phil hampson

music and production

My Place in Music History

Recording Buzzcocks seminal EP 'Spiral Scratch'.
manchester 1976

When the definitive history of popular music is written, I assumed one name would probably be missing - mine! So what, just because I first walked on stage in the '60's, and have been playing, writing, recording and producing music ever since, it doesn't mean I get any long service award. But I've started to realise that I might just have sold myself short.

It was at a party in West Palm Beach with my old production partner Brandon Leon. The hosts and their friends were mainly in their mid-thirties but from the sounds coming out of the CD player obviously well into the British music from the late 70's/early 80's. When I happened to casually mention that I recorded Buzzcocks 'Spiral Scratch' EP and Slaughter and The Dogs 'Cranked Up Really High', I couldn't understand why they fell to their knees!

I'd clearly never fully appreciated the influence that these recordings had on the music business, especially in the USA. Why, I asked myself, would these people - who were only children then - worship that period in British music history. Our host said he had watched '24 Hour Party People' over a hundred times! It was good to feel loved, and of course as the night wore on the legend grew. When I got back home I did some Googling and was pleasantly pleased to discover how many respected opinions rated these particular recordings so highly.

So what happened in Manchester back then to define a sound and style that not only apparently changed the direction of UK music, but still has such an influence today? As a music engineer and producer at Indigo Studios in the city at that time 'I swear I was there', and though I don't have all the answers, I can but tell it from that perspective.

Well, for sure it wasn't just the music itself, or the sound. Sheer energy, innovation and 'f--- you' were not new, but what was new was the ability to get through the 'system' and reach the kids who, as always, were ready for change. Arguably the last major change of direction in British music had been in the early sixties - again largely spawned in North West England with the Mersey and Manchester bands. Maybe it was coincidental but it isn't too fanciful to say that this brought about a social change that still haunts us today - freedom, challenging the status quo - but by the early seventies the rebellion, the questioning and the artistry had morphed into glam rock and the likes of the Bay City Rollers. Nothing personal BCR, but you get the picture. We were ready to move on.

Revolution needs a trigger. A seemingly unrelated happening that provides the spark that ignites the fire. With the advent of 'Skiffle' then 'Rock'n'Roll' in the mid to late fifties kids had started strumming guitars all over the UK and USA. A largely unrecognised factor that brought about the changes we saw in the sixties was the development by Leo Fender of his Precision Electric Bass Guitar. Would be guitarists - often those whose fingers weren't, shall we say, quite as quick as others - could switch to bass. The ability to amplify it completed the circle. Suddenly it became that much easier to be a 'proper' band, with a pukka rhythm section, and it opened up that opportunity to so many more youngsters. For anyone seeking to raise themselves out of mediocrity one of the greatest liberating moments is the realisation that 'if they can do it so can we'. Suddenly, with a couple of amps, guitars, a drummer and a borrowed van you could be in show biz. I mean, can you imagine what the Beatles would have been like with Paul McCartney lugging round an acoustic Double Bass?

I think a similar, seeming unrelated, event happened in the seventies. Throughout the 1950's and 60's music recording studios were the stuff of fantasy. They were mysterious places full of strange equipment that was like something out of a science fiction movie. The 'control room' was very often a no-go area for the performer, who went into the studio area, did as they were told, and went home. If you were lucky you might get to hear a playback through a speaker in the studio. If you did get to be in a studio though, you really had made it. When I bought my first mixing desk in 1972 I had to collect it from Decca Studios in Hampstead. It was a big grey battleship, out of Studio 2, but had recorded many sixties hits by such names as The Rolling Stones and The Moody Blues. It was designed and built by Decca. The manual was handwritten, and the engineers who helped me load into the Transit wore white coats! Things were already changing though. The Americans were technically ahead of us and were already providing much more sophisticated desks and recorders for professional studios. However, recording still needed a fair degree of technical ability and by and large remained the province of the privileged few. If you had a studio you had lots of friends!

The seeds of change had been sown in Japan many years before by TEAC, a manufacturer of recording equipment. A tie-up with an American distributor in the early seventies led to TEAC/TASCAM bringing affordable, high quality multi-track recorders and desks to the market in the middle of the decade. The TEAC four-track recorder was originally conceived as high-end domestic machine, and priced accordingly. With the advent of the 3340 model with 'SimulSync' and faster tape speeds, it became clear that you could make a pretty decent recording on this, and do overdubs! OK, it still wasn't within the reach of most starving musicians, but it was affordable, and a fraction of the cost of a traditional studio machine. Everybody soon got to know somebody or somebody's mate who had one. I once recorded a whole album in a Church Hall with one of these (borrowed of course) and some stage mics.
It wasn't perfect but it worked and it opened up the idea that making and releasing records was not just for those with the magical 'contract' from a record label. Of course us pros made a strong case for still needing a 'real' studio, and we were right. But recording was becoming demystified. Not a black art anymore. Word spreads quickly in the music business and the 'if they can do it so can we' principle kicked in again.

Although Spiral Scratch is often credited with spawning independent record labels, in truth it was probably just the first punk independent. Own label releases were nothing new. They had been a growing part of the grass roots music business throughout the 70's. I had made and pressed several singles - and albums - everything from early Drones (then 'Rockslide') to local Christian music  bands!  It was to recording studios like ours, first 'Magnum' in Hyde then Indigo in Manchester, that many a promising singer or band came to take their first steps on the road to recognition. We'd advise them, record them, produce them, and organise a private pressing. Typically this would be financed by doting relatives and/or friends, raising enough cash to have a few hours in the studio and have five hundred or a thousand singles, or EP's (four songs) pressed. It was exciting. It was like being a real rock star. It was usually a total waste of money. Bands were always optimistic of course, but usually accepted privately that not a lot would come of it. Still, it WAS exciting!

The ingredient that changed at the end of 1976 though, was the music - or as many thought, the lack of it! Anarchy was a perfect description. Distortion, fag packet lyrics, simple chords, bad language, sheer noise... just about anything was acceptable, except what had gone before. Tunes? Rhymes? Forget it. The old order was being overthrown - and the kids loved it! Eventually of course if the kids wanted it the establishment labels would provide it, but for a few months the power was definitely with the people. Interestingly, attitudes and comments from the mainstream were similar to those of the late fifties/early sixties. 'They can't play', 'They only know three chords', 'It's just noise', 'They look disgusting', 'They act disgusting'. In this case all true of course, but no one seemed to mind! Strange to think that these same things were once said about the likes of The Beatles, Stones, and even that 'nice Cliff Richard'...

The 'if they can do it..' principle was never better demonstrated than at the legendary Sex Pistols concert at Manchester's lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976. Organised by Buzzcocks' Shelley and Devoto, the list of people who 'swear they were there' became a Who's Who of Manchester music - although apparently there were only about forty people in the audience! What is not in doubt is that this and a second bigger concert in July inspired much of what followed. Slaughter and the Dogs appeared at the first gig, Buzzcocks at the second. Both bands made some recordings during late '76, but it wasn't until December, when Buzzcocks came to Indigo with the then untried Martin 'Zero' Hannett as producer that it really started to happen.

At that time every studio had at least one young lad who would work for next to nothing, just to learn and hopefully break into the business. There were really no Studio Engineer courses then! Known variously as the tape-op, tea boy, or gopher, ours was a young lad from Harrogate called Mike Thomas. We normally closed down between Christmas and New Year, but Mike asked if he could bring in some 'mates', who had borrowed some money and wanted to make an EP, and would I come and record them. Yes, they had some money, but the idea was to do it when the studio boss wasn't around, and maybe get some extra time. I was looking forward to a long break, but I hadn't the heart to refuse.

That's how I came to be sat next to Martin Hannett listening in amazement on the afternoon of Tuesday 28th December 1976. Bear in mind that I learned my trade recording with 60's hangers-on, people like Alvin Stardust, Emile Ford, Wayne Fontana... and bands recording at Indigo in the mid/late seventies were the likes of Real Thing, Showaddywaddy, Sad Cafe... All somewhat different to what I was hearing.
Buzzcocks set up, we miked up, and started sorting out the sounds. I was used to loud noise - that's why I'm hearing a little less well now - but this was special.
"It's totally distorted.." says I,  "..everything is!"   "Yeah great!!" says they.
Now traditionally, distortion was the very thing a recording engineer had to avoid. It was a sin. Anarchy it may be, but this was too much. Unfortunately the other prime rule for an engineer is to get the sound the client wants.
"It's what they want" says Martin. So I got on with it - but told him if we were having distortion it should be good distortion, and proceeded to demonstrate the difference. When you play loud everything gets picked up by every mic. Separation is important, it allows you to adjust the balance, and the sound of the each instrument individually. At that time Indigo had a unique layout. The studio was in the cellar of an old Georgian building - formerly a doss house. There were individual rooms rather than one large area. So I could put the bass stack in a room of it's own, loud as you like, without affecting anything else. (Bass player Steve Diggle later claimed that 'they recorded it in the corridor'!) Using the drum booth and trusty screens as well, I was able to get enough separation to make some changes to the individual sounds on the desk, and then set about padding and replacing the mics. For me this separation at Indigo is what made those first Buzzcocks and Slaughter recordings work. Everyone could play as loud as they wanted, and I could still get clean(ish) sounds which could be worked on later.

Pete Shelley's dad, who apparently lent the band some money for the session, had dropped in early on to check on his investment. According to a quote in Record Collector in 2000, he reckoned that "everything that Martin tried to do in there, the engineer turned the knob back" ! Well it wasn't quite as bad as that. When Martin wanted to hear something louder he pushed up the fader, rather than the monitor level, which just overloaded the tape. What I was doing was turning the fader back down and turning the monitor up for him. Eventually the band could still play very loud, we got the monitor mix that MH wanted, and I could get a clean recording. In that way the distortion was theirs and not mine. Everybody happy. We got a sound, and then barely touched the faders. They played and we recorded.

Although the songs were recorded as live takes with minimal overdubs we were using 16 track on two-inch tape at that time, so everything was on individual tracks. Typically I would put the kick drum on 1 (an edge track, which didn't have quite as good a high frequency response) and snare drum on 2. Tom toms were stereo'd across 3&4, hi-hat on 5 and a stereo pair of overhead mics for the cymbals on 6&7. Bass would have the amp mic on 8 and Direct Injection where appropriate on 9. Everything else had it's own track. Overkill maybe, and not anarchy, but by using separation and individual tracks it meant that you could play around with the balance in the mix later. I went off to the pub and left Mike and Martin to mix down to quarter inch stereo master. Those first mixes though didn't please everyone. This is not unusual, in fact was rare to get agreement on a mix! Especially when you do it on straight after the recording, with one eye on the clock.

The story goes that the lads had a budget of a (borrowed) 500 pounds to record and press Spiral Scratch, so time in the studio was limited. Well, we were pretty relaxed about the clock, and although mixes were done on the day, it seemed the band weren't totally happy with the end result. So I came back 'out of hours' in early January 1977  - and remixed the tracks. I also added some audio effects  - particularly compression - and repeat echo at the end of Boredom to take it into the final track. Apparently Mike may still have the original mixes. Bizarrely, I've heard that the tape of my final mixes had 'Mixed on 3rd January 1976'  written on the box!

I'm pretty sure that the Indigo layout contributed to the success of this, and subsequent sessions we did with them and Slaughter and the Dogs. Sure it was raw, but I like to think that we got a faithful record of what was happening, and maybe the art of good and bad distortion was a lesson they took on with them. I've heard lots of other recorded versions of the Spiral Scratch songs on You Tube, but for me the originals are the ones that capture the moment.
As I mentioned, very soon the bigger labels wanted a slice of the action, and their money certainly became an influence. The business then was still dominated by their ability to reach a wider and international audience.

2011 was the 35th anniversary of that first session, and we have again seen a revolution. The Internet has enabled us all to reach that wider audience, and music can go digitally straight from the artists computer to the listener's head without needing a label. We can all promote and distribute worldwide. It's the final link in the chain. Talk about power to the people.

So that was my dubious place in music history. Unfortunately I didn't think enough of it at the time to keep the tapes, and the 16 track master would either have been eventually used again (not yours unless you bought the whole reel) or was buried in the cellar when Indigo was demolished in 1982. It might still be there - get your metal detector down to Gartside Street, Manchester.

 

© phil hampson 2006 .  All Rights Reserved

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