Bristol, capital of the West, is alive and well.
For some unknown reason, Bristol is a musical centre. There are more bands, music shops, recording studios and the like per square mile of the city than any other in Britain, with the exception of London. Historically, Bristol didn't have much to offer until the 12th Century and it's only mentioned in the Doomsday book as being part of a greater manor.
In the last two centuries, the city has sprung to prominence first as a spa resort in the late 18th century, and then in turn as an important engineering centre in the 19th century (the Clifton Suspension bridge, The S.S. Great Western) and now as host to Concorde and the M4, M5 and M32 motorway complex.
Perhaps it's for this last reason that Bristol is popular with bands. There's not a great deal of work in the area, but it's a popular centre for bands to live in and the result is that the town manages to support 14 music instrument shops, three or four recording studios and several agencies and associated offices.
There's definitely a buzz coming from Bristol and here we've looked at some of the shops, a couple of studios and a couple of bands locals are likely to know. Our conclusion is that Bristol is a good place to be, geographically and musically.
Like most cities, Bristol has its posh end. It's called Clifton (the suspension bridge took its name from the area) and it's reminiscent of the older parts of Bath. There wasn't a large enough move to the spa area in the 1780's to allow architects to build sweeping crescents, but the same Georgian elegance is visible in the long lines of white houses. In the basement of one of these houses is Mushroom Studio.
Mushroom (aptly named) grew almost overnight. One day a band leader called Dennis Mann moved to the area to play a residency at the Grand Spa Hotel. The next day he'd bought a house and was setting up a studio.
Dennis is one of these rare combinations — a practical musician. He's been into recording since the 'fifties and his musical career was greatly aided by his ability with tape machines.
To walk the quiet avenue that is West Mall, Clifton, is sheer pleasure and the pedestrian could saunter past the imposing facade of no. 18 without realising that just a few feet below there lies a fully equipped 8-track studio with such sophistications as a 16 channel mixing desk, Moog, and Mellotron. Mushroom is a monument to the hard work and endurance of Dennis and a few friends. Particularly important to the development of the studio was Danish technician Yens Languard who was working with Radford Electronics in Bristol until **
"I've always been interested in recording,"admits Dennis. "Even when I was busy playing in bands, I was messing about with recording machines."
Mushroom is the only eight-track studio in the area. It's the perfect studio for local bands — and there's lots of them — to make either masters or demos and the studio is already very busy with work that ranges from voiceovers for Peter Scott's naturalist lectures to heavy rock sessions for hairy Welsh bands who charge over the Severn suspension bridge to lay down a few tracks.
When Dennis moved into his house, the basement was a remnant of the "below stairs" kitchen and pantry.
"It wasn't very good acoustically when I arrived. We had to take some stairs out, put in a false floor, line the studio with acoustic absorption material and generally re-work out the acoustics. It's ended up with a really good sound — a little bass heavy maybe — but it's a sound that a lot of bands are looking for and it's very easily controllable for other things."
Eight-track studios cost a few bob and — as with most things not financed with bought money — time has to substitute for hard cash. Today the studio has almost every facility the musician needs, but it wasn't always like that.
"I built the first mixing desk myself," says Dennis decrying his action with a modest laugh. "It was from a circuit Studio Sound published and, within its limitations, it worked really well. The big step for me was buying the Lander desk. The desk cost £15,500 new and I got it third-hand. I then discovered it was noisier than the old desk I had built myself. I've been very particular about noise on all my equipment and Yens went over the Lander desk for me and redesigned the circuit using the old components to make it absolutely quiet. It's really amazing now, I reckon it's quieter than a Neve.
"We've got DBX anti-noise systems on the 3M and I've also got Dolby A's in case anyone wants to do a Dolbied reduction here, so we've got no problems on the background noise."
Monitoring in the roomy Mushroom control room is by a pair of Tannoy Gold speakers that are mounted in a pair of custom-built infinite baffle enclosures originally made for Magna Carta. The studio has plenty of room for musicians not actually on sessions or for friends just visiting. With the expansion of Severnside, Mushroom looks like it will continue to live up to its name. Rates are £10.50 per single hour and £8.50 per hour on a block booking basis.
There's an exciting new musical instrument shop in College Green, in the heart of the new part of the city. The shop is labelled simply SMI, after the other shops in the rapidly expanding chain which takes its name from the main SMI shop in London's Charing Cross Road (originally the older Selmer shop). It's exciting because it's the latest event on Bristol's bustling musical scene.
SMI only opened six weeks ago and it's already getting ready to brave the Christmas rush. "Just letting people know we're here is our main task," says manager Alfie Havvock, who has just returned to his home town of Bristol to head the new venture after a period of intensive training in Charing Cross Road.
First and foremost he's a player. He's well known on the Bristol Country and Western scene and he and SMI assistant Phil French are putting together a C & W act to take out to the people of the area.
Despite its brief existence, the shop is fully stocked and there's a mouth watering array of Gibsons, Fenders, the better copies, and Saxon guitars. Interestingly, there is also a wide range of percussion, keyboards and brass on show. Naturally, there's a fair amount of well-known amp names on display and the shop is slowly building up a second-hand selection.
Second-hand stock is naturally something of a problem for a new shop. "Most of our second-hand stuff will come as people part-ex-change their old stuff for our new stuff. We've already got quite a lot of second-hand stuff in already and in a few weeks we should be well stocked.
Upstairs at SMI is a large, well designed shop where it's quiet enough to look at sheet music or try out a home organ. Downstairs is loud and heavy — the place where the big amps are tried. Construction of a soundproof room is under way and by this intelligent use of space SMI have found it possible to conduct a nice, gentle sort of "buy a recorder, Madam" passing trade, superimposed on a professional shop which can do a great deal on a 100 watt stack or a powerful P.A. system.
SMI's is in a highly competitive market. There's an awful lot of shops competing for Bristol's trade, but if SMI continue to work in the forceful way they have started, they're sure to carve themselves a large chunk of the action.
You've got to admire people who have a go. Alan Habgood and John Cannon, both well known on the Bristol Group scene, have recently set up their own independent recording studio in Backfields Lane, Bristol.
Tapestry Recording Studio is the brain child of John and Alan and offers the struggling musicians of Bristol a budget recording studio to get demos down at a price they can afford. The studio has a four-track facility and every item of equipment that could be expected for high quality demo recording.
The studio has only been open for four months and the opening followed months of frenzied activity on the part of John and Alan to transform an old suite of offices into an acoustically acceptable studio.
"When we first came here, the decay time went on for ever," recalled Alan. "We worked and worked and relined the walls, the ceiling and the floor but we were careful not to make the main studio completely dead. We wanted to keep enough life for brass and strings and that sort of thing, but we really made the drum booth dead."
There's room enough for around a dozen musicians in Tapestry Studios. Given enough notice, the Studio can arrange hire of almost any instrument and can easily lay on session musicians.
Both Alan and John have a long history of involvement with bands. John's been a musician in many of the local bands and Alan has looked after the technical side of things and they discovered they both shared a love of recording.
The two lads both worked on building sites for a long period to get their starting capital together. Today, their equipment includes a Teac four-track machine, a Hill mixer which has been specially prepared and modified for recording, echo machines, mikes and all the usual accessories.
Because foldback is one of the most common problems in a studio, Alan and John have taken an adventurous step in having a ten channel foldback amp specially built for them. In this way, up to ten separate musicians can have foldback in their cans at whatever level they require.
Most of the sessions at Tapestry are evening and night jobs and between Alan and John they are able to offer a 24 hour recording service. Rates at Tapestry are £3 per single hour or £8 per day.
The success of Cabin's London shop tempted the company to open a similar operation in the South-West. After careful consideration, they chose Bristol. They believe it's the heart of the music scene in the area.
Cabin is very much the professional's shop. Situated in West Street not far from the city centre, the shop is piled high with heavy bass bins, mixing desks, h-f horns, power amps like Acoustics and Fenders, and a fair smattering of professional instruments like Fender guitars and Rhodes pianos.
The shop's approach is to stock high quality pro gear even if it's second-hand and a little tatty, rather than stocking the glossier semi-pro orientated guitar copies and small amps.
Friendly Rick looks after the day-to-day running of the outfit and his time is mostly spent organising the assembly of big P.A. systems for sale and hire.
Hire is an important part of the Cabin operation in Bristol. Because Rick has a background in the professional band circuit, he knows almost everything there is to know about gig hassles and when visiting or local bands hire from Cabin, he's able to get the show on the road quickly.
"We're a Fender shop rather than a Gibson outfit," he says, referring to the guitar side of things. "That doesn't mean we don't do Gibsons of course, but we're really into the American Fender scene."
Cabin is quite a meeting place for local musicians. There's a notice board that is crammed full of the usual "bass player seeks interesting position" type ads, and the shop is obviously something of a social centre for the bands who are a little light of work.
The shop has been open since February of this year and it's no small indication of their success that there's so much stock it's difficult to move around the shop floor. The usual accessories like strings, picks, mike stands and so forth are stocked as well as the heavy stuff.
"There are very few fully pro bands working around Bristol," says Rick. "Quite a few are based here and work around the country and quite a few visit to play Colston Hall and places like that."
The shop is an Acoustic agent and in addition they're very keen on selling Fender and Hi-Watt. Space problems prohibit extensive ranges of drums and keyboards, but percussion names stocked include Rogers and Ludwig.
Bristol Musical has become one of the "Old" shops of Bristol. It was opened in 1969 and since that time energetic Brian Coombes has been striving to make it Bristol's number one shop. The small shop is well stocked with all kinds of guitars and amps and there's an established, helpful air to the place.
"When we opened in '69 we were just selling off old Vox parts," recalls Brian. "That was about the time that Vox ran into trouble and no one could get spares. We had a load, so we did great business until they ran out. Then we had to start selling other gear.
"It took a long while for the business to build up, I started selling my old gear in the shop and then it started to gather momentum." Today Bristol Musical has about everything in guitars and amps. There's a little percussion available — the odd Pearl kit's on show — and space unfortunately precludes keyboards.
"We do an awful lot of Gibsons and the better copy guitars," says Brian. "We love Hi-Watt amps and we do a hell of a lot of Marshall amps as well, but they're mostly second-hand."
With his assistant, Roger Pomphrey, Brian looks after equipment and instruments that include Hayman guitars, Fenders, Rickenbackers, WEM, Carlsbro and they're kept constantly busy with their accessory bar which has a fantastic stock of strings by such makers as Gibson, Fender, Londonder, Rotosound, Ernie Ball and Sumbro.
Bristol guitar maker Geoff Gale does a lot of work through the shop. He's a custom guitar maker in the Tony Zemaitis, Stephen Delft school and his hand-made guitars have already found their way into well known hands. Several of his guitars are available in the shop and he conducts a lot of business on the premises.
Another factor that helps is that there are a lot of schools in the area. The kids can nip in here for a crafty fag and try out the guitars without any bother. That way they get into the habit of coming into see us."
Bristol Musical do a fair bit of hire in addition to their normal retail operation. Most items in the shop can be hired and the shop also carries out a comprehensive repair operation.
Despite its strong local flavour, the John Holmes music shop at 219 Cheltenham Road, Bristol, is, in fact, part of a small chain that originally started in nearby Swindon.
The accent, as in all the John Holmes music stores, is very much on keyboards, and John Holmes himself is a practicing organist. The big news in Bristol is the Hammond X5 portable organ readily available from John Holmes who are a Hammond dealer.
Getting the Hammond organs franchise is no easy matter, and another chapter in the Holmes success story. The operation moved into Bristol at the end of 1973 and set up the keyboard showroom and a group gear shop called "The Gear Box" in a three-shops-in-one complex.
Paul Daffun is the manager: "We're very busy in both the keyboard and the group equipment shops most of the time. In the keyboard section we stock Hammond, Thomas, Yamaha, Lowrey, Farfisa, and Gulbransen and we can do some special items, like Conn keyboards. We also stock the usual specialist items and accessories like Leslie tone cabinets, and synthesizers by Moog, ARP and Roland."
The Gear Box has an equally wide range of equipment. Amps in stock include HH and Fender as well as most general makes, and a range of 60 guitars is usually in stock. Disco equipment is heavily featured and drum kits by Pearl and Rogers can usually be found. Very little of our stock is second-hand," says Paul. "The vast majority is new items. In the Gear Box the majority of customers are professional or semi-professional, but the keyboard section is a 90 per cent home market, with organs like the Hammond X5 and the synthesizers being the instruments of interest to the professionals." The Bristol staff are Barry Stock — who (with Paul) concentrates on keyboards — and Pete Stokes and Andy Skirrow look after the Gear Box. An important part of the Holms Bristol operation is an attractive tuition scheme for customers. A six week course for beginners on keyboards (customers or not) is £5 and organ buyers get a free six week course.
Returning to Bristol after a hiatus of 12 years, Duck, Son and Pinker have extended their already considerable coverage of the West of England to again include its largest city. Their new shop, 6-9 The Arcade, is managed by Miss R. Jerrin. Numbers 8 and 9, formerly Whitcomb's Music Shop, features a self-service record and pop music shop, while the upstairs is devoted to educational music and instruments.
The ground floor of recently acquired 6 and 7 will house a keyboard showroom. All in all, Duck, Son and Pinker have a frontage of more than 70 feet. The experienced staff of eight have all either worked for other branches of the firm or have recently been trained in their shops. Mr. Brian Coles, joint general manager of Duck, Son and Pinker, remarked that "It is a pleasure to return to Bristol, and we hope to offer the same services to Bristol that we always have."
Wisper is an established name on the Bristol scene, familiar enough hardened groupies groan. The band's been around for a hell of a long time. Line-ups have come and gone, but the band goes on.
Persistence has won the band the respect of agencies and promotors alike, and for that reason they're lucky enough to be working more or less regularly.
One of the reasons behind that happy state of affairs is that the band are aware of the need to entertain rather than ego trip, and a large part of their repertoire is devoted to dancing music.
Europe has opened its heart to the band, and they regularly vanish to Germany and Holland to play extended tours. The work there is still as hard as it was in the 'sixties but there's nothing like it to get a group tight musically.
Vocalist Will Westlake explains the effect German touring had on him: "I first started in Wisper quite a few years ago and I've only just rejoined after a long layoff — everybody leaves and rejoins this band. When I first went to Germany we had real stars in our eyes. We only played our own original material and we thought we were going to be the next big thing. Working several hours each night, six nights a week got us together musically and we returned ready to be stars. Then there was nothing — followed by nothing."
"Now we play black music, good dancing music. We still do some of our own stuff, but we know how important it is to entertain." The current line-up of Wisper is Lyndon Parry, bass, Robert Williams, guitar, Will Westlake, vocals, Dave Dunster, Drums, Andy Wills, tenor and Alron sax and John Habit, tenor and also sax. The brass line-up does enable the band to get a tremendous driving sound in their stage performance and also opens up wide possibilities in arrangements of their own material.
"We've done a bit of recording at Tapestry Studio in Bristol, but not much else."
There's a real buzz going for Toby, the Bristol band who recently achieved an abnormally high winning score on New Faces and immediately convinced Mickie Most that he should sign them to Rak Records.
In an attempt to capture their own individual sound on record, the band have already made two separate recordings of the song that is destined to be their first single release. The "B" side of the single is a song written by the entire band.
Despite the fact they may be accused of hitting a bountiful hand, Toby are anxious not to be tagged a "New Faces band," as they find they are being billed "fresh from the New Faces show at the London Palladium." They claim that they are being rebooked on the strength of their act, rather than any TV exposure.
The band specialise in keeping dance rhythms going, and through their commercial approach, they ensure a full dates sheet. The band like to be known by their Christian names and they are, in the picture, (left to right), Brian, Wade, Jon, Mike, Dick, and (in front) Krysia.
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