Janet Angus talks to Jo about his enthralling past and his new studio where surfing is the most serious distraction.
He started as gofer for John and Ringo, and became a mega-guitarist with a track record longer than both your arms put together, including Joan Armatrading, Kiki Dee, Cockney Rebel, Elton John, Phil Collins, The Who, Peter Gabriel... Shall I go on?... (Yes do — Ed)... David Essex, China, PM, Jon Anderson, Leo Sayer, Justin Heywood, the Strawbs. You've got the message already? Sorry.
The person in question is a certain Mr Jo Partridge, son of a Cornish farmer (who, incidentally will never understand why the boy is not out in the fields where he belongs). These days, Jo combines his globe-trotting musical activities with running and working in his own 16-track studio in Cornwall.
The studio and Jo's home are situated on the world war II naval air base at St Merryn. 'This is the only studio with it's own private airfield, and that's not as silly as it might sound. I can fly up to London when I have business there and it is very convenient for people coming to use the studio.' The setting is beautiful: vast expanses of Cornish beaches, with a fresh spring breeze whipping the sea up.
'Oh sorry, the interview's off' quipped Jo, 'The surf's great today.'
With activities like surfing, sailing, swimming and parachuting to distract you, it's a wonder that anybody ever manages to get any work done.
Over at the studio however, you are so remote that idle thoughts disappear as you get down to the task in hand. If you don't have your own private jet, flying is still not out of the question - there are several flights daily from Heathrow to nearby Newquay which are swift and reasonably economical.
Jo's first studio was an 8-track based around a Brenell Mini 8 and Allen & Heath Mod 2 16 into 8 console. This he set up with Hugh McDowell from ELO in North London, principally as a work tool for himself. This was around 1980, after ten years on the road. 'I had always written, but I'd never done very much with my songs. I just wanted to explore writing.' Several of his songs had been released and had become successful, including Kiki Dee's 'You're Out of My Head' and the Cockney Rebel's 'Roll the Dice', but because he had been so busy he had never really had the opportunity to sit down and really explore the writing possibilities which are opened up by recording techniques.
'That studio was a good writing tool. I had Revox A77 which I 'won' from the Kiki Dee band, Tannoy Devons which I've still got now. In fact most of the equipment I bought then I still use now. I bought a whole package consisting of a Roland Space Echo, Eventide H910 Harmoniser, Pace 27-band graphic equaliser, DBX 160 compressor/limiter, Bel BC3 Noise Reduction System, Bel BF20 Flanger, Auratones, Amcron and Quad power amps and an AKG Tapco stereo reverb.'
This particular writing tool arrived at the same time as a collaboration with Duncan MacKay, the band they formed being PM, and several of their songs were taken up by Joe Faghin and Elkie Brookes.
In 1983 Jo decided to hotfoot it back to the peace and quiet of Cornwall where his studio has developed from private use to friends dropping in for the odd demo to complete strangers hearing about it along the grapevine and booking themselves in.
Expelled from his school (only for smoking he assured me), (smoking what? - Ed) Jo ran away to London at 16, and started gigging the folk club circuit. 'One day, after I'd been there about 2 months, a great big American guy with a ponytail and everything came up to me and said 'Kid, either study the blues harder or leave them alone. But I like your stuff, you're okay.' This was Albert Grosman, Bob Dylan's manager. Praise indeed.
Jo wasn't the only one impressed by this. Chris Blackwell from Island Records was too. Jo was sent into the studio to do some demos which eventually came to nothing. 'They said I was too young, and I needed to develop' which was probably very true. 'This was in 1971. I had never been near a studio before and everything was a complete mystery. The engineers weren't very interested because they wanted to listen to the mix they had done the night before of 'Stairway To Heaven' (this was two years before it was released)! I couldn't believe the noise coming out of the speakers, it was incredible.'
So he became a gofer for Apple Records - a scruffy long-haired youth lavishly throwing money around London's most select retailers which, on first sight would threaten to throw him out. He did everything. 'It was during John and Yoko's 'bag' phase. It was the time when they performed in the Albert Hall, and all these people went along to see John and Yoko sitting in bags. That's all that happened. One of my assignments was to be John Lennon in a post bag for a television interview. During the interview they kept saying to Yoko: 'John's very quiet today' and she said 'Yeah, he dosen't feel much like talking today.'
Jo's playing career got under way with a year on the road with Colin Scott. 'I learned a lot from him about communicating with the audience, but he was a bottle of whiskey a day man and I was only 16, so it didn't last all that long'.
Al Stewart invited Jo to do a session at Trident: 'When I got there, there were all these other seasoned guitarists including Tim Rennick. One look at them and I excused myself! I couldn't even read', he explains.
Working with Philip Goodhand Tait who was on DJM (as were Elton John and various other valuable contacts) landed Jo, at 18, a place in Joan Armatrading's first band. A single with Gus Dudgeon's single 'Lonely Lady' was Jo's first real recording experience. The other band members were suitably high calibre, including Mo Foster on bass and Henry Spinetti on drums.
'Joan is a great musician and a great guitar player. We all found it very hard to play her music, it is so incredibly complex with amazing rhythms. And she couldn't explain how she did them, you just had to feel them. Her music nowadays is much simpler which is a shame. The first album was very unusual. Maybe it was a bit off-the-wall. I don't know.'
On the road with Joan was unforgettable. They embarked upon a disastrous German tour supporting Jose Feliciano, where the tour manager messed up the arrangements. 'The gigs went north, south, north, south - we were travelling five or six hundred miles a day. It was mad. We had no road crew and we had been told we would fly; Jose flew. We all went by train with the equipment, including Joan. We'd arrive at the gig with the audience already there, throw our equipment on the stage, dash off all covered in grime and frankfurters and then play. It was terrible.'
The British tour manager (one Stewart Copeland) proved to be a bit more reliable. He did, however, make one mistake. 'We'd stopped at a petrol station on the motorway, and Stewart put his briefcase full of money and our passports and work permits and everthing on top of the car to pay. Then he drove off! We suddenly looked back and saw all these 5 and 10 pound notes trailing in the wind behind us!'
Joan Armatrading had got into contractual difficulties with her record company, 'and money was becoming a problem. I was paid £30 for the 10-day tour of Germany, so something told me that the money might be getting tight! Then the band got the elbow.'
In the meantime, Kiki Dee had recorded an album which Elton John had produced, and a band was formed to take the material on the road including Jo. The rest of the line-up was B. J. Cole, Bias Bosheli, Mike Wedgewood and Pete Clark. A British tour supporting Elton John was followed by an American tour supporting the relatively new Steely Dan and the Beach Boys. 30,000 strong audiences came as a shock, and was nerve wracking at the start of the tour, but the American extrovert audience soon put their minds at rest. Back home they went straight into the studio. 'Bias turned out to be a good writer. He came in one day and said he'd written this song and he didn't know whether it was any good or not, and that was 'I've got the Music in Me'! We did that with Roger Pope on drums and Phil Curtis on bass. Gus Dudgeon and Clive Franks produced (Clive filling in for a period where Gus was away and Gus doing the final mix) and the work was recorded at the Marquee and Air London.
'This was really my first opportunity to exploit recording techniques. It was very educational for me. In fact there are a couple of tracks on that album which I still feel are the best things I've ever done.'
Recording techniques were very similar to those used today, as Gus Dudgeon was very much an innovator in this field. 'We took three days to get a drum sound - Gus was notorious for his drum sounds. We went through half a dozen kits and ended up with the one we first started with. We did a drums and bass backing track with maybe a guide piano or something, and overdubbed the rest on top. If we did record anything else on the backing track it was always replaced.'
The album was finished off in America because the band went on the road with Elton John. 'It was a gargantuan 80-gig tour including Hawaii and Canada. It was amazing, and I had glandular fever!' With so many cities to take in, much of America was just a blur but Elton John's private 707 jet certainly wasn't. 'It had a bar, an organ, a bedroom, a living room, a video - the whole works. It was called the 'Starship'. It also wasn't as strict as when you fly with a normal airline. For instance one of our favourite antics was to stand in the cockpit on roller skates, and when the plane took off you went shooting down the aisle and landed on the bed at the back!' The tour included Madison Square Gardens when John Lennon went on stage with Elton.
Another British tour was followed with Kiki's single 'How Glad I Am', and the band and Kiki now tired and beginning to get fed up with the sight of each other, decided to call it a day.
'Kiki is the best female singer in this country and it's a mystery to me why she hasn't done more. I still believe she will from time to time.'
Jo's session work had taken off in a big way and he was working on vast numbers of albums and jingles. In 1975 he got involved in David Essex's English tour; 'All The Fun Of The Fair'. There was a 12-piece band with the Real Thing doing backing vocals and the set included a fairground actually on stage. David was a fairground Jack the Lad. 'The gigs were crazy - like Beatlemania. 99% of the audience was 14/15 year old girls. It was very frightening - they would all rush to the front of the stage pushing and screaming - it made the most unbelievable noise. And there were these little girls getting crushed at the front. There were three or four blokes who just spent all night pulling them up on to the stage and taking them out to ambulances.
David's American Tour was followed with an invitation to join Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel in 1976. 'Same old places, same old faces, same old motorway stops. The audience was a bit different to David's. They were mostly young blokes who identified with the young rebel. He was great with the audience. They all sang along to everthing like a huge football crowd.'
While Jo was with the band they did a live album as well as 'Love's a Prima Donna' and 'Hobo with a Grin', using some of Jo's own material. The band broke up in 1977, and Jo went on to do 'War of the Worlds'; a project which Jeff Wayne had launched himself into and which took up two years of Jo's time. 'I started out being a session player and ended up being a star. It can happen to anyone!' Based on the H. G. Wells story with narrations by Richard Burton, various stars were playing the different characters including David Essex, Phil Lynnot and Justin Heywood. One of the parts was to be played by Jeff Beck, but he somehow didn't get round to it, and this went on for a while. Various people got roped in but didn't get it together; Carlos Santana, Ted Nugent, until finally Jo was given a crack at it.
'I had to be a Martian on the guitar representing the heat-ray.' The project was recorded at Advision.
During this period Jo started getting into production work. Having worked with so many different top professional bands in so many studios with so many top producers, it is almost inevitable that the experience and knowledge acquired along the line should one day be channeled into production.
His first efforts were for Sarm (now Sarm East) Studios 'which had just become the first ever 48-track or something, and my task was to record an album with Mike Silver and make sure the 48-track facilities worked as they should. We had Rikki Fataar from the Beach Boys on drums, Mo Foster on bass, Ken Freeman on synth and Max Middleton on Fender Rhodes and piano. It was a lovely album, fantastic songs, but unfortunately it got swallowed up by the new wave.'
Other production projects for Sarm included an album for John Sinclair (brother of Jill - Trevor Horn's wife and manager) and Australian artist Helen Henderson. Meanwhile, Elton John's band split up and Davey Johnston and James Newton-Howard formed China, inviting Jo to join them. They had just got going when Elton decided to go on the road again and he wanted China to be his band.
Get your handkerchief ready here. It was the world tour - China were to support doing the first set and then carry on for the second set as Elton's band. They rehearsed like mad, flew to England in preparation for the first gig at Wembley Stadium, hardly bothered taking time to sleep, got to Wembley and performed the first set - terrific. Stevie Wonder was in the audience all ready to get up on stage with Elton. Elton came on and it was wonderful. Then halfway through the set Elton suddenly announced that this was his last ever live concert, and we were all left just staring at each other. The manager was in the wings with his mouth somewhere round his knees-funny chap. That was my career with Elton John. It was also a charity gig so we din't even get paid!'
Back to work and back to big sessions with Phil Colins, an album with Justin Heywood, The Who's 'McVicar' album, live gigs with Peter Gabriel, an album with the Strawbs, various jingles, and finally Jon Anderson's British tour.
'We did so much including a medley of Yes stuff, and I had nightmares trying to learn Steve Howe's guitar licks, most of which I guessed or approximated.'
When this was over Jo got his studio together and got down to some serious writing. The move to Cornwall has allowed him to really get to grips with his writing and recording techniques. The airbase belongs to the family farm and is enormous. There are the typical barracks, abandoned and seemingly falling down, and it is two of these buildings (which, it must be said, don't look much different to the others from the outside), which house the studio and Jo. The house was the old chapel and the interior decor would not be out of place in Hampstead, though you wouldn't know it from outside. The studio building used to be the hospital and is very large indeed. At present only a small wing is utilised as the studio. Jo never intended to get involved in the business of running a commercial studio, and has fallen into it more or less completely by accident.
Having moved to Cornwall, various friends started dropping in to record bits and pieces and gradually the word spread. In fact the control room was supposed to be the entire thing. The room next door, however, proved to be very popular for recording acoustic instruments - it's very live, and many of Jo's clients are folk artists using a lot of acoustic instruments. The room is panelled with wood and the flooring is half carpet, half linoleum. A homely feel is provided by the incongruous standard lamp in the corner and the fire. He was even persuaded to put in a control room window. Things were becoming serious. 'I wasn't going to include this room. Most of the music is laid down in the control room anyway. We use my office as a booth for guitar and vocals. However, we wanted to keep this room live because it sounds great. Lots of people love it. '
The control room is spacious (approximately 14' x 13'), the end wall behind the monitors being covered from floor to ceiling with curtains. The other three walls consist of false panels of slotted hardboard, with rockwool behind the gap. They stand about 18 inches in from the structural wall, and have effectively deadened the room. As already explained, the studio is so remote that there is no problem over soundproofing - the room just needed to be deadened up.
There is, however, an obvious problem with the room: all the walls, ceiling and floor are parallel, so there are unwanted reflections. As a result you can't hear the bass properly and this has to be compensated for when mixing. Although not an insurmountable problem, it is not ideal, and plans for the coming 12 months include complete re-building of the control room.
Those wall panels are from Siderise and they are great. You just mount them on a wooden frame and they are freestanding which makes them very easy to move around. I built those for the studio in London, and when I moved down here I just took them off the walls and brought them with me!'
The next twelve months is going to see big changes. Jo intends to expand into the rest of the building, upgrading from 16 to 24-track, redesigning the control room, installing accommodation and possibly rehearsal studios as well. Given the location and recreational facilities as well as the recording facilities, Jo is probably on to a winner.
The current set-up is 16-track with an Allen & Heath System 8 24-16-2 console. The Allen & Heath factory is nearby and this enabled Jo to get his desk quite heavily customised; doubling up on the auxiliaries and re-routing things. The machine is a Fostex B16 with remote control. In addition to all the gear bought in his first Don Larking package, there is an MXR digital time delay, Yamaha R1000 digital reverb and one Rebis noise gate.
As one would expect there are quite a few 'writer's tools' including Linn Drum LMIII, Roland Juno 60, Roland MSQ700 sequencer ('this means that a non-keyboard player like me can do fantastic keyboard parts one note at a time'!) and TR808. There are also a few guitars (Gibson, Fender and Ovation) although his session instruments live in London.
The studio (incidentally it has a name: The Airfield Studio, alias Hits from the Blitz) boasts a good selection of mics. There is an old AKG D12 'I know it is usually used for bass drum, but I find it is great for recording guitar.' Beyers include an M610 and D190CS60s. There is a Shure Unidyne and an AKG D190E. 'But mostly we use the AKG C414EBs. They are great for recording acoustic instruments generally.'
That's about it for the studio. Sony digital mastering is, and has been, on order for some time, and who knows, might well have arrived by now.
Airfield has been the scene of a number of albums including Michael Silver's and John Renboum's. The most recent tapes which I heard were demos for a New Zealand lady called Lea Maalfrid; author of a couple of Sheenah Easton's big hits, and trying to get a record deal of her own - something she deserves judging by those tapes.
Having finally become serious and enthusiastic about the studio, Jo is opening up its doors. No longer will he need to be persuaded to let you in. It's also a great place to get away from it all. As for Jo, you couldn't ask for a nicer guy to work with. Currently coming to the close of an American tour with Leo Sayer, Jo and the Airfield Studio may be contacted on either of the following numbers: (Contact Details).
If only I could have stayed for the surfing. (Sigh.)
Interview by Janet Angus
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