles he loved so much he played them endlessly (Undertones ‘Teenage Kicks’ for example.) He came up with the obvious, and genius idea of offering certain bands free studio time at the BBC’s Maida Vale recording studios and featuring the resultant sessions on his show. The list of bands who recorded sessions for him is a who’s- who of the era and often featured bands at their creative peak.
By the time we were offered the session we were about as tight as we were going to get and had started to do gigs down south and be…you know a proper group going places, even if those places were invariably desolate conurbations such as Preston. (Historical note, Paul Simon wrote ‘Homeward Bound’ on Preston railway station.)
The BBC in addition to giving free studio time also supplied a professional sound engineer ****** producer, less through altruism than for fear of letting oiks like ourselves loose on extremely expensive recording equipment. We found out that the engineer for our session was to be Dale Griffin, aka Buffin from Mott The Hoople…****** hell! He was even more famous than Hugo!
Now as I’m certain you’re all aware, one of Mott’s biggest hits was a cover of Bowie’s ‘All The Young Dudes,’ a song they made their own and instantly recognizable from the opening lead guitar line. During one rehearsal I said to my fellow Twinsets; “Wouldn’t it be witty to play that guitar line on one of my takes?” I was only semi-serious. The rest of the band turned on me as one. They informed me that it was probably the most predictable, lame thing anyone could possibly do and made me swear on all things holy that I WOULD NOT play “All The Young Dudes” at ANY stage during the session.
Well, what can I say?
Over the course of a long day we laid down five surprisingly good tracks thanks to the band actually being on top form, Norman on industrial-strength anti-depressants and a remarkably sympathetic engineer who actually seemed to grasp the sound we were looking for, got it and then didn’t **** about. We were nearly done, just one small guitar overdub and we’d be finished.
As I stood there alone in the recording booth I awaited the count-in for the track and my cue to add that last little bit of guitar…and when the moment came….Yup…’All The Young Dudes.’ (Clumsily played admittedly, but still recognizable.) I looked up at the window where engineer and band were watching me and gave them what was intended to be a cheery, cheeky smile…one that froze rapidly. The girls shot me a look of pure malice, drummer and bassist shook their heads sadly and Buffin’s head slumped to the mixing desk.
They were NOT amused! I don’t think anyone actually spoke to me for a good half-hour afterwords.
I have to admit it was cheesy, confess that it was woefully predictable but hell, it HAD to be done!
Peel played the session and was extremely complimentary. The Twinsets joined John’s small list of fave bands and were later invited up to do another session. I had left the band by this time having ‘got serious’ with a girl who would become my wife. I’m not saying that my future spouse gave me an ultimatum exactly, but it became clear as the band spent more and more time either practicing or playing gigs in ever more far-flung places that it inevitably became a choice between the band and her.
I chose domesticity over the chaotic uncertainty of life with the Twinsets and in the ensuing years seldom regretted my choice. Now divorced of course I look back and wonder, what if I HAD stuck with them?
That and… “oh, is that it?”
Coming soon…television and the art of hiding behind sofas.
Nick Haines July 31, 2011