Thursday, 18 July 2013

Roy Harper (Harpic) -4

I had never made an album before but it couldn’t be that hard, could it? After all, surely it was just a matter of common sense? I knew my way around studios from my days as a session musician and the process seemed pretty straightforward.


I was later to learn that logic and common sense are not in abundant supply in the music industry. That I achieved my goals, by and large, was not a matter of luck though. It was down to meticulous planning, careful thought and good fortune to work with some quite extraordinary talent.

We had twenty eight thousand pounds in the kitty, half of which was earmarked for the recording budget (which had to include payments to musicians) a few grand to keep the office going and the rest to promote the album. It sounded like a lot at the time, except…as I rooted through Roy’s accounts within the context of straightening out his convoluted tax affairs, it became clear that his last album for EMI (Unknown Soldier) had come in with the princely price tag of £160,000 – more than ten times as much as I had allocated for Work Of Heart (the title of the new album). Still…what did EMI know about making records? They’d only been doing it for an eternity (that’s not as tongue-in-cheek as it may sound. It remains my belief that most major record companies know naff-all about how to make good records, as my later production escapades were to confirm).

The first task was to find a producer. I had always been a big fan of the production on the early Peter Gabriel albums – Jeux Sans Frontiers, Biko, Salisbury Hill et al. The album covers credited Steve Lillywhite. He seemed a good choice. So I did what any sensible executive producer should do but I now know never in fact does – I rang the artist for a reference. I’d had occasional dealings with the talented Mr. Gabriel during my Buzz Music days, and he was extremely helpful. Rather than confirm Steve Lillywhite’s credentials, Peter raved on about an unknown producer/engineer with whom he was currently collaborating on his current – fourth – album (Shock The Monkey etc). This bloke lived in Peter’s neck of the woods – Bath – and was, according to the great man, a complete and utter musical and production genius, a former composer and classical musician called David Lord. If Roy was looking to the best producer in the business, I should call David.

So I did.

Disappointment followed. David was politeness itself, and said he would love to hear the demos but…he was far too busy mixing Peter Gabriel’s album to take on another project. Sorry – thanks but no thanks.

John Leckie wasn’t chosen as an alternative to David Lord. Quite the opposite. John had always been top of Roy’s short list, but had been tied up with a production in London. Until – suddenly John became available, and the production chair was filled.
Accordingly, I sent Chapel Lane Studios a fifty percent advance on studio time and the recordings commenced.

It turned out to be a fraught process. Roy proved pernickety in the studio to the point of infuriation. John Leckie knew how tight the budget and therefore the timescale was, and began to suffer increasing stress trying to push the album forwards, particularly as Roy was used to months and even years to make an album (Unknown Soldier had eaten almost eighteen months in Abbey Road). The musicians we’d found turned out to be sensational, whizzing through the backing tracks on schedule with world-class performances. Except…

We recorded the backing tracks to a drum programme, laid down on a brand new state of the art machine called an Oberheim DMX, programmed by a friend of Bob Wilson’s who flew the private plane for ELO (don’t ask…life is weird.) When the time came to replace these 8 bit samples with real drums, we hit problems. A friend of John Leckie’s recommended a young drummer (whose name escapes me – fortunately so, perhaps) but the sessions turned out to be a disaster. Sadly, although talented, the youngster’s lack of studio experience let him down badly and ten days were lost desperately trying (and failing) to lay down drum tracks. All the while the stress grew, and Roy became ever more domineering in the control room. Maybe I can understand, as he really did have his life on the line. This was not merely a career saving album, but with the bank ready to pull the plug on his house and financial pressures closing in, the stakes could not have been higher.

John Leckie did an amazing job of shaping, tracking and tightening the backing tracks against all odds but eventually the pressure told and he cracked. He downed tools one day and high-tailed it for the sanity of the hills.. He was, after all, a human being and carried his own personal burdens. Thus it was that I was called to the studio half way through the project to salvage a crisis.

I found a set of excellent backing tracks, minus drums, almost ready to mix. John had engineered as well as produced, and had worked fourteen hours a day progressing the project in the face of Roy’s ever changing mind and more pressures than any producer should have to bear. But I was left with no engineer, no one to mix, no drummer and no track sheets.

Crisis? What crisis? This was my first album. Maybe all recording sessions were like this…

I’d always been a massive fan of a greatly underrated singer-songwriter called Judie Tzuke. Apart from a voice to die for, she wrote (sorry…she writes) intelligent, timeless songs and has always attracted top-flight musicians to her band. In particular, I’d always been impressed by her drummer, a guy called Charlie Morgan. So I found his number from the Musicians Union, rang him up and booked him for an eight-hour session. What I didn’t tell him (until he arrived with a drum kit and Dolby, the dog) was that I wanted him to overdub an entire album in that short day.


John Leckie had left a well-managed set of tapes, complete with click tracks. Tom Oliver, the main live sound engineer I used for my tour productions, was drafted in to engineer and we sat in the control room with Charlie listening to a playback of the album. He loved the stuff. And he went for it.

I’ve worked with some great drummers in my time (Mannie Elias, Gavin Harrison, George Jackson Jr and many more) but never have I experienced such magic in the studio. Charlie’s energy didn’t flag, any more than his enthusiasm. And lest any of you drummers out there belittle the task of overdubbing forty minutes of music in less than eight hours, it should be pointed out that Roy’s songs aren’t easy. They bristle with time changes, dynamics, subtle extra bars here and there. The title track, Work Of Heart, is twenty minutes long and covers a vast range of light, shade and tempo. But Charlie rose to the task and achieved far more than could ever have been expected. Indeed, there are sparse licks and tight fills on that record that still send a shiver down my spine after a thousand listens. So hats off to Charlie Morgan – drummer supreme. Last I heard, he was a regular member of Elton John’s band. I’m not surprised.

So thanks to John Leckie, Charlie Morgan and Tom Oliver, we had our backing tracks. We were only slightly over budget and schedule, what’s more, although with such a tight budget ‘slightly over’ was a major consideration.

Now to work out how to get the damn thing mixed.

More in hope than expectation, I put in another call to David Lord in Bath. As good fortune would have it, he suddenly had time available (there are plenty of biographies detailing the falling out of David and Peter Gabriel, so I have no intention of touching on that here.) Moreover, David had his own studio in Bath – Crescent – and was prepared to provide his services to mix plus studio time for a week at a figure that precisely equated to my remaining budget, taking into account that I had hired a second engineer to assist with the mix – Paul Cobbold, one of the Rockfield crew and an old friend. A few economies had to be made, though, which meant I spent the week of the mix sleeping in the back of my Volvo estate rather than lavishing precious funds on a bed and breakfast.

Rock `n` Roll (oh my aching back…)

David Lord is a genius. Irrespective of any personal factors, I am happy – nay proud – to shout his musical, production and engineering credentials from the highest mountaintop. Peter Gabriel was right - the man is a musical genius.

David realised John Leckie’s production vision perfectly. He added various overdubs, including some keyboard parts of his own. I’d always imagined sax on a couple of the tracks, and contacted Dick Morrissey. What a geezer…inspiration in every breath, and a master of his instrument. He also knew a few tricks. For example, there was one particularly snappy solo on (yes, you guessed) a Gabriel album, and I wanted that vibe for one of Roy’s tracks. Dick explained that he’d cut the solo on tenor with the tape slowed down. When the track was replayed at normal speed, the sax sounded tighter, snappier and hovered between the ranges of alto and tenor. So that’s what we did and it worked like a dream. Like Charlie Morgan, Dick was the master of the first take. These guys were pros (unlike me) and it was such a privilege to work with them. As much as anything else it made me happy that I hadn’t pursued a career as a session musician. I was nowhere near these guys’ class.

And so Work Of Heart finally saw the light of day – a collection of great songs, faultlessly performed, beautifully recorded and mixed by a genius. I had made my first album on budget (a paltry fifteen grand) and pretty well on time. If I have one regret, it’s that John Leckie was never given the production credit that he so richly deserved, but then that’s Roy. He rang to compliment the finished product, and to say how much he liked David Lord’s mix. John was a true friend to Roy and modest to a fault.

And what happened next?

Well…I rewrote music bizz history a little. I negotiated the first ever commercial sponsorship for an album marketing campaign (Maxell Tapes gave me £35,000 to promote the record), negotiated heavy preorders with a couple of chain stores and charted the album. ‘Work Of Heart’ was voted album of the year by Derek Jewell in The Sunday Times and was also named one of the five albums of the year in Music Week. We shifted thirty five thousand albums through Pinnacle, an independent distributor (the equivalent of selling three hundred thousand on a major as I was later told by the publisher, Dick Leahy). The band toured and were great, with Tony Franklyn, Bob Wilson and George Jackson ably supported by Jackie Graham, Mo Birch and Ruby Turner on backing vocals. On their night, they were dynamite – a million miles from the old-hat crustiness many associated with Roy Harper. And then, just as I had overseas licensing deals lined up with promised advances in excess of £60,000 I learned a bitter (but valuable) lesson about the music business.

Public Recordings numbered amongst its major shareholders Robert Plant, Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, David Gilmour, Robert Grayburn and me. However, in my innocence, the label had no formal agreement with the artist – he was merely a fifty per cent shareholder. One day, a contrite and embarrassed Roy appeared in my office with news that his accountant had advised him to liquidate the label and buy the master tapes back from the receiver for £100 (without his consent to release, they were worthless to anyone else). He could then release through a new label and use the proceeds to buy another house to replace that foreclosed upon by Barclays.

‘Sorry Mark,’ Roy mumbled, ‘but this is the only life I’ve got. I have to think about myself.’

I have no idea whether the business scam worked out for Roy. Possibly. Possibly not. I was left high and dry in Birmingham with the wreckage of the label and all the bad vibes associated with a bankrupt company.

David Gilmour and Paul McCartney had been right. Roy’s investors never saw their money back, let alone a profit. But I guess they knew that all along. I was the novice in the Harper stakes.

Apart from being a great learning curve, I take great pride in ‘Work Of Heart’. It was an album that should have been impossible to make. Even today it sounds fresh and stands beside any other album of its era in terms of quality and creativity. It is rated by most reviewers of Roy’s output as his second greatest album after Stormcock. Indeed, Roy personally rates the demos (released as Born In Captivity) as his favourite album, or one of them at least.

Born In Captivity cost four hundred pounds (my time was donated for nothing – a bounced cheque) and Work Of Heart cost a fraction of what the record companies I later worked with imagined. Indeed, after I came to London and joined the music mainstream, intent to learn from the major record companies I worked with, I was amused to find that they were more interested in discovering how I’d achieved the results and accolades represented by Work Of Heart rather than trying to teach me their tricks.

I could only offer one answer – always trust talent above cheque-book production.
That rule remains as true today as it was in 1980.

You better believe.

Roy Harper; Born In Captivity/Work Of Heart Science Friction HUCD008


Friday, 12 July 2013

Harpic 3

Nineteen seventy-nine marked the end of one decade and the dawn of another, mirroring the changes in my life.

My time was increasingly devoted to the task of resuscitating Roy Harper’s stalled career, no longer from a tiny rented house in Hereford but from a makeshift office in Birmingham, cobbled together in reclaimed derelict space above a recording studio in Gas Street, spitting distance from the Canal (an appropriate description as it happens; this was definitely downmarket – even less salubrious than the shabbiness of Rotten Park, where Annie and I rented a dilapidated flat).

For several months a fellow traveller shared the Harper universe that increasingly dominated my life. One of Roy’s old mates moved into The Vauld for a while, seeking refuge from a collapsing marriage and his own career hiatus. Being more of a jazzer than a rocker in my youth, Led Zeppelin had passed me by. Indeed (and perhaps amazingly) I was wholly unaware of the mega-star status of Robert Plant, the new arrival who hung out with Roy and I during this period. Indeed, nothing about Robert’s bearing or mannerisms betrayed his status in the rock firmament. He was down to earth, unpretentious and about as normal as any muso could be. There were occasional glimpses that he was a little less than an aspiring Brummy, though, as one treasured anecdote demonstrates (and I’m sure Robert will excuse me if I slightly guild what is a real-life lily…)

A frighteningly posh Jaguar car showroom occupied a large expanse of street around the corner from my dingy Gas Street office. One day, Robert phoned me. ‘Mark,’ he said, ‘I noticed a neat Jaguar convertible in the showroom round the corner. Do us a favour, mate, and pop in to see how much they want for it.’

I duly complied.

Now, those who know me will attest to the fact that I’m something of a sartorial disaster. My standard wardrobe comprises jeans, whatever shirt comes to hand in the morning and a comfortable jumper. My hair may be a mess these days, but it’s positively neat compared to the mop that flopped across my head twenty-seven years ago. In short, I guess I’d sheepishly own up to the fact that more often than not I’m one stitch removed from a tramp or (more kindly) a plumber’s mate rather than a music bizz impresario. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the dishevelled figure knocking the glass window of the super-posh Jag showroom was ignored for several minutes before a tetchy salesman answered the door, more in irritation than welcome.

‘Piss off son,’ came the welcoming response.

‘No, please,’ I pleaded. ‘I’ve been asked to get a price on one of your motors for a mate.’

A scowl accompanied by a half raised hand suggested that the salesman intended to give me a clip round the ear rather than any advice. He hesitated, though, probably unwilling to crease his dapper ‘Top Man’ suit.

‘That…’ I pointed at the convertible XJ6. ‘How much?’

I doubt that the salesman could have mustered a more derisory response had he practiced for a month. ‘Forty Thousand,’ he scoffed with a smirk. ‘Pounds, that is, not pence. Now piss off, sonny.’

I left Mister Jaguar Salesman chuckling at his naff joke and wandered back around the corner to report back.

‘Forty grand, eh?’ Robert’s voice on the end of the phone was curious, his interest clearly pricked. ‘Do us a favour, Mark, and ask what they’ll do for cash. See how much you can knock them down.’

Ten minutes later I was knocking on the plate glass window again.


‘What now?’ The Jag salesman strode rather than wandered to the door, murder in his eyes. ‘I’m busy. What do you want this time?’

I took half a step back and cleared my throat. ‘The convertible…’ I pointed to the gleaming green XJ6. ‘What’s your best deal for cash? Cash pound notes?’ It was just as well I’d taken that step as I swear the salesman would have taken a swing at me and ended up with blood on his pinstriped shirt. His mouth opened but not a word came out.

I tried again. ‘How much for cash? The bottom line? Rock bottom?’

Although his voice mouthed the words ‘piss off…’ what came out was…’thirty five thousand pounds,’ before he caught his breath, pointed to the street and hissed… ‘now stop wasting my bloody time…’ and slammed the door in my face.

I can honestly say that I’ve never enjoyed any moment more than when, two days later, Robert and I wandered into the showroom to confront my best buddy (not), the car salesman. Robert laid his briefcase on the counter, flipped open the lid and pulled out a banker’s draft made out for thirty five thousand pounds. Done deal.

I was never able to walk past the Jaguar showroom again without that slick, foulmouthed sales-weasel rushing out to greet me with news of his latest bargains.

Don’t judge a book by its cover and all that jazz…

But back to Roy Harper.

My strategy to revitalise Roy’s ailing career was two fold; firstly, to find a great band to back him on the gigs that we both agreed were essential to raise his profile and secondly…to choose the right record deal. Yes, that’s right. In my naivety I believed that every record company in the world would be blown away by such an amazing demo album and fight one other to sign the great man.

Hmmm…I had much to learn.

We held auditions for backing musicians in Pete King’s recording studio, below my office. These took the form of a couple of days recordings, which Roy and I later mixed at David Gilmour’s private studio (later developed to become Hook End Manor). Sorry folks…that is yet another story.

We trawled Birmingham for musicians and one name kept cropping up – that of guitarist Bob Wilson, formerly of The Steve Gibbons Band. He topped our list, was offered a gig after (probably) twenty seconds in the studio and fully justified his reputation as being very special. Had Bob lived in London, he would have had the pick of any band in the business as he was both an exceptional player and a true pro. And a diamond geezer to boot. In terms of bass players, we’d pretty much decided on a guy called Dick Cadbury who ran a studio in Gloucester and had quite a pedigree on the session scene. I asked my old mate, drummer George Jackson, to come and lay down drums for Dick’s audition and he was happy to oblige. George had run the drum shop at Buzz Music for a while and was a great player. As chance had it, he was now resident drummer with the Birmingham Top Rank house band, and so was local. However, just before the audition Dick rang up and cancelled, leaving us with a booked studio, a guitarist (Bob Wilson) a drummer but no bassist. I asked George if he could drag along a dep, and this is how we first met Tony Franklyn.

I’ll never forget that first session. I’d been nervous when George turned up with Tony, for Tony was a lad, a kid, a giggling seventeen year old. ‘Just listen,’ George whispered. So we did.

Tony had recently joined the Top Rank band from his native Derby (I think) as resident bass player. He read dots fluently, was a dab hand on clarinet and had made the gig his own immediately. Although shy and a little overawed by the occasion, all his nerves evaporated the moment he plugged in his Precision bass.

We were gobsmacked.

Now, I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the most talented musicians of my generation in one capacity or other. I have high standards and can recognise an exceptional musician when I hear one. I can honestly say that Tony Franklyn was a league above any other teenage muso I’ve ever heard. On every score, he dripped talent. His sound, his timing, his fluency, his precision – on every score he was not merely the finished article but was already a highly individual voice. Am I over-egging the cookie? I think not. Indeed, he had the same effect on Jimmy Page and Paul Rogers when, upon the demise of Roy’s band, they asked him to join The Firm and tour stadiums in the States. By all accounts he stole show after show, despite being half the age of the other superstars in the band. Fender have now afforded Tony the ultimate accolade by naming a bass after him – a copy of his trademark fretless Precision (hence his nickname as ‘The Fretless Monster’)

So Roy’s band was taking shape nicely. I’d even unearthed some superb backing vocalists who later went on tour with us – Ruby Turner, Mo Birch and Jackie Graham. Those girls could sing, as the world was later to discover when they all signed separate solo record deals. Meanwhile, I started the rounds of London record companies, demos in hand (and those were the days when there were upwards of fifteen majors clustered around the West End).

My meetings proved puzzling. Pretty much everyone was curious but…I was soon to learn that Roy had developed what might best be described as something of a reputation as a loose cannon in the industry, as was summed up by my dealings with Simon Potts at Arista.

I left the demos with Simon (whom I knew quite well from my Haircut 100 days) and met up with him again a week later. He sighed and shook his head. ‘I don’t think so, Mark.’ He was sympathetic. ‘Good luck, though.’ He smiled. As I got up to leave, disappointed he added… ‘Oh, do you mind if I keep the demos? They’re amazing –the best demos I’ve ever heard. Roy’s a genius. There’s a classic album waiting to be made…’

‘Well why not sign him, then?’ I was puzzled.

Simon shrugged. ‘What? Sign Roy Harper?’ He shook his head. ‘I don’t think so. Life’s too short…’

With all the majors passing one by one, we were left to find another strategy. The solution came initially from Roy.

According to Roy, his superstar friends would be happy to invest in a label and finance the making of the record. Guaranteed. After all they were mates, weren’t they?

And so the lunacy began.

I formed a record company – Public Recordings – and committed my remaining resources to the project. A friend of mine, Robert Grayburn, also invested some working capital (thanks Robert…you’ll get it back one day, I promise…) and Roy gave me a list of his ‘friends’ to contact for additional investment. An injection of five thousand pounds as a loan would buy shares and points on the album. Easy, eh?

In my innocence I believed so.

Over the next three months I wrote letters and held meetings with a series of potential investors whose records graced my collection. I sat in Bill Curbishly’s office making a presentation to an inebriated Pete Townsend, spoke several times to Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull (who had always publicly claimed Roy as a major influence) and put in repeated calls to Jimmy Page whom Roy was adamant would chip into the kitty. All of these offered verbal support, but nothing more. However, one by one investors did send cheques. Robert Plant and David Gilmour needed no persuading, although Gilmour quietly suggested that the likelihood of ever seeing his money back was about as remote as a hike on the dark side of the moon. I realise now that he knew Roy better than any of us. So that was ten grand in addition to the ten that Robert and I had invested. Kate Bush was an avid fan and had covered one of Roy’s songs somewhere down the line. I met her several times (and a new hero was born; what an unpretentious, lovely, generous, honest human being…) and one day a note arrived with a cheque for three thousand, all she could afford at the time. So we were nearly there. Just one more investor, and we’d have the budget we needed to make the album at long last.

The pressure mounted. Pressure from Barclays to repossess Roy’s farm, pressure to keep the musicians we’d found for the album on-side, pressure to confirm the pencilled studio dates at Chapel Lane outside Hereford, close to Roy’s house (meaning we had accommodation for the band). I needed one more investor, but all I was getting were rejections. Rejections from Pete Townsend, stoned silence from Jimmy Page, haughty indifference from Ian Anderson, until…

The phone went.

‘Hello. Public Recordings.’

‘Can I speak to Mark please?’ It was a familiar voice. I racked my brains, trying to place where and who and when…


‘You sent me a tape with a letter asking me to invest in your new record company.’

‘Ye-es…’ I answered hesitantly. Who was this? It was such a familiar voice that I assumed I was speaking to someone I knew well.

‘I love the demos. I think the album deserves a chance. I’ll put a cheque for five grand in the post today. OK?’ …a pause… ‘ and thanks for thinking of me.’

‘So…you’re a close friend of Roy’s?’ I was still desperately struggling to place the voice, too embarrassed to ask who it was in case it was an obvious friend, desperate for a clue.

‘Me? A friend?’ The caller laughed. ‘No. We only met once. Linda and I were recording at Abbey Road and dragged Roy in to help out with backing vocals. But I’m a big fan. Always have been. So is Linda.’

I knew. The voice. I knew who it was. And if I hadn’t, I would have found out soon enough. The caller confirmed in his own modest style…

‘Oh, I’ll send a personal cheque, Paul McCartney, rather than getting MPL involved. Less paperwork needed.’ As I gasped, he added… ‘And by the way, regard it as a gift rather than an investment. I may not know Roy very well, but I know him well enough. I won’t expect to get it back. But good luck with the album anyway, Mark.’
And the phone went dead.

At last we had our money courtesy of Robert Plant, David Gilmour, Kate Bush and Paul McCartney. Oh, not forgetting Robert Grayburn and me, of course.

Rock and Roll…

(to be continued…)

Roy Harper; Born In Captivity/Work Of Heart Science Friction HUCD008