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Carmel: Bad Day

Punk has had a bad name since it defiled and was defined in the seventies. When it first came to pop consciousness in New York, courtesy of the New York Dolls and their related scene, it was interpreted on the inside as a culture of misfits, on the outside as worthless, socially-compromised dropouts. As the seventies wore on, it came to mean differently, and gave its name to an energetic and overwhelming musical movement in the UK. What characterized this movement (as it was called by some of its more idealistic protagonists at the time) was not so much style and pose as the belief that you could do it yourself. You didn’t need experts. You could make up the rules freshly, and proceed without the cloying crowd of establishment A&R guys, managers, producers, the whole crowd who knew the rules, knew how they delivered success, and who dictated how you had to behave if you wanted to progress with your music.

The punk style became associated with the three-chord thrash, pogoing and loose-cannon rule-breaking. For me, that wasn’t the essence. The common thread was (and is) a do-it-yourself attitude which doesn’t acknowledge conventional barriers, and it’s independent of style. In the 21st century, punk has become a style which you can wear on a Saturday night like a favorite old shirt. None of the philosophy persists. It’s worth a short historical lesson, because the attitude informed many notable groups stylistically very removed from the chainsaw guitar.

As an example, there were two clear groups of outsiders in London mid-seventies. One was the inventive punk class, who carved their niche and their big hits. The other was the second generation after the West Indian immigrants of the fifties and sixties, often feeling disenfranchised after their parents came to work in response to Caribbean recruitment campaigns. With the West Indians came reggae. This music, epitomized and ultimately popularized by Bob Marley and the Wailers, was an outsider expression perfectly parallel with punk. The Roxy club DJ was Don Letts, later to grow to be an accomplished black Brit film-maker. Reggae by day (evening), punk chainsaw by night (early morning). The key was do-it-yourself, the connection between them not stylistic but in method.

The do-it-yourself ethos has always been the street pop method of choice. You can’t stand the (musical or lifestyle) methods of your parents or the world that suffocates you, so you make up your own rules, invent accordingly, and likely achieve the goal of pissing off your parents. Some great work has been facilitated by this attitude, over many centuries. The common characteristic is breaking the rules because, from your personal standpoint, they don’t make sense. Or you don’t want to repeat. Just as in the sixties, a broad band of musical artists were informed and freed by the cosmic possibilities of following your own intuitive lead, in the mid-seventies many people were freed of conventional shackles by the example of punk. If the rules don’t work with your intuition, discard them. Make up new ones.

Carmel, who called it quits (for the first time) in 1997, was a vibrant, pioneering trio, the heart of what was usually a much larger performing ensemble. The eponymous singer, Carmel McCourt, has an extraordinary voice, whose pure R&B sound and sensibility belies her Irish family background. When you hear her voice, you will not expect her face. Her facial structure, with delicate nose and small bones, doesn’t even hint at the huge, soulful black sound she makes when she opens up. Her then boy friend, Jim Par(r)is, was from a Guyanese family who ended up in Manchester. He played bass. His drummer cousin, Gerry Darby had a circuitous route to the group’s Manchester base, including residence in Hendon (north London).

Carmel was born in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, a major contender for the title of least stylish town in Britain. Scunthorpe will always be the butt of too many pub jokes, along with Wigan and Clitheroe. The end result of their drift was the musical coalescence of these three restless misfits into the group Carmel, based in Manchester. They’re still there, individually. Culture matters. You live with it. They created a significant slice in the early eighties by applying the punk attitude to venerable musical forms.

The group had released their own EP in 1982, through a Manchester-based independent label, which had come to the attention of Roger Ames (now (2002) boss of Warner Music worldwide, then head of London Records, a division of Phonogram). He signed them, and proposed the self-written Bad Day as a first single for national release. The precursor of Bad Day drew on old-style gospel recordings, with strong hints of Mahalia Jackson for one, but the group’s stance was a long way from following tradition.

The ensemble for the single recording session was Carmel, Jim and Gerry, augmented by Helen Watson and Rush Winters on backup vocals. They wanted an organ, to use a traditional Hammond sound, so I called Steve Nieve (one of Ian Dury’s Blockheads, among other things). Steve, an unusually gifted and flexible musician, was to be very helpful in stabilizing the other relatively raw instrumentalists in the studio. The first single is always seen as crucial. This is the time when any artist suddenly realizes that they are playing in Division One and that they have to aspire to a high standard of whatever it is they do. Tension can be high.

Carmel herself was the point person for all of this, and she obviously felt it acutely. She would never put anything less than everything into a performance and, like any performer, wanted studio surroundings to be as comfortable and familiar as possible.

Unfortunately, in order to get a reasonable sound, the studio setup cannot but intrude on an artist, another stress-inducing change. There is no such thing as a perfectly comfortable studio, and there is no such thing as a perfect sound. In practical recording, there is always a balance between the artist’s comfort and the resulting sound at the mixing console. Many singers keep their initial technical performance habits simply because they can deliver their best performance. Using a hand-held microphone is quite common, even though that means that mikes of the highest quality are ruled out (typically because of vibration pickup or weight). One star crooner I heard of in New York recorded his vocals lying flat out on the comfortably battered studio couch. Unfortunately for Carmel and the rest of us, she had grown up accustomed to hearing her vocals relayed from a cheap dynamic microphone to a cheap and dirty practice amp blasting away at her side.

John Etchells, the highly capable, mild-mannered BBC-type engineer at Jam Studios, was confronted (the appropriate political word) with getting a sound from her which would be at least half-decent in the context of other singles. His amiable composure was visibly, if slightly ruffled. His expression was priceless, Carmel’s was steadfast. She wanted to give her best and didn’t want to compromise her comfort one bit. John and I knew from experience that she might deliver the greatest performance, but the recording would be dismissed as unlistenable and amateur. This was time for the producer-diplomat. ‘No,’ she said.

This was a very familiar situation. You find yourself with five days to record tracks for a single, during which time the star attraction has to relearn a whole technique and sing in a potentially unsettled state. Carmel hadn’t experienced the full process from studio to released disk on the radio, and so has no way of balancing the risks proposed in the interests of a good vocal sound. ‘Sounds fine to me,’ she said, gesturing protectively at the amp at her feet in the vocal booth. ‘Please, just give this a try,’ I pleaded as John positioned the Neumann in front of her. I knew that we had three more days for her to settle in, but by the time she delivered her definitive vocal, she would have to be in the right mental space.

The group said they wanted the most live feel, and I readily agreed. Here again, there’s a compromise to be negotiated between the accuracy of the sound and the performance with the intangible feeling you get with people all playing simultaneously. The greatest hi-fidelity sound is pointless if the hairs on your forearm don’t start standing up on end. But, again, this was not an experienced band that could take a complex performance in their stride and build to the point of highest tension. And the surroundings, even though Carmel was the only performer isolated in a sound booth, were taxing for everyone. The pressure must have seemed relentless.

I decided to rehearse the group and their parts live to the 24-track tape, so that they could get accustomed to the environment. This meant recording everything together to tape first, then concentrating on sections such as bass or the backup singers alone, rerecording, then relaying the next stage of the piece’s development. Those uninvolved could watch TV instead of getting bored. We went round this for several cycles, until a solid, distinctive arrangement had emerged. It had been developed in layers, but would be performed at once. This mode of rehearsal had meant that everyone could focus on their own parts without being distracted by others’ fumbling as they felt for a line. It wasn’t the most conventional way to deliver a hit, but a few months later had proved to be very successful. Carmel, meanwhile had almost warmed to the Neumann after being presented with the sound comparison in the control room. However, she was still ready to defend any threatened part of the turf in her comfort zone of familiarity.

As was the style of the time, we recorded an extended version. Almost as a throwaway, Carmel had interjected the anthemic ‘I’m giving you hope’ line as the last chorus was gradually winding down. Everyone agreed that this could turn a corner and keep the audience’s attention for quite some time. You hear the complete, unadorned live version here, which was issued on the subsequent album.

One of the most helpful results of rehearsing this way was that each performer, performer group, could sort themselves out without the rest of the participants standing around getting bored. This can be crucial. One of the easiest ways to kill a track is to lose the interest of the performers by wearing them out. You’ll never hear a spontaneous delivery after that, and the larger the ensemble, the longer the time spent hanging around. The spark is dramatically audible on the last section of the long version, where the vocalists throw around phrases as if they just thought of them. Of course, this isn’t possible for two or more people, telepathy being what it is. Here also, you hear Steve Nieve’s mature organ backbone, and he is drawn into the supportive role of music director through his keyboard dynamics and interjections.

For the single version, some two and a half minutes shorter, we built up the backing vocals, and in addition laid in some frequency shifted electronic harmonies to give a cheerfully compelling and slightly inaccurate sound. (The inaccuracy comes from the rather unmusical sound of a constant harmonic interval generated by the machine. When a real singer creates a harmony ‘at the third’ or wherever, the actual interval will vary depending on the overall harmonic movement of the complete piece.) However, this inaccuracy suggested very powerfully the sound of a congregation with singers of variable capability but fully enthusiastic and committed. You can hear the difference in the short version here, which was only available as the original 7” single or as part of the 12” package. This gospel congregation sang one of the more unlikely UK hits of the early eighties.

– Mike Thorne, October 4 2002