My friend and orchestrating partner, Ron Carthy, like many an Irish Catholic fella, had a good sized streak of irreverence to him, and when he was about to get married to the beauteous Jaqui, he came up with a corker … the ceremony was to be held at a Dominican church halfway up Hampstead Road; one of those Victorian Gothic numbers that our god-bothering predecessors so delighted in rigging up. However, it was possessed of a renowned pipe-organ, a real monster that could fill the vaulted ceilings to overflowing when the pedal was all the way down. Ron’s stratagem was beautiful, and I went with it all the way, learning the entire classic organ wedding Mass, but substituting “Green Onions” for the processional! It had been arranged for me to give the organ a test drive a couple of days before the ceremony, which I did under the watchful eye of the monk who usually warmed the seat, and of course I couldn’t go near the “Onions,” so I had to try to gauge the maximum volume this think might put out with the hammer down. Pretty heavy behind a little Bach, but when you think of the “Onions” riff … Ronnie was such a scampeen, he hadn’t even told Jaqui what the form was, so it was as much of a surprise to her, not to mention the congregation and the organ police, when a tastefully played wedding Mass ended with the pedal to the metal thunder of “Green Onions.” played on a giant hundred and fifty year old pipe organ … it had the desired effect, on all levels … Jaqui boogaloo’d instantly, the congregation, mostly musos, got it immediately, reacting accordingly, and the organist/monk was most displeased with yours truly, but he couldn’t stop me short of physical violence, and they don’t do that, do they? Needless to say, I was a hero at the reception …
It’s been well documented that the sixties was the time when recording studios came of age, when the innovations came thick and fast, when the studio itself evolved into an instrument. I cut my studio teeth during that revolutionary period, at first in bands, then gradually working my way into the session game. At first, my only ambition was to set foot in Abbey Road, and once that had happened, rather quickly, I’m glad to say, I found myself drawn more and more to that side of things. Initially, the rarified world of the session musician wasn’t even a consideration. They were an elite apart, older than the rock upstarts, and protective of their hard-won turf. The string and brass players were particularly scornful of the long-haired interlopers, showing their disdain and lack of involvement by studiously poring over their reading matter, whether it be Amateur Photographer, The Racing Form, or the daily crossword, keeping one eye on the chart until seconds before their written entry, then nonchalantly hitting their marks on time. It was their way of letting us know that they were members of a club whose membership rolls were closed. The openings, though few and far between, came about when some of the new maverick producers started to realize that the stalwarts, especially the rhythm sections and lead guitarists, didn’t really sound authentic playing a lot of the new music, so those producers, god bless ‘em, began looking farther afield for appropriate musicians. It certainly wasn’t for everybody, as discipline, punctuality, and grace under pressure were just as important as the ability to deliver a good part to order. I got my first little tastes of independent studio work through Simon Napier Bell on the Diane Ferraz and Nicky Scott project, working with a very impressive multi instrumentalist named John Paul Jones, who, along with Jimmy Page, was in the vanguard of the new type of session guy, closer to the street, closer to rock. Those two were still ages away from Led Zeppelin, but were already making a mark in the studios.
I’d been able to get a great deal of studio experience during my time with Ferris Wheel, not only on the band’s own albums and singles, under the guidance of “young veteran” producers John Schroeder and Ian Samwell, but also on the outside projects that came the band’s way due to the fact that our musicianship was high quality, and we could handle ourselves in the studio. My first film dub session was with the Wheel, at a time when a film dub involved a big screen, on which the scenes were projected while the musicians synchronized to the action. The film was a “Swinging London” artifact called “The Touchables,” and the episode in question was a nightclub scene (of course), in which the action had been shot and edited to Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect.” After they’d finished the movie, they found that they couldn’t, for whatever reason, license her version, so we were summoned to reproduce it in every detail, every nuance … a pretty tall order, if you think about it! The session was called at De Lane Lea Studios in Holborn, one of the very few facilities in Central London with film-synch capabilities, and we arrived and set up facing the big screen, as instructed. Ken Thorne, a well-known composer/arranger, who had served as M.D. on “Help!”, was the musical director for the film, so he was there to conduct us … basically, he had the synch stripe in his earphones, and we had just the band in ours, so it was his job to keep us in exact frame time. Now, soul music, by it’s very name and definition, wasn’t intended to be played to a waving baton, and Ken knew this, so he was very accommodating, knowing we had a very tough assignment. We also figured that Diane would be good for about five passes, tops, before her pipes gave out (she was singing live with the band) so it was pressure all around. The temptation to look at the nubile, half-dressed beauties writhing on the screen was intense, but we had to keep our eyes on Mr. Thorne, while he got to eyeball the screen … some guys have all the luck! That was my first experience of really being under the gun in the studio, and it was a real confidence builder when we nailed it on the third take … our version also appeared on the soundtrack album on Stateside Records, so it was a satisfactory day’s work that stood me in good stead later on when I was in the pressure cooker on a regular basis.
One thing to be said for pub culture, as practiced in Ireland and certain parts of the U.K., is that one becomes adept at “telling the tale,” that particular mix of truth and entertaining embellishment that I grew up on in the hostelries of both Liverpool and the Republic. I had relatives who could tell the tale something fierce, and there were any number of senior imbibers of the seafaring class who’d tell the tale of adventures in foreign parts, not to mention those who’d served King and Country in the still-recent unpleasantness. The high percentage of Liverpool people with Irish antecedents, many, like me, first generation, meant that it didn’t really matter what side of the pond you happened to be on at any given time. A pub in Dublin and a pub in Liverpool were far closer in ambiance and atmosphere than a pub in Liverpool and one in London would be.
In my case, there was never any need to kiss The Blarney Stone … I had not been behind the door when the gift of gab was handed out, and once I’d reached the legal age for a sup, I quickly found that a little lubrication of the hops and barley variety did wonders for both the tongue and the imagination.
Of course, the minstrelsy has always been a great place for both telling the tale and hearing it told, and it’s rare to find a musician who doesn’t have a repertoire of stories. Put two or more musos together with a little lubrication, and tales start going around faster than a cat in a clothes dryer. A good example can be found in a wonderful book “Clean Cabbage In The Bucket,” written by Irish music veterans Frank Emerson, Seamus Kennedy, Robbie O’Connell, Harry O’Donoghue and Dennis O’Rourke … well worth finding.
Many a tale I’ve heard has found it’s way into my own song lyrics, especially in The Skelly Trilogy, three albums I made between 1999 and 2005, which were intended to forge a musical and lyrical link between Liverpool and Ireland. The stories in my new memoir, “Mersey Me! A Liverpool Lad On The Loose In The Swingin’ 60s” are all culled from personal experience, and there was no lying necessary. Whoever said “Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction” hit the nail on the head with a ten-pound hammer, as far as my journey has gone.
So, drop by from time to time, pull up a virtual stool and a virtual pint (or a real one if you’re so inclined), and I’ll tell you the tale, from when I was an artful dodger to my current status as an old codger.