Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
You know that gag about the black box in aeroplanes? Someone asks: "That black box in aeroplane disasters; it always survives, doesn't it? Why don't they just make the whole aeroplane out of that stuff?"
Well, I remember from quite early on, when I first started getting involved with record companies, that after we'd got some interest, they'd say, " Love the demoes. Right then We'll put you in a good studio with a proper producer."
And that would be the point where the rot usually set in. The producer would spend the first day labouring over the drum sound. When we had a four track studios the drums would have to take up one track. When we went up to eight-track, the drums would have to have at least two tracks, or sometimes four of them, eventually mixed down to two. When we got sixteen track, the drums would be across eight, mixed down to four. Once we got into 24 tracks, the drums and percussion got 12 tracks and just sort of stayed there so we'd have to do a sub-mix of them before we got to mixing the important stuff like vox and gtrs. We'd be in there for hours, losing our objectivity, and after more hours, unable to make any judgment at all.
The producer would say something like: " I can hear two cellos coming in on the second part of the next chorus. Nothing would do but that we got two cellos from somewhere, or if on a budget something which sounded like two cellos. Meanwhile, the guitars carrying the root chords which made the song what it was, would disappear under the mix. Very often, weeks later, after we finished the album, I'd say:"You know what? I think I preferred the demoes."
"Why can't we just release the demoes?" I'd ask. They all looked at me like I was insane. They'd say: "This is a 24 track professional recording." I'd then reason, " Well you only have two ears to listen to them all with."
Seriously, most people are cloth eared, or they make themselves cloth-eared in their recreational time by drinking or using other intoxicants. I tell thee, when I was a virgin-eared young lad of fifteen with only a scratchy single speaker half-watt portable record player, I would listen to old Who and Small Faces singles and no music has ever sounded better to me before or since. During the 70s and 80s, at the height of hi-fi snobbery, you'd go into some know-it-all's bloody flat, where he had installed a Bang and Olafsen deck, with wardrobe size Wharfdale speakers, tweeters, woofers, scratch filters etc etc and he'd play you some godawful record by Gentle Giant or the Eagles. Then he'd pour himself a big drink and shout at you all the way through it. Naturally it always sounded appalling.
Conversely, you could go round to my girlfriend-at-the-time's house, where she had a cheap Garrard turntable, badly wired through a crackly amp, with two dodgy speakers screwed into flimsy old fruitboxes and she'd put Dr Feelgood or Kevin Coyne on and it would sound bloody immaculate!
And the above rant notwithstanding, is the reason why I've made an entire album in Tai Chi Dave's garden shed with two hundred quid's worth of Japanese economic miracle. I didn't want a drummer, not because I don't like them, but because there was neither the room or the time. Oh and I get bloody sick of drums on occasions. You listen to some of those old 80s records now. It's ridiculous. Great cavernous booming crashes at the end of every bar, then epic fills in every lead-in to each chorus, like God's falling downstairs in the middle of the night. And even then, when the producer's finally mixed the drums up to ornament-shattering volume, having struggled with a gated snaredrum sound for three precious days of your recording budget, what happens? It comes out of a squitty paint-spattered radio on a building site, and only sounds like "pfft-tish,pfft-tish." while Steve Wright and the afternoon posse talk over the end and the beginning of it. You know what? It's all shit. Release the demoes. It's never gonna get any better.
I didn't even expect to be making another record this year. Didn't know what I was expecting to do. However round about Easter having a bit of time on my hands, I thought I ought to maybe do another download for the website. Up in Dave's garden shed, with a little digital eight-track, the kind which young musicians buy to make their first demos on, we started work. The thing is, I discovered, a shed and a portastudio is exactly my forte. I've made perfectly good records with less. We had one mic, my acoustic guitar, a semi-acoustic bass and my old Rickenbacker. No keyboards, no proper drum kit--only some beats backed up with a few kitchen utensils for percussion. Two months later, we've nearly finished an album of almost brand new songs, most of them written a couple of days or so before I began recording them
Using classic garage production methods, we slammed things down, often in one or two takes, left them, stuck some reverb on them and mixed them to CD. Very Cleaners from Venus. When I finally air the collection, which I will do quite soon, I will ask myself: "What's changed, since I was last doing this kind of d.i.y thing?" The answer is, everything...but also, nothing. I'm probably a slightly better songwriter and musician, if a slightly less fiery one.
I shall not, of course, bother approaching any English record companies or music publishers with any of this stuff. Yeah, it's a good 'product' but I ask myself, who would care? There are one or two little labels in America and maybe in Europe whom I will consider licensing short runs in various formats to. I shan't send any review copies out --barring the unlikely event that anyone asks me to. There's no point in sending review copies out to jaded souls in London, who can't even write as well as I can, even if they could be bothered to listen. And anyway, I'm uninterested in their opinions and I don't believe that reviews, either good or bad, sell records.
I've decided that it's not important to sell huge quantities of records, only that those which I do sell, will go to people who like the type of thing which I do. I would like, in fact, for the music business and its media to have as little to do with the procedure as possible. It's sort of healthier, purer and somehow, very much more futuristic. The music industry has been stealing music from willing volunteers for decades. When, a few short years ago, the public began stealing it for themselves, the companies squealed like stuck pigs. The result, as we can now observe, is that the industry has enlisted the public themselves , on both sides of the Atlantic to join in with the inelegant international karaoke, which they call. Britain or America's Got Talent (for which evidence is scant) plus, sundry other shows of a similar nature. Eventually, the public may tire of itself and begin demanding musicians and singers again. Whether there will be any such creatures willing to perform for them again is not easy to predict, though they can hardly do so if the audience is still up there cluttering the stage.
When we finish English Electric, we'll put it up as a download with a downloadable sleeve and then, gradually let it appear in more tangible formats as and when we can. We'll let you know about this and you should tell any other interested parties. If enough of you clap, we may make another record. It's much more fun this way.
They cram into the rail carriages each weekday morning and head grimly for Liverpool Street. They commute daily from Clacton, Colchester, Witham and Chelmsford. They snooze, read newspapers, distract themselves with laptops and mobile phones or engross themselves in novels. They are the backbone of the nation ‒ the people who are supporting their families and paying off their mortgages, student loans or tax bills. Many of them, in addition to doing their jobs, will spend between two and four hours per day simply sitting on trains. A significant proportion of them will continue doing this for anything between ten and forty years. At Liverpool Street Station they will mill onto the concourse, before dispersing onto tube trains or buses and speeding to their workplaces. Some hours later, they will complete the return journey, merely in order to get home. Caught in a crossfire between the rail operator and the union, I would imagine that currently, the backbone of the nation is aching somewhat.
At time of writing, a proposed rail strike which might have paralysed the country this week, has been declared illegal by a court order. Union boss, Bob Crowe ‒ the RMT's very own version of Ashes to Ashes' D.I. Gene Hunt ‒ is an almost retro-style union bruiser who has sworn to that the battle isn't over yet. As a result of intransigence on both sides of the dispute, a summer of rail-related woe and uncertainty now hovers over us.
Perhaps, therefore, this isn't the best time to tell you that a cleaned-up print of my favourite film will go back out on general release next week The DVD comes out in early May. Things have changed a lot in the forty years since The Railway Children was first screened. Edith Nesbit's children's story is set in the Edwardian era. The bit which most people will remember is the ending, where young Roberta (Jenny Agutter) waits on a pretty country station. A steam train pulls in and a few passengers alight. The train pulls out again and as the steam clears, revealed there on the platform, is the figure of her father (Iain Cuthbertson), newly freed from prison, having been wrongly convicted many months earlier. Father and daughter see each other. She runs towards him. Her cry of :“Daddy! My Daddy!” which echoes all over the small Yorkshire station has had stronger men than me in tears ‒ except for Bob Crowe, possibly.
The Railway Children, whose director, Lionel Jeffries, died earlier this year, was also Noel Coward's favourite film. And when, at an early showing of it, the actor John Gielgud saw the last scene, he said to its director: “You've made me cry, you bugger.” Talk to most men of a certain age about The Railway Children and there'll be a brief pause. Then, like a solitary light going on in the long-empty office block of their youth, they'll say: “Ah. Jenny Agutter.” A further few may talk about the various classes of steam engine used in the film ‒ but it's usually best to walk away from them, or you'll be there all night.
It's interesting to learn too, that Edith Nesbit, the prolific author of the original book, far from being the sort of quiet ethereal recluse that you might imagine, was a lecturer possessed of a steely intellect and a strong social conscience. A proto-socialist, who co-founded the Fabian Society ‒ the precursor of the Labour Party ‒ had she been around nowadays, she might have found more in common with Bob Crowe's RMT than with the hapless rail passengers. Leaving that particular engine in the shunting shed, for now, however, the real hero of The Railway Children, is of course, the children's mother, played by Dinah Sheridan. Reduced to poverty by her husband's sudden imprisonment and exiled from her smart London townhouse to a rural Yorkshire cottage, she begins writing short stories. Whenever she sells one, she tells her children:“I've sold another story ‒ we can have buns for tea!” I doubt if there's a freelance writer on the planet ‒ myself included ‒ for whom that phrase does not resonate.
In an otherwise beautifully-crafted film, there are also a few unintentional mistakes. In one of the closing shots, after their parents have been re-united, as the three children walk away from the house, a tree falls over in the background. Once you've seen this, you can't stop watching for it and you begin to look forward to it happening ‒ which distracts from the film's poignancy, somewhat. In the end, The Railway Children and the type of travel depicted in it bears hardly any resemblance to the reality faced by modern day commuters. If I, for instance, were to don tweeds and a peaked Edwardian cap and then stand on an embankment waving at a train today, I'd be swiftly recaptured and given my medication. Either that, or some rough maintenance workers in dayglo orange jackets would point at me and give chase. In the coming few weeks, though, never mind whether your recently-freed father has alighted on the station platform, you'll probably be moved to tears of gratitude simply because an actual train has arrived: “A train! My train!” Don't you sometimes wish too, that there was a nice old gentleman somewhere on board, who, if we passed him a note, as the Railway Children did, might go down to London and use his influence to sort the whole shambles out for us? I know I do.