Are We Still Rolling?

Publié le par olivier


Titre : Are We Still Rolling?: Studios, Drugs And Rock'n'Roll - One Man's Journey Recording Classic Albums 

Auteur : Phill Brown

Date de publication : 2011

Editeur : Tape Op (UK)

Type : Essai

Are We Still Rolling?

This is not a technical manual (although it will certainly function as one) - it’s a contemporary thriller. Phill Brown is a sound engineer. It’s a mystery, even to people in the music business, as to exactly what a sound engineer does - are they part of the creative process or merely technicians? In the past 30 years, recording studios have moved from the engine room of a submarine to the bridge of a starship baffling the outsider - although recording music will always be the same un-guessable adventure. That’s what Phil Brown has written here - an adventure story. Look at the chapter headings. Laid out in the form of a diary, he takes us through the crazy journey that is making music. Not as an academic journal, but as a spiritual experience. With his laconic navigation, we’re steered through the centre of the ego hurricanes of creative madness. He is the Jiminy Cricket of recording sessions, and his excellent recollections of the excesses of morons and geniuses involved in creating melodies and rhythms for us to enjoy are sheer entertainment. It’s a “how-to” book and a love story! A self-driven need to understand why creative people do what they do, and how to survive it and them.

Robert Palmer, 1997 

Are We Still Rolling?



In the spring of 1995 I was in hospital having 12 inches of colon removed – an experience I can’t recommend despite the considerable skill of Mr. Chilvers, the surgeon at St Anthony’s Hospital, Cheam, in Surrey. It seemed that my lifestyle had finally caught up with me. The two consultants and the other doctors I came into contact with were all in agreement about the cause of my predicament. As one of them said, “Mr. Brown, this situation has been created by your long working days, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle and the combination of continuous adrenaline rushes and intense stress. The old saying ‘bust a gut’ comes to mind.” During my seven-day stay at St. Anthony’s and previous two weeks of purgatory in a hospital in Tunbridge Wells, I had plenty of time to contemplate what I realised with surprise was nearly 30 years in the music industry. The doctors were right – my present poor state of health was in many ways the legacy of this career. However, considering the abuse that my system had suffered and the high casualty rate among my many friends and acquaintances, I reflected that my situation could have been a lot worse. At least I was still alive, which was a good position from which to start my recovery. While lying in my hospital bed with a drip in my arm and a cocktail of, for once, completely legal drugs pouring through my body, I consoled myself by recalling the more enjoyable projects I had been involved with. I had worked with some of the greatest acts in the business, including Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, Traffic, Spooky Tooth, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, Robert Palmer, Bob Marley, Steve Winwood, Harry Nilsson, Atomic Rooster, Stomu Yamashta, John Martyn, Little Feat, Roxy Music and Talk Talk.

Now, in my hospital bed in 1995, I was unable to work at all for the first time in years, and my thoughts inevitably turned once again to past events. It seemed a good moment to look at my entire “story” so far. When I began work at the bottom of the studio hierarchy as a tape operator, I discovered that there was an informal system of apprenticeship in the recording industry. I was expected to learn by watching and listening while I made tea and performed other mundane jobs about the studio. However, I never resented being the “dogsbody”. To work in a studio and to train under such engineers as Keith Grant, Glyn Johns and Eddie Kramer was a privilege, and I gained a unique approach and attitude towards recording that I carried with me through the next 30 years. Although in those early days everything seemed strange and new, I could have no notion of the crazy sessions that lay ahead, the extraordinary people I would work with or the wildly varied types of music I would help to create. The sequence of events that led me to become a sound recording engineer began when I was still at school in the early 1960s. In 1964 my elder brother Terry started working at Olympic Studios in London as a trainee sound engineer. Since leaving school, he had been working at the post room of J. Walter Thompson, the advertising agency where our father had worked for 15 years. My brother was expected to rise through the ranks and become successful in the advertising industry. To me this seemed a dismal fate. However, one day Terry delivered a package to Olympic Studios. He caught a glimpse of an exotic world of unconventional characters, mysterious equipment and most attractive of all, exciting music. He decided to ask for a job at Olympic. My parents were not keen on this idea. They were conventional and careful in outlook, and were concerned that Terry would lose his pension and security.

At that time I was 13 years old and in my third year as a day pupil at Stanborough Park, a private day and boarding school in Garston, Watford. The school was run by the Seventh Day Adventists – a nonconformist Christian sect with a firm moral code and strict principles. Children from all over the world were sent to Stanborough Park by parents who upheld these religious beliefs, but the school was also attended by local children. Most of these had failed their 11-plus examinations, an ordeal to which all children in state schools were subjected at the time. The successful minority was creamed off to a grammar school. The rest, which included me, would have to make do with “secondary modern” education. The only alternative was to opt out. This is what my parents decided I should do, due to the poor reputation of the three secondary modern schools within the area. I found the combination of religion, strict morals and discipline that was enforced by Stanborough Park very difficult to deal with, particularly during my final two years at the school. I resented all the trivial rules and regulations: “Don’t be out of bounds. Wear a cap at all times when off the school grounds. Keep hair short, clean and tidy.” Plus I didn’t like being force-fed religious dogma and moral values. Each day there was a half-hour morning assembly, with a strong emphasis on religion. Once a month we would “march” into assembly to the music “Triumphal March” From Aida (by Giuseppe Verdi), and then a guest speaker would preach to us all. It may have been a Seventh Day Adventist parson from the other side of the world, or perhaps a local policeman. Once a year there was “Health Week”, where assembly became two hours long. Jars containing hearts, lungs and brains from both the healthy and the sick would be held up in front of the entire school to illustrate the perilous effects of smoking and drinking. One teacher, Mr. French, fainted onto the piano on his first viewing. Whether or not this experience affected him permanently, I have no idea, but as for the pupils the effects usually faded by the third viewing. This bizarre and gross annual performance did nothing to put me off smoking or drinking, and as with many a child, the effect of such an exacting and inflexible régime at school was more or less the opposite of what was intended. I developed a lifelong attitude towards rules and authority that has always been sceptical, to put it mildly. When Terry left the advertising agency and started working at Olympic Studios, I began to see that there might be alternatives to the rigid attitude of mind promoted by my schoolteachers. Beyond that, I saw a possible way of avoiding the kind of working life that was led by my father and by other adults in my family – a life that appeared to me to be boring in the extreme. After he had been at Olympic for about four months, Terry asked me if I would like to travel to work with him to see the studio. I was delighted. At the time my brother drove a 1947 Triumph Roadster, a large, low-slung two-seater that looked unusual among the family saloons of the day. One Saturday morning we both got into the car and set off for London, leaving behind the semi-detached house in North Watford where our parents had lived for 20 years. In retrospect it seems like the first step of a very long journey. I can’t remember exactly what I was expecting Olympic Studios to be like, but it wasn’t a narrow, three-storey, bizarre-looking building. It was in a mews off Carlton Street. Evidently it had been used previously as a Jewish synagogue and later as a mortuary. Terry parked the car outside the studio in the mews – at that time there were fewer restrictions on car parking in central London. He unlocked the street door, and we found ourselves in a small reception area.

It was a Saturday, so there was no one at the reception desk, and the building was strangely quiet. Part of Terry’s job was to prepare the studio for the day’s session an hour or so before the musicians and the rest of the staff arrived. Terry showed me the main studio – Studio One - which ran the whole width of the building. The walls, ceiling and isolation screens were all covered in cream-coloured acoustic pegboard tiles. The hushed atmosphere was now even more noticeable because of the “dead” acoustics of the recording room. In one corner there was a grand piano, a Hammond organ and a large collection of mic stands, cables and headphones. Down in the basement I was taken through a series of small rooms, including ones used for maintenance, tape copying and tape storage. All these rooms had un-plastered brick walls, painted white. Fixed to them (but not concealed) were all the audio, telephone, electricity cables and air conditioning ducts for the offices and studio. It was an untidy and dirty area. On the first floor was the control room. This was set parallel to the studio and looked down into it. Like the studio itself, the walls were covered in off-white pegboard acoustic tiles. There were four large loudspeaker cabinets standing on the floor against the wall. These, I learned, were Tannoy/Lockwood monitors. Years later in the mid1970s, these became my favourite monitor speakers for recording and mixing. Immediately in front of the Tannoys was the sound desk. By today’s standards this was extremely small and basic, with just 12 input channels. Each input had six large, Bakelite knobs to control top, mid and bass EQ, feeds for the headphones and a track/record selector switch. In the centre of the desk were four round VU meters and below these, four toggle switches to select monitors. Cables and wires oozed from the back of the desk and disappeared into either the wall or boxes lying on the floor. To the left of the desk was a small window giving a restricted view down into the studio room. To the right was a small seating area for about three or four people. On the remaining wall and floor space were the large 4-track tape machine and a couple of 1-track, mono machines, all housed in metal cabinets. Wires ran from these, connecting to a patchbay, amps and meters in metal cabinets on the wall. It all looked very dirty, with lighter patches on the wall where equipment had once been but was now removed, and there were badly worn areas of carpet, especially directly behind the desk. In a separate building across the mews was Studio Two, where there was basic equipment for jingles and voiceovers, plus tape copying and editing facilities. During this and many subsequent weekend visits to Olympic Studios, I gradually formed a picture in my mind of how the studio was laid out, and began to make sense of what at first looked like a confused jumble of equipment. Olympic then was perhaps a bit seedy, especially when compared to some of the studios I eventually worked in, but for me at the age of 13 it was an Aladdin’s cave. For some months I spent every available weekend with Terry, soaking up the atmosphere at the studio and sitting in on sessions with such artists as The Yardbirds, Marianne Faithfull and P. J. Proby. I met several musicians, notably members of The Yardbirds, (including bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and Keith Relf, the harmonica player and singer), Big Jim Sullivan, who was a session guitarist for P. J. Proby, and Clem Cattini, a session drummer and previous member of The Tornados and Johnny Kidd & the Pirates. I would come to work with all these people in the years ahead.

One Sunday in 1965, I was at the studio when The Yardbirds were there to record a single. They were young and brimming with enthusiasm. By the end of that one-day session, they had recorded, overdubbed and mixed “For Your Love”, which soon became their first Top 10 hit. Such a feat would be almost impossible today. Suddenly all I wanted to do was to be in that environment and record music all day – I was convinced that it would be brilliant fun and far better than “working” for a living. Terry introduced me to many people from the world of music, including two staff members at Olympic, who in later years were to have a significant influence on my career: Keith Grant and Frank Owen. I would often sit in Studio Two with Frank while he mixed voiceovers on commercials or edited 1/4-inch tapes together for shows on Radio Luxembourg. He showed me how the tape machines and desk operated. All the projects were usually mixed to mono, as the wonders of stereo were still in their infancy. For voiceovers a backing track would be played and this, along with the live vocal, would be recorded onto a second mono machine. I was intrigued by these aspects of the job just as much as the “glamour” of the band sessions. In time Frank taught me how to edit 1/4-inch tape. I returned home and tried editing tape recordings of the Top 20 on my Brenell mono tape machine. It was a great experience watching Frank and Terry making records on what would now be considered to be antiquated 4-track equipment. Even then I realised that with this way of working it was very important that the performance, the sounds and any necessary mixing were correct at the source. With more than one instrument recorded on each track, there was little that could be changed later. By watching them work and talking to Terry on the drives home to Watford in his Triumph, I learnt a great deal. By today’s standards Olympic would be little more than the equivalent of a basic demo studio, but at the time the banks of equipment and machines looked impressive. In addition to Marianne Faithfull and The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield and Jonathan King had all worked at the studio during the mid-’60s. After recording many classic records, including “Substitute” by The Who and “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” by Jonathan King, Terry left Olympic in 1965. Moving up the career ladder, he went to work as an engineer at Lansdowne Studios on Notting Hill Gate, under its studio manager and owner Adrian Kerridge. I still went and sat in on sessions with Terry whenever I could. During one of the visits to Lansdowne I watched a session for The Smoke as they recorded “My Friend Jack”. This was the first time I witnessed a stereo mix. The single was immediately banned by the BBC, as the lyrics were said to promote drug abuse (“My friend Jack eats sugar lumps”). Meanwhile the path of my career at Stanborough Park is described by my school reports, which began with “a promising term” in 1962 and ended with “seems to have thrown in the towel” in 1967. By June 1967 when I had finished my exams and left, I had decided to be a sound recording engineer. Having left Stanborough Park School and needing to support myself, I began working in the gents’ outfitters department of the Co-operative store on St Albans Road in North Watford. The shop has long since disappeared. I sold the full range of collarless shirts, Y-fronts, thermals, suits, cuff links, tie pins and such. It was interesting for the first two weeks, but then it became the most boring, dead-end job imaginable. I would arrive at 8:30 a.m. and make tea for Mrs. Metcalf. She was a large woman, about 50 years old, who smoked Craven A cigarettes. We had access to a backroom that contained a single gas ring, two chairs, a table and a shelf with a kettle and two mugs on it. There was a curtain that screened this room off from the shop. The weekdays were slow, with little to do except talk to Mrs. Metcalf. On Fridays and Saturday mornings we would be very busy, and the time would go quickly. The only real action and excitement that ever occurred was one Friday morning after the store had been burgled during the night. Mrs. Metcalf had a habit of finishing sentences by saying, “…I’ve worked in retail all my life.” I soon became determined that whatever else might happen, this would not happen to me. I didn’t like the way I was told what to do – it was too much like school. However much I hated the work, I was cheerful about the future because I had already asked Keith Grant about the possibility of a job at Olympic when I’d seen him at Terry’s wedding (to Linda Knowles) in September 1966. Keith had said that as soon as a vacancy came up he would let me know. At the time unemployment figures were low. There was a general feeling of “get out there and do it”, and as with many a 16-year-old, the idea of failure never entered my head. I was pleased but not surprised therefore when four months later Keith offered me a job as tape op. “I’ve got a trainee job going. I’ll pay you £10 a week. Are you interested?” he asked. I started on the 2nd of November 1967 at Olympic Studios, which by then had moved to Barnes, just over the river from Hammersmith, West London. By this time my brother Terry had left Lansdowne and was building Morgan Studios on Willesden High Road for a partnership consisting of Barry Morgan, Monty Babson and Leon Calvert. He still worked occasionally as a freelance engineer at Olympic Studios, and we worked together on various projects, including Gorilla by The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and the second, self-titled Traffic album. We got on very well – we always had – and there were no ego or big brother problems. When we were working together on sessions, we were often referred to as “The Brown Brothers”. The new Olympic Studios were built in 1966 in a converted cinema on Church Road, Barnes, London, just 100 yards from the Red Lion Public House. In this studio at the beginning of November 1967, I began my training as a sound recording engineer.

Are We Still Rolling?