INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE
‘Take Up Your Partners’
One morning, in mid-April 1974, I woke up to the sound of the telephone ringing by the bed. I checked the clock, it was 10.30.
“Good morning, John!” Stuart’s bright voice rang out like the sound of a bird at my window. “Today’s a big day!”
It was the first day of my recording sessions with Tony Meehan at Abbey Road Studios.
“Thanks for the wake-up call, Stuart,” I drowsily mumbled. I was still at an age where anything before midday was ‘the crack of dawn’.
“The session starts at two,” Stuart breezed away as I yawned as quietly as I could. “I would suggest you arrive about one forty-five, Patsy and I will see you there around two-thirty, to give Tony time to set everything up.”
“Ok, Stuart, see you then.”
I turned on Kenny & Cash, the breakfast show on Capital Radio, where Everett and Dave would bring in the day with zany chat, brilliant Kenny-created jingles and great music. A fabulously bizarre new record was instantly chiming around my room, Sparks’ This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us. It would within a month be in the UK Top Ten, but as always London’s favourite radio station was the first to play it. This was when it felt so good living in London, ahead of the game, the centre of everything cultural and new, at least to this twenty-one year old. I was about to record my debut album, and listening to amazing new singles like the one Kenny was now raving about, Queen’s Seven Seas of Rhye.
I had a long hot bath and mused about what life may hold over the coming months. Drying off and making myself a lapsang suchong tea, I chose my outfit for the day: a John Michael red woollen cardigan over a dark red silk shirt, grey Oxford bags, grey and red striped tie, maroon slip-ons over silver grey socks. A good look, I thought, for arriving at the studios for my first session, establishing a casual but stylish impression. I sprayed myself liberally with Pino Sylvestre, a cologne I had fallen in love with when I’d rolled around in its clean fresh essence, along with the one-night stand who was wearing it, a few weeks earlier. Dressed in my chosen attire, I checked myself in the full-length mirror and wandered out into the fresh Spring day. I turned the corner into Abbey Road, my heart thumping just a little as I anticipated what lay ahead.
Walking through the gates and up the steps to the studios, I stood for a moment, savouring it. I opened the door and stepped into the beginning of my recording career:
“Hello, my name’s John Howard and I’m -”
“With Tony Meehan and Peter Bown, sir,” the Abbey Road receptionist said efficiently. She ticked her pad and smiled up at me, directing me through the double doors and down the corridor to the door marked ‘Studio 2’. I pushed it open and was met instantly by:
“John!” Tony shouted as I walked into the dimly lit inner sanctum. I glanced around the roomful of tape machines, piles of tape boxes and various lengths of cable hanging from hooks on the soundproofed walls. A dark-haired, Mop Top-fringed chap, in a bright floral shirt and red jeans, looked up from the mixing desk, where he was busily plugging in more cables.
“Very nice to meet you,” he said over black-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose. “I’m looking forward to this!”
“This is Peter Bown, our engineer, John,” Tony said.
“Very good songs, young man,” Peter said approvingly, “a little Beatles with a touch of Bowie and a dash of Coward. Extremely tasty.”
I shook his hand while Tony patted me on the back, looking delighted.
Peter’s reputation preceded him. He was known to have ‘two of the best ears in the business’ and had long been recognised as one of the finest sound engineers in London. Tony had already briefed me on him, telling me Peter had begun working there in 1951, specialising initially in classical recordings, but moving seamlessly into engineering pop sessions in the 1960s. He was acknowledged as being technically responsible for the great sonic qualities of hits by The Hollies, Cilla Black and Gerry & The Pacemakers. George Martin had once referred to Bown as ‘an electronics wizard’, who astonished everyone with the results he achieved using EMI’s then limited four-track equipment.
In 1967, Bown truly came into his own when he engineered Pink Floyd’s groundbreaking album, ‘Piper At The Gates of Dawn’. Produced by former Beatles engineer Norman ‘Hurricane’ Smith, who had actually been taught the art of great engineering by Bown through their years working at the studios together, the album set new electronic and sonic challenges. Smith and Bown, who proved a great team, faced them head on, giving Syd Barrett and the rest of Floyd an album to be proud of, and one considered amongst the best released that year. Especially important to the success of ‘Piper’ was Bown’s enjoyment of experimentation, and his openness to the new sounds and effects the group was trying to create in the studio.
Peter worked on some of The Beatles’ ‘White Album’ in 1968, and a couple of years later he oversaw the infamous strings overdubs on ‘Let It Be’, with the enigmatic Phil Spector sitting beside him – and the ever-present bodyguard patiently waiting outside the studio during the sessions.
In 1971, Bown engineered one of the greatest albums of popular music, Roy Harper’s ‘Stormcock’, which was produced by Peter Jenner. Together, the three men achieved some astonishing results, which regularly had blasted through my headphones that year as I’d sat mesmerised by its genius. The album has been named by Robert Plant as his No.1 favourite L.P. To this day, it’s one of only a few albums I regularly play from start to finish, its four beautiful tracks a testament to inventiveness and experimentation working at its best.
As I stood chatting to Peter, I caught myself thinking how amazed I would have been, growing up in the ‘60s, to think that this legendary man, who had been a part of the some of the greatest creative production teams responsible for records I’d bought and adored in my little bedroom at home, would one day be working on my album.
I was dying to ask Peter all sorts of questions, but the ever-professional Mr Bown politely excused himself with a smile. “Okay, back to work,” he said, and continued to plug in more cables, move a few faders up and down, mumble “Hmm” to himself, take the cables out and plug them in somewhere else. As he busied away, I became aware of the sound of a very jazz-tinged impromptu, not unlike the stuff Jack Bruce had done on his fabulous ‘Songs For A Tailor’ album. I glanced through the control room window and saw a drummer and a bass player jamming away happily together. Tony nodded at me:
“Let me introduce you to the boys,” he said, opening the thick control room door, with its quickly recognisable ‘swish’, and leading me down the staircase I had seen in so many Beatles recording session photos. As I followed Tony across the studio floor, I was struck by how truly huge the room was, something the Beatles Monthly shots hadn’t really captured.
“Hi!” said the drummer from behind his kit, doing a little stick-roll on a cymbal.
“Bob, meet John Howard,” Tony said. “John, this is Bob Henrit.”
“Argent’s drummer?” I asked, wide-eyed.
“Amongst others,” Bob said, and deftly twiddled his drumsticks.
I shook hands with the moustachioed, rather chunky bass player who Tony introduced as Dave Wintaur.
“Nice to meet you, man,” he mumbled and carried on doodling.
“Okay!” Tony said, gently demanding attention, “the first number we’re going to do today is Goodbye Suzie.”
“Good song,” Bob murmured, Dave nodding in agreement.
“I sent the guys your demos, John,” Tony explained. “Okay, if you sit down at the piano and give us a quick run-through of the song?”
The large Steinway Grand felt and sounded wonderful as I tried out a few chords, the bass notes huge and sonorous, and I imagined how many times McCartney must have stroked these keys. I immediately wanted to have a go at Maybe I’m Amazed but instead I launched into Goodbye Suzie, while Bob and Dave began trying out various things as accompaniment. At the end, Tony went through the parts he’d liked and those which he didn’t feel worked, lots of nodding from the boys as he took them through his thought processes, and then he turned to me:
“John, try making your piano less busy. The flourishes you did worked beautifully on the demo, but now we have Bob and Dave accompanying you, and there will be a guitarist adding stuff later, as well as other things we’ll overdub, the simpler you keep your piano, the better it will sound. Try it.”
He came and stood to one side of the piano and leaned into me, watching my hands as I went through it again, coaching the way I played it as we went along… “No, take that out, keep it just chords…don’t slow down going into the chorus, keep the tempo going…that’s better…do a looser Elton John-ish riff in the middle eight…great!”
He stood, rubbed his hands together, and said to the three of us,
“Ok, guys, let’s try another run-through.”
Bob counted us in and I was amazed to hear how much more effective it sounded with me doing less on the piano.
“That’s so much better,” I said, looking at them all.
“Less is more,” Bob murmured, and winked at me.
“It’s what Paul McCartney does all the time, John,” Tony said, “keeps his piano basic, simple and strong, and then adds the decoration with other instruments later. Welcome to proper recording!”
Just then, Peter Bown’s voice boomed over the intercom:
“Just to let you know, John, Stuart and Patsy have arrived and say ‘Hi’.”
I looked up at the window at the top of the stairs and two smiling faces beamed down at us, hands waving happily. I waved back but Tony took no notice, instead rubbing his hands together again:
“OK! Let’s go for one!”
Running up the stairs with a thumbs-up sign, he went back into the control room where I heard Stuart crying out, “Tony! Good afternoon!”. The huge closing door silenced the reply.
Three takes of Goodbye Suzie, with me also singing a guide vocal for the boys, and we had it ‘in the can’.
“That was great!” Tony said into our headphones. “Now, guys, we’re going to try The Flame…and then come up and hear them both.”
I rifled through my lyrics while Bob and Dave put up chord sheets on their music stands, again doodling their way through it and developing it into a gentle jam. This is where I began to feel a little uncomfortable, as I have never been capable of – indeed get no pleasure at all from – just sitting at the piano and ‘having a blast’ through some impromptu bit of musical meandering. My father, on the other hand, loves nothing better. I’ve watched him at his gigs over the years, bouncing off his musical colleagues with pure joy as they all fit into their shared groove and play some unrecognisable bit of freeform jazz. I only feel in my comfort zone when I’m playing a song I’ve either written or routined several times alone beforehand, assured that I know exactly what I’m doing by the time I’m in the studios or at a gig.
Making changes on the spot to Goodbye Suzie, would, you may think, have freaked me out. But, if the structure of a song remains the same, I have a fixed template to work from. It’s the tuneless, infinite jamming which I cannot do. For me, it goes nowhere, results in nothing, and is a waste of my time and effort. I am also probably just a little jealous that I can’t join in the utter shared joy I see on musicians’ faces as they contentedly jam and groove together.
Happily, on this occasion, Tony gently scolded Bob and Dave out of their jam with a “come on guys, time is money,” and I gratefully counted us in and began the classically-influenced piano motif which opens The Flame. It only took us two takes to get it down and then we all went upstairs to hear what we’d done so far.
Stuart and Patsy greeted me as I walked through the door, Patsy kissing me on both cheeks and Stuart warmly shaking hands as I introduced the guys to them.
“Would you like a cup of tea, John?” Patsy asked me.
“That would be great, Patsy, thanks!” I replied, and she disappeared in search of a drinks machine, with Bob calling out jokingly, “that’ll be three sugars in mine, please!”.
“How’s the voice, John?” Stuart said.
“Fine, Stuart!” but my reply was met with Tony adding,
“It doesn’t matter, Stuart, he’s only recording guide vocals today.”
“Still…” Stuart said, almost to himself, as Peter began playing the two tracks we’d recorded up to then.
They sounded really solid. I was struck particularly by how sympatico Bob and Dave were, aware always of what the other was playing, and occasionally almost answering each other’s deft touches with their own. They were also very sympathetic to what I was doing, supporting rather than outplaying me. Dave played a beautiful classically-influenced run during the piano motif breaks on The Flame, perfectly enhancing them, which delighted us all.
A little knock of the mike by Bob’s drumstick during The Flame – about 2 minutes 10 seconds in – caused initial concern, but then everyone agreed it was “texture”, and was completely in time.
“Even when you screw up, it sounds great!” Tony chaffed Bob.
I turned to Stuart for his reaction and he nodded and gave me a thumbs-up, as Patsy returned with my tea.
“No, you’re alright!” Bob joked again at Patsy as she handed it to me, but it sailed over her head.
“Ok, John!” Tony said, “Next up is Missing Key, and I want you to try a completely different approach to this song. I can hear a much slower, simpler ballad than the way it is on your demo.”
“Really?” Stuart said, stepping forward a little.
“Yes, Stuart,” Tony replied firmly, and turning to me said, “Let’s go down to the studio, John, and I’ll show you what I mean.”
I was aware, from the corner of my eye, of Stuart left standing alone, his concern almost tangible as I walked away. I purposely didn’t look back, and followed Tony out, his chatter as we went downstairs dulling my sense of guilt.
On the demo of Missing Key (and the version I’d recorded with Les Reed a few weeks earlier) I had used a florid syncopated piano motif throughout the song, almost like a guitar finger-picking riff. But as I began playing it, Tony stopped me and said he wanted me to just play very simple block chords, no decorative riff at all. And then, in the choruses, he asked me to play an accented beat anticipation thing, a la Golden Slumbers. (He had in fact produced a version of that McCartney song by Apple Records group White Trash in 1969). Finally, he wanted me to start straight in with the vocal, very much like Macca did in Hey Jude. As I fumbled my way through it, unlearning how I’d written it and slowly doing it the way Tony wanted, Bob and Dave began playing along. Once he was happy, Tony asked the three of us to have a run-through before doing a take. It did sound great, and I noticed how I now sang it, unconsciously phrasing the words quite differently from its original version. I smiled at my producer as he ran back up the stairs, thinking, ‘This guy has great ideas.’ I was also impressed by how prepared he obviously was for these sessions.
I was aware, however, of a very worried-looking Stuart standing up at the control-room window, peering down at me, and I saw him move quickly towards Tony when he’d got back in there, with a rather heated discussion obviously following on. Though we could hear nothing, from my vantage point I could see the two men waving their arms about at each other. Tony, however, looked the more insistent, as he made a ‘back off’ gesture to Stuart.
Bob, Dave and I just sat quietly for a few minutes, waiting for the go-ahead from Tony, until, finally, Peter’s voice murmured into our headphones:
“Er – I think we’re ready for a take? Ok, Tony?”
I could hear a mumbled conversation still going on in the background, then, at last, Tony’s cheery voice cut through:
“Yes, sorry lads, minor disagreement in here but – ” – languid laugh – “it’s sorted now…OK, John, count-in please before your vocal. Let’s lay this one down.”
By about 4.30, we had three tracks, at least the piano, bass and drums, done. It seemed a good time to take a quick break. So I, along with Bob and Dave and Stuart and Patsy, trotted downstairs to the famous Abbey Road canteen, leaving Tony and Peter to stay back in the control room to run through what we’d recorded. Even this was, for me, hallowed ground, having seen photos of The Fabs tucking into egg and chips and cups of tea down there. I decided to follow suit, as did we all, and convivially chatted as we ate our British fry-up. Bob and Dave soon began their own discussion about a band they’d seen a few days earlier, and Stuart took the opportunity to lean into me and say quietly,
“Are you happy with how it’s going, John?”
I nodded through my munching, took a sip of tea and said, as enthusiastically as I could muster,
“Yes, very. Are you?”
Stuart did a ‘not sure’ with his head, looked at Patsy, who shrugged but stayed silent, then he sailed in:
“Goodbye Suzie and The Flame sound great, John, don’t you think so, Patsy?”
Still remaining silent, she nodded. “But…what has Tony done to Missing Key?”
I knew this was coming, but feigned surprise:
“I love Missing Key! I think Tony’s actually improved it. It’s very Beatles now.”
“It’s not the same though, is it, John?” Patsy put in.
“And you’re not The Beatles, you’re John Howard,” Stuart continued with moral support now confirmed from at least one of us.
“Your beautiful piano playing,” Patsy added, “he’s taken it away from Missing Key, John. Such a shame.”
“Les loved that motif of yours,” Stuart said, shaking his head.
At which point, whether he’d overheard the conversation, or was just calling time, Bob said,
“Ok, chaps, back to work I think!”
We all trooped up to Studio 2, and as we entered the control room and Stuart and Patsy moved towards the sofa, Tony looked at them and said,
“Oh! You’re staying, are you?”
“Well, yes, Tony,” Patsy said defiantly. “Of course we are. Another tea, John?”
“Christ, John. Those two are driving me crazy.”
Tony and I were back down in the studio about to start work on Gone Away. I walked over to the piano and sat down.
“I know, Tony.”
“We have to have a chat.”
Tony winked at me and then, clapping his hands, said:
“OK. Bob and Dave, you’re with us until six o’clock – yes, guys?” They nodded. “So we’ll get another track down now, and then…” he looked at his watch, “the studio’s booked until eight o’clock…so I want to spend a couple of hours going through some keyboard overdubs with you on your own, John.”
We all nodded.
“Now, Gone Away…again, John – sorry about this! – I want to change the feel of the song from the way you played it to me a few weeks ago.”
It had been the brand new song I’d just written when Tony had made his bizarre visit to The Reids at their home a few weeks earlier. He’d recorded my sitting-room performance on his cassette player, benignly smiling through Stuart’s acclamations. I now sat there wondering just how much he wanted to change a song so dear to Stuart’s heart.
It had been written as a kind of Burt Bacharach mid-tempo rhythmic pop ballad, with a similar feel to Carole King’s 1971 hit It’s Too Late. However, Tony had quite different ideas for it:
“Slow the song right down, John, use that intro motif you’ve got but also do it much slower, that’s it, and then just play simple block chords as the guys accompany you. I have some overdub ideas I’ll run by you later, but for now, just play the chords.” I did a run-through, with Tony quietly telling me as I went along, “No, even slower, John…slower still, that’s it.”
My main concern was how rangy the song was, especially in the choruses, and I wondered if my voice could cut the mustard with this new slowed-down arrangement. But, after we’d tried a full run-through together, Tony seemed very happy and told us to get ready for a take.
As I played the intro, I could see out of the corner of my eye Stuart staring down at me, his puzzled expression saying everything that was going through his mind. Three takes later, we’d got it, and all climbed the stairs to the control room, where Stuart was in bits:
“John! What have you done to my song?” he cried as I walked in. “It’s completely different!” He looked beside himself, pacing up and down behind Peter’s chair. “And there’s no way you can sing it like that, it sounds terrible!”
He threw out his arms, looking round the room for support. Instead, Tony shouted across the room:
“Stuart, please! Don’t have a go at John, any problems, discuss them with me – later!”
Patsy shuffled in her seat and Stuart, crestfallen, sat down. I went over to them and said quietly,
“It’ll be fine, don’t worry. It’ll be absolutely fine.”
“Jesus, I hope you’re right,” Stuart mumbled.
Thankfully, the track suddenly blasted in as Peter hit play and the new re-structured Gone Away filled the room. It did sound good, though, yes, my vocal, which was straining to hit some of the higher, now much more sustained, notes would need some work.
“Great take,” Peter said as the track ended.
“Fabulous!” Tony agreed.
Bob and Dave simultaneously applauded, Bob winking at me and mouthing “Great!”.
While, behind us, Stuart and Patsy were on the move:
“OK, gentlemen!” Stuart said as amiably as he could, “we’ll be going. We have a dinner engagement this evening. Well played everyone! See you tomorrow!”
I followed them out, and, bidding farewell in the corridor, grabbed Stuart’s arm:
“It’s only a guide vocal, Stuart, don’t worry.”
“But, that beautiful song, John, it’s…well, you seem relaxed about it, so we’ll see.”
I watched them walking away wondering what else I could say. They looked like parents who’d just lost a child. As I went back into the control room, the very walls seemed to be sighing with relief.
“Well, that was eventful,” Peter said, still twiddling knobs and faders.
Tony was shaking his head, but, even so, everyone seemed in good spirits. We all listened again to the four songs we’d recorded that day, with lots of approving nods around the room.
“Great day’s work, guys!” Tony shouted, and shook Bob and Dave’s hands, as did I, thanking them both. As they left for the night, Tony turned to me:
“You happy to try some piano overdubs, John?”
For the next couple of hours, Tony took me through various overdub ideas he had, mainly on Missing Key and Gone Away. The first song needed just a doubling of my Golden Slumbers piano in the choruses, which he would pan left and right, and a simple lilting right-hand overlay to the chords in the verses. I also doubled what I’d played on the grand piano, on an electric keyboard, which Peter set up for me. Happy with the results, we moved onto Gone Away. For this, Tony had some very adventurous additions in mind. First of all, he wanted me to play an arpeggio rise and fall motif in the intro and verses and then double the piano chords in the choruses, so he could again pan both takes. Then, happy with that, he called Peter down again and asked him to roll the mellotron over to the middle of the room.
It was a huge wooden unwieldy thing, and Peter huffed and puffed it from the far corner of the studio. Once it was in place, Tony asked him,
“Do you know how we get a harpsichord on it?”
Peter looked mystified,
“Don’t ask me, I’m just the engineer!”
“Don’t be so modest, Mr Piper At The Gates!”
With a mock “shucks”, Peter came over and very quickly showed me how to find various samples, finally picking a yellowing button marked ‘H-chord’. As he pressed it, there began a deep rumble from inside the contraption, I could feel the wooden frame vibrating, followed by a loud whirring and then a heavy ‘clunk!’. Peter explained it was locating the correct tapes sample, and – hey presto! – when he played a couple of keys a harpsichord rang out.
“Very Lucy In The Sky!” I shouted, thrilled.
“Well, it is the same mellotron The Beatles used on ‘Pepper’ and Strawberry Fields,” Peter said, smiling at my open-mouthed wonder. “The rest is up to you, my boy.” He chuckled and went back upstairs.
“Peter?” Tony called out, “I need a pair of headphones so I can go through it with John while the track is playing.”
“Behind you, over that mike stand in the corner,” Peter called from the top of the staircase, and disappeared into the studio.
As the track played, Tony ran me through what he wanted me to do, literally doubling the arpeggios on the harpsichord which I’d just laid down on the piano. After two run-throughs, he ran back upstairs, and Peter asked me if I was ready. I looked up at the window and nodded and the track count-in started.
The harpsichord was ringing out in my ears, it sounded great. At the end, Tony shouted “Fantastic!” and then, “Now find ‘strings’ on it, John.” I located the button, pressed it, and voila, after more whirring, thumping and bumping, I was an orchestra.
“Now, give me a strings chordal wash in the middle eights and choruses, John.”
When the middle eight arrived I played the mellotron and nearly wept at how beautiful it sounded.
“That’s it, John! You’re done! Well done!”
I took off my headphones and just sat for a couple of minutes, absorbing my first day in the studios. With a huge sigh, I climbed the stairs and was met by a big hug from Tony.
“That was really great, John!”
“Yes, congratulations, young man!” Peter said, lining up the track so I could hear what I’d just recorded.
As the track played through, Tony nodded at me and put his hand on my shoulder. I was finding it hard not to burst into tears.
Leaving the studios into a warm April evening, Tony asked me if we could meet up a little earlier the following day:
“There’s a little wine bar just a few doors from here, can you meet me there at about 12.30 tomorrow?”
“No problem, see you then.”
I walked round the corner to my flat, thrilled with how the recording had gone, but also aware that there was an interesting conversation on the cards before tomorrow’s session began. I slept like a log that night.
I awoke much earlier the next day, had a long bath and took my time freshening up as I drank my tea. Seeing how casually everyone else was dressed the day before, save for Peter’s floral shirt, I decided to dress down a little, and chose a white cotton shirt, jeans and a cream sweater slung over my shoulders a la Audrey Hepburn as my ensemble. I was just about to leave when the phone rang. It was Stuart.
“How did it go last night, John?”
“Great, Stuart. Really good.”
“Look forward to hearing it all! See you about 2.30!”
I walked briskly along Abbey Road to the wine bar many of the studio engineers and staff used for their break-times. It was another lovely April Spring day, and the scene, as I strolled past the studio building where I would be recording in a couple of hours’ time, reminded me of the Beatles album sleeve featuring this now-famous road, with its blue skies, a line of trees and a sense that all was well in the world. I’d just heard the Eurovision winner’s record, Abba’s Waterloo, on Capital Radio. They were a new name to me, and while I thought it was unlikely they would have another hit – most of the non-British contest winners were briefly successful one-hit wonders in the UK – their single had, for all that, just smashed into the Top 20 and looked set to top the charts. The record’s bright clean joyful sound reflected how the air felt that day.
Tony was sitting at a table outside the café when I arrived and greeted me with a hug and his always welcome languid chuckle.
“Would you like something to eat, John?” he asked, but I demurred, never eating before a recording session or a gig. I did say yes to a drink, though, expecting it to be a coffee. He returned a few minutes later with a glass of port.
“For me?” I asked, surprised.
“The best thing for your voice, John. I know you’re not doing your vocals for a day or two yet, but this will always help before any singing.”
I sipped it and had to admit its warm richness felt very good. Tony smiled as I drank it down:
“The worst thing you can have before any singing is a cup of tea.”
I knew it was a dig at Patsy, who had been constantly getting me fresh supplies of the stuff during the session the previous day:
“She means well, Tony.”
“I know, but this brings me neatly to what I wanted to discuss with you…”
“Stuart and Patsy.”
He chuckled again. “I know they’re fond of you, and I respect the feeling is mutual from your point of view – ”
“But, they really must stop coming to the studios for hours on end, sitting there, judging, tutting, gasping and jumping up and down at things they don’t like. Stuart is forever going into a mad panic everytime you do anything he doesn’t like.”
“I’ve seen him staring through the window at me a couple of times – ”
“Several times, John, happily you don’t always see him, you’re rightly too engrossed in what you’re doing, but, quite frankly, it’s driving me – and Peter – absolutely nuts.”
“So…what can we do?”
“Well, I am quite happy to speak to Stuart about it, but I think it would be more kindly delivered if it came from you.” I began to speak but he held up his hand. “However, if you’re unhappy to do that, then I will speak to him, but I will be extremely firm with him. Patsy already doesn’t like me, but after what I have to say to them, they’ll both probably hate me! But that’s fine. I’m not trying to win a popularity contest.”
“Leave it with me, Tony, I’ll have a word with them, quietly, on our own, tempt them down to the canteen at some point.”
“They can come to the studio, of course they can, but only every couple of days, and just stay for an hour or so. They must stop this all-day attendance. I’m ready to snap, so is Peter. Doesn’t it drive you crazy?”
Truth be told, I’d got used to it, the Reids’ constant overseeing of my life, and it had been very welcome when I’d first arrived on my own in London, they’d become like second parents to me. But I could see how annoying such constant showing of affection and the chaperoning would be for others.
My glass of port finished, we made our way to the studios where we were recording four more tracks that day. Tony chatted about it as we went along, he wanted us to do Family Man, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Deadly Nightshade and Spellbound. That would leave two more tracks to do, and for those he told me he had an interesting concept which he would talk to me about soon.
We were just routining Family Man when Stuart and Patsy arrived upstairs, smiles and waves through the window, and a sinking feeling in my stomach about the conversation I would have with them later.
It was a relatively straightforward track to do, Tony didn’t have any changes to the way I’d done it on the demo, at least not at that stage. We then did Spellbound, its jazz-tinged feel a big favourite with Bob and Dave, who grooved along beautifully as I played the rather complex chordal run-downs. We went up to listen to what we’d done, everyone all smiles and handshakes, kisses from Patsy, Tony doing his best to move things along from a chatty social occasion, and glancing at me when I was offered the usual “cup of tea, John?”.
“No thanks, Patsy, I’ve got a glass of water down there. I’m fine.”
“Okay! Deadly Nightshade next!” Tony said, clapping his hands, and off we trotted to do three takes of it.
Over the intercom, Tony said,
“I’m coming down to chat with you about the next song, John.”
That meant changes. And to Guess Whose Coming To Dinner, the song which, in its original form, had turned Stuart onto me all those months ago. I knew this would be major and likely to cause a terrible ruction.
At the piano, Tony explained that he wanted to give the song a much more ethereal dark vibe, rather than the camp Noel Coward-esque way I’d done it on the demo (and had always done it since I’d written it in 1973).
“Keep the camp, just make it more sinister,” Tony said, smiling.
He didn’t want me to play the grand piano on it at all, preferring the electric piano. And – I knew this would be an anathema to Stuart – he suggested:
“I know this is only as guide vocal, John, but try doing it with less of the Bowie-ish Hunky Dory effeteness, use more of a gutsy style, stretching the lyrics out, less clipped in their delivery. It’s great fun, the way you did it on the demo, but I want more depth vocally.”
So, instead of “And Flash just flew past my window” delivered in perfect Coward Englishness, he wanted me to lengthen ‘Flash’, with more of an American sound to it. As Bob hit the cymbal on the following beat, I doubled that accent on the piano, as did Dave on the bass, so it went “And Fla-a-a-sh” – accent – “ just flew past my windo-o-w” – accent. As the three of us went through it in this radically new style, I saw Stuart, while not flying past, but certainly rushing to the window, almost banging on it, looking completely distraught.
“Oh God,” Tony muttered.
“I will talk to him,” I said quietly.
“Please, John, do.”
As soon as Tony had gone upstairs and Peter told us the tape was running, Bob quickly counted us in and we were off, no time to worry about what was going on in the room above us. For now, that was Tony’s problem.
I actually felt sorry for Stuart when we arrived in the control room to hear the takes back. As Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner played, he looked anguished and bereft. I went and stood with him and smiled at Patsy, mouthing “It’ll be fine!”. It was becoming my studio mantra to The Reids. Neither looked at all convinced.
“OK,” Tony called out, “time for a break while Peter and I do some tidying up, so, people, relax for half an hour!”
This was my cue to invite Stuart and Patsy down to the canteen, while Bob and Dave, perhaps put in the picture earlier by Tony, stayed in the control room.
Stuart ordered us egg and chips and cups of tea, and we sat down together in a thankfully otherwise empty room. Before I’d even asked him what he thought, Stuart began:
“John, what is Tony doing to our songs?”
“You don’t like what we’re doing?” I asked innocently.
I knew the answer but wanted to tread carefully.
“Some of the tracks are great, I love Suzie and The Flame, and Family Man sounds good, Spellbound, Deadly Nightshade, fine, but Missing Key, Gone Away and Guess, Tony is completely changing them…”.
“And not for the better,” Patsy added.
“They’re not the songs I fell in love with, John,” her husband continued.
I had to grasp this argument and pull it back:
“There’s still a lot of work to do on them all, they’re in their very early stages, nowhere near finished.”
Glances between The Reids spoke volumes, but I had to continue:
“And this is what I need to speak to you both about…”.
I looked at them as affectionately as I could, and took a deep breath:
“I know you both care deeply about this album, and the songs – as do I – but, well, is it possible that you could let Tony just get on with it…and by that I mean…” I mentally ducked from the oncoming flak… “not come in so often?…”
Stuart then took me completely by surprise:
“You’ve taken the words out of my mouth, John.”
I sat up as Stuart smiled back at me:
“Patsy and I were only talking about this last night, weren’t we, darling?” Patsy nodded. “I think we – Patsy and I – should back off and let you, Tony and Peter get on with it. Then, when it’s all done and dusted, we can make our minds up if we’re happy with the results. I know what I think about some of them already, but, let’s give Tony the benefit of the doubt at this stage.”
Feeling a mixture of utter relief and stunned shock, with that sense, after a frank discussion, that a tangible tension had evaporated, I could hear the relief in my voice as I said,
The Reids continued to smile at me as I searched for words:
“I mean, by all means, come in every couple of days and have a listen – ”.
“Oh we will, John,” Stuart said.
I looked at Patsy who was blinking at me. Stuart patted my arm:
“I don’t enjoy conflict anymore than you do. But, after all, we are paying Tony. And by that, I mean me and you, John.” He looked at me very seriously for a few seconds and then got up. “OK, enjoy the rest of the session. Call us in the morning to let us know how it went. We’ll pop by in a couple of days.”
The two of them looked back and, with a wave at the door, left me sitting alone, wondering if what had just happened was a dream.
When I returned to the studio minus Stuart and Patsy, Tony gave me a quizzical look, and I replied with a thumbs-up. He mouthed “OK?” and I nodded. But, in truth, I felt that I’d let them down, the two people who had supported me – in more ways than one – so steadfastly through the previous few months. But I knew it was the right thing for this situation. Tony, Peter and I could now get on with what we were there for, with a clear path ahead.
Copyright John Howard 2017