Chas de Whalley talks to the other John Williams about his recent work with chart-toppers The Housemartins
I am in no doubt that regular readers of this column will have guessed that, when it comes to all things High Tech, yours truly is a dyed-in-the-wool Luddite. Or if not a Luddite then at least as much of a Fundamentalist as the Ayotollah Khomeni. And that, whenever the rest of the world piles the praise onto the latest Trevor Horn or Chris Hughes extravanganza, I privately throw up my hands in horror and reach for my shotgun.
Of course, all that isn't strictly true. It's impossible to have any professional relationship worth its capital P with the music business in the 1980s and not grant the state-of-the-art boys some awe and respect if only as a reflection of the time and energy expended on records which, for better or worse, sell in lorryloads all over the world.
Nevertheless I would still hold it a tragedy for popular music that any new group's chances of getting anywhere in the charts, let alone onto the Radio One playlist or even a record company's release schedule, seems directly related to how many samplers, sequencers and digital reverbs they used in the studio. So it shouldn't come as any surprise at all to you when I say how much I rejoice in The Housemartins and their recent runaway success. A full weekend of pure pleasure is waiting within the three and a bit minutes that is Happy Hour their almost smash single. While the remaining eleven tracks (twelve if you've got the cassette) on their stunning debut album London 0 Hull 4 make the entire package sound like a greatest hits compilation just waiting for a TV ad campaign.
And there isn't a Fairlight, a DX7 or even a Linn Drum lurking anywhere on the entire album. I know this because it was virtually the first question I asked the band's producer John Williams. And I asked him the question because, while I knew the self-styled 'fourth best band from Hull' pride themselves upon their old-fashioned lineup of guitar, bass, drums and vocals, there are sounds on the album that are so tightly and clearly defined that I suspected a touch of up-to-the-minute skulduggery of the Drawmer-gate-triggering-a-sampled-sound order going on. Nothing, it seemed could be further from the truth.
"The only keyboards on the entire album is Pete Wingfield playing piano on three tracks Get Up Off Your Knees, Flag Day and Lean On Me. We didn't use any other keyboards whatsoever. Certainly no synthesisers or samplers. There are one or two real strings here and there. Like Cellos on Think For A Minute. But otherwise what we did do was use lots of different guitars and amplifiers. We hired in a few acoustics and a whole range of electrics.
"The first thing I ever did with them was the Sheep single which got to Number 54 and had a lot of air play. That was basically built round an acoustic guitar and a little electric lead figure, so we thought for the album we'd experiment with as many different guitar sounds as we could. We hired a lot in and then if one didn't sound right we'd try another and so on until we got it right.
"Of course, that involved different amps and microphones too. But we went through so many different permutations I've lost track of what we used where. I recall a Rickenbacker 12 string on Over There, and some Ovation and Martin acoustics here and there, but otherwise I couldn't tell you a thing."
Which is a pity since The Housemartin's Album is brimming with scintillating guitar sounds, by turn crystal clear as on the ballad Flag Day or fierce, jagged and full-bodied on Sitting On A Fence. The single most exciting sound though must come not from Cullimore's tight and precise chording but from singer and harp player Paul Heaton who contributed some rogue feedback pyrotechnics throughout the album's final track Freedom. John Williams is quick to claim credit there.
"When we went in to do that song the group wanted something a little wild on it and I remembered that one of the albums that meant the most to me as a kid was the Who's My Generation. So I suggested we do something Pete Townsend used to do a lot which was to lay down an entire track of noise guitar and fade it in and out throughout the song to add a little extra atmosphere and an air of excitement. So we spent a bit of time setting up the gear which I think was a Les Paul and a Marshall so that Paul could get all the feedback he might want and then we just ran the song past him in the cans. It wasone of those things which needed a non-guitarist to make it happen."
John Williams and I met one hot lunchtime off Oxford Street the week Happy Hour hit the number Three slot in the UK charts. Now an A&R man for Chrysalis, who press and distribute The Housemartin's record label Go Discs, Williams first met Hull's favourite sons in 1985 when he was rounding off four years spent producing sessions for Radio One's Janice Long and John Peel shows. During that period he was also managing Blancmange and Shriekback and before that even had been gainfully employed by both Polydor and Island Records as a Radio One plugger, this after a stint as a freelance journalist in Canada contributing to magazines like Rolling Stone and Trouser Press. So when he turns an almost azure stare on you and an accent closer to Toronto than his native Wolverhampton and says "I believe if you want to make a success in the music business you have to learn every aspect of it and get to know it inside out"... he sure ain't joking.
Williams sandwiched The Housemartin's album in between his normal A&R activities over a remarkably brief two and a half week period at The Strongroom in the City Of London, with the wondrously named Phil Bodger engineering. It is immediately obvious how much was made of the natural ambience offered by that studio's much vaunted live room as the band sound both raucous and real without the scratchiness you might expect from their mod-cum-lately image. Williams also believes the recording benefited considerably from the months of solid roadwork The Housemartins have put in since they first signed to Go Discs almost eighteen months ago.
"All the songs had been well played in on stage and I think you get a sense of real enjoyment and excitement out of the band because of it. I didn't have to do any serious re-structuring whatsoever. I was far more conscious of making sure the lead vocals and the harmonies were sounding good because the band are basically such good singers. I think the drum sounds are pretty cracking too. It's not over-indulgent either. There's lots of space there, which I think is important on a record."
If anything Williams and Bodger's Housemartin recordings have the natural perspective of a beat group in full flight rather than the kind of illusory depth Cecil B De Mille might have created had he known about AMS. One of the reasons for that is the tracks were essentially laid down with the rhythm section playing live. Even the middle section of Get Up Off Your Knees, where the band mutes behind a suddenly whispered vocal for almost sixteen bars, was played in the studio exactly the way it sounds on the record. It seems like the anthemnic Flag Day was something of an emotional experience too.
Flag Day was certainly recorded live. Pete Wingfield came in to do the piano, learned the song in about ten minutes and the band knocked it out with drums, bass, piano, guide guitar and guide vocal. It felt so good we left it at that and only worked on the vocals afterwards. I believe if a track feels right in its most basic form there may not be much point in adding anything more to it. Nine times out of ten you pile on overdubs and not only does nothing more really happen but they detract from the strengths of the track as it stood.
"As an example, there's talk of Think For A Minute being the next single and so, inspired by the button badge which says 'The Housemartins are bigger than the Beatles' I thought I'd ask George Martin if he'd score a string arrangement for it. He took a listen to the mix I did for the album and said it didn't need any more doing to it. Which was very flattering."
Nevertheless there is one area in which John Williams insists upon taking real pains. And that's the vocals. He claims he'll happily spend days on the vocal tracks if that's what it takes because he believes the voice is by far the most important element on a record as it's the first thing people hear. In the shape of Paul Heaton of the Housemartins he almost met his match.
"Paul is a superlative singer so we didn't have to get into any double tracking, which I always consider is a bit of a cop out on lead vocals anyway. But Paul did insist we go through his takes with a fine tooth comb and study every word and inflection until we were sure we'd got it right. Sometimes he'd do a vocal and it would be right there. Lean On Me and Flag Day I think were virtually one take each. But on others you'd get a great verse and a great chorus but maybe the bridge section wasn't quite right. So we'd do three or four more takes of that section and edit the best parts together. And by that I mean that the first half of a word might be right on track sixteen and the second half be right on track nineteen. So there was a lot of bouncing and button pushing going on. But we did it that way because Paul himself, and quite rightly, wanted every word to have the right expression and be properly in tune."
On that count The Housemartins can certainly compete with most other bands doing well on the international circuit. But, I pondered, did Williams not suspect that, like The Jam before them, these four young lads from Hull might make music just a mite too parochial and English to cut the mustard abroad? He didn't agree.
"I know this sounds patronising, but I believe people tend to think something is good as much because they've been told that it's good rather than because they actually recognise it for themselves. And I have a sneaking suspicion that The Housemartins album will do very well in places like USA and Europe where you might not expect it to for precisely that reason. Plus the people who will be into it aren't necessarily the same ones who might be into Simple Minds.
"I believe too many people in this business have got overly wrapped up in the technological side of things, to the point where they feel that they should have all the latest digital equipment on their records or else they're not doing their job properly. I would counter that by arguing that a studio is only a place with a multitrack recorder and a desk with Eq facilities: the rest is down to performance. All you really have to do is make sure there's no distortion. I really just like getting the acoustic sounds together. Unless you're making a dance record where half of the appeal is that the sounds are absolutely stunning, I prefer to have a real guitar and a real piano and get the musicians to put their spirit and excitement on the track rather than rely on the machinery to provide it."
Interview by Chas de Whalley
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