THE STAGE OF HISTORY
THE ONLY ONE WORTH PLAYING
Part 2 - The Politics of Dancing
Re-Flex had been together for more than 2 years, during which we had performed a lot of live shows and also as part of the ride, been through a few line-up changes. Following completion of the Maison Rouge sessions and a memorable last gig at the Moonlight Club, in West Hampstead London, where bass player Francois Craig accidentally disappeared off the front of the stage, he unexpectedly quit the band. We were all a bit stunned - the mixes didn’t sound that bad! Even Gary couldn’t fix him. Apart from being a really unusual musician, Francois had become a valued contributing writer. We had been through a lot together and as a result his departure had a big impact.
Having gone from a 5 piece line up, it was just Baxter and me left from where our journey had begun and with Roly we were a 3 piece. So we retreated back to Redan to figure out what we wanted to do and in that room or maybe it should be womb, so much took place. We thought about it for a while and the music just started to develop as we began to experiment more with using sequenced rhythms, patterns and bass parts which inspired a lot of new songs. We had always been interested in using any new available music technology and recently Roly and I had been messing about with a DSX sequencer made by Oberheim electronics and a Linn drum machine linked together. This combination became known as “The Boys” and was like having 2 band members who were never late, didn’t need feeding or complained. Their arrival allowed us to explore further something which is to be found in many of our songs, “pulsing”. The beat goes on and so does the pulse. We had previously used this idea but The Boys gave us the ability to really sit on it. We were never quite sure if they were going to work and so could be a liability when we played gigs but because it was all happening “live” there was a sense of it being on the edge and real.
We were jamming with them or were they jamming with us?
After a while we began auditioning different bass players and it was Thomas Dolby who introduced Nigel Ross-Scott. Nigel was very different to Francois, much more into funk and this appealed to us as we loved Sly and the Family Stone, Prince and big fans of records like Chic’s “Good Times”, Chuck Brown’s “Busting Loose” and Wild Cherry’s “Play that funky Music” etc. There was an element of white soul boys.
Around this time we had also been looking for a new manager and thanks to friend and Re-Flex supporter Sandy, we met Jeremy Pearce and his partner Miles Copeland. I had already encountered Miles although I doubt if he remembered. Miles liked to bang tables and shout a lot, both of which he was very good at doing. Jeremy in contrast was much more down to earth and we liked his straight talking approach, we believed he understood. By now we had acquired a lot of songs, far more than needed for an album.
Re-Flex were becoming regularly name checked in the London gig listings and beginning to get attention from record companies. We had made the decision that we wanted them to come and find us and gradually due to our ability to "Re-Fuse" to go away and getting on with making music, they started to show up.
This was a time of legends, where we encountered a lot of people that we admired and remain truly grateful for those who showed their support. There are many legends within music but not all are the artists. Some are record producers, such as Gus and Punter and others managers or employees of record companies.
A&R is the frontline of every record label as here people are employed to seek out new talent and discover the next sensation that will earn the company tons of money. They get paid to listen to music, go to gigs, get drunk and take drugs – what a job! It’s a funny old world but some people get to laugh more than others. There are in reality very few who work in this field that can claim to have any real musical talent beyond the occasional ability to utter the words “we need a hit”, "is that my line?" The question is not “how many A&R men does it take to change a light bulb” but if required, could they?
When Francois was still Re-Flex’s bass player our original manager Tony Simons arranged for the A&R legend Muff Winwood, the brother of musician Steve to see the band. During the Sixties he played bass with the Spencer Davis group but since then had become head of A&R at CBS and with such credentials regarded to be important and worthy of a valid opinion, if there is such a thing. We played about five songs and then he stood up and gave a speech. “Well boys….”. He liked the band and thought the singer was really good but he didn’t like the songs and soon after departed leaving us feeling like shit. Muff had spoken and not responded well, he did not want to offer us sacks of cash or even the bus fare home.
Just as pointless it would be to dream of being a mountain climber if you were afraid of heights, if you can’t handle “No”, then it would be best advised to forget attempting a career as a musician. Nearly every successful band was turned down by everybody, including The Beatles – so much for A&R!
By the time Nigel joined the band we had also changed our management and one day much to our surprise Jeremy brought Muff Winwood down to Redan. This was where he had seen us perform about a year before but didn’t appear to remember. We played about 5 songs, including a few he had previously heard and at the end he gave us another speech. “Well boys…”, His opinion had somewhat changed as we had great songs but he didn’t like the singer’s voice. Having just told us the opposite of his previous advice I couldn’t let him go without refreshing his memory (that's the kind of guy I am). Looking embarrassed by the confrontation, Muff just stood up and walked out the door. Several months later, Nigel bumped into him at a football match. Muff enquired what Nigel was doing, he explained that he was with Re-Flex and reminded him of their last meeting at the rehearsal. Muff replied that as the band would never get anywhere Nigel would be better off finding another group. This was rather good timing as the previous week our album the “Politics of Dancing” had just gone into the American top 100 and obviously Muff knew nothing about it. Nigel gave him a brief career update but instead of the expected congratulations there was no response and Muff just walked away. It solved the mystery of how this particular legend gained his name.
Producer John Punter first heard of the band through Nigel. When he arrived at Redan we were all struck by the amount of jewellery John was wearing, he jangled as he walked and when caught in the right light glistened. Apart from his dress sense we soon realised that we could learn much from this man. He trained as an engineer at Decca studios, which coincidentally was next to the Moonlight Club and where many other classic UK record producers originated. He then worked as an in house engineer at George Martin’s new studio, Air London. Punter was in many ways an old school producer and in no way is that meant as a comment about fashion or style but instead about his knowledge and experience. His approach suited the band as we were attempting to create a sound with both old and new musical elements and we felt that he understood. John had previously produced bands like Japan and Roxy Music and didn’t do it for a hobby.
There is much to be said about the art of making records as opposed to performing live, for they are very different. One of the best comments on this subject was Punter’s explanation, which is that the goal if at all possible, “is to make it sound like a record”.
Around this time Dave Ambrose who worked as an A&R man for EMI entered our lives as he came to see us at a gig and then at Redan. Dave deserves an entire book written about him and is a true British music industry legend. There are just so many wonderful stories that will never be told, known to the few. Dave was the original bass player in Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll’s Trinity and played on their classic hit “This Wheel's on Fire”. Another bass player who had wound up in the A&R department and as there could be a pattern, we were initially cautious. While at EMI he had been responsible for signing a string of successful bands but always seemed much to his amazement. It really is impossible to find words to truly describe him. Our meetings could be a very surreal experience whereby you were never actually sure if it they had taken place but it was thanks to Ambrose that Re-Flex signed to Parlophone. By the time we were about to record we had enough material to make at least a double album but thought we would let Punter pick and get to the rest later. Little did we know how long it would take……..
We started recording the “The Politics of Dancing” album in September 82 at a studio near Primrose Hill, London called Utopia owned by producer Phil Weinman. Punter had decided to work with engineer Pete Smith, a cheeky lad from “Sarf London” who had great enthusiasm for recording music combined with taking the piss out of clients. Also known as "Smudge" but not "Smudgy Baby" he later co produced Sting’s first solo album and loads of other successful records. Re-Flex was the combination of many different elements and not just about the music. When we arrived at Utopia to start work we were very aware of being in a strange place and without our usual team, then something just clicked, everybody got it and we were on a roll.
Although much has been said about the association of music and drugs, little reference is made to the vast quantity of tea that is consumed, particularly by English musicians who suffer from considerable dependency and a need to brew up. Shamelessly, The Beatles, Stones, Who, Led Zeppelin were all heavy tea users and so was Re-Flex but Punter’s consumption was exceptional. In a recording studio, this task is generally assigned to assistant engineers, as it is believed it will provide them with great experience. During our stay at Utopia we were initially accompanied by Chris Sheldon but after a few weeks he left and became a very famous engineer and producer, which is a pity because he could have learned much from Punter’s immense consumption. We were then joined by “Carb”, who had a face that made him look like he was 8 years old, so he fitted in well. Following years of studio existence Punter had perfected a personal cry by which he would demand tea. “Grout” was an almost Tarzan like guttural call and when uttered it would send Carb scuttling off to the kitchen. Within a matter of days his skills evolved and he became known as a “self grouting Carb”. By the time we left he was exhausted from brewing and could get a job as a tea lady anywhere in the world. He probably now owns Sony.
There is an old joke to which the punch line is “tea break over back on your heads” and involves a lot of people sitting around in shit drinking tea. Well we certainly consumed a lot of tea but we also metaphorically got back on heads and spent a lot of time in this state.
The album took about six weeks to record before we moved to Air Studios in Oxford Street central London to finish off overdubs and mix. Set behind enormous metal doors that for years had remained open, Air was bizarrely situated on the top floor of a building on the corner of Oxford Circus. In its lifetime it was famous for many records but was also an historic place. During the war, the studio had been Winston Churchill’s council room. There were tunnels in the basement which were used to get to the BBC’s Broadcasting House to make his speeches. Many years later it was converted by the Beatles producer George Martin into 4 recording studios. On the first day we met Punter in the upstairs café and Paul McCartney sat down next to us playing on a Space Invaders machine which caused Baxter to completely lose the power of speech. We were hardly going to tell him to fuck off. Apart from McCartney, while we were working on the album regular clients were the Pretenders, Elton John, Squeeze, The Human League and Wang Chung. A lot of classic records were produced here, it’s now Nike Town and you would never know about its amazing former history.
Punter wanted to work in his favourite room, studio 3, as he loved the monitoring and felt comfortable mixing here. He was engineering and truly in his element. John liked to work hands on, generally a sign of somebody who knows what they are doing. Punter really knew how to listen. He possessed an extraordinary ability to hear the slightest changes in the balance. Once a week his father would visit the studio. “Pop” was a wonderful mischievous rogue and much loved by all at Air, even when he arrived without teeth. An ex soldier who had fought for Queen and country in a couple of wars he now spent most of his life working down the markets. When Punter did the live sound for Japan, Pop was to be seen dancing at the front of the crowd. We had plans to use him within our videos as a regular cameo character.
We never liked to listen to the monitors particularly loud but when Punter put down his final mixes he liked to turn it up which brought a new meaning to the studio term PFL. The building was almost bomb proof but was now under threat of being demolished by bass. I was upstairs in the café when he was finishing “The Politics of Dancing” and noticed that there were ripples in my tea, the entire floor of the room including the screen on the Space Invaders was shaking.
Compared to Utopia, Air studio 3 was fairly cosy as there was not a lot of space so often we would escape to the café which was situated on the top of the building. It had windows that provided an amazing view as they overlooked all of central London. On one occasion when we were about to redo some vocals on “Something about You”, I went upstairs to work out a few remaining lyrics for the verse. I was a bit stuck but as it happened there was an ex-Beatle in the room and so thought it was too much of a good opportunity to miss. To my amazement he willingly had a look and suggested a few lines but I can’t tell you how crap they were. In hindsight, I should have used them as it’s been the closest I ever got to co writing with him.
Although not really intended, we felt confident that the album contained a lot of possible singles, it was just how it turned out. Nearly all Re-Flex songs had big choruses, we liked a good hook and there were more but we thought this would do for now. The band was keen to play live again as we hadn’t performed for a while and so when the album was completed went back into rehearsals and let the record company debate about what tracks they wanted to release. Copies were sent out to various international companies and considering that we had only ever performed in the UK, the response was surprisingly good and as a result Capital Records in America became the first to release the album.
We started to realise that things were coming together because at rehearsals new paid members to our road crew joined the circus. Mark Redgrave or “Ronnie” as he was known had been with us pretty much since we first began playing gigs and could not believe he was finally being paid. The first new addition was Ian Harvey, a Scottish well experienced man of the road. Seen it, snorted it and shagged it, well you would if your CV included Hawkwind and Motorhead and regarded eating the worm in a bottle of Mescal to be a skill. Through our new management came Steve Botting from Brighton, now available for comment in L.A. He had worked with “The Lords of The New Church” and punk group “Peter & The Test Tube Babies”, so already had experience of dysfunctional people. Botting was a great guy who brought some much needed sanity to the team. He would mix our live sound and announce before the start of every gig, “I'm going out to mount the board”. As a musician performing on a stage, it’s almost impossible to judge the sound of the P.A. because you are facing the wrong direction. You have to trust someone else’s judgement and Botting was a reliable man for the job, well at least that’s what he told us. We never really knew the truth, “What did it sound like” as the answer was nearly always “Great”.
One day soon after the US release of the album, we were rehearsing at Redan and “we got the message”, both album and the single “The Politics of Dancing” had just entered the American top 100 charts….. we could not fucking believe it! We never considered that America would be the first place to pick up on the band but didn’t care and just revelled in the satisfaction and sense of achievement as the "infection"was spreading beyond the nation.
Re-Flex began to play again in the UK and then were asked to tour America with The Police, at the time regarded to be the most succesful band in the world and this would be their last tour together. An opportunity not to be missed, nice work if you can get it and Re-Flex could. Before leaving the UK, the band sold out a final show at the Venue in Victoria London where there were queues around the block. The place was packed with over two thousand people and was the largest audience we had ever performed to. About a week later, having arrived in America to begin our first tour we joined the Police at the Syracuse Carrier Dome, attended by an audience of over 78,000. It really doesn’t matter which direction the P.A. is facing.
To be continued…….