Thursday, 15 October 2009

Back in the studio

How the music world has changed since Pierce Turner and I first stepped in the doors of Dublin’s Trend Studios back in the early 70’s!
We had sent “We Have No More Babies Left” – a lament for a disaster in Bangladesh - to Polydor Records; to our amazement Head of A&R, Jackie Hayden, offered to “sign us up.”
We were granted four hours to record this “maudlin masterpiece,” as some critic later labeled it, and only at the last moment remembered that we needed a B-side. With a Big Tom wannabe impatiently tapping his snakeskin boots in the reception area, we raced through a number appropriately entitled “Neck & Neck,” possibly the most out-of-tune track ever committed to disc.
Recording, in many ways, is an analogy for life. You can have all the money and facilities but they won’t amount to a hill of beans unless you’ve got something to say; indeed, if the song is strong, you can hum it into your Auntie Nelly’s cassette recorder and you’re in with a shot.
Of course, if no one but your Auntie Nelly hears this work of art you won’t be doing many interviews with Eileen Murphy, or have Steve Duggan buying you pints of porter while waving a pen and contract under your nose.
How do you know if a song is any good? Try performing it for a roomful of roaring drunks – if you emerge with all your teeth and a dollop of dignity, you’re on the fast track.
Still, as any student of Shakespeare knows, you can’t totally trust the instincts of the seething mob. “Maria’s Wedding” occasioned nothing but yawns for six months in Paddy Reilly’s, but one night it clicked and a year later Black 47 was performing it on Letterman.
I’ve worked in studios with the good, the bad and the extremely ugly. One engineer was actually in the midst of a mental breakdown and, in my innocence, I just assumed he was having a bad hair day. He was probably of the Lennon school, for it was Johnnie’s considered opinion that the best producers pretend they know what they’re doing and shout louder than anyone else.
Ric Ocasek of the Cars fit neither of those descriptions and yet he was the best I worked with. Mind you, he was confident enough, as befits someone who has sold over 40 million albums. But he generally spoke in whispers and was unfailingly courteous.
After the band had finished the basic tracks of our CD, Fire of Freedom, I added the final touches in his studio. A wonderful illustrator, Ric would sit there sketching, only looking up when he sensed a problem. With a well-placed word of advice or encouragement, he would instantly get the work back on track.
The only time I ever saw him get peeved was when he had given the engineer and me the task of mixing a song. When he returned some hours later, we had made little progress. With flashing eyes, he banished us to the back of the room, twisted a couple of knobs, shifted some faders, and Bob’s your uncle, the track was finished.
It probably didn’t hurt that his wife, the model Paulina Porizkova, in jeans and sans makeup, was wont to float in and out, adding ineffably to the mix.
EMI once spent over a quarter of a million on one of our CDs; eighteen months later we made another one ourselves for less than ten grand. To this day I’m not sure if I prefer Home of the Brave or Green Suede Shoes. I do know that my favorite Black 47 recording, Bobby Sands MP, came from the budget disc. And so it goes, money helps but songs rule.
I’m back in the studio now producing a new Black 47 CD. What a long strange trip it’s been since the day I strolled into Trend Studios. Back then I was blown away by all the knobs, faders and blinking lights.
It took me many years to realize that, as with life, the only magic is that which you carry inside yourself. If you learn how to knock sparks out of that essence, the technology will take care of itself. Failing that, there’s always your Aunt Nelly’s cassette recorder.

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to say that the gig at the IBAM festival in Chicago this past weekend was incredibly passionate and inspiring. I drove up from St. Louis for the show and was wearing the Iraq Black 47 shirt. "Danny Boy," "Red Hugh", and "One Starry Night" were incredibly moving. "Danny Boy" was especially touching since I am a gay man but not out to my family because they are very conservative. I thought the setting really lent itself to those songs. It felt very intimate, like a Storytellers type of atmosphere. I'm counting down the days for the release of the next album. I am also really enjoying your book, "Green Suede Shoes," and thank you again for signing it. I have had the cd for a few years and it's interesting to read the stories behind the songs on the album. "Uncle Jim" and "Liverpool Fantasy" are two of my favorites.

    On a side note, my mother is from Drogheda and came to the U.S. in the late 70's. I have been asking her more about her experience and what life was like for her in Ireland growing up.

    One of these days I will make it to New York to see you guys! Take care and all the best!



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