Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Trident (Pt. 2)

Roky Erickson & The Aliens
'Creature With The Atom Brain' - acetate

Perhaps the stage in my career where I learned the most about music was when I worked in Trident’s Disc Cutting suite. After my stint as tea-boy, which lasted something like 8 months, I was invited to move up to "tape-op" or assistant engineer, as it’s more fancifully known in the US. I was nearly 19, and had enjoyed my humble start but I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to be a recording engineer (the natural progression after tape-op) as I wasn’t particularly interested in the technical side of things. Seemed to me that you had to know what all those knobs, switches and faders did and that just seemed like being an electrician, to me anyway. Furthermore, most pop musicians had little formal training so endless patience was required while somebody tried over and over to get their parts down in a way that would excite the masses. What if I got lumbered doing a bunch of Elton John sessions? I didn’t like him as a person and I couldn't stand his music. All I knew was my tea-making skills had brought me close to some fascinating people and that I wanted to have some role in the record making process. Who knows? Maybe this was it.
A few weeks earlier, I’d watched Roy Baker (or Roy Thomas Baker, as he soon became known) make the move from staff engineer to produce a group called Skin Alley. He was on his way. John Anthony had been a disc jockey at the Speakeasy during its heyday and was now a producer with a solid track record (Rare Bird, Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator, Lindisfarne) under his belt. In 1969, he had produced a band called Smile while working for Mercury Records. They’d kept in touch and once they’d brought in Farrokh Bulsara (Freddie Mercury) as singer and changed their name to Queen, John brought them to Trident’s owners who were looking to expand their business. Queen were quickly signed to Trident Audio Productions for management and Roy and John formed a production company, Neptune Productions. Recording would take place during "down-time" at the studio (ie when there were no other bookings). Roger Taylor, Brian May, John Deacon and Freddie were nice enough people. Brian had a professorial air and had studied at Imperial College to become an astrophysicist. Roger had ‘rock star’ down, Freddie was completely and brilliantly over the top in every way and Deacon was the quiet, boring one. They were magnificent musicians and Freddie had a (uh) penetrating, distinctive voice. Anyway, to cut a long story short, Roy (who ended up actually behind the desk for most of the sessions) liked to monitor the takes at EAR-SPLITTING levels. I suppose that's ok...if you liked the music. I, however, thought Queen’s songs were ridiculous and no matter how loud they were, to me - someone brought up during the beat boom and weaned on UK r&b - I couldn’t get my head around songs like 'My Fairy King', 'Great King Rat', 'Jesus' or practically anything on the record. Sitting there hitting 'record' and endlessly rewinding spools of tape while being hammered by this stuff began to feel like torture. Plus, Roy started aping Freddie’s über-camp affectations and suddenly everyone was mincing around, calling each other “dearie”, and talking as if we were all locked in some dreadful Larry Grayson episode. After a bunch of these sessions, I begged studio manager, Penny Kramer, to put me to use elsewhere.
They put me in a little-used room on the 3rd floor which was equipped with a small console, 2 Ampex and 2 Studer reel-to-reel stereo tape decks and said “you now make the copies…report to Bob Hill in the disc-cutting room next door". I spent about 18 months copying 1/4" masters, EQ’d production tapes or just plain stereo mixes for anyone who needed them. My biggest client was Liberty U/A Records, a record company not far away, on Mortimer St. They used to send tapes over mainly to be copied for release in countries in Europe. For some godforsaken reason Slim Whitman was HUGE in places like Belgium and the Netherlands. I made copious copies of practically every one of the albums in his vast catalog. Often, Liz Arnold would send over something that piqued my interest and here, I first heard whole albums by Brinsley Schwartz, Help Yourself, Cochise, Neu!, Amon Düül, Nektar, Man, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Ventures, Don McLean and the fantastic, Johnny Rivers. Once, they sent the Flamin’ Groovies (in person) over to get some copies. They’d just been at Rockfield Studios with Dave Edmunds at the controls and lead guitarist, Cyril Jordan (in his nifty green velvet suit) and drummer/joker, Danny Mihm both made a strong impression. Not long after, the record company asked me to edit out the mainlining-a-hit-of-morphine verse from ‘Slow Death’ so the BBC could play it on the radio but it made no difference. They didn’t play it anyway. One of the most electrifying gigs I ever went to was when the Groovies played an all-nighter at the Scala Cinema in Kings Cross in '72. By then, I'd already seen them open for David Bowie at Dunstable's Civic Hall and at the Scala, they didn't disappoint. But I stuck around to see Iggy & The Stooges make their UK debut and they utterly blew my mind, changed how I looked at shows for ever and I doubt if anyone there can remember many details about the Groovies performance. Iggy came out looking like a deranged god and proceeded to show us how rock 'n' roll should be done. Urgent, prurient, unpredictable, cocky and with maximum abandon. Another time, U/A sent over a mono Eddie Cochran album asking me to turn it into simulated stereo. I popped next door and asked Bob's right hand man, Ray Staff, how to fake it. He told me to run the mono signal through two channels on the console, turn the high frequencies up and the low frequencies down on the right channel and do the opposite on the left one. Naturally, this sounded like crap but it created the illusion that some instruments were over ‘there’, while others were over ‘here’. Sort of. The tapes came from a live tv show called Boy Meets Girls that U/A's head of a&r Andrew Lauder had rescued from a vault somewhere. On it, Eddie gives a stellar performance and Gene Vincent adds vocals to 'White Lightning'. It’s well worth tracking down if you can find it.
'Louie Louie' - acetate

L.A. rock legend Kim Fowley booked a session once, arriving with a gorgeous young girl with long, shiny black hair who he introduced as “dog meat”. She sat next to him and didn’t say a word while he took off his shoes and proceeded to pick at the skin between his toes during our session. Despite this, I found him to be a highly entertaining individual. He claimed to have a photographic memory, knew everybody and had great stories about them all. The Stones, the Beatles, the Monkees, the Byrds, Frank Zappa, Gene Vincent were all grist for his mill. A few years later, while at Island Records, an (unsolicited) telex came through with some of his lyrics on it for Eddie & The Hot Rods to consider recording.
Kim’s still very active and has a show well worth checking out at weekends on Little Steven’s Underground Garage station on the Sirius satellite network.
So while I built up a small business in the copy room, next door, Bob and Ray were establishing themselves as two of the county’s top disc-cutting engineers. Their main competition was George ‘Porky’ Peckham (formerly of the Fourmost) who’d developed quite a reputation at Apple Corps and was soon to open up under his own banner at The Master Room.
Eddie & The Hot Rods
'It Came Out Of the Sky' - acetate (unreleased)

In the early 70’s, I’d say all the best records released in the UK had their parts cut by Bob, Ray or George. Back in the old days (BCd), the final stage of a recording’s creative life took place in a disc cutting room. Here, artists, producers, engineers, record companies would bring their ¼” master tapes (stereo or mono) to be turned into acetates for reference purposes or master lacquers for manufacturing purposes. Reference acetates, if handled carefully, could be played back up to nearly a dozen times before they’d start to lose quality. Clients would ‘tweak’ the sound for the last time as it was played back on our Studer A-80 using limiters, compression and EQ’ing the (overall) sound until it sounded exactly the way they wanted. Then that signal would be fed into the diamond stylus on the cutting head of our Neumann lathe.

(Thanks to Steve Caraco at the incredible site for allowing me to borrow his 'acetate' page for a picture of the lathe and a more detailed explanation of the process. Interesting to see a Madonna acetate for 'Lucky Star' cut at Trident there, too)

The cutting head would be lowered onto a revolving blank acetate (@33rpm or 45rpm) and move slowly toward the center of the disc imparting its signal, cutting a single groove as it got closer to the center. Then, these acetates would be played on a system that the client knew well and they would either approve it or make further changes. If the disc was approved and it was to be released commercially, then we’d use the same settings to cut the master lacquers. This time, we’d use a larger disc (to allow for handling – 7” singles would be cut onto 10” discs, 12” lps would be cut onto 14” discs) and these would get packed immediately into a dust-free metal container and sent directly to the appropriate factory where they’d be placed into a chemical bath, electroplated and turned into metal stampers (the groove now being a negative version of what was cut into the acetate) and pressed onto dollops of soft vinyl which would then - magically – turn into the item that would suck the money right out of my pocket every week, get me?

So now I’d find myself rubbing shoulders with the best on the creative side of the music business. Producers like Gus Dudgeon, Jonathan King, John Anthony, Neil Slaven, David Hitchcock, Sandy Roberton, Nicky Chinn and Michael Chapman would bring their tapes to us. Artists like David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Pete Townshend, Mott The Hoople, Rory Gallagher, Jimmy Page, the Rolling Stones and Monty Python’s Terry Jones would stop in to use our services. Managers like Doug Smith,
Jack Reiley, Billy Gaff, Tony DeFries, Dave Robinson and Carl Leighton-Pope...companies like Warner Bros, Elektra, Atlantic, Island, U/A, President, DJM, Trojan (they didn’t even bother with tape – they just sent over Jamaican 45s and told us to cut from them, clicks and scratches included), CBS, Charisma and Transatlantic used us regularly. Even Janie Jones, who alledgedly kept a house of ill-repute (featuring one-way mirrors through which influential radio djs would peer while a couple had sex in return for radio play) came by for a couple of acetates. (Bob Hill, who was a bit of a rogue, liked to do the "interesting" sessions).
The first ‘master’ I cut was a Jonathan King production for Bell Records by 'Robin Jack'. His office was just around the corner in Soho Square, and most of the record companies were situated nearby. He always had records on the charts and Music Week had listed him producer of the year three years in a row (thanks to songs like St. Cecilia’s 'Leap Up And Down Wave Your Knickers In The Air', his ownversion of 'Hooked On A Feeling', the Piglets' 'Johnny Reggae', The Weathermen’s 'It’s The Same Old Song' and Shag’s 'Loop Di Love'. Jonathan made commercial fluff that hit the sweet spot of the great British record buying public. His songs would get tons of radio play but by the end of their chart run, everybody in the country would be sick to death of them, and him which, I presume, is why he put so many of his hits out under pseudonyms. He had a somewhat annoying personality that sucked all the oxygen out of the room. He was supremely confident, bossy, narcissistic, camp and loquacious. I liked him. His vastly entertaining web-site is well worth a look, particularly the "Legal" and "Deep Throat" pages.
The longest night of my life was spent when Cat Stevens booked a session with Ray to master a single from his Foreigner album. Ray and I thought it be a couple of hours, tops, but “Steve” brought his own boxy, green stereo system with him and set it up in an empty office
down the corridor, a room that was less acoustically 'tuned' than ours (to simulate a more standard listening experience). The next 14 hours were spent cutting reference acetates of just the one song - 'The Hurt', an execrable ditty that had no chance of being a hit single. EVER. It was obvious from one play that, even if it got played on Radio One every hour on the hour, nobody in their right mind woulkd buy it. Each time we’d cut a disc, he’d have us make the slightest, practically inaudible change and then go and listen to the thing in the other room. Then he’d bring his stereo into our room and listen to it again and decide it didn’t sound right. This went on all night and by the time the rest of the Trident staff came back to work the next morning, I loathed Cat Stevens and everything he ever stood for.
Sometime during the summer of '74, The Rolling Stones booked a session, sending engineer Keith Harwood over with the mixes of their 'It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll' album and we were told we were up against
America's #1 cutting room, Stirling Sound, for the honour of cutting the 'parts'. Ray put in a lot of time on that one and won the job. My role as assistant would usually be, um, writing out the labels, pressing the 'scroll' button on the lathe (creating the gap between tracks) and standing around, nodding and smoking, like I knew what the hell was going on. He’d make all the necessary EQ adjustments between songs and, after each side was completed, I'd pack the discs safely into the tin box that would then be messengered to the factory or flown to two different pressing plants in the US. In the end we had to cut something like 10 sets of lacquers, as each factory needed multiple sets for an album that was expected to a lot of records.
Another memorable session Ray and I worked on was when Terry Jones came in to cut Monty Python’s 'Matching Tie & Handkerchief' album. This was a very complicated record to master as we'd been asked to cut one side of the album with a double groove. Instead of one single 20-or-so minute side, the Pythons had prepared 2 approximately 12 minute 'sides', to be cut running parallel to each other so when you put your stylus down on the album, you never knew which 'side' you’d get. Because it was largely a spoken word album, it was easier to accomplish (there’s less groove modulation than on a musical program), but one still had to rely on a lot of luck when lowering the cutting head the second time, as there was always a danger of 'landing' on, or too close to the groove you’d just cut. Ray made several attempts and after inspecting the cuts carefully via the microscope, was satisfied enough to send the lacquers away to be manufactured. You never really knew if it was going to work, as master lacquers had to be pristine and never played before processing for them to sound exactly the way they should, but it worked and the record sold well.

In those days, mastering engineers rarely got credit on albums, despite the important role they played, so one way of telling who mastered a record is to look inside the run-out spiral of the vinyl itself where sometimes the engineer would 'sign' it, using their 'nom-de-cut'. Ray Staff signed his “Rays”, Bob Hill signed his “Bobil”, George Peckham signed his “Porky” or “A Porky Prime Cut” and I’d sign mine “Kip”, the nickname David Bowie had given me a couple of years before (on account of some tea I made him that “tasted like kippers”). All the big jobs were handled by Bob and Ray but they trusted me enough to create the lacquers when EQ’d production masters were sent over, so when Clifford Gee in the production office at WEA sent over albums from the Warner, Elektra, Atlantic and their other, distributed labels for cutting, I’d get to do many of those and in the process hear (for the first time) artists like Randy Newman, Mickey Newbury, Ry Cooder, Harry Chapin, Bonnie Raitt, Donny Hathaway, The Allman Brothers, Veronique Sanson, Todd Rundgren, Sparks, Bobby Charles and countless others. Naturally, I was chuffed when any new Frank Zappa album showed up (I cut the parts for Just Another Band From LA, Waka Jawaka, The Grand Wazoo and Overnight Sensation) and even faked illness to watch him testify at the Strand law courts when he sued the Royal Albert Hall over them canceling his '200 Motels' show. During his stint on the stand, he claimed that he had offered to re-write the lyrics that had 'offended' a female worker there and the judge didn’t believe that it was possible. So, Frank’s barrister asked him to demonstrate and he took about 10 minutes to re-write something off the top of his head. Somewhere in the transcripts is an unrecorded, unheard FZ lyric. John Anthony’s g/f Jane was doing publicity at Warner then and had accompanied Frank to the hearing. She knew I was a big fan and after introducing him to me, to further the conversation along, she remarked, “wow, look and this amazing architecture…it’s kind of Norman” to which Frank replied dryly, “Not really…it's more like Marmaduke, or Cholmondeley”. During a break for lunch, this picture was taken
and the print that appeared in Sounds magazine had me lurking in the background on the left, but Getty Images have seen fit to crop me out of it for some unknown reason, ha!
There was only one day when I wished I didn’t have to go to work, May 5th 1973. Normally, we didn’t work Saturdays but we got a booking and it wasn’t important enough for Bob or Ray to come in for. I begged and pleaded not to have to work that day, but I was told that if I didn’t go in, I shouldn't come in the following Monday, or ever, and that was that. That was the day the team I'd supported since I was 7, Sunderland, played Leeds Utd in the FA Cup. Sunderland hadn’t even been in a final since 1937 and it was likely they’d never be in one again during my lifetime. There was nothing I could do. Leeds were the strong favourites, so maybe working would spare me the disappointment of a
Wembley loss . Suffice to say, the session went ahead (I'm fairly sure it was a session with Duffy Power’s producer, Adrian Miller) and as soon as it was finished, I rushed downstairs to the Ship, the pub next door on Wardour Street, to find a handful of Sunderland fans drinking, singing and crying tears of joy over their 1-0 victory, thanks to an Ian Porterfield goal. I watched it on Match Of The Day later that night, but it felt like I'd won the Grand National but lost the betting ticket.
Favourite sessions often involved working with Ray on David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" or Bob when Marc Bolan came by. We did 'Metal Guru'(or maybe it was 'Telegram Sam') and Marc insisted on having his picture taken with me. I have no idea why he made a point of that, but I wish I had that picture now.
In '74, Trident was the happening place. The studio was one of the best in the country. The disc cutting room was constantly busy. Trident had started manufacturing a line of recording consoles/mixing desks under the supervision of ex-engineer, Malcolm Toft, while the preview theater on the 2nd floor was screening independent films like Andy Warhol’s 'Trash' and 'Heat' and more mainstream fair like 'The Exorcist' for UK distributors. Trident Audio Productions, had brought in an American, Jack Nelson, to steer its artists (Queen, Headstone and Eugene Wallace) through their new licensing agreement with EMI and things were beginning to look pretty good all round. As fun as it was, I was beginning to feel my future was not in disc-cutting. I wasn’t technically inclined and didn’t want to know how something worked, just that there was someone around who did. I applied for a transfer into Jack Nelson’s department to see whether management might have some appeal. Jack told me to be on the look out for something we might want to pick up for representation. Looking back, I don't think they were terribly serious about my role there but I threw myself into 'talent-scouting' as long as it didn't cost me any money (I wasn't on expenses and my salary was still crappy) and I could still get the last bus/tube back to Willesden Green, where I was living with an old schoolmate and a fellow who played bass with (John Peel discovery) Principal Edwards Magic Theatre. His name was, and probably still is, Joe Read, whose mother's flat in Uppingham had previously been a refuge for a few of us dodgy students to go and smoke hash, pretend we were groovy and drink sherry. I digress.
I saw an act called Supercharge (out of Liverpool), and I’m reasonably sure I caught Cado Belle, Upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s but just as I was getting my feet wet (about 4 weeks in), I got called into Jack’s office and was told Queen had split for John Reid's management company and that Trident Audio Productions was scaling down...see ya…bye!

Robin Tyner & The Hot Rods
'(Till The Night Is Gone) Let's Rock' - acetate


Peter Stanfield said...

Howard, that was truly wonderful, great stories, particularly liked the bits about the Stooges and the Groovies. Your tale about cropping out the mainline refs in Slow Death had me running to my stack of 45s.Call me Mr. Anal, but I can tell you that the release version of SD runs at 4.15 and the promo at 3.25, so you hacked out 50 seconds from this masterpiece -- sacrilege, indeed! But you've misremembered which part you excised . . . all the mainline and morphine lyrics are still there; you took out the verse about the preacher and all the holy holys . . .Maybe it was the mix of drugs and religion that UA most feared, or maybe they just figured the song went on too long for cloth eared DJs . . . And can I have the Hot Rods acetate when you've finished with it?

Best, Peter

ht said...

you know, I listened to the commercial copy and wondered how the hell I could have cut out the last verse without utterly ruining it. It didn't make sense. (I didn't have a DJ copy to refer to). Now I think about it, you must be right...they needed it shorter (for airplay) and the Holy Holy verse had to go.
Thank you for your comment...sometimes I wonder if anyone's reading these things. I wish more people would respond, even if they just want to take issue...I was told the new colour scheme was no good today, so I guess I'll be reverting to an easier to read template.
Um, I'm not quite ready to give up the Hot Rods acetate yet, but I've nearly finished filing my cds so the 12"ers are next. When I find the Hot Rods Fan Club lp, I'll send you mps of each track and, if I have a spare, we can discuss what you might have that I'll want! take care - ht

ds said...

Great story HoTo!

And even better to hear about specific records that I clearly recall from years before having met you in 1978.

I was on the air at the college radio station when that 3 sided Monty Python album came in and we marveled over it for hours.


ht said...

thanks, Duane. The thing I remember most about that session (apart from Ray's excellent execution) was how funny Terry Jones was in person. He was naturally hilarious.

lamf said...

Christ on a bike Howard, they say there's a book in everyone but there's a veritable uber library in the portals of your memory.

Apart from the fact this is all priceless stuff that i could gobble up till the cows come home, you write in such a way that it enters my loaf by osmosis. The stories take on their own rythmn like the music they describe.

Fuck i have read that back and i'm sure an entry to pseuds corner in private eye is not beyond me.

Anyway, getting to the chorus i just wanna say I enjoyed every bloody word.

As for the hot rods, i remember a gig in (the red lion?) in hounslow high street, my flippin manor which was akin to royalty setting up a pa in my front room.

Finally,a zero degrees of seperation vibe, the pub was a 100 yards or so from one of our local record shops, where on a regular basis one could spot jonathon king in multicoloured afro wig dropping in with his latest box of singles.

got a funny story about kim fowley in a pub in Chiswick too but another time!

ht said...

I remember that multicoloured afro wig of JK's. I found him fascinating, mainly because I couldn't believe someone would want that kind of attention ALL THE TIME. He just never slowed down. Thanks for the nice words, I appreciate them very much. I struggle with this stuff and never like what I've written. It takes so long to do, too. I've been struggling with an Ants piece for the last 10 days and I haven't even got to Prince Charming yet! Mainly because - while I'm trying to write it - I'm copying dodgy 45s into mp3s. Got 15 done today (with b-sides) and I'll probably never listen to them again!! Although, maybe I'll put the Nazis' Against Fascism's "Sid Did It" on the radio just to piss off a few people. Do you know that one? ht

clair said...

Bob hill is my dad .... he's a bit of a "rogue or a seagull .....Johnathan livingston seagull " as like to call him ..... I've never really seen him much he took me to Trident studios when i was a little girl in the early 70s .... I'm proud to call him Bob

Unknown said...

Hi Clair,

I'm writing a book about Bowie from 1970-1971. Bob Hill was very involved. Is he contactable?
Sorry to bother you with this but my searches are going nowhere.


Anonymous said...

Hi Ivor
Sorry I know he lives in Clethorpes and that's all ..... there is a trident studios Facebook page though and he was mentioned on there sorry for the late reply I only just saw this

Unknown said...

Hi I've just met Bob hill tonight in cleethorpes what a wonderful old gent telling me all about the old stars he had met

Unknown said...

Tracy Meggitt face book Grimsby just met Bob hill tonight x

Unknown said...

Hi claire I'm sat wiv your dad Bob hill me n my partner r on holiday in cleethorpes and he just came up to us so I googled is name n when I saw this I told him then he broke down crying bless him