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Richard Strange and The Engine Room (Mid 80s) – Richard Strange

Richard Strange and The Engine Room (Mid 80s)

By late January 1984 I was back in Edinburgh again. I was working quite intensively with Jim Telford on some new material, and both the writing and the recording were going very well. We worked all day every day, till late at night. Jim would give me backing tracks, I would write melodies and lyrics, give them back to him, to adjust the key or the tempo or to change a few chords or to write a middle-eight, then we would record it. We had a good pool of musicians we could call on around Edinburgh, but mostly we just worked by ourselves with Wilf, the engineer. Jim programmed the drum machines and the synthesizers, because I could never be bothered. I hated the way technology was beginning to take over music. Jim was smart. He had sussed the way the whole MIDI revolution in music was going, and got onto the first rung of the ladder, with Atari computers, Cubase writing and recording programmes and MIDI keyboards and drum machines. I couldn’t be bothered and I felt intimidated, and besides, I was working with someone who knew how to do it. It took me many years to take the leap myself, and even now I still work with a technology that is continually out of date. I was galvanised into taking some courses in computer music when I walked into a studio in the late eighties and realized I didn’t know what a single piece of equipment did any more. I hated that feeling of relying on an engineer to tell me what sounds were available, what structural tricks could be played, and how many different drum patterns could be composed. I felt like a painter who could no longer see colour, and was forced to rely on a stranger to tell him what colours were on the palette, while all the time suspecting that the colours which I was told were available were simply those which were easiest to access.

We wrote a whole bunch of good new songs, and both felt that we were really getting somewhere. Jim was the first musician I had ever really collaborated with. He had no interest in writing lyrics, so I had free rein to dictate the narrative, the titles and the vocal style. He worked on churning out great instrumental backing tracks, mainly just chord sequences, for me to work with and to refine.

I stayed up in Edinburgh for a couple of weeks at a time, delegating other people to run special one-off nights at The Slammer. There were a lot of bands coming through and out of Scotland back then. The Simple Minds and the Rezillos had enjoyed chart success, but my favourites were the Associates. The two-piece band had a legendary bad reputation for not “playing the game”, and their singer and writer Billy McKenzie was a notorious lush. One night I went with Sophie and The Associates to the bar of The George Hotel, in George Street, and we started drinking our way along the top shelf of single malt whiskies, one dram out of each bottle, moving from left to right along the shelf. I don’t know how the evening ended for Billy and his partner Alan Rankine, but for me it ended when after the ninth or tenth I slid off my stool and was manhandled by Sophie back to her flat.

With Jim and I working all day every day, the music was coming thick and fast, and we got a local girl singer named Julie Hepburn in to do some vocals. She had sung with The Deltones, a local band, and was painfully shy, but had a very lovely and unusual voice. I had written a lyric called Wild Times, inspired by the McEwens in particular and the notion of the British aristocracy in general. It was written to be evocative rather than specific. It was about class and cocaine. And about that thing I mentioned earlier, the idea of a generation without a role to play.
Take a look, kings and queens,
In the red, in the snow-white scenes
Make no mistake these are Wild Times.

Slug it out for the crown of thorns
On a thousand English lawns
Make no mistake these are Wild Times

Ham it up in the king’s new clothes,
The British bulldog meets the English rose
Make no mistake these are Wild Times

Those about to cry adore you
Laying down in lines before you
But all the warning signs assure you
These are Wild Times

Cut the corn, sow the seeds
Lay the tracks where the pig-iron bleeds
Make no mistake these are Wild Times

Join the queue, queue for what?
You either have or you have not
Make no mistake these are Wild Times.

Take a look, kings and queens,
In the red, in the snow-white scenes
Make no mistake these are Wild Times.

Julie Hepburn’s voice gave the song a lilting, nostalgic quality that was absolutely right, and when she got her part on tape it sounded fabulous. We demo-ed about six songs and came to London looking for deal, and the first company to make an offer were Tamla Motown of all people. We spoke to them a few times and in the end didn’t think they were right for a music that was as “white” as ours. All their expertise and organization was geared to breaking black acts, and we didn’t want to be a record company’s experimental guinea pigs. Jim played the songs to a guy called Max Tregonning, who had managed Everest the Hard Way and, before that, Adam and the Ants. Max flipped, or came as close as a dour Yorkshireman ever comes to flipping, and asked if he could manage us. We didn’t have a manager and I didn’t want to spend my life going from one record company to another, so I agreed, and Max became the manager of the band, which we called The Engine Room. The first thing he did was to take the tape of the new songs to Bryan Morrison, to offer him my half of the publishing. The plan was to sell Jim’s half somewhere else so that we effectively got two publishers working for us. I suppose I must have agreed, but I can hardly believe it now that I went back to Morrison again. I must be a glutton for punishment. Morry loved the songs, like he always did with my stuff, and wanted to get involved immediately. He drew up a publishing contract and told us he would oil the wheels of a recording deal meanwhile. He was hand in glove with David Simone, the MD at Arista Records, and I suspected that would be his first port-of-call. I liked the idea, because Arista were a good fresh pop label, and the music I was doing with The Engine Room was essentially fresh pop.

On April 2nd,  I signed the Engine Room to Simon Potts at Arista Records for a healthy advance, plus recording costs. The deal was for two albums in three years, but I knew by now that recording contracts are no worth the paper they are printed on. If you are a success, the company will bend over backwards to keep you happy, by extending the period, increasing the royalties, reducing the product requirement or letting you have your own label, as long as they still keep control of the distribution. But if it isn’t happening, then forget about the two-album, three-year deal. You will be given the heave-ho just as soon as it looks like you are not going to make a profit for the company. Cruel and simple. The record business is just the market economy in microcosm.

On May 30th, with all the formalities of the contract settled with Arista, Jim Telford and I went into Scorpio Studios, beneath the Euston Tower at Warren Street, to begin work on the first Engine Room single, Wild Times. I had chosen Scorpio because I had recorded the Way of The West single there, and I decided to use the same engineer, the American boffin Dennis Weinrich, who had worked with me on that record. The reason I went to that particular studio in the first place was because Scott Walker had recorded his epic song The Electrician there with Dennis as engineer. The performance by Scott on that enigmatic ballad, about how the lights of a small South American town dimmed whenever electric-shock torture was being administered at the local police station, had always been one of my favourites. When I asked him about that session Dennis told me, “We had already recorded the entire backing track, and it had taken forever to get it to the level of performance Scott required. One morning he arrived at the studio and announced that he would record the lead vocal in one take at quarter-past one that afternoon. He said he would eat a whole roast chicken just prior to singing. We ordered the chicken. It arrived at 12.45. Scott ate the chicken and lay down on his back on top of the grand piano. I arranged two microphones above him where he lay, and at 1.15 he recorded the lead vocal, straight through, faultlessly, in one take. It was awesome.” I can’t pretend that there were any such exotic arrangements for the recording of Wild Times, but the first couple of days went well. Gradually, though we started to lose the essential poignancy of the song, and the drums and bass refused to sit well together, even though we had used the same machines on both on the demo and on the new recordings. In exasperation we tried to dub on a real drummer, from Jethro Tull of all people, and a real bass player, Mo Foster, to give the song some “feel”, but they never really clicked either. It was dispiriting hearing these two session guys playing the song over and over, and knowing that it just didn’t have that indefinable “it” that the demo had. As happens so often in that situation, you start to throw more and more instruments at a track to try to cover its inherent weakness, and we put on a brass section, a trumpet solo and a flute solo to try to get the thing to groove, but when the bass and drums aren’t working, nothing really saves a track that is trying to swing. We flew Julie down from Scotland to do her vocals, and I did mine in a day. All the voices sounded okay and sounded good together, as they had on the demo, but the whole track just sounded a little leaden. We mixed it with Dennis at Odyssey Studios, and remixed it at his own studio too. We ended up with half a dozen long and short mixes, but nothing really excited us.

We told Arista that we weren’t happy with the finished record, but they listened to it and convinced us that it was fine, even thought we knew it wasn’t right. Record companies are sometimes in a wretched position with bands as the recording process can sometimes be a case of throwing good money after bad trying to capture a certain atmosphere or performance on a record. We even went back to Scotland to try to re-mix the original; demo, but the sound quality just wasn’t good enough so we went with what we had done in London. We did however use one of the songs we had recorded in Scotland; I Love Her (She’s Poison) on the B-side. Brian Clarke’s old assistant, Andy Earl, was by now a photographer, and he shot the cover for Wild Times, and his friend Robert Fairman, a very good designer, did the artwork for the sleeve. It looked pretty good when we delivered it to Arista, but they printed the first 10,000 sleeves with the picture slightly askew. It was a disgraceful mistake on the part of whoever was overseeing the printing, but they refused to scrap the faulty sleeves. Instead they merely agreed to print the subsequent run correctly. Max, our manager, was a lovely guy, but never quite tough enough when it came to a scrap with the record company. He was just too nice. Consequently he was steamrollered. With a substandard recording and a substandard sleeve we had not got off to the best of starts with Arista.

I had a lot of ideas about the video I wanted to make for the song. I wanted to shoot it at Marchmont, the McEwens house in the Borders, and started to plan the shoot. Arista said, “Let’s wait and see how the reviews and radio-plays are before we commit to doing a video.” I could understand their point; it cost upwards of £20,000 to make even a simple video of sufficient technical quality to get it onto TV, but in the mid-eighties promotional videos were an absolutely essential part of the marketing and promotion of any record release. The reviews and radio- plays were OK, but no more than that, and the video never got made.

In October Jim and I began the recording session for the first Engine Room album and follow-up single. We had found a new producer with whom we got on incredibly well, and were looking forward to the sessions enormously. The producer, Dave Allen, had produced the latest records by The Cure and The Sisters of Mercy, and had worked as an engineer at Martin Rushent’s studio, Genetic, where The Human League and Altered Images had made their recent hits. In addition to being a highly competent engineer and producer, Dave was a great guy to be with. He was a Francophile, like myself, and like myself lists Germinal by Emile Zola among his top ten favourite books ever. In addition he was a Jacques Brel fan and was fanatical about toys and contraptions. He was perfect. We began the sessions at Tony Visconti’s Soho studio, Good Earth, where Bowie often recorded, and continued at Livingstone, Eden and RG Jones Studios. Dave got fabulous big, meaty sounds onto tape, and understood perfectly the sort of album we wanted to make. We wanted to make a record that was eclectic, using elements of ethnic music, electronics, samples and pure pop, a record that combined high and low technology. Jim recorded the basic tracks with synths and drum machines, and then we added broad washes of colour as we progressed. Jim was pretty efficient with his writing, and had a good feel for a muscular bassline and a solid beat. My skill was for lyrics and melodies and we combined well together. We used the mighty Boltz for a lot of the guitar parts, Winthrop for saxes, Rene and Julie for lead vocals, plus the three black divas known collectively as Afrodiziac, and for brass parts we enlisted a section called the Kick Horns.

We went for a Middle Eastern feel on the opening track Damascus, using samples of muezzins and Arab singers, and real Arab violins and percussion. It was a song that sought to conjure up the steamy claustrophobia of a Middle Eastern town after dark. The lyric went:

They say the city never sleeps
But his one sure looks tired
Outside the bars they shoot the breeze
But it doesn’t fan the fire.

They say the night has a thousand eyes
But your two eyes will see me through
We will dance by the light of a melting moon
And watch the sky turn midnight blue

And we’ll burn, burn, burn in the shadows
Run, run, run in the heat
We will tear down the walls that have towered above
And drown in the desert of love.

We had written a song called Your Kiss is a Weapon, which was very light and catchy, and we decided to go for that as a single. Dave did a great job of making a mid-80s pop record out of that song, drum machines, synths and big brass parts, and it sounded like it had as much chance as anything else around as a single. Arista were pretty taken by it, too, and it was agreed that it would be our next single, to be released with a launch party for the band in February. Every one was very positive and enthusiastic. I played Morrison the track at Hyde Park Place, he sucked on his cigar, grinned his toothy grin and came up and put his arm around me. “My son,” he said, exhaling a Hiroshima-like mushroom cloud of Monte Cristo smoke, “You have fucking cracked it. That song is a smash”.

Little by little over the next nine turbulent months we assembled that album, fitting in with Dave’s availability among his other commitments, and piecing together a record of which I was really proud.

The album Going Gone started making small waves in Britain, and was favourably reviewed by most of the Music Press. One review said, “ This is the album that Richard Strange has been threatening to make since those early, earthy, trashy days of the Doctors of Madness. An album which addresses itself simultaneously to the head, the heart and the feet, with contributions from many of the most inspired producers and musicians inside and outside rock.” Despite the enthusiasm of some music journalists, we still couldn’t get a British or American record company to release the album, and I found that extremely frustrating.

(from Richard Strange’s memoir Strange- Punks and Drunks and Flicks and Kicks)

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