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Deep Purple: Fireball air conditioning

Mike Thorne recorded the air conditioning for Deep Purple's Fireball‘What we need is the sound of a machine starting up…….’

‘We told them it was some fancy synthesizer…….’

Once upon a time, we lived in a pleasant, settled society where everyone knew their place. If you were tilling the fields and the landowner passed by, you would doff your cap or tug at your forelock, depending on the season. In the noisy factory, a conversational hush would descend if a robber baron was on an inspection tour of his possessions.

The recording studio, with its strict, socially-tiered structure which existed in the good old days, is no more. (I’ve labored long over the reasons elsewhere.) As with all change, there are gains and losses. The gain for us now is the accessibility by the general population to musical electronics, both sound producing and sound recording. I hope more people can now enjoy music as a hobby at least: the modern equivalent of an upright piano in the parlor/front room is a computer music rig. The downside is the loss of a fixed studio with expertise and a structure assuring the tea boy/apprentice that although he might be humble he was also learning an important and satisfying craft. One day, he too could be handling music on a daily basis. One day, he could be a name on an album in millions of record collections. He could put up with quite a lot for the promises. Recordings are now the worse for the loss of that passing-on of skill and experience. It might have been exclusive, but that guild provided an educational lineage and reservoir of that expertise.

If you wanted to climb to the next rung and became a card-carrying recording engineer, you would work hard, observe others’ technique, and seize any occasion to take over the studio for a practice session. I had recorded some band and classical music off-hours. But come Christmas Eve 1970, I was that tea boy, still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager for action and to learn something new. Since it was the holiday season, no-one had booked the studio, so I was restricted to hanging out in the cramped reception area of De Lane Lea Music, chatting with receptionist Andrea. That studio, like many spaces which have nurtured great work, was without music, really just an uninspiring and shabby basement. I was terminally bored, with no agenda save waiting for the boss’ phone call to permit us to start our holidays. And in trying to think of something new to say to Andrea that we hadn’t covered before in many other low-activity, on-duty hours jammed together in a tight, claustrophobic space.

Andrea staving off boredom with engineer Louis Austin in De Lane Lea Music reception, 1970. In 1977, Lou mixed the live Roxy album, a most unlikely hit, but was unaccredited since the studio thought the music and sound was so awful and requested anonymity.

Boredom has its cures, for which we search assiduously, although they say idle hands are the devil’s workers. The studio air conditioning was to be my artistic and technical focus until the releasing phone call, and it yielded completely undreamed-of consequences (when did anything go according to plan in that business?). Despite most of such music being trivial jingles or cover tune imitations, I was never bored on an orchestral session: the assistant has to work harder than ever keeping the studio and maybe 20 musicians up, running and personally content. Incidental to orchestral sessions, I had enjoyed the singular sound that the air conditioning made in the string section mics when it was turned on after a take. (Such was the racket when it was running that sounds smaller than Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar’s Marshall stack could be compromised.) I remember hot and crabby string sections after one unairconditioned take too many. Yet it came to be that this AC unit was perhaps the most appreciated in recording history, even though the fans didn’t know. It was my first hit recording (sort of).

Several massively expensive tube mics (a Neumann U67 now fetches maybe $5000 on the used market) were placed strategically in the grubby AC closet: about five, I remember. With a little plate reverb, not to mention fastidious mic placing refined by control room checks, I created what to my beginner’s ears was a most enveloping stereo machine sound. Forget all that fancy Stockhausen electronic music, the cutting edge of the sixties I’d been listening to: this was mine, and it sounded glorious. I turned the machine on, waited a little after it had climaxed to appreciate the full roar of its sostenuto, then turned it off (generating a familiar massive electrical click on the tape, another De Lane Lea feature). The machine wound down in its own classic fashion. As it did, the celebratory church bells from next door wafting down the air shaft gradually faded up. God in His heaven was smiling and obviously approved. I faded the recording, edited out the click with a razor blade, and put the master in a box with credit to the singular performance of the West Uzbekistan Percussion Ensemble. (It was just after the sixties had closed, please humor me.) The master went into the tape store, where it languished forgotten until an innovative client request.

Boredom had never been a characteristic of a Deep Purple recording session, although the entertainment for us had varied remarkably. When I first arrived at De Lane Lea in the summer of 1970, the group was coming off the huge success of Deep Purple In Rock, an album which I personally didn’t like as much as their later, more direct and economical efforts because of its anticipation of progressive rock. Each musician was a musically accomplished individual but they were flirting too much with the fancy stuff for my personal taste (not that taste should affect the professionalism of a good studio operator). At that expensive (£18/$40 an hour) but earthy and street rock+roll studio, we got to fight for who wouldn’t have tape-op (assistant engineer/tea boy) duty on their sessions. Star quality didn’t matter. The vibe, as they say, was bad, although I can’t guess why from this historical distance. Maybe they would later relax a little once they were established? I didn’t know.

Martin Birch, engineer on the Fireball sessions

Martin Birch, engineer on the Fireball sessions

I was fired by the studio the following summer. It was a good run, but I had put a few too many flat feet wrong, mostly in political puddles. However, in the meantime Deep Purple had recorded their classic Fireball album with us, and had become very changed machine heads. They were suddenly such an open, creative, relaxed pleasure to work with that we lowly assistants were now fighting to be on their sessions. Come the mix, I was assisting engineer Martin Birch on the title track. One of the group, probably Roger Glover, turned to Martin and said, ‘what we need to get this track [and the album] going is the sound of a machine starting up.’ Martin hummed and hawed for a little, until I whispered in his ear.

The West Uzbekistan Percussion Ensemble masterpiece was immediately grafted, to be the start of the opening track, although it had to be transferred in mono for the mix since my glorious stereo could not pass through the limitations of a 16-channel mixing desk and an eight-track multitrack tape recorder. A happy session concluded with delighted clients. I forgot about my tape, happy that I’d contributed my first widely-heard sounds. In the enforced rush of carrying out my final clear-your-desk marching orders, I left it behind in the tape store. The album duly came out and was their most successful to date, creating a new, heavy-rock/hard-rock sound which was to define a genre for a generation. I still love the record, even if still relatively unmoved by In Rock.

The group were/are social and gracious people. Jon Lord (keyboards) gave me a lift back from Malibu in 1975 (where I had been staying with their now-producer Martin Birch), dropping me off from the limo a block from my girl friend’s home in a low-rent section of Hollywood (the neighbors would have talked). I enjoyed pleasant reminiscence with Roger Glover (bass, who had recently remixed several of their early albums with the benefit of late 20th-century technology) in a Greenwich, Connecticut restaurant during a chance meeting through mutual friends in November 2002. Conversation was even more charming for hearing about Jon’s synthesizer imitation of the ancient air conditioning’s wheeze of an introduction.

The enlightening encounter was meeting Ian Gillan (vocals) in the late eighties working with Carmel, when we were each settled in adjacent rooms in Parr Street, a residential Liverpool studio. At the bar, settled on adjacent stools after hours, after I bearded him. He owned up that the group had told people who asked that the sound was made by a ‘special’ synthesizer.
‘ Could I have my tape back please? Or a copy?’
‘ Sorry, it’s stored in a garage in Hemel Hempstead. Maybe.’

Fireball remains a classic, ground-breaking record.

Like many early and unrecognized masterpieces, the career-best master recording of the West Uzbekistan Percussion Ensemble has been lost to posterity.

Succeeding generations will never experience the full sonic majesty of the De Lane Lea air-conditioning (since demolished).

– MT December 28 2002

Afterthought by Mike Thorne in 2007:
The postscripts to my ‘small world’ connection with the superstar group with whom I had the good fortune to work (and by whom to be educated) seem to keep on coming.  The most recent one connects right back to age eleven.

I grew up in Sunderland in the north-east of England, then a basic coal mining and ship building town on the brink of collapse into inevitable fifties/sixties rusty industrial decline.  In contrast with playing soccer every available minute, which we all did, piano lessons were not a street-credible pursuit. But I couldn’t muster the courage to counter my parents’ initiative.  Sometimes, I would arrive for a weekly lesson without having touched the keyboard since the last one.  Often, I would say hello to the departing student from the time slot before: Don Airey. We were friends, sharing youthful obsessions with music, football and trainspotting: in the same school class from age eleven, until I was demoted down from the ‘A’ class at age 15, largely for misbehavior.

Don and I shared the same piano teacher from our first (Norman Bonfield) to our last before leaving for our respective universities at age 18: Clifford Hartley.  ‘Cliff’ (not to his face) was the organist at Bishopwearmouth Church, which later became Sunderland Cathedral when the town was upgraded to city.

In the yearly piano (Associated Board) exams, I would always achieve a solid pass grade, and once even scraped a merit (by just one mark, achieving 120).  Don would invariably be awarded a high distinction (always way north of the 130 needed).  Thus, I sensed that I didn’t have the part of the brain that facilitated fast performance thinking – or maybe that my school friend had an extra lobe. Or both.

Nearly 40 years passed.  I received an E mail through this site on the Contact page.  Don was in Greenwich, Connecticut, rehearsing with Deep Purple.  As mentioned before, Roger Glover was living there at the time.  I was stuck in New York in the studio, away from my place in that town.  In December 2006, we finally re-met, over nice Cambridge pints by the river Cam.  I hadn’t realized the half of his distinguished performance career.  That he was now often called ‘the new Jon Lord of Deep Purple’ wasn’t a second-class slight: many reviews of the recent album comment about his particular musical character, and also how it still fits smoothly with the band’s musical ethos. He was well primed during stints with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Jon Hiseman’s Coliseum, Ozzy Osbourne, Whitesnake, Gary Moore, Cozy Powell, Black Sabbath and many more.

The smallest world converges.  One of his sons is a roadie/techie for the group, and takes care of the keyboard setup.  Before every gig, he has to load the sample of the West Uzbekistan Percussion Ensemble’s classic performance into Don’s rig, ready for the performance intro to Fireball.

I hope it’s in stereo by now. But maybe it’s more classic if it isn’t.

– MT March 4 2007

To an interview (text) with Don Airey for the local Sunderland BBC radio station, discussing his career and growing up in Sunderland

photos of Deep Purple and engineer Martin Birch (color) taken fromthe lavishly-produced Fireball deluxe edition.
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