Behind the music: Turning a studio performance into recorded magic
Last week, Trevor Horn and Steve Lipson explained how to get the best from a singer. This week, they turn their attention to conjuring the perfect cut from the instrumentalists
Thu 29 Mar 2012
When the legendary producer Trevor Horn first saw Frankie Goes to Hollywood on the 80s TV show The Tube he was intrigued, though, he says, he did think their performance was very sexist. After hearing them again, doing a live session of Relax on the radio, he was convinced they had something special. “It was quite a different version of the track, but Holly [Johnson] was a good singer. And then we discovered nobody wanted to sign them — mainly because they were pretty hardcore gay. Their pictures were … their bums came through their trousers and there was a guy with a knife instead of a penis.”
“Even the guys who weren’t gay were pretty hardcore,” adds Horn’s longtime collaborator Steve Lipson.
Horn, however, wasn’t put off by the bands risqué image, and signed them to his new label, ZTT, in 1983. What no one had told him was that the band he signed wasn’t the same band that played on the demos he’d heard. The guitar player had left just two weeks before. No problem — Horn put together a session band of his usual collaborators, including Lipson, to record the backing tracks.
“The Frankies were very affable about it,” shrugs Horn. “We played them a mix where we’d put an audience track on it, telling them: ‘This is you playing at Madison Square Garden.’ They laughed and declared: ‘We’re fucking great!’
“As time went by they started to play. They started to get better, but just as they got to a place where they could play their own music they fell out. They fell out in a way that they’ve never been able to fix up ever since. I remember backstage at Wembley, when Holly [Johnson, the singer] had a bodyguard in case Mark [O’Toole, the bassist] tried to kick him.”
By the time they recorded their second album, Johnson was largely absent from the studio, Lipson says. He even said he’d need two days’ notice if they wanted him there. Soon after, the band members went their separate ways, but one of the tracks they’d recorded but not released became a worldwide hit — albeit with a different artist, who herself was not adverse to controversy.
Grace Jones’s million-selling record Slave to the Rhythm created a whole new sound for her — a sound many others tried, and failed, to emulate.
Though the track eventually spawned a concept album, featuring different interpretations of the track, it was only brought to the attention of Chris Blackwell, the owner of Jones’s record label, Island, when he was looking for a single for her greatest hits album. Horn dug up a track Bruce Woolley had written for Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
“The original recording had a very Germanic beat, and it was pretty obvious it wasn’t going to work for them,” says Horn. “I thought that if it was called Slave to the Rhythm it should be a better rhythm — and the only rhythm I could think of that was good enough was Go-go music, which was really happening at the time.
“It was such a daft idea when I look back on it. We had a band of really great Go-go musicians: some people from Experience Unlimited, some from Trouble Funk … and they could all really play — but nobody could remember an arrangement. In fact, they were baffled by the idea of an arrangement. They just started, kept going and then they stopped.”
And they’d all play together all the way through, with all instruments leaking into the drum microphones. “At one point the guitar player went to the toilet for about two or three minutes, and that ended up being the only time we had the groove without the guitar all over the drums,” says Lipson. “That was our window of opportunity to make a loop out of that little bit and make a rhythm track out of it.”
“Story of our lives,” sighs Horn.
Horn had recorded the bits he liked on his cassette player and played it for Woolley, who swiftly rewrote the song over it. “I loved it when he played those chords at the start,” Horn reminisces. “We left the studio went back to the Parker Meridian hotel with a load of equipment, went upstairs and finished the song. Literally, the first day we got everything out of that Go-go band we were ever going to get.”
Whether it’s waiting for an artist to come into the studio with a new “girlfriend” at 2am, after a night out, to be able to record their vocals or playing all the instruments on the record because the band can’t play, Horn and Lipson have spent far, far more time in studio than any of the artists they worked with, perfecting their records.
“I was having a conversation with an old rock star, who shall remain nameless, a couple of weeks ago in the kitchen at Sarm [Horn’s studio],” Horn says. “He was talking about how they spent a year making a record and how they all got completely wasted. He said: ‘But you know all about that — you got wasted and took ages over things.’ I shook my head, and said: ‘I took ages over things but they were generally successful — and I was working, not getting drunk.’”
The Producers’ debut album Made In Basing Street will be released in May 2012.