Archive for October, 2008

Home For Deranged Engineering Scientists

Friday, October 24th, 2008

This is pretty funny! These guys took my video, shot for shot, and recreated it on their own campus. This kind of appropriation I don’t mind at all!

my distinguished great-great-aunts

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

On Oct 14th, the Royal Mail released a new series of stamps, entitled Women Of Distinction, featuring two of my great-great-aunts! Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson were both sisters of my mother’s mother’s father. Millicent was a famous suffragist, feminist, and founder of Newnham College, Cambridge; Elizabeth was the first female doctor in England, and in 1908 became the UK’s first lady mayor, of Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

Their father Newson Garrett built the Snape Maltings, now home to the Aldeburgh Festival. And on Park Road, he built a row of houses, one for each of his ten children. It’s a private road with multiple speedbumps, but (feeling no guilt due to a probably misplaced sense of entitlement!) I use it a shortcut most weekends on my way to the River Alde where I like to race a wooden sailboat called a Loch Long One Design. And, to complete the circle, one of the preeminent LLOD sailors is the current mayor of Aldeburgh Jimmy Robinson, whom I’ve roped into performing the opening ceremony when I ‘launch’ my lifeboat. A large man, Jimmy complains that his mayorial robe has been handed down by successive mayors. Elizabeth was a small woman, which may explain why the hem of the robe just about reaches Jimmy’s waist.

I'm 50 today.

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

I’m fifty years old today. And it actually feels alright. Along with my wife and three kids, I sat in the wheelhouse of my (still unfinished) lifeboat studio this afternoon, sipped tea and ate homemade chocolate cake, gazing out over the North Sea. Life is good!

Thanks to everybody who wrote on my FunWall, posted me an email or a text, or sent me a multimedia birthday card.

In this era of podcasts, web sites, and ‘celebrity’ lists in daily papers, a birthday is quite exciting when you’re semi-famous: not only do ALL your friends miraculously remember your birthday, you also get dozens of heartwarming strokes from people you hardly even know!

I also got old-world analog constructs in the form of flowers, a prezzy or two in the mail, and lots of cards. But I think my favourite birthday card of all time has to be the one below, drawn (in haste today between Year 11 school classes) by my brilliant younger daughter Talia.

notes on a new song

Monday, October 13th, 2008

I was writing some notes in eSession for two musicians in the US who are shortly going to play some overdubs on a song for my album. I imagined reading these notes without first hearing the song, and they are rather intriguing! So here they are, for your puzzlement:

Although the style tends towards a country/folk/Americana lament, I want it to be ethereal and rise above any genre comparisons. It’s in that style because that might be the favourite music of the protagonists, but as a narrator I’m English (obviously) so it should be timeless and genre-less. Try to avoid clichés!

The exception may be the later instrumental solo sections (labelled Solo and Bridge Solo). In Solo I might use a pair of Cape Breton fiddlers and even a banjo, and it’ll have a fresh kinda Ceilidh knees-up feel to it. The Bridge Solo section should rock out more. It’s worth trying a pedal steel solo in there; though I should warn you, I’m trying to locate Mark Knopfler so I can ask him to play in that bit, as I think he would kill it! plus he’s another Brit with a history of narrating epic American tales (Sailing to Philadelphia etc.)

As such, the acoustic and guide piano may end up being ditched or low in the mix, in favor of more abstract sounds to suggest the chords; they are a bit unimaginative, yet the E chords do need some movement in them, perhaps the pedal steel lines and the odd high bass run can provide this.

We weren’t able to get the bass figure legato enough yet, but it should really be silky smooth. Some of the notes might be harmonics if they’re available. There is something about the bass figure plus piano that is almost Eno-ambient, and I want to build on that, picking simple notes and motifs that combine nicely.

The ‘Verse’ section is the most down-to-earth and streetlike. The couple are briefly happy and in love, before it all turns tragic.

Chorus 4, where the girl dies, could support some slightly more dissonant elements.

The ‘Spaceout’ section should be very dreamy. I’d like it to suggest seagulls, foghorns and lapping water, without actually resorting to using sound effects. There may be very abstract and surreal elements, even a string quartet, a bit Strawberry Fields-like. His life is flashing before his eyes, he’s half-drowned, clinging to a log in the freezing waters, trying to make it through the fog to the City, or just away. But his girl is dead, so he’s beyond caring.

It’s ok for the sections to be quite different. If you think in movie terms, it’s like a movie that cuts around, has flashbacks etc. a bit like Shawshank Redemption. In fact, the image of Tim Robbins emerging from the storm drain into a stream and shaking the rain off as he realises he’s finally free, is a good image for the song.

I tend to do a lot of cutting and pasting, moving things around, so it’s fine if you give me a straightish take or two, and others where you go really out on a limb with bits I can try relocating in odd places. Moving a lick over a chord designed for often gives me something I never would have thought of!

Keiskamma Altarpiece

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

I attended a charity event a couple of nights ago to celebrate the unveiling of the Keiskamma Altarpiece at Southwark Cathedral in London. This giant tapestry was made over several years by villagers in a small community in South Africa where an HIV AIDS centre is trying to raise money for retardant drugs. It’s a stunning piece, about thirteen feet high by twenty two feet wide, in a kind of tryptych configuration where ‘leaves’ unfold to reveal more scenes. It’s a stunning example of African folk art made up of crochet, wire, beads and string. The ladies who made it were there singing and chanting for us, and Ruby Wax led a silent auction to raise money for their centre.

Then we sat down for dinner in a nearby club called Clink, which I remember from the days when it was a grotty band rehearsal space! So much of London has changed beyond recognition since I was a kid. Seated at my  my table were old friends and new: John Reynolds, drummer and producer (and partner of Sinead O’Connor), who played in my first band Amberband when we were both 15; Claire Kenny, a long-time bassist friend; Kevin Armstrong, guitarist and current collaborator; and Brian Eno, whom I finally got to meet after all these years. My admiration for Brian and my musical debt to him are well documented elsewhere, but suffice to say it was a terrific honour and pleasure for me.

If you’re anywhere near London please take a stroll through the lovely Southwark Cathedral and check out this altarpiece!

London and Mastering

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

I met yesterday with EMI’s catalog manager Tim Chacksfield (pictured below at Abbey Rd) to go over the cover art for the re-releases of my first two albums, plus a planned ‘singles’ album which they will release first. The re-releases will essentially look like deluxe versions of the originals, with bonus tracks and additional sleeve notes. The singles album is more up in the air as there’s no existing precedent for the artwork. The closest was ‘Retrospectacle’ which was a kind of best-of LP including key tracks from all the albums. This one is less editorial, it’s just a collection of the 7″ versions of all songs I’ve ever released as singles. So I had to go through EMI’s photo archives to pick out a selection that might be used to make up a good sleeve.

Needless to say, EMI is not all a-buzz the way it was when I first walked in there around 1980. The atmosphere was quite mellow, to say the least. Still, it was an interesting sensation, being back in the offices of a major label, staring at tiny transparencies on a light box through a loom. Outtakes from old photo sessions where the picture commonly used was the only one I remembered; and entire sessions I’d forgotten about completely. And there were some nice surprises too: rolls of stills taken during video shoots. Paparrazzi snaps of me palling around with my then label-mates Queen, Duran Duran, and Spandau Ballet. One aspect of getting older is, while I’m still picky about the way I look from different angles and with different expressions… the old shots all look pretty damn good! Which means there is a wider range of shots that I find acceptable, unlike the old days when I would veto lots of shots for um, ‘personal’ reasons, much to vexation of the photographers, no doubt. And the names of the photographers are impressive: Jill Furmonowski, Anton Corbijn, Peter Ashworth.

But it was Andrew Douglas who really encapsulated my visuals. A brilliant artist with a huge mental database of oblique visuals and strange cultural artefacts, he and I would spend hours together flipping through dusty volumes of  vintage black and white photographs, attending screenings at small art cinemas, wandering around obscure London medical institutions and architectural landmarks, or examining the hyraulic workings of the flood gate doors at the Rotherhithe Tunnel. He was half mad of course, and often sported a black eye where his fiery girlfriend/assistant Carol had hurled an alarm clock or something at him. He and I dreamed up the original front cover of ‘The Golden Age Of Wireless’, which featured a kind comic book rendition of one of his shots, framed and mounted on the wall of a gallery. If you look very closely you can see a reflection of me, now an octagenarian, regarding the exhibit while being pushed in a wheelchair by a nurse, the same Carol: she was also the ‘lips’ and the bandaged statue in the ‘Europa’ video. One morning we were visiting the South Bank theatre complex next to the Thames, and stumbled upon the set of a play called Gallileo, which had a gorgeous stage set made up of astrolabes, maps and telescopes. We snuck in completely without authorisation, and Andrew reeled off several rolls on his Hasselblad before we got thrown out by a couple of stage hands. That shot became the cover of the US version of GAOW.

So now I’ll have to choose between those two covers! What a tough choice. They’re both classics of the era, and have so many good memories for me. And I’m not even mentioning Andrew’s infamous ‘running away from the Machine in his wellies‘ shot, which bewilderingly ended up as a third GAOW cover in some overseas territories.

Fortunately ‘The Flat Earth‘ only really appeared in one format. However there were some great pics that never got used from the session we shot in Snowdonia with a pair of lamas. (Oh! BTW, Snowdonia features in one of the new songs I’m recording. More on that later!)

From EMI’s offices I went on to Abbey Road to master the singles CD with Peter Mew. When a producer attends a mastering session, the engineer has often pre-prepared EQ and volume levels on the songs, cut the gaps to length etc. Hopefully there’s not a lot of tweaking to do. Yet this was quite a tricky one, because of the enormous difference in sonic style between ‘Urges’ circa 1980 and ‘I Love You Goodbye’ a dozen or so years later, and all the singles in between. There were necessary compromises made when we originally cut the vinyl versions, because vinyl is sensitive to some artefacts (eg sibillance on vocals) and if there’s too much bass, the grooves gut cut too deep for safe manufacturing. Yet I’ve become accustomed to those modified sonics over the years, so it’s a bit of a shock to hear the songs back to the way they were when they first came out of the studio. It took us a good few hours to level everything up, but I think the end result is very good; and there’s a logical progression to it, given that the songs are all chronological.

It was satisfying for me to flash through over a decade’s worth of work in a single evening. Abbey Rd was all quiet and the night watchman was pouring tea from his Thermos as we left. Yet I was all too aware that within feet of me, a certain other four-piece once nonchalently churned out hit after hit, seven days a week. if you read George Martin’s account of his time working there in the Sixties, it reads something like this (I’m being quite liberal with my recollection!): “Mon April 4th, lead vocals and final mix on ‘I Am The Walrus’, after lunch John overdubbed a mellotron on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Tues April 5th, planned to record alternative bass and drum tracks for ‘Hello Goodbye’ and ‘All You Need Is Love.’ Couldn’t find Ringo, turned out he’d gone for a drive round Hampstead Heath in his Bentley with Twiggy and Cassius Clay. So had Paul double-track the choruses on ‘Penny Lane.’ ”

Stevie Wonder last night

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008

I took my kids to see Stevie Wonder last night at the O2 in London. I’d scored five tickets but Kathleen is away in New York, so on the way we swung by and picked up my friend the excellent Imogen Heap who joined us for the show. This venue, if you didn’t know, is the infamous London Dome, and it was the first time I’ve ever been there. I was pretty impressed. As big shed gigs go it was comfortable and the sound was pretty good. Stevie was fabulous, as always. We went backstage and it got me reminiscing about that weird 1985 Grammys performance, Howard the Duck, his appearance with Prefab Sprout, and more. He was very friendly and my kids felt honoured to meet him—not least because their mum is a huge fan so they’ve grown up with Stevie. Kathleen has a special CDR she puts on whenever she’s feeling blue, and she dances her ass off to songs like ‘Superstition’, ‘I Wish’, and ‘Boogie On Reggae Woman’ until she feels better.

BTW if you’re a fan of that stuff, here’s a great track you’ve probably never heard of, called ‘Do Yourself A Favor’, with a killer clavinet part.

Left to right: Imogen, Graham, Harper, Talia. Oh, and the total eclipse of the moon in the mirror is my head!