INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE
“Cue Dream Sequence”
After we’d recorded the first eight tracks of the album with Bob Henrit and Dave Wintaur in Abbey Road’s Studio 2, I spent the next four days recording the vocals, some of them in the smaller, more intimate Studio 3. There were still two more tracks to be done to complete the album, but Tony had an idea for those which would not include the usual piano, drums and bass basic backing we’d had so far.
For the big ballads, Goodbye Suzie, Gone Away, The Flame and Missing Key, he chose Studio 2 for me to do the vocals. He felt its spaciousness would add to the drama, the vastness, of the songs. For the more uptempo pop numbers, Family Man, Deadly Nightshade, Spellbound and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, we used Studio 3. It had a boxy comfy feel about it and probably added to the dry sound he wanted on those numbers.
Most of the time, it was just Tony Meehan, engineer Peter Bown and me, along with the tape op, with my manager Stuart and his wife Patsy only popping in every couple of days for one or two hours, and throughout sitting quietly listening. They had taken on board my request to keep their visits to a minimum, and it meant we could concentrate on getting each vocal right without Stuart panicking every time I sang a bum note.
I did walk into the control room one afternoon during a minor disagreement, after I’d done the first lead vocal for Gone Away. Tony was patiently explaining to a worried-looking Stuart how we were going to approach these sessions:
“John isn’t Tom Jones or Des O’Connor, Stuart, doing a song all the way through for us to applaud at the end at how great he is. He isn’t a cabaret spot. This is modern recording in a state-of-the-art studio with a recording artist of today. We’re using the latest technology we have to get the best results possible for a hopefully exciting new album.”
“But he went wrong so many times, his pitching -”
“Will be fine. He’s getting the verses done now, which sound pretty great to me, then, when those are perfected, we’ll tackle the choruses and middle eight. They’re particularly taxing vocally so we’ll drop in and then work on them in isolation until they’re perfect.”
Peter turned round in his chair:
“If you’d heard the early stages of Beatles tracks on things like Pepper and the White Album, you’d have been amazed at how rough and unfinished they sounded.”
“Exactly,” Tony added, nodding at Stuart.
“And things have advanced much more since then,” Peter continued. “We get each section done and dusted before we move onto the next, overdubbing and doing retakes where we need to. Like a jigsaw.”
“It’s part of the fun of recording now, Stuart. The whole performance doesn’t have to be done in one take all the way through anymore.”
“But John is first and foremost a performer,” Stuart continued to protest, “that’s what impressed me so much when I first saw him!” He looked over at me as if trying to get me to recall that evening, just a few months ago.
“On stage, yes, Stuart,” Tony replied. “I’m sure John’s great. But here, with me and Peter, he’s a recording artist, and the two are entirely different animals.” He looked at me, his expression one of exasperation masked in a benign smile. “John, do you want to hear what you’ve just done and we’ll go through it together?”
He put his hand on my shoulder as the tape started, speaking quietly to me as a section he wanted me to redo came up:
“There, that line, you can do that much better…and there, just a couple of lines could be crisper, but apart from that, John, it’s fantastic.”
Then, smiling broadly at me, he said,
“OK, do you want to try those sections again?”
I nodded, smiled over at Stuart who still looked unconvinced, and went back down the stairs, put on my headphones, stood at the mike and waited for the right parts to be spun through to me. Two attempts later Tony’s delighted voice rang into my ears:
“Perfect!” he shouted. “Now. We’ll have a go at that pesky middle eight….”
The part I loved the most about recording was the double-tracking. I’d enjoyed the process ever since I’d recorded home demos on my Grundig tape recorder as a teenager, overdubbing my voice onto a lead vocal, and trying to get the second voice as tight in time with the first as I could. Their brilliant double-tracked vocals was what had first impressed me about Lennon and McCartney, true masters of it. My attempts at being as good as them had obviously been great practice. As I went through the sections Tony wanted double-tracked, I heard him whistle into my headphones:
“I’m going to call you D.T King in future, John. That was amazing. So synchronised!”
I then heard Stuart’s overjoyed voice in the control room:
“John has always been fabulous at double-tracking!”
“We’re all very happy, John,” Tony said, adding that languid laugh of his.
He wanted me to triple-track the choruses on Gone Away and Goodbye Suzie, which he thought should sound “huge!”, and so I got to work on that, loving the sound of three JH’s singing in unison in my headphones! It’s a sound I have never tired of creating.
When I went back into the control room, Stuart was now beaming:
“Brilliant, John! That sounded so great, didn’t it Patsy?”
Patsy blinked across the room at me, stood, kissed me on both cheeks and said,
“We’ll leave you to get on with it now, John. It sounds fabulous!”
As they left, Tony grinned over at me, shaking his head.
The vocals for the eight songs were completed as planned in the four days allocated, so, over the following week or so, Tony began bringing in the extra musicians he wanted on the tracks: a saxophone combo for Goodbye Suzie, Deadly Nightshade and Spellbound and a solo sax part on The Flame; a guitarist for several of the tracks; an accordionist for Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and a moog synthesiser on Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Family Man. For that he booked Rod Argent – so I now had two members of his band Argent on my album!
I was fascinated watching Tony down in Studio 2, singing the parts he’d arranged in his head to the various musicians, ‘blahhing’ away the sax parts to the four players, air-guitar playing his parts to a terrific guitarist whose name I now have sadly forgotten, and humming the accordion parts – which came after the choruses on Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, unsurprisingly following the line ‘And I’ll play my accordion like all accordions should be played’ – to a sweet little man who looked extremely tiny and rather lost down in the vastness of Studio 2, as he played Tony the parts he’d been given beautifully.
Then it was time for Rod Argent, who arrived full of beans and energy. I was struck by his sparkling eyes, and the intelligent way he listened to whoever was speaking to him, almost soaking in what they were saying, enthusiastically nodding as he listened. Tony first of all played him Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and told Rod he wanted “spooky”. Rod looked at the floor and listened intently, before glancing up at me and giving me a ‘perfect’ finger-and-thumb circle:
“Great song!” he said. “Well done, man! Did you write it?”
“Clever guy! It’s a sort of comic-book song.”
“Exactly, Rod!” Tony said. “So think cartoon sound affects, weird motifs, ghostly accompaniment.”
“OK! Let’s give it a go!” and Rod was off down the stairs where Peter had just positioned his moog for him.
“Can I sit down there and watch Rod?” I asked Peter.
“Of course! There are plenty of headphones hung up around the room, pick any pair.”
Listening to Tony’s instructions through the ‘phones, and watching Rod trying out various sounds and effects, as Guess blasted through, was fascinating. It was a real blast watching him pull cheeky little faces as he tweaked various fun sounds out of his keyboard, winking and grinning at each new effect, like a little boy who’d found a new toy, occasionally glancing over at me to see if I approved. I must have resembled a nodding dog.
I still remember the delight on Rod’s face when he first played the squealing ‘flying’ sound which goes through the choruses, and Tony’s delighted “Yes!” through our headphones as he played it.
Then it was onto Family Man, and Rod quickly came up with a great swooping accompaniment, recording that in just two or three takes. As the synth did its thing, a backing vocal motif came into my head in the choruses, a sort of counter-melody to the lead vocal. So when Rod had listened to his work and gone away satisfied, I sang the motif in my head to Tony:
“Go and do it!” he said.
So off I trotted, pulled on a pair of headphones and quickly recorded a double-tracked ‘Oh I am a Family Man’ countermelody to the chorus vocal, followed by a falsetto ‘Aaah!’ through the second half.
“Fantastic, John!” Tony shouted in my ears, “I’m coming down!”
As he arrived at the mike he said:
“Play me Deadly Nightshade, please, Peter, I’ve been hearing some backing vocals in the verses and choruses on that one.”
He smiled at me and gave me a thumbs-up, mouthing “It’s sounding great!”.
Deadly Nightshade suddenly blasted into our ears. Tony put his arm over my shoulder to pull me into the mike with him and sang a couple of “Ooh-ooh-ooh’s” on the verses. I loved it, it was very Motown. So we recorded those together, and tried a few things out in the choruses too. Happy, Tony took off his headphones and beckoned me up the stairs to have a listen to what we’d done. And there we had it, eight tracks virtually completed.
We broke for a drink and a snack at the local wine bar in Abbey Road, where Peter, Tony and I discussed what was next as we tucked into our cheese and salad baguettes. Sipping his small beer, Tony said,
“I have a chap called Harry Gold coming round to my flat tomorrow, John, to talk about him doing some arrangements for Maybe Someday In Miami and Kid In A Big World. Do you know him?”
I didn’t, but immediately Peter’s face lit up:
“Harry Gold’s Pieces of Eight!”
“That’s right! One of the really successful Dixieland jazz combos in the ‘40s and ‘50s, always on the wireless. Harry’s in his sixties now, of course, but I met him the other evening by chance and he’s a really lovely guy, and so musical. I want him to do a kind of Dixieland Palm Court Orchestra-style arrangement, and have his band play on those two songs.”
“I may have worked with him years ago,” Peter said, mulling over his beer.
“So, it’ll be like old times,” Tony quipped.
Peter arched an eyebrow:
“Less of the ‘old’!”
The following day, as we waited for him to arrive at the flat, Tony told me about Harry, who’d played saxophone in a band led by Oscar Rabin in the late 1930s. When Rabin told him he needed more variety to broaden its appeal, Harry offered him ‘a band within a band’ – and this became Harry Gold’s Pieces Of Eight.
On the day war ended, Harry was in Paris with the Services’ entertainment troupe, Ensa, one of a group of musicians asked to broadcast to a home audience from the grounds of the British Embassy. The Pieces Of Eight regularly appeared on the Music While You Work radio show, and the band had many big-name admirers, including Hoagy Carmichael, who invited them to accompany him on tour in 1948.
Harry also freelanced as an arranger for the BBC, sometimes collaborating with Norrie Paramor, the producer of early ‘60s hits for Cliff Richard, Billy Fury, Helen Shapiro and Frank Ifield.
With that foreknowledge, I viewed Harry quite differently as I shook his hand when he walked into Tony’s sitting-room on that early summer’s day, a bespectacled, unassuming elderly chap with a leather briefcase under his arm. Here was a man with a great musical pedigree. Even so, as I tried to imagine him blasting away on his saxophone in a Dixieland combo, I couldn’t see it at all. There’s youth for you. Appearances are everything at that age.
It soon became clear that Harry’s musical knowledge was extremely wide. He completely surprised me when he said he really liked the new Cockney Rebel hit, Judy Teen.
“Very clever song, great arrangement. A pinch from Catch A Falling Star, of course. But that’s music, nothing’s original.”
“Do you like David Bowie?” I ventured.
“Life On Mars, loved that, not sure about his other stuff though. But he’s a clever lad.”
Tony laughed delightedly as Harry and I chatted amiably on about pop music, me waxing lyrical about The Beatles, Harry saying he preferred The Kinks:
“Sunny Afternoon, what a great song, I could see my band playing that one.”
Cups of tea finished, and time marching on, Tony switched on the tape recorder on the coffee table:
“I’m going to play you these piano/voice demos of John’s, Harry. Try not to hear them as they sound now, but rather how you would arrange them.”
As Kid In A Big World and Maybe Someday In Miami trilled around the room, Harry reached into his briefcase and took out a piece of manuscript and a pen, listening to each song carefully, making notes as they played:
“I can hear strings on them both,” he said as the second song ended. “The ballad – lovely song, John – is very much a torch song isn’t it?”
“Yes, but forget how they sound on the demos,” Tony told him. “I’d like you to imagine them quite differently, as 1930s style songs, Kid with a lovely gentle Palm Court Orchestra-style backing, and Miami with a swinging Dixieland arrangement.”
For a moment, Harry looked puzzled, furrowing his eyebrows at Tony. Then, as an idea came to him, his face lit up. He casually crossed out the notes he’d made, and wrote something else down:
“Al Bowlly.” he said.
“Exactly!” Tony cried.
“Al Bowlly and Ray Noble – that’s the sound you want.”
I was mystified. I’d never heard of Al Bowlly or Ray Noble. Tony saw my face:
“Al Bowlly was the first British crooner, John, one of the most successful Dance Band singers before the war. Along with the Ray Noble Orchestra he sold a lot of records.”
“He was killed in 1941 when a Luftwaffe parachute mine detonated outside his flat in London,” Harry continued. “He was only forty-three. Such a pity. A real waste.”
Tony stood up and went to his record collection:
“Somewhere here…” he searched through his L.P.s, “Ah! Here it is!”
He held an Al Bowlly record in his hands like a little boy finding his favourite Christmas annual. “Listen to this, John.”
As Bowlly’s Midnight, The Stars and You floated round the room, with his mellow, warm voice crooning above the orchestra backing him, I knew immediately then what Harry – and Tony – had in mind.
“Perfect for Kid In A Big World,” Tony said.
“Have you got All I Do Is Dream Of You on that album?” Harry asked.
Tony scanned the back of the L.P. sleeve:
“Yes! That’s on here too!”
He moved the stylus onto that track and we all listened as the lovely Swing orchestra gave Bowlly a wonderfully evocative, foot-tapping backing.
“How would that kind of thing be for Maybe Someday In Miami?” Harry asked us both.
“Fantastic!” I said, getting excited now, imagining my song with this great period sound.
“It’s going to be beautiful, John!” Tony said, smiling at Harry who beamed back. “I’d like you to book the band as well, Harry, your pick of musicians who you think can get us the sound and feel we need.”
“No problem!” Harry said, delighted.
Packing the demos into his briefcase, he bid us a jaunty goodbye, promising us we’d have something to hear within the week. Tony shook his hand warmly and said,
“I’ll book the sessions for a week today, Harry! See you at Abbey Road, Studio 2, at two o’clock, with your chaps!”
When he’d gone, I said to Tony that I thought it might be better to wait until Harry had done the arrangements and got the musicians sorted, before booking the studios. Tony smiled:
“I’ve actually already booked the sessions, John. I knew Harry would be the right man, and he will have it all done and ready in time. He’s the old school kind of guy, efficient and trustworthy. Don’t worry. He’ll be ready!”
And sure enough, he was.
I stood at the mike in Abbey Road’s Studio 2, as Harry, standing on a little raised platform, counted in ‘the boys’ – average age about sixty-five. As he conducted his small orchestra, I thrilled at the stunning arrangement he’d written for Kid In A Big World as it wafted around us. The whole scenario seemed like a dream, me here in Abbey Road Studios, with one of the legends of 1940s dance band music conducting his orchestra on one of my songs. Just nine months or so earlier, I’d been sitting in my bedroom in my parents’ house in Ramsbottom, Lancs, dreaming of moments like these.
It was the first time I’d heard the song played like this, so for a couple of takes I was getting to know the variations Harry had written into my song. For a start, he’d put in an intro, which my original piano/voice version didn’t have, and the pauses I’d got so used to – ‘So hey!’ – pause –“Hey you there…’ etc – performing the song as I had at the piano for the last twelve months since I wrote it in 1973, had been shortened or simply taken away. It was like a completely new song in many ways, and though I loved what Harry had done, I struggled to get it right to begin with. The only positive thing at that point – apart from Harry’s beautiful arrangement – was that Stuart was not sitting in the control room listening to me make a hash of it, dashing to the window like a man imprisoned.
But after the first couple of takes, and Harry’s extremely kind patience as he explained the changes he’d made to me, I started to get the hang of it. Rather brilliantly, at one point as I was going through a second take, Tony came over my headphones and said,
“John? Try imagining yourself as Al Bowlly, as a 1930s crooner, not the John Howard we know, but as though you’re playing a part in a movie…you’re on a glossy Art Deco film set, singing out front in your black tie and tails, with Harry’s orchestra behind you…”.
When Harry counted us in for the third time, I was ready, and taking Tony’s advice, adopted the persona of one of those dance band singers I’d seen in Fred Astaire movies, with a smoother, less dramatically pop-py approach to my vocal. With Harry’s kindly face occasionally looking over at me, I let his orchestra guide me, rather than trying to force my style on the arrangement. I even had a go at ‘poshing up’ my pronunciation – though I came to regret doing that quite quickly. At the end, Harry put down his baton and smiled, even the drummer, who’d seemed lost in a world of his own, nodded at me and winked.
“This is only a guide vocal, John,” Tony was saying, “but it’s sounding great, we may even keep some of that. Harry…that was wonderful, come and have a listen, guys.”
Most of the orchestra stayed down in the studio, chatting about what kind of weekend they’d had, but Harry and I and, surprisingly, the drummer, went upstairs to hear the take we’d just done.
As the track soared, like a World War Two radio broadcast, around the control room, I fell in love with Harry’s sound. The little touches he’d put in with the strings and woodwind and the lovely cascading piano runs, were the stuff of spine-shivers. My only concern was how I was singing it, to my ears it just wasn’t good enough, didn’t sound natural, and I hated the ‘forced-posh’ thing I’d attempted. But, for all my concerns, both Tony and Harry seemed delighted, so we went back down to the studio to try a few takes of Miami.
I found this one much easier to sing, and didn’t attempt an upper-crust voice, just sang it naturally. I loved the way the orchestra belted along, carrying me on its great rhythms, the drummer especially having a wild time. If anything, Harry’s arrangement had confirmed what I’d heard when I wrote it, a kind of Bryan Ferry camp ‘30s pastiche, “with the stars lighting up the night, as we leave the car far behind, time is no problem, we’ve got our whole lives before us, and the wine made our heads a little light last night.” It was pure Glam-Camp fluff, and the Swing backing really swept it along on its fantasy-world journey. I got it in just two takes, and when we listened in the control room, I felt much happier. Again Tony said he’d probably keep some of the guide vocal.
With much shaking of hands, occasional manly bear hugs and delighted congratulations all round, Harry and his boys packed up and left. I then got to work at the mike again, on my own, recording three or four takes of each song once again. Tony wanted me to keep the poshed-up crooner style for Kid In A Big World, and although I wasn’t happy about it, I did as he asked.
We were just listening to the tracks in the control room, Tony telling me that “we’ll pick various parts of each vocal take, the best bits, and mix them together into one take”, when Stuart and Patsy arrived.
“I was looking forward to meeting Harry!” a disappointed Stuart said when we told him he’d just missed the great man. “I remember his band so well from my youth.”
“Well, have a listen to this, Stuart,” Tony said, looking over the moon at me.
Maybe Someday In Miami obviously entranced the Reids, but I could tell that, like me, Stuart wasn’t entirely happy with my vocal on Kid. It was Casting Shadows in Rome all over again.
“Tony’s going to mix the best bits of my vocal from several takes into one good one,” I told him, trying to sound convinced.
He nodded, not wanting an argument, but I could see he wasn’t entirely happy.
With sessions finished for three weeks until the mixing began, I walked out of the studios and blinked into a sun-drenched late afternoon in early June. As I wandered the five minutes back to my flat, I tried to imagine how the album was going to sound when pressed up. It felt like the whole world was offering me my future, a feeling I hadn’t allowed myself before.
Arriving home, I turned on the radio and the beautiful strains of The Isley Brothers’ Summer Breeze cascaded round the room. I ran a bath trilling to myself, ‘Makes me feel fine, blowing through the jasmine in my mind.’ Life felt great.
During the months of recording, I’d purposely kept away from frequenting the gay pubs around London, which had become my regular haunts over the past six months. I’d wanted to wake up each day well-slept and refreshed and ready for the long hours ahead, rather than groggily coming-to beside some one-night stand whose name I often couldn’t recall, wondering where the hell I was, what the hell I’d been thinking, and how I was going to get home.
Now though, having completed the album on time, and with – nearly – everyone happy with it, I decided to treat myself to a well-deserved night on the town. It’s odd how quickly one forgets the dire nights of boredom in some stranger’s godforsaken bedsit miles out of central London, wishing you’d not bothered and dying for a toothbrush and a hot bath, when the possibility of finally meeting some gorgeous hunk you want to lie in bed with forever replaces those awful memories with once again excited anticipation.
Now as I languished in my long hot bubble bath, enjoying 10cc’s brilliant new album, ‘Sheet Music’ blasting out of my record player, I mulled over which establishment of the night I’d pick to go on my hunt this time.
An hour or so later, drying myself off, I poured a vodka and lime, cheered myself in the mirror – “To you, my darling!” – and picked Stevie Wonder’s ‘Inner Visions’ from my collection of L.P.s. Bopping around the room to my favourite track on there, Misstra Know-It-All, I prettied myself up for what – and who – the night ahead might bring. I’d decided on the Duke’s Head pub in Dean Street, Soho. It was a bit of a dive but I liked its tawdriness, it had an edge, a sense of decadence, and I found something rather Genet-esque about its clientele.
As I strolled into the pub, dolled up to dazzle these rough diamonds, I had no idea of the folly of my decision to go there that night. I stood at the bar and scanned the room, as I always did, for my possible Mr Right. Then someone caught my eye. He was a handsome, rough-looking little guy, mid-30s, jeans and white T-Shirt giving him a Marlon Brando look. Sitting by the window across the room, he half-smiled then winked and beckoned me over. I sauntered through the packed room, ignoring – but loving – the occasional “Hello cutie” comments, and sat in the space he’d made for me beside him.
“Hello gorgeous,” he said, in a broad East End accent. I was already hooked.
“Hi. I’m John,” I said, checking out his broad shoulders and five o’clock shadow.
“I’m Ray,” he replied. “Ray Robinson. But you can call me Sugar.”
Throwing my head back and laughing, I thought, ‘How do you do, Mr Right?’.
But how wrong I was…
Copyright John Howard 2017