My Life In Dire Straits
Titre : My Life In Dire Straits
Auteur : John Illsley
Date de publication : 2021
Editeur : Diversion Books (US), Bantam Press (UK)
Type : Essai
Dans ses mémoires, le bassiste de Dire Straits revient notamment sur l'enregistrement de l'album Communiqué en 1978 au studio Compass Point de Chris Blackwell, le séjour du groupe dans les Bahamas et comment Robert Palmer leur a prêté du matériel et a partagé quelques verres avec eux.
So, at the end of November we flew to Nassau in the Bahamas to get down to work in Chris Blackwell's Compass Point Studio.
We were to spend four weeks in Nassau, fly back for Christmas, then head straight off to Muscle Shoals to mix the album. Think Bahamas, you think holiday, but it's not why Compass Point was chosen. We were there to work hard, free of all distractions. Talking Heads, who had recorded there, recommended it to us. Officially, the island is called New Providence, but it is known to most as Nassau, the name of the Bahamas' capital, because the only town on the island dominates all else. In 1978, the rest of the island was almost undeveloped, and it is small enough that you can cycle from one end to the other in a couple of hours. Not that we did that. It was what they call a 'paradise island', but there was very little to do outside the capital but sell exotic fruit from the side of the road, go fishing or lie around in the shade. The bulldozers and property developers were poised to invade but, when we visited, the island was about as removed from jetset cosmopolitanism as you can get.
Apart from Mark making his flying trip to Muscle Shoals, none of us had been anywhere much exotic than Northern Europe and Newbridge, South Wales. We arrived via Bermuda, where we ran into a chirpy Max Bygraves in the transfer lounge, an amusing diversion during our long wait. It took the best part of a day to get there and, touching down, the Nassau airport terminal told us all we needed to know about the delightful remoteness of our home for the next four weeks: it was a wooden shack. We drove along rough, winding tracks flanked by thatched food and drink shacks, through the lush vegetation, alongside the palm-fringed bleach-white beaches, the silver-blue ocean glistening under the hot sun. It was going to make for an enchanting change from Deptford High Street, and we took in the landscape in reverential silence.
Jerry Wexler was not the sort of character to slum it, and he had hired one of the most luxurious residences on the island. 'Capricorn' belonged to the widow of an oil tycoon and was one of very few villa-style houses on the unspoilt coastline. When we met Chris Blackwell later in the week, he told us that he was attracted to the island because it was still raw, honest and undeveloped, just as his native Jamaica used to be.
We stopped at Compass Point Studios on the way from the airport, and there was a bunch of guys in chairs out front, enjoying beers below a cloud of ganja. It was a smell that would barely leave our nostrils over the coming month. We'd come to check the amps we had ordered from Miami had arrived; apparently they hadn't, but we weren't to worry. So, we had our guitars, which had been flown out earlier from the UK, and Pick had his drumsticks, and that was it.
It was ten minutes to the house, and there were muffled gasps as we drove through the gates into a stunning tropical paradise being worked by a small army of gardeners. We pulled up in front of the colonnaded façade and, swerving past the marble statues, made our way around to the front of the house, past the seawater swimming pool, and marvelled at the picture-postcard white beach fringed with palm trees. Inside, we were greeted by four members of staff, including a delightful chef with the most infectious laugh you've ever heard and a figure that suggested her cooking was so good she was unable to resist it.
Mark had been given the owner's suite, a room the size of our entire flat in Deptford, complete with white grand piano. The other rooms were not too shabby either. We hadn't come very well prepared for paradise, just one bottle of sun lotion for our four very white bodies. After supper under a domed ceiling of stars, we sat by the pool working our way through a bottle of rum, slightly overawed but enjoying our new environment. We ate and drank like kings while we were there, waited upon by the fantastic staff. The last time any of us had been in a pool, it was down at the municipal sports centre for swimming lessons as kids. A greater contrast with the Crossfields estate was hard to imagine.
We were in a good place in every sense. By now the first album was starting to sell well in a host of countries, and we were about to begin to go to work with a bunch of great new songs we had been playing on tour. We hadn't sought out paradise; we had parachuted into it and we treated the privilege with respect throughout our stay. No one drove a car into the pool or threw a piano out of a window.
Jerry and Barry flew in from the States the next day, followed soon after by their luggage and half a dozen aluminium cases that I assumed were full of musical equipment. But no, it was mostly food supplied by Jerry's butcher and deli in New York: pastries, pastrami, strip sirloins, chickens, salt beef and a lot of grits, a sort of porridge made of boiled cornmeal. Every Wednesday and Saturday Jerry and I would drive to the airport to collect fresh supplies. The provisions must have cost more than the villa, and we figured that this expense was probably going to be coming off our deal. Learning yet again about the culture of the music industry.
'You guys gotta eat properly when you're working!' Jerry kept saying.
Ernest Hemingway - that was my first impression on meeting Jerry Wexler - but a whole lot friendlier. He was a big, cuddly bear of a man, and in between mouthfuls of food - he loved his food - the stories flowed out of him, keeping us royally entertained every meal around the big table under the painted stars. His daily breakfast of eggs and grits appeared to be his favourite meal of the day, the grits flying over the table as he regaled us with stories and roared with laughter.
Barry Beckett was a gentle giant, one of those guys you just take to straight away. Mark had met him with Ed in Muscle Shoals and they'd hit it off at once. He was something of a gourmand too, his favourite food being a 28-ounce ribeye. Barry was a fine keyboard player, a memeber of the fabled Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who had played with, produced and engineered many great musicians and bands. It was a privilege to be working with Barry and Jerry. Ed and Mark had learned in Muscle Shoals that Jerry was no fool when it came to business. Trying his luck in the negotiations for the deal, Jerry claimed he should be entitled to a percentage point of the sales for the first album and for the third, the one after Communiqué, arguing that sales of both would be boosted by the fact that he had produced the one in between. Ed was having none of that, and I'd love to have seen his face and heard his response when Jerry laid out his reasoning.
Work began the next day. The schedule Jerry had set up was breakfast at nine, into the studio for a ten-thirty start, break for lunch (very important), finish up at seven, back for a swim and a drink and supper (even more important). That was our Groundhog Day for a month. There was only one problem: we had no kit, apart from our instruments. Every day, we asked the girl on reception whether it had been shipped, and she shook her head and apologized. Three weeks in, another girl was sitting in for her and we asked again. 'Sure, it's just down that corridor,' she said, beaming.
'Brilliant! When did it arrive?'
'A couple of days before you guys.'
So most of the album was made with Jerry-rigged equipment, begged and borrowed from a couple of reggae bands - a speaker from here, and amp from there, one of them from Robert Palmer, who lived in a little house opposite with his wife. Robert lent us his Fender twin reverb amp, and we got to know him quite well. (If nothing else, the ad hoc arrangements showed that you don't need a mountain of equipment to make a good album). Robert dropped in to the studio from time to time and we'd go over there for a drink some evenings, and he'd boom insanely loud music at us through his new Bose studio speakers. He was very proud of his new system but, as they were even louder than the speakers in the studio, they made conversation quite tough.
The studio, unpretentious and simple, had been set up about a year earlier by Chris Blackwell, mainly to record Caribbean reggae bands. Talking Heads were one of the first bands to use it, but plenty of big names from both the States and Europe would follow, among them The Stones and The Police, before it went into decline following the death in a car accident of the house producer / engineer Alex Sadkin and, apparently, a steep rise in crime on the island. There was certainly no evidence of crime when we there. It all seemed very innocent and gentle.
It takes a while to get used to working in a new environment, but there were few distractions on Nassau so we got our heads down in the studio day after day, marshalled by Jerry, who was a stickler for time-keeping. Jerry had a strong presence and, even if he hadn't been intervening, you noticed it when he wasn't there. There was an authority about him, part of it natural, part of it earned through his incredible work in the past. He was one of those people you wanted to impress. He truly loved the sound of the band and the music's understated simplicity. A good producer allows a band to be true to itself and just nudges things along when necessary. That's exactly what Jerry did. The first album was getting a lot of airplay now and he was eager to emulate the feeling and sound of it on Communiqué. He let the music breathe and wanted nothing added, no strings or brass. When he did contribute, it was always valuable.
For example, one time I was in the control room with Barry, who was doing most of the production hard graft, and Pick was working on some percussion for the song 'Single-Handed Sailor', about the yachtman Sir Francis Chichester sailing around the world. There was no shaker in the studio, so Jerry took a film canister down to the beach and put some sand in it. Pick was trying to re-create the sound of the sea; it worked perfectly and he did it in one take. That's what you're hearing on the record - sand being shaken in a film canister.
There was certainly no shouting or confrontation in the studio. It was all very professional and positive. Jerry had a reputation for being tough with musicians in the studio, but there were no clashes with us. He could not have been less authoritarian or more encouraging. He spent a lot of time on the phone, checking on the sales of the first album, and we got daily updates on its progress. It was going down really well in the States and around the world, as well as in Europe, but especially in Australia and New Zealand. It was quite weird being marooned on a tiny island while our musicwas being played all over the world, but the good news was inspiring us in the studio.
We'd been playing most of the songs on the road and at Wood Wharf, in total for about six months, so they were pretty polished and we were pretty tight. We changed bits and pieces, but no more. That's the beauty of a recording studio; you can analyse everything more closely. The only song that hadn't been written was the title track, 'Communiqué'; Mark would complete it while we were there. Jerry wanted to call the album after one of the other tracks, 'News', and I think that would have been just as good. He imagined people asking, 'Have you heard the News?'
The album came to be overshadowed a little by later ones and, invitably, it was compared to our first. That's just the way it is. You can't avoid comparisons. Very few second albums are considered to have trumped the first, and although the critical reception - and the sales - would be very positive overall, some of the criticism, I felt, was a little unfair. You have to see each album as a unique stand-alone piece of work, not as an extension of what came before. I have always loved the feel of this record and it never fails to trigger happy memories of our time at Compass Point.