Monday, 27 September 2010

Confessions of a young musical arranger

THE LAZIEST BLOG YOU'LL READ FOR A WHILE - just an extract pulled from my yet-unpublished autobiography, - explaining the pain and hardship of being a BLUFFER. Are we all bluffers? Or just the lucky ones? Now read on...

One day, as I was riding on a bus in Southampton, I read an ad in Melody Maker. It said “LIBERTY WANTS TALENT”. It had been placed by a talent scout/A&R manager called Ray Williams who had just started working for Liberty Records, - quite a successful US label starting up in this country. It was unusual to see a record company advertising for talent. I replied and got an appointment with Ray. I went to see him at the smart, Mayfair offices of Liberty. He was the epitome of “swinging London” as it was called then. Twenty-three years old, he wore a sharp, dead-cool suit with flared trousers, blue shirt, kipper tie, and had the looks of a slightly more handsome version of Robert Redford. I played him my best song “Mr Poem” which includes the line “Hello, they say, your fame has made you gay”. Ray thought that he has found the next bisexual or gay pop star. I didn’t even know what he word “gay” meant. He asked me what the line meant and I said it just meant that the guy is happy and bright. Ray suggested there and then that I should sign to Liberty’s music publishing company as a songwriter. He wanted me to meet Alan Keen, the head of publishing, who had just joined them after being Programme Controller at the legendary pirate radio station, Radio London. The government had recently legislated against pirate radio and when many of the pirate disc jockeys had joined Radio One, Alan had got the job as Managing Director of Metric Music, Liberty’s publishing company. He was an advertising man, a salesman at heart, - used to sell advertising space for Titbits magazine when he was younger. Now he was a forward-thinking, alert music executive with a great sense of humour and a love of jazz, particularly Blossom Dearie and Bill Evans.

So I was ushered into Alan’s plush office the next day. Alan and I got on ridiculously well, and he signed me to an exclusive contract with Metric Music, Liberty’s company. I was just so pleased to be signed that I agreed to all the terms. Luckily, because the law is on the side of the young creator rather than the big exploiter, - I was able to walk out of this contract one year later because it afforded me such terrible terms that it was unenforceable. No advance money, - just a royalty percentage - and the copyrights to all my songs exclusively to remain with the publisher until seventy years after my death! Now that’s what I call an unfair contract! But great, because I was able to walk out of it. Meanwhile, back in 1968 I’m jumping up and down with glee because SOMEONE has shown an interest in me.

The weird thing about the first day I met Ray is that I didn’t find out until months later that the two guys sitting in reception with me, waiting to see Ray, were Reg Dwight (soon to become Elton John) and Bernie Taupin (soon to become the hugely famous lyricist of Elton’s songs). Elton and Bernie had not met until that day. In his attic office with red chairs with raffia seats, Ray teamed them up on the day he met me and brought me into the company as a writer. He didn’t sign Elton to Liberty; maybe he had an agenda to take Elton somewhere else. But he did act as the catalyst for one of the most formidable songwriting teams ever to work together, - the team that would soon write “Your Song”, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Candle In The Wind”. Ray Williams eventually left Liberty, to manage Elton, - signing him to Beatles’ publisher Dick James’ record company DJM, - and in leaving, made a job vacant at Liberty Records, which eventually would be offered to me.

Having signed to Liberty as a songwriter I was obviously keen on developing my writing, but I was also keen on getting a record deal as an artist. Because he paid me no money as a writer, Alan Keen – head of publishing for Liberty - offered me work writing out “lead sheets” or “top lines” for songs in the Liberty catalogue. A songwriter would deliver a song to the company on tape, but for copyright reasons and in order to have simple sheet music to offer producers who might be interested in recording the song, they needed the tune, lyrics and chords to be worked out and written down. I did it for one pound, ten shillings (1.50p) a song. So if I did 10 songs a week I made 15 pounds a week, which was almost enough to live on in 1968. I wanted to be the best topline writer in London, so I spend extra time making sure I got the tunes down accurately, and then spent ages writing them out with a music stave pen, adding the titles with Letraset (the only way to get a printed-looking title in those pre-computer days) and sometimes even illustrating them with little thumbnail pictures along the top.

One day I was in Alan’s office and John Gilbert came in. John was the son of film director Lewis Gilbert, and was then managing the hottest band in town – Family. Featuring Roger Chapman on vocals this was the band that everyone, including the Beatles, - rated as the nearest thing to the next Beatles. They were the talk of the rock social scene (not that I was part of that scene, being too young and totally unknown). They had agreed to sign to Liberty, and I had written out their top lines. The demos had just blown me away. Fantastic songs, brilliantly recorded. We played them loudly in the office and declared them to me more exciting than drugs, - not that I knew the first thing about drugs, but it felt like being blown into a different world, listening to these superb, weird, creative records.

John, seeing that I had done the leadsheets, asked if I arranged strings. Being passionate about arranging, - never having done a string arrangement for a record in my life, I said yes. John hired me on the spot, to write the string and brass arrangements for Family’s debut album “Music In A Dolls House”, - to be recorded at a session at Olympic Studios in Barnes, the following week. The deal was that I would get five pounds per arrangement, plus a credit. The next day, Roger Chapman, John Whitney and the rest of the band came in and we met in Alan Keen’s office where there was an upright piano. We talked through the material. They had specific ideas about which songs needed strings and brass, where the climaxes should begin and peak, and where they just wanted “something”. The song that interested me the most was one called “The Chase”. It was already fantastic without strings or brass, - a song with a kind of hunting rhythm, about the thrill of the chase to get the girl. With Roger’s rasping, almost angry vocal, it was a thrilling track. I thought it would be good with a couple of French horns imitating hunting horns, and a string section chugging along to add excitement. There was another song called “Old Songs, New Songs”. It was another of those which had blown me away when I’d heard it in the office, weeks earlier, and written its topline. I couldn’t see how it could be improved. The band said they wanted a jazzy brass section to build slowly through the track, but before the track started I should add four big major chords as a kind of fanfare to start it off. At the end of the meeting, the band left, and Alan Keen came over to me. “Ooh dear, they smelled a bit, didn’t they?” said Alan. He was right, but they actually smelled of oil of patchouli. Everyone wore it in those days, at least everyone who was part of the hippie culture, the rock ‘n’ roll end of the business, or designers, King’s Road boutique owners, cool people. It smelled a bit like you’d slept in your clothes for a week and/or had been chain-smoking joints. Family probably slept in their clothes, smoked joints AND wore oil of patchouli.

At that time I was living on other people’s floors. One of the floors I sometimes slept on was a flat in Carlton Hill, St John’s Wood, where a group of recently-ex Cambridge students lived. I can’t remember where I met them, but I was impressed that one of them had been on University Challenge. Anyway, I remember doing the Family string and brass arrangements while lying on the floor of someone else’s bedroom, because as a temporary visitor to the flat I didn’t actually have a bedroom of my own. I used textbooks to tell me how high and how low the instruments went (the ‘compass’ of the instrument). Then, back at home at my parents’ house in Winchester I checked them on my free grand piano, which was still there in my downstairs “bedroom” blocking the way in, unless you got down on hands and knees and crawled under it.

On the way to the session at the famous Olympic studios in Barnes, (southwest London) I bought a baton so that I could conduct the orchestra. I was quite nervous, having had only a week to do five arrangements, and no idea that it would end up a disaster, a triumph or anything in between.

As I entered the huge studio, the strings were tuning up. I was taken into the control room to meet the album’s producer, Dave Mason, the star of Traffic – the band who had recently made one of my favourite albums, “Mr Fantasy” containing the brilliant hit, “Hole In My Shoe” – brilliant even though it featured that annoying young girl speaking over the music, saying “We climbed on the back of a giant albatross…”
There were various members of the group around, - a few girlfriends, people rolling joints. Quite a community. I felt like a schoolboy in contrast to all these cool people smelling of oil of patchouli and looking beautiful, which all of them did, particularly the women. Luckily, I had with me, as my protection against feeling completely inferior, - but mainly for moral support and a bit of telepathic love through the glass window of the control room, my indescribably attractive girlfriend, Michelle, of whom more in a few paragraphs’ time.

I made my way to the studio floor and stepped onto the podium. Big studios like this usually have quite an elaborate conductor’s podium with a hook for your headphones, a phone to the control room, and sometimes a small table behind you for your scores. I tried to look nonchalant, as if I did this often, but I’m sure the musicians had me sussed from the start. We started with a song called “Mellowing Grey” which just needed strings (we would overdub the brass separately as soon as we’d recorded the strings). I raised my baton at the fateful moment and brought it down crisply to bring the strings in at the right place, as the rhythm track played in our headphones. To my surprise it sounded great. Strings, even if you make errors of judgement, have a way of sounding good. They find their own balance. Obviously they sound better if you arrange them brilliantly, but as long as the notes you write fit the chords of the song, you can’t really make a complete bollocks of it.

Encouraged by how well the first three tracks had gone, with the strings, - including “The Chase” with which I was very pleased - we then moved on to the brass. The string players went home and the brass section came into the room. I was a little awestruck by the fact that the section was led by the great jazz legend, Tubby Hayes, on tenor sax. I gave out the parts; two trumpets, two tenor saxes, a baritone sax, a tenor trombone and a bass trombone. The first song to be recorded was “Old Songs, New Songs”, - the one that the band wanted to have four big chords at the beginning. The backing track had clicks over which the brass chords were to be recorded before the entry of he band’s rhythm section. As these clicks clicked in my headphones, I brought my baton down again, and the most horrendous noise I have ever heard came blasting from the brass section. It was avant-garde, to say the least. I stopped the band. I just wanted the floor to develop a huge hole right under the conductor’s podium and suck me out of sight. I imagined all those cool people in the control room laughing or rolling their eyes in disbelief. I had forgotten to transpose the Bb instruments in the brass section (trumpets and tenor saxes play a D when they mean a C), with the result that it sounded like a complete and utter cacophony. Just as I thought I was going to be sacked, Dave Mason came bounding towards me and started shaking my hand – even though it was shaking all by itself already anyway.

“Brilliant, man!” He exclaimed. Totally fucking original. How old are you? Eighteen? Fucking hell, this is great. Let’s record the rest of it”

The brass section and I knew that it wasn’t quite that simple. Where my ineptly arranged brass chords had sounded avant-garde on their own without accompaniment, - as soon as the rhythm section came in, the game would be up. The odd, discordant tonality wouldn’t match the backing track, and I would be exposed as an incompetent teenager rather than the brilliant new bohemian genius that I had been for about four minutes. It was Tubby Hayes and the brass section that came to my rescue. Realising (as you would) that this was my first gig, and taking pity on me, the brass section transposed the erratic parts by ear, so that they sounded right. So when the sound of Family came crashing into our headphones, playing the phenomenal rhythm, with harmonica riff grinding away throughout, - my beautiful brass section sailed on through the track, building, building, soloing and sounding like stars, with me pumping my shop-new baton up and down, like an expert. The cool people in the control room, - including the snooty chicks – all thought it was brilliant. I have never been more grateful to a group of musicians in my life. They really did save me from looking like a complete twat. This was a real lesson, - to be prepared, to be careful, not to be afraid of making an idiot of myself - but most of all, - if I want to make discordant noises like Bartok or Stravinsky, - not to be afraid to do so.

To this day, you can still put on the Music In A Doll’s House CD and turn to “Old Songs, New Songs” and hear my set of four inadvertent major ninth chords at the beginning, - the four chords that taught me to be brave, take chances and not to care what people think, and in hindsight those chords sound very tame and normal.

1 comment:

  1. I am listening to "Music In A Doll`s House" now. I love the string arrangement in "Mellowing Grey" (the later typical Batt-sound is already present here). Maybe it was good that you didn`t learn it the "traditional" way.
    thanks for sharing this insight.