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The Flowerpot Men: Walk On Gilded Splinters
I don’t know, but I been told
Don’t rain in Hell, but it sure is cold
Did I murder?
Walk On Gilded Splinters (single, 1985)
The Flowerpot Men are:
Ben Watkins & Adam Peters
Album Cover Artwork: Lucius
To Mike Thorne’s selected
There are some recordings which just demand to be made. Once you have yielded to the inevitable, you’ll often find yourself in the grip of a process that you don’t quite control, but you know that to flow on with it to the natural end is the only chance of seeing something new. Death and glory are the only possibilities when you immerse yourself in such anarchy. In the case of Walk On Gilded Splinters, the result was glorious even if its net effect on the world was a little muted.
When you just run with a project, as a producer you’re working in a manner diametrically opposite to that for Britney Spears. With big, mass-market pop records, it’s important to refine the minutiae relating to style and media acceptability, as well as ensuring that the song and music work to the satisfaction of the target audience. The Flowerpot Men were not passive participants, but nor were they fully in control of their material. What they were was constructively reckless, prepared to travel with the song wherever it might take them. The job of a producer in this situation is to facilitate the adventure and demolish as many technical barriers to exploration as possible.
Not that the big 12″ version wasn’t pre-planned. The whole nine-minute piece was worked out and fed into the sequencer section of an early drum machine (the Linn 2), measure by precise measure. The keyboard used was the then-exotic Synclavier, synchronized with the drums using a rather difficult, early-technology technique. The only other instrument was a cello, with backing vocals from local friends/luminaries (Genya Ravan, and Tish and Snooky), although there was to evolve a secret spoken-word weapon. And this was an indie record when ‘indie’ didn’t mean alternative (not) or refer to some refined market segment. Without obvious market-friendly, stylistic precedents, this record had to be made economically, although not cheaply.
The song itself has had interesting and varied treatments. Written by Dr John (Mac Rebennack), it was featured on his very first album in 1968, Gris-Gris, which was a great sixties favorite for getting stoned to. Shortly after, the American singer Marcia Hunt had a huge hit with it in the UK. It has become a durable icon, and many people have now covered it (recently including Carol Lipnik, whose contributions to the Stereo Society include writing Ships That Pass In The Night and an interview). Most recently, it emerged from a collaboration between Paul Weller (the Jam, Style Council) and Noel Gallagher (Oasis). Everyone has their own take on the song, and the Flowerpot Men were no exception. Their melt-down landed at the opposite end of the spectrum from Dr John’s languid treatment.
There were two Flowerpot Men originals. The first, by far the most memorable if they caught you at an impressionable age, were two puppets at the center of a BBC TV children’s series, who spoke in an impenetrable language with exchanges in which their first word sounded like ‘flob a pop’. Their ‘love interest’ was Weed, whose vocabulary was mostly limited to her name and who resembled an anorexic sunflower. Ask any baby-boomer Brit and you’ll suffer a barrage of fond memories. The second original, this one in music, was an opportunistic, canned group in the sixties who had a hit with (cringe) Let’s Go To San Francisco (where the flowers grow/so very high (yech)).
I can’t remember the details of the approach for me to produce their version of Walk On Gilded Splinters, but the fit was immediate. It was very clear that, unlike many indie productions, there would be adequate resources and the manufacturing would be caring. (The eventual record, the second release on Compost Records, didn’t cut typical commercial corners. The sleeve was beautifully designed, with different versions for 7″ and 12″, containing what turned out to be a quality pressing (economical, rather than cheap) made in France. Their previous single, Jo’s So Mean To Josephine, (produced by Steve Severin of Siouxsie and the Banshees) was very well made, with a powerful high-intensity attitude which I found compelling. There was something very distinctive and off-kilter about these two people’s vision.
Much of the credit for pulling all of this together must go to their patient and long-tolerant manager, Les Mills. The group’s two principals were Ben Watkins, a chiseled, ethereal Goth figure with an intense, soulful voice, and Adam Peters, a classically-trained cellist with broad capabilities in arrangement, composition and other performing instruments, and they were living the rock+roll lifestyle to the full while still delivering on their musical promise. It looked like an adventurous, quality exercise which wouldn’t get lost in big company marketing deliberations, and it could be done, even in New York, relatively economically. I said yes please, and didn’t charge any advance even though my going rate at the time reflected several contemporary hits.
The cliff-hanging drama and bare escapes from total disaster that fixed the recording in permanent memory couldn’t be sensed as we met first in London to start defining the very ambitious 12″ structure. The 7″ single version was easy, and followed typical established structures. What wasn’t so easy was imagining radio’s acceptance of this raucous version of a classic, but we knew that stranger things had happened (including Marcia Hunt’s hit version and the whole emergence of Dr John on the back of his first album recorded opportunistically in studio down-time while the musicians were waiting in a Los Angeles studio for the stars to get it together). The song had a crazy aura which gave you confidence.
I called Carl Beatty to record and mix the project, and he suggested we record at Rawlston Recordings, a studio in Brooklyn, New York, that had quality equipment and seemed to be well maintained. The price was right, even allowing for our having to take a cab between Manhattan and Bedford-Stuyvesant at each end of the day (both of which would often turn out to be in the morning). The price was right and the attitude relaxed, in the nicely-appointed studio above Charlie’s Calypso City record store. Visiting with Carl to check it out, I was the only white face on Fulton Street, but the mood was positive and the neighborhood comfortable for us (don’t forget that many journalists who write your morning paper have a vested interest in tension, and people going about regular business are not good copy). We signed up and paid the deposit.
The burden of creating the instrumental sequence, the computer code that defined which notes would be played, fell to me. That was just fine, and normal, and it put me at the crossroads of developing ideas since I was the electronic traffic cop. There’s no better way of understanding something than by handling and manipulating it. At the time, though, it wasn’t as easy to put this stuff together in your bedroom as it is now, involving extensive, labor-intensive programming of the drum machine and of the Synclavier. The group arrived in New York, played a terrific, intense set at the Peppermint Lounge at three in the morning which was attended by several local cultural luminaries, and then reported for work. The development was fun, stimulating and creative, and we reached the night before the first session at Rawlston with everything under control.
Walk on piles of needles
See what they can do
Walk on gilded splinters
With the king of the Zulus
As mentioned, assembling the sequence was cumbersome in the early eighties. So was the equipment: the Synclavier, due to be picked up at 10.30am, took two big people to carry and weighed over 200 pounds, and I daydreamed of the time when it would fit conveniently on a wristwatch. I left Leila asleep upstairs, her alarm set for 6.30am, and went down to the unfinished basement under our Seventh Avenue loft to make some final adjustments before coming to bed. The sequence was not only cumbersome to manipulate, so to simplify construction it was broken into several parts which were then combined in the final nine-minute definition of every note played. This delicate process took a little time, but after half an hour I was complete and ready to close down for the night. Save the computer file, and save a copy of it as backup. At midnight, I pressed two wrong buttons.
We all remember the feeling when, as a kid, you hit a ball in the wrong direction. The time between its leaving the bat and smashing the window feels like an eternity. When there isn’t a pause between action and consequence, you don’t have time to adjust. The blood really does drain from your face. The morning equipment pickup deadline was suddenly a lot closer.
A deep breath got some color back, and then I set about recreating the whole sequence from scratch and from memory. This was not a virtuoso turn, just a long night of dull reconstruction. When you have to rebuild something whose details you know intimately, it’s a long way from the excitement you feel when you initially make something fresh. I wasn’t in a great mood by the time I heard the first movement upstairs.
‘What are you doing down there?’ Leila thought I had just got up early and was fiddling about again, something that I sometimes did under the stress of the first day of an involved session.
‘What the fuck do you think I’m dong down here?’ I had overlooked her telepathic limitations. Not a great continuation of yesterday. I eventually drifted dully upstairs, and reminded her that she still had my house keys from last night out together. I ducked and they flew past me and through the glass deck door. It was dawning on me that I had not been too diplomatic. Leila didn’t pause to reflect, but just stormed off to work. I walked out on the deck, retrieved the keys, and set the alarm to give me three hours sleep. I woke up earlier than the alarm because the broken glass in my foot was hurting and the sheet covered in blood. After digging it out with tweezers (I was more limber then), I grabbed another half hour’s sleep before the doorbell went. There was only one roadie, the other having missed the call but was heading for the studio to help unload. I helped him up the basement stairs with the gear, and grabbed another nap before taking the cab to Bed-Stuy.
This zombie arrived as walking wounded at the studio, which had no elevator but just a narrow flight of stairs up to the recording room. These were hard enough to climb with your lunch box. Climbing them with a 200 pound deadweight, my substituting for the still-missing-in-action roadie, didn’t seem like the best way to start a 12-hour session, but I was ready for the group with a smile on the face. The day was rather dull after that full morning, but we got to where we needed and cleared off at the official time (we were recording back-to-back with Run-DMC, who were working the night shift).
The secret weapon was Dr John himself. Following a suggestion from the group, one of those ‘what if we could…’ remarks, I had tracked him down through his manager to his downtown home on West 13th Street, which was within walking distance of mine. The group went to visit him, charmed him, and he agreed to contribute a rap to the long version a couple of days later. Meanwhile, we continued with long hours building up the instrumental body. It’s quite startling to realize that anything on the finished recording that sounds like a guitar is probably a cello, and most things that don’t are also. Probably a guitar or two would have yielded a more focused and coherent recording, but it’s still entertaining to hear the anarchic noise today. You need a little dogma to limit yourself to particular instruments and therefore stretch the limits of the possible. Not that we were likely to hire a 16-piece string section.
Dr John, Mac Rebennack, came out to Fulton Street by subway. A genial, imposing presence, he settled in with the track that he had already heard developing in rough, pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and delivered a most lyrical rap, most of it completely incomprehensible to us. It sounded great, though. That took all of half an hour, so the rest of the allocated time was dedicated to anecdotes and enlightenment. Finally, we know that the phrase just before the chorus that is echoed by the female backing singers wasn’t ‘did I murder’. ‘Tell Alberta’ had been used as a private signal to shout between cell levels of the New Orleans jail he had been thrown into for youthful drug transgressions, suggesting the haunting relay between voices in his original version. So much for the mystery of that line which, like the song itself, has had a wide variety of interpretations.
We continued to a successful conclusion, adjusting the drums to suit the unfolding instrumental and vocal pile, and the last task of the last day in Brooklyn was to lay the completed drum pattern to the multitrack tape, which took about an hour of sonic polishing before committing. Two minutes later, the drum machine lit up like a Christmas tree and then went back to normal, but showing only zeros where our hard-worked drums had been. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. For the first time on the sessions, I’d beaten the odds.
Some people say they jive me
But I know they must be crazy
(or sounds to this effect)
– MT, May 30 2004