by Mike Thorne
Posted from Music In The Machine:
In the fifties and early sixties you could find some other dancing on English TV, sneaking into the Radio Times (which listed BBC TV programs, half of our two-channel media prison). The Six-Five Special had meant prompt parental switch-off on Saturday evening just after the news. We didn't know much, but the authentic party certainly wasn't Come Dancing, live from Hammersmith Palais, which endured into the seventies and seemed only good for sniggering, subversive speculation about the real color of bandleader Ken Mackintosh's neck. It was gray on the screen, but we thought it might be purple in real life.
To get dancing in the mid-sixties, you often went to small clubs or parties. It was a time of small guitar amps and 'public address' systems, which later grew into the huge performance and club systems now generically referred to as 'the PA'. People still talked about announcements 'over the Tannoy', just as you vacuumed with the Hoover. Curiously, Tannoy also made studio-standard monitor speakers, although the punters weren't to know. The Cavern Club in Liverpool is mythical now. It would have been typical then, but stayed in folklore for hiring the Beatles. In the early sixties you might go dancing and hear a group at lunchtime. Records weren't made just for dancing, but they might, seditiously, have a 'beat'. Play these at home and parents would ostentatiously cover their ears and screw up their faces. Hilarious.
Sound systems were prized possessions then. Few British clubs had an installed PA, a serious investment for any dodgy cash business. Most groups had to carry their own. On the amateur level, parties were cobbled together with the only music source a Dansette automatic record player under a chair or on a precarious shelf. You were a cool hero to take your singles or small pile of albums to a party, but they would never be the same after someone tripped over the power cord and yanked the player off the shelf, creating another distinctive sixties sound. Going upscale when you got to college, you might borrow a few speakers and amplifiers and string them all together. You could then hear the music quite well over the conversation. For me, studying physics was socially useful. A sound system then was as difficult to fit together as a personal computer is now. The audio technician's was a desirable social skill with far fewer nerd overtones than 30 years later.
The rise of the mobile disco helped upscale parties to be increasingly noisy, with sound systems' power measured in tens of watts. You couldn't talk over the beat any more. My own 'mobile discotheque', Heavy Henry was designed to fit in the trunk and the back seat of an inherited Austin Cambridge. £55 paid to me mum after 1969 college graduation took me off to London with the whole lot and a battered trunk on the roof rack. 'Heavy' identified with the 'heavy' music of the day, later to be called 'hard rock'. A 'henry' is the electrical unit of inductance. Profits didn't need a business plan to be obviously assured. After I built the light show (strobe kits £10.99 ($25) plus postage, not including the case built to my unique plywood design) I could command a nightly fee of twelve guineas, extra after 2am (a guinea was an antique, a pound and a shilling, but classy furniture stores still quoted prices in them). You might reinvest by buying records, but that was an acceptable expense. You did have to acquire the occasional ghastly Rod Stewart record: Maggie May might not be a serious dance, but its five-minute length and hit status gave you time to run to the toilet. A lucrative career in showbiz was clearly just around the corner. In the sixties, you didn't have to get a real job immediately.
Growth of 12" Vinyl
All this changed in the mid-seventies as recording techniques began to emphasize accuracy and steadiness of tempo. At that time, the pressure on the drummer to keep a steady time from an inner clock was lessening, and groups and producers would want to keep strict time to a recorded electronically-generated click. Gone was the gentle acceleration during a song that you hear in older records, getting faster as excitement increases. Although keeping strict time removes the chance to use acceleration or dramatic tempo change, it does help the music's power and persistence on the dance floor. A brutal timing track kept the drummer steady, just a loud click on every beat fed to the drummer's headphones. To be heard over the noise of the drums themselves, it had to be very loud. For many drummers accustomed to leading the band, there was to be no more fun. Session work could become glamorous drudgery. Although it might be good to listen back after a good take (never with the click in the speakers), making music became for many a thankless struggle against inevitable timing imperfections.
Responding to demand for ever more powerful sound, disco had introduced the twelve-inch single, generally at 33 1/3 rpm (US) or 45 rpm (UK). Dance tracks extended from the single's four minutes to six or eight minutes, and as long as 18 minutes became routine, and a thunderous sound became possible with less music on the fixed disk area (many DJs today still prefer this format over the CD). With steady tempo it was easier to edit different sections of a song together to make a longer version for the dance floor. By the mid-eighties, the dance remixer, who takes other people's productions and makes them work on what has now become a more homogeneous environment, was starting to emerge. A four minute record barely gave you time to stumble to the dance floor for a favorite, so long versions became standard issue to keep the mood and groove going. Extending a mix relies on getting creative with the recording process, and is partly a compositional process. You might mix a section in different ways, or take small sample sections and superimpose them onto the basic track to make a new presentation. Some production styles embody tight, musically anticipatory organization, almost resembling a classical composition, others anarchic, creative chaos.
Hall and Oates' Maneater and New Techniques
At that time, only the more adventurous DJs were adding sounds and music fragments live on the dance floor. Artists and producers (including me) were much less tolerant than now of an outsider tampering with the music itself, and particularly its feel. Still, Maneater seemed to need loosening up. It needed its hair mussing a little. Our exercise shows how radically a remix could change the scenery, even then. Compared with late nineties' procedure, the techniques seem to be limited electronically, but they used the best of available technology. Large-scale sampling, and its musical/cultural upheaval, was only just appearing, and the resulting revolutions of the nineties were far ahead.
The original Motown records from the mid-sixties that Maneater drew on had a characteristic, bouncy triplet beat: Baby Love by the Supremes, or Martha and the Vandellas' Quicksand, Marvin Gaye Can I Get A Witness/You're A Wonderful One. The musicians clearly arrived with a certain style. The electronically-generated rhythm section on Hall and Oates' record worked well for a short, sharp pop song, and the hit duly followed, but it wasn't easy to move to. Its original arrangement seemed to me to suffer from rhythmic lockjaw, to have neutralized the dance beat in attempting to copy the feel from an original groove from 15 years earlier.
Hall and Oates duplicated the classic bass line but used a bass drum figure exactly in time with the bass note accents. Every time a bass note hit, there would be a kick drum, all nailed down. The rhythm section, in contrast with Motown's original, was stiff and pretty much undanceable, its unforgiving regularity accentuated by the precision of the synthesizer used to generate the notes. As with many early rhythm machines, the dynamics of a player were missing. The kick drum and bass, the foundation of any dance record, were too busy to provide the power needed by the clubs of the early eighties. That kick had to go. Using a sample of the original kick drum from their multitrack master tape, we took the basic disco route: four-on-the-floor, or a hit on every beat. Each kick drum was played in from a keyboard. It took time for it to feel right, but eventually our track had a curious swing to it. The complex bass pattern with a steady kick drum provided much more rhythmic tension than the original. Everyone in the room heard Motown smoothly reappear.
That effort was 15 years ago. Music can now be recorded extensively on to a computer hard drive and edited there without the irreversible slash of the razor blade. For Hall Oates' remix we didn't have such luxury. For preparation, I would sketch on paper a rough structure of the proposed track. The basic building blocks were obvious musical units: verses and choruses, middle bits, but also anything which could be conceivably moved next to something different, to give a new source of contrast. If you liked a particular bit, you could insert 16 bars and play with variations. We'd edit together a full version of the track in 24-track form.
Typically, an intro might be two or three times as long as the original, and not always based on the original. The most memorable intros often hint at the big chorus coming, and this useful pop song rule also applied to dance mixes. The audience likes a clue about what is coming and whether they might like it. The start might be very stripped down, using only a few layers of the original multitrack tape (which helped the power of the sound and meant we could generally add more digital reverberation and other ear candy, to augment the sound even further). At appropriate musical intervals we would un-mute another instrument or arrangement layer. You could sometimes keep an intro going for 48 bars like this, or well past a minute. The techniques seem so happy and innocent seen from this distance in time, but they still work.
Each step was mixed down to stereo tape, setting the problem of mixing the next section of the record. For drama, it's always nice to have a change, especially if the music has set you up for it. But the nicer the change, the more difficult it is to find an edit with a transition that feels right musically. The audience enjoys discontinuity, but if you overdo it you create confusion. A cheap trick was to make a virtue out of it: a reverberation suddenly disappearing, or a shock transition from a big chorus sound to dry percussion for example. Or we could create a brazen diversion. In It's A Mug's Game, with Soft Cell, we took a single snare hit, happening traditionally on the back beat (beats two and four in a four-beat bar) and added an enormous reverb to just that single hit. After the track had been blown up, we could sneak around under the drifting smoke and debris, getting away with a lot of arrangement switching. And we did; we could strip the track down just there, for no justifiable reason; we had created the punctuation mark ourselves. Cheap tricks usually work. Truly, those were innocent days.
If we had done our job right, the dance floor would pick up on the fragments that we had assembled and get moving. They didn't want to be thrown out of their groove, and the more building variations the better. The first groove continuity problem arrives with the vocal entry, an immediate attention-shifter. It's difficult to make it as dramatic as the favorite middle-section trick of shutting down everything except for drums and percussion. At the vocal entry, you have to deal with the form of the original song itself, and you had better have your raggy paper sketch ready. You have set the scale of the song by your treatment of the intro. Miss the proportion and the audience will find the musical meat of the record dragging, or whizzing by incomprehensibly fast.
And so we continued with Maneater. Apart from some extra synthesized percussion from the Synclavier, there was nothing more to add except perhaps the odd string figure. The group had dealt with the texture side very nicely, although I was able to generate samples which increased the depth of the sounds with new electronic sound processing just then arriving. Stripping layers away gave us room to bring forward an exceptional rhythm guitar buried in the original (GE Smith). The sparse elements of the original worked beautifully with just that one rhythmic shift.
Tainted Love And The Rise of the Extended Recording
From fanzine to earnest postmodern critique, plenty has been written about Marc Almond and Dave Ball, two sometime DJs who met at college in Leeds and started one of the first of all synthesizer duos. Originally, they performed with a tape recorder providing home-recorded instrumental backing, Dave playing keyboard bass and whatever, and Marc singing. Their stage act featured a padded cell, but this became impossible when the huge English hit struck. The cheerful, punky amateurism of their club start couldn't measure up to people's expectations at the top of the charts. This success knocked everyone sideways, and was a technical breakthrough in many ways. Novelty plus accessibility was the essence of pop music before marketing projections were applied. The recording method was just as radical: in a world increasingly crowded with extended mixes, here was one made as a continuous recording. The short single was cut out from it at prepared edit points.
In the early eighties, we enjoyed what was to be another golden age of dance records. As in the sixties, the dance floor was a great place to hear new music, not just a version of a popular tune bent into a dance-utility shape. From that point, just about all the extended records I produced were made in their full length, even with a rock+roll band. Anything which the record company throught might be a single would need an extended version. The associated short single was always cut out of the finished long master, perhaps with some minor mixing differences such as a higher vocal level. The road map was always drawn before the session, necessitating a lot of careful bar counting. Where inspiration was to arrive later, enormous, intimidating deserts of 16 or even 32 bars were left without any immediate plan. It was easy to sympathize with the creative writer's fear of a blank sheet of paper in the typewriter, but something always came. And if I'd allowed too much space, we could always reach for the razor blade.
Sometimes, that struggle would produce the hook of the record itself, since by setting out more space than usual, a larger than usual pile of ideas would be inspired. Soft Cell distinctive opening instrumental licks for Bedsitter and Torch were originally a response to a musical situation somewhere else in the piece. The basic song's arrangement benefited from the dance demands. It was a rarified process, and very hard to talk through with most record company A+R departments. This could be disastrous.
When I worked with Lene Lovich in 1985, I was riding high in the charts, as they say, but was contributing production for nothing because of my admiration for the music she had delivered and might deliver in the future. Using her resources, we were developing long tracks with embedded short-form songs, looking ahead to the finished record rather than writing a plot that untutored ears might comprehend. Unfortunately, Epic Records did not have the mind's ear to recognize the strong singles within the six minute extravaganzas, or perhaps the confidence to sell the idea within the company. We ran out of steam and her independent resources before the tracks were finished. Epic didn't throw in the matching funds that would have enabled us to finish half an album at best, or deliver a powerful demonstration hint at worst. The anticipated signing never took place. With that painful experience, I learned to be sure that the record was unequivocally wanted in a form routinely acceptable to the various departments of the record company before getting adventurous. It was ironic that my biggest hits had come from taking such risks, but that I was mostly discouraged from taking them. The creative freedom of a few years earlier was gone.
Bronski Beat, Big Efforts On Smalltown Boy And Why
By the time of Smalltown Boy's London recording, in early 1984, high energy (Hi-NRG) music had burst out of the gay clubs sounding like amphetamine-driven disco. As in the disco era, any song was fair game for treatment. (When we recorded Don't Leave Me This Way for the Communards two years later, there was already another Hi-NRG version out ahead of us, although possibly recorded behind us.) The alternating octaves of the bass owed much to what for any synthesizer-dance record producer was the intimidating example set by Giorgio Moroder/Pete Bellote with I Feel Love, but they were far faster. Donna Summer's established dance floor anthems seemed quite staid ten years on. The force of the musical style served the group's angry activism well, which would be completely up front lyrically in their second single Why, also an enormously ambitious dance production ('Contempt in your eyes as I turn to kiss his lips . . . ').
Thanks to sequencers, we were able to build big structures and eventually store them in a computer, but these recordings were just at the turning point when an entire arrangement might be stored this way. For Bronski Beat, the bass still had to be played in and each note physically triggered from a click on the tape. It was a simple, powerful technique in the last days of analog synthesizer sequencing. A simple pattern was keyed in, such as the alternating bass octaves. The song's key changes were then defined by using the keyboard to tell the sequencer the basic note that the pattern should start on. Such simplicity drove very direct and powerful music. That you couldn't get fancy focussed the music and the mind. And also the body on the dance floor.
Bronski Beat differed from much of the gay community up to 1984. They were perfectly comfortable to be integrated into the broader community, which (in the larger UK cities at least) was free of the prejudice that had been routine enough to keep down even the most feisty kid. They had no hint of misogyny, even if some of their acolytes inevitably did. They took the musical language of the gay ghetto and brought it into the daylight, put their message across forcefully, and changed dance music. Yet again, the esoteric incubator of the gay underground had delivered powerful, innovative and lasting pop music. Gay was becoming above-ground. Perhaps by opening up the scene and making it socially acceptable we would eliminate its creative, nurturing qualities. It felt just as in 1977 when making the live punk Roxy album. Punks privacy had been quickly eliminated by the press.
Like the punk movement, Bronski Beat burned brightly but short. Singer Jimmy Somerville left after the first album, Age Of Consent, to form the Communards with Richard Coles. For them, I produced another over-ambitious dance twelve-inch, built on the enormously successful Don't Leave Me This Way, that also persists in the record book. As far as we know, it's the longest single ever made. With the demise of vinyl, it will presumably stay so.
Jimmy Somerville is a singular character. Born into a Glasgow, Scotland working-class family, he grew up visibly short and noisily gay in a city which respected neither characteristic. So he also grew up tough. A typical encounter was out on the town with Bronski Beat, outside one of the intense clubs that functioned semi-legally in Manhattan's downtown meat district (a cheerful coincidence) in 1985. Emerging in the small hours, the group of clubbers was asked for money by a large person with his hand inside his coat. Jimmy: 'My dad's a bigger gangster than your dad.' Local friends quickly yanked him to the next club across the street. Arriving at one session in New York to sing vocals, he seemed a little wobbly. Despite staying at the Hotel Parker Meridien, on West 56th Street just down from Carnegie Hall, he preferred to travel by subway listening to a Walkman. Like many musicians making an album, especially when visiting New York, he would live and breathe the music, the studio being a practical interlude in a constant playing of roughs and vocal tryouts. He was approached by a large stranger.
- he said, give me your money.
- I said, no.
- so he hit us.
- so I hit him back.
This was the same character who had grown up in Glasgow taunting the gay-bashers with ever more outrageous behavior, playing the game of running away at just the right time. It was a game in the same space as Knocky-Nine-Doors but with a more serious downside than being spotted by the house owner as you hared off round the corner. That toughness and resolution inspired some of the most distinctive pop music of the eighties. The combination of playful brat and serious purpose was irresistible, to all who came in contact with him. A couple of years later, he was even forgiven in Sigma Sound for the most heinous of studio crimes, parking a full beer bottle next to the mixing console and then spilling it. A less appealing figure would have been eaten by the New York engineering crew.
A creative group needs balance. Well-documented tension drove many of the great British groups: Roger Daltrey/Pete Townsend (The Who), Mick Jagger/Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones), Paul McCartney/John Lennon (The Beatles), Ray Davies/Dave Davies (The Kinks), establishing a tradition later exploited marvelously by the press with Gallagher etc (Oasis). Although they had different concerns, later to give the too convenient explanation of their breakup for 'political differences', the other members of Bronski Beat were no less intense. Larry Steinbachek (who, along with Steve Bronski and the manager Anthony Kowalski had adopted Polish surnames in some altered moment) would contribute the most odd bass lines and many rhythms that surprised me before I grew to love them. Steve Bronski tended to internalize his concerns, including some difficult personal life, but his most mild-mannered social presence did not suggest the intensity of his music and experience.
Steve, like Larry, was still emerging into the strange dawn of public gay life, but had the appearance and sometimes attitude of the Scottish soldier he might have been. He walked into police trouble outside Heaven, an easy-going, pleasantly atmospheric London club which happened to be predominantly gay. After berating them for what he thought was unnecessarily hostile attention to a young punter leaving the club, they took an equally specific personal interest in him. However, like Larry, his real personal balance was displayed in his passionate and sensitive piano and other keyboard parts. For me, his most poignant contribution is the accordion solo at the end of Run From Love. The music sheds real tears. He embraced real emotion with his music, a necessary but relatively rare trick. Despite frequent depressions, he could still enjoy the most frivolous fun. We all admired his carefully selected outfit for his drag turn at the Vauxhall Tavern as he left from those Finsbury Park sessions one evening (by coincidence this was at the studio where the Sex Pistols were working ten years earlier when John Lydon was stabbed while on a break in the neighborhood). As I have mentioned, Steve can look like a square, Scottish soldier.
With hindsight, we see how all these swirling personalities drove a very distinctive group sound and sensibility, but their songs' reconciliation of gay activism and mainstream adolescent concerns were unique at the time. Everyone could relate, and their audience quickly included more teenage girls than gays. I still appreciate Larry's Pink Panther present from Italy, bought after being chased like a pop star pinup after being spotted in the toy store: a distant echo of the Beatles. Bronski Beat developed into the most unlikely pop stars, just as even the Sex Pistols had been adopted and tamed as news-objects by the popular press, just as the outrageous Beatles had been transformed into the lovable mop-tops. Homosexuality had previously been anathema to the Great British public, but the group's own disregard for social fences and gay ghetto misogyny changed attitudes dramatically. Soon we had the deranged English spectacle of gay being wildly fashionable for ingenue trendies in magazines such as Time Out, or The Face, before broader public opinion swings settled into a more familiar, less overtly prejudiced tolerance. The change in opinion still persists, but it's likely that a new generation of sexually confused kids could use a fresh new debate. More valuable than the media's habit of routinely recycling musical styles, popular heroes need repeating freshly every fifteen years or so.
Smalltown Boy was the first Bronski Beat single, and hit the charts with an unusual 5'40" single cut from the fully-recorded 12" of more than nine minutes. The initial plan for the 12" was typically ambitious. We would embed what was conceived as a conventional, 7" edit in an extended piece in the same tempo, but prefaced by a 'blues' version, sung freely to an instrumental support independent of the ubiquitous dance click track, spiritually apart from the essential long dance version driven by the sequencers. The blues version was the idea of their A+R man, Tracy Bennett, who had signed them to London Records after he 'saw a long queue on the street to get into a club that I didn't know about to see a group that I hadn't heard of'. The Tracy of that time was an inspired and energetic character, always asking stimulating questions and thus provoking novel ideas and solutions. I took his odd suggestion and extended it by combining the versions, yielding the 12" that starts, apparently in free tempo, with drifting, hazy clouds of synthesizer supporting Jimmy's solo vocal. The necessary acceleration after the slow blues intro gave us an unexpectedly exciting introduction to the 7", yet another example of the dance-record fertility yielding something which might not have grown from more focussed production planning.
Towards the end of the blues intro to the 12", the rhythm synthesizer gradually appears in the tempo of the early free section, asserts itself and then speeds up, taking the song to its later fast dance tempo. Frenetic might have been the description of the time, but as the years pass we all get faster on the dance floor. This wasn't easy to achieve. Most sequencers in 1984 laid clicks at a fixed tempo only, and the analog music sequencers would be correspondingly limited. So we recorded the reference, tempo click on tape using the then state-of-the-art Linn Drum II, which has a tempo display and an audio click output. Conveniently, it had a knob which controlled the tempo in real time, with a digital display readout in case you couldn't rely on your tapping foot. All the speeding up on the final ambitiously layered production rests on my hanging on for dear life to get the knob-twiddling right, counting bars as I watched the tempo readout in a little electronic window. It took several attempts and o shits to get it to feel right, and a few crabby observations about how far technology is from real music. This was not a mature technology, as it would often remind us. We used the trick again a few months later in New York, on the Bronski Beat/Marc Almond extended single which segués from the slow Love To Love You Baby into I Feel Love, another Donna Summer obeisance. the sequencer would again sometimes lose its lock to the click on tape, the ridiculous music results provoking slightly too shrill laughter in the studio control room because we knew that too much depended on this reference from three weeks before in London.
The original single of Smalltown Boy was planned to start shortly after the tempo hit its steady high, and I'd extracted a mundane 3'30" version. Tracy, after listening to the 12" many times, proposed that we should start the 7" where the sequencer first arrives, even though the tempo has yet to increase to its final frantic (for the time) level. As he pointed out with the enthusiasm of someone who loved it, the acceleration section is 'transcendental', and he also suggested keeping a couple of sections that had been marked for elimination for a short, sharp radio presence. These suggestions worked to produce a stunningly distinctive single. Radio played it to death, despite its length. A lesson relearned was to stay awake to unforeseen possibilities even though you think you have it all neatly figured out in advance. Setting up a strong structure permits more novel and exciting ways of playing in the musical environment. Contemporary dance culture is now based on such expanded musical/technical possibilities.
The second Bronski Beat single was originally written as a very short HiNRG piece, almost a sketch. The demo of Why barely stretched to two minutes, such was the speed of both music and material with which the song hurtled by. The eventual 12" lasted over eight minutes, but with the same density of musical ideas. To match the frenetic pacing of the basic song, the long dance track was required to deliver a new idea every eight bars. On the master recording we used 40 tracks of two 24-track tape machines locked together. This was my first adventure with this technique since a chastening adventure in EMI's Abbey Road studio five years earlier, where the overwhelming amount of music to be manipulated and sorted drowned us. The equipment would routinely remind us of the technical difficulties of locking together two 24-track tape machines with motors that turned the tape so strongly that it needed all the strength of a tough guy to hold them when catching a point for editing. For five years I had stuck to the limits of 24-track, effectively 22-track after you had sacrificed one track for the click synchronization reference (for the drum machine as mentioned) and another for the SMPTE code (a horrible sounding time reference recorded to the analog tape by which other functions such as automated mixing could be locked with the music).
Linking two tape machines was by then routine, but I limited myself to 22 tracks. This forced musical decisions, and to embed them in the track well before mixing the final stereo. There was no Undo button. You were stuck with your decisions which might have been different with the hindsight of a fully-completed track, but you could see the music emerge more clearly. With Why, the range of color and dramatic shifts of arrangement were all laid out precisely on the tape, with very few exceptions, but the decisions had been made and embedded. The main reason for the sprawl over more than 40 tracks was the range of colors and sounds. You don't want to have to change equalization and effects as the music is hurtling by under one fader. It's better to separate them so that each flows through its own private treatment. Even so, it was an unusually large undertaking, and Julian Mendelsohn, one the best music engineers I have ever worked with, took nearly three days to mix it, despite its careful, logical layout.
The finished Why is a testament to his skill and the clarity of the tape with which he was working. With many badly constructed tapes, the engineer has to compensate for lack of anticipation. So much nervous energy can be expended in pure setup that less remains for creative sounds and further inspiration. That was not the problem with Why, just the sheer weight of the music. The enormous sound we heard on the dance floor was our reward. The relentless flow of ideas in the 12" still leaves me dizzy, days of recording whizzing by in eight minutes. There was a long time after that production when I couldn't hear it without feeling tired and wanting to go to bed.
The Longest Single Ever: The Communards' Don't Leave Me This Way
Richard Coles, the second pole of the Communards, was the social and musical opposite of Jimmy. Does this sound like a familiar success formula? Are we back to the British group tension tradition? Emerging from drama school with a developed sense of projection, self-confidence and a formidable piano and musical technique, he met Jimmy as they crashed around the London gay scene. His powerful classical technique is always allied with a passionate execution, his academic background being the complete opposite of Jimmy's. Each history informed a powerfully effective artist. Even physically, they made a wild contrast, differing in height by about a foot. What they did share was social activism and articulate radicalism, as did the (effectively) third member of the group, Sarah Jane Morris. Sarah Jane went through the same drama school as Richard, and emerged with similarly noisy style and with a matching powerful vocal technique. Curiously, she never studied music formally, morphing into it through the dramatic ground shared with her studies (and temperament). Her typical vocal range would be about an octave below Jimmy's, fertile ground for gender jokes. These culminated in upsetting the establishment BBC by their swapping vocal parts when miming Don't Leave Me This Way on Top Of The Pops (the UK's leading pop show, seriously establishment). She would combine seamlessly with the other two, after the first two successful Communards singles which had just Jimmy on vocals, in that biggest-selling British single of 1986. This was a fresh and distinctive version of the Gamble and Huff song first delivered by Thelma Houston and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, each version being a hit for their Philadelphia-based label.
The first version was, as usual, was conceived and recorded as an extended 12". At just over eight minutes, it incorporated some of New York's finest musical traditional music resources, including three gospel-informed backup singers (led by the irrepressible BJ Nelson) and a powerful four-piece horn section (the Uptown Horns, still one of the best horn sections in the world). Over the previous few years, we had been combining the instant push-button power of a synthesizer rhythm arrangement with an acoustic top-line arrangement whose own energy was kicked even higher by the foundation. With Don't Leave Me This Way, sampling poured even more focused energy into a uniquely long dance track.
Sampling of instrumental sounds for triggering from a computer or keyboard, a process similar to the old classical composer's dream of a precise machine's putting down a piano key when instructed, was routine by the mid-eighties. The rhythm arrangement of Don't Leave Me This Way used traditional samples, recordings of short, acoustic sounds, as well as original synthesizer sounds. Such techniques had been solidly established by about 1983. Press a key or a button on a drum machine and you get a huge recording of snare drum hit: simple as that. The next development of sampling, thanks to availability of cheaper electronic memory (RAM) was to repeat larger, musically significant segments of a recording, such as a chorus that might cycle through many times at the end of a song. The dance floor might be going crazy and loving the anthem repeats, but it made superhuman demands on the studio musicians when they had to deliver that energy all the way to the end.
A sequencer might as well play eight singers as a kick drum. Thanks to this reduction in audio real-estate, it was possible to concentrate musical and physical energy on the most intense eight-bar section, which could be played much more forcefully when singers and horn players knew they didn't have to repeat it to the end of a long fade. A sampled eight-bar section could simply be repeated as desired, and also give the option of extracting further sub-sections to give a further musical twist. Don't Leave Me This Way in its originally published six-plus minute version uses this technique very effectively in the last choruses.
Often, a better introduction is lurking in the chorus, or in a recording's later development, This happened in the flugelhorn introduction and hook to what we in the crew felt was the best ever Soft Cell 12", Torch. The intro figure was a sample taken from John Gatchell's beautiful delivery after the first verse section. But that was a recording was mostly achieved by performance, played all the way with considerable effort (the solo on the 12" remains a classic mesh of punk synth and the best of the New York improvisational culture). Musical power could now come from one key stroke, and composition would never be so limited now that it could pull a structural chorus and put it somewhere else. So many times, composers have had fresh insight once they have heard the acoustic results of their large-scale structural imagination. With the advent of sampling, you could hear a new possibility and try/implement it without having to rewrite a score or rehire musicians.
With increasingly affordable computer sound storage capacity, it became feasible to hold larger and larger lumps of recorded music for manipulation. Although we were hanging on by the technological fingertips most of the time, the broader possibilities made me suggest to Tracy that we might emulate Sylvester's disco era megamix of (You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real, and make the longest single ever by reworking the already event-crammed real-time recording. Its two sides finally lasted 22'55" (including an embedded 'B' side, a new song, and yet more original recording.) For some years, even more than after Why, I would feel tired and want to go to bed whenever I thought of this production. Fortunately, the effect on the dance floor was the opposite, and it was often played in its entirety. The megamix is one of the most ambitious remixes ever, and since vinyl is now history will probably always hold the record for the longest single ever. Essentially, it was a larger-scale application of production methods discussed above, but the sheer scale of it meant we could explore even more musical possibilities. This is clear from the first notes of the intro.
The Syn-drum was among the first commercial attempts to synthesize a drum sound. It had a very distinctive drooping poo-poo sound, not very drum-like but immensely popular on dance productions until, like most novel sounds, it died from overwork. By 1986 it had disappeared into camp. Jimmy would wander around singing Syn-drum sounds, and would usually manage a good musical joke with them. So I suggested that we use his vocal imitation working against my imitation in the Synclavier to start the remix. The feeling of teamwork is one of the most rewarding music studio experiences. Two sound extremes came together. I supplied and fine-tuned the sound, and set up the keyboard so that Jimmy could play it even with the flat of his hands, and so that only one note would emerge per hit and always on a particular accent. With this and the kick drum as a basis, Jimmy could then do his vocal Syn-drum imitations for a couple of parallel takes. With a little more keyboard percussion, such as timbales and tom-toms to make more of a noisy, brattish sound, we had two solid minutes of music and some silly laughs.
The remainder of the first side of the 12" single (the two were re-released ten years later as a single track on a CD of the original first Communards album, although not sounding so good) is an exploration of many sample extracts and new directions possible by putting recognizable figures in unlikely places. There were new instruments, such as bongos and congas (always secret weapons in a dance piece) from New York's Jimmy Maelen, and a wandering solo trumpet from Hollywood Paul, then the trumpet player of the Uptown Horns. It was a always a pleasure to improvise a sound for the fresh keyboard lines Richard always seemed to have under his fingers. Jimmy treated himself to a new, lazy vocal on the first side, for the more extreme electronic version. The rhythmic mat had been carefully planned, so that new keyboard parts with new sounds could be dropped in. Even the complete new B-side (Sanctified) was created over the Don't Leave Me This Way rhythm bed. Particularly rewarding are the samples taken from vocal parts, since they uniquely identify the piece, such as the mangling of Sarah Jane's 'come satisfy me . . . '. The new sessions gave Richard space for his virtuoso string arrangement which takes two minutes to build.
The technology of the time was such that these musical samples had to be played in over the running track, then nudged carefully so that they hit the part of the beat that 'felt' right. After holding them in computer memory while they were processed and re-recorded to tape, the memory was wiped and a new one loaded. (Now, 13 years on, you can keep all such samples live.) In order to synchronized this huge number of effects with the track, and establish a timing reference much like the click mentioned in the Bronski Beat productions, we needed an advance version of New England Digital's Synclavier Release M. It arrived at the studio and worked first time. A lot depended on that successful implementation. The sessions were one of the few times that new computer software worked straight out of the box. A few years later, after much wasted time and money due to sloppy software revisions, I would never set myself up in so trusting a way, with New England Digital or anyone.
There's a limit to the weight of technological or musical effort you can bring to a project. The God-given limit is your own persistence and the energy and excitement inspired by what you are trying to do. There's a limit to how many experts can be brought in, and how much you can command in your own mind. The effort limit is yours and how you mesh with those techniques and professional acquaintances. It's easier for someone who has the technique, but whether the music is better or worse is another question. It might just be slicker, less tough. I wonder if the coincidence of an innovative musical climate and pro-active banker (aka an enthusiastic record company with deep pockets) that provided for that huge effort is gone. It may have been strictly of its time, and not possible now.
Tracy Bennett assured me that the cost of the whole Gotham City mix was 'in the high tens of thousands of dollars'. While a little higher than I calculated (I would probably have underestimated hotel room service and telephone charges), it showed a rare record company commitment which kept the single at the top for four weeks and the album in the British charts for 45 weeks. I still have the platinum record on the wall, and it still reminds me of good, open experimental times. Those dance adventures are harder in the marketing-derived business and rigidly defined stylistic climate of the nineties. The improvisation has moved partly to the live DJ's domain, but such effects are limited by live delivery, which seeks its own reward. The frequent insistence on a style not exclusively based on that of the artist inevitably produces a dilution of the final effect. There's a curious parallel with a previous generation's urban pop: jazz.
(Further developments in dance music to the present time are explored in the coming chapter Dancing: Going Post-Modern
- MT January 1999
Posted from Music In The Machine:
Thorne at the Stereo Society (selected links):
to Thorne's home page (all links)
to Thorne's production commentaries
to Thorne's image gallery
to The Contessa's Party CD page
to Thorne talks to Sound On Sound magazine about Tainted Love, April 2012
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