-- being mainly about the 1987 production of the single from
Siouxsie and the Banshees --
Not all records are made in heaven. This one certainly wasn’t. It’s sometimes worth looking at a project which falls short to see what can go wrong. Sometimes, Murphy’s Law is inescapable with a given collection of characters, and some differences in personal style can occasionally prove impossible to reconcile. In retrospect, we hardly had a chance to connect properly and make a song in this world, let alone bring one from the edge of it. But the end result still stands up, even though you won’t find it on any compilation.
I had first seen Siouxsie on stage at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, London, in the summer 1976 ‘punk festival’. Promoted by Malcolm McLaren, the two nights featured many future luminaries including the Damned and the Sex Pistols, all of whom were just getting going in a then-esoteric movement which (little did we know) would end up dominating pop music by the end of that year. Revolution was in the air, pushing against the awful dead hand of the quality music purveyors who had largely taken over popular music with elegant technique and nothing to say.
Siouxsie and the Banshees were the polar opposite of the ruling smooth technicians, musically shambolic but with a gigantic attitude which suggested there was something to say even if you weren't always quite sure what it was. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer while wearing a swastika armband was pretty crude, and most flat-out punks found Nazi invocation distasteful even as shock tactics, but for Siouxsie's group the stunt worked. They were one of the show review standouts. And that after forming just for the gig itself.
Our next encounter was while recording the live album at the Roxy Club in Covent Garden the following spring, a project undertaken when all other London clubs had banned punk because of its media-generated association with violence. The record was the club's swan song and was possibly the last nail in the coffin of punk's legitimacy and subsequent neutralization. On introduction, Siouxsie, the future Ice Queen, seemed hostile to the world in general and to me in particular. Maybe it was the hair, which was halfway down my back and hadn’t yet received the regulation crop (later courtesy of Graham Lewis of Wire, one of the big Roxy successes), although it hadn’t bothered the Sex Pistols unduly and didn’t seem to get in the way of what became an unlikely top 20 album business down the Roxy. We recorded the set, but the group subsequently decided it wanted no part of the album. Somewhere sits an unreleased 24-track of that session.
Punk faded, hitting up against the limitations which had been its defiant trademark, and the New Wave began, a loose term for punk graduates with ambitions beyond the three chord thrash. Siouxsie and the Banshees distinguished themselves with several years of haphazardly intriguing records, anchored by her large, distinctive voice, even though they didn’t get a debut record out until the second half of 1978 when that punk generation was beginning its decline. Somehow, they managed not to connect with the feeding frenzy that followed the punk breakthrough where anything with short hair, funny trousers and that said fuck a lot would get signed.
Although I had known their 1977-81 manager Nils Stevenson very well, I didn’t speak further to any of the group until the summer of 1987. Introduced by a mutual friend, I enjoyed their set at London's Royal Albert Hall then followed them to the post-gig party in a nearby club. Now things were perfectly cordial. They asked about production and we arranged to meet a few days later. I suggested a low-profile pub in my neighborhood (Notting Hill) and they said, ‘fine.’
The pub by the tube station is now no longer, and deservedly so. But it had the advantage of being known to them, and I eventually found them in the farthest reaches of the bar. ‘We don’t usually go in pubs,’ they said. Oh well. Such meeting places in Britain are usually congenial because they are never intimidating and a private conversation can be paradoxically easy in the middle of many people making a lot of noise. A later dinner at the Blue Elephant, the elegant Thai restaurant in Fulham, was more their style. Comfortable and convivial, we started to settle in together. Or so I thought.
Steve handed me the demo of Song From The Edge Of The World. Nice title at the very least. ‘It’s ready, done really,’ he said, and it crossed my mind to wonder why he thought I was needed anyway. However, one of several ways I had defined my producer’s contribution over the years was to question everything to see if there is a more interesting or effective alternative, and whether some musical item might be surplus fat, superfluous to the crisp and uncluttered piece of music that is the best thing about a pop song recording. If you’re confident enough, there’s no need to be seen to contribute anything ‘creative’ to justify your presence. If it ain’t broke…
The group had a curious blend of the radical and the traditional. They said they had worked well in EMI’s Abbey Road studios and I was happy to come in to land, having worked happily there with a wide range of artists. Dominick Maita came over from New York to engineer, since the plan was to return there for final polishing and mixing, but I knew many people at the studio from my own EMI days (1976-79) and some from even before. The atmosphere was rather old-school and didn’t have the social flair of some of the more progressive independent studios, but I had always reasoned that the technical expertise made up for it. And, most importantly, the group should feel at home, and relax more easily: you must always remove as many environmental barriers to making music as possible.
That Abbey Road complex of four recording studios and many ancillary rooms has been rebuilt several times. It has provoked innovations and inventions for the best part of a century, even if there could sometimes be an attitude of, ‘we know how to do things, what do you know?’ There was the smell of history around, and the amiable general manager Ken Townsend was fond of joking that they could make more money giving guided tours than running recording sessions. That might have been substantial cash, since their rates were among the highest in London. We booked Studio Two, which had been practically untouched since the Beatles’ classic sessions there.
Superstition often hangs on successful history. One engineer dryly commented that they dared not change the paint scheme in case it compromised the acoustics. That said, it was a great sounding room for a band, if a little uncontrollable acoustically since there were no newfangled isolation booths for individual instruments, just a free-standing, whimsical ‘Wendy House’ for the vocalist with such a heavy door that Siouxsie often had to be assisted to freedom and playback. Just the way it was in 1963. Yes we could have the time we wanted, but not the Monday. It was to be twenty years ago today, and there was a Sergeant Pepper party being thrown in celebration. No, we weren’t invited. Yes, we would have to strip the recording setup. Ken’s joke began to be a little closer to the mark.
Such was the pressure of work and unavailability of flights that I traveled on the night flight from New York and went straight to rehearsal after pausing at my apartment for a socially considerate change of socks and other delicates. Flying cattle class wasn’t fun or restful, but when you put the recording budget together you can’t load it with the $4000 that return business class flights still cost (in 2003) on the sewn-up, rip-em-off London to New York route that I had traveled so many times. Such money could buy three long sessions of prime studio time even in New York. Many artists later said how bemused they were that I didn’t insist on flying toff class, but to me it was better to devote the money to making a better record. $500 per hour for a little extra passing comfort eight miles above the Atlantic never seemed quite the right priority (if I had opted for business class, it would have cost the band $3500 in deductible expenses - later I realized they would probably never have known, let alone thanked me). The rehearsal passed in a fairly social blur. We made a few minimal adjustments, experimented to find the optimum tempo, and I took a reference cassette home for further thought.
The band that was Siouxsie and the Banshees in 1987 had been through several implosions and reincarnations, but the core had always been Siouxsie Sioux and Steve Severin (bass). For this single, the guitarist was Jon Klein, with Martin McCarrick arriving on keyboards literally while the sessions were underway, after coming off tour with someone else and leaving that band. Budgie was on drums, stable in both personnel and rhythm modes. It wasn’t until, many years later, I dipped into the recent (2003) ‘Authorized Biography’ that I became aware of the Byzantine social intrigues that had flourished in the the group's past and whose successors turned out to be coming to a slow boil during this project. On the surface, all was pleasant and constructive. We worked apparently smoothly. Steve helped me over my jet lag with a herbal remedy (legal) which proved very effective. But I still got up late the following day to tackle my analysis of the rehearsal recording early in the afternoon.
As Steve had intimated, there wasn’t much to change in the basic version of Song. However, in the style of the eighties, we were required to deliver a worthy extended version for release on 12” vinyl. Siouxsie had never been big in the clubs, but it didn’t hurt to have a go, especially since the extended format gives you the chance to stretch out musically and do things that don’t fit on a basic single. All afternoon, I played and replayed the rehearsal, working out an extended structure which might keep the dance floor going as well as being worth listening to sitting down and, of course, keeping to the group's style. We could generate performance material in Abbey Road then transform and rearrange it using my Synclavier in New York for radical, fancy stuff. I thought.
Sampling was still in its early stages, and would be limited by the cost of computer memory for some years, but I was routinely flying blocks of vocals or restructuring guitar solos in musical environments in which the blasphemy of the synthesizer machine was not tolerated. For example, Til Tuesday’s Voices Carry album used this technique extensively in 1984, but you will never hear electronica thrust in your face. The fit between high technology and basic music is feasible, but it depends on the sensitivity of the exponents, and both have to serve the same aesthetic. It’s a truism that you use what makes the music work. Too often we read of the rejection of electronics by purist rockers, or what looks like a retreat away from confusing people interaction to non-threatening surroundings by electronic devotees.
In 1987, punk was really old. 1976 and the Sex Pistol outrages were eleven years gone. Eleven years before 1976, the Beatles hadn’t even dreamed of Revolver and the summer of love was a year in the future. But an unlikely establishment clash happened right in my apartment. The repeat playing of Song, even at a low volume, really disturbed one of my neighbors, a sociable and pleasant person who was trying to teach. We both had the misfortune to live in the same sound-transmitting mansion-flat block as several other tenants who enjoyed their music loudly. The then professor at the London School of Economics requested, pleasantly, that I turn it down (even more). No problem.
We might have giggled brattishly a few years before and turned it up instead. We're more human and civilized now. Those seventies punk days might have been the last vestige of the much-discussed 'generation gap' of the fifties, when youth first decided not to follow the set piece social patterns of their parents and would provoke irritation wherever possible. So back to work with a post-punk Siouxsie whose fashion sense had graduated from the Swastika armbands school, but whose social politics might have been partially frozen in those old theatrically confrontational times. I walked to rehearsal in Shepherd’s Bush and we put together the music for the whole record.
Listening to the results in late 2003, I’m reminded about the old axiom that you can tell a good recording engineer by use of bad separation. Only the guide vocal was acoustically separated from anything else, and that was to be replaced anyway. The expectations of an audience of a rock+roll group sound in 1987 were considerably more dependent on high tech than those in 1963. Even though the old sounds are marvelous, we have become accustomed to much more detail and power and the classic old recordings were beginning to sound dated. We recorded the backing track smoothly, gaining one with a high intensity, then progressed to vocals. Another culture clash promptly arrived.
In New York, we had become used to the pressure of time, it being money in that expensive recording Mecca. London was more laid back, thanks to the lower studio rates (even in Abbey Road) and having most studios more cheaply located outside the city center. In New York, we were used to hurtling through a sound check and then keeping the urgency going for the music-making itself. That might look like lack of consideration, but was really just the result of doing a task with brutally-imposed efficiency.
One thing I had also seen was the impatience of most musicians with sound checks. They want to get going and spit out what is in their head rather than making noises for distant and esoteric knob-twiddlers. When a vocalist is hot, they want action NOW. They sing, you catch it. NOW. But there is a different vocal psychology which engineers will go along with for a number of reasons.
Now, 16 years on, you can record a vocal simply by setting up carefully, for example, a Neumann U89 ($3000 worth of transparent-sounding microphone). However, in the few years leading up to 2003, there has been a huge increase in high-quality, inexpensive microphones.The best are still the best, but the price differential is huge for that last extra bit of fidelity. The U89 sound is uncolored and sometimes a little bland as it comes in, but afterwards you can bend it any way you wish, dynamically or tonally. In my experience, the singer almost invariably thinks it sounds great: accurate. In the 1970s, transistor microphones (such as the Neumann U87) were just coming in. Every microphone you heard had its own characteristics, some good and some to be avoided. So I had bought my own U89s, after being turned on to them in John Foxx's Garden studio in 1982, working with Holly Beth Vincent's great voice, and brought one over for the sessions (no charge).
Every lead vocalist in a major studio was typically checked through a range of mics to see which one’s coloration helped the singer the most. The phalanx of mics, looking like an American political press conference, also became a way of reassuring a vocalist, and reinforcing the sense of occasion. In the eighties these issues could often be ignored in the interest of keeping momentum and excitement going, thanks to the progress in electronic design. Rock+roll urgency drove urgency and excitement. But the vocalist might have certain expectations, and these could be understandable after boring preceding days while the help fussed over drum and guitar sounds in great detail.
Dominick set up a U89 microphone in front of Siouxsie, carefully aligned it, sound checked in the control room, readjusted, and two minutes later announced we were ready to go. Off we went into record. We didn’t get the final lead that night. I went home.
And this is where the wheels fell off. I reflected to confidants after these sessions that I mostly felt like an indentured servant, in contrast with what I saw as a normal role to question and provoke, which by its disturbing nature doesn't mesh with the English class system. The phone rang as I was relaxing into my self-catered evening at home. It was Siouxsie. We can get the gist of her side from her account in the 2003 Authorized Biography [in 2003 available in the UK, not in the US] of the group, a critical biography not so much of the group and its output as of the rest of the world.
‘I can’t sleep because I’m worried about the vocal sound, and if I can’t sleep I don’t see why you should. If you don’t get it right by tomorrow, you’re fired.’
Not the way for the upper classes to deal most constructively with the help, and not really how I remember it. I do remember just being given a list of instructions sounding like a parent reproaching a wayward child. It was perhaps 10pm, and no-one had lost any sleep just yet. I lost my courtesy and temporarily forgot about diplomacy. ‘Sorry, Mum.’
‘DON’T CALL ME MUM.’ Fair enough, in retrospect, not the most tactful thing to say to any lady, but maybe a reasonable brat reaction to the imposed social position. (After the sessions were done, it really would feel even more like the end of a few weeks as the indentured servant rather than as a record producer.) The discussion calmed down to civility and ended in a game plan. We said what I thought was a reasonable goodnight and met again in Studio Two the following day. We went through the press conference protocol of the microphone choice and recorded a good vocal, using pretty much the same approach as before. Whatever, she delivers dramatically on the record, and reviews have observed that hers is among her best vocal sounds ever.
As does Budgie. I had suggested that we wrap the extended version around a solo from him, having been impressed with his solidity and technique. No-one, including me, was quite sure where we might go after getting the drum bed done, but it felt like a creative challenge. And the 12” version sounds great to me today, in contrast with my remembered reaction which favored the 7”. The short form has a hint of a swimmy, psychedelic mood, but the 12” delivers it along with some constructively jarring edits. At one point in its construction, Jon asked (tentatively and deferentially I now suppose, although he may just have been plain crabby) if he could put an overdub on the drum section. To return to the book again:
‘… I said I wanted to try something. He said, “You wanna put an overdub on my record?”, put his head between my speakers, thrust his hands on his hips and said, “impress me.” I just cranked it up, like, “Fuck you!” His bedside manner wasn’t good.’
It’s such a shame that history gets rewritten this way. I thought that we were being quite constructive, and his ideas were lively. Unfortunately, my use of irony in 1987 seems to have been missed at the time and erased with the passing years, surprisingly since this delicate conversational flower thrives very well in the rock+roll hot-house. I don’t remember anything particularly loud, nor using a fake American accent. What I do solidly hear now is some really good, inspired wailing over the drums in the 12”, whose high relative volume I seem to remember defending on the mixing sessions.
The sessions seem to have become quietly infected, although no-one aside from Siouxsie even mildly tackled the issues that festered until they surfaced as loose-talk book copy in 2003. It's a little depressing that such issues can rankle 15 years on in some people's memories when a great record is there as a solid, unchanging reference point. Despite the social memories, it sounds great to me (and others). You can always upset people in the pursuit of a good record, even with the best of intentions. (As they say, usually disingenuously, in Hollywood: ‘the project comes first.’) But the personal antipathy in the book, which prodded me to dredge the stagnant backwaters of my memory, listen freshly to Song From The Edge Of The World and write this note, hits surprising heights I could never have imagined at the time. Maybe it’s an honor to be savored. The last words can go to Steve Severin. Not the attitude projected at the time:
‘He was a fucking disaster…He’d been to public school [not true, not that it matters] and had a really academic approach to everything…I’m sure that Siouxsie still hates the record because of him. It was the only single that never made it onto Twice Upon A Time [their collection of eighties tracks], simply because she hated the idea of seeing his name on one of our albums.’
O dear. The record sounds rather good, better than I remembered when coming back to it after many years, and several customer reviews on Amazon complain about its absence from Twice Upon A Time. You’ll apparently never get it on a CD because of my poisonous name. Song From The Edge Of The World is probably doomed to a gentle fade into obscurity. See you there, when we're all forgotten.
- MT October 12 2003
Read a short reaction from a Siouxsie fan
Thorne production commentaries:
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