I’ve been reading Mark Lewisohn’s book Tune In, the first in a planned trilogy about the Beatles, which takes the story up to 1962, the year I was born. I’ll have more to say on that later, but it surfaced a lot of memories for me, which were sharpened by this week’s Roderick on the Line podcast, in which John talks about his own experience of starting bands.
One of the things Roderick says is that boys who think playing a guitar will get them the girls are wrong. As Bruce Springsteen himself points out in his autobiography, it was the dance moves that counted for much much more than the guitars.
When I think back to my own teenage years, the picking up of the guitar, I don’t believe I was thinking at all about girls. I just wanted to be in a band. But unlike anyone who ever made a success of it, I clearly didn’t have the drive or ambition to make it happen, not properly. My first guitar was purchased on the front doorstep for £10. It was a made-in-Japan classical acoustic, which ought to have had nylon strings, but which arrived with steel strings fitted. Concerned these would warp the neck, I soon replaced them with nylons, but this “Woolies special” was never particularly easy to play. It had been advertised in the local paper, and a phonecall later, the owner – having run all the way down our road with it – was at the front door. A cursory inspection (what did I know?) and it was mine.
It wasn’t worth £10.
I had a learn-to-play book, which encouraged you to paint your fingernails with different coloured polish so as to get the positioning right. I never did succeed in playing any of the songs in the book, but after a short time started to write my own. I would say I probably mastered the open chord shapes but never did manage to play a bar chord without buzzing.
My best friend Jim and I had always dreamed of having a band, which was never quite as great as our vision for it. It was only when he came round one evening with a song he’d written that things kicked off. Jim would go through periods of coming round with regularity – on a Wednesday evening, say – and then after a while he’d stop for some reason, and I might not see him for months on end. Usually, to be fair, when he had a new girlfriend to entertain. In terms of the band, it was always important to me that he was the first to write a song, but I was disappointed ever-afterwards because he never wrote any more, and we weren’t able to collaborate together like the songwriting duo I wished we were.
Once he’d written one, and I realised what was possible, I quickly started writing my own. And one of the reasons I couldn’t collaborate was that I worked too quickly. By the following week, I’d written my first (‘In My Heart’), and a week after that, my second (‘Is It Any Wonder?’). I would present these to him on a Wednesday evening, desperate for his approval, never sure I’d created anything as good as his first song. This was around the turn of 1982 to 1983. I was in the full throes of my affair with Kim, on an emotional rollercoaster that moved so rapidly that I was going from ‘The Girl in White Tights’ to ‘The Remembering Song’, which is to say from the excitement of initial attraction to the despair of a break-up, in the space of a fortnight (and back and forth again, and again, for about a year).
Some writing sessions are such vivid flashbulb memories that I don’t think I’ll ever forget them. ‘The Remembering Song’ was written, more or less, in the time it took to play it through once. Sure, I paused to scribble down the lyrics in an illegible scrawl, but that took almost no time at all. I was sitting on the edge of my bed, pad of paper to my right, guitar across my knees, and the perfume-imbued scarf (referred to in the song) behind me.
In 1982, Springsteen released Nebraska, his home-recorded album of what might have been demos for a full studio record, and the existence of home 4-track recorders was known. It was known. And, after a while, it turned out that my future brother-in-law Pete had somehow got hold of one. Springsteen’s was a TEAC, I believe, and Pete had a Fostex. Already in a band, he had connections with a music shop and a lot of ‘demo’ kit passed through his hands. So he had an early drum machine as well as the 4-track cassette recorder, and a decent selection of microphones, including a Sennheiser MD 441, which was and is a pretty fucking good dynamic microphone with a unique appearance – a legend, in fact, considered by some to be the finest vocal and instrument dynamic mic ever made. It wasn’t a condenser microphone, not a Neumann, but it had a clarity and accuracy that made it really special, far superior to the Shure SM 58 which is the most commonly used dynamic vocal microphone.
I’ve had a fetish for microphones ever since.
The 4-track cassette recorder was a work of genius, using a technology that came and went in a period of 40 years, and has since been replaced with the smartphone/iPod generation of gadgets. Cassettes came in a variety of capacities, but the most useful was the 90-minute version. The 120-minute tapes were generally unreliable (was the tape physically thinner? It broke easily) and the 60 minute variety too short to fit an album on each side. The sweet spot, mixtape central, was 90 minutes: 45 minutes per side, good enough to fit two vinyl albums, or a lovingly composed compilation, painstakingly recorded from individual tracks on your vinyl collection. You would sit for hours with LP sleeves spread around you on the floor, composing song sequences that were more than mere playlists.
The 4-track recorder worked like this. Take a 90 minute tape: it plays 45 minutes of stereo per side, but what if you played both sides all at once, in one direction? Then you could record 4 tracks for 45 minutes. But tape was a hissy medium. The sound the tape made as it moved over the playhead couldn’t be entirely eliminated. The Dolby system (B or C) removed some of the hiss but not all of it, and if used too aggressively could remove some of the ‘brightness’ or ‘presence’ of the vocals and instruments. You could mitigate some of the noise/hiss problems by recording on the tape at double its normal speed: 15 inches per second instead of 7.5. This reduced the length you could record to 22.5 minutes, but that was still enough to record up to seven 3-minute pop songs, one track at a time, which you could then mix down onto a regular tape recorder, and duplicate. So you’d end up with a master cassette of 4-track recordings, plus a stereo mixdown, and then second generation duplicates that you could distribute at gigs or give to your friends.
So Pete had a range of useful kit, but what he didn’t have, really, was a songwriter who was available on a regular basis on weekday nights to do a little bit of recording. And so it started, in 1984, the first recording sessions of Go Dog Go!, our band named after a P D Eastman (Dr Seuss) book, but with the punctuation removed for convenience.
(There was, much later, an American band called Go Dog Go, just as there was an American band called Toad The Wet Sprocket – the name of Pete’s original, heavy metal band – but fuck ‘em all. We were first.)
Jim and I had been using a double cassette boom box up till that point, and had in fact recorded his song on it, which was already circulating among our friends. Our first performance was in fact of that song, as unofficial support for another band who were playing at a club in Luton. I keep calling it his song or that song because I can’t remember its title. I know it had three chords and it started, ‘When I first saw you, I knew this time it was gonna be love…’ Not the most sophisticated lyrics, but it had a good melody and it made a virtue of its simplicity. Even after I’d written 50 other songs, I didn’t think any of them were as good as that. I really looked up to him for it, but (to my knowledge at least) he wrote no more.
He and I started turning up at Pete’s house on a Wednesday evening for recording sessions. Jim didn’t want us to record his song, so we simply started with the most recent one I’d written, and over a few more weeks we recorded several others. My Woolies special wasn’t much cop for recording, so we borrowed a Fender acoustic for me to play, which eventually became mine by default. I think I paid a nominal fiver for it and I wish I still had it. I mean, it wasn’t brilliant, but it was better than anything else I had available. We’d recorded about five songs, including my earliest classic, ‘Like Natalie Wood’, when Jim just stopped turning up. The truth was, he wasn’t contributing much. As I was writing all the songs, I was playing the acoustic guitar, Pete supplied the bass and the drum programming, and all Jim had to do was sing with me. At first, I didn’t want to sing alone, and I guess neither did Jim. But when you hear our two voices blended together, you can’t tell us apart. When he stopped coming, I insisted for a while on being double-tracked, because I didn’t like the sound of my voice on its own. But after a while, I realised it sounded okay, and over many years I came to accept that my voice is perfectly pleasant.
I don’t have a lot of range, and I always felt I went off pitch if I tried too hard, didn’t have the control, so that’s one reason I didn’t put a lot of emotion in my singing. The other reason was contextual, so it bears explaining.
Where I did struggle was with playing my guitar in time with the backing track supplied by the drum machine. The arguments have been well rehearsed over thirty years: it ain’t natural to play at exactly, say, 120 beats per minute for the whole length of a song. There’s a natural swing, a natural variation in tempo, that the metronomic drum machine stifles. I struggled then, and I still struggle now, though I’ve learned what you have to do. I still cringe when I hear my rhythm guitar drift slightly out of time on a couple of the tracks. So the guitar was wobbly, but the vocals, well, they were all right.
I was a teenager during the punk era, and I never did warm to the exceedingly angry style of singing of most punk singers. So for a start, I was singing with a smile on my face, which I think you can hear in my voice. There’s a kind of knowing wink there: doesn’t matter how sad or upset the words are, let’s not be one of those angry young people.
I loved Jonathan Richman’s sunny outlook and matter-of-fact expression. He never screamed or sounded mean. He was probably my main musical influence: not the Beatles, not the Stones, the Who, not Dylan or Bruce. Jonathan Richman is where I’m coming from.
So my affectless tone was a mixture of knowing my limitations and wanting things to be that way. Singing with emotion is a little like speaking French with a proper accent: couldn’t take it seriously enough to do it.
Then there was the circumstances of the recording: usually in a room in a house where there were people downstairs, and so I felt properly inhibited and always self-conscious. Overall, I kind of wanted a neutral tone, so that the meaning of the song resided in the words themselves rather than in my performance. Which of course more or less goes against the whole history of popular music and I’m not pretending for a moment that I was onto something. It was an online review (written years after the fact of it) of our EP release, Welcome to Weston-Super-Mare, that described me as a ‘slightly emotionless singer’ – and that stings, it does, but I also own it. And even now whenever I listen to my old recordings, the bits I like the least are the moments when I allowed some emotion to enter my voice. That said, the tone is less neutral than, as I said above, knowing wink, and there was often a smile on my face as I recorded the vocal.
I wanted, really, for people to pay attention to the lyrics, which is hypocritical of me, as I rarely bother to do this nowadays myself. But I am proud of some of the songs I wrote, and some of the lines. I still hear them and think, that’s quite clever.
Though I probably peaked too early with, Operator, get me Weston-Super-Mare… Which was in one of the earliest songs I wrote.
So I continued to turn up on Wednesdays, and me and Pete continued to record, and he got his bandmate Curly (Mark Ridout) to come round to add some nice guitar on a couple of tracks (and Curly’s younger brother added piano to one), and after a few months, we started rehearsing together as a band, with a drummer (Olivier, who was half French, from Calais).
And, somehow, we got some gigs and played them.