3. My First Failed Career

So there I was, down in the dumps, demoralised and on the dole, living at home and well aware of the fact that my parents were concerned about me – even more concerned that I was sitting around doing jack-shit. I had no transport, apart from my trusty bike, so on the plus side, I was at least keeping fit.

The natural thing seemed to attempt to pursue a career in music somehow, so I hit upon the brilliant idea of writing around 60 letters to as many recording studios in the UK as I could find. I scraped together a few quid, bought a wad of first class stamps, then posted all the letters whilst reciting an inward prayer of sorts, hoping that something vaguely positive might come of my efforts. However, as the weeks passed, my hopes started fading – the majority of the London-centric studios didn’t even bother replying, but others did.

Just as I was losing the will to live, I received a positive reply from a man called Keith Herd, who was the owner of a small recording facility called Fairview, just outside of Kingston-upon-Hull. He was on the lookout to expand his team of resident recording engineers and was after an apprentice of sorts. If all went well, this person would eventually become a freelancer at his studio, touting for jobs and bringing work through the door.

So, one weekend in early 1987, my Mum gave me a lift over to Willerby in East Yorkshire where I met with Keith and the rest of his lovely family. After a lengthy chat and an introduction to the way things worked in the studio, he said he’d take me on! The deal was that I was to be paid a small amount of ‘pocket money’, whilst the state looked after paying my rent. I’ll be honest with you; it was a big deal moving away from home at the tender age of 18 to a place that I didn’t know anything about, but after spending a weekend looking around for a place to live, I decided on a little village called Cottingham, about 4 miles out of of Hull city centre. OK, it was a single room in a shared flat above the main Cottingham Post Office, but it was my first flat. With some help from my Mum and Dad I moved what few belongings I had over there one weekend and made the place as cosy as I could.

Of course, my main problem was the lack of a driving licence; I had to rely on my push bike to get around. This was OK, although the ride from Cottingham to Willerby was uphill most of the way! So began my studio career in earnest. I was a keen learner, but looking back, also pretty shy and awkward. I was digesting loads of information from my teachers – residents John Spence and Roy Neave had both worked at Fairview for years and were both experienced engineers and producers. I found myself having to mature quite quickly as I was learning on the job whilst bands were coming in and making maximum use of their day rates. Keith and his wife Vicki were absolutely fantastic; I was welcomed into the fold as an extended member of their family, eating tea with them on a regular basis and knocking around with his daughters who were also really lovely. Fairview also had a tape duplication facility, run by talented local musician Danny Wood, who was a proper laugh. If things were slack in the studio I hung out with him whilst he was feeding the tape machines,having a giggle and smoking the occasional joint. Happy days.

However, I have to admit that I was finding life in the shared flat quite trying – you should try living with a trainee vicar who, whilst his attention to the scriptures was exemplary, his attention to washing up and personal hygiene was seemingly non-existent. I’ve erased his name from the memory banks now, but he and I did not see eye to eye at all; he was seriously tedious. Upstairs, a guy named Paul who drove trucks for a living spent the majority of his spare time watching dodgy pornography… as you can probably tell, it wasn’t the best homelife!

A welcoming diversion was the local record shop in Cottingham, a small jewel of a store called ‘Norman’s Place’, run by, funnily enough, Norman. He restocked his shelves on a regular basis with some choice stuff, both new and second-hand and was a fountain of knowledge when it came to music. I spent some enjoyable times here, crate digging for interesting-looking pieces of vinyl. Just an aside – before I’d left High Wycombe, my friend Andrew had bought an old copy of ‘Discreet Music’ by Brian Eno, which was Eno’s first foray into pure atmospherics or ‘ambient music’ as he termed it in the sleeve notes. This record had left a lasting impression on me; whilst there wasn’t really anything going on, there actually was loads happening, but in an incredibly subtle way.

Anyway, back to Norman’s Place – the standout purchases from this period are mainly ambient gems. I bought one LP purely on the strength of the cover image; a photograph of a stark tower block behind barbed wire with the sun setting behind it. On the rear, a dude with long locks was swaying around with a Fender strapped across him. The credits listed a lot of interesting synths and electronics so I bought it for three quid. The album was ‘New Age of Earth’ by Manuel Gottsching, aka Ashra. As soon as I got home and dropped the needle onto track 1, side 1, I knew I’d discovered a winner. It’s a seminal piece of work and I play it regularly to this date.

I also bought Edgar Froese’s ‘Aqua’. I knew Froese was in Tangerine Dream and again, it was the cover that interested me. Purely electronic and way more avante-garde than ‘New Age of Earth’ it was still a huge influence on me.

I also discovered the German ‘Innovative Communication’ label when I bought Mind Over Matter’s ‘Music For Paradise’ LP, a 1987 release which again, was a big influence on my own work.

But I guess the big purchase in 1987 was Steve Hillage’s ‘Rainbow Dome Music’. Another secondhand find in Norman’s Place, this album epitomised everything I loved about audio at that time. Drones, water, it was [and still is] proper ambient music.. it’s a landmark piece of work and it’s fantastic for mixing under other records if you’re playing a purely ambient set.

Anyway, life at Fairview was turning out great! I was learning the tricks of the trade, the 48 track Soundcraft desk, the AMS samplers, the Drawmer gates, how to mic up different instruments, drum mic’ing in the live room, patching, production techniques, cutting and splicing 2″ tape… old school methodologies. I learned pretty much everything under the watchful eyes and ears of Keith Herd, and listening back to some of the cassettes of the work that I had a hand in producing, they genuinely sound pretty good!

When there was any studio ‘dead time’, I got to experiment with master tapes of local bands that had been in, completely remixing and dubbing out demos so I could learn about what equipment did what. I played them all to Keith, who’d sit and listen to my efforts subjectively in his office and then give me constructive feedback which I took on board as best I could.

I also got to meet and work with some very interesting folks in the industry at that time. One of the bands who’d booked some studio time at Fairview were called The Planet Wilson, who’d just signed to Virgin. I was to be tape operator / tea boy for the LP sessions and Steve Nye (Penguin Cafe Orchestra / producer/collaborator with David Sylvian et al) was their allocated producer. Being a massive Japan and Sylvian fan, this was a big deal to me. I recall the Monday morning the band were due to start recording; I managed to get to the studio a little later than I’d wanted to so by the time I arrived, the band and their producer were holed up in the control room listening to demos.

Rather than waiting for a natural break in proceedings, I lumbered clumsily into the small control room, almost falling over myself in order to shake hands with the great man, who didn’t appear to be remotely amused or indeed interested in this rather red faced lad who’d interrupted the session.

Keith was a well connected man who’d been in and around the Hull scene since the 1950’s and as a result, knew a lot of local faces. Over the course of my time at Fairview, I was introduced to a number of musicians. One of the most influential was a guy named Basil Kirchin, one of the founders of the original UK avante-garde, musique concrete scene. Originally a drummer, he’d diversified into writing for film and library music with the likes of Jimmy Page. Keith and Basil had spent time experimenting with tape manipulation, slowing recordings of animals and kids down to a snail’s pace to produce other-worldly sonic soundscapes, some of which were quite eerie and unsettling. EMI and Island records released two LPs called ‘World within Worlds’ in the early 70’s, which, over time have come to be a big influence on the likes of Brian Eno’s ambient work. And my own.

I worked with the Housemartins as tape op on their single ‘Build’ and during the sessions spent a night recording ‘samples’ with the soon-to-be FatBoy Slim, Norman Cook. Even at that time, he had a large record collection and was already into DJing and sampling ‘breaks’ from his collection with a view to making up a library of breakbeats. These were eventually released commercially in 1990 as ‘All Star Breakbeats’.

The Sisters of Mercy recorded some of their 1988 LP ‘Floodland’ at Fairview, too. I was never a big fan of the whole goth scene, so getting to work with Andrew Eldritch and ex-Gun Club bass player Patricia Morrison wasn’t a massively big deal. I like to think that even at that age I was pretty broad minded, but that pair were off the scale fucking wierdos. The music was doom-laden and heavy going, and I don’t think I ever heard Andrew speak, apart from a few grunts and a nod now and again when Roy Neave, who was engineering the sessions, made something sound good. Patricia spent most of her time sitting in the snug drinking coffee and chain smoking.

The Farm recorded their first album at Fairview – Pete Hooton and the other lads were a smashing bunch of lads from Liverpool who were recording quite politically motivated demos around that time, prior to them exploding off the whole baggy & Madchester rave scene in 1989.

And I think I got my first credit on a record, too – Barry Palmer, who’d been the vocalist on Mike Oldfield’s ‘Crises’ LP in 1983 was at Fairview to record a charity track for Save the Children. He and I got along like a house on fire, and I ended up doing some backing vocals on the track, as well as tape op’ing for the session. Barry reckoned I had ‘the voice of an angel’ which was encouraging!

After about 6 or so months working at Fairview, Keith suggested I spread my wings and have a pop at live engineering at the infamous Hull venue, The Adelphi. Live engineering is worlds away from the safety of the studio; you’ve really got to keep your wits about you. My live career didn’t last too long; OK, I had a few gigs that went alright and paid me a bit more pocket money, but I’m afraid the final straw came one night when I had to set up and engineer a live jazz ensemble that were reasonably well known. Theirs was a big band, about ten players, and to a relative novice like me, making sure the levels were all sorted was, in truth, a nightmare. I had very little soundcheck time, so by the time they took to the stage in front of a near-capacity crowd, I was nowhere near happy with anything coming out of the stereo master. Of course, feedback was the order of the night; every time the saxophonist stepped up and blew, a cacophony of barbed, spiky, deafening distortion was delivered into the mix, and I didn’t understand what the hell the problem was… I was in deep, well over my head, and after some of the looks and shouts of disapproval I was receiving from the audience, I’m surprised I didn’t get lynched that night!

Unfortunately I didn’t last that much longer at Fairview, either. After about 20 months there, and no longer reliant on Keith and the state for an income, I simply ran out of money. I’d attempted the self-employment thing, but there just wasn’t enough work to go around. Another lad called Danny Shackleton had also started freelancing at Fairview alongside me, but he had the benefit of being local, and, as a result, knew a lot of the local bands personally – plus he was probably more sociable than I was at that time! Shit, I coudn’t even afford the rent on my flat. I wasn’t particularly happy there anyway; in fact, I’ll come clean – I was genuinely lonely and quite possibly the unhappiest I’d been up to that point in my life.

So something had to give. It was with serious apprehension that I packed my minimal belongings into my car (I’d got my license back by this point) and made the journey west back to Harrogate, back to my parents…