Guy Fletcher: European Man
M Guy Fletcher
Composer and studio owner Guy Fletcher had a dream: 'The European Suite' was the end result. Ted Fletcher details the work that went into its recording.
The recent release of an interesting album called 'The European Suite' has been the realisation of a long-held dream for Guy Fletcher - to produce an album of music that evoked the capital cities of Europe. The background to the recording made compelling reading and we were anxious to learn more. Who better, we thought, to discover the innermost secrets of the sessions than his brother - Ted Fletcher of Alice!
Confusion in the entertainments business by two people with the same name is not too common - most musicians are far too vain to be caught being taken for someone else. A major exception is Guy Fletcher: Guy the junior (!) is arranger, singer and keyboard player with Dire Straits, currently on an extended world tour and playing nightly to sell-outs in the biggest venues in the world (remember their record-breaking run at Wembley earlier in 1985?). His uncle - Guy Fletcher the senior - is composer, musician, singer and studio owner, and has recently had to become M Guy Fletcher to avoid being mobbed. So to avoid further confusion, I will call him M Guy.
M Guy's education was formal in the musical sense, taking up trumpet to a high grade at school and obtaining a GCE in music. He entered the business as a very junior assistant to publishers KPM Music in London's Denmark Street back when people still remembered it as Tin Pan Alley. M Guy wrote music constantly, the mainstream of popular music reacting with him until he had a sufficient pool of unpublished songs to look for a publishing 'deal'. The directors of Carlin Music were sufficiently impressed to set him up in Saville Row with his own sub-company, Abacus Music, when, in 1969, Cliff Richard decided to record what became M Guy's first hit record - 'With The Eyes Of A Child'. The same year he wrote 'Can't Tell The Bottom From The Top', a hit for the Hollies, and 'Sing A Song Of Freedom' - an international hit with more than 50 cover versions.
Success came steadily, and with his songwriting partner Doug Flett (a 50-50 partner in the publishing company), a stream of hit records made 'Guy Fletcher' a formidable force in popular music; titles like 'By The Devil I Was Tempted' and 'Power To All Our Friends'. The fame spread until the Fletcher/Flett team were being commissioned to write for Cliff, Blood Sweat And Tears, Frankie Valli, Ray Charles, Helen Reddy, Petula Clark and they became the first British writers to work with Elvis Presley.
At about the same time (late 1970s) 'little Guy' had locked himself in his bedroom for more than six months. Having learned to play the bass, he found it restrictive, so he set about mastering keyboards with a studied single mindedness, practicing for up to ten hours a day until his wrists seized up, then recording and overdubbing his own brand of music - influenced by 'heavy metal' bands of the time but distinctively his own music. At the time, no-one saw the future conflict of names...
M Guy's career saw a gradual change in direction, his first home studio (built in a garage at Twyford in Berkshire) was producing good work but also became a training ground for a number of new artists - notably Chris de Burgh who spent hundreds of hours there developing his unique style of writing and performing. M Guy continued with the writing career but took greater and greater interest in the administrative and business sides of music; still producing good songs with chart success up to 1984 with his 'Baby You're Dynamite'for Cliff Richard.
Work in the music business often demands a great deal of travel to the capitals of the world. A musician is already sensitive to 'atmosphere' and 'presence'. Jetting in to Paris, anyone is assailed by the extreme 'Frenchness' of the city; the sounds, the smells and the feel of the streets. M Guy was always sensitive to these mental prompts and decided years ago that one day he would write and produce some sort of homage to the humanities of cities. By 1982 this feeling had crystalised to the extent that he had reached the decision to flex his musical muscles and create a piece of serious music based on these feelings but using the instruments and techniques of today. But how and with whom ?
By February 1982 the idea of the European Suite was well formed, but there were serious problems. An album produced solo stood a very good chance of being hopelessly boring - help was needed from fellow musicians who could 'input' their own ideas and feelings; musicians with considerable skill and sensitivity. But who would do it? A certainty was that the album was not going straight to the top of the charts; there would be little money in it and what money there was would be a long time in coming. What musician of the required calibre would work under those conditions? It looked like a hopeless dream, so M Guy visited the musical bean-feast in Cannes - Midem. There, as large (or larger) as life was a fellow musician not seen for ten years - Brian Daly. Brian was a renowned session player in the 60s with a sensitivity on the guitar that was sheer magic yet created with hands like bunches of bananas - he's a big bloke! Brian had had enough of the session scene early in the 70s and had become a vegetarian and taken a smallholding in Norfolk - at peace with the world - but couldn't keep away from Midem '82. M Guy mentioned the idea of a semi-classical work based upon the 'feel' of cities and the attraction was too strong for Brian to resist; he said yes and became a part of the production team.
Budget restrictions in the production of top quality demos forces most writers into becoming proficient in the use of musical synthesis; M Guy is no exception. As a bit of an 'old boy' in the business (he'll hate me for that one), he naturally tends towards the Emulator as the most useful production tool - together with sequencers and drum machines they can work magic in the right hands, but learning on your own, fighting the technical peculiarities of the Linn and PPG Wave is hard work; this is where James C. Johnson came in.
Late one night in June 1982 the telephone rang. M Guy answered it and the voice at the other end said 'You don't know me, I am a musician and I write great music. I live in Hungerford (just down the road) and you really have to listen to my work.'
M Guy was very used to telephone calls from young hopefuls trying to 'break into' the music business. Most are untalented, and few have the drive necessary to maintain the level of sheer hard work necessary to become even moderately successful. He thought it was 'all a bit boring' but he was not over-busy so invited 'Mr Johnson' over to listen to his material. The short meeting turned into an association; James C. Johnson proved to be an accomplished musician on keyboards, an excellent writer of beautiful music and possessed a tremendous talent for arranging. The idea of the European Suite was suggested, an instant 'yes' completed the trio and Metropolis was born.
Although the basic idea was clear from the start - to produce an album full of good tunes that instantly produce an image of particular cities the choice of cities to feature on the album required a great deal of careful thought. First, M Guy wrote a list of 'the definite no-nos'; cities like Oslo (if you can think of a musical identity for Oslo, Guy will give you a fiver!). Brussels, 'there's b***er all that one can write about Brussels'. The obvious starter is Paris; a city well known to M Guy and reeking of atmosphere and music. Paris was closely followed by the final list on the album: London, Vienna, Dublin, Rome, Berlin, Athens and finally, the home of guitar virtuosos, Madrid.
At the first real meeting of the trio, M Guy decided to dole out the cities to Brian and James for their own ideas; to put the tunes together. Brian immediately demanded Paris and Madrid as the guitar centres of the world, for he had already written the 'Hot Club de France' section of the Paris movement! He also took Rome as the third of the 'Latin' trio; an ultimate challenge for his musical virtuosity. In this track he uses the Ladies of the Brompton Oratory Choir singing in Latin to set the Papal feel - then destroys it utterly with a 'messy' but typical pop sounding Italian theme where you can almost smell the grease in a cheap backstreet cafe.
James concentrated on Athens and Vienna; a city he has still never visited. M Guy (who knew the city well), spent hours talking about the Spanish Riding School, the Waltz, the Strauss family, Beethoven and the world's largest ferris wheel, the austere feel to the city and its Teutonic attitudes. The results expressed in music assure the listener that James has lived there all his life; a remarkable achievement.
M Guy reserved London, Dublin and Berlin for himself, the London movement being a musical picture of the transition from the second world war (an 'all clear' signal opening the track), to a modern bustling metropolis of today. There is no rock music in the track. When pressed on this, M Guy says that every track of the album is intended to be a picture in music; more like a perfume. The album is intended to be evocative, yet is not subtle. Rock music is not specific enough. This thinking is beautifully demonstrated in his Dublin movement where the whole track is infused with a stunning melody that is intensely Irish.
The album needed an identity and this had to wait until September 1983 - the birth of M Guy's daughter Liberty. The evening of the event he returned home alone to an empty house and studio, sat at the piano and played the theme that sets the mood of the album; a theme full of joy and hope for the future - the 'Theme For Liberty'.
Havoc House is a spacious modern building set on a hill overlooking fields of cows and horses a few miles west of Reading in Berkshire. The studio is on the first floor of a purpose-built annexe to the house with separate access. The building construction is substantial with massive use of brickwork and reinforced concrete - there is no substitute for sheer weight for cutting down unwanted noise coming in or out. The studio area is small with almost half of its area taken up with a prized grand piano rescued from a bankrupt London studio three years ago. Sound absorbing panels hang from the ceiling and down the walls; all capable of instant movement to change the reverb and absorption characteristics of the room.
The control room is dominated by the monitor array of four Tannoy HPD drivers in huge enclosures set each side of the console tape machines; an early Studer A80 16 track and an Ampex ATR 102 (the half-inch version of the ATR 100). Other machines sit on shelves - cassette recorders and a bank of Sony F1 chargers, processors and recorders. Alongside the walls are purpose made tables supporting the array of synthesizers: a PPG Wave 2 and a Wave 2.2 complete with the Waveterm computer, a DX7, a Linn LM2, an Emulator and some elderly keyboard instruments of indeterminate vintage. The synths are connected to the main desk patchfield via a sub-field dedicated to ancillaries. MIDI wiring is strung around as the production requires it.
The mixing console, an Alice ACM 24/8/16, sits in the centre of the room decked with machine remote controls, additional limiters and compressors, noise gates and grotty loudspeakers. The format of the mixer is unusual, purpose-built by Alice specifically for the recording of large productions with the emphasis on electronic instruments, lots of insert points and flexible routing. The 24 mic/line channels route direct to eight 'subgroups', and each channel output and subgroup can be assigned to any of the 16 main track outputs or to any of the stereo machines or a variety of send circuits; a total of 36 outputs in all. This is achieved with a novel slide matrix routing system giving a compact versatility impossible with a conventional jackfield.
A full 16-track monitoring system is fitted above the channels, mixing onto a main stereo mix bus as in a conventional 'in-line' console. VU meters are sited above each monitor channel with a pair of VUs and PPMs and a phase correlation meter for the main control room monitor section. As most of the recording work is track laying, only two auxiliary sends are provided (the subgroups can be used as sends). Routes through the mixer are kept simple in the interests of the highest quality and low noise; essential for productions that could mean dozens of passes through the system.
Outboard equipment is seen by M Guy as extremely important, with so much variety available the choice seemed daunting, but with the able assistance of his regular freelance engineer, Paul Libson, he chose what was in their opinion, the best for engineer efficiency, sound and low noise performance.
The reverb system is a Lexicon 224 complete with all the programs that are available in California (it's useful this globetrotting). Digital delay is provided by a number of units; a Lexicon PCM42, an MXR and a few budget units that are pressed into service when everything else is in use. The noise gates are Drawmer, M Guy will use nothing else. MXR equipment is also used for harmonising and flanging, being simple to use, effective and not over-costly.
Equalisers can provide or destroy the 'musicality' of any recording. Development work for the latest range of Alice equalisers used in the Silk DCA mixers was done at Havoc House, comparing many types and manufacturers to subjectively test the effect paying no attention whatsoever to specifications. Interestingly, one of the top units for effect and retention of a true musical sound was the little Accessit Sweep EQ box. M Guy now uses these as outboards to enhance the desk!
Limiting and compression is done with some rare Cadac units rescued from that company immediately before its demise, and a couple of special Alice units - just proving that blood's thicker than water. Alice don't make outboard equipment but the compressor section of the little 828 mixer is so musical and easy to use that my arm was twisted and a couple of 'specials' were produced.
Returning to the basic idea of the suite, the final product had to be an album of musical pictures, beautifully recorded orchestral music using instruments of the 1980s. The production could take as long as necessary - the end product was the main thing - as there was little commercial pressure to finish anything on time. In the end it took three years of dedicated work by the three musicians!
M Guy has very firm ideas about recording formats; ideas that are still gaining devotees in the up and coming engineers in London today. The theories go back to a machine that most readers will never have heard of: the Studer C7, a massive console 4-track machine, extremely expensive and beautifully built. The electronics were all valve (it was before the days of acceptable solid state) and the tape was 4 track on 1 inch - each track nearly ¼ inch wide! The machine ran at 15 or 30 ips and the subjective performance is only now being approached by digital recorders. The argument is that to retain the fidelity of the sound in the desk monitor system, the recording medium needs a dynamic range and noise performance similar to the mixer itself; fairly self-evident? Then why do the majority of engineers think that 24-track is the ultimate machine? Material recorded on a well lined-up 16-track 2 inch will make the 24 track sound like a cassette recorder - the sound is muddy and 'pinched' all in an effort to cram the greatest dynamic range onto those tiny tracks. M Guy constantly gets the argument 'but nearly all music nowadays is recorded on 24 track', the answer is, yes, and it sounds OK, but listen to a track recorded properly and you'll throw your shiny new 24-track away!
The theory is carried through the other machines in the studio at Havoc House, the Ampex analogue mastering machine is a 15/30 ips ½inch version of the ATR100, the only other 'quality' machines he uses are the Sony F1 digital recorders.
To make the most of the dynamics of these wide range machines it is most important to control record levels to very fine limits - rather than wind it all up with the VUs hitting the end stops and let the tape compression sort it all out. This is the reason for the fitting of PPMs in the monitor section - not just to prevent overmodulation causing nasties in the digital recordings.
To produce authentic orchestral music it is essential to use orchestral techniques; the music had to be written and properly scored. All three had this experience and approached the task with enthusiasm. Basic tracks were recorded in the studio at Havoc House, dubbed down to cassette, then taken home by Brian and James to study and work on. The ideas for the 'special effects' recordings were finalised and sessions set up to record the Brompton Oratory Choir - direct to F1 digital and conducted from a guide track prepared at Havoc.
The opening of the Paris track required an authentic French restaurant as the background to Brian Daly's 'Hot Club' sequence (mainly because Brian is convinced that Paris is the eating capital of the world!). Where better to record this than in Paris! Paul Libson and Brian roared across the channel with a car full of F1 equipment, cables and Crown PZM microphones and set themselves up in the Terminus Nord restaurant. The locals were convinced that all Englishmen are mad, but the session soon settled down and the clatter of knives, forks and conversation heard on the track is entirely authentic, thanks to a stereo pair of PZMs fixed each side of a piece of perspex feeding straight into a Sony F1.
M Guy has done a lot of experimental work with microphones, trying out the range of 'conventional' types, capacitor, dynamic and ribbon. Experiments with the Crown PZM proved that if a pair are stuck (literally) one each side of a sheet of perspex about one metre square, the result is remarkably similar to a good 'dummy head' recording but with possibly better separation of the stereo image when the recording is listened to on loudspeakers. The results using this technique have been so good that this is now the standard recording method in the studio - with variations using single microphones where 'panning' is required.
The album had been almost completely scored by the autumn of 1983 and recording work began in earnest. First, where there was suitable rhythm within the music, either 'click-tracks' or timecodes from the Linn were laid down on the 16-track. This was followed by the bulk of rhythm section work, keeping things well separated across the tape using as many tracks as necessary.
Guides to the orchestral parts were then laid on the unused tracks and long mixing sessions kept M Guy and Paul late into many nights finalising the rhythm sounds and mixing them down to the Ampex V2 inch machine running at 30 ips. Then came the ultimate skill - Paul Libson laid back the finished rhythm tracks onto the original 16-track tape by hand, relying on the accuracy of the tape speeds on the two machines!
This retained the fidelity of the sounds and removed the necessity for tracks to be bounced down, a technique not loved by M Guy due to the record/replay timing difficulties that always occur in complicated tracks.
The long process of synthesis of orchestral sounds began; brass sounds, string sections, bells, balalaikas and effects. Where these took up too much track space, the rhythm technique was used again; reducing down to the Ampex and back to the Studer. Holes were left in the final (original) tape for the 'real' solo instruments and finally sessions were set up for their addition.
Charley Morgan took time out from work with Elton John to provide the drums and percussion drive to London and Paris, Alistair Lomax and Ronald Aspery spent a day each in the studio adding oboe, saxophones and piccolo to Paris, Rome and Berlin. All were recorded using PZM microphones (with a few others scattered around the drum kit).
Three years of concentrated work was now an audio reality, stored on four reels of 2 inch tape. Then the final mixing began.
Weeks of work went into the final mixes down to Sony F1 digital. Night after night M Guy and Paul worked on the tracks amid rats' nests of interplugging of the delays, reverb and gates - all without the modern 'convenience' of an automated mixdown system. Finally, in June 1985 the final mixes were finished and the last task of the team was to organise the mastering of the tapes to disc, which was done at Abbey Road Studios using the 'direct metal master' technique to preserve the transparency of sound that they had worked so long to retain.
From the earliest days M Guy knew that the final product would not be a 'successful' record in the accepted sense; it was not going into any charts or make vast fortunes for the star performers, it was never intended to. The record was made to sell to people who did not normally buy records, its selling point, to 'remind' the buyer of the cities of Europe as no other piece of music had ever done before. So how does one sell it?
Having been in the business for many years, the idea of an independent record company was not outrageous - it had been done successfully before many times. This was the answer and M Guy proceeded to set up his own company, The Havoc House Record Company Ltd, and employ a publicist, yet another musician - responsible for the guitars on 'Telstar', Ken Street.
The record launch was set for September 1985 and in a wild moment M Guy thought of the idea of a reception and inviting the Ambassadors of all the European countries to attend. Plucking up courage, he lifted the phone and started calling the Embassies; amazing! They all said Yes! When it came to London, the Lord Mayor's office liked the idea so much that they agreed to hold the function at the Mansion House - hosted by the Lord Mayor Sir Alan Traill. Not to be left out, the Dorchester Hotel celebrated the event by the invention of a new cocktail called appropriately 'European Suite'. For those who demand completeness in these things, the recipe is as follows:
1 part Cointreau (France)
1 part Galliano (Italy)
1 part Gin (England)
1 part Orange juice (Spain)
1 teaspoon cream (Ireland)
Garnish with an Eidelweis (Austria) and serve shaken on ice in German cocktail glasses.
This fearsome European mixture is now on sale in the cocktail bar of the Dorchester - try it; it will take your head off!
At the time of writing M Guy is touring the country doing radio and television interviews based on the Suite. It may not appear on 'Top Of The Pops' but anyone who is serious about this business we are in would do well to listen to this album. Masterpiece is a strong word, though musical history may well apply it.
Interview by Ted Fletcher
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!