Track Record: Bowie & Jagger
David Bowie, Mick Jagger
All profits from Tony Horkins' features go to Live Aid
An obvious single, a sure contender for the number one spot and a magic slice of purely danceable Pop music. Jagger/Bowie's collaboration remains one of the highlights of the Live Aid show, and it was recorded in the pure spirit of the occasion; live, rough and in a hurry. Co-producer Alan Winstanley can describe the session in a matter of minutes.
"We were working with Bowie on the soundtrack for Absolute Beginners when he said he'd like to do this thing with Jagger tonight. Jagger turned up at seven in the evening and they all had to leave at 10 to travel to the other side of London to make the video. We started running through it with the band at about 6 — the same band we'd been using that day on the track — and we did a few takes when Jagger got here and we'd done a rough mix for them to take to the video shoot by 10 with everyone just playing live."
Recorded at Winstanley and Langer's giant West Side studio using half of a 48-track SSL set-up, they certainly needed the space to get the recording done, though a few days after the initial session various parts were replaced. Drums, however, stayed as they were.
"Drummer Neil Conti, current member of Prefab Sprout, was absolutely incredible. He's one of the best drummers around and he's got a Gretsch kit that was dead easy to get a sound on. The whole kit was double headed — he even had the front skin on the bass drum with a little hole cut in the middle. He has his toms suspended with these little rims around the outside so the actual shell itself doesn't touch the bass drum. And he doesn't have a floor tom — I hate floor toms, maybe it's because they've got legs and the sound goes down through the ground. But he's got a hanging floor tom so it sounds great — plus the fact that he's a great drummer anyway.
"So he got set up in the far corner of the room and takes up about a third of it with screens in front. We put a mike on the bass drum, one on top of the snare and one under, one on each tom tom, a mike on the hi hat, two overheads above his cymbals and right at the other end of the room two ambient mikes really high up. Also there's a pressure zone mike stuck in the roof that we mix in a bit. We put a bit of damping in the bass drum but the toms we left ringing — I hate them when they're taped. I cut out the edge of an old snare skin and taped it to the one we were using for a bit of dampening on that. All those rings and boings you hear when you're getting a snare sound you never hear at the end of the day anyway.
"Then when we mixed the song we added loads of effects to the kit too. We had the Lexicon 224XL on the snare and toms, the AMS RMX16 digital reverb and the new Klark Teknik DN780, which is really good. It's a new one and basically they've copied the AMS but it's got some really good programmes in it that the AMS hasn't got.
"Bowie had this idea that he wanted the snare to sound like Springsteen's Born In the USA, which we didn't quite get but we didn't want it copied exactly. In fact Bowie brought the record along and we kept on referring to it.
"As for the bass, Matthew Seligman has got a Trace Elliot set-up which, personally, I hate. I think they're really over-rated. They're probably great on stage but in the studio my favourite amp for bass is an Ampeg B15.
Anyway, he's got a Fender Jazz bass and we had to use the Trace Elliot; we put one mike on the Trace Elliot cab and a DI. We had to re-do the bass later because the part wasn't really that solid. We spent an hour in the control room working through the song and got it really tight. That's the way we normally work with bass players anyway. After that we just added a bit of middle on the board for a bit of punch.
"Piano was played by Steve Nieve from the Attractions and he played a Bosendorfer grand piano, which is out in one of our booths. We bung two mikes — either Neumann U87s or AKG414s — under the lid, one facing the bottom end of the strings and one facing the top. It's quite a bright piano because when we bought it we asked Bosendorfer to brighten it up. I think they make the hammers a bit harder.
"Then we used some synthesized brass — an Emulator II and an old Emulator mixed together.
"Kevin Armstrong played the guitar — he's also playing with Prefab Sprout at the moment — and on the track we used a Fender Strat through a Twin Reverb and a Roland Chorus mixed together. But we re-did that a couple of nights later with one of those old Vox Teardrop pear-shape guitars and put it through a Marshall 100 watt with a 4x12 cabinet. We had a close mike on that and a couple of ambient mikes.
The reason we did it again was for the sound — when we first did it it sounded a bit weedy. There is more guitar on the track but we didn't do that — Earl Slick played a guitar solo which I think is on the 12 and on the B-side instrumental version. He did that in New York with Nile Rodgers.
"We got a guy called Pedro Ortiz in to play percussion. He had loads of gear — congas, Simmons, boxes and boxes of toys — and all he did in the end was shake a few bells and play a tambourine. He also did that whistle at the beginning with his fingers and we panned it across the stereo with some repeats on it.
"As for the brass, that was done by Nile Rodgers and one of the sax players from Bowie's normal band did the arrangements and played on it with a couple of other guys. We did the backing vocals with Helena Springs and Tessa Miles here, and that was real quick. The first night it was done in a real rush so we ended up re-doing them. We did two tracks of them double tracked, then an extra harmony with Tessa. The two tracks in the first place were harmonies to each other and the last one was a real high one.
"Then there was some hand claps which we all went out and did — about eight of us around one mike.
"Finally, of course, we went for the vocals. The stuff at the beginning — the Tokyo, UK stuff — we did all that on the second session, so it wasn't actually there on the video. When we first did the vocal they were in the booth together, but when we re-did them we brought them out into the room, and they did them separately. Mick did his first and he was listening to David's guide vocal in his headphones, then when David went out he had Mick's new vocal. We used pretty much the same eq on both their voices, but I think I maybe added a bit more top on David's. Apart from that it was a bit of high top and a bit of high middle. When they're doing their vocals David wears both headphones and has his voice fed back through the cans, and Mick pulls one back off his ear... I think. I actually don't sit here and stare at them, just listen. It must be odd being out there and watching these people staring at you.
"When I did the headphone mix for them I had the girls pretty far back in the mix and the drums way out front for the timing. I normally stick quite a bit of piano in for pitching too."
But the question is, do either of them hit bum notes?
"Yeah they do, but at least they know when they have."
Feature by Tony Horkins