WARREN CANN 1981
Real Name: Warren Cann, geb. am 20. May, Victoria, Kanada
First record bought: "Louie Louie", The Kingsmen
Bands: ca. 30 verschiedene Bands in den USA und Kanada
Lieblingsfilm: Raiders of the lost ark, Das Boot, Revenge of the Jedi
Yamaha 9000 Series, Simmons Drumpads SDS-3/SDS-5, LINN Drumcomputer, Roland CR-78
WARREN CANN 2010
FRIARS Interviews with WARREN CANN, ULTRAVOX, by kind permission of Mike O´Connor
Ultravox were under John Foxx when they played Friars very critically acclaimed with three well received albums. It went a bit quiet when John Foxx left but he was replaced by Midge Ure and the remainder is history as they say. Ultravox dismantled in the late 1980s but in 2009 the classic line up reformed for the hugely successful Return to Eden tours.
Drummer and electronic percussion pioneer tells us here about the Ultravox path to success and their reformation. We caught up with Warren in June 2011.
Ultravox played Friars in 1978 but the seeds of Ultravox had been sown before that. What made you decide to come to England in the early 1970s?
My family had emigrated to Canada. I felt my roots very strongly and, given my musical tastes, it was inevitable and obvious that I’d leave to move to the U.K. I arrived in London in January 1972. The band’s first gig was in Chorley, in early April, 1974. It was a warm-up for a gig a week or so later which we’d scored at the Marquee Club.
Is it true you nearly joined Sparks?
No. I’d seen their advert under ‘Musicians Wanted’ in a music paper. They weren’t my cup of tea, but; A) as I figured I was one of the few people in the country who had a clue who they were and B) they were further up the ladder of achievement than I was (admittedly not difficult!)… so, I thought I’d go along and see what was up. I didn’t take to them at all nor – apparently – did they to me. So that worked out fine!
How did you meet Dennis Leigh (John Foxx) and join Tiger Lily, the embryonic Ultravox?
Another advert in a music paper, Melody Maker I believe. Before the internet, the only way to seek out other musicians was the bulletin board on the wall in music shops or the classifieds section of the music papers. Plus, of course, hanging out in bars and clubs – a fine and attractive pastime, though a limited option if you’ve no money.
I’d become very disenchanted trying to find like-minded people. So many nut cases… I was fed-up, but made one last stab at it and answered an ad with a very arrogant and over-confidant letter. I’d pretty much forgotten about until I received a call a few weeks later from Dennis. We met up and hit it off, then I played with the band (still just Dennis, Chris, and Steve at that point) one afternoon and that was it. Sometime later, I suggested the name Tiger Lily and was, frankly, very surprised when Dennis liked it.
When John Foxx left, how did you see the future, if any for the band? The three albums up that point are seen as classics by many, although experimental to a degree – did the record company lose faith after the relatively uncommercial success of these and of course John leaving?
I was pissed off. The music press ignored Chris, Billy and I in favour of John. We had no record deal and we’d lost our lead guitarist, Robin Simon, to the attractions of New York. Island Records had never really known what to make of us and I believe they’d already been set to drop us, irrespective of John leaving (moot point: he left us / we left him).
The last album with John, Systems of Romance, was one I was very proud of. Yet more than that, I knew it was a tantalising harbinger of things to come and that we were just on the verge of achieving a breakthrough to… well, I didn’t know to what… but I knew it was going to be great. The interruption was maddening.
You will have seen the pictures of yourselves playing at Friars in 1978 – good memories (of that time)?
Absolutely. We were playing up and down the country in all manner of venues. It was a blast. Playing Friars was always an occasion to be reckoned with.
How did Midge Ure come to join the band?
Bill was playing with Rusty Egan and Midge in what became Visage. Rusty knew our situation and kept on at Bill saying that he thought Midge was the perfect candidate to join us. In due course, we met Midge and had a play and see what happened. It took about ten minutes for us to realise that it would work.
Was it his individual vision or a collective vision to drive Ultravox down a new path?
Pardon?! It was a case of Midge being keen to join us and make some music of consequence, rather than the things he’d previously been doing. He admired our musicianship and we admired his. It became a collective vision from the first day.
I remember buying (and still possess) Sleepwalk – a great song and indicative of a brave new direction – you must have felt that the band was at last getting some well overdue commercial recognition?
We didn’t quite look at it that way. Rather than feel we were getting overdue commercial recognition, we were just relieved that we’d finally gotten something in the charts which would, as a result, enable us to continue and make more recordings. It’s not called the music business for nothing.
Hindsight being a glorious thing, you are obviously glad that you persuaded the record company to release Vienna as a single!
There was no element of hindsight about it whatsoever. We knew the moment we recorded Vienna that we’d done something special. It was our feeling that even if everyone else didn’t like it, we had the personal satisfaction of knowing that we’d creatively hit the nail on the head and had encapsulated in one distinctive song everything we were trying to do with that album.
Was the record company lack of faith in such an unusual track the ultimate reason you ended up financing the Vienna video yourselves? Their problem was the length of the song wasn’t it?
We wanted it to be the first single from that album. It was obvious (to us!). We were talked out of it by Chrysalis in favour of the more conventional Sleepwalk. As we were a newly signed band with no sway, we agreed under condition that it would be the next release. After the modest but measureable chart success of Sleepwalk, Chrysalis then insisted that Passing Strangers be the next single. There was a lot of argument over this, and we ultimately went along with it on the sole condition that Vienna would be the third single or else. Passing Strangers didn’t do as well as they’d hoped and our constant pressure to release Vienna finally took effect. They somewhat bravely but entirely half-heartedly put it out…
Their problem was lack of imagination: it bore no relationship to anything that had ever been in the charts before. Their take was pretty much, “This won’t get radio play; too long, too slow, too weird.” And they certainly didn’t want to put any money into a video (we tried). They magnanimously said, “But you can still do one on your own if you want.” Which is precisely what we did.
Vienna put us on the map and from that point on, we had the stature to never again bow to record company pressure.
We know that the rest of history as they say, but the development of the band after that was interesting in that going forward you were as far removed from the ‘old’ Ultravox as possible, or so it seemed to me. Do you think that’s a fair assessment or do you feel there were still some definite nods to the past or complete constant evolution albeit with a commercial bent?
It was a constant evolution and I can easily connect the dots. There was no sense of making conscious nods to our past because Bill, Chris, and I were our own past. So, why should we? As for the commerciality of what we were doing, I can assure you that the very last thing on our minds was setting out to deliberately write ‘commercial’ music. We always followed where the song seemed to want to go irrespective of whether or not that was radio friendly. Our criteria was “Do we like it?” Naturally, we were concerned about and never shy of commercial success, but it wasn’t what motivated us. Only after an album was recorded did we listen with the view, “Will this be successful?”
Live Aid seems to me a pivotal moment in the band’s history both positively and otherwise. Was the attention Midge was receiving do you think a mitigating factor in the band starting to crumble a year or so after?
Yes, I’d say so. In spite of our best efforts over the years, the band was succumbing to the media’s relentless predilection to single out the lead singer. The internal stress this created, plus sundry other issues were definitely creating fissures. Mostly, I’d have to say we were all pretty burned out.
Certainly Midge doesn’t hide from the fact that he sees your leaving and the way it happened as wrong – you must have felt pretty angry at the time? And quite probably felt it was unjustified.
Sure. I was angry and intensely hurt. After all that we’d been through together I didn’t think it was the way to solve any problems. I was beyond disappointed because I felt we still had a lot of great music to write together. On one odd level, it was probably only that it was my turn… we all had phases where we’d give each other a hard time.
How have you filled your time in the intervening years? I believe you have been writing music scores and have been taking some acting roles and settling in California?
I didn’t do anything much immediately, I was still in shock. I got back into it by producing demos for people, hoping to get picked up as their producer when they got a deal. Then I joined a London band called Sons of Valentino. As much fun as that was, I left them to take up my new passion – playing rhythm guitar. I’d reached a point where I felt creatively stifled with drums and, in an epiphany (smiles), decided to switch instruments. I joined a band led by an old mate of mine, Huw Lloyd-Langton, to play rhythm guitar and keyboards. It was fantastic and I learned a lot.
I became sick of the non-scene in London and moved to Los Angeles to make a new career for myself writing scores and perhaps landing a few acting jobs. My Helden partner, Hans Zimmer, was becoming extremely successful so I thought, ”If Hans can do it, how hard can it be?” (wink wink) What can I say… every bad thing you’ve ever heard about Hollywood? It’s all true!
While my adventures in La-La Land were undeniably interesting and occasionally exciting, I finally wore myself out and decided to walk away from the music and entertainment businesses. Not so much quit while you’re ahead, as quit while you’re alive.
Do you still have a tinker with technology? I heard you were in Roland’s bad books for unauthorised modifications to their drum machines! Mind you if you hadn’t modified the capabilities of those machines at the time, we may not have had the distinctive patterns of Vienna! It also must be a lot simpler now!
I’m still into technology of all kinds. My first reaction to a lot of new stuff isn’t necessarily “Mmm… cool,” it’s “Yeah – about time.” Yes, I was once on Roland’s persona non grata list for the reasons you mention. I don’t think I initiated anything in their camp, I’m sure the stuff I was trying to do to was so obvious and self-evident it would’ve happened without my input. It just would’ve happened a lot sooner!
It’s simpler now, absolutely. I’ve replaced a six foot high rack of equipment with a single Mac Book Pro.
You were also effectively pioneering MIDI techniques before they were actually invented?
Before MIDI, the only way music machines could talk to one another was through a primitive protocol called CV/Gate (Control Voltage determining pitch, Gate determining on & off). It was possible to make this stuff run a synth and talk to a drum machine but it was extremely laborious and glitch-prone. The mods and controllers I cooked up with the invaluable assistance of our keyboard techs enabled us to traumatically force our gear into doing much of what MIDI was later to make a breeze. It was very exciting but tended to promote brain damage.
I was at the OMD gig at the London Roundhouse in 2008 and after this I read that the band (or at least most of them) were seen at the gig fuelling rumours that the band would reunite. How did this come about – I have to be honest and I was both surprised and delighted this happened as many never saw this happening for whatever reason. Was it as simple as someone emailing you all and then you emailing each other as has been suggested?
More or less, yes. That ‘someone’ was Chris O’Donnell, a former manager of ours now connected to Live Nation. He e-mailed each of us saying he thought it might be a good idea for us to now consider getting back together… The four of us surprised each other when we all replied, “Ok, let’s try it.” I think Chris’ timing was flawless, mere months earlier or later and who knows?
The Return to Eden gigs were immense – I saw both legs of the tour and the first leg, like everyone gave me goosebumps when you started with Astradyne and the crowd roaring at Billy’s violin section in that song. Very emotional and we knew you were back. Oh, and not forgetting Mr X of course!
Thank you. We made a definite decision to not foolishly ‘contemporise’ any of the songs, we felt that they all pretty much held up despite the passage of time. We were committed to really attack the arrangements and the playing.
You’ve a new Ultravox album in the pipeline, the first with the classic line up for 25 years – if you tour that, you will have to remember us in Aylesbury – we have a big shiny new venue now!
I look forward to seeing it. The new album will have mixed reactions, there’s no way we can compete with ourselves over material which fans have assimilated into their lives for all these years. Even back in the day, it was a common reaction for people to be unsure of each new album until they’d had time to come to terms with it. But I’m very happy with what we’re doing and it will be great to play some of it for our audience.
Warren, thanks for your time and best wishes from everyone at Friars Aylesbury.
[Source: with kind permission by Mike O'Connor, www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk]
Mr X - Interview with WARREN CANN of ULTRAVOX
Warren Cann is best known as a founder member of ULTRAVOX. Born in Vancouver, he began a love of electronics and music that led him to moving to the UK to make his fortune as a drummer. He auditioned for SPARKS but didn't get offered the job. Eventually though in 1974 via a small ad in Melody Maker, he joined the band TIGER LILY who were later to become ULTRAVOX! Led by Dennis Leigh aka JOHN FOXX, their first two albums Ultravox! And Ha-Ha-Ha fused the art school spirit of THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, DAVID BOWIE and ROXY MUSIC with the pioneering Teutonic inventiveness of KRAFTWERK and NEU!
Working with producers Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite, Cann became fascinated with the use of guitar effects to treat drums and played around with early rhythm units as ULTRAVOX! started to incorporate more electronics into their work. For their third album Systems Of Romance, ULTRAVOX (now with no exclamation mark!) found their perfect bedfellow in the legendary producer Conny Plank who had previously worked with KRAFTWERK and NEU! It was Plank who said "I like synthesizers when they sound like synthesizers, not when they sound like natural instruments. I like them to have their own colours. The strange areas of colours that you can do with synthesizers is what's interesting for me, not just copying an acoustic instrument."
Despite the newly focused sound, JOHN FOXX departed in 1979 to go solo. Following a brief hiatus during which main synthesist Billy Currie worked with GARY NUMAN and VISAGE with whom he met Midge Ure, the diminutive Glaswegian then joined Cann, Currie and bassist Chris Cross to become the most commercially successful version of ULTRAVOX. Over a period of four years, they conquered Europe with their brand of symphonic synthesized rock with classic albums such as Vienna, Rage in Eden, Quartet and Lament. Along with the rest of the band, Cann's continued innovative use of new technology integrated with conventional instruments pushed boundaries and challenged perceptions of how electronics could be used in music. Shedding the sweat and armbands image of the rock drummer, he became the metronomic meister of the rhythm box.
As well as using drum machines, Cann made use of early manually operated electronic percussion such as the Claptrap as heard onNew Europeans, and the Synare III which provided the 'thunder' sound on Vienna. He developed a sequencer for use in tandem with Chris Cross' Minimoog which featured on the single The Thin Wall among others. And he was also one of the first drummers to acquire the Linn LM-1, the first programmable digital drum computer.
Indeed, Cann had eventually acquired so much equipment that it was all packed into a huge complex next to his drum kit and nicknamed 'The Iron Lung' by the rest of the band. At the height of ULTRAVOX, 'The Iron Lung' contained the Simmons SDSIII, SDSV and SDSVII drum synthesizers, Roland TR77 and CR78 drum machines, a Linn LM-1, a LinnDrum, the Sequential Circuits Drumtraks and various effects processors like the Roland Space-Echo.
Despite their success and an appearance at Live Aid, ULTRAVOX imploded with Cann being forced to leave the band in 1986 before recording of what became the disastrous U-Vox album and their eventual demise. Continuing to work as a musician but eventually transferring to guitar and keyboards, he moved to Los Angeles where he still resides.
Fast forward to 2008 and the classic line-up of Cann, Cross, Currie and Ure reformed to celebrate their musical legacy on the ever expanding Return To Eden tour. While he was in Scandinavia playing festivals with ULTRAVOX during the summer, Warren Cann took time out to talk to The Electricity Club about his innovative career and the current reunion.
Looking back at both Foxx and Ure era's of ULTRAVOX, you harnessed the development of synthesizer technology and electronic percussion, pioneering its use in both studio and live work in the late 70s. How do you feel about your role in all of that?
I'm very proud of it. It was very hard work - at the time, there were so many obstacles between what I wanted to do and what the technology would allow you to do... very frustrating! A lot of ingenuity went into trying to coax the machines to give the results desired as, in those days, the machines hadn't yet realized they were instruments.
Can you remember what your first drum machine was and what it was like to use?
Of course. It was a Roland TR-77. No memory, no tempo display, no individual outputs, no programmability! It was incredibly primitive by today's standards but at the time, this was about as high-tech as you could get for a drum machine.
Is it true you wired a volt meter in series with your drum machine and stuck tape on the dial to mark the appropriate tempos for each individual song?
Controllable and repeatable tempo settings are vital when using a drum machine. The TR-77 had no tempo display to tell you the beats per minute (BPM), it only had a fader to control the tempo and the sensitivity was very coarse; you only had to look at it to make the speed jump by a huge amount. Trying to get tempo changes from song to song in a live setting was very hit-or-miss... almost always miss!
To solve this, I had a second potentiometer wired up with the first one to give a 'Coarse/Fine' set of controls. This gave a much more useable degree of control. Then, to actually work out what the tempo would be, I connected a volt meter with an LED readout to the clocking circuit... this gave a DC voltage and I could just read the display and make a note of the number - it was an arbitrary voltage, but it corresponded directly to the speed and that solved the problem. If the correct speed of the song gave a voltage reading of 11.45 volts, then I could simply adjust the fader till the clock voltage read that value!
Mr X had its origins in the John Foxx-era of ULTRAVOX but with you on lead vocals and you wrote a fair proportion of the lyrics for the Vienna album. When John Foxx left and before Midge Ure joined, was there ever any consideration given to you perhaps becoming the new lead vocalist of ULTRAVOX?
Yes, I wrote about half of the lyrics for the Vienna album. No, there was no thought of me being the lead vocalist at that time.
Your acquisition of the Linn Drum Computer must have been quite a revelation? In your opinion, how did this and machines like it change popular music forever?
Yes, I got the Linn LM-1 when I was working with Hans Zimmer on our HELDEN album. While still very primitive, I'd consider it the first true modern drum machine and it was like going from a VW Beetle to a Ferrari. It's hard to give such a big question a brief answer. Drum machines lent a new dimension to music on two fronts; one, the hypnotic element given by perfect unwavering tempo, and two, the ability to endlessly layer, edit, and re-edit rhythm tracks.
What of your contributions to ULTRAVOX songs are you personally most proud of?
As a band, ULTRAVOX never wrote music unless we were all together in the same room - this is very rare. We would throw ideas back and forth in infinite combinations until we'd achieved what we wanted to hear. We all influenced each other. As such, it's almost impossible to pick out specific pieces or themes. I'm proud that my ideas and attitudes contributed to making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Still, if I had to pick just one... I'd say when I played the Vienna rhythm to the band and said, "How about this?"
ULTRAVOX rhythmically had always been an even mix of real drums and drum machines but on 1984's Lament album, there was noticeably more 'programmed' percussion than on previous albums. Was there any particular reason for this? And did it ultimately lead to the tensions which led to you leaving in 1986 prior to the recording of the U-Vox album?
No particular reason, it just worked out that way. And it certainly didn't lead to the reasons I left.
What did you do after that? Was a solo music career ever a consideration?
I made some demos which were not well received by Chrysalis... they thought the tracks were too much like IGGY POP which I took as a great, if entirely unexpected, compliment! I did a lot of session work; 7000 Danses by INDOCHINE, lots of television shows for KIM WILDE and produced demos for aspiring bands. I joined a band called THE SONS OF VALENTINO and had a great time, but then I left to play guitar and keyboards for THE HUW LLOYD-LANGTON GROUP. I later moved to Los Angeles to pursue a future in film scoring.
How did you get the call about the 30th Anniversary ULTRAVOX reunion and what was your initial reaction?
Like the others, I received an e-mail from a previous manager, Chris O'Donnell, who was now with Live Nation. He said it was their opinion at LN that now just might be a good time to consider reforming and playing some shows. To our surprise, we all agreed with him!
The DVD footage of you meeting the guys again for the first time at the rehearsals for Return To Eden brought a lump to my throat. How was it all for you?
Yes, it was quite emotional. And very surreal... we were all aware of the many years that have passed, yet at the same time, it was like only yesterday.
How did you cope with getting back into the rhythm of playing drums again after over 20 years?
To be absolutely honest, far more easily than I'd anticipated! Like riding a bicycle...
Did you have much opportunity to do any of the drum programming for the tour or had that been pretty much completed before you joined full band rehearsals. How did you find using the 'new' technology?
I did the programming for the songs that required it during the first week or so of rehearsals, then fine-tuned as necessary. As for the 'new' technology, you have to see it from my point of view; I was merely learning some new software, I didn't have to learn what was going on - I merely had to learn the eccentricities of a sequencing program I hadn't used before, the principles are all the same. The greatest benefit was being able to condense and 'miniaturize'. Instead of having a huge rack of hardware to make noise with, it could all be contained within a laptop.
What probably had the greatest impact was not our ability to streamline the amount of equipment we had to deal with - great as that was - but being able to eliminate the old-style on-stage monitoring system. Instead of having a smaller version of the out-front sound system pointing at us so we could adequately hear each other, we used the 'In-Ears' system of super hi-fi ear phones which gave each of us an individual and repeatable mix for each song. It cut our soundcheck time from two or three hours to an easy fifteen minutes. It also enabled us, when necessary, to not do a soundcheck at all (most festivals, for example). Fantastic!
And when you finally got on stage, how did you feel about the ecstatic reaction you were getting at the shows? What were the personal highlights for you?
It was amazing! Truly! The personal highlights were going onstage together at the first show in Edinburgh (... another surreal moment!) and playing at Hammersmith in London (we always considered that venue as 'home').
What next for you? Will there be further tours from ULTRAVOX or even the possibility of new material?
As I write this, we're playing concerts in Sweden, Finland and the UK. As for further tours and/or new material... you'll just have to wait and see!
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to Warren Cann
British Drum Icon - Warren Cann
HE’S the drummer behind one of the most recognisable beats in music history.
He’s also one of the pioneers of electronic drums, a visionary who saw the potential behind the odd-looking boxes of tricks and explored further, always pushing the boundaries.
Yet Warren Cann appears to have been overlooked for his contribution to music. With some B-sides, he was coming up with what would become the norm in techno, drum ‘n’ bass (or in this case drum ‘n’ synth) and rave music years later.
He was the driving force in the critically-acclaimed early incarnation of Ultravox! (the ‘!’ was dropped after the second album), with John Foxx as lead singer, and then the reinvented Ultravox with Midge Ure as frontman.
And in April 2009, for the first time since Live Aid in 1985, he will take to the stage with a reformed Ultravox for a sell-out UK tour.
"The reaction from people around me has been "Are you excited?", he laughs. "No, I’m concerned. Once things are sounding right and I’m out there, then I can get excited.
"We all got an e-mail from Chris O''Donnell [one time Ultravox manager] about eight months ago. He said the feeling in Britain was that it would be a very good time to think about getting back together for a reunion tour.
We got in touch with each other and said ‘Why not?’ That’s how it came about."
And it gives the Los Angeles-based sticksman another opportunity, or 16, to play that drumbeat – ‘Vienna’. With the thunder-style answer to the simple bass drum call it helped create an atmosphere which might be hackneyed now, but was groundbreaking at the time. There had never been anything like it, and arguably, certainly in terms of drum patterns, there hasn’t been anything like it since.
"It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I own that pattern. It was different and nobody had done it before. As a drummer there were certain patterns, like Charlie Watts on ''Get Off Of My Cloud'' or Ringo on ''Tomorrow Never Knows,'' that were just so special and memorable. I had always thought I would love to come up with something like that.
"When we wrote ‘Vienna’, I think it took about two hours. Half the song we already had; we had this thing floating around that we were trying to put in a song, but so far hadn’t found the right niche.
Vienna... THAT drum pattern
"I had that pattern. It was electronic and it was percussive. I was messing about with a small electronic percussion unit called a Synare III. You''d have heard it on some disco records, and I can’t tell you how much I hated that noise, but by playing around I came up with the thunder sound, all rumbly and rolling. It was exciting. I blended it with the kick and snare pattern I wanted to use and played it to the guys, just put it together and said ‘How about it?’ They just instantly fell into it and we had the song in a remarkably short time."
And after the ignominy of being dropped by their previous record company, despite critical acclaim and a successful, self-sponsored tour of America, Ultravox was suddenly being noticed.
The Vienna album yielded five chart-placed records and appearances on Top Of The Pops. Aside from the frustration of the innovative title track ultimately being kept off the top spot by a novelty record, Cann and Ultravox had finally arrived.
But Cann is arguably one of music’s unlucky heroes. He could have been a household name, yet was always at the front of musical revolutions, never quite riding the crest of the waves which followed.
Born in Canada to British parents, and proudly British, Cann arrived in London as a teenager after playing grueling sets in Canadian and American strip clubs similar to the Hamburg scene which had been a fertile apprenticeship for The Beatles and dozens of other British groups musically.
"We were playing everything from the Top 40; Beatles, Stones, Who, Yardbirds, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and Joe Tex when it was still new, when it hadn’t been played relentlessly for 40 years," he recalls. "It honed my chops pretty early on."
But London was a different experience. He hooked up with future Hawkwind guitarist Huw Lloyd-Langton and encountered sundry colourful characters in London''s scene before linking up with his future Ultravox! bandmates in Tiger Lily. Fame came with a cover of Fats Waller’s ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ which was used as the title music to a porn movie. It was a paying gig which allowed the group crucial studio time and the chance to record their own song for the B-side.
Inspired by drummers like Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts and John Bonham, as well as Keith Moon and Ginger Baker, Cann proved his versatility on vinyl and live. Witness his frantic, ultra-fast playing on ‘Fear In The Western World’ and ‘Distant Smile’ on Ha! Ha! Ha!, Ultravox!’s two finger salute to the critics, or his measured and mesmeric playing on the Roxy Music-inspired ‘Dangerous Rhythm’ from the earlier Ultravox! album. Cann was a musician for all occasions. He even took lead vocals on ‘Mr. X’, an album track on Vienna, and ‘Paths And Angles’, which was a B-side.
Early Ultravox!... complete with the exclamation mark
He was an early exponent of drum machines. He was one of the first musicians in the country to get hold of Roland’s TR77, then the ground-breaking follow-up CR78, plus the first Simmons drums and the first Linn LM-1.
Typically, Cann had harnessed the effects of these rhythm boxes for one of the classic John Foxx-era Ultravox! tracks, ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’, but it would be left to another drummer, one Phil Collins, to make the world sit up and notice the drum machine on his hit solo offering ‘In The Air Tonight’.
Cann was blazing a trail for others to follow. He was proving what could be done, pointing the direction for others. "We were always ahead of the curve," he says philosophically. With John Foxx, Ultravox never had a hit, but others inspired by the group were hit-makers, most famously Gary Numan.
Playing-wise, Cann’s flirtation with technology was to lead him in a different direction, shedding the rock drummer persona to become a metronomic master. Playing along with precise computerised rhythms proved a different challenge to simply locking with a bass player.
"There’s more to it than meets the eye," he admits. "It’s harder than playing ''freeform,'' for want of a better term. Depending on how you look at it, though, you might as well be playing to a click track.
"I hate playing to click tracks because when you are right on the click, it disappears. But I loved playing to pre-determined bass pulses. You’ve got to be there with good meter and not just in there, but be comfortable and play with feeling. It’s like playing with a super accurate bass player. Of course, the true element of fascination with these machines was that no-one had heard perfect rhythm before. It did not just improve my time-keeping, it improved everybody’s time-keeping.
"I’ve always admired simplicity. Some drummers want to hit lots of things because they can, but then you look at what Ringo and Charlie Watts were doing. My idols were simple but brilliant players who made magic. They weren’t setting out to prove anything. It was all about playing for the song."
Cann’s interest in machinery and technology went far beyond what was commercially available. He tinkered with the circuits inside the strange-looking boxes to get new and different sounds. He altered factory presets beyond recognition and took the technology to its limit – and sometimes beyond. And not always with the blessing of the companies or their agents. "Roland kicked me out of their lab and yelled at their tech guy when they realized my CR-78 wasn’t actually faulty – we were hot-rodding it."
"When I started using a drum machine we wanted to experiment with this totally new technology. It was new to us and new to a hell of a lot of people. Things happened. It brought to our attention psychological aspects we never expected. In rehearsals because you were not in ''real time,'' you could experiment and find an absolute knife-edge tempo whereupon everything in the song balanced just perfectly, but it was always a nightmare to try and find again.
Warren with the Fairlight and massive modular synth
"In those days it was incredibly difficult to reproduce the same effect or sound twice. I hacked into a machine and used a cheap LED multi-meter which I set to read a DC voltage linked to the clock circuit. The read-out numbers mean nothing as far as BPM was concerned, but that specific voltage related to the timing of the clock - so I could set my tempo to match a given number and the speed would always be the same. Quick and dirty tempo display! I also wired in a separate potentiometer, which allowed me to fine tune the tempo. I had to, as the usual speed controls were always so coarse on those things that if you even looked at it sideways, the tempo jumped a mile.
"At one gig I started off the machine and it sounded like it was at totally the wrong speed. I got dagger looks from the rest of the band. But it was the right tempo. It just seemed slower because our adrenalin had kicked in. Just one small example of things to digest as we delved further into what drum machines could do."
Cann put the sounds he was making through a guitar amp, and through guitar effects pedals. "In the studio I''d already been running my acoustic kit through various distortion units, so this step was a natural." He also found a way to send the sound through a Moog [synthesizer] and then managed to come up with a sequencer-type box which could come up with complex and accurate patterns. Eventually these formed a bass line which linked in with Cann’s own drum machine or alongside his acoustic drums. The bass pattern on hit single The Thin Wall is an example of the bass patterns Cann could manufacture with Ultravox bassist Chris Cross.
"This was in the days long before MIDI. We were pushing the envelope and it was quite frightening live. We were all up to our ankles in wires and bits of kit and ended up requiring our own tech-engineer to take care of the machines.
"On one tour I had a tower next to my acoustic kit. It contained three different Simmons units – an SDS3, SDS5 and SDS7 – plus a Roland TR77 and CR78, a Linn LM-1, a LinnDrum, a Sequential Circuits Drumtrax, various FX units like a Roland Space-Echo, and completed by a 16-channel mixing desk and power amps. As it was pre-MIDI, I had to use five or six different drum machines. There always seemed to be a feature in one that you didn’t get with the others: so, if we''d written and recorded a song based on a particular aspect of that drum machine, then I had to use the same thing for live."
At one early gig, the audience were unsure what Cann was doing in the background, having vacated the drum stool on his acoustic kit to put a drum machine through its paces.
"Someone asked if I had been reading a book," he laughs. "I immediately got rid of all the MDF cases with vinyl woodgrain and stuck the TR77 into a clear Perspex case with lots of little LED lights that flashed. I went from reading a book to being the mad scientist on stage. Much better."
The Roland CR78 was a huge improvement on the company’s first offering, the TR77, and the user could actually program a rhythm of their own. But Cann wanted more. He opened up the machine and took a tiny non-conductive screwdriver to its insides to get more sounds. "The sounds were made by analogue circuits, so you could tweak values which would have an effect on the sounds."
"Drum machines have now been assimilated into music so much that no-one thinks anything about it, but we were having fun and I was always experimenting. On our first tour to America in 1979 I had one of the very first gadgets from Dave Simmons whom at the time was working out of the back of the record shop he ran in High Barnet. It was called a ClapTrap, a metal case with knobs on it and about the size of a small box of chocolates. It was pretty much a one-trick pony as all it did was create handclaps.
"It was crude but brilliant. I would keep it under the heel of my left foot, and using heel-to-toe onto a non-latching footswitch could get handclap sounds while I was playing.
"The reality was that because we modified stuff so much to make it do what we wanted it to, they were difficult to fix and impossible to replace if anything went wrong. Which put us in the very vulnerable position of having one-off equipment. Plus, I wasn''t using this stuff in the safety net of a studio, I was using it all live.
"If it went bad on stage, you couldn’t do much. Perhaps if we''d only written one or two songs around the machines it wouldn’t have been so bad, but we had written the majority of our songs around them in one jigsaw way or another.
"Consequently we were very focused. This meant we got a bit of a reputation for being po-faced onstage, which we weren’t. Privately, we were anything but.
"We eventually finessed it to the point where things weren''t quite as liable to melt down, but there was always a large element of luck involved. When we did Live Aid we were trying to enjoy ourselves, but were also aware something could go wrong at any moment. We were just praying the equipment would hold up."
In 1980 Cann expanded his musical horizons by hooking up with future award-winning Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer in the project Helden. This included a critically-acclaimed series of performances at London’s Planetarium using multiple then cutting-edge CMI Fairlight synthesizers. The pair had initially worked together via The Buggles, which resulted in the chart-topping ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’. "I just went along as a bod and played drums on Top Of The Pops for them! I played on ‘Living In The Plastic Age’."
... and with the modern graphics for the Best Of...
"Ultravox was becoming more commercial with every album," he remembers. "Helden was more of an outlet for art. Hans and I were determined to go in exactly the opposite direction from any conventional music-biz way of doing things. On reflection, I suppose we were our own worst enemies. Our gig at The Planetarium was pretty "out there." In the studio with Helden, we''d found when we muted all the faders for the conventional instrument tracks, the remaining synth tracks of strings, brass and percussion were virtually classical music. So, just for the Planetarium shows, we decided to turn Helden''s songs into classical pieces. We did it just the two of us. Although Fairlights were rare and extremely expensive, we had some connections and managed to borrow Kate Bush’s and John Paul Jones’ plus a couple of others that were in the country.
"The gig was successful, but we did ourselves out of a record deal by saying we would have different singers and musicians for each album. Record companies didn’t see sense in having a hit record and then changing the line-up… what a surprise. Reps said the gig was phenomenal and amazing, but there was no offer to back it up."
Meanwhile, tempers were fraying in Ultravox and after the Live Aid performance Cann was told he was no longer wanted. "I was fired. Things were coming to a head between Midge and I. We were all burned out. We were all frazzled. In those circumstances, everyone says and does things they regret later."
Cann linked up with The Sons Of Valentino, but quit drumming and left to pursue playing rhythm guitar and keyboards. He again played with Huw Lloyd-Langton in this new capacity and later relocated to Hollywood in the hope of following in the musical footsteps of Zimmer. He scored a few low budget films and ended up writing a few scripts and enjoying a few acting roles before stepping out of the public eye – until the Ultravox reunion call came through.
"I’ve got a rehearsal studio that I go to and play along with the tracks," he reveals. "That’s been working out well. When I’m not doing that I’m busy programming."
The one-time Ludwig player will be playing a Yamaha Oak Custom, paired with Zildjian cymbals. And it will be a different kettle of fish to the days when programming a drum pattern for one song could take many hours of painstaking computer wizardry.
"On one tour, I calculated that, in total, the amount of time I had to just relax, look out into the audience and enjoy the gig was about 15 seconds. Not in one chunk but over the span of the gig, because I was always busy playing or programming for upcoming songs or both. Sometimes I had to keep the rhythm going one-handed while I hit switches with the other to prepare for an upcoming song.
"It’s going to be quite different this time. I shall be using a Yamaha DTX Extreme and a MacBook Pro, with sampled sounds. I will be a little more relaxed."
Interview - Mark Forster
A conversation with Warren Cann
Ultravox, gyrating through years of style and lineup changes created some of the most memorable music in the late 1970's and 1980's, and has come to define New Wave in every sense of the word. For those of us who are fans of this band, no introduction is necessary. As for others, this band leads the lineup as one of the most influential artists to the early adapters of the Electronic genre to come out of that era. Ultravox existed at a time when music had a soul, a heart, and was life itself. Those times are gone, but not the memories of how it felt to hear "Vienna" or "New Europeans" for the first time and how "The Voice" carried you to another place, a better place. Warren Cann has generously responded to the EGN interview via email and provides some very detailed accounts on how he came to be in Ultravox and how the band evolved and created the music loved by so many of us, today. Thank you, Warren for bringing these writings to the Electrogarden Network.
EN: How did you become a member of Ultravox? What are some details that aren't so well known?
Warren: I was looking for a band who had that indefinable special something. It was a great time in London… the days of Bowie, T-Rex, The Sweet, Gary Glitter. But, for all of the great bands, there were easily a thousand bad ones. I saw quite a few of them!
One of the venues I used to go to a lot was a rock pub near my flat in Fulham called, "The Greyhound." A lot of bands were trading on gimmicks in their effort to be noticed; there was one lot who dressed in medieval monk robes (think "In The Name of The Rose"), there was another who looked like refugees from "Pirates of Penzance," complete with stripey socks and parrot-on-shoulder. Of course, every once in awhile there would be a great band, one who had the substance to go somewhere.
There was one group, and I honestly can't remember their name, who particularly impressed me. I walked up to the mixing desk asking if anyone was the band's manager. This one guy said, "Yeah, I'm their manager." I asked to have a quick chat with him and bought him a drink.
I told him I thought the band was happening, but that their drummer was only average, whereas I was great. I said that, if they were truly serious about making progress, they owed it to themselves to make a change and offered my services. What a cheek, eh? Well, I was desperate to get my teeth into something. I'd been farting around for months (seemed like forever) trying to find a band. At that point, I wasn't above making a bold move.
He was rather taken aback but, to his credit (and I say "to his credit" because, were it me, I'd have probably said "Fuck off!"), he said, "Uh… I admire your style. But we're happy with the way things are right now. Best of luck to you."
Really wish I could remember their name.
I'd been pouring over the "Musicians Wanted" adverts in "Melody Maker" and had encountered my fair share of nutters and no-hopers. "Yes, my brother's girlfriend's aunt knows a guy who sometimes works for the chap who fixes Marc Bolan's guitars… so, he's going to help us form a band!"
I had previously joined my first London band but it only lasted for a few months before I left. It was called "Thumper" or "Magill," not sure which. Huw Lloyd-Langton (from "Hawkwind," later of "Widowmaker"), was the guitarist. Rob Rawlins (later of Ian Hunter's "Overnight Angels") played bass.
We never did any gigs. We just seemed to rehearse forever, endlessly rearranging the same five or six songs. I remember my attitude was, "Rather than completely tear apart and rewrite this perfectly good song, why don't we just write a whole new one? Then maybe we'll have enough songs to do a gig!" Perplexed and a wee bit fed-up, I left after being pressured one-too-many times by their manager to sign a long-term contract with them.
My further experiences with the "Wanted" adverts continued. On one occasion, I answered an advert for "Sparks." Thinking I might have a bit of an edge as I was, at the time, probably one of the few people in the U.K. who'd heard of them, I went along and met Russell and Ron Mael.
We chatted over cigarettes and coffee. To my great exasperation, they weren't very interested in discussing any of my musical exploits or interests whatsoever. It seemed all they wanted to talk about were good restaurants! Next…!
In retrospect, I may have been too earnest for my own good. I wasn't in the mood for wacky - that would come later!
Finally I thought, "This is it… I'm not going to bother with these anymore, it's a waste of bloody time. But I will just send this one last reply off into the void and see what happens." Then I thought, "Might as well make it a good one." And I did. I wrote something completely preposterous along the lines of, "Look no more, boys. Your troubles are over - I'm here!" I posted it and then pretty much forgot all about it.
Until a week or three later when I got a phone call from some chap named Dennis Leigh. He came round to my Finsbury Park flat with an acoustic and played me a few of his songs. I liked the songs and liked his lyrical style. I was intrigued.
I subsequently went along one afternoon to a room at the Royal College of Art to meet the band, such as it was. I was introduced to Chris Allen (bass) and Steve Shears (guitar). I set my kit up and we messed around for awhile.
While it may just be my take on the encounter, I think what impressed them was my suggestion of not just aimlessly jamming, but to take one of their songs and spend our time working it up. I'd had a lot of experience in my previous bands with structure and arranging, I couldn't help but draw upon that.
My initial impressions of the band weren't too favourable. Dennis was no great vocalist but he made up for it with an excellent sense of melody and his lyrics. Chris was a good bassist and I was enjoying playing with him. Steve was undeniably the worst guitarist I'd ever played with (my apologies, Steve…) I figured, "What the hell… might as well. I haven't played my kit for ages (can't play drums in a tiny flat!) and this'll at least stop me from getting rusty until something better comes along."
When we started packing the gear up, I stood to one side with Dennis and quietly told him, "Yeah. Ok. I'll give it a go." He replied, "Alright, but, you know… I'd like to talk it over with the chaps first."
Oops! In my focus, I'd sort of overlooked that. "Er… yeah… right… of course."
As we know, I got the gig. It was 1974.
It only took one or two rehearsals before it began to dawn on me, "Hmmm… I really think there might be something here…" And that was the beginning of the band. We did our first gig in Chorley, Lancashire, a few months later. Some weeks after that, we did our first London gig; the Marquee in Wardour Street.
EN: Ultravox worked with some prestigious producers: Brian Eno, Steve Lillywhite, Connie Plank, George Martin. Can you compare the experience of working with Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite?
Warren: I lived in a pretty beat-up place in North London, just around the corner from the Friern Barnet Mental Hospital. We didn't have a front door; the landlord had kicked it in one day in his quest to retrieve rent from one of my flatmates. Occasionally, some of the patients would stroll in during one of their walkies. We were an assorted bunch but I was pretty much the hard-core muso of the house. Except for the time I shared with a nutter named Keith Levine.
He was a guitarist and had heard some of our rehearsal tapes. He kept pestering me to join the band, "C'mon! I'm a much better guitarist than your guy!" I'd say, "Listen, Keith… all you ever listen to is all that fucking widdly-widdly jazz-rock Frank Zappa/Todd Rundgren "Utopia" crap… Forget It!" (By the way, for those who actually care about such things, I liked "The Nazz," just nothing after.)
Keith went on to join a band. Months later, I was walking down Islington one night on my way to a gig at the "Screen on The Green." Just up from the cinema, I saw Keith and a few guys I recognized lurking about in a chip shop doorway." I said hello but was totally blanked as I walked by. "Oh… it's like that. Ok…" Keith had joined the Clash as second guitarist.
But what a gig that night. The bill was: "The Sex Pistols," "The Clash," and "The Buzzcocks."
Anyway, there was a chap who had the room next to me and one night I came home from band rehearsal to find a note from him on my door. It read something like, "I've met a chap with access to a studio. Want to meet him?"
I didn't have to think that over for more than, oh… say, a second, before deciding, "Yes."
Bear in mind, this was late 1975 or early 1976. Studios were, for the most part, the entirely monopolistic realm of big-money record companies. No digital portastudios! The other only people with access to studios were rock star aristocracy who'd spent fortunes kitting out their place with a multi-track machine / desk combo which, I should remind you again, was the only option of the day for "home" recording. The price tag of a Studer 24-track recorder alone would - today - fund an entire personal studio/writing suite. Maybe the whole house.
I was told by my mate that the guy's name was Steve Lillywhite and was duly warned that he looked pretty young, but to not let that put me off; he worked as an engineer at Phonogram Studios at Marble Arch.
Young? When I met him for the first time, Steve looked like he was about twelve! He just had one of those faces.
Steve told me he worked at Phonogram as a junior engineer. One day he'd be doing rock with "Status Quo," the next he'd be miking up didgeridoos for Rolf Harris! He said that he was allowed to take people into the studio on weekends or dead days to record them to help polish his skills.
Duly impressed, I brought this news to the band and we went on to take as much advantage of this wonderful opportunity as we could. We didn't have any money to make demo tapes with, this was a pure gift; entree into a major recording studio.
We spent many sleepless weekends there. We'd go in as early as we could Friday or Saturday, then drag ourselves out just as the cleaners were coming in on Monday morning. We learned a lot about the recording process, it was quite an education. Just as an example, there were no remote tape transports then. We'd take turns "Tape-opping" in the machine room; you'd make your notes from the machine's counter and sit there waiting for the intercom to say, "Wind back to the first chorus."
Steve was an easy going guy who we clicked with. Later, when I had more experience in such things, I realized he possessed the quintessential "engineer" attitude; always cheerful and upbeat, always ready, always paying attention, always keeping his mouth shut unless asked his opinion. And we asked a lot! Naturally, Steve knew the studio environment a million times better than us, but he never took advantage of that knowledge to push us into doing things "his" way (as many others might do). We climbed onto the learning curve with gusto. It was an enjoyable experience which directly lead to us insisting that we record our first album with him as engineer.
Our demo sessions produced a series of tapes which ultimately got us our first deal with Island Records. We felt his contribution to the experience of making the record merited us giving him a co-producer credit.
We were asked by Island whom we had in mind as "producer." We told them we were going to produce it ourselves, but were interested in collaborating with Brian Eno. As Roxy were on Island, this wasn't too hard to set up and I'm sure they were eager to have someone there - even if tangentially - to keep an eye on us. For our part, we were keen to work with Eno as our impression of him was that he was a real studio wizard completely au fait with all manner of exotic recording techniques.
We had a fascinating time with him, but it was usually when the tape wasn't running and we were just gabbing about music. We discovered that Eno was far more interested in the process than its result. Not quite what we had in mind. This wasn't anything we couldn't comfortably work around while we were putting music to tape, but it was a different story come time to mix the tracks. We gave him carte blanche to mix some of the tracks and ended up not liking what we heard at all.
We were too embarrassed (let's just say we preferred a more diplomatic approach) to offend him by telling him we weren't about to use any of his mixes. So, we didn't and we didn't. Still, to our surprise (we were still quite green), when the record came out we saw many a press critique which began, "The indelible stamp of Eno is all over this etc. etc."
Even though we had firmly produced the record ourselves, we gave Brian a co-producer credit. The cachet of his name ended up working both to our advantage and disadvantage. It was a start. Live and learn.
As far as the differences between the two, don't forget we were working with both of them on that first record. Steve was the constant, he was there the whole time and did all of the recording/engineering. Eno kind of came and went, though on a regular basis. Steve was very professional and technically adept, Eno was intellectually fascinating but - at least at that point in time - very non-technical. Eno mixed about half of the tracks with Steve assisting, later we remixed everything with just Steve. Rather than that first album, it might have proved very interesting to have done "Lament" with Eno.
We did the second album, "Ha! Ha! Ha!" with Steve Lillywhite. There weren't any producers we wanted to work with except for Chris Thomas who'd done Roxy Music, then the Sex Pistols. but the approaches we made were rebuffed.
Our interest in Kraftwerk and Neu led us to Conny Plank. He'd stopped working with them after their early albums because he thought they gone commercial and sold out. What a guy!
He was, at least with us, not a producer, per say. But he was such a great engineer, such a soundscape-painter in love with sonics, that we felt compelled to credit him with co-production.
The language barrier would occasionally crop up, though that was usually our fault; our German wasn't good enough to eloquently translate, "Make it sound like the whole track is swirling down into the plug hole at the end of the bathtub."
He was a very patient and talented man. We were fortunate to work with him.
EN: How was it working with George Martin?
Warren: One of the most pleasurable meetings of my life was spending time with George Martin. He was eminently knowledgeable and truly charming, a gentleman I always privately thought of as "Sir George," long before that was made reality by a subsequent honours list.
Our choice of working with George was another example of a great idea - certainly to us - which backfired and was totally misinterpreted by everyone else, or so it seemed.
We wanted to work with George Martin; the man who produced the making of what is considered one of, if not The, greatest albums of all time… Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
But we got slammed for working with "Mr. Mainstream." We'd lost it and had "sold out." Hey! This was the guy whose work on that pioneering record has been assimilated by every band on the planet. Of whom it's been said, "… the man who put on record the band who changed the world."
The press just didn't get it!
When we approached him we were well aware that he'd been working with more, shall we say, conservative acts. We made it clear we weren't wallflowers in the studio… if we needed to bring in fifty washing machines, fill them full of rocks, mic them up, and turn them all to spin-cycle - then we'd do it. We were very up front about it. We were game for anything.
During the recording of "Quartet," I often sat there thinking, "Wow! Pinch me! I'm working with George Martin and Geoff Emerick, producer and engineer of Sgt. Pepper!!"
It didn't turn out quite as we'd imagined. Perhaps George was tired or perhaps we were suffering from our own misconceptions, but it was a rather sedate experience and not the liberating sonic voyage we were expecting. However, I wouldn't trade that adventure for anything.
By the way, it says "produced by George Martin" because that was in the contract as a condition of working with him. A concession we were happy to make.
EN: What influences shaped the band's sound through the years?
Warren: Like most musicians, we were magpies. Whenever we heard something we liked, we'd file it away - it might express itself one way or another at a later date.
In the beginning, it was a mixture of all the great British bands who'd gone before; the Stones, the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, and the Small Faces. Then stuff like Bowie, Roxy, Glitter, T-Rex.
Mixed in were a few of the classic American rockers and popsters; Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison etc. etc. Then not much up until The Doors. Then not much again until you get to the Velvet Underground. There was a time when "White Heat White Light" and "Waiting For The Man" played on an endless loop in my head as the soundtrack to my life. Dennis (John Foxx) liked the New York Dolls but I was never much of a fan (I preferred Johnny Thunders). Even so, it all hinged upon individual songs, rather than the whole deal. As a band, we always tended to find our common ground with the songs, rather than the artists.
At the time, we were very interested in taking the melodic structure and sensibility of pure pop and marrying it with dark and twisted lyrics. That quickly morphed out of that format into longer and more musically dense arrangements. The short compact songs we'd been writing elongated into four and five minute pieces. It was ironic that the soon heralded punk ethic of really short songs dictated we be slammed for our "indulgent" arrangements… we thought, "Been there. Done that. What kept you?"
EN: In your opinion, were there any bands from that era (1977-1984) that did not get the credit they deserved?
Warren: Yes. Definitely. In no particular order…
The Heavy Metal Kids - We supported them on our first London gig (or maybe it was Chris Spedding's "Sharks" and the Kids were the second Marquee show… one or the other). I used to go to the Marquee to see them and thought they were terrific. Maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but great songs and a great show. They went on to make three albums but never achieved the degree of success they deserved.
While never close to them, in later times I became bumping-into-buddies with the singer, Gary Holton. Of course, I spent so much time in London's nightlife that it was hard not to run into people constantly. He ended up badly which was such a terrible shame.
Ronny - Just "Ronny." We were friends for years and I never did know her last name, it honestly never occurred to me to ask her. She was an unfathomably gorgeous French woman who'd once been a "Bluebell" dancer in Paris at Le Lido. She gave up modeling to come to London to make it as a singer.
I met her backstage at one of our gigs when Midge, who'd been producing some tracks for her, introduced us. Ronny wasn't a "pop" artist so much as a pop chanteuse, a torch singer. Her voice, while not virtuosic in the conventional sense, was utterly compelling and expressive. She could read a phone book and you'd swoon. She made Sade sound like Tweety.
Hans Zimmer and I did some gigs for her and she appears briefly on the Helden album, "Spies." Chalk it up to bad luck, bad timing, or the vagaries of the music business, but it just never worked out for her and, after a number of years getting nowhere, she gave up music and moved back to France.
Peter Godwin - He was a friend of mine and we messed about on a few things together. He's an extremely gifted writer who should've garnered far more acclaim for his talents. When I did some solo demos for Chrysalis (after being shoved from the band), he graciously suggested I cover one of his songs, "Images of Heaven." As I totally loved the song, I instantly accepted. The record company passed on it and made some comment about it sounding like Iggy Pop. Huh?? I took it as a compliment (silly bastards).
Zaine Griff - Zaine was one of the great stars who never was. I loved his voice and his songs. I remember seeing his name in the various papers in the "Gig Guides" and thought it was some kind of cowboy-thing! I can't quite remember who introduced us, but he'd been offered a gig at the Reading Festival and was putting a band together for it. The idea was to do a few gigs first as a warm-up to the festival. That's when I met Hans Zimmer.
I think that Zaine suffered from two great drawbacks which fatally hindered his future. He didn't have professional and trustworthy management, plus he just looked and sounded - according to the climate of the times - too damn much like Bowie. Not true, of course. Let's just say they were kindred spirits. But even that was too much for the style police.
Sons of Valentino - (Disclaimer: I have a vested interest!) This was a band I was in during the late eighties. It was fronted by two identical twins, Mark and Glen Robertson; just imagine two black-haired Billy Idols. I knew them for months before I could tell them apart, then I couldn't imagine not knowing the difference.
They had come to London from Colchester and found some success doing "robot" dancing in clubs and on telly. This endeavour wasn't taken at all seriously by either of them, they wanted to form a band. So far, they'd found a great guitarist, Tony Lewis, and made a few really rough demos but hadn't gotten much further. As I kept bumping into Mark in half the bars in London, we just started chatting one night. He introduced me to Glen and Tony and we'd go out on the razzle together. I liked their stuff but had no intention of joining their band, I was more interested in playing guitar and keyboards. For better or worse, I'd come to the realisation that I wasn't tired of music, I was tired of playing drums.
They finally wore me down and I agreed to join until they got somewhat established. The material was pure best-of-British rock and was completely against the grain of the times which had eroded back to indy bands shuffling around on stage, staring at their shoes.
They were great writers, better than they knew themselves. The numbers, however, were against the band as it stood: two front-men backed by bass, drums, and guitar, meant five of us. Which is fine. But I was only going to stay if we got another drummer and I shifted to rhythm guitar/keyboards (which the material certainly needed to achieve its full potential), that meant six. One too many for a band. (at least, for my taste) With great reluctance, I decided to leave and pursue my other ambitions. We remained good friends and the band stayed in London for another year or so before relocating to America where they eventually folded under exposure to bad management and too many poor choices.
Later on (out of your timeframe), I liked a New York band called "Cop Shoot Cop." I saw them at the Marquee and was impressed with what they doing. I loved one of their songs called, "$10 Bill." I suggested to someone at their London record company that their first U.K. tour be promoted with a homage to a Harvey Keitel film that was just out… "Yeah, you should bill them as, 'The Bad Lieutenants of Rock & Roll'!" While personally liking the idea, my friend said the label would be horrified.
EN: Looking back, do you have an opinion on why some bands that formed around that time are still active today and others faded away? Was there some component in the music of the 80's that transcended into the 90's and beyond?
Warren: People who are still active today, from whatever musical era they sprang from, are the ones determined enough and/or sheer bloody-minded enough to not pack it in.
There are different schools of thought on this. One is the, "Sure, the sad bastards are still doing it… 'cause they don't know how to do anything else!" Which is indubitably true for some cases, I'm sure.
There was a time when I used to think of various bands or artists (who will remain unmentioned) and I'd think, "Why the hell don't they just call it a day and bugger off!?"
Whereas now, I'll freely admit, I have begrudging respect for most - and out-and-out admiration for many - who have managed to stay the course and stick around. True, the music may not be as vital as their seminal work, but they're still out there and doing it. That counts for a lot.
As hard as it is to achieve success, it's even harder to maintain it.
There's a million reasons why artists or bands "go away." If you don't get burned out from the pressure and workload, you face the potentially fatal distractions of alcohol, drugs, and… well, alcohol and drugs. Most (note, I say "most') musicians aren't shy bashful types - that's why they got into rock bands in the first place!
It's a long list of hazards; managerial knots, legal hassles, record company in-fighting, personality conflicts, domestic strife, creative crisis, and shifting attention spans all take their toll.
I'm aware this is a generality, but it appears that every artist/band seems to have a built-in Roy Batty-like life span, after which it just loses it. It happened to us. Too bad, as I thought we still had another few years of exciting music to make.
EN: Island Records dropped the band in 1978. This prompted changes within the band, including the departure of John Foxx. What made you guys want to keep the band going?
Warren: Why wouldn't we want to keep going? We'd worked very hard and had been through so much. We had a great band, the loss of our singer wasn't about to deter us.
It's true that we were well ready to explode long before Island saw fit to drop us.
Personalities were clashing on a regular basis. Just being in the same room was becoming more and more difficult. By the time we were wrapping up our first American tour, tempers were frayed and it only took a spark, at the end of our last gig in San Francisco, to set us off.
When I joined the band I was under the impression it was an egalitarian group. As time went on, I saw that was certainly not the case. It proved in practise to be only a case of being equal when it suited the situation. It placed one in a serious dilemma; how do you resolve a situation where you've put so much work into something, but your only option appears to be to leave?
I did leave once, in fact. Back in 1976, I walked out. After about a week of losing sleep and grinding my teeth, I went back. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, truly. I felt I wasn't about to throw away something I'd put so much effort into just as we were on the very verge of getting a recording contract. So, I swallowed my pride and walked back into the rehearsal studio, set up my kit, and we just continued without anyone really saying anything more about it! Weird.
EN: It seemed as though, prior to Island letting the band go, there was some creative turmoil within the band. Was it simply a question of musical direction?
Warren: I wouldn't say it was a case of musical direction. We were all excited about where we were going with the music. "Systems of Romance" had lead to a lot of breakthroughs for us and we were eager to pursue them. It had come down to a matter of who was getting credit and to what degree. John was believing his own press and becoming too megalomaniac to effectively collaborate with.
EN: How did the decision come about regarding Midge Ure's recruitment?
Warren: We were in a tough spot. Upon returning from the States, we decided we'd look for a singer and carry on. Then Robin Simon decided to leave the band and stay put in New York. That left us looking for a singer and a guitarist. Until then, we found ourselves moonlighting to keep busy and make ends meet.
Bill did a tour with Gary Numan and was messing about with Rusty Egan (a very fine drummer, usually overlooked in lieu of his many other exploits) John McGeogh, and Barry Adamson in what became Visage. Chris was playing gigs with guitarist James Honeyman-Scott from the Pretenders and lead singer Barry Masters from Eddie & The Hot Rods. I was doing Zaine Griff and the Buggles (blame Hans for that one!) Later, when Midge was in the band, he was relief guitarist on a Thin Lizzy tour. At one point, before we "went public" with our new line-up, we were all in the charts in different bands except our own.
Rusty suggested to Bill that Midge would be just the guy for us. Bill came to Chris and I with the suggestion and we were open to it. We met Midge and immediately went to the pub. He was very keen to do something substantial and liked what we were into.
Once we'd had a play together it went well, so, we decided to go for it and see what happened.
EN: How did the band react to Midge's abilities as a singer which clearly opened a whole new range of musical possibilities?
Warren: Very positively. With no disrespect to John Foxx, Midge was a real singer, as opposed to someone who shouted with attitude. One's voice isn't like playing an instrument where you can practise and practise and gain the motor-skills and vocabulary through repetition. There's only so much you can do with your voice, no matter how much you practise. To be a great singer, you have to be gifted the raw talent to begin with.
I must also add that his guitar playing was a joy to play to. My background had given me many experiences of working with good guitarists, as well as being lucky enough to encounter a few truly great ones. They've never become household names, but they were world-class players. You can file their lack of recognition under "Music Pitfalls: A-Z."
Naturally, my instrumental influences were drummers because that was what I played. Conventional music wisdom dictates that drummers play "to" the bass player. I'm not disputing that, I'm just saying that I always played to the guitarist. My overriding musical influences were guitarists. Freddie King, Peter Green, early Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page. I paid attention.
Midge was undeniably a great player who hasn't been given enough credit. I do regret us not doing more songs which were guitar based, especially some instrumentals.
EN: How different was the creative process in the studio, comparing the John Foxx era to the Midge Ure era?
Warren: In most ways totally different, not so different in others. Far better atmosphere, for the most part. As Midge was an instrumentalist, aside from his singing, he had more in common with us. We just got on with making the music.
EN: How was the experience of working with Zaine Griff?
Warren: A blast. Zaine, Hans, and I spent a lot of time together. Not only did we feel we were making some great music, but we were having a great time doing it. Zaine was a lovely guy and a great singer. Were I not otherwise occupied with Ultravox, I would happily have worked with him longer.
EN: Is there any news on a possible release of Helden's Spies album?
Warren: Cerise Reed and Rob Harris recently had the only surviving master of "Spies" safely transferred to a digital format. They've been working to obtain some sort of release for it. When there is any news on this front, the Ultravox web site will let you know.
EN: Ultravox has left a legacy of great albums. Do you have a personal favorite? What makes it your favorite?
Warren: Again, I tend to be a fan of songs, rather than albums… even on our own stuff. If I had to name faves, I'd say "Ha! Ha! Ha!" Although "Systems of Romance" had some better songs, I like HHH because of it's attitude. We were five VERY heavy-with-attitude guys when we made that record.
As for the Midge period of the band, I would have to choose "Rage In Eden." It was the hardest record we'd ever made. Rather than use the success of "Vienna" to churn out "Vienna Mk.II," we capitalised upon that success to climb further out on a limb than we'd ever done before. We wanted to conceive and produce a record entirely within the studio. We'd always wanted to do it but, when time is so much money, we'd always go into a new record's sessions well prepared with our material mostly worked out in advance.
For "Rage," we didn't prepare anything. Roughly, we spent about a month doing all the loony things we'd always wanted to do in a studio. Then a month coalescing it all into songs, and then about a month or so trying to wrangle mixes out of it. Nearly drove us mad. Or perhaps that was just spending so much time out at Conny Plank's studio in the German countryside.
We were extremely proud of the finished result. We did decide, however, to not go down that particular avenue again in a hurry. The merits of pure spur-of-the-moment inspiration aside, having at least a framework of material to flesh out once in the actual studio was something we were more comfortable with.
EN: Are you currently working on any projects? Any chance of Ultravox coming together for a project?
Warren: No. And I would have to say, while nothing is impossible, I would think it very very unlikely.
EN: What kind of music do you find yourself listening to now?
Warren: Film soundtracks and hot-rod rockabilly.
EN: Are there any bands out today that have impressed you?
Warren: There may well be, I'm sure - if I had the time and inclination to scour for them. Otherwise, I'd have to say… Nope. Heard it all before. It's more a matter of, "Is their's a good interpretation of_____________? (pick your genre)
EN: In your opinion, what is the state of today's music? What do you see happening in the industry?
Warren: The state of today's music is fucked. Music has become more commodity than art. As for "the industry," well, that's self-descriptive… it's become too much of an industry. And its own pure greed has killed it.
The difficulties the big record companies find themselves in presently has all been dealt with by sundry media, so I won't go into that here.
But something does come to mind. Bear with me…
My experience with music print-journalists has been uniformly consistent; ninety-nine percent of them are all lazy wankers who always take the path of least resistance. Plus, they have their "stance" to protect. I don't think I've ever read anyone retract a previous position and say, "Whooo… what was I thinking?! Everything I said before? Forget it! I was wrong!"
One of their fave little bon mots which would occasionally be put to us was the questionette, "Ahh… well… if the Fifties was Rock & Roll and Elvis… the Sixties was the Beatles and the Stones… the seventies was Disco and Punk… and if the eighties is synthesizers and electro-pop… what do you think is next?"
I would always answer, "What makes you think there is a next?" (a guaranteed downer of a reply, universally met with that "Ooohh, bummer…" conversation-killer look)
Indeed. Why should there be a "next" at all?
(Yeah, yeah, I know what's transpired since and, to drag up an old proverb, "99 percent of everything is crap." Some of the nineties was great stuff, but I feel music has been spiraling into a cycle of diminishing returns for years.)
The launching of rock music was a synchronistic synergy of a multitude of events; the arrival of the hardware via electric instruments from Leo Fender, Les Paul, Laurens Hammond, Harold Rhodes… the fuel of the baby boom hitting their teenage stride mixed with the catalysts of radio, television, and movies … plus, the afterburner advent of the drug culture. Kaboom!
Music got a booster drive from the introduction of significant technology; the entrance of multi-track recording, then synthesizers and computers.
But anything that burns so bright and goes so high can't maintain that track forever. (though I would love to stick around to see what people are digging fifty years from now) Times and culture changes.
The Music world is simultaneously expanding and contracting. (no… wait… that's the universe… Ok… whatever) Expanding, in that there are more and more media outlets voracious for music, from local radio stations to the Internet and global satellite broadcast. All that bandwidth has to be filled with something. Except that instead of being blessed with a global plethora of choice, we're just acquiring more ways of getting the same stuff.
There are people in far-flung places in the world who are now going about their usual business of herding yaks or tilling rice paddies, it's just that they're now doing it while wearing headphones. If they don't have a player yet, they want one. The music business is expanding, alright.
But it's contracting because there are fewer acts being signed. The record companies are bleeding money and caught on the horns of a massive consumer/technology shift.
Over the past decade, music has reduced to selling the lowest common denominator to the most amount of people. An everpresent phenomena, to be sure. I'm not, and never have been, against selling a lot of records. Every musician wants their music to be successful, i.e., a lot of people like it and buy it to take home into their lives. But the art of music has been subjugated to one commercial priority above all else: whatever will sell the most, regardless of merit or content. Hottest acts in the world? We've gone from Led Zeppelin to Britney Spears.
Music was once the air that people breathed, now it's merely a leisure pastime, an alternative amongst a plethora of choices; computer games, snowboarding, take-your-pick…
Before rock music, if you asked a kid what they wanted to be, they'd have replied, "I wanna be a train driver." Skip along a few years and it would've been, "I wanna be a fighter pilot."
Then, for a very long time, if you asked a kid what they wanted to be, they'd have replied, "I wanna be a musician." That escalated into, "I wanna be a Rock Star." You can see where this is headed. Now it's just, "I wanna be famous. For… whatever."
Too bad, huh?
INTERVIEW BY: Michael Casano & EGN © 2002 ELECTROGARDEN.COM / Warren Cann
WARREN CANN INTERVIEWED BY JONAS WÅRSTAD
April 1979 - Midge Ure joins Ultravox
Upon our return things indeed looked grim; we'd been dropped by our label, needed a lead-singer, and had no money to speak of. But we were determined to keep the band alive, we'd stick it out and prove ourselves. Soon a fresh set- back developed... Robin Simon had chosen to stay over in New York for a little while and, during a call to find out when he was returning, he told me he'd decided to leave the band and remain in the U.S. The attractions of New York were more appealing than his prospects with us in London. I was shocked and did my best to convince him to stay but his mind was firmly made up. With Robin out of the band, the odds had become stacked against us even more.
It became clear that the ideal solution for us was to find a lead guitarist who was also a singer. This had the benefit of ensuring that the singer could relate to us on an additional level as an instrumentalist, something which we'd found lacking and uncomfortable before. We were determined to avoid the lead-singer-from-another-planet syndrome. Bill had been spending time with Rusty Egan ('Rich Kids') and, through Rusty, was introduced to Midge Ure. They were writing some songs together in what ultimately became 'Visage'. Rusty encouraged Bill to approach Midge about joining Ultravox, he thought it would be a great match.
Bill subsequently introduced Midge to Chris and myself. Other than the usual musical issues, my main concern was that Midge might have no sense of humour and wasn't a fun guy. He had to a) have a sense of humour, and b) like to drink, carouse, carry-on, etc. This anxiety was quickly dispelled after an hour or two in a pub... as he's somewhat small of stature, I tested him with every 'short' joke I knew ("Do you buy furniture from 'Airfix'?") and he could have a laugh about it, plus he wasn't shy to get in his share of rounds and seemed like a straight enough chap at the time.
We had some rehearsals together and it quickly became evident that Rusty was right, he truly was an excellent guitarist (and outside of Ultravox, prior/during/since, I've played with some great people), something usually overlooked in assessments of him. And he could sing, as opposed to shout- with-attitude. With no reservations we resolved that we'd found the right person to complete the new line-up of the band and Midge was in. We'd decided to go for it and all was more or less hunky-dory for quite awhile.
One of the most refreshing aspects of our new band was that we all accredited ourselves as writers, we were adamant there was to be no more arguing over who was or wasn't responsible for what. In this healthy and equitable climate, ideas passed far more freely from one to another, then on again to another, and so forth... we would all make suggestions towards each other's contributions, so much so, in fact, that the only possible financial arrangement regarding the writing was to split everything equally. It was a very sensible arrangement but a rarity amongst bands. It ensured that whatever else we might argue over in future days, it would never be over money. It proved to be true for the life span of the group.
Summer 1979 - Ultravox goes solo for a while
In the interim period of trying to make our next move we had to support ourselves, this lead to an interesting series of temporary gigs. Bill played with Gary Numan, Chris did some shows with guitarist James Honeyman-Scott (the 'Pretenders') and singer Barry Masters ('Eddie & the Hot Rods'), while Midge did U.S. & Japanese tours with 'Thin Lizzy' (filling in for guitarist Gary Moore), and I played with 'Zaine Griff'.
Zaine was a very talented singer and his band was great fun. We did a few gigs to prepare for playing the Marquee Club, Aug.24th /'79, and the Reading Festival on Aug. 26th/'79. It was through the Zaine Griff band that I met Hans Zimmer who was playing synths. Hans and I hit it off and immediately became good friends, I ended up involved in one of his projects and thus soon found myself on 'Top of The Pops' playing drums to 'Video Killed The Radio Star' by 'The Buggles'.
At one point, we were in the curious position of all being in the charts in other bands!
Here's a story from my 'A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Gig' memories from my time in Zaine's band...
We were in our dressing room at Reading and, just prior to us going onstage, Hans came rushing up to me... he was totally panicked and I asked him what was wrong. He gasped, "The tape data isn't working! I can't get it to load!" Technology was primitive then - every time you turned your synths off all of the sounds and settings were instantly lost. You needed to record the data onto a cassette tape and then have to load it all back in again after turning the power on. He'd been backstage trying to load the sound/sequence data into the synths' memories via a little boom-box and it wasn't working. If we couldn't load in the appropriate data we couldn't use his synths and we wouldn't be able to play the majority of the songs in our set. This was Very Bad News. Our big gig was looking like it might be our big disaster.
I ran backstage with him and took a look. Hans was completely white and I'm sure my pallor wasn't far behind. I had a quick look, then said, "Ah, I think I see the problem..." I reached down and flicked the boom-box switch from 'Radio' to 'Tape'... ".... that ought to do it."
Little things... little things... they're the ones that get you.
We never did any more gigs with Zaine's band but we helped him work on his next album. Ultravox was still in the process of regrouping so I had the spare time.
This time around we were determined to have proper representation and began looking for a manager. We approached 'Thin Lizzy's management team of Chris Morrison and Chris O'Donnell and they were impressed with the fact that we'd managed to do an American tour with no record company tour support, no 'new' album, and still turned a modest profit. Their interest wasn't like they immediately wanted to manage us and said, "Sign here..." but more a matter of agreeing to try and help us out. As our involvement deepened one thing lead to another and, gradually, they were effectively managing us. Much later on, I think it was after the release of 'Vienna' at the very least, we actually got around to formalising the agreement. Our success was preceeding us but we now had established and respected professional management.
Autumn 1979 - The new album starts taking shape
We started writing and rehearsing, all the while trying to keep this news reasonably quiet as Midge still had some lingering legal problems to sort out due to his past involvements. This was frustrating as I wanted to let people know the band wasn't dead but, for fairly obvious reasons, we thought it wiser if we kept a low profile to help him resolve the situation. Nothing can throw a spanner in the works quite like old business 'partners' who smell money.
We worked on songs that became the bulk of the first album, 'Vienna', though the title track was yet to be written. We wrote 'Astradyne', 'New Europeans', 'Mr. X', during this period, certainly, though I'm a little hazy as to just when we wrote 'Private Lives', 'Passing Strangers', and 'All Stood Still'... those may have been written then or during our next writing sessions which took place after we'd returned from America.
The music was - to us - a continuation of the things that we were interested in and what we wanted to hear. It reflected a stylistic change because Midge's singing was very different from John Foxx's, plus Midge was the best guitarist we'd ever had... still, we kept following the areas of sound that excited us. The chemistry within the band was now very different but it enabled Bill, Chris, and myself to enjoy ourselves much more.
While our first writing sessions were certainly exciting and generally very productive, not everything we worked on during this period gelled. There was one instrumental piece that Midge had brought in which we played about with for some time; it was great fun to play (the riff rather reminded me of the Glitter Band, of whom I was a huge fan), but for some reason it never really came together for us and we dropped it from our works-in-progress repertoire. Midge reprised the idea years later with Phil Lynott and it became "Yellow Pearl."
At this stage of the band's life, I was contributing to the lyric writing and wrote the bulk of the lyrics to 'Sleepwalk", 'Mr. X", 'Private Lives', 'All Stood Still', and 'New Europeans'. I'd always wanted to try my hand at it and it helped take a some of the initial pressure off of Midge. Once Midge had completely settled in, I withdrew and left him to it. I'd also decided that I probably wasn't very good at it... certainly not as good as I'd like to be.
Dec 1979 - Second US tour starts
As a band, we all had a lot of baggage to contend with during those early days and thought that, if we were to have a chance, we needed to be able to stretch our wings without being prematurely subjected to the magnifying glass of the British music press. With this in mind, we set up a second American tour, much along the lines of the first one; minimum equipment, play clubs, expenses pared to the bone.
Before we left for America we played four U.K. 'secret' gigs [in November, starting at Eric's in Liverpool]. This was to get a bit of a buzz going and show that the band hadn't totally disappeared, plus we didn't want to go to the U.S. having never been on stage with each other before. I remember we played at the Nottingham 'Boat House' and at the Liverpool 'Eric's', the other two venues I forget. The set was a mixture of mostly our new songs and a select few of the old ones, i.e. 'Slow Motion'. We chose not to eliminate all previous songs from our set for two reasons, one practical and one principled; we, as yet, hadn't written enough new material to play a wholly new set, and we weren't about to turn our backs upon our own heritage. There was, of course, some shouting from elements of the audience for John Foxx but Midge weathered the storm and we all had an exciting time.
The American tour gave us a chance to gel as a band and was a great start. It was wild, we did something like twenty-nine gigs in thirty-two days. There was one marathon drive we did non-stop from Lawrence, Kansas, to New Orleans. Upon arriving we crawled out of the car, cleaned ourselves up, and immediately set off to explore Bourbon Street. We finished up with a series of gigs in Los Angeles at the 'Whisky A-Go-Go'. The shows were extended due to demand so we ended up doing about seven shows there and set some kind of record for the place.
Vienna - the recording process
Upon our return [from the second US tour], we started looking for a label. To aid this, we made our London debut and did a one-off gig at the 'Electric Ballroom' on February 1st, 1980. Chrysalis Records was courting us and became interested enough to give us some studio time in order to do demos. We went into the studio with Conny Plank as engineer and decided not to do the usual thing of recording three songs to 'demo' status, we would use the allotted studio time to concentrate on doing one song well and hand them a 'master'. We recorded 'Sleepwalk' and Chrysalis offered us a contract.
Our choice of again working with Conny Plank as engineer/co-producer was unanimous, we all felt that our experience with him during 'Systems' was a good one and that the relationship should be expanded. From the very first days of the band, we'd been commited to mastering recording techniques... not just to become adept at capturing our ideas but to expand upon them and use the studio itself as an extension of the creative process. Conny was the man who had the combined aesthetic zeal and technical ability to help us achieve this.
We went back into writing/rehearsals and came up with 'Passing Strangers', 'Western Promise', and 'Vienna'. Our method of writing was a simple one: we would jam about with our collective ideas and throw things back and forth until something sparked. We'd take the idea, work on it, and polish into a song structure. At this point it would still be in instrumental form, we would generally let the mood of the piece dictate the direction of the lyrics.
For the most part, I'd have a cassette machine running all the time. It's the only way to achieve any objectivity; in the midst of actually playing something you can't listen to it with the same degree of acuity as you can when you're listening to it back. It helped us tailor and craft the music. Or, sometimes an idea which we thought was merely "...ok..." would present an entirely new perspective later on. Which isn't at all surprising, if you play every permutation of an idea for three or four hours over and over again while you explore its possibilities, you can get dulled and immune to it's appeal... when you listen to it fresh the next day, you can more truthfully gauge it's potential.
While it was prudent to do our 'demos' for Chrysalis with Conny in London, it was always our intention to work in his studio in Germany. For reasons unclear to me now, but probably due to budget, we did the actual laying down of tracks for the first album in London at 'RAK' studios (one of the highlights of which was owner, Mickie Most, making us a curry one day for lunch) and put all of the tracks down in ten days. The songs were all 'tight' from our touring and the newest songs were well prepared from our writing/rehearsals.
While we were now using more synthesizers, as on our earlier albums we were still using 'reasonably' straightforward bass/drums/guitar recording techniques. Keyboards were recorded both D.I.'d (direct into the desk) and mic'd (loud amps!). Recording FX were pretty much the usual tape & digital FX (though digital FX units were in their relative infancy then); flanging, reverb, delay, chorus, etc. We liked to use backwards reverbs (reverb applied normally but with the tape turned over and running past the heads backwards - when the tape is turned the right way round, the reverb appears 'before' the source sound) and were also fond of backwards guitars & vocals. Sometimes we weren't content with 'throwing in the kitchen sink', we threw in every sink we could find.
From 'Day One' of Tiger Lily and throughout all of the John Foxx era band, I played Ludwig drums augmented with Zildjian cymbals. The electronic elements of my gear just grew and grew... I used some guitar FX pedals to run my drum machines through (phase, flange, distortion, echo) from time to time (i.e., 'Mr. X'). Every once in awhile I would also run my acoustic drum kit through a distortion box to toughen up the sound. There wasn't much we wouldn't put through a guitar FX pedal just to see what it would sound like. We generally preferred to do this at source, rather than afterwards via the desk. There was a great deal of E.Q. used on the drum machine parts.
Multi-track recording is an additive process; every layer you put down dictates the shape and attributes of every layer and element to come, therefore it's far easier in the long run to get it 'right' then and there instead of saying, "We'll fix that in the mix." While some people prefer to record everything 'dry' (without any FX or with FX on a separate channel), when we recorded something with reverb or delay we generally tended put that effect to tape, rather than fiddle with the reverb later on. No matter how simple the type of FX is ("Oh, that's an easy one... we can get that again, no problem."), you never do seem to get it exactly the same again and the ripples from that change affect everything else.
Billy was running his ARP synth through an Electro-Harmonix 'Electric Mistress' distortion box and (I think) an MXR flanger. He used the studio's piano and 'live' preferred a Yamaha electric piano because, at the time, it was the nearest thing to a real piano (strings & a weighted keyboard). Besides his 'Elka' String Machine which was used a lot on our earlier records, I think we used two Yamaha CS-20 or CS-40 (one of each?) string synths on this first album. We had a CS-80 for awhile, too. It was fantastic but they are very rare today and seriously difficult to maintain. And expensive.
Bill also ran his violin through a lot of effects pedals, mainly from Electro-Harmonix. He also had a Roland 'Space-Echo' tape delay unit. The violin was amplified via a 'Barcus-Berry' pick-up attatched to the bridge. Later, he acquired an electric violin which had the capacity to level buildings with a single blast.
Midge primarily used his Yamaha SG-2000 guitar through his Vox AC-30 amp and Chris used a Yamaha bass (his Gibson EB-O hadn't been used for ages) through whatever was handy. Of course, Chris also used a Mini-Moog for a lot of the bass parts.
Basically, we used what was available (and/or what we could afford) at the time. The only real one-of-a kind stuff we used was the sequencing stuff I designed and had our tech build, this was used to trigger the Mini-Moog from my drum machines which were also heavily altered. Remember - this was all before the luxury of MIDI. The custom equipment features are no longer relevant as any drum machine nowadays has all of the features (and many more!) I had to improvise and can, naturally, trigger/clock any synth you connect it to.
I'm a self-taught musician and have never had any formal training, I just listened to records and attempted to copy those who I admired and/or the stuff that I thought sounded cool. My favourite drummers were all classic players from the great days of British rock & pop such as Charlie Watts, Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Kenny Jones... I'd always been captivated by technology, when it started to encroach upon the world of music I was totally into it. I started out a conventional player but found electronics insanely fascinating.
Any instrument or piece of equipment has a personality which is equally dependent upon it's flaws as it is upon it's assets and never more so than where synths are concerned. The equipment we used had lots of good points, as far as the state of technology allowed at the time, but it all had flaws and quirks that used to drive us crazy. And, ironically, many of the flaws are what contributed to character of the overall sound.
From the very start, I'd always viewed drum machines as synths in their own right, synths that were focused upon one aspect: percussion. At some point before recording 'Vienna' I'd acquired Roland's newest drum machine offering, the infamous "CR-78". It was almost cube shaped, approximately 12" x 10" x 10". It was still in that awful walnut veneer covered box and still offered push-button pre-sets for Fox Trots, Sambas, and Tangos. The tempo was set by turning a knob but was still horrendously touchy, if you even looked at it the tempo changed. The sounds were still analog representations. It wasn't all that much better but it did sport a radical new facility; by tapping on a little round rubber pad which you plugged in, you could program your own rhythm into one of four memories. Happening!
Unless you were incredibly patient and fastidious with your finger tapping, the programmed rhythms were often quite shaky as there was absolutely no quantisation or 'auto-correct' facility, so it was best not to get too ambitious. It also had a nasty habit of losing the contents of it's memory at the slightest provocation.
Once, during a Hammersmith Odeon concert, we had reached the highly charged peak of the set and were in the middle of "Vienna", Bill had just started his violin solo and the CR-78 choose that moment to just go totally berserk... it started pouring out about six different rhythms simultaneously and all at double or triple tempo. I was aghast and froze, all I could do was just stare at the thing in horror. It certainly shook up the rest of the band... though it was probably only for a fraction of a second, it seemed like forever. They bravely carried on as best they could while this thing threw a complete fit.
At times like this your mind goes into overdrive; I snapped out of it and ran over all of the possible causes for it to go crazy. After checking all the options and deciding that this time it was just simply out of my control, I did the only thing I could think of to do which might actually have any result under the circumstances - I punched it as hard as I could. Very technical. Nothing positive happened so I turned it off and finished the song on my drums.
Many creative and technical frustrations regarding the TR-77 and CR-78 led me into modifying them and our adventures in techno-land really began. Fortunately, I knew enough to be able to guide someone who really knew their electronics... engineers of the time were au fait with the technical aspects but notoriously lost when it came to actual creative applications.
We started with the number one pain in the neck, the tempo control. That proved reasonably simple to desensitise; a second potentiometer was wired into the circuit to give me a 'fine tune' over-ride. The original tempo control would get me to the rough tempo and the second would allow me to zero in. But you can't fiddle around like this 'live', you need to be able to start the song 'cold' at exactly the right speed without speeding up and slowing down until you get it right. We connected a cheap electrician's multi-meter sporting an l.e.d. display into the tempo circuit and set it to measure the D.C. voltage. I got the tempos correct during rehearsals and made a note of the measurements for each song. Though this was a totally arbitrary number as far as beats per minute were concerned, the important thing was it was repeatable. If "Mr. X" was, say, 11.42 volts then all I had to do 'live' was set it so the volt-meter read 11.42 v and the song would start at pretty much the right speed. We gaffa taped the meter to the top of the drum machine, not an elegant solution overall but it worked.
After looking at the circuit boards of these drum machines, I discovered that the analog circuits which made up the sounds (no samples stored in memory chips on this stuff) had little ceramic 'trim' potentiometers. What they were actually for I have no idea but, by tweaking them, I could change the sounds slightly for the better. The bass drum, for example, might sound moderately like a thump through the low amplification of a guitar amp or through a studio monitor but through the microscope of multi-thousands of watts of amplification afforded through a big PA at a gig, it would sound like a gigantic beach ball going "Boiiinng!" I was able to harden the bass drum and snare (something I was always trying to find ways of doing with these 'soft' sounds).
One of people I'd turned to for assistance was the 'in-house' repairs engineer at Roland's London facility. He was intrigued with my usage of the machine and was keen to help, it was far more fun than fixing broken electric pianos... It seems this did not go down too well with the powers-that-be and the chief executive at Roland, Fred Mund, ordered him to have nothing further to do with me: I was wasting their time. Unless my equipment was actually broken, I was persona non grata. As the equipment was so modified by this time, I think the view was that it was "outside of their warrantee", permanently "broken down", and no longer their problem!
As we had a huge hit with 'Vienna' featuring Roland's CR-78, I feel that was a very mean and short-sighted decision... I quickly found another electronics boffin to collaborate with, Pete Wood, and we carried on experimenting and tinkering with my ideas.
One unforeseen development led to an interesting solution. I had people coming up to me after gigs asking me what the hell I had been doing during some of the songs - the songs where I was running the machines. From their point of view, they'd seen me stop playing the drums, casually leaning over to my left and, apparently, doing nothing... One person even asked me if I'd been reading a book! I was astonished but, in these early days, people didn't necessarily immediately connect the sounds with what I was doing.
This would never do, so I decided to implement a little showmanship.
I got rid of the wooden cases that housed the TR-77 and CR-78, replacing them with clear perspex cases, and had a series of different coloured l.e.d.s (light emitting diodes) wired up inside so they would wink and flash in time with various components of the selected rhythm being played. Absolutely useless, but very impressive looking on a darkened stage; now it would be obvious I was actually doing something. It certainly worked as I was now regaled with questions about "the drum machines".
One of the aspects of the Mini-Moog that fascinated us was it's ability to pump out a stream of steady eighth-notes. By keying different notes, a bass line was produced with the unwavering perfect tempo of the machine. Like the drum machines, this rock solid tempo had a hypnotic element to it that mesmerised. It was the source of 'Sleepwalk', 'New Europeans', and 'All Stood Still'. For the time being, I had to play acoustic drums to it as there was no way of us syncing it to my drum machines but that was no problem, we were enthralled with the sound as it was.
We adapted the l.e.d. tempo read-out idea to also fit a display to Chris' Moog, he was able to have more predictable control over the tempo of the pulses. Eventually, we found a way of connecting the drum machine to the Moog so that the pulsing bass line would be in sync with the drum machine; even when I was playing my drums and we'd muted the drum machine, we could start a song with the bass line at the right tempo, for example, "All Stood Still"... this saved us a lot of flaffing about at the beginning of a song while Chris tried to tame the tempo to the correct speed.
There was only so many things you could do with a constant stream of eighth notes, even with Chris partially keying in notes, so I came up with a primitive 'sequencer' in order to introduce some syncopation into the bass lines. It had a series of toggle switches on it that I could trip in a pre- determined series; i.e., On/On/On/off/On/On/off/On, this gave us the bass line for things like 'Rage In Eden'. It was crude but it worked.
Prior to this I had gotten a hold of Dave Simmons' very first product, it was called the 'Clap Trap'. I remember meeting him in the back of his record store or whatever it was and getting this new gadget. It was a little black box that would emulate the sound of hand-claps. You could plug a mic into it and have the source-signal, a snare drum for example, trigger the 'claps' or plug in a non-latching foot-switch and do it yourself manually. I think it's controls were 'threshold' or 'gate' for use with an external trigger and 'pitch' and 'thickness' for the timbre and number of claps. I used a foot switch, mainly, and was thus able to add another component to some of the rhythms played. It was also relatively easy to connect it to one of the drum machines to 'clock' it's tempo, this was done on 'Passionate Reply'.
There was one time in Boston when it went sick and, figuring that we stood at least a fair chance of having it mended by a synth-type guy, we took it to the local Moog service technician. He said, "What the #%$@ is that?"
I also used Simmons' next development, the SDS-III. It was a unit which would allow you to connect up to four pads and make 'electronic' drum sounds. Still firmly analog, but if you set the controls just right, it made quite a strong noise. This is the sound heard at the intro of 'All Stood Still'.
We were pushing the very limits of technology at the time, albeit without a big budget (that came later). It's just that we were determined to play live what we had created, rather than tone it down to a technically safer approximation which we felt was short-changing both ourselves and the audience. The major drawback being, of course, that this stuff wasn't all that reliable within the secure confines of a studio where one had the luxury of working outside of the boundaries of real-time... we were using it live onstage with all its attendant hazards.
It got to where all our stuff interconnected together and we were up to our ankles in leads on stage. From temperamental equipment which wasn't very stable in nice safe warm studios (let alone being bounced all over the country in trucks in wildly fluctuating temperature extremes), to ignorant house electricians abruptly shutting down the mains power in the venue and scrambling the gear's primitive memories, to cassettes that wouldn't load their 'memory' data properly and 'Techs' that didn't know what the hell to make of our stuff... argghhhh! It's no wonder we were slammed by some quarters for no sense of fun or humour onstage... we were too worried it would all blow up in our faces at any moment while we kept madly concentrating on keeping it under control.
It didn't get much better later on, either. We just had more incredibly expensive items of evermore complicated equipment to screw up. Only at the very end of the band did all this start to come together in a more reliable way. Even so, I remember that when we played 'Live Aid' three of the four songs in our set required things being triggered and all we could think of was, "Pleeeease don't let anything break!"
The recording of the 'Vienna' album allowed us to put to use everything that we'd learned so far. The mixing sessions at Conny's studio took us about two weeks, there was a good atmosphere and work went very smoothly.
16 June 1980 - First single for Chrysalis: Sleepwalk
The B-side to 'Sleepwalk' was a track called 'Waiting'. I can't remember where we recorded it but somehow I don't think it was during the RAK sessions. We knew it was never a competitor for inclusion on the album but thought it made a fine B-side.
11 July 1980 - LP Vienna released
Astradyne - The ticking sound which introduces the track is from the CR-78 (it was called 'Metal Beat'): I played along to it. We were always fond of instrumentals but, inexplicably, gradually drifted away from them in later days. The title was a combination of Latin; from the Royal Air Force's motto, 'Per Adua Ad Astra' ('Through Adversity to the Stars'), and an aerospace company called Rocketdyne, whose name I liked the sound of.
New Europeans - This is the only instance I can think of where we had a title before we had any music (or lyrics). We always wrote the music first and then lyrically followed on from there.
This song can be credited with catalysing our popularity in Japan and was initially used as the music for a television whiskey commercial. In Japanese adverts the music is credited in fine print in a corner of the screen: a fine concept. The interest it generated lead to it being released as a single which went gold. The ceremony at the record company where we were presented with our gold records was very formal. We were lead into an antechamber to be introduced to the head of the label: he was very old and very dignified, even though he looked as if he'd keel over at any minute and didn't appear to have a clue as to who we were. They took it very seriously (to my delight) and it was a memorable moment.
Private Lives - My original title for this song was 'Hollywoodammerüng'... (ok, no one's perfect.) It was soon changed to 'Private Lives'.
Passing Strangers - The recording of this song went smooth enough, I don't remember anything in particular about the session itself. We wanted to release 'Vienna' as the second single but managed to get talked out of it somehow (never again!) so this became our second single and our first music video. We worked with director Russell Mulcahy and found the entire process fascinating. It was a great learning experience but like everything else, from artwork to posters, packaging, and merchandising, we took an immediate interest in it and quickly realised that we'd better exercise a great deal more control over the process and/or make the videos ourselves if we wanted the next one to be better.
Sleepwalk - 'Sleepwalk' was our introduction to Chrysalis Records and our very first recording with Midge. Conny Plank came over to engineer and we took about three days on it. Rather than do the usual 'three songs' demo tape, we thought "Bugger it..." and opted to use our studio time to record one song to 'finished' status. The gamble worked and we clinched our deal with the label. Later, when we took the album tapes to Conny's studio to mix everything, we decided to mix it again purely for the sake of integration with the sound we were achieving with the other tracks. There's virtually no difference between the 'original' [unreleased] version and the album version except that the lp version is perhaps less 'poppy' (the 7" mix was same as the album mix). From my own standpoint, I personally was especially proud of this song being our first single as I had written the lyrics. We never made a video for this song, it was all too early for Chrysalis.
Mr. X - If anyone is wondering who this song is about, I can at least tell them that it's certainly not about John Foxx or Bowie or any number of other candidates I've been asked about. While I believe I once explained the true origins of this song on a radio show in the U.K., I've since taken to keeping quiet about it... as time went by it's become much more fun to never tell anyone who it is about. When asked, I've always answered truthfully but it's not the sort of thing that can be deciphered, which is exactly the point of the song.
I'm occasionally addressed with questions about the lineage of the last songs written in the John Foxx era, 'He's A Liquid' and 'Touch & Go', and if there's any relationship between them and 'Mr. X'. No, none at all. Personally, I see no similarities but that's just me. Of course, there's the denominator of having arranged and played both songs... We played 'T.& G.' as well as 'H.A.L.' on that first 1979 tour of America but, obviously, never recorded them - we'd split at the end of the tour. Any credit whatsoever for our involvement in those two songs was conspicuously absent on 'Metamatic'.
Did we consider recording either of them at this time? Most emphatically, NO. That was the absolute l-a-s-t thing we would've ever done! Waaaay beyond last, in fact. We were so glad to be out of that situation we were not in the least inclined to dispute the lack of any attributed writing credits (surprise, surprise) and just got on with our lives in a far happier relationship.
Western Promise - We decided to record the drum tracks for 'Western Promise' in the reception area of the building as the surroundings were all glass and polished marble, excellent for a 'hard' drum sound. So as not to completely disrupt the staff, we had to move the microphones and drums in at night to do the recording. The only drawback to this was the front doors of the studio were by no means soundproof and the quiet residential area of St. Johns Wood was not going to take too kindly to me bashing away. The first time we attempted it, the neighbours called the police and, upon their arrival, they requested we cease and desist.
It was sounding so good we decided to not let this get in our way so we attempted it again the next evening. This time, we set everything up and were as ready as could be before I actually started playing. I knew I had to get a good 'take' before the police came banging on the door so there was no time to lose... Sometime before the neighbours got fed up and reported us and the response time it took for the police to arrive, I got a good take and we had what we wanted.
Recording a song like this with it's sequenced pattern running throughout was akin to creating a rod for our own backs and created problems for us later on. The pattern wasn't as all pervasive as a bass line which was neigh impossible to not hear live, it was easily overpowered by other instrumentation and if I lost track of it - even for a moment - it was damn difficult to figure out where I'd gone wrong and get back into sync in the proper place. It led to us having to come up with extensive self-monitoring solutions for us all in the live environment.
Vienna - The song came together very quickly. I had a drum machine/synth pad (CR-78 & 'Synare' pads) pattern in mind that I'd wanted to do something with and played that... to paraphrase myself, I said something like, "What about this, then?" and began the 'Vienna' rhythm. We started playing something to it and then had the thought of using a chorus idea that we had laying around which we'd previously worked on but had no verse for. It all clicked in a few hours and we ironed out the rough spots the next day. Except for finessing the middle 'solo' section of the song once we were in the studio, that was basically it. A hit a day keeps the dole away.
We knew it was the musical high point of the album and made it the title track. It was the song that best represented what we were trying to do. We were determined that it would be our third single and fought with Chrysalis over it; naturally, they thought it was far too long at six minutes, too weird for a Top 30 chart hit, and too depressing and too slow. Other than that, they liked it... Bill was the only one who agreed with them. While he thought it was a brilliant lp track, he just couldn't see it as a single. Naturally, this provided a source of great amusement within the band for years to come.
We weren't big fans of including lyric sheets in our records, we thought it was more interesting to listen for yourself rather than have it laid out for you, but many of the labels for the non-English speaking territories liked to include them and we had no objection. When we read the Japanese lyric sheet for 'Vienna' we were in hysterics. Someone, somewhere, had obviously been delegated to sit down and transcribe the lyrics. We may safely assume that their first language was not English as one of the lines in the song, 'Vienna', made mention of going out for a takeaway meal...
All Stood Still - This is an excellent example of a song that we wouldn't have written but for the Mini-Moog. Well, perhaps it would've been written but it wouldn't have sounded anything like what we recorded. Playing that bass line on guitar would've been a headache.
Songs like 'A.S.S.' brings up an interesting aspect of playing live. As the 'time-keeper' of the band, it was always my job to set the tempo when we played and maintain it for the duration of the song. While playing along to a synth had one obvious benefit, the tempo wasn't about to wildly drift around, there were other complications. It's one thing to collectively determine the 'ideal' tempo for a song when in the solitude and objectivity of the rehearsal studio, it's quite another when you're on stage in front of a lot of excited people. Their energy rubs off. You get out there and you're already vibed up for the show, it's very easy to launch into a song whose tempo was predetermined and unsusceptible to outside influence and suddenly go, "Arghhh...this is too slow!"
The phenomenon of bands playing their material live much faster than it was recorded is apparent to anyone who's been to a concert. I'm not saying it's good or bad, just that it's something the band has to come to terms with and make decisions about as to what is acceptable excitement and what is improper for the 'feel' of the material. Push a song too far from the envelope it was written in and you lose more than you gain.
We got used to it and adapted, somewhat like a pilot learning to believe his instruments when his senses were telling him something else. After a bit of experimenting, we gradually managed to get comfortable working with the predetermined tempos we'd set when we were rational instead succumbing to the red mist of a gig. We became confident with it and came to depend on it as a further aspect of control during a performance; we spent a great deal of effort devising the running order of our songs so that the set had an arc.
There were no unreleased tracks from the 'Vienna' sessions. We went in with our material well prepared and that's what we came out with. As happy as we'd been with 'Systems', we were even happier with 'Vienna' on a multitude of levels. We'd been through a lot to get there.
15 Oct 1980 - Passing Strangers released
During our stay with the label, the choice of which material to release as singles was almost always ours alone, after the 'Passing Strangers' episode we quickly learned to be firm about our decisions and Chrysalis (while occasionally making strong suggestions) went along with it. We always thought we knew better and - for the most part - I think we were right.
The B-side on the 7" was a live recording of a song called 'Face to Face'. It was never recorded as a studio cut, it had seemed promising but just never came together properly. At one point Billy was very keen about the prospect of playing guitar in a few numbers, we found it difficult to share in his enthusiasm but didn't really have the heart to discourage him. He acquired a pearl white Yamaha SG-100 and his live debut was on that song. After some time when the song hadn't exactly developed to our liking (through no fault of Bill's) we dropped it from our set. I rather fancied that guitar, however, and after unsuccessfully attempting to pry it from him found one just like it years later in the Midlands. For me a happy ending.
The B-side on the 12" was a live recording of 'Kings Lead Hat' which was also never recorded as a studio cut. We weren't inclined to cover other artists' songs but for a time this was just a bit of fun which we played only on encores. There were a few U.K. shows where we played an impromptu version of Gary Glitter's 'Rock & Roll' during the encore - I wish we'd recorded and released that!
15 Jan 1981 - Vienna released as a single
Vienna video - After the baptism by fire of our first video, 'Passing Strangers', we assumed much more responsibility for this one (many more ideas were ours and we absolutely re-edited the first cut we saw of the assembled video). We were learning fast. We knew what we wanted to see and how we wanted to do it. Chrysalis weren't very thrilled with the release of the single in the first place. It was the usual old stuff, "It's too long for a single, i.e. not 3 min. 20 sec. It's too slow... too weird... etc." We dug in and pushed and pushed for it's release until we got our way.
We'd wanted to make a video for it from the very first moment, but Chrysalis balked and wouldn't give us the money. This was, remember, in the days when the Record Company would pay for the video - not the band! We thought, "To hell with them... we'll do it ourselves."
We went ahead and did it with our own money. It may come as a surprise to know that approximately half of it was shot on locations in central London, mainly at Covent Garden and also in the old Kilburn Gaumont Theatre in North London (sadly, now a Bingo hall). The embassy party scene was in some house we'd rented in town - can't remember where but I do remember that it took the crew a long time to set up the lights to prepare for filming... so long that we all got impatient with waiting and dipped into the many cases of wine we'd laid on for refreshment after the shoot. By the time the crew was ready to film, we were all well partying for real...
The other half was in Vienna. We did it on the cheap, there was just us and Nick, our trusty camera man. We took an early morning flight to Vienna, ran round like loonies in and out of taxis as we filmed, and soon discovered that, due to it being the winter off-season, many of the splendid places we'd been counting upon filming were either shut for redecorating or covered with webs of scaffolding... "What do you mean it's 'closed for repairs'?!" We finished up in the cemetary for the shots with the statue which had been used for the single's cover (a gentleman who made pianos for the rich & famous of his time, I believe), did the sunset shot, and then dashed back to London to start editing.
After a week or so prior to the record's release, we started to get phone calls from the record company regarding the video we were making... Once it was released, and with each week's growing success in the charts, the record company became more and more frantic. Finally, they were going absolutely crazy trying to get us to finish it so they could give it to 'Top Of The Pops' - they were positively begging us for it. Which, I'm sure you'll understand, was very gratifying for us after the indifference and negativity they'd initially shown.
They gladly paid for it, too. For those who are curious, it cost us in the region of six or seven thousand pounds. Sorry... it didn't cost a lot of money, but the video 'industry' wasn't quite so greedy then.
Vienna single - 'Vienna' was in the singles charts for fourteen weeks. It hung at the number two position for longer than I care to remember, being kept from the number one position primarily due to the re-release of a John Lennon song after his recent death. It was incredibly frustrating. Then, during that last week, we heard from an industry insider that John's record had finally slipped... we thought, "At last, we have a chance!" And, out of bloody nowhere, comes one- hit wonder Joe bloody Dolce...
Months later, we were in Australia touring when we were told that we'd won the 'Best British Single of the Year' award for 'Vienna'. We were very proud of that and it went some considerable way towards making up for never having gotten to Number One.
Passionate Reply - The B-side of the 7", 'Passionate Reply' was a promising song, perhaps it needed some 'living with' before we would've considered it finished. As it was, we thought it made a good B-side. It was recorded while on tour in America. We were in Florida when we were informed that we needed another track for a B-side so we booked time in a Miami studio, 'Criterion'. I recall looking at a studio wall covered with gold records by the 'Bee-Gees' who had recorded many of their disco hits there. We used a studio engineer and did it in a day (perhaps two, but I can't remember exactly and our schedule would not have tended to allow the luxury of much time off).
Herr X - During the mixing of the album, I had the idea to do another version of 'Mr. X' in German. I thought it would be fun, make a great B-side or extra 12" track, and not take too much time away from our mixing schedule... the others agreed. My German had been progressing very well but this was beyond me so I asked Conny's wife, Krista, to help me with the translation. Conny double- checked it, he thought it was faithful to the English version, so one afternoon I went into the studio and did 'Herr X' (with Conny as pronunciation coach to keep me on track).
It was the only time we did a song in another language and I like to think of it as a tribute to the support our German fans had always shown us. The mix between it and the English-speaking version is identical, it was only the vocal track that was changed. If you listen carefully to either of them (we didn't quite make it loud enough), you can hear the snaps of a reflex camera shutter at one point. It was released as the B-side of the 12" 'Vienna' single.
26 May 1981 - All Stood Still released as a single
The 7" of this song was an edit from the album version and was not remixed. When writing and arranging songs we always catered to the length the song wanted to be, not what radio might want it to be. Once the song was recorded, if it was deemed a single then we'd consider editing it if it was too long. Usually this was never an issue with us as long as we were the ones who decided what was trimmed. When we edited we snipped to reduce running time, not to alter the shape of the song. We knew most people were aware that singles weren't neccessarily the album version.
Someone once remarked to me that they'd heard of a video for 'All Stood Still'. I doubt it because we never made a video for this song. If someone really has seen one, I can only imagine that perhaps a zealous foreign record label/telly company somewheres compiled some clips and put it to the song. We certainly didn't do it.
The B-side of the 7" was 'Alles Klar'. The title was inspired by having spent so much time in Germany and our efforts at wrestling with the language. 'Klar' and 'Alles klar' - meaning, "Yes...sure...I get it...!" - was such a frequent answer to our babble that we soon took to using it ourselves as a 'one-response-fits-all' joke. The rhythmic exhalation of breath heard at the beginning of the track runs all the way through it. Nowadays, you'd do it five or six times, sample it, and make a loop to repeat as long as necessary. I stood in front of a mic and did it the hard way for five minutes, by the end of the song I nearly hyperventilated.
'A.S.S.' was our first 12" version. It seems incredibly tame when compared with what the 12" form evolved into later on but this was early days.
The B-side of the 12" was printed as 'Keep Torque-ing'. The title is later printed as 'Keep Talking' which is the correct and original title. The B-side wasn't exactly a misprint, more like a private band joke that got a little out of control, or a complete misunderstanding of a hand-written title on a tape box label, perhaps both... it was never meant to appear on the record.
'Keep Talking' wasn't even a demo, it was a jam that we'd recorded during rehearsals on my little Pro Walkman. It was completely spontaneous and we later discovered that there were a few sounds in there that we had absolutely no idea of how to get again, in particular a strange synth noise that seemed to sound vaguely like someone speaking. After briefly trying to decipher the important elements of the music and write a piece around it, we decided it had charm as a 'captured moment' and that it'd be fun if we put the thing out just exactly as it was as - warts and all - as a glimpse into how we worked on our music. We transferred the cassette to multi-track tape and cleaned up the recording as best we could technically... that was it!
The title came about when one of us was on the telephone talking to Chrysalis in London... they wanted to know what the title was going to be and were being very persistent about it. The trouble was we hadn't really decided upon one. While we were stalling with them on the line someone, who was very busy at the time, gestured to the person on the phone and said, "...uh... just keep talking... keep talking..." Midge or Chris (can't remember which) then said suddenly, "...that's it! 'Keep Talking'! That's the title..."
We were happy with the title, it fit perfectly with the aforementioned 'talking' sound on that track A fine case of serendipity.
The advent of 12" singles coincided nicely with our attitudes concerning B-sides. We were music fans long before we were musicians and had many fond memories of favourite singles that always had some interesting and obscure little gems tucked away on the B-side... fascinating stuff which never appeared on the album and often was even cooler than the A-side - even if it wasn't as obviously 'commercial'. Now that we were making records of our own we could continue this ourselves. Rather than using them for 'throw-away' material, we thought that B-sides were a grand tradition... a situation where there were no boundaries and we could do anything we felt like... an opportunity to do an oddity that might not necessarily 'fit' on an album.
At first, every time we went into the studio to do some B-sides/extra tracks, we would start with a piece of music that we'd been working on but hadn't finished... that would be our starting point. It might be a piece we were still uncertain of, or a song which we hadn't managed to find the heart of. Sometimes you feel you have all the elements of the song right in your hands, it's all there if you could just find the one piece that's the key to the puzzle. You know that it wants to work, you just haven't found the clue yet.
When you find it, everything slides into place and the song becomes more than the sum of its parts. Sometimes you try scores of different ideas and none of them appears to catalyse the song into the entity you have in mind, you're left with some music which isn't bad but you feel you have a song that just teeters upon working - an ideal candidate for a B-side.
You can't codify the creative process, often as not we'd discover a song was turning into an 'A' side which deserved to be on an album. Which was great, we had another song... but were back at square one with no track for a B-side.
After this happened many times, we decided the best way to record extra tracks would be to go into the studio with nothing prepared at all and to just write something then and there. There was an element of risk to this but that made it all the more attractive; it was an ideal way to relax musically without the heaviness of posterity and career breathing down our necks, yet still offer a challenge. We often discovered ways of recording and approaches to writing that we later incorporated into material which went on albums so it seemed a win-win situation. We were later to take this philosophy to it's zenith with the recording of 'Rage In Eden'.