Tom Newman - tubular Tom raps with our own dread feller.
Fred Dellar, continuing his series of top producers, gets to grips with Tubular Tom Newman (below, right) and Interlife collaborator 12-string Paul Brett.
IT all began in a manner not dissimilar to one of Bob Newhart's telephone routines.
'Hello. You say that you're ringing on behalf of Paul Brett? Yes, I know Paul — he did a 12-string guitar concerto for RCA last year, right? And you've rung to tell me that he's made a new album that's produced by Tom Newman? Oh, no — not TOM NEWMAN! Go on — tell me what Tom did this time. He kept bringing in lots of strange little boxes? And he told everyone that he was going to build a studio in an airship? Not only that — he's also thinking of fitting one into a submarine? Oh, this I've gotta hear more about. Let's make a date for Friday morning.'
Fade out, fade in and the next scene is Paul Brett's flat in Fulham on national fish fryers' day. Characters involved, in no particular order of importance are — The Dog, played by Tunlap Tomino, a black chow of some pedigree; the artist, portrayed by Paul Brett; the publicist and attractive tea lady, played by Sandra Goode; and the producer, a role filled by one Thomas Newman.
The album he and Brett have completed is called Interlife. It's the second part of a guitar trilogy commenced by Brett's Earthbirth, his 12-string concerto. I ask Newman how he came to be involved in the project. He grins and looks like a rosy apple.
'It was a bit of a shot out of the blue really. I got a call from Alan Sizer (A&R man at RCA) saying that he'd got someone he wanted me to meet so that we could talk about the possibility of doing a production, and the next minute this character (points stage left in the direction of Brett) turns up at me studio. Well, I was a bit wary, 'cos you don't know about people like that, do you? Anyway, he walks in, sits down, plays the first side of Interlife and says: Whaddya think of that? Smashin', I says. And then he just gets up and tells me that we'll start next week — just like that. I mean, I was thinking of approaching him warily, trying to figure out if we were likely to hate each other's guts or something — but everything was signed, sealed and delivered in just a quarter of an hour.'
An unlikely tale — but over the years, I've learnt that with Newman all things are possible. I first came across him in 1972. At the time I did a studio news column for the New Musical Express and phoned the Manor every week in the hope that Branson's pack of dilettantes might pull something out of the bag. And each week the communique ended with the news that 'Tom Newman is still in the studio with a folkie named Mike Oldfield. They're doing all sorts of weird things in there. Hundreds of overdubs. Sounds great though.'
The result, of course, was Tubular Bells — which meant that Newman and I both duly cadged free meals from Virgin's press office and even got around to doing a reasonably sane interview around the time of Fine Old Tom, his first solo album — about which period he moved on to The Argonaut, a barge moored in London's Little Venice, and began turning it into a floating studio.
Newman's musical career began back in the skiffle era, when he played in a group at a Perivale, West London, community centre. Later, he claims that he became that area's answer to Hank Marvin, with everything going through a 15-watt Watkins Westminster amp. He also states that his flair for Shadow-like terpsichore wasn't too bad either. Recordings came through stays with The Tomcats, who cut sides for Spanish Phonogram, and July, who did an album for Major Minor — but after bottles got thrown at the latter group a few times, Newman opted out and signed on as a wallpaper reeler at Sanderson's factory.
His luck changed after meeting Virgin's Richard Branson. Newman felt that if he could con Branson into buying a couple of decent tape-recorders, he might be able to produce a few demos at very little cost. But somehow things got out of hand. Branson, working on the assumption that Newman was the I.K. Brunel of studio engineering, a belief fostered by Newman's self-publicity, opened a 4-track studio in a Paddington church crypt. But within a short space of time, Branson, inspired by a talk with George Martin, acquired The Manor and Newman found himself expected to build a full 16-track set-up.
'I tried to live up to my claim that I was the world's gift to the recording industry', he later told me, 'so I read all the back copies of Studio Sound in order to find out what I was talking about — I didn't know a thing about Dolbys or anything like that — and I put the studio together with a soldering iron in one hand and a text book in the other.'
With Newman nothing can be taken for granted. Even the latest album wasn't recorded in a true recording studio. But Brett claims responsibility for this. 'We decided to do it at Capital Radio because most studios these days are so bloody well involved with their own technicalities that they disappear up their own backsides. You can get into a studio and it doesn't matter which you use, you'll still end up with just about the same sound. I suppose things have fallen into a kind of Motown syndrome trap, with every record sounding as if they had the same bass and drummer — though in Motown's case they probably did!' An opinion, I feel, with which many people wouldn't agree — but one which Brett, who's played with Lonnie Donegan, Velvet Opera, Neil Christian's Crusaders, Strawbs, Arthur Brown, Roy Harper, Ralph McTell, The Overlanders, Sage (his own band) and the Cyril Stapleton Orchestra, is well-qualified to make.
He continues to pursue this particular line. 'Up to a point, equipment does make a difference — but eventually you reach a stage where it doesn't matter how many new gadgets you've got. At Capital, they work on a lot of live concerts and so they're very conscious that music is a live thing — which is the main reason we decided to work there. Dave Stephens and Mike Sykes, the radio engineers we used on the album, had never worked on records before — but they were both terrific and with Tom's help got a great feel on the album, that great feel you get when people are actually playing live. It was what we wanted to get rather than something more clinical and sounding as if it had been assembled on a production line.'
Earthbirth was later mixed on the Manor mobile: 'We couldn't afford anything else', mutters Brett. Newman also claims poverty. 'When we were there, the studio was being booked for some Italian superstar RCA were hoping to break over here. He'd got a forty-grand budget and all sorts of stuff — and there we were, just like field mice, stuck in the truck outside.'
I recalled that Tangerine Dream once told me they preferred to work in the mobile because it was better than the actual studio. Newman says that this was once true. 'The first Manor studio started to get decrepit very quickly. All the stuff was second-hand because we just couldn't afford anything else. So when the first mobile was new, the equipment in that was better quality than we had in the studio. But since it's gone all Westlake things are a bit different. Frankly, the mobile is a risky place to mix in because it's like working in a corridor and you get no impression of stereo at all because the speakers are nearly touching each other. You've got to be very careful about over-equalisation simply because you haven't got a great big studio that makes everything sound beautiful. But because it was an awkward place, we found ourselves getting sounds that we maybe wouldn't have achieved in a big studio. So in the end it paid dividends and Ken Glancy, RCA's managing director, said it sounded really American — which is a compliment because most British studio engineers and producers are eluded by an American sound... they don't have the same sort of mixing philosophy. But we got that very sound by accident — though it was all a bit like working in a lavatory.'
So much for the mixing — but how did Newman feel about working on the basic tracks and overdubs at a radio station? Again his face lights up like switch-on time along Blackpool's Golden Mile. 'Capital is a smashing place because it's totally non-pretentious. It's got only just enough equipment to be called a 16-track studio, I mean they've got no toys there — we had to hire any toys we needed — but that again was another good thing because we didn't use things simply because they happened to be there, we only used what was absolutely necessary. It was certainly sparse though — even the control room's got a bleeding great ventilator shaft going through the middle of it, all hardly Westlake, and we had to be very careful because the monitors are very odd, a type they don't make any more and a sort that nobody else in the world uses. Again though, we accidentally hit on a good combination because of those Capital monitors and the lets-get-the-sound-on-to-tape-as-soon-as-possible-because-that's-what-you-do-in-a-live-situation philosophy of the engineers.'
Brett tussles with The Dog, chews a biscuit and muses that the work at Capital took place over three to four weeks. 'We fitted our sessions in between the programming there — and went down to the Manor when the mobile was free, or else we had the truck outside Tom's barge.
'Christ, those mornings out in that bloody field,' he remembers with a leftover shiver, 'it was so cold that you couldn't even push the faders.' 'Yeah', Newman agrees, 'every time we turned the heaters on to the third bar all the fuses went and the gear turned off. So we either had to freeze and get a mix or keep warm and use no equipment.'
The delectable Ms Goode does her impression of the Wimpy Bar kid once more and all — with the exception of Tunlap Tomino, who's obviously above Wimpy Bars — partake of Brazil's most famous brew. Lubrication time over, I put it to the Clark Kent of producers that he's probably sick to death of his 'Man who produced Tubular Bells' tag. However, it seems I've got things wrong.
'I'm still very pleased to be associated with Tubular Bells — after all, it was a focal point in my career. But what's nice about Paul's thing is that it's the first time since Mike's that has given me the same sort of feeling I had about Tubular Bells, though they're completely different in their musical approach. My own albums — Fine Old Tom and Faerie Symphony — they were smashing. But they don't fit in with what's going on aboard Planet Earth in 1978, whereas Paul's does. For me, it's the next step up the ladder from Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge, and with any luck I'll shake off the Oldfield thing and have Interlife strung around my neck for the next five years.'
Newman's Faerie Symphony, a musical canvas concocted by the producer and fellow rapscallion Jon Field of Jade Warrior, sold some 6000 copies for Decca. 'It would have sold more', interjects Brett, 'but leprechauns can't reach the counter!'
A spate of Irish jokes ensues — 'Anaemic — that's an Irish midget' etc — before sanity prevails once more. Tunlap Tomino, dignified as ever, just yawns. 'The Symphony — that was all self-indulgence, madness — all sorts of things. I used the varispeed on the Ampex like it had never been used before. A mate of mine, Jeff Wesley, who used to play keyboards with the Bee Gees, left an organ behind — and Jon and I began using it as a drum, hammering on the top of it with drumsticks and turning up the varispeed so that when we played back at constant speed the percussion just went wwwwiiirrrooo... We were pissed out of our heads really because we used to send out for big jugs of Guinness — but we really got a good sound. Working with Jon Field though is a bad thing in many ways because he's got a very open mind about my indulgences and when we get together things just go completely haywire and lose sight of anything resembling a measuring stick. At a certain level I think it's what artists should be doing — but the press doesn't like it because they don't know how to pigeon-hole it and the promotion and marketing people at record companies certainly don't like such things.'
'But Decca financed you and actually signed you to a production deal, right?'
'Yeah — I got this amazing contract which read: We'll pay you x amount per year to offer us material as you think fit, signed Mr Decca — and that was it. No exclusive bit or anything. It meant that I could still do anything else I wanted yet they remained willing to pay for anything I offered them.
It's very odd really — they ask you to produce certain things because you're a progressive sort of avant-garde, avant-garde-a-clue, producer and when they get the product they say it's too way out for them and they don't know how to market it. If they really want things to be middle of the road then there are any number of good producers who can do that sort of thing. What's the point of asking a lunatic like me to produce something that'll sell to housewives in Beckenham? Nevertheless, I must say that they've helped me to keep the wolf from the door so I can't knock them on that level. So I still manage to pay my bills — six months later, of course!'
In some ways the Brett-Newman relationship is an odd one. Newman describes the guitarist as 'A right yobbo', continuing: 'I just couldn't believe he was capable of writing all the sensitive stuff he played me. That was what surprised me in the first place — this villain walking in and playing all those lovely tunes.' And Brett declares of Newman: 'I'd normally steer clear of anyone like him — I mean, he's only just started wearing shoes!'
A peacemaker ever, I suggest that the duo have something in common. 'Nothing I've noticed', protests Newman. I continue, mentioning that both came out of the '60s band scene. Suddenly the thought — that I might bring up the subject of July and that band's Major Minor album sends Newman cringing into the corner. 'Blimey, don't tell Paul about that. He doesn't know about that. He already takes the piss out of me about fairies — if you told him about that July album I'd never live it down.'
At this point Brett also opts for a trip down memory lane, remembering his recordings with Elmer Gantry, Richard Hudson and John Ford, who together with Brett formed Velvet Opera. 'Even when our record of Flames was doing well, Southern Music, who had a lease tape deal with CBS/Direction, said we had to do our album in their 4-track studio. We spent 12 hours in that studio sometimes — just to get a backing track of bass, drums and guitar down. We really wanted to do it in 8-track — no wonder the band broke up! I should imagine Guy the gorilla had more foresight than Southern did in those days. Y'know, they've still got a lot of unreleased Velvet Opera stuff down there, along with some things that Johnny and I did after we'd left the band.' Both Newman and Brett feel that the situation hasn't changed much over the years and there are still too many people at the top in the record industry who would be better employed selling ice cream.
'Take the time we wanted some more money for Interlife', says Newman. 'RCA agreed that we could bring them an open-ended mix for them to hear — one with everything left up just to prove that there was a lot of things on it. We explained to the A&R department that there weren't any guitars on it but they said that didn't matter. So the next day we went in and played them the first side in this totally unbalanced mix. The first bit was OK because we did have a guitar intro and the guy sat there saying: All right. But as things went on, his face went down into his hands, then down between his knees, then finally he was right down and looking as if he was about to get the bullet from his boss. It was at this point that he said: — But there's no guitars on it... and this is supposed to be a guitar album! He just went bananas and Paul and I just looked at each other because we'd spent about half-an-hour explaining to him that all he'd hear was keyboards, saxes, all the backing riffs, synthesiser, bass and drums.'
Time's moving on, so I switch subjects and enquire how Newman's barge studio is making out. The producer explains that the floating 16-track, where he once worked on albums for Jade Warrior and Anthony Phillips, has since become an 8-track jingles palace. 'It got to the point where things couldn't go much further because it was entirely dependent upon my running it — which I didn't want to do. Producers and engineers on budgets from recording companies wouldn't take a chance with the boat — they were frightened of working in such a small space and possibly not getting the sound they wanted. Then I met a guy who was into radio ads and all that sort of stuff. He said The Argonaut would make a great jingles studio, so we risked it, changed the concept, got rid of the 16-track and brought in an 8-track, ponced the whole place up a bit — white paint, potted plants, the whole up-market approach — and then began charging £25 an hour for 8-track, which is totally ludicrous. And all of a sudden it got full! Nowadays, it's used exclusively by J. Walter Thompson's and all those big agencies — and it's booked solidly. And to think that I was only charging £16 an hour for 16-track!'
I ask if he's yet changed his original desk. 'No, it's still the mixer I originally had, a Revis built by the Birmingham company who also built Mike Oldfield's desk. Revis are not very well known at the moment, though they've got a deal with Scenic Sounds, who distribute their parametric compressors and stuff. They're doing very well on ancillary equipment but they're not known as mixer builders really because Mike's and mine are the only two they've ever built — apart from a stage mixer they did for Fred Frith. But now they're building two more — a new one for the boat, because though that studio's doing well on eight-track I'm going to put in a 16-track once more — and another that'll go into a mobile I'm building. With the mobile I want to be able to wander all around the country, just recording anything that I fancy, maybe popping into village halls and things. I think it's gonna be fun!'
It is at this stage that I say goodbye to the assembled cast, shake paws with Tunlap Tomino, who confides through an interpreter that he's not only got his picture on the album sleeve but also has his name inscribed in the run off groove, and wander off to document the morning's events.
Suddenly I remember that I didn't even quiz Newman about the boxes, the airship or the submarine. Damn! Still, there's always another time.
Interview by Fred Dellar
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