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Oddballs & Out Takes

Studio tales

Article from The Mix, April 1995

Unforgettable out-takes from the rock'n'roll hall of shame

I suppose it's obvious really. All those larger-than-life musical egos in a confined space. There's bound to be more bizarre incidents in the recording studio than would occur in, say, the world of market gardening. Add the darkened rooms, the ridiculous volumes, the long hours, the bored engineer and, hey presto!, you've all the ingredients for an electric atmosphere. And, as any elderly tart will tell you, the quiet ones are usually the worst.

Beach Boys' co-founder Brian Wilson, for instance, was a bit of a hermit, who always managed to transform himself when entering the recording arena. This contrast was most marked in the latter half of the Swinging 60s. In those days, possibly under the influence of substances stronger than aspirin, Brian would take his lyrics literally, very literally. Therefore the 'vibes' had to be very good for 'Good Vibrations'. That single subsequently took six months to record (I can already hear the Stone Roses scoffing at the brevity of it all) and, later, when recording 'Vegetables', Wilson had the live room filled with racks and racks of fruit and, er, vegetables. The other, bemused, Beach Boys decided to humour him — even when the recording dragged on, and some spilt drinks had the fruit festering on the studio floor.

On the song 'Fire', things took a more serious turn, Brian having kitted everyone out with hoses, fire extinguishers and firemen's helmets. He then started several 'controlled fires' which blazed merrily away as the singing began. By some minor miracle, the studio didn't burn down, but by sheer coincidence, the building next door was damaged by a small blaze the next day. Wilson took this as a sign from the heavens, and soon had other band members looking at LA's fire insurance figures, and working out the chance of their own studio being reduced to charcoal in the near future. Some ludicrously bad mathematics convinced the boys that they were probably already smouldering, and so Wilson apparently decided to save them all by destroying the 'Fire' song, and thus lifting the 'curse'. Unfortunately, the multi track master wasn't as inflammable as Wilson thought — he had to burn it, see, to prevent a fire. Logical, huh? — and, after several unsuccessful attempts to light it, he had it locked away in the vaults instead.

Of course, some tapes are easier to destroy than others. Mike Oldfield is said to have thrown himself body and soul into recording the follow-up to the much-loved Tubular Bells. The man with the Henry V beard worked tirelessly, day after day, with the 2" master slipping back and forth endlessly as the meisterwork was constructed. After nearly two and a half non-stop years, Oldfield was finally ready for his first big mixdown. And then, just as the final session began, the electric space-cadet apparently noticed some little black flakes floating around the desk. Then he noticed some more. And then, Oldfield suddenly realised that a large portion of the last few years was flaking off the 2" multi-track tape itself. It seems an ageing, second-hand reel had been used by mistake, and the tape itself was crumbling. Less Tubular Bells; more tubular balls-up.

Still, there have been even bigger fiascos. One A & R person, working for a company we shall call Rhythm Queen, waltzed into a final computerised mix-down and demanded, "What's that noise?" When told it was the code, he replied "Great Band." The stunned studio staff could then only watch in horror as he went on "'Ere, it's a bit dark, innit? Let's have the lights on", and with a swift flick of the wrong switch, wiped the whole weekend's work. (Don't forget, kids, save as you go-go).

Then there was the well known Heavy Metal mob (think of an interesting shade of the rainbow) who were said to have spent six months in a top studio in the countryside, with all the bills going to their record label. And there they quietly went ape. Well, loudly ape, actually. Night and day, cigarette papers were put to a use that would, no doubt, shock the Rizla corporation. Hands of cards were dealt out, jokes were told, bottles were emptied, powders were sniffed from the navels of impressionable young women, tongues — and bodies — were oft entwined. Some music was even played — mostly on Radio One.

Then, after the party of a lifetime, the band got down to work. And in the last eight days, they cut the whole album, final mix and all. Their label paid for half a year of serious stupidity and, somehow, they'd done the thing in just over a week! Success! Stunned by this act of God, the band left the studio, tired but elated. So tired, in fact, that they left all the tapes on the roof of one of their cars, which then promptly drove off. The headbangers never saw the reels again, and spent the next three months scowling at each other, as they grudgingly re-created — at their own expense — a perfect reproduction of the lost album.

The legendary producer Phil Spector knew a thing or two about perfectionism, and drove New York punks the Ramones to distraction when recording their 'Rock'n'Roll High School' single. Spector spent some four and a half days recording the song's opening guitar chord — just the one chord — over and over again. In the end the Ramones cracked, Dee Dee allegedly telling Spector, "Jeez, we didn't know it'd be so hard. We only wanted your name cos we thought it'd sell a few more records!" An enraged, outraged Phil pulled a .45 hand-gun and waved it at the head of the nearest Ramone. "Don't you dare say that!!", Spector snarled angrily, "Admit that you want me to produce this, cos I'm the best goddam producer on da whole goddam friggin' planet!" After a nano-second or two of hesitation, the Ramones confessed their hitherto unspoken love of Spector's production skills, and disaster was avoided.

"Some ludicrously bad mathematics convinced the boys the tapes were probably already smouldering"

Of course, some artists deliberately court studio disaster, the Sex Pistols being one outfit who spring to mind. When they went to record their debut 'Anarchy in the UK', their live mixer Dave Goodman let the boys run wild, the track ending in screaming feedback, while manager Malcolm McLaren spray-painted the legend 'Anarchy!' on the sound booth glass. To Goodman's credit, it has to be said that the band's rough-and-ready excitement is perfectly captured on his version of 'Anarchy'. But the Pistols' record label (EMI, the first of many) wanted a touch more polish, so the group were sent over to Wessex studios with producer Chris Thomas of Roxy Music fame.

When the Pistols started laying down tracks in the main live room, they discovered another studio phenomenon, the curious eavesdropper. Halfway through recording. Glen Matlock — the Sex Pistols' original bass player — decided he needed some fresh air, and yanked the door open. Who should he see, but Freddie Mercury. The Queen frontman was kneeling down, with his ear pressed hard against the live room's outer wall. "Yes, can we help you?" deadpanned Matlock. "I'm just, er, looking for the toilet", smiled Freddie queasily, as he struggled to his feet. "Well", said the young Pistol, "I think you'll find it's right behind you — it's that door marked 'Toilet'".

Recording doesn't have to be done in the studio, 'though. It can be done live (or not, as the case may be). German Polydor went for that option with their trendy signing of 1988, Kamerata Club. This new KC, the Germans felt, could conquer the world. So Kamerata, a rather camp collection of young men, were subsequently sent out to tour the world, and record their songs live, complete with audience reactions. A budget of £60,000, a recording engineer and some top club DJs were to provide back-up. Things started off bad, and quickly became worse. In Moscow, the group thought they could rely on local sound equipment. This local gear, it turned out, consisted of a dodgy 4 track reel-to-reel — which didn't really matter anyway, since the singer refused to leave his hotel. It seems he missed his teddy bear collection, which he'd left back in Berlin (I kid you not).

After flying back to Berlin to collect the said stuffed toys, the band drove through the old East Germany to get to their Frankfurt gig in the West. They escaped death at this point, in spite of their driver having put petrol in the hired diesel car. The car merely stalled, although Volkswagen sent experts in to try and ascertain why. Later, the Kamerata lads would probably have wished that they had perished in an auto fireball, since in Frankfurt, with a mobile 24-track ready and waiting, it emerged that no adverts or posters had been distributed. To add insult to injury, the local press had also panned Kamerata's latest disc. So, in a club built for more than 3,000 punters, only twelve turned up. The singer then refused to fly to the New York or Rio 'concerts', so these ended up being rather expensive parties for the engineer, the DJs and their pals. Three weeks later, the group split without having laid down a single live number — leaving the record company with an over-budget bill in excess of £1,000,000 (and you thought Spinal Tap was just a movie?)

Sometimes, though, it's not the artist who's the master of excess. When the young testosterone-fuelled group Panic cut some demos last Christmas for the label Musicdisc, the boys' "1990s Rock'n'Roll" attitude, and dedication to partying worried their record company. How could they get that wild live sound at its best, without the lads' natural exuberance wrecking the place? The label needn't have worried. Apart from the odd joint and a few beers, Panic behaved perfectly, doing all the numbers in two or three takes. The exhausted engineer, on the other hand, took solace in six lines of coke, five humongous joints and a king size bottle of Gold Flake Tequila. By the time the weekend session was over, said engineer had kicked the master faders off the desk, vomited over a pre-amp, passed out twice, threatened one member of the band and offered to sleep with another. Panic will not be working with the same soundman again, and the latter is currently seeking full-time employment elsewhere.

So the next time you destroy a life-long friendship at the digital console or blow a few grand, or some Yamaha monitors, while remixing the wrong track — take heart. Just remember you're moving — well, stumbling — in the footsteps of your forefathers.

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Eight track mind

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Soul Farmers

Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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The Mix - Apr 1995

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Chris Needham

In Session


Previous article in this issue:

> Eight track mind

Next article in this issue:

> Soul Farmers

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