Saturday, February 21, 2009

It's Saturday morning, February 21st, and June Sparrow has finally gone to get us some oil. We've been without heat for five days, and I saw my breath in the house this morning. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. I walked up the road to ask June again whether he could fix the heat. He was sitting in his easy chair drinking a glass of milk and watching "Frida." He said that he was sorry, that he hadn't seen the note I left taped to his door on Tuesday. I looked down and there was the note crumpled on the ground amongst old editions of the Raleigh News & Observer and racecar magazines and spitty cups full to overflowing with chaw juice.

I have always wanted to record an album outside. Even more so after having seen these pictures of Merle Haggard and his band recording on Lake Shasta. You get the sense that they are not giving a shit, so lackadaisically does Wally Heider's crew spirit the gear over the water to Merle's houseboat. Like perhaps they finished this session and just threw the tapes in the water. Or maybe there wasn't any tape at all. Yet at the same time that raft of Peavey amplifiers says that they mean business and that this is the big time. Is Merle not a conundrum? He was the king of the world in his own mind.

I've also been thinking about recording outside since I saw pictures of Ronnie Lane and his band taping some of Anymore For Anymore in the fields behind his tumbledown farm in Wales that he called Fishpool. If you listen to that album closely you can hear many kids and dogs running wild across the land.

I also read recently about how John Martyn's elegiac One World was taped mostly outside. That is amazing. I guess Martyn and his family and Phill Brown went and camped out in a barn at Chris Blackwell's Woolwich Green Farm and cut tracks in the dead of night. Check out these notes from the deluxe One World remaster:

"The 10 days we spent at Chris' recording it," Brown recalls. "We were recording outdoors, pumping whatever John was playing through a PA system and across the lake and miking it up, because of that aspect, it rather made the thing magical." Recording began when the Island Records mobile studio was set up in the courtyard allowing easy access to the barn and converted stable block, on the 16th of July, just as Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" was about to ascend to the UK's No. 1. However there were to be sonic developments on One World that would, in time, quietly rival Giorgio Moroder's groundbreaking production. Martyn, his family, Brown, Island mobile driver Ray Doyle and his assistant, Barry Sage, all lived in the stable block. The 15 x 12 ft self-contained flat at the far end of the stables was used as the main studio. There was also a practical reason for living and recording in the same place. "Doing it out at Chris' house made it easy and he also knew where John would be as it were," Brown laughs. "He didn't have to go into a London studio -John has his wayward ways and likes disappearing off at certain opportunities, where there, he couldn't do very much, he couldn't escape!"

The atmosphere was charged, yet mellow: "It became, in Chris's own words, something of a circus," Martyn laughs. "He had lots of his relatives and friends from Jamaica over, and I had my entire family there. There were people all over the shop. There being children everywhere put me slightly off course. But it had very good results."

"Oh yes, there were certainly plenty of children around," Brown agrees. "Who they belonged to, I had no idea. My daughter was there. It was chilled out, in the summer -the good weather, living in the converted stables -it was a pretty pleasant experience."

"I often used to start work at half past twelve in the evening," Martyn recalls, "And then go on 'til about six, crash out and then go down the pub and come back and do some more." This also suited the recording process. "Although Chris' place was pretty remote," Brown remembers, "Because of working outdoors, there were interruptions with planes and traffic; all of the stuff we did with outside mics was done at night, that's where it kind of came into its own." And, Martyn's late hours meant that Blackwell and Brown could check what had been recorded. "Back then, John wasn't functioning that early in the day, so we would check through things from the day before, get set up and then a lot of things were done in the evening," Brown continues. "It was just a very calm week, with Blackwell, myself and Ray, the guy with the truck, and John. John was running off various different versions of these songs in a fairly chilled out environment -John was very relaxed at this time."

It is the closing track, "Small Hours," that is universally seen as the great moment on the album. It was the clearest example of the recording technique that Blackwell and Brown had crafted. "We were all firmly out of it," Martyn recalls. "I don't know who came up with it -I remember thinking this is fucking wonderful, recording from a speaker a half a mile away across a load of water. It was just a cool thing to do. That was ambience. They talk about ambient music now -that was real ambience".

"It was recorded at 3 a.m. in the morning on the lake," Chris Blackwell said in the BBC documentary Johnny Too Bad. "The main railway line from London to Bristol goes across the land, and there were all these geese on the lake, which you hear at night. John played these slow chords which hung there for ages."

Doesn't that sound nice? Incidentally, you can hear those geese on "Small Hours." Go easy, John.

I'm listening to Mickey Hart's Music To Be Born By from 1989. It's pretty cool but I don't know if I'd have my kid to it.

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