The Lexicon Of Strings
Anne Dudley rearranges the alphabet.
Orchestral arranger Anne Dudley started her career playing piano on children's TV. Was arranging the strings for ABC much different, quizzed Paul Colbert, thinking he was being clever?
The gold lame suits never caught on, it has to be said. No matter how frequently Martin Fry and the rest of the ABC alphabet donned the spangles for Top Of The Pops, it wasn't a craze which swept the country.
Now with strings they were a fraction more successful.
"The Lexicon Of Love" began a stampede back to the real orchestra. In studios up and down the land, Prophets and Solinas were littered with doilies and used for coffee tables. It had to be genuine cat gut over seasoned timber and standing quietly at the centre of this reversion to realism was an ex-Royal College of Music piano student, one time Mecca showband keyboard player and 'star' of Playschool. Anne Dudley, this is your bow.
A 30 piece string section does not organise itself. In order to translate a band's ideas into sensible score a trained violinist can understand you need an arranger, and it was Anne who was responsible for the Lexicon work. Since then she's gone on to assist in Malcolm McLaren's Duck Rock orchestrations, has recently added brass to Jimmy the Hoover, is presently producing the next Belle Stars album as well as taking part in the Art of Noise, an ungodly collaboration of individuals if ever there was one.
Anne was at Sarm West studio in glamorous W.11's Basing Street when One Two poked a C90 under her nose and bid her speak the secret words of how-to-become-a-string-arranger-and-the-dreadful-sacrifices-involved. Thus was the spell invoked...
"I started as a classically trained keyboard player at the Royal College of Music for two years, but I was also interested in pop and jazz... mainly jazz... and at the time I was playing in bands, which didn't go down too well at college. Jazz was a four letter word.
"When I was 19 I started doing the Mecca circuit, dance halls and so on; and one of the first people I met was Trevor Horn who was a bass player — quite a poor bass player at the time, I don't suppose he'll mind me telling you.
"He'd just begun getting involved with production, and he gave me my first session — I'd always wanted to be a session musician as soon as I'd found out what they did — getting paid for enjoying yourself, or so I thought."
It was in one of those longed-for sessions that someone first said the words 'can anyone here do a string arrangement' and, after glancing back over her classical schooling, it occurred to Anne that, yes, probably she could.
"At the time I had a really good job, I'm not sure if it's good to tell you, I s'pose confession is good for the soul... I used to play the piano on Playschool. They had about eight or nine pianists, so my turn would come round once every eight weeks. That paid the bills, so I could bide my time and do whatever sessions came in. Often, if you leave music college without a job, you drift into teaching and that can be difficult to get out of. I never liked it anyway."
Over the next few years the jobs came in steadily while Trevor Horn went through various production schemes, not noted for their massive impact on the music world, until he teamed up with Geoff Downs in the shape of Buggles, then onto Yes until the affirmatives fractured leaving Horn to return to production work, this time on Dollar and eventually ABC. At this point Anne Dudley is drawn again into the Horn fold.
"I played the piano on those ABC sessions... there's quite a lot of it. We did a lot of the recording at Sarm East and there's a particularly fine Bosendorfer grand there... it was hard to resist.
"ABC started almost a new trend going back to real strings, and we had some large string sections. It's a well established system of booking people — there's a pool of very talented freelance players, so when you write the parts they play them the first time through — perfectly."
Great readers they may be, but that means someone is required to sit down and write out the scores in full. There's no leaning round the control room door, humming a snatch of the chorus until 18 violin players get the general drift.
"Even if you want to change things on the day, it's very difficult to convey that to 30 or 40 people at once. Simple changes can be made and there are always things to be discussed — matters of interpretation — but mainly you have to be able to hear it as you write it."
The ABC sessions kicked off with 22 players when the first track "The Look of Love" was recorded. By the time they'd progressed to "All Of My Heart" that number had escalated to 33. "Some time later I did an arrangement for Andy Hall for Buck's Fizz and he said to me 'how many strings did ABC use?' — oh, about 30 — 'okay, we'll have 40'."
Though, in this month's ish, Nick Heyward chats about completing his vocals live in front of an orchestra and Geoff Emerick, generally the masters of any new album are 90 per cent complete when it comes to adding the strings. "That way you make sure you're not getting in the way of anything else on the track."
"I always try to write things that you couldn't DO on a synth, like pizzicato, or little bits of phrasing, something that sounds real. One thing a string section can handle incredibly well is dynamics — they can start a note so quietly you can barely hear it, then bring it to an incredible crescendo, and there's this tremolando technique where they actually scrub at the strings." Try putting a bow over your Fairlight and see what happens.
However, there is one headache that ABC have given the rest of us. They had a comfortable budget, the ardent backing of a major record company and some very experienced people to hand. If anyone else tries to catch up on the genuine fiddle sound, they're not likely to have enough luncheon vouchers to hire 30-odd elbows for a morning.
"You have to bear in mind how many strings you've got," advises Anne. "If you are going to cut down your budget to six violins, it's no good then dividing them up across a three part chord so you've only got two on each note. It's going to sound awfully thin in the upper registers. I'd try to write lines all in unison or octaves which will sound bigger than chords."
"The one thing I'd never do is get three or four players and track them up. You'll never get the sound of a section that way because each fiddle player has a different violin and is playing in a slightly different way.
"The sound of 15 players is different from the sound of 40 or even 60. The most exciting sound I ever heard was an arrangement I did for the LSO... how many strings was that... 50, 60... the sound took my breath away."
That's pretty much the reaction that the average band member has on greeting the string quartet they've just hired, less alone half a symphony orchestra. In fact, would be less than honest if they didn't admit to a powerful interest in the whereabouts of the toilet when faced with the prospect of a 'classically trained musician'.
"I don't think it's true that they don't like what they're doing. The whole reason session players do sessions is because they like pop music. They've been through the orchestras and the hassle of superstar conductors, concerts and tours and so on, and they're not sneering at the people they're working with. They want to get things right, very right, and they take a great deal of pride in what they do.
Of course, there is another side to the orchestral manoeuvres in the studio... brass. "It's the same thing, you have to know what it's going to sound like as you're writing, but it is a bit more difficult than string arrangements. String sections are homogenous — an easy sound. With a brass section you've got trumpets, trombones and saxes which maybe God didn't mean to be together! You can't exactly stick them all in the same room and put one mike up. It always seems to be the saxes that stand out."
In the last six or eight months Anne has gradually made the changeover from arrangements to involving herself in the complete job of production: "the borderline between them is not very clearly defined, and I felt I'd like to be involved from the beginning right the way through."
And there's also the Art of Noise, oh yes, that very strange alliance which revolves around the sampling system of a Fairlight music computer, and the 'input' of Trevor Horn, programmer J.J., Gary Langan, Anne Dudley, and one time NME scribe Paul Morley. At least a Fairlight doesn't naff off for a 20 minute break.
Interview by Paul Colbert