Although Nerve Pylon took a further session at the Barge Studio to complete with engineer Andy Llewellyn, Over The Brow was recorded and mixed at Matrix with Tom O’Leary at the controls. A wondrous machine called an Eventide Ursa Major SST-282 Space Station was liberally used on this particular mix.
Matrix in Bloomsbury was a happening studio and I did a lot of mixing there later in the 80s. On this occasion I remember meeting legendary percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah who was soon to vocalize on classic cut Masimba Bele by the Unknown Cases, shortly before his tragic death in 1983.
Sonnets…what’s that all about? Why fourteen lines? Why ten syllables? Who made those rules? And yet what amazing portals into human consciousness have been opened up within that structure.
I am no John Donne, senator, but Nerve Pylon was my attempt to produce a sonnet in song form. It even has its own metaphysical conceit: instead of stepping back to look at a problem, I do the opposite and perform a kind of Fantastic Voyage manoeuvre, zooming down to a sub-microscopic level to observe the nervous system and emotions as detachedly as one might observe power cables strung across a landscape.
Musically, it had a long evolution. The chorus chords required a retuning of the top two guitar strings to C so that they could chime while the lower strings modulated between F, C and G. Originally just these three chords going round and round in a somewhat motorik style, subsequently the ballad-style verse was spliced in. Nerve Pylon became by far our most dramatic and emotional song, and with the funny tuning, a real bugger to play live.
It was also, along with B-side Over The Brow, our one and only 24-track recording, as most subsequent sessions took place at the 16-track Blackwing Studio in Southwark. After the austerity of Cool Snap we were hungry for more of a musical feast, and the Matrix and Barge studios with their racks of delays and reverbs gave us every opportunity.
The sleeve was partly hand-printed, a massive operation that took over a couple of rooms at 21 Manor Road for a few days.
Reviews…ay! “Lax and addled” was the conclusion of the bloke at the NME , along with the usual comparisons to other people. More recently, though, folks have been kinder: in 2013 Nerve Pylon was included in the massive Cherry Red retrospective Scared To Get Happy and Alex Petridis at the Guardian singled it out as being “haunting”, like the man of taste and discernment that he undoubtedly is.
In my early teens I inherited a Grundig tape recorder from my grandfather Walter Conning. I already owned a small japanese recorder; now with two, a new world of possibilities opened up. Every book available on tape recording techniques and musique concrète was checked out of Macclesfield Town Library and avidly pored over. In fact I think there was only one book, but it was a good one.
I began two projects, recording my own tape experiments at home and recording songs via tape bouncing techniques with a school friend named Tim Shearer, who currently runs the excellent Confingo literary magazine. When I was around 15 I sent a tape of my experiments to John Peel, and he graciously admitted to being impressed by the sounds I had conjured out of bits of tubing, a trombone mouthpiece and some squeaking toys borrowed from my infant sister. But he was careful to say that there probably wasn’t much of a career in it.
These more abstract sound outings continued in London with The Lines, and in the summer of 1980 a cassette only compilation was released, sold by mail order via a flyer that was inserted in the first edition of the Cool Snap EP. It wasn’t credited to The Lines at the time, but it was us, together with Martin Mossop and other friends. It wasn’t really until the Therapy album that these more abstract sounds became a part of our main repertoire.
A remaster of this has long been on my list of things to do. There are some exerpts on the Acute Records Memory Span page: select SOUND and then Rituals of the House.
Our live sets of the time ended with this instrumental, the old Yamaha trombone (which still lives in my garage) pressed into action once more, in the vital interests of approximating the sound of a rampaging martian mammoth. The guy at the sound board was invariably encouraged to go overboard with his echo box, to mixed results. You need to get very bold with the feedback control to get a good dub effect, a fact which many of our sound men were probably too inebriated to absorb.
This studio version came out quite well, Jo’s bobbing bass and Nick’s cool percussion somewhat invoking my fave mixer Lee “Scratch” Perry without crossing into pure copycat territory (I hope). And overall, although I was somewhat dissatisfied with the sound of the Cool Snap EP, it had the effect of making me grab the controls for myself, and I’ve held on to them ever since.
A certain corner is turned as we flip over to the B side of the Cool Snap EP. There is the beginning of a slight return to the night prowling Lines of old. Jo Forty’s bass asserts its place in the middle of things.
There will still be febrile neo-funk excursions, but they will be fewer. After drilling ourselves fairly hard for a year, we’re starting to feel confident enough to relax into the groove.
Our first almost funky song, this was an important one in our development and was originally slated as a follow-up 45 to On The Air. Mick Linehan really excels here. When he first jammed on this song back at the end of 1979 we knew that he was a keeper, and the John Peel session version recorded in January 1980 is a personal fave.
I always liked the chorus melody and even encored it on the song Airlift a couple of years later. I like the words too, an abstract (of course) re-evaluation of some Orwellian prophesies, and if I may be so vain as to quote a couplet:
Hey…you remember back on the farm?
That was no false alarm.
It’s a bit hard to focus this morning, as thoughts and memories return continually to the great maestro and mentor who has left us. David Bowie was the cool big brother for every kid my age who felt a bit odd and alienated. And that was a lot of us. He continued to play that rôle, in a more avuncular way, for every generation since.
Today should be spent listening to Candidate, or Quicksand, or any number of masterpieces by this amazing artist.
The next song in our series is a strange one, part bossa nova and part something else. Lord knows what it’s about.