The tension was far too good to last. With Bad Day, Carmel the group and I had delivered an unlikely hit single and were now required to deliver the follow-up single and an album in order to proceed to the next stage of the standard business model. Success begets success, they say, but you do have to work at it. We had to relax and get on with the job. Carmel’s recording for London Records had already started as a project which tested the rules of process. We couldn’t continue with a basic Bad Day method? Far too easy.
I had seen the pressure on artists that recording a first single for a major label created for them in the studio. After artists have developed on their own terms and at their own pace, suddenly, standards, stakes and expectations are much higher. And the music has to be done yesterday. Following that, the impact of a confusingly changed social status could knock you over in your different world surroundings that resulted from your first hit record. Even at age 31 and with a production career longevity past four years, I experienced considerable personal confusion after Soft Cell’s Tainted Love achieved mega-hit status. Suddenly after that unexpected hit, I seemed to be one of the most desirable music biz creatures in New York, if not the planet itself, and could only speculate how much more those spot-lit processes affected such fresh if highly intelligent creatures from the north of England. Carmel had a smaller shock than Soft Cell’s, with a lesser hit, but it was still familiar, suddenly exposed space.
No matter how many hits you have, it’s always so good, and often startling, to hear the results of some intense studio activity out there in the faraway public world. It was stimulating to be working at a residential studio near Battle, Sussex (southern England) with Roger Daltrey (near his home) and to hear Bad Day come on the radio in the studio kitchen. If nothing else, it helped Roger’s confidence in his unconventional (by big rock standards) producer. Hearing it over the airwaves in Sussex is one thing, having people shout ‘Hey, Carmel’ across the street when she was leaving my house in a borderline neighborhood in Camden (north-west London) was much more personally public (although still inspiring). But she couldn’t avoid being thrust into the front line. Her style, vocally, sartorially and personally, were distinctive and quickly appreciated by the crowds. In contrast with star-strutting, it was inclusive, in line with the Northern culture in which we had both grown up. Stars are not fenced off from punters in the North of England.
Carmel’s northern directness and earthy charm were very refreshing in 1982 during a period where posers piggybacking on the New Wave (aka progressive punk) were having major success deploying empty pose and blatant artifice, the very stance which punk had so thoroughly trashed in 1976/7. Since she didn’t have a goofy haircut or a simplistic freeze-dried philosophy behind which to hide (although a very distinctive personal style and presence), the pressure Carmel had felt on the first single intensified enormously when we gathered to define the album. The other band members Jim Parris (stage name Paris) and Gerry Darby were not immune either, but they weren’t the public figurehead (although they in turn bore the brunt of Carmel’s loose-cannon wrath and anguish). First, though, we had to record a follow-up single.
Roger Ames is now the boss of Warner Music worldwide, but in a previous life was the A&R man for Carmel (and Soft Cell for a while, delivering Tainted Love). At that time, the standard marketing model built on a first breakthrough single, consolidated with a visible second single and brought home the business bacon of the album hit with a big third single. A fourth single kept the album on the radar screens. Not rocket science in principle, but it especially needed improvisation when an artist departed from the stylistic norm.
In his confident, insightful and ever-assertive A&R role, Roger left the song choice to the group, a pragmatic move since even he would never have prevailed in the inevitable shouting match, contesting lines drawn in the sand by the diva. (He and Carmel had endless battles, often seeming just for the sake of good form, but never had less than healthy respect for each other.) The group choice was Willow Weep For Me, whose publishing is claimed by, among others Mark Murphy/Frank Sinatra and Ronell, but which was put on its pedestal by Billy Holiday’s classic recording. Her slow, painful rendition set the scene, naturally balanced by Carmel with a totally opposite style, a version with high energy to rival punk pogo music.
We recorded it at Jam Studios again, this time with the distinguished engineer Dennis Weinreich, and sent it over to Roger. He put it out in all singles formats. ‘A brave record,’ was his supportive backhanded compliment/criticism. It was, certainly that, but that boldness didn’t quite carry it musically, and would not be the sought-for springboard for an ongoing Carmel career: a great experiment, but we know that sometimes we don’t make it. We had a few other musical hooks to hang onto, thankfully. We could move on from that icon, which had and would provoke so much creative output (such as the popular book of 1999 Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman's Journey Through Depression, A Memoir by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah).
After this interim release, the standard plan demanded that we focus on a commercially serious third single and record a coherent album. Without ‘selling out’, naturally. To do this, we would have to collect and collate the disparate influences of R&B, soul, gospel and Africa and complete on the album the ambitious process that the group had started a couple of years earlier. It’s one thing to explore and collect specimens, quite something else to assemble the interconnected whole and make coherent sense of it.
Never people to adopt a simple, conventional solution when there are more complicated options, Carmel the group fell in constructively with an eighteen-piece horn section based in Manchester. Called Sounds 18, their enthusiastically amateur status still supported lively big-band arrangements which they would play locally for fun and beer money. The arranger for the sessions, Brian Pendleton, also nurtured this stylistic enthusiasm, and we eventually all met on a foggy night in a church hall in Oldham, a mill town in the heart of the decaying industrial Northwest of England whose big moment was in Victorian cotton boom times, to get a jump on the considerable logistics of marshalling these musical forces (otherwise known as rehearsal).
We aimed to deliver two tracks with the big sound: Rockin’ On Suicide, and what would emerge as a coherent and successful third single, More, More, More. At this point, Roger Ames might reasonably have regretfully consigned a successful Carmel third single to dream status, such was the excitable and erratic trajectory of the music. But this story has a happy ending..
More, More, More started as a short song demo, a fragment lasting less than two minutes, essentially a jam with a strong, simple chorus. Working with a temperamental cassette player in one of the group’s apartments in Manchester, leaky roof and all, we sketched out an extended version of it which demanded a new verse and finally arrived at quite a neatly structured pop single which still didn’t quite pander to the norm. An extended arrangement was defined, such that the 7” single could be cut out of it. (Such an inverse approach to club mixes can be very profitable. Those acres of empty dancing 12" bars force you to generate more ideas to draw on since the recording participants are faced with keeping a musical thread going for a longer period than the standard single. Sometimes, those ideas changed and became strong features of the 7” single.)
The lineup for the big day, which seemed to grow every time someone thought about it, ended up as 26 people: drums (the resident drummer of Sounds 18, Gerry graciously sidestepping a potential political issue), bass (Jim), Hammond organ (Pete Saunders), congas (Isaak ‘Kofi’ Osapanin and Johnny Folarin), tambourine (Gerry, forsaking his usual drum stool in his gentlemanly accommodation of his Sounds 18 counterpart), and two backup singers (Helen Watson and Shirley Laidley). And those eighteen horns, comprising alto, tenor and baritone saxes, trumpets, and trombones. And Carmel McCourt in the middle of all this, singing a live lead. As if Bad Day wasn’t trouble enough for her. The logistics, physical and musical, of creating a record with these disparate forces could have been daunting but, as when running a marathon, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other. And we had put the steps in order, thinking we had the race measured if not exactly under control. But the singer is always the focus. The more that’s going on, the higher the intensity. Everyone in the room has to get it right.
Fortunately, by the time the big session arrived, Carmel had settled into the studio environment in general and Town House 3 (a church hall formerly the Who’s Ramport, with stories to tell and a ghost to rattle the microphone cupboard) in particular. Without using too many screens to separate the players, we were getting good open, vibrant sound and great performances from Carmel, many of which made it to the finished album without embellishment. As you would expect with a studio built by some of the world’s most adept live performers, it was easy to settle into, and the acoustics gave the performers the resonance and support they needed.
Any group which tries to establish itself outside the stylistic norm has to fight to be heard and to get musical things the way they want them. Although drawing on many traditional styles, the amalgam that the group came up with needed those battles to establish it. Carmel herself was in the habit of battling constantly. As is obvious, recording with her was never easy, but it was always rewarding. Perhaps that’s why I don’t recall the precise order in which the album tracks were laid down, or at which point she became comfortable with the expensive Neumann microphone on a stand in front of her. At some point during the making of Bad Day she graduated from her accustomed hand-held dynamic mic blasting through a practice amp at her feet, the setup that she had defended almost to the death three months before.
Carmel, the purist, also came round to the idea of attempting to better her live performance vocal, a not unreasonable proposition since all that might happen is that the original delivery, good and spontaneously responsive as it might be, could sometimes be bettered with the benefit of analytical hindsight. (Incidentally, many vocalists assume that they have to get ‘the’ vocal take later with an overdub, but often the live or run-through takes can be the unselfconscious winners. The run-through on Tainted Love had also became the master.) Her vocal sound on tape improved accordingly, and there were hints of her consummate studio vocal mastery that was to blossom a few years later.
As part of the recording budget, we had laid on a few crates of beer on the coach bringing Sounds 18 down from Manchester. Their mood on arrival was agreeably festive, which we all thought perfectly appropriate for Rockin’ On Suicide. I knew that out of all the orchestral sections, the horns are the hardest drinkers and was therefore confident in their ability to function adequately after a liquid lunch (which is more than I can). (Why that should be, I can’t really guess. It might be related to playing an instrument that makes a sound that can instantly dominate a string section, and which to make you have to take a deep breath and get absolutely right.) I had faith, despite the scatter-shot pssst of ring pulls as we were sound checking.
I had visited the arranger, Brian Pendleton, in his home in Manchester, and had sorted out the arrangements in discussion and rehearsal in the North of England. We had specified the session time starting at 2pm one weekday afternoon, and he duly arrived after a morning flight into Heathrow. We attacked Rockin’ On Suicide first, since it was the shortest and we could put that safely away and stretch out into Brian’s arrangement of More, More, More which (maybe for further socio-political reasons) seemed to give everybody and his aunt in Sounds 18 a 16-bar solo (the extended track eventually hit eight minutes in length). Studio setup took quite a while, so that half the session was gone before the break. Time was short. Carmel delivered the edgy lead vocal of the first short and sharp song with aplomb. At this distance I can’t remember if we used the live delivery on the finished record, but it would not have been unusual had we done so. But the most excitement was during the interval. Backstage.
Shortly after arriving, Brian announced that he had a gig to get back to in Manchester. Fresh news to me. Without any undue condescension, a pub piano engagement (regular) seemed to be a disproportionate limiting factor of a session in a major London studio with full production resources and 30 other participants, but Northern honor doesn’t permit compromise. So Brian would have to leave shortly after 5pm, which was the official session ending time (overtime didn’t enter into it). OK, I said, we’ll order a taxi. That crisis would intensify further later, but meanwhile Carmel was in full flight. Carmel does not take union breaks. And Carmel had to deliver right now.
We work with edgy, uncompromising people because they look over the edge. The job of an artist is to take intellectual and emotional risks and communicate the experience. Sometimes this degenerates into indulgence, the chemical detritus that can result a rock+roll cliché. The risk-taker Carmel was not at that time fully formed (and neither was I, given that both of us might eventually achieve that state of grace at some aged stage). But Carmel was able and willing to take those risks, to open her exceptional-sounding mouth and deliver the results of the investigation. But the laboratory had to be comfortable and well appointed.
Ironically, years later, the same environmentally intolerant Carmel would bounce me into a very musically productive space in my New York studio. The group had become frustrated by the glacial pace of the record company’s reaction to their demos, so she called me up and said could she come over for some interaction and informal production analysis. Sure, I said, but could only offer a period of 36 hours in between locked production commitments. Carmel arrived, we talked, decided to take two songs and do the show right here. My office. The area in front of the filing cabinets turned out to be a marvelous place to sing. By luck, the room characteristics were very helpful for singing, the opposite of a dead studio acoustic where a singer can feel that the words just fall on the floor after leaving the mouth.
Two quick demos almost to the finished master track level resulted, thanks to her comfort singing in the office. The short but pronounced reverberation (which was certainly not recommended in the acoustic textbooks) gave her a room response when singing and also a bloom to her recorded sound, which helped its brilliance and cutting edge. The singer was comfortable in a responsive space and the results were stellar.
The basic lesson we understood, but the encouragement of a critical singer helped me define a studio environment which would give others a lift for many years and encourage many great vocal performances.
But now the story has to return to the real world of 1982, now fully occupied by 26 musicians with a job to do. Everyone was on the spot. I forget what was my mild-mannered question of Carmel, anticipating some musical issue on the session break, but the ensuing explosion was much louder and blew her upstairs into the lounge. You don’t leave that sort of mood festering and expect positive attitude and related good results on session. I discreetly followed her up the stairs.
Articulate even in her sleep, the acutely wide-awake Carmel left nothing to the imagination in her diatribe of the moment, delivering a vast litany of complaints. The world was intolerable and everyone was picking on her. No-one realized what she was facing. The world was out of order. (I knew, I’d been there, but knew that there’s not much to say when someone just needs to vent and blow up. You simply don’t argue.) Carmel was in the roughest fighting mood I had ever seen, and she didn’t take prisoners. Then I noticed her upper lip quivering.
I just put my arms round her for a minute, and held her without comment. In those times of almost unbearably high pressure and tension, you just find what to do without thinking and things work out in mysterious, intuitive ways. Such support certainly isn’t part of a session plan. My mind was totally blank apart from needing to comfort, with a slight niggling concern about Jim’s possible arrival in the room. (Carmel’s partner of many years, although one of the most gentlemanly and trusting of people, might get the wrong idea, and we could all do without further complications on this particular afternoon.) The moment over, we both went calmly downstairs, each in far different mental state from those we had carried up. The session recommenced, and I think we kept the vocal Carmel delivered on the day. I wish it were that simple and poignant to fix things on all sessions. But you don’t calculate or orchestrate moments like that. And such things also don’t happen without a good deal of mutual trust.
The two of us have remained good, if geographically distant, friends, but friendships often don’t always form easily in such large and public scenaria. You might expect more personal contact in more intimate music making. But, paradoxically and in keeping with the extremes of this project, that can prove less likely. The studio bond that has to occur in real time between the musicians making intense noises can also be so tight as to be exclusive of those not actually making those sounds. Sometimes, when you’re making music, the outside world has to go. Support staff must be seen and not heard. There were several tracks on this album which needed a tight, closed shop, in contrast to the dramatically public situation with 26 musicians in the studio. Such tracks needed the producer’s involvement to be silent and unobtrusive, the opposite of the occasion when a big role as coordinator was essential. Prayer was the classic, and as innovative, no-frills music it excels.
Prayer lasts over six minutes, and its execution depended on just a few musical cues and nods. To the basic three-piece was added two additional conga players (Gerry was being percussionist hitting piece of railroad track to make a big clank. In the symphony orchestra, the grandly-named anvil is usually a bit of old railway.) You couldn’t deliver this highly personal piece without shutting out the surroundings. This was not an occasion to interrupt after four minutes and tell Jim that his bass was out of tune (which would not have upset him, but would have destroyed a long train of collective thought – it wasn’t, incidentally, although there’s a bum note at the start of the second section which doesn’t spoil anything, as I gauged at the time). Some times, you just leave people to it.
Carmel’s first album was recorded in 24-track recording studios, but the tracks were often defined sonically by just the basic trio. I Thought I Was Going Mad is an extension of the method of Prayer. Apart from the extra vocals added by Carmel, stacking up harmonies with herself in the refrains, it’s just three people hanging on at a high energy level. 22 years on, as I write, I still tense up on hearing it. There’s a break in the middle of the track, still just effectively a power trio with Carmel vocals above, where you fall off the musical cliff. We added extra electronic percussion at that point. That’s about it. The self-sufficient energy could have carried it.
In retrospect, production of this very varied album stands out for several reasons, but one is paramount: the unusual range of performance situations. The group was musically curious, widely-ranging in its investigations, and came up with polar opposites such as mentioned above, Prayer and More, More, More. Most albums are in one musical place: performance ‘locations’ such as big production, intimate and exclusive, rock+roll, precious (if you must) and so on. Carmel’s first album encompassed all these psychic spaces (and always needed quick switches of studio technique). But the best free ideas dig fresh areas and go right through to the audience, carried by the simple strength of the performers. Tracks Of My Tears was a culmination of sorts.
‘Coulda been a contender,’ as the saying goes. This Smokey Robinson cover is a high point of the album, and paradoxically it was a low spot in exercise of production resources. Maybe I contributed something musically, but I can’t remember. This producer might just have been irrelevant. The pure group, with just one added organ, delivered a moody, crystalline version of a classic song which served the elusive ideal of taking an old chestnut to a new level. I think it was released as a fourth single. Went nowhere. But it still raises the hairs on my forearm.
There are many artists whose social company I really enjoy. It’s easier when there isn’t the pressure of a session or the tension of the politics, a version of the rule of never mixing business and pleasure. Now that I have retired from commercial, hired gun record production, I seem to have far more genuine artist friends since there can never be suspicion of a political agenda. But my criteria for working with someone would always boil down to ‘music I like with people I like’. There are a few people I continue to like who I would rather not meet in the recording studio, and after her first album Carmel was one of the few (for a time). I didn’t produce her second album, by mutual consent. Too bad (for me) she had the biggest hit of her career in France through a duet with Johnny Halliday. We would work together pleasantly and extensively in the following years, but nothing ever touched the intensity and successful broad exploration of The Drum Is Everything. Dentists have a saying about brushing your teeth: a little blood is good.
In the late nineties, I found myself at a fashion show in Bellport, (as one does), a well-heeled town on New York’s Long Island. After the obligatory techno and glittery rock cat walk music support, More, More, More started up, in quite another zone from the previous sounds. Shades of a sunny morning in an English country recording studio and Bad Day over 15 years before. I wonder which track they’re playing on the moon. There will be something on the album to suit.
- MT September 2 2003
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