Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Gig-a-Blog™ (GoodBooks , Loose Ends, BBC Radio 4)

Saturday, 30 June 2007

The central module of my Vast Grouping of Daughtorial Persons has an old friend - a very old friend, going back to their first year of life - in the person of the entirely wonderful Anna G. Anna manages a band called GoodBooks who seem to be on the road to success. Not having crystal balls I can't say much more than that but they do seem to have done very well on the indie circuit (whatever that is), are loved by their fans, and are now signed to a big record label, Columbia, which is part of Sony BMG. Given that such organizations are not, as I understand it, generally driven by sentiment, one has to assume that someone somewhere thinks they are a worthwhile investment. I mean, I think they're great but strangely enough Columbia didn't check with me, the fools, the rash fools.

Anna contacted me in late June. GoodBooks were about to be on Radio 4's "Loose Ends" performing their soon-to-be-released single Passchendaele, from the album Control, coming out a fortnight later. The song has a trumpet part; their regular trumpet is unavailable; would Lottie and I like to do it? Well yes please, actually, we would.

So I looked it up on YouTube (thank you, o spirits of the internet) and spent some time with piano and laptop writing some notes, of both types. I felt very mindful of David Alberman's 6 Ps - Proper Preparation Prevents P*ss-Poor Performance. I don't wish to sound too smug and I hope you realize that I am usually the first to admit it if, as usual, I am involved in (or have caused!) some horrible shambolic mess, but on this occasion I was really pleased I'd taken the time to do some work on it. I am really quite rubbish at transcribing music, so by the time I felt safe to stop I must have heard Passchendaele maybe 30 times. Fortunately, it is a good song.

What I ended up with was a transcription of the little twelve-bar trumpet solo, and half a page of lyrics plus notes on the structure. I should explain that the trumpets do not play throughout - far from it: the song is textually pretty much over (two verses, two choruses) before the trumpet enters. It does its bit in a verse slot, there's a final (sung) chorus, then the chorus harmony goes round one more time for a Big Noisy Ending. The said BNE is fun: for the first eight bars the trumpets just play stabs, straight crotchets, same note, right through (yes Tamsin, it's probably an inverted dominant pedal or something) then for the remaining eight bars it's Groovy Freakout Time, yeah woo babay. In my many listenings to the track I thought I'd perhaps detected a touch of Penny Laneoid pseudo-Baroqueness in this soloing but I tried it in the studio on a run-through and they wanted it wilder, less structured and more random than I was aiming for. For someone of my, er, jazz playing skills (hem hem) this is a comforting thing to be asked for. But I am jumping ahead of myself: it's mostly still Thursday night.

So, I had the lyrics, music and structure notes and I practised the solo 8000 times. On Friday I went on practising and also received the solo part in an email from Anna. I was more than relieved to see that I'd got it right - for it to be further evidence of my frequent cloth-earedness would not have been comforting at this point. In the middle of all this Lottie came home from Belgium where she'd been with the Cardiff University big band.

Nice PD image of BH is by Wikipedia user BriantistOn the Saturday we were up with the lark - very broadly speaking - and Lottie and I chugged round to pick up Anna, who lives not far away, and thence on down to Broadcasting House. Parking, security, loading and coffee all followed and somewhere along the line we got to meet the band, who are an inordinately nice group of young persons. It's a bit of a disappointment actually - no-one spat on my shoes or called me Granddad or ate rodents or anything, and they all say stuff like please and thank-you and hello and goodbye. I really don't know what the world's coming to.

While the band were setting up, Lottie and I couldn't contribute much so we got to loll around in a sort of lolling-around room. This was nice enough, and the band and Anna and various people popped in from time to time to say hello. What made it even better, though, was the chatty and very pleasant presence of a fiddle player and a hurdy-gurdy player from the other band, the Ian McMillan Orchestra: more of this excellent ensemble later.

Eventually all was ready and we could soundcheck. This was fundamentally slightly weird, in that I felt like I knew the song quite well (having been through it another, oo, what, 963 times on Friday) but it was the first time I'd heard it performed by real live people. So this was rather fun. I was also very pleased that I had bothered to prepare properly, in terms both of practice and the bits of paper: I felt that both of these earned their keep. (A slightly rambling digression, about those rare occasions on which I am Properly Prepared, has been rehomed in its own articlette.)

Anyway, we soundchecked and went through it a few times and things were adjusted and shifted and so on. They wanted the trumpets incredibly tight onto the microphones, which always troubles me a little, perhaps illogically. I know that it's what works best for the engineer in terms of control and separation but my perhaps-illogical bit is that it doesn't feel as if the sound has had anywhere to develop before it's captured. I know that what's going into the mic is the driest and least colourful version of the sound: I wouldn't choose to listen to the trumpet with my head right by the bell, and that's not just because of the volume. If I listen to it from further away, even in a dry room, I feel that the sound will develop some additional width, warmth and maturity before it reaches me. This may well be unscientific balderdash. And I do understand that in a rock music environment they can't afford to have too much of the room in the mic with me. It means that how you sound ultimately is going to be down to the engineer's concept of how a trumpet sounds in this context, but then that's normal in this situation, and, come to think of it, in plenty of others. Obviously if a symphony orchestra is recorded with one stereo pair then there really is a limit, but I've seen plenty of multi-mic classical setups which do separate the instruments to almost this extent. In any case I liked the engineer who, as well as being very nice and extremely entertaining, came over as very experienced and competent.

Anyway, once we'd soundchecked and everyone was happy we went out again while the Ian McMillan Orchestra did theirs. At this point bacon sandwiches, which I am told are famously good, were produced but sadly I didn't get to try one, having reached the pre-playing point where I really don't want to eat.

More time passed quite pleasantly then we trooped back in to do the show. In its current form Loose Ends is recorded as-if-live in the morning and broadcast in the evening. So it's basically pretty much as you hear it, and everything is set up and ready to go throughout. This means that it's a bit like playing in the living room at home. (If the living room boasted lots of mics and soundproof glass.) Clive Anderson and his guests were seated round a long oval table near one corner of the studio. GoodBooks were all the way along the wall to Anderson's left, and Ian McMillan's group were along the other wall, coming down to meet GoodBooks in the corner where Lottie and I were more or less rubbing shoulders with Luke Carver Goss, who is their excellent composer and accordionist. It's not a huge room and was quite full: it was pretty intimate and also slightly odd in being a live performance with no room for the audience. I know this is more than a little obvious (duh, indeed, thank you Tamsin) but it underlined for me that as a gig it inhabited a rather odd space somewhere between a recording session and a live show with an audience you can see.

Maybe for the sake of completeness, or my fading memory, or something, I should explain a little about Loose Ends, though you can probably learn more about it on Wikipedia - as long as it's not recently been vandalized by Year 9 or ''corrected" by conspiracy theorists or flat-earthers. (Oops, takes out aerosol labelled RantAway™, sprays self and room liberally)

This is all "as far as I understand it" but please feel free to put me right: Loose Ends is an arts magazine programme, and in its usual form is a live show presented on Saturday mornings by Ned Sherrin. Unfortunately Sherrin is off with throat trouble, surely a particularly horrid thing for a broadcaster, and the BBC website just says he'll be back but doesn't expand on it. For the time being the show is in the hands of a small team of guest presenters who alternate or rotate or something, and Clive Anderson is one of these. I think that's about it except to note that it's odd (to me) that the BBC has it categorized as a comedy show. Maybe this is a reference to a previous incarnation or something - I wouldn't say that what we participated in was comedy per se. It certainly had a light and relaxed atmosphere and bits of the conversation were undoubtedly very furry, but I'd still say that it was essentially an arts magazine programme.

So off we went. Each guest or group had something to promote and each got a slot in which to talk or perform. First was Rupert Everett to talk about his new autobiography. In this bit it was interesting to see the slight tension between Anderson wanting to emphasize the drugs'n'orgies aspect of it and Everett wanting to point out that there's some other stuff in there too.

Next was the poet and genius Ian McMillan and his orchestra doing "Song of the Quarryman" from his new album "Sharp Stories". This blew my socks off. Ian McMillan does not sing but recites rhythmically - remember those old Betjeman/Jim Parker albums? Ian calls what he does a "Barnsley Mumble" though he did mention that it's also been dubbed "Flat Cap Rap". The band was fantastic, with this wonderful, lively medieval-folk (or something) sound. Huge amounts of commitment and energy - I just wanted to join in immediately. I can already hear roughly what I want the trumpets to do! I recommend that you hear this, except please be warned that if you're embarrassed about poetry, words and speech you will have some hurdles to get over - this work doesn't apologize for not being conventional sung songs - it just is, take it or leave it. I took it and I love it. Sing me the deep pools of blue. Sing me the refraction. Writing about it now, weeks later, I can still feel the buzz of that performance.

After Ian's poem/song with his orchestra he was interrogated by “guest interviewer” Jon Holmes which was great. I mean, he makes his living from words and from his cleverness, and has his own radio programme (The Verb, R3) so you might expect he'd be good. But blimey, he's good. A thoroughly enjoyable chunk of programme, thanks Beeb. (Come to think of it, I must write a CultureGuilt-o-Blog about Radio 4 some day.)

The third artist to speak was Lynda La Plante, mega-famous TV writer who's written - well, everything. As a guest she was not shy, and not short of a word or two. Poor Clive Anderson stumbled into a bit of a minefield by asking her about her relationship with Anne Robinson: he seemed to be expecting to hear that they'd patched it up after some public row. In fact, as La Plante made clear at great and vitriolic length, this was not the case. I know that one or two choice phrases were edited out but even so, what was broadcast was pretty strong stuff. Such was the impact that I am afraid I'll remember her views on Anne Robinson long after I've forgotten about the TV series she was there to promote - possibly not quite what the programme was aiming for. But hey.

Then it was GoodBooks. Clive Anderson did a good introduction and I thought it was terribly sweet that they'd name-checked the trumpets. Bonky-clicky bonky-clicky (that's a drum synth by the way) and off we went.

We had a false start because of a technical problem, and had to go again. Anderson got in some quip in about the trumpets being too quiet (ho ho, we hadn't started yet) but of course it was later edited back to a more ideal almost-live state. (As noted before the approach doesn't mean that there are no edits at all. Clive Anderson had a couple of minor fluffs which he redid and later there was some issue of time-specific language like "this afternoon" that he went back over. All very cool.)

Anyway, off we went again. Intro, verse, chorus, round again, and we're in. Trumpet, chorus, stabs, busking, trumpets out. A huge feeling of relief: it went OK. Lottie nudged me to show me her shaking hand (I was surprised, I thought she had ice-cold nerves of steel) so I responded by showing her mine, which was, well, more of a blur really. Nerves of mandarin jelly, basically. Oh well.

Anyway, that was us done and we were able to sit in a warm glow of relaxation and accomplishment while David Suchet was interviewed about his new play. A few more comments and witticisms and a couple of retakes to correct textual errors and we were done: congratulations and glad-handing all round.

I feel a bit naughty and perhaps selfish viewing the success or otherwise of the performance through the rather - er - narrowband filter of "how the trumpets did". A nicer and better-balanced person might take a broader view. In my defence, though, it's a slightly odd situation in that we're just in there for those 28 bars: we're not members of the group but extras there to deliver a specific service, and it pays to focus on what counts. In a sense it's not my worry how the general performance is, as long as the trumpets do OK, because the rest of it is someone else's thing. So while of course I do care that the overall ensemble is good and that the band are pleased with it, there's not a whole lot the trumpets can really concern themselves with other than just to try and look after our own little corner. In fact I can't think of anything more annoying than having the hired help doing unsolicited furrowed-brows-and-strokey-chins over stuff that's not theirs to worry about. Plus I couldn't, to be honest, hear what the h*ll was going on anyway: I was fine on bass and drums but there was no monitor for us so I couldn't hear much trumpet other than that very local "ringing" you get (bone conduction maybe?). Similarly but more worryingly I couldn't hear the vocals so, although I thought I was probably OK on the counting, I actually had to crane round and look at Max to check that verses and choruses were where I thought.

(Aside: checking on Max?? You might feel that any bl**dy idiot can count some 12- or 16-bar groups and get it right, and you'd be correct 99.99% of the time. Even with me playing, yes. But the whole point of belt-and-braces is to make sure that your trousers stay up even in the 0.01% of cases where some catastrophic failure would otherwise send them plummeting floorwards. So, even if it seems like overkill, I will go on looking for confirmation that that really was bar 33 we just hit. Doors to manual and crosscheck - geddit?)

The next good thing to happen was that Ian McMillan came over to say hello and was incredibly nice and knowledgeable. He impressed us with his trumpet-in-pop awareness (a highly specialized, somewhat elitist field of knowledge indeedy) by relating the Passchendaele trumpet sound to Alone Again Or by Love. Lottie included this song in an excellent trumpet/pop compilation she made for me, so it's on my Young People's Portable Music Device as I write, and I can confirm that it is indeed fully trumpeted-up and nicer than bunny-wunnies.

Like a star-struck teenager I was babbling at Ian McMillan about how much I'd loved the song and was going to have to dash out and buy the album and (I swear I wasn't fishing for this), he pulled a CD out of his pocket and pressed it into my little trembling fan's hand. Ah bless. What a nice man.

So that was the good bit. However the post-recording smugness which I was enjoying evaporated pretty golly-gosh-darned rapidly when technical persons came over and said sorry; there'd been a problem on Passchendaele and we'd need to record it again. Aaargh. This is presumably no problem if you're GoodBooks and you've just spent goodness knows how many months recording Passchendaele eight million times and arguing over every note about the compression on the hi-hat (er...) but it is a different matter if you are me and you're having to suddenly switch modes between "Relief At A Job Well Done" to "Ready To Start Work Again". I must confess that I was doing some pretty sweaty-palmed calculations about how many good shots at the solo I had had available at 9.30, and how many I had now used up. I mean, yes, I'd done some work on this but I am not Derek Watkins, nor Malcolm McNab: indeed, I'm not quite a lot of trumpet players. And no, it's not that hard, but that's not the point. Easy but wrong is still wrong.

Sprengel, the Imp of the Left Shoulder, was having a field day with all this - I didn't catch it all but I think the terms "hubris", "doomed", and "public disgrace and humiliation on national tea-time radio" may have been mentioned in passing. I didn't have any holy water but suppressed him temporarily with valve oil and Rescue Remedy, a potent combination, and off we went again.

I am pleased to report that this next go went OK, both trumpetistically and, er, record-o-phonically. The feeling of relief on having this latter confirmed by the technical angels is not to be understated!

It would have been very nice to go on the heralded pub trip and attempt (probably embarrassingly) to schmooze the celebrities. Though to be honest I am not entirely clear whether this invitation was meant to extend to passing trumpetizers, and it would have been mortifying to find out, the hard way, that it wasn't. Paranoid, you may feel, but I've encountered one or two situations, in my long and gloriously successful Life As An Artist, that would give you pause for thought in this respect.

On the other hand there was no problem about sticking my head round the control room door and saying Traditional Things like "Good Show Chaps" and "Thanks Awfully For The Light Music Playing Engagement". (Note the language: I have always prided myself on getting on with the youngsters.) I remember that the last time I did that was probably in 1982 and the band concerned were a fair bit less than polite or charming. Turns out they were in the middle of a huge row with the fixer, accusing her inter alia of not being a real fixer. They were probably right, given that I was playing, but the song still got to number two and I still get royalties from their success so frankly who cares about their manners? Haha, fate innit, what a comedian.

The other reason to not hang around was that Lottie and Jake were about to fly out that very afternoon for a week's holiday at Dan and Michael's flat in Puglia, and the timing was very tight so we needed to get moving. Eventually they were safely dropped - in the very nick of time - at the bus station.

After approximately a year 6.15 came round and the show, all tidied up and exquisite, was broadcast. I got a good recording of it due to Deb having last year got me an entirely wonderful Pure DAB radio with clever recording tricks. It was fun to hear it all again and try to spot the joins or fluffs. GoodBooks came on and I thought sounded pretty good. I was generally not wildly unhappy with the trumpets with the exception of two things.

Firstly I had a moment of truly nasty intonation about which I was very upset at the time. I've regained a bit of balance about this but it still sets my teeth on edge a bit when I hear it. So maybe, you ask, would it be better if I hadn't then listened to it ninety-three more times, getting more depressed each time round? Yes, you're right, but we'd be talking about a full personality transplant here... ho hum.

Secondly I was, as I'd feared, a bit cheesed off with the trumpet sound, which seemed to me to be quite tight and small and tinny where I'd have preferred it broader. However, as noted, this is really about the engineer's concept of that sound, it's perfectly legitimate, and I don't have to like it. I'd have been happier if we'd been more like the CD (where I really like Ollie Beer's trumpet sound) but then the solo there, it turns out, was recorded in a stairwell! And in any case the BBC engineer may well have felt that his job has more to it than just copying the CD, so I shouldn't really moan. Not to excess, anyway.

One nice thing that became clear as I listened to the track a few more times was that something good was going on in the busking bit in the Big Noisy Ending. Little bits of imitation and interweaving were happening so that the trumpets sounded as if they were really collaborating. All very cool and professional. I thought wow! but then huh? because I knew perfectly well that I'd spent those last eight bars in a sweaty panic, just trying to keep going and not make an idiot of myself. I'd no more had spare brain-power for tasteful collaboration than I could have baked you a Victoria sponge at the same time. So as it wasn't me making us sound good? ... Step forward Lottie, fearless jazzer and (like her many sisters) fortunate inheritor of some better musical genes than mine. I know it's almost always nauseating when parents rant on about their children's great wonderfulness so I won't (too much) but gosh chaps.

And that, really, was more or less that. We'd had a fantastic, interesting and musically rewarding time. It was brilliant to be back in a recording studio for the first time in about twenty-five years. I know that I shouldn't kid myself that I'm a Big-Time Session Player (man) but it was fun pretending for a few hours.

It was also nice to be involved, in however minor a way, with what I hope will be a huge success for this nice, skilled and intelligent band and their new album. Of course it's practically impossible to be purely objective when you've been enjoying playing but, trying my best to be, and having listened recently to their - er - oeuvre, more than a little, I honestly do feel it's superb music. Not just Passchendaele (though obviously I've a soft spot for that one) but the whole thing is clever, interesting and performed very well. This was all a bit of a bizarre experience for a Sad Old Git of advancing years, but incredible fun. Thanks Anna and GoodBooks and Lottie and the Beeb and Clive Anderson and Ian McMillan and Luke Carver Goss and everyone.

1 comment:

Strawberryyog said...

I was very sad to read that Ned Sherrin died yesterday. Here's the BBC News obituary.