In my tiny 5th floor (no lift) bedsit flat/studio In Linden Gardens, Notting Hill (bought for a song, sold a couple of years later when I was broke and wanted to travel; it would now be worth over 20 times what I paid for it) I had a washing machine which, when it went into spin mode, screamed like a banshee – I mean, really deafening. It was bearable if I was wearing headphones and listening to loud music, which I often was while washing clothes. I for a long time had planned to try and use that infernal sound to play a melody, and my Miniatures track was the perfect opportunity. Of course there were no samplers back in 1980 (the Fairlight was still evolving and would be horrendously expensive and only for the likes of Wonders and Gabriels). However, musique concrète had been around for over 30 years and besides, it was French, so I fancied that. Indeed I had already used it on my second “Hybrid Kids” album, “Claws,” where I recorded the ear-bustingly loud sounds of scaffolding being loaded onto a truck outside my flat, and looped it into a clanging beat for one song.
(continuing slight digression) – it seemed a good way to deal with nasty sounds from my neighbourhood: by confronting them and turning them from noise into music. In a similar way John Cage confronted the pressure of having to operate the massive and complex mixing board at IRCAM by sitting down for a while and making a drawing of it. Then it seemed less intimidating. I did exactly the same thing when I took delivery of a large Akai multitrack recorder in ’86 in Tokyo. It really works. (PS – the Cage link is to a site where you have the chance to buy his “4’33” – a silent piece – and help make it this year’s UK Christmas hit. Silent Night! Imagine that on Top of the Pops!).
By wrestling my washing machine to the right angle off the floor while spinning, I could ensure that the mechanical shrieking continued unabated at maximum volume. I then, under no little pressure and urgency (rather like trying to work under the Niagara Falls) was able to quickly record it into my Revox B77 (the mike as far away as possible to handle the massively high level, and catch some of the room’s ambience) before slamming off the machine and collapsing onto a nearby sofa, ears ringing. I could now at leisure (and at a more human volume level) edit the sound, and by varispeeding the B77 copy it to another tape recorder to create various notes of the scale, then clip these into short pieces of tape to create the required melody.
The song I chose – “Jerusalem” – (I renamed it) is for me one of the very few great melodies I can recall from the brain-numbingly dreary morning assemblies I had endured daily for seven years in Hendon County Grammar School. How Christianity can take the joy out of life (and what to say about prayer?) is staggering. Japan being non-Christian and not even especially Buddhist (people here choose freely from these religions as well as Shinto and others, depending on how and where they want to conduct their next family ceremony) is a delightfully light-hearted and sexually cheerful country by comparison.
I neglected to mention in the original sleeve notes that the lyrics of “Jerusalem” were taken from the opening lines of the poem “Milton” by the great English poet, artist and mystic William Blake (click on his name to see an extensive and impressive archive of his life and work). Blake was a gifted child and studied art formally from the age of ten. Unfortunately it may be true that his art killed him, due to the fumes he was continually inhaling while exposing copper to acid during the unusual engraving process he favoured. His very last book, completed on his deathbed, was a version of “Jerusalem” (not the song; this was his greatest epic work on the fall of Albion – no two copies are the same as he would alter the text and colours between each printing). It sold for a mere 5 guineas (a quarter of its regular price), but enough to cover the cost of his funeral.
As for the composer, Parry, I did rather overdo the bit about his multiple injuries, but apparently he was a keen runner, swimmer and climber. He also has the air of a compassionate man; he wrote “Jerusalem” in response to a request to compose an inspiring song to raise the morale of the public during the first World War. It was immediately taken up by the suffragette movement, with which he was strongly in sympathy. Just two years later, he died in the global flu epidemic. Apart from all that, it is a rattling good tune, still stirs the hearts of millions, and nearly 100 years old, is now raising money for charity.
Back to the recording process: the track kicks off with a loud sustained note snitched from a recording of an ensemble of 12 German cellists, supported by a rousing drum loop (I had collected several reels of “drums only” mixes from various rock bands I knew, with their permission to loop them freely for projects of my own). A phrase from a 78rpm disk of yodelling follows, and then the melody starts up, sounding a little like a weird accordion. It is actually taken from an LP demonstrating instruments of the orchestra, in which each instrument rather handily played a single long note which I could record and use to create melodies. I am not sure which instruments were “sampled” in this way as the process seems to have taken away much of their character. But at least they sound somewhat natural and I found this much more intriguing than using, say, a synthesizer – and still do.
In between the phrases I inserted some gung-ho words from one of my numerous obscure used record purchases – a 60’s single advertising French beauty treatments, thus: “La friction! La douche! Bon humeur pour toute la journée!!!”
The melody continues with my own voice sped-up, then slowed-down, then the 12 cellists kick back in, answered by those washing machine screeches (and commented on with manic laughs from Ariel Bender). A surprisingly normal guitar phrase pops up (followed quickly by the washing machine turning off – blessed relief), and the grand finale has at least 4 different choirs simultaneously singing the wonderful closing line in various keys. Our French beautician gets the last word: “C’est terminée!!!” Which I was very glad to hear after working on this track for about two weeks.
For my pic on the Miniatures poster I found a shop that had a very early scanner, into which I fed a photo of myself, then had it printed it on to a T-shirt with a funky dot-matrix printer. I then photocopied the shirt and used Letraset to add the musical dynamic markings to the copy. So now you know I’m mezzo-forte. The middle way.
In 2006 I was asked to create a 10-second video for a Ford website to illustrate the “joie de vivre” of their latest car, so in similar fashion to which I’d made my miniature, I cobbled this together from some 8mm pixilated films I’d made with my family, in our garden in Finchley in 1965. Some “hand colouring” (added one frame at a time in Photoshop), a sprinkling of music from one of my live recordings, an edit here, a crop there, and voila:
A little inspiration there from Frank Zappa’s “conceptual continuity” process where he re-used certain lyric themes or took tapes out of his massive library of live recordings and edited them and overdubbed on them. I’ve always thought you can’t beat live recordings for freshness and energy… time for some lengthy digression…
In Japan in 1986 I was fooling around with a new (at the time) Yamaha DX7 II synthesizer I came across in a rehearsal studio, and thought I’d record it onto a cassette for reference. I improvised a few sketches, each inspired by the groovy new tones available on the DX7, and on listening back thought I could develop and re-record some of them. But when it came to starting work in earnest on my next album I realised these slapdash recordings had such a good, natural feel to them that I decided to use the actual recordings (copied or looped to extend them) as a base and overdubbed other instruments onto them. Last week I read in Keith Richards’ new autobiography that several Stones hits were made in a similar way, with the added bonus that the low-tech cassette recorder he used added great distortion to his acoustic guitar, making it sound half-electric – thus new, world-shaking riffs were born. As the old Zen saying goes – “First thought, best thought.”
Ooh, I like that. Here are a few more links on that theme:
• A book of poems by Chogyam Trungpa, Tibetan Buddhist and founder of the Naropa Institute.
• A 4CD/download set by William Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg, Diane DiPrima and Anne Waldman (the link includes a good-sized audio sample by Burroughs).
• An album by “disco cellist” Arthur Russell, featuring orchestral sketches.
That theme of trust and spontaneity runs through most of my creative life now and nourishes me, keeps me young and fresh. For example, it helps me to whip melodies out of thin air at high speed to meet ridiculously tight deadlines, such as this Nissan TV advert (more ad music can be heard here).
Thank Dog I went back to my first thought for “Miniatures” and did not listen to my subsequent thoughts re minute waltzes, making famous long pieces of music shorter, etc… Terry Riley once asked me if I was on acid or the like at the time I came up with this album concept. Nope, just the odd glass of red; I never diddled with any drugs.
I didn’t diddle; I took the middle… way. Avant-garde a clue…
Next up – England’s finest somersaulting singer changes from mental to sentimental…