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Really Big Men

The band tipped to make it BIG in '88. Tim Goodyer talks to a DJ/keyboard player with a unique place in rock 'n' roll and a singer/guitarist who's going to make Madonna and Lita Ford look like Dot Cotton and Hilda Ogden.

Really Big Men mark the return of the rock 'n' roll spirit to popular music - or so claim 'OD " and Lea, keyboard player and frontwoman with 1988's brightest hope.

IT'S BEEN A long, hard struggle for Michael Patrick O'Donnell - or "OD", as he insists on being called - keyboard player and DJ with the band that's being touted in "record biz" circles as representing the most significant musical development since Elvis. Characterised by an erratic streak of genius, OD has left a trail of innovative ideas behind him - ideas that his contemporaries often built their careers on.

OD's early days were spent in his native America, narrowly avoiding success with unlikely consistency. His near misses would have been enough to make a lesser man cry: forgotten founder member of The Grateful Dead and original keyboard player with The Doors, he was even invited by Jimi Hendrix to play Hammond with the Experience - but accepted the morning that reports of Hendrix' death appeared in the press.

Disillusioned, OD left America in an attempt to cash in on the progressive rock boom of the '70s, forming a trio with Drummer Carl Palmer and ex-King Crimson bass player/singer Greg Lake. A freak accident left him with seven broken fingers and opened the door for Keith Emerson, who grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

Techno-rock floundered and the punk revolution saw a technology-obsessed OD take a back seat until he met Stephen 'Tin Tin' Duffy in Birmingham's Rum Runner nightclub. There the two formulated the original idea of Duran Duran. Typically, both were subsequently sacked from the band: Duffy "for being too ugly", OD "for being too old". Since the Duran "fiasco", as he now views it, the luckless keyboard player spent some time producing demos for young hopefuls in a Sheffield eight-track studio. Here he first became aware and then involved in hip hop and house music.

His latest band, Really Big Men, were formed when OD met guitarist/singer Lea, and bass player Ziggy Decent who had already started writing material together. Drummer 'Bam' Beathoven was recruited after several months of auditions, and a deal was struck with the indie Public Enema label within days. Now Really Big Men have signed a licensing deal with an as-yet unidentified major label, and are promising to change the face of British pop.

The press releases make much of OD's colourful history, but completely fail to warn you of his drinking habits - or Lea's, who has quickly learnt to keep pace with the out-spoken, fastdrinking American. So the three of us sit in a crowded London wine bar attempting to outdrink each other and hold an intelligent conversation - a good trick, if you can do it. Initially OD seems more concerned with other people's ideas of what popular music should be, more particularly what a pop star should look like.

"I'm sick of people walking around looking like pop stars", he drawls. "It's devaluing the job. I work hard at looking real cool and then some john rips me off the minute I set foot outside my front door. Him, for example", he snarls, indicating a passing punter, "he thinks he's a pop star."

The remainder of OD's drink somehow finds its way down the front of the accused's jacket, accompanied by a look that suggests he's personally responsible for the two-and-a-half decades of hardship endured by the American musician.

But during those 25 years as an active musician, OD has discarded more new ideas than the pop charts will ever see. Take the twin-framed grand that graced the early work OD did with The Doors...

"Yeah, that was some beast. It was a modified Blüthner that had a second wooden frame set on top of the usual iron one with a second set of strings over the melody strings tuned to an inverted sixth on the usual tunings. Those second strings resonated with the regular set producing odd overtones. It was real weird; a beautiful sound but a bastard to tune. Trouble was, we wanted to use it live and it really wasn't practical. Ray Manzarek (who succeeded OD in The Doors) and I tried to persuade Wurlitzer to make an electric version of it along the lines of the old EP200 piano, but there were problems with the reeds or something."

The original Blüthner was destroyed at a formative jam with Lake and Palmer when OD attempted to demonstrate the "art through destruction" approach he wanted to incorporate in the band OLP.

"It's a move I regret now", he admits. "Not only did Emmo snaffle the demolition idea, but I wish I'd sampled that bitch before I trashed her."

COMING UP TO date, Really Big Men have taken what OD regards as "the best of rock, punk, funk, hop 'n' house" and combined them to put "popular music back where Elvis put it". The result is a single, 'Fool's Game', which is ready for release once the final licensing contracts are signed, and an album, The Big Ride nearing completion under the guidance of producer Percival Toupe. And they put pop music firmly back where your parents won't like it. Lea's parents certainly don't.

"D'you know how old she is man?", asks the keyboard player, knocking another round of drinks to the floor in his eagerness to crawl across the table. "They think I'm from Children in Need and I come to take her out to the zoo and stuff like that."

In spite of her youth, OD rates Lea as the best guitarist he's ever worked with - he calls her the "Axe Queen". It's curious then, that most of the songs on The Big Ride are in the key of E minor. Maybe Really Big Men are just another rock 'n' roll myth. Is the truth out?

"Ah, you spotted that", says OD retreating across the table. "Well, I'll tell you. Y'see young Lea here likes a lot of fuzz. Tell the man, Lea."

"Not only did Emmo snaffle the demolition idea, but I wish I'd sampled that bitch before I trashed her."

"I like to push the guitar as far as it'll go", she says shyly. "For that I have to use four different types of distortion - simultaneously. The trouble is that it tends to limit what you can play.

"Thrash metal is restricted mostly to diads because the more interesting chords get lost in the distortion. That's because the upper harmonics don't line up and you get noise instead of notes. So I just intone my guitars instead of using equal temperament tuning to get 'round that. That's fine until you want to play in another key. Obviously I can retune or swap guitars but it's a bit more difficult with the piano. Can I have another drink now, please OD?"

Another round of drinks arrives, a few more of the wine bar's clientele move away from our table. OD continues.

"That's starting to change now that instruments are incorporating programmable microtonality, but we still have problems.

"Obviously we've been able to get around the tuning problems in the studio but you've got to get out and do this stuff live, so there's a limit to what we've done. 'Shag All Night (Sleep All Day)' is recorded so we can't possibly do it live, but that's because Lea needed to sing it in that key - didn't you, honey? - and it was such a beautiful melody that we didn't dare change it. But the rest of the stuff is all in the little E." 'Shag All Night' is also a powerful dance track but one that is unlikely to see general release because of its title. OD is unsympathetic with the record company's caution.

"It's just a dance, man", he raves. "Jesus, this isn't the spirit of rock 'n' roll. Those bastards in A&R offices haven't a clue what the dance-oriented consumer wants. Can I say that?"

Say what?

"Bastard. Rick Astley isn't what Elvis was about but by the same token Elvis isn't what Rick Astley was about. Come to that, Rick Astley probably didn't know who Elvis was until his A&R man told him. Tiffany isn't what Elvis was about; can you see Elvis playing a shopping mall?

"Elvis was about sex, not shopping and baggy sweaters. Since when has rock 'n' roll been about shopping?"

"What about 'Can't Buy Me Love'?", ventures Lea.

"Yeah, well except 'Can't Buy Me Love'..."

"And that Pet Shop Boys' song, 'Shopping'."

"Fetch some more drinks, Lea."

WHATEVER ELVIS MAY have intended, technology has become an integral part of the modern music making process. OD's long history has involved him in most of the technical innovations of the last 25 years.

"Technology's the darndest thing, y'know? You start something and you never know where it's going to end - like Oppenheimer, that dude bit off more than he bargained for.

"Actually, some of the best ideas never really took off. I remember there was this tape sampler that was meant to be the next step on from the Mellotron. It was built by a guy named Dave Biro in the States and funded by Rick Wakeman. It was called the Birotron - and it bombed out.

"Then there was an early version of MIDI: the Omni Buss. That was designed to incorporate all the old pre-MIDI comms standards, all that CV and Gate stuff, and come up smiling. It was designed to work in spite of all the incompatibilities and introduced levels and parameters of expression that didn't exist on keyboards then. What screwed it was its speed - it took too long to unravel all the information.

"Probably my favourite 'failure' was a tape-sampling drum machine called the Betatron. It worked on the same principle as the Mellotron, but with drum voices. So you had real sampled drum sounds way, way before the Linn. Before the old TR808, come to that. You could change tape frames for different kits and they'd got Louie Bellson's, Ringo Starr's, Dave Clarke's an' all sorts of happenin' guys. The problem there was that the rewind speed of the tapes was so high that the tapes stretched so the kit fell in pitch as you used it. Crazy."

Coincidentally there's a cover version of the Dave Clarke Five's 'Bits and Pieces' on The Big Ride. Here all the drum voices have been replaced by drums on record, scratched in to make up an eclectic rhythm track.

"The problem with adventurous drum patterns on drum machines these days is that nobody's prepared to listen to them", explains OD noisily. "People assume you're trying to be a smartass with your drum box. Back in the '60s people did it with real drums and no-one gave a damn - Strawberry Alarmclock's 'Incense and Peppermints', for example, has bare hi-hat beats an' stuff all over the place. I tell you, too many people know too much about music these days."

Words of wisdom, but also the last words I got from OD as he slipped beneath the table for the last time. Rock 'n' roll's back - or we've all been taken for a ride.

Previous Article in this issue

Trading Places

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Apr 1988

Feature by Tim Goodyer

Previous article in this issue:

> Trading Places

Next article in this issue:

> Patchwork

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