From their excellent 1984 debut single 'Venceremos', Working Week have charted a unique course between fashionability and credibility. Simon Trask works out with Simon Booth.
The Working Week partnership of Simon Booth and Larry Stabbins has lasted for over seven years and five LPs - Booth reflects on success and failure, new directions and life outside of the Week.
WORKING WEEK WERE BORN OUT OF THE excitement of the early '80s jazz-dance scene, which founder member Simon Booth witnessed first-hand at Camden Town's Electric Ballroom in 1983. From the outset, the nucleus of the group was guitarist Booth and saxophonist Larry Stabbins, augmented by further players as and when required and featuring singer Juliet Roberts.
The band's debut single 'Venceremos' and first two albums, Working Nights and Companeros sold well on the crest of the jazz wave, and established their style of mainly self-penned songs combining elements of Latin, funk, jazz and soul in an accessible manner. Political statements on the liberation struggles of Latin America and South Africa served to give the band more lyrical substance than many of their contemporaries. In fact, Working Week have always managed to steer clear of pop frivolousness.
For their third album, 1987's Surrender, Working Week went to New York and producer Carl Beatty. In hindsight it wasn't a good move.
"The main thing to say is that there's an identity and a sound within our songwriting that we probably only really lost on Surrender", says Booth. "We were trying to launch the band into the American market, and people were telling us that the jazz influences in the band were detracting from that. I suppose it became more of an attempt at a mainstream R&B album, and in the process the producer failed to capture the essential Englishness of the band.
"We should have gone for the rare groove sound, for a sort of stripped-down pre Soul II Soul sound. It's easy to say now, but when we played live we used to try and get that Harvey Mason-type early 70s jazz/funk feel."
The album didn't sell well, lost the group a lot of fans and got them dropped by Virgin Records. It was time for a break. While Stabbins went off to live on a boat off the southern coast of Spain, Booth took to DJing at the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign's roving Club Sandino, spinning a mixture of soul, rare groove and jazz. From there he became involved in the burgeoning acid jazz movement, co-producing the Acid Jazz and Other Illicit Grooves and Acid Jazz - The Freedom Principle albums for Polydor in '88 and '89.
Eighty-nine also saw Booth and Stabbins re-emerge in their Working Week guise with a new album Fire in the Mountain, which they wrote, produced, financed and even designed the sleeve for themselves. Ironically, it was picked up by Virgin subsidiary, 10 Records.
Fire in the Mountain represented a triumphant reaffirmation of the group's strengths and met with critical acclaim, though popular acclaim was less forthcoming.
"It probably sold around 35-40,000", Booth says, "but I'm not worried about that, because if we can sustain album sales at that level, then that's fine. What was important was that the album re-established Working Week in a fusion of contemporary music styles. We're a song-based band that incorporates jazz elements and has its own identity. That's the only way I can describe us."
Following the release of Fire..., Booth and Stabbins became involved in other projects, Booth producing Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango's latest album, Polysonik, Stabbins forming his own band QRZ to try out musical ideas which weren't appropriate to Working Week. Stabbins is also active in his guise of free jazz saxophonist, with a tour of Germany in the company of the mighty saxophonist Peter Brotzmann in the offing.
"It's this flexibility in our working relationship which has allowed Working Week to survive", comments Booth.
If the frequent songwriting credits to Booth/Stabbins are to be believed, the pair work as a songwriting team. However, it turns out that all is not quite what it seems, as Booth explains: "Larry and I made a decision after the first album that we were going to co-credit everything regardless of who actually wrote what, because it gets very silly when you start having to argue out the percentage points - and it's also very unfair, because one song may be chosen as a single and if you wrote that song you get the PRS jackpot. The sound and the concept of Working Week is something that Larry and I have been working at together for years, and you can't really split that up into publishing fees."
But while Working Week may be a long-term commitment for Booth and Stabbins, Booth is scornful of people whose only interest is in what's next and new.
"I hate the desperate trendiness of people trying to be one step ahead of everyone else", he opines, "and this thing that a band only lasts for six months and then no-one's interested - like Dee-lite. They made a brilliant record, and I'd like to see them progress, but they've had it. There was a Dee-lite sound and then people went on to the next thing. I'm really proud that we've survived through a lot of that, that we've had a longevity that's taken us on to our fifth album."
Which brings us to Black and Gold, an album which updates the Working Week rhythm section and the Working Week sound to take account of current tastes without slavishly adhering to them. At the same time, what gives the new album continuity with the previous ones is the stylistic continuity of the songs.
The new album has a sparser quality than before, a fact which Booth puts down in part to the all-pervading influence of the first Soul II Soul album.
"One of the things we learnt from that album was that we really wanted to strip things down", he says, "make them more direct and as rootsy as possible. In the past we've always tended to over-arrange, to use ten instruments where one would do. It's the easiest thing to get musicians into the studio and start adding on pads and keyboard lines and doubling things up.
"The time to decide when to stop is when you're writing the songs and programming them before going into the studio. For the new album we had the songs demo'd and we pretty much knew how they were going to sound - with the exception of backing vocals.
"Eyvon helped, too. She kept saying 'Well, it's all there, you've got the drums and the bass and the vocal line, what else do you need?'. The old answer would have been 'well, there's a Latin piano line that could go here, then there's a horn line that could complement that, then there's pads behind the verse...'. You can do that, but it takes time, and we didn't have the time."
Female vocalists have been an important part of the Working Week sound from the outset, with soulful singer Juliet Roberts lending her rich tones to the first three albums while Julie Tippets took the vocal spotlight on Fire in the Mountain. The new album sees the introduction of a new singer, Eyvon Waite.
"As a songwriter I really like working with singers", explains Booth. "You get to know them, you find out their mood, what their personality is, and you make the song very personal around that.
"We wrote a lot of the new album with Eyvon very much in mind. She's a dancer, and hasn't really had any vocal experience, but we really wanted to work with someone who was primarily a dancer and who came out of the club scene. That's really where Eyvon was coming from, and she got involved in the grooves."
As a songwriter, Booth was facing lean times a year ago.
"I couldn't even get arrested as a songwriter", he exclaims. "Everyone wanted to work with DJs, with people out in the clubs who had breaks and beats, and then they'd get in a singer who would just go 'Everybody dance now' or 'Can you feel the music?' and they'd have a song - except that it was really a retreat from the song. But now the phone's constantly ringing, because people are getting back into writing songs. In fact, I'm writing with some singers at the moment.
"I listen to Stevie Wonder, I listen to Bob Marley, Burt Bacharach and John Lennon as well as a lot of contemporary soul and pop. At the end of the day, I feel my craft is as a songwriter, and everything else, the whole array of technology, is there to develop that skill."
Technology, in Booth's view, should be kept firmly in its place. Presumably, then, he doesn't have much time for the current upsurge of music which celebrates rather than disguises the electronic nature of synths, sequencers and drum machines. Not so.
"What's great about that kind of music is that a lot of it comes from hardcore working-class culture and it's offensive, it's like punk. What punk was to progressive rock, bleep is to the technical wizardry of some of the best Atari programmers. It's just kids going 'right, we're going to buy the machines and we're not worried if it's not quantised properly...'.
"I really like the rudeness of it. It's very avant-garde. All that music, when it first comes out people freak out, you know, 'there's no melody, no tune' - but they end up using it in the end, one way or another. The next Quincy Jones record will have bleeps all over it, no doubt."
"I'm going to show you African roots and African music, and we're going to take our Atari computers and our MPC60s and our S1000s with us."
IT WAS BOOTH'S PRODUCTION WORK ON the two Acid Jazz albums, together with the eclectic music on the Working Week albums, which brought him to the attention of Manu Dibango. He, in turn, decided that the Working Week man would be the ideal producer for his next album. Booth explains what Dibango had in mind:
"Manu wanted his record to sound tough, he wanted it to be played in a club and to stand up against contemporary dance music, but he didn't want to lose the dirtiness. He wanted to take all the elements of the stuff done in Working Week and on the Acid Jazz albums, all the hip hop and the fusion of modern jazz with breakbeats..."
The result, recorded in Paris and London and mixed in London, is Polysonik, an album which is set to be even more significant for Dibango in the '90s than the 12" 'Abele Dance' and the album Electric Africa were for him in the 80s. With its subtle, organic blending of fluid but funky makossa rhythms and modern dance grooves, jazzy horns and rapping from London's finest, MC Mell'O' (Dibango's own choice), Polysonik could be the record which brings down the barriers between African and Western dance music - and if so, technology will have played a significant role.
"We did a lot of programming on the album", says Booth, "and we got as far as we could with modern technology. Manu was really committed to that because he loves modern music, and he feels that African music deserves the same access to modern technology that we have in Western Europe and America. I remember he said to me 'Simon, we're going to do one of the best albums to come out of Africa. We're going to go back to Africa, I'm going to show you African roots and African music and we're going to take our Atari computers and our MPC60s and our S1000s with us' - because you can't get hold of this stuff in Africa.
"Manu's very progressive in his outlook, he doesn't have this rather reactionary third-world purism that a lot of world music critics have. If any journalist were to say to him that as an African musician he shouldn't be using modern technology, he'd just say 'that's the most reactionary, retrogressive thing and you've got no right to say that'. Any African musician wants to get into the best studios, work with the best gear and learn how to use the equipment. You've got to be into it, really. It's the way forward. The programmers we used on the second part of the record were African, and it was great the way they were programming. They were absolutely brilliant to work with."
Not that there weren't problems in reconciling the technology of sequencers and drum machines with musicians who were used to following their own timing, as Booth explains:
"Manu's musicians are really good but they can't play to a click. As soon as they hear anything metronomic they can't really relax, so it's best just to let them play and then sample the best bits afterwards. That way you can build up a track which sounds totally metronomic but which was initially completely live, not played to a click track. You just take the steadiest bits."
We know what any musical purists reading this will think - that their worst suspicions have been confirmed. Not surprisingly, Booth sees it as a perfectly valid solution to a problem - and one that's preferable to the alternative.
"With a lot of African guitarists, they're live players and they're not used to playing to drum machines", he elaborates, "so rather than having to spend three hours with them trying to get their timing tight, and watching them get increasingly depressed and begin to doubt the validity of the project, just let them play naturally. Then you can create a great feel out of what they've done just by sampling two-bar sections.
"You have to do it carefully - like you have to sample some of the subtle variations - but it's better to do that than get to your 35th drop-in. You actually end up with a more turgid rhythm track if you work that way, because the best takes tend to be within the first three or four.
"A lot of producers will spend days and days trying to get drummers playing precisely to a click, but I think if you're going to do that then you might as well use a drum machine. People are a lot more fussy about timing nowadays. If you want to be a session player now you have to really be able to play precisely to a click. What I do if I'm playing is just play along, then sample the bits that I like into an S1000 and trigger them from the sequencer, which makes me sound like a session player with consistently perfect timing. It's really old-style production adapted to fit today's requirements."
On the subject of production, Booth recalls a lesson which he learnt early on in his musical career - what's more, one which he feels others would do well to learn.
"The first album I did, with Weekend, Robin Millar was there on the studio floor with the band, waving his arms around and really getting the excitement going, getting the band playing together... I remember that well - that inspirational side of production is important, and you should never lose it, otherwise you end up making clinical, antiseptic American soul music. A lot of American R&B ended up sounding awful, there was nothing there that reminded me of the R&B I grew up with, like Stax and Motown. Then Soul II Soul came along and it was soul again, their music was all dirty and rootsy and played with feeling."
One technique which Booth has used on both Black and Gold and Polysonik to give a sequenced rhythm track more of a human feel is to combine programmed rhythms with sample loops of a real drummer or percussionist playing.
"You can get a great live feel by sampling kit players and percussionists", Booth states. "We've been working with Lisa Stansfield's drummer, who's brilliant at playing drum loops. He loves to play kit patterns over programmed patterns."
However, just as significant in today's dance music are what could be called inhuman feels - feels which can be created only on drum machines and sequencers because they allow degrees of timing independence and accuracy which human beings find difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
"A lot of the feels that are coming out now from dance music aren't natural in terms of the human element of playing". Booth concurs, "which isn't to say that in ten years' time you won't get people playing like that. The way a salsa musician plays or the way an African musician plays is very different to the way a Western musician plays. I was talking to some African musicians yesterday and they were saying they can't get African percussionists to play with any sort of swingbeat feel, they just play straight percussion. Another thing is that musicians can find it hard to play one feel against another, like you can get in a musician to play to swingbeat hi-hats and tell him 'Don't play with a swing feel', and he'll say 'but that's the only way I can feel the track'. So creating all these unnatural combinations of different feels is one area where programming is essential.
"But equally, for me, if a song needs the human element starting from the bottom up, from the bass and drums, there's no point in programming it, you've just got to get the musicians in. On Manu's album there did come a point on some of the tracks where we just decided to get the musicians in. We'd get 12 musicians in the studio and it was fantastic - by the second or third take we'd have the track down. The only problem was that they'd play for ten or 12 minutes and I'd then have to edit it down to six or seven minutes, and of course because they weren't playing to a click track that presented incredible problems. We had to use a lot of computer-based digital editing, crossfading digitally between samples. I think on some of the edits, if we'd had to do it in the old razorblade and cutting block way we would have lost it.
"Also, the musicians often didn't stick to the arrangements. They're not used to playing to modern song structures with middle eights and bridges, they just get down and play. This is something I talked about with Manu, and we decided to just let them play and enjoy it, then afterwards we'd sample the sections we wanted into an S1000 and position the samples in the sequencer so that the performances were sitting comfortably behind the beat, which is how they play. Some of the tracks, like the vocals, were very late, so we'd move the whole drum track back and then the vocals would sound brilliant."
AS SOMEONE WHO HAS BEEN IN AND OUT of recording studios for the past seven to eight years, Booth is well placed to observe the many changes which have occurred within studios in response to the rise and rise of digital technology and changing musical demands. It's a subject which he gives careful thought to when I raise it.
"The tape ops and engineers who are coming up now have to be really versatile with MIDI and timecode", he begins, "much more so than in the old days when they had to cut their teeth by setting up mics and learning how to drop in. That in turn reflects the move away from live music, from recording bands.
"I think a lot of engineers would freak if they were faced with recording a group of 16 singers, which is what we had to do with Manu. I was producing the session, but I spent the first two hours checking the microphones and the headphones, making sure the foldback was OK. Nowadays you come into the studio and you get your Atari sequencer happening, make sure it's receiving code, then you lay down the drum track and the bass, and right at the end you get the vocals down. I think there's something very unhealthy about that, because the vocals often tend to suffer.
"I find it weird that on a lot of mixes an engineer will spend six hours on the drums, six hours on everything else, and then spend an hour on the vocals, just whacking on a bit of plate and pre-delay, whatever, and that's it.
"Another thing is that people are tending to get less fussy about the signal that goes onto tape. As long as it's recorded onto tape without distortion, that's all that matters. There's none of this 'we've got to put the guitar through an amp, make sure the amp's miked up properly, and let's put a microphone at the back of the room and one at the front'. You just plug in and do it and then worry about it at the mix, or else someone comes in with their guitar sound programmed into whatever box of tricks they're using. "Probably the biggest change now is that studios are being used for mixing, with more and more people starting to get their tracks set up at home. You can't afford a thousand pounds a day any more - record companies haven't got it, bands haven't got it. It's just not feasible."
Booth reveals that he's planning on taking the plunge into home studio ownership himself.
"I hope, if I can get the money together, that I can set up a studio in my basement", he says. "I'm at the stage of wondering what to do, not wanting to feel that I'm going to be intimidated and alienated by it, not wanting to feel that I'm entering into an area that's going to end up sacrificing the initial skill and the initial inspiration, which is songwriting. One side of music is the emotional and spiritual content, and that can get driven out of a song by drum machines and modern technology."
Listen to the warm and very human music on both Black and Gold and Polysonik, and I think you'll agree that this is a trap which Booth has successfully avoided.