The Men Behind The Boy
Steve Levine, Culture Club
In the beginning there was the Boy and the Boy was good. And behind the Boy there were the Men – Jon, Mikey, Roy and Steve. Unto Jon were given the drums, to Mikey was bass ordained, the guitars were Roy's to behold, and so did Steve the production secure.
The Boy looked upon the Men and the Boy was pleased. For though the Boy was as a graven image unto the world, invoking their Karma, the banging and the strumming was by the men performed.
And thus the world did not often perceive the Men, for their eyes were filled with the Boy in his mighty raiment...
It was at the end of the interview that quietly spoken Mikey Craig leant forward from the hotel chair and delivered the most surprising of the afternoon's revelations.
"We're not very experienced. This is the first band for Roy, George and myself – really we're successful, but we're still learning at the same time."
For a band that's had a comfortable number of top five hits, and will shortly be embarking on a world tour, it was a disarming admission to make.
"When we started," said Jon Moss, "we walked into EMI with a very rough sound, almost a Bow Wow Wow set up. Steve Levine pointed to a Linn drum and I said 'f--- what's that, we've got to learn how to use it. We can't be intimidated.' Now we've all learnt how to use machines, and we can go to Steve and say, okay, so what now."
Jon Moss started his drumming career at the age of 14 – he's now almost 27. "I taught myself, I used to listen to a lot of African music and... er... The Court of the Crimson King," he confessed, for once decelerating fractionally from his normal gattling gun pace of conversation.
"I had a friend Tony Burke, who's father is Stan Burke, one of the old jazz guys, and he taught me a lot... a very good drummer. Then I got into a rut playing jazz funk so I went to another guy, Joel Rotham for six months to break me out of it.
"I never practice, I just play, I don't believe in sitting in your bedroom for ten hours a day, studying, until you come out like Steve Gadd – I don't want to emulate those guys. I'm interested in drums in relation to a song, not just as an instrument."
The Moss set up is a distinctly disciplined one. The percussion rack may be generously appointed – timbales, three Simmons pads (a snare and two toms) a pair of bongoes, a pair of Fantoms and a few bits – but the kit itself is an economical Gretsch – a 22in bass drum, 16in floor tom and 13in top tom with a snare and a pair of hi-hats... "very basic, I've had it for about seven years. It's much more challenging to do something with two toms, rather than eight."
"I've always put the Linn on everything when we're recording. Then I overdub hi-hats and cymbals and toms, but what I often do now is play the whole kit over the top. I've taken chips of my kit and put them into the Linn, so it's got my sounds anyway." Ah, Moss on silicon.
"The Linn is good for keeping tracks in perfect time to help editing, and it's great for doing 12 inches. Also, if you write down the BPM, you can link up with 12 inches for other tracks. "Time" has got Linn drums and real drums on it. "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me" is purely real drums. We used to use Simmons a lot, but I've gone off them. They're very good, I'm getting one of the new ones, but the old ones are so overdone now, they're being turned into a gimmick."
Another planned purchase is a Fairlight. "I can't use one. I reckon it'll take me about a year to get used to it. Next time you see me I'll be a grey haired old man trying to work it out."
He could cough up for a room full of Fairlights and he still wouldn't be able to match Steve Levine, possibly the world's foremost equipment loon. "He's got so much gear, more than I've ever seen, you wouldn't believe it. He's the only guy in the world with a 24 second AMS delay – it cost 24 grand... a grand a second... it's f---ing amazing. On the 12in of "Miss Me..." we fed parts of "It's a Miracle" into the AMS, then triggered it with the Fairlight. You can use it to spin in vocals, it saves so much time."
The question of saving time then prompts a brief Moss lunge at the high priests of the recording religion who believe it's not rock 'n' roll unless every session lasts around the clock. "I used to work as a tape op at the Marquee years ago, and we had those "all night" sessions, all that crap about the music business 'oh, we work on the fringes of society, man'. People work better in certain circumstances and they can only concentrate for four hours at a time before they have to have a break."
"Steve is good at that," continues Mikey, taking up the theme. "The bad thing about going into studios is sometimes you can get despondent, nothing happens, everyone's making jokes and farting around and Steve will say, 'look, this is NON PRODUCTIVE, some of you piss off for a while'."
With Mikey on the floor and Jon in search of a coffee, it's time to reflect on matters four strung. "I've got a couple of Music Man basses, and the fretted one has a new graphite neck that goes on their Cutlass basses." Memory cells are suddenly kicked into activity because it was Nick Beggs in OTT issue 4, who'd originally mentioned just such a Music Man: "the guy in Culture Club let me play his," had been the quote.
"I went to California on holiday," explained Mikey, "and when I visited Music Man they gave me a neck. It doesn't feel any different but it's graphite and it's hollow, apparently the guy who used to make necks for Alembic came up with the idea.
"The sound is far brighter and it's less likely to go out of tune on stage under the lights from being cold one minute, then hot the next.
"I used to use Superwound 606 strings which are bright, but the sound of the Cutlass is so brilliant I've had to change to damper strings. It's excellent, but I think it needs perfecting in terms of size. I find it a tiny bit cumbersome compared to the old wooden necks.
"I also have a fretless Music Man which I used for certain tracks when there's something slow or a bit jazzy."
Jazz has been taking a steadily more prominent role in Mikey's endeavours. "I've been playing a lot of old jazz standards and I'm going back to playing blues all over again, but in a slap style, which I really enjoy. I think in the future, that could become more integrated in our songs. George wants to try some jazzy things on the next album but the time might not be right."
At the time of our interview the Club were in the midst of writing and rehearsing material for said, forthcoming LP. Ideas arrived in several ways, said Jon. "We'll jam in the studio and George will just happen to have some words. George is like that, if he hears something, he'll immediately get a melody in his head, or sometimes he'll have a good idea for a melody and play it to Roy who'll work it out on piano then come to us for an arrangement.
"Once the song has evolved, we like to go on the road with it, turn it upside down. We don't actually record it in the standard way... drums, then bass etc. We go in individually and do our parts, we find we work much better that way. We've learnt not to be indulgent and to trust each other."
Producer Steve Levine and Culture Club came together one lost weekend in 1979 under the auspices of EMI Records.
Levine had been working regularly, albeit without a contract, at EMI's demo studios in Manchester Square on a variety of acts, the most successful of which was the Angelic Upstarts, when he was asked to see what he could do with a group that called themselves Culture Club.
The demos that drummer Jon Moss had brought in were of 'pretty dreadful quality', but Levine was interested enough in the accompanying photographs and the real professionalism which he saw in Jon to have a go.
As a result, they were given a weekend of studio time to come up with the goods. Although the five of them hit it off immediately and emerged with what they thought to be an excellent demo, EMI were not terribly impressed and declined the opportunity to sign the band. In fact, so did a number of other companies, until Virgin Records decided to throw caution to the wind.
"I don't know the exact story, but I'm sure Virgin only signed them because they'd already signed them for publishing. It was all very low key to start off with. It only became a big deal after we'd done the initial recordings."
With Virgin footing the bill, the group went back into the studio. As tracks were produced they were released. First 'White Boy' then 'I'm Afraid Of Me', neither of which rocked the world. But what they did do was to become part of the buzz that led to a Radio One session for Peter Powell. For that session the group did four tracks, the first two singles plus 'Love Twist', and a new song they were unsure of called 'Do You Really Want To Hurt Me'.
"It was the first time we had recorded 'Do You Really Want To Hurt Me', and we had to do it all live because we didn't have enough time. It sounded so good though that I thought to myself 'When we record it as a master I want to do it that way'."
But the best laid plans of mice and men, as they say...
"When we finally did come to record 'Do You Really...' we had terrible problems, it was a nightmare from beginning to end. At first we did it all in one take – bass, drums, guitar and vocal. But when we were recording the Fender Rhodes, we noticed that it was really going badly out of tune. We couldn't work it out so we called maintenance in. What was happening was the tape was slit, and at that point it would slow down and go out of pitch with any new instruments."
Eventually he solved the problem by copying the entire multi-track onto another machine, changing the tension as the damaged section of tape went through. It was one of those little tests of faith and the courage of one's convictions that fate occasionally deals us. In this case Levine's instincts were spot on as the record, now a modern classic, made a cliff-hanging climb up the charts from 65-35-13-3-2 and finally to number 1.
"I was on tour with the band at the time. When we started out, there was a lot of concern that their presentation live should be as good as their studio sound. So they asked me to mix their live shows. It was a Tuesday and we were in Scotland. The hotel management insisted that we were out of our rooms by 12.30. But we had to stay and listen to the chart countdown on the radio. That's when it really sunk in."
'Do You Really Want To Hurt Me' was a first success for both Culture Club and the 23 year old Levine, and provided more than just a much needed boost of confidence for all concerned. Being so lovingly produced and performed, the song set a challenge to keep to that standard with each successive single and album.
Then, and now, Culture Club had a soulful, R&B feel about them, and that's no accident. Levine lists among his biggest influences the Motown sound. The rhythms and arrangements of those records, the way that they made so many people feel, obviously made an impression on him as a young music fan.
"I absolutely love old Motown records. The songs were good, the way they made you feel was good. I think that's what is lacking in some records. I'm trying to put that feeling back into them wherever possible. I think Culture Club are soulful."
Producing records is partly psychology and partly technology as anyone will tell you. Although Levine's love of the new technology is the key to his own 'sound' he also has very definite views on studio etiquette. Before he works with a band, he explains the way he works and if they don't like the routine, then they don't work together.
"Firstly, when you're working with bands it's very difficult to have them all in the studio at the same time. It's bad for whoever's playing and it's bad for the atmosphere in the studio. For instance, if George is doing his vocals, then it's just the two of us in the studio. In Culture Club they're all talented musicians and they don't need the others telling them how to play or sing."
If Levine takes a commonsense approach to the psychology of record production, he also takes a commonsense approach to the machinery involved. He records very precisely onto the multitrack. Whatever is on tape is right, and if it isn't right it's erased. All the effects are put on in that first stage with an end in mind of making the mix as painless as possible.
"When the time comes to mix I can do it in an hour. I use a computer mix because it's easier."
One outstanding thing about Culture Club is the clarity of the group's recordings – something which Levine is justly proud of. Up until eight months ago, when he purchased the Sony PCM-3324 digital multi-track he relied on up to 48 tracks to help keep loss of sound quality at a minimum. Although neither of Culture Club's two albums were recorded digitally, all of the new material is being recorded this way. Levine's digital system is one of the first in private use and is something that he takes great pride and joy in using.
"Also I try not to go mad with overdubs. I try to take into consideration what the average person will hear. There are so many subtle things put on records that nobody ever hears unless someone says "Look, there it goes!"
The wonders of the Fairlight CMI are well documented by now, and Levine relies as heavily upon that as anything else for ease and versatility in creating his arrangements. That said, it's the digital multi-track that remains the most impressive ace up his sleeve.
It's physically smaller than an analogue machine and uses half inch instead of two inch tape. Instead of recording electrical impulses onto tape, the digital machine samples the analogue input from the desk converting it into a series of short pulses, and assigning each one a binary number relative to its height. It has 16 bit quantisation and a sampling frequency of 48kHz providing a bandwidth of up to 24kHz.
The reason behind the use of video tape is the extreme high frequency of the binary information. The density of ordinary tape simply isn't great enough to cope with those frequencies. Another advantage of the machine is that it provides four spare analogue tracks. In addition to the standard 24 tracks there are three analogue tracks, useful for time coding and links to the computer mixer and one CTL (control) track thus providing full use of your 24 tracks.
"The difference really is quite stunning. You've got no cross-talk, no tape hiss, no distortion, no tape saturation, no wow and flutter. There's no loss of quality whatsoever. Really you just have to watch your levels because there is a threshold above which you can get a digital distortion which is much worse than if you overloaded an analogue machine. It's funny, you get so used to hearing nothing but what you want to hear, that the first time you do hear something like tape hiss, it's really offensive."
The next Culture Club album is in the pipeline with a handful of tracks already finished. As individuals and friends the group will be contributing to Levine's solo album due in May. The album is an amalgam of many of the people Levine has worked with as a producer. Although George won't be singing, he's lent his writing talents, for the first time outside of the group, to a few of the tracks. One of those tracks, 'Believing It All' is due to be the first single out at the end of March.
The relationship between producer and recording artist is a precarious one often resulting in one-off associations. Producers can misinterpret and be bossy, artists can be uncommunicative and supersensitive. Culture Club and Steve Levine seem to have found the successful middle ground, with Levine as the studio diplomat.
"You need to know enough to be able to comment and guide people. That's how it works with Culture Club. In fact all of us have just developed together. Now every time we go into the studio it's just better and better."
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