Winter of Darkness Part II: the scene moves to deepest Cornwall, in the frigid grip of February. I’m standing in a primeval forest by a tidal river. Above me crows wheel and screech in alarm at the sound emanating from the stone walls of an ancient sawmill. It’s the sound of some demonic machine, incredibly loud, a circular pounding and pulverizing that echoes around the glade and dies in the gnarled bark of the trees.
It’s the sound of Swans having a run-through of their song New Mind.
At this point the band had 5 members. Michael Gira and Jarboe were joined by longtime guitarist Norm Westberg, with Al Kizys on bass and Theo Parsons on drums. These guys could kick up a racket like no other, but as this album demonstrates, they could also be pastoral as all get out. Together with the Skin material that was later included, this work represents the full flowering of the Gira/ Jarboe creative partnership.
Real Love may well be my favourite of all the songs I’ve recorded. The title track sung by Jarboe still gives me chills, as does much of the album to be honest. I fell into a bit of a depression after it was done; I think I knew I’d probably never work on anything quite as good again.
Al, Norm and Theo were fun loving guys who liked a drink. One night we took the studio boat (no road went there) down to the local pub at Fowey and got good and plastered. Then we took it out on the ocean waves, soon realizing even in our stupor that death was imminent. Somehow we got the boat back to harbour and up the river, where we crashed it into a buoy.
So began my incredible “winter of darkness” (as I remember it) in which I co-produced the albums Opus Dei by Laibach and Children of God by Swans. The first of these projects began in November 1986 when I flew to Ljubljana, Slovenia (then still part of Yugoslavia) with my trusty Akai S900 and a big wad of cash to pay for studio sessions.
I’d been expecting to further refine the montage techniques used on Nova Akropola, and I suppose we did in a way. Laibach love to nonpluss, though, and they evidently enjoyed my reaction when breaking the news that they wanted to do a version of the Queen track One Vision in German, and versions of the cheesy euro hit Life is Life in both English and German.
As it turned out these songs were the centerpiece of the album and represented the future for Laibach. The more familiarly collaged tracks, good as they were, served as “entr’actes” to the main programme.
Laibach had the benefit of a wide pool of local talent at their disposal, and when I say that, I have honestly never seen anything like it: superb musicians, technical staff, cooks, growers of a certain smoking mixture favoured by your devoted auteur, you name it. A gifted orchestrator (code name Nightingale) who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal did a truly spectacular job on the cover versions, and played a lot of the parts himself on an Emulator III. The local working men’s choir came down to sing on the German Life is Life (Leben Heißt Leben) which may be the single most glorious session I have ever conducted.
When I referred to this as my “winter of darkness” I’m certainly not referring to the mood of the sessions. Laibach were a particularly uproarious bunch, completely entertained by what they were doing, and my main memory of them is the sound of laughter.
One day two of the lads took me and a visiting Japanese girl up to the mountains to enjoy the spectacular scenery. We came upon a four-seater sleigh and without thinking twice jumped into it and plummeted down the mountainside with no idea of where we’d end up.
Very much a labour of love. I thought Laurie and William’s version of the old Blind Faith standard was superb.
Soon after this I became an official band member, although it was nearly 10 years until we put an album out, so there’ll be a good few more posts before we get there.
Another dream assignment, to do an alternative remix of Depeche’s rockingest (at that time) track, a personal fave of mine. I thought that Martin Gore’s song captured the claustrophobia of small town life particularly well with its motorik beat and cynical lyrics.
I determined to rough it up as much as I could, and I was immeasurably aided by a rack mounted ring modulator, a highly unusual item to come across. This was down at Britannia Row Studios in Islington; no doubt it was the plaything of one of the Pink Floyds or their crew.
Anyway I stuck it across a cue send and was soon happily turning synth leads into death rays and making Martin Gore sound like a dalek. Daniel Miller came down for an earful and I’ve always treasured his comment: “…it ain’t Hi Fi, but I like it”. Got me sussed there Dan.
My next Mute assignment was to mix two tracks in one night, the Erasure single Sometimes backed with Sexuality. This was Vince and Andy’s first big hit as a duo, and an important record for Mute.
What a fantastic gig, although I had to work like the devil, as an “alternative” mixer I wasn’t so much bound by the strictures of the dance floor or the need for radio play. My main job was to try to give a new spin on the track, to come up with something different. I was being paid to mess around with the multitracks of the gods.
On this occasion I had a new toy to help me out, an Akai S900 sampler, which I was still getting to know at this point. Here I mainly used it to loop and effect vocals.
The accompanying video is incorrectly labelled; as soon as you hear that undulating noise gate matrix, you know it’s a Rico joint.
Let’s jump on a number 73 bus and take it to the end of the line…Stoke Newington, London N16.
Jowe Head, of the equally fabulous Swell Maps and TV Personalities, was an early supporter of The Lines, and when he moved down to Stoke Newington he became a good friend. He started a band called the Palookas with local brother and sister Wall of Sound merchants Paul and Trudi Holt. With guitar and Roland Juno 60, their amps on each side of the stage, these two put out a head spinning barrage of strangely melodic noise. This was underpinned by the angular bass of James “Elvis” Rowbottom and the pounding drums of Richie Rich.
I started working with them in 1984 but it took a couple of sessions to capture them on tape; well, I’m not sure we ever really did, certainly not the raw power of their live presence, but we did our best. I’m happy to say that I’m still working with Paul Holt, and betimes Jowe Head, to this day. Here I present the Palookas debut single.
One more cinematic entry, and then we will leave this glitzy Hollywood environs, like drunken clubgoers stumbling out the back door into an alleyway at 5AM.
By the summer of 1986 Torch Song had completed their second album Ecstacy, and very good it was too. The first single was a cover of White Night, a song I had written back in 1976, and which had been the debut release by The Lines in 1978.
Coincidentally The Fall spinoff Adult Net did a version of this song at the same time, leading to a byline in the London Evening Standard newspaper about a “battle of the bands”.
Personally I thought both were great, but the Torch Song version was the one that featured in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
Marking the triumphant return of my man Dennis Hopper from rehab, I can’t think of anything else to say about the film, except that around 3 minutes in the DJ throws Torch Song onto the turntable.