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CBGB and Hilly Kristal at the Stereo Society
CBGB and Hilly Kristal
The Sex Pistols’ Jubilee boxed set
In 2002, Virgin Records released this exceptionally detailed collection, which is essentially the whole Sex Pistols’ recorded output. By implication, it’s the history of their recording. In addition, Virgin collected a wide range of peripheral demos and alternative versions, many of which were previously unreleased. The notes are easily the best of any Pistols collection, which you get in the box containing the CDs.
Mike Thorne’s EMI Manchester Square demos had been the stuff of legend…maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. At the time, for him it was all in a day’s work. The results wound up on CD here for the first time ever, to startlingly good reviews. They weren’t intended as records, as the story tells, but they sound pretty lively. Here is Thorne’s receding recollection of the scene and the times.
A&R is a catch-all term for the record company department which is the interface between the musicians, their music and the rest of the organization. It’s variously assumed to mean Artists & Repertoire, or maybe even Acts and Recording. The abbreviation has become more familiar than the words over the past 50 years or more. The functions it embraced and the duties it carries out have changed profoundly over the same period. Effectively, we have seen a shut-down of creative and artistic direction within the large record companies, and a profound change in the music that is released widely.
The scale of the major record companies has become so large that their record releases have dwindled and their resources are dedicated to a much smaller number of artists than even ten years ago. Economies of scale apply everywhere. It wasn’t always this way.
With the marketing focus now, artists are often groomed and developed to fit a particular market niche. In the olden days, the emphasis would be on finding the next big thing, implying that the record companies themselves didn’t have so much influence in the matter but just had to find the hot spot and the music that was emerging. An A&R Department was there to spot talent and then guide its development to the point where an album could be released that might interest the masses. There was a similar regression to the norm in that there would be stampedes towards the next big thing that was often ‘the next Led Zeppelin’, ‘the next Eagles’ or (even more hideously) ‘the next Genesis’. But their aim was to look for something already there, rather than concocting something to fit a lowest common denominator and a pre-specified mass demographic.
Post-World War II, the A&R departments were responsible for practical music production, and directed all aspects of an artist’s recorded development. The system could claim success in handling some very fresh new talent directions. George Martin inhabited such a department in his massively productive EMI phase, which generated classics from the Beatles and Peter Sellars (although he left EMI when the bosses refused to acknowledge his contribution in financial ways beyond his regular salary). 16 years on, when I showed up at Manchester Square headquarters (since demolished), the house producer function was defunct in the pop department but flourishing in the MOR (Middle-of-the-Road) sector. (Music in those days was conveniently divided into three categories. Classical also favored in-house production, and was a thriving business.)
Eventually, I was to be a lone throwback to the house producer when offered the job in 1977, a year in which I would produce five albums including my first to hit the top 20 and my first gold disk (very different records). However, the previous year was spent diligently pursuing an A&R career with no thought to further progress. In the process, I recorded several demonstration tracks with the Sex Pistols just after they signed with EMI. Half way to being a throwback to a prehistoric role, I was suddenly working with a group who were the spearhead of the new punk movement that was efficiently turning conventional pop music, and the associated received wisdom of how it should be done, completely on its head. Punk had started as a quintessentially outsider pursuit. But although it would be wholeheartedly, even overwhelmingly embraced by the UK population, it took a lot of proving to get it through to the EMI signing. And lots of demos.
The original set was recorded by their sound man, Dave Goodman, a sometime musician gone engineer, who captured the raw energy with somewhat erratic sound but making a set of recordings which, given a little imagination, showed clearly where the band were at. The tracks subsequently appeared on several bootlegs and semi-official releases, but are now collected on this release in all their ragged glory (along with some of Dave’s efforts from the first attempt at recording Anarchy In The UK, which were often used as B sides on the later singles produced by Chris Thomas). The sleeve notes and the overall packaging contribute to the first ever comprehensive retrospective compilation that enhances our fading memories of those raucous times.
We’ve seen other compilations, but mostly their opportunism and scant presentation classed them with the band’s memorable great rock ‘n’ roll swindle itself. The honorable exception is the live CD from the Filthy Lucre tour in 1996, whose performances for me often transcend those of the original Never Mind The Bollocksalbum. The original album, even though I have the loyalty which comes from being the ‘A&R guy’ on the earliest part of the project, still seems a little formulaic to me. This contrasts with the live recording which has such a cheerfully noisy quality closer to the original spirit of the band despite their passing the old-fart-forties around the same time. During the latter part of 1976, I saw them perhaps a dozen times. Each performance remains memorable, not necessarily for musical consistency. My recall is certainly tinted rose, but I get to enjoy it, thanks.
Dave’s demos gave the A&R Department the plot, and in particular my boss Nick Mobbs to whom I took the project after being the lucky one (the only A&R droog to like the stuff, and the only one who hadn’t seen the band on the cover of the then market leader Melody Maker, since I neither read the comics nor listened to the radio). But selling the band to the rest of the company to get their support needed a more sanitized demo, one with a more conventional musical presentation. Hence the December 1976 demos and backing tracks (recordings for the band to sing over conveniently for a TV presentation). As it happened, the more familiar rock+roll frame was more appropriate.
Dave has had his tracks sneaked out over the years, and they have received a deservedly wider hearing. Mine were recorded purely for internal demonstration, and in order not to preempt the master recordings I didn’t ask the group to record backing vocals to complete any track-as-we-knew-it-then. At the time, I and my closer friends enjoyed the musically compromised result, but then new excitement beckoned elsewhere. The masters were to stay on my shelf for 26 years, during which time I also aged appreciably: I became nearly twice the age I was when I recorded them. They were broadcast, I understand, on an Italian radio station and became known as the ‘Italian demos’, but were otherwise left to rot. I have never thought much of exhuming the corpse when there were live bodies to cozy up to, so I let them rest in peace.
Then came the 25th band anniversary and Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee. Slowly and suddenly, the tapes had become mythical history while languishing unappreciated in my storage. Meanwhile, I had been designated a grand old man of pop culture facilitation, a role I’m trying to get used to in my own second half century but which really only fits when I’ve had one beer too many and am holding forth late at night at the bar. Making daft, high-decibel and surprising noises continues to be preferable to pontificating about the youth of yesterday and today. And loud is always better. But I was happy and surprised when a phone call arrived from Glen Matlock (the original bass player and prime mover before Sid Vicious) asking did I possibly have those old demos that we all dimly remembered recording on a Saturday afternoon over a generation ago, under pressure of the social weekend commencement and fenced off from the rest of the EMI offices thanks to TV transgressions.
When analog magnetic tape ages, it doesn’t only fall apart. Often, it becomes one solid lump of plastic, each wind sticking to the other. Many masters have been lost in this way, or saved only because safety copies were carefully made. After 26 years, we didn’t know how solid our demos would be, and we were ready with the baking connection. (Baking old tapes in an oven can loosen them up for a short time, sufficient to allow a copy to be made. Then that’s it for ever.)
We opened the box, put the tape on and listened without stickiness. Nothing had changed in all that time on the shelf, the audio same as it ever was. EMI no longer makes professional audio tape. But they can score one big point, 26 years later.
Mike Thorne, August 31 2002