The Story Behind The Music | Sex Pistols First Recording Session

The Sex Pistols first studio recording took place at Majestic Studios in London on 15th May 1976 wth Chris Spedding at the helm. They recorded three tracks: ‘Problems’, ‘Pretty Vacant’ and ‘No Feelings’. You can hear the recordings on the video link above, and for context here’s an extract from Clinton Heylin’s Anarchy in the Year Zero, a full account of the birth of British punk.


Chris Spedding: I found it very weird, all that [in the press] about them not playing music. If they were notable for one thing it was that. They were always in time and in tune. I couldn’t understand why some … had chosen to attack them on the very thing that was their strength. Obviously, they’ve got cloth ears. [1976]

Getting someone as well-respected as Spedding on board at such an early stage was quite a coup for McLaren. It was almost as if he knew what he was doing, using his carefully cultivated contacts to make something happen – just as soon as the band began to justify his carefully-tailored hype. Well, by now they did. Marco Pirroni, who also came back to the 100 Club that May, recalls discussing precisely this point with McLaren:

Marco Pirroni: Malcolm used to spout [about] anarchy all the time. [But] he did care about the music … He said, ‘They’ve got to get tight, they’ve got to get good.’ … He went to proper people, [like] Chris Spedding … He didn’t just bung ’em into any ol’ studio. They weren’t trying to make them the worst they could be. And they were good.

Spedding was to some extent putting his reputation on the line. Which is why he was determined to capture their muscular musicianship, prepping them at their rehearsal space: ‘I went to a couple of rehearsals … and got them to go through their whole repertoire and I took notes, [then] I chose … the three best songs … they had at the time.’

The gang of studio novices duly assembled outside Majestic Studios, a state-of-the-art sixteen-track facility, the morning after they blew Krakatoa all the way down Oxford Street. McLaren, never one to miss a trick, invited Ray Stevenson down to capture the moment on his candid camera. The three tracks Spedding had chosen were ‘No Feelings’, ‘Problems’ and ‘Pretty Vacant’:

Chris Spedding: I didn’t want to go in and just have total anarchy. I knew enough about presenting something to record companies to know that they usually wanted three songs. I’d used [Majestic] when I did the Here Come The Warm Jets album with Eno. And we got the same engineer, Derek Chandler. I got them to go in there at ten o’clock in the morning [and when] I got there about quarter to eleven they were all set up. We started recording about eleven, about one o’clock we finished and I mixed them … There was two guitar overdubs, that was about it … They’d not been in the studio before … I had [brought] my amps and I stood over the drums while he tuned the drums to get out all the buzzes. Fortunately, his drums sounded pretty good anyway, so there was hardly anything for me to do [except to make] sure that they had a headphone balance and that the singer in his isolation booth could hear all the instruments properly. I asked them to do a rehearsal for me and I switched on the [tape] recorder. So they thought they were doing a rehearsal and they were actually doing their first take … I never really got them to hear themselves back and get all nervous about it … They were [all] more or less first takes, first time in the studio … Rotten sung live, but … in an isolation booth … You can actually hear the way the band played together. It’s not like [the] guitar-overdub soup [found on later recordings].

(Hearing the trio of tracks on a bootleg E.P., in the early eighties, post-Spunk, post-Bollocks, was quite a shock to the system. As Spedding says, there is no ‘guitar-overdub soup’, though there is at least one obvious guitar overdub on ‘No Feelings’. What the guitarist-producer captured does not sound like a demo tape – as Goodman’s July tracks do – but like the first three tracks of a potent debut album the original Pistols never completed before transitioning into a more musical orthodoxy.)

For the band it had been an eye-opening experience. Rotten, in particular, felt going ‘to a proper recording studio … opened our mind[s] to the possibilities’. Predictably, he gave all the credit to Spedding and none to McLaren. It was McLaren, though, who immediately put the demos to use. Two of the initial recipients were Jonh Ingham at Sounds – whose entire playlist the following week was these three songs18 – and Howard Trafford, who dubbed a cassette-copy and sent it to Tony Wilson at Granada Reports, a nightly local TV show with musical content, who promptly lost it, though not before making a note in his diary, ‘Sex Pistols – June 4.’


Read the full story of the birth of punk in Anarchy in the Year Zero by Clinton Heylin.

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The Story Behind The Music | Iain Matthews Busby Babes

Iain Matthews is a lifelong Manchester United supporter. Football was his life as a boy. He was 11 years old in 1958. The news his mother gave him when he came home from school one February afternoon had a profound effect on him. This from his memoir Thro’ My Eyes:

I came home from school one February afternoon in 1958 and Mom had just got in with her shopping. ‘Have you heard about the crash?’ she asked. I hadn’t. ‘Sit down,’ she said and then told me that there had been a plane crash in the ice and snow at Munich airport and Manchester United was involved. I turned on our tiny black and white television with the magnifier on the front. The news came screaming at me. The Busby Babes, my Babes; David Pegg, Roger Byrne, Mark Jones, Billy Whelan, Tommy Taylor and Frank Swift, the guru of all sports writers, were all dead. Duncan Edwards was clinging to life and Matt Busby was on a respirator. They’d been returning from a European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade and had stopped to refuel at Munich. The plane crashed into a bank at the end of the runway following a third attempt to take off with ice forming on the wings. My tiny fragile world came crashing down. I couldn’t believe it, didn’t want to believe it. I ran out of our house up to Martin Carnaby’s about a half mile away. Had he seen it? Was it true? He had and it was. We shed a tear.

For the rest of the term I couldn’t concentrate at school. I paid little attention to what the teachers were saying and became quarrelsome with friends. This got me in hot water with my teachers and some of them I’m sure were unable to forgive me for the rest of my time there. I became more withdrawn and moody at home. No one seemed to notice and that only served to make things worse. Didn’t they realise what it meant? The Babes were the single most important thing in my life. Why was I the only one feeling this way?

Thrirty-four years later, the impact of the tragedy still lingered in him and came out in song. This led to a spooky encounter whilst on a European tour with Al Stewart.

Thanks to Al, I played before some big crowds on that tour and his fans loved to see us come out together to sing ‘Meet on the Ledge’ as an encore. I was a good opener for Al and later that same year he took me on his German tour. One of the shows was in Munich. By then they had built a brand-spanking-new airport and the venue for the night was the old abandoned airport. After the soundcheck, one of the promoters walked up beside me.

‘I’ve been looking for you,’ he said and took me by the arm. ‘Come with me, I want to show you something.’

He walked me away from the terminal, out into the darkness, until we were away from all the commotion going on inside. Looking back, I could see large chunks of stonework missing from the walls of the old building.

‘Okay, stop here’, he said, ‘this is it. This is the spot. This is where it happened.’

As if I’d been hit in the back of the head with a brick it dawned on me what he was talking about. I was standing on the very spot I’d seen so vividly in those old black and white television images. This is where my heroes died. For a moment I was that distraught eleven-year-old kid again. I re-experienced the sheer hopelessness I’d felt all those years before, the absolute irreplaceable sense of loss. I turned and walked back towards the terminal, forcing myself into a workable reality. I had once thought I was over it, but now I don’t know if it will ever leave me.

On my album Pure and Crooked I wrote eight of the songs. One of them, ‘The Rains of ’62’, was about leaving home for the bright lights of London. Another was a tribute to my boyhood heroes and called ‘Busby’s Babes’. This was the song my German guide had heard.

 

Thro My Eyes Deluxe Iain Matthews

Click here to order a signed copy of Iain’s memoir.

 

 

 

The Story Behind The Music | Seven Bridges Road

Iain Matthews, Steve Young, Bob Neuwirth.

Iain Matthews, Steve Young, Bob Neuwirth.

In January 1973, Iain Matthews moved from London to Los Angeles after being given the chance to work with Michael Nesmith on a new album for Elektra. He’d left a lot behind and was excited about a new start. The album, Valley Hi, didn’t quite turn out as he wanted it to, despite it becoming perhaps his most popular album. One song he recorded for the album was Steve Young’s ‘Seven Bridges Road’, the arrangement of which was controversially lifted by the Eagles, without credit. In this short extract from his memoir Thro’ My Eyes, Iain picks up the story.


One song we recorded for the album was a rearrangement of Steve Young’s ‘Seven Bridges Road’, which inadvertently created folklore history. A few years later I found myself at Don Henley’s house. In his sparsely furnished living room he had a simple, unassuming sound system with a stack of LPs leaning against the wall next to it. At the front of the stack was a copy of Valley Hi. In 1980, the Eagles released a live album and on it was an almost note for note version of my arrangement of the song, but the sleeve notes claimed that it had been ‘learned from their friend Steve Young in San Diego’. I knew that they hadn’t and they knew it too. None of the band ever acknowledged their sourcing of the song until twenty years later on a greatest hits package where in the sleeve notes Glenn Frey talks about how they took the arrangement from me. In a way they did, but let it go on record that up until now I’ve all too easily taken credit for that arrangement, when in fact, had it not been for Michael Nesmith’s acoustic flatpicking skills, it could have been a completely different kettle of fish. Michael was equally responsible for birthing that version of the song. Possibly a different version wouldn’t have appealed to Don Henley the way it did and the ensuing controversy may never have happened. Steve Young later confided in me that of all the numerous covers of his song, mine was always his favourite.


An article on the Alabama origins of the song can be read here

Here’s Iain’s version from Valley Hi

Here’s the Eagles version

And here’s the original Steve Young version from his 1969 album Rock Salt & Nails.

Thro My Eyes Deluxe Iain Matthews

Click here for more on Iain Matthews’s memoir Thro’ My Eyes

The Story Behind The Music: The Recording of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks

A brief overview of 4 days in a New York recording studio in 1974 when Bob Dylan commenced work on his masterpiece album, Blood on the Tracks. The full story of these sessions, take by take, is told in leading Dylan historian Clinton Heylin’s monograph No One Else Could Play That Tune: The Making Unmaking of Bob Dylan’s 1974 Masterpiece, a perfect companion to the Bootleg Series release More Blood, More Tracks. Get your copy here.

Monday 16th September 1974

‘It looked like old times at Columbia’s A & R Studio September 16th. John Hammond Snr. was there. Phil Ramone was working the board. Eric Weissberg and Barry Kornfeld, two old Gaslight regulars, were unpacking their guitars. And sitting out in the cavernous studio … practically hidden behind a battery of six microphones, Bob Dylan was creating another album. And it was almost as if Dylan were consciously conjuring up the ambience of the early sixties.’ – Larry Sloman, Rolling Stone

On 16th September 1974, Bob Dylan entered A & R Studios in New York to begin recording ‘Blood on the Tracks’. The studio was of course the magical place where he recorded his first 6 albums. His original producer John Hammond joined him in the studio on this night, an ‘historic moment’ for them both. Also with Bob was his girlfriend Ellen Bernstein. Studio boss Phil Ramone was at the engineer’s desk, with Glenn Berger as his assistant. Bob started the session warming up to the task with just himself, guitar and harmonica, reaching for the voice that would define Blood on the Tracks.

As I ran around the studio tweaking mic positions, he called off a tune. ‘Let’s do “Tangled Up In Blue” in G.’ He hit his guitar, but instead of a G chord, it was an A. He was playing in a different key from the one he had called off and the lyrics were [to] ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’. – Glen Berger, Assistant Engineer

Including that first take of ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’, he recorded 6 songs over 10 takes solo before being joined in the studio by Eric Weissberg’s band Deliverance, with whom he tackled 4 songs in 13 takes. There was little in terms of rehearsal, and the band were left to watch Bob’s hands for chord changes as he ploughed through the takes; no so easy with him playing in open tuning. One of the takes – ‘Meet Me In The Morning’ – made it through to the final cut of Blood on the Tracks and another – ‘Call Letter Blues’ – was later released on Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. But it was the attempts of ‘Idiot Wind’ and ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ with just Bob and Deliverance bass player Tony Brown that would ultimately set the tone for the rest of the album…

Tuesday 17th September 1974

Dylan knew his vision for these songs, [which] was very pure and unadorned … Bob lived these words as he created them. Most of the tracks grew and changed organically … He knew as soon as he heard something whether or not it was what he was going for. It never took him more than one time to know … He worked so instinctively, more so than anyone I’ve ever worked with. – Ellen Bernstein, Columbia A&R person & girlfriend.

The feel for the album’s sound was starting to take shape on the second day of recording, with bass player Tony Brown the only member of Deliverance invited back for the session. Keyboardist Paul Griffin came in to try organ and piano on a few takes, sometimes with Brown, sometimes without. There was a change in the assistant engineer’s chair too, Glenn Berger who had sat in the chair on the 16th had moved next door to work with Mick Jagger on mixing a Rolling Stones live tape for radio broadcast. His chair was taken up by Rich Blakin.

In all there was less than half the takes of the previous day, but the session was no less productive. Five songs intended for the album were attempted over 13 takes, plus one warm-up cover. From this session, the fourth take of ‘Shelter From The Storm’ and the third take of ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ made it all the way to the released album. The second take of ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ was released later on Biograph and the second take of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ was released on Bootleg Series Vol 1-3. An edited version of the first take of ‘Shelter From the Storm’ recorded this day featured on the soundtrack to the film Jerry Maguire.

By the end of the day, all 12 songs in consideration for the album had been attempted.

Wednesday 18th September 1974

On the third afternoon, Dylan was not so sure of himself and all he had wrought. As they began to mix songs from the master reels, a few takes fell foul of the review process, perhaps reflecting a darker mood on Dylan’s part. Engineer and studio chief Phil Ramone was busy mixing tracks pulled to master from the previous two days, and pedal steel player Buddy Cage was brought in to add overdubs on a few of the takes. As far as recording goes, this was the least productive day of the four. Bob had a go at recording ‘Buckets of Rain’ under the gaze of Mick Jagger in the control room, but abandoned it after four attempts. He left the studio early to go watch a concert and think about what he needed to do the following day to get the album he was hearing in his head.

Thursday 19th September 1974

Dylan cut the whole [album] in six hours on a Monday night … Then came back in on Tuesday and cut most of [it] again … That seemed to work, but it turned out not … On the Thursday, we recorded the album for a third time … Now that blew my mind. – Glenn Berger, assistant engineer.

On this fourth and final day of recording on the Blood on the Tracks New York sessions, a revivified Dylan was determined to finish what he had begun on the Monday. Starting proceedings at seven, he recalled Tony Brown, and Brown alone, to (re)capture the last few tracks. However, if Brown was thinking this will be like Tuesday – fourteen takes and home – he was soon disabused. It was 3.30am before Dylan was satisfied. By then, he and Brown had endured a recording marathon, capturing eight songs whole over a multitude of takes. Mick Jagger was once again looking on.

By the end of the evening, they recorded takes of ‘Buckets of Rain’ and ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ which would make it all the way to the final album. They also got takes of three further songs that would make it to the original test pressing of the album: ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’, ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ and ‘Idiot Wind’. Bob had his album… for now. Three months later a last minute change of heart would propel him to Sound 80 Studio in Minneapolis to rerecord five of the ten tracks that would appear on the released album. But that’s a different story…


The complete recordings from the sessions are now made available on the Bootleg Series release More Blood, More Tracks. For the full story on these historic sessions, let leading Bob Dylan historian Clinton Heylin be your guide in his limted edition monograph No One Else Could Play That Tune: The Making and Unmaking of Bob Dylan’s Masterpiece. After tracking down and interviewing just about every eye-witness still standing, and spending time at the Bob Dylan Archive in Tulsa with the two working notebooks of the songs, Clinton has created a highly evocative companion piece to the set. Get your copy here.

The Story Behind the Music | The Sex Pistols TV Debut

September 4th 1976, Tony Wilson’s Granada TV show So It Goes broadcasts The Sex Pistols performance of ‘Anarchy in the UK’.

An abridged extract from Anarchy on the Year Zero by Clinton Heylin

For the Pistols, problems were a day-to-day occurrence, but so was a common determination to turn Rock on its head. And what better place to really shake ’em up than Manchester, second home to the band and the movement, and the first home of Granada TV studios. Because, after much toing and froing, the Pistols had been booked to close the last show in the first series of Granada’s late-night music show, So It Goes, compered by none other than Tony Wilson.

Although the show would not be going out live – they weren’t that stupid! – it was going to be recorded live to tape and with Tony Wilson on their side the Pistols hoped it might even be broadcast pretty much ‘as is’. Wilson’s producer was happy to go along with the majority of Wilson’s madcap ideas for the show, even if he hadn’t as yet realized that the Pistols closing the series might be a political statement on Wilson’s part…

…Wilson later claimed, ‘As they came off the stage there was complete silence, except for the footsteps of the producer coming down from the box to try to hit somebody.’ [So It Goes producer Chris] Pye dismisses that frankly incredible version as ‘nonsense’. He does, however, admit ‘we all sat around the following day going, “Fucking hell, what happened last night? What is David Plowright going to say?”’

The performance of ‘Anarchy In The UK’ on So It Goes is still probably the most alive rock performance ever shown on British TV. Even the point at which Matlock leans into the mike to sing the harmony line, realizes the mike doesn’t work and kicks it off the stage, works perfectly in the context of the order-from-chaos being caught on camera.

For the band, it was simply business as usual. But they still decided to make themselves scarce. As Matlock put it, ‘A few mike stands went over at the end of “Anarchy”, nothing more.’ Even if Wilson was later reprimanded, he remained the compere for So It Goes when Granada commissioned a second series, the following year. And this time the staid Mr Walker was nowhere to be seen.

The emphasis of the show would now be mostly, if not entirely, the wave of bands following in the Pistols’ wake. And to kick things into gear, Wilson decided a repeat broadcast of ‘Anarchy In The UK’ was in order. After all, only two regions had ever seen the show first time around – Granada (covering the North West) and London Weekend – coincidentally the two hubs on the punk machine. It also gave the Pistols an opportunity to catch it themselves, since the original broadcast went out on September 4th, while they were in Paris doing a number on the French disco scene.


Read the full story of this episode and its part in a revolutionary year for British music in Anacrchy in the Year Zero: The Sex Pistols, The Clash and the ’Class of 76.
Click here to order a hardback collector’s edition for just £10.