|The Polydor Sessions
In which the band lark about at John Lennon's old house
Everything does not run smoothly
And the first single is released to no acclaim whatsoever
band was more or less starting from scratch, a lengthy period of rehearsals
was in order. Not only did Pete Phipps have to learn the songs, he and Bill
had to build an understanding within the rhythm section and David Rhodes
had to get used to taking the weight of being the band's only lead vocalist
and the stage front man.
Eleven day's worth of rehearsals took place between the 25th June and the inauspicious Friday, 13th July. The band were to play one gig, at the Nashville on Monday 16th July, before another three day's rehearsing. Then, all of the equipment was to be shipped off to the chosen recording studio - Startling Studios aka Tittenhurst Park, Ascot.
Startling had been built by Ringo Starr in the house previously owned by John Lennon. The house, it's spacious grounds and, most especially, the large, empty white living room had featured in Lennon's 'Imagine' video. Tucked away in a corner was an old upright piano to which was attached a brass plate. On it was written "John Lennon wrote 'Lucy in the sky with diamonds' on this piano 1967'. Outside the huge french windows was a series of wide grassed terraces on which the band members could be seen from time to time playing enthusiastic games of frisbee. The central steps down the terraces led to the guitar shaped lake Lennon had constructed before his departure for New York. The grounds themselves were huge and were reputed to contain more varieties of tree than any other park in the country.
Now, the house was a residential 24-track recording studio and the band plus Peter Hammill took up residence. The studio had been booked for three weeks and, from the sessions, Polydor expected a single and an album. The band had other ideas, however. Over a period of some time, a concept had been sketched out which allowed for the inclusion of all of the band's material, with the exception of one or two tracks that had not been rehearsed with Peter Phipps (e.g. 'Littlewoods Jeans' and 'Verona Rolls'). There were sixteen songs in all and, together, they would comprise a double album. The virtues of this, as the band saw it, were that the first release of Random Hold would truly make a mark, almost a large dent, when it was released. Secondly, they would have got shot of all of the songs written over the previous eighteen months and they could then happily look towards composing a completely new batch for 'the next time'. Nothing like a good bit of forward planning.
The sixteen tracks comprised nearly eighty minutes of music and this would take some sort of recording in the time available. Some tracks went down more easily than others.
'Meat', the set opening, punk-like thrash over which David Ferguson intoned the threatening lyric caused problems. Not for the backing track but with the vocal. DF's delivery was of a malevolence that, though perfectly suitable for the piece, proved too threatening, bordering on evil, for Peter Hammill. The vocals were dropped.
The soon-to-be single 'Etceteraville' suffered from a low frequency sympathetic resonance from the bass on certain parts. A problem that was never truly solved in spite of all attempts by Bill and others to identify and dampen the vibration.
'With People out of Love' was recorded, mixed and released without anyone appearing to notice that one bass string was out of tune (nastily flat).
Numerous attempts to re-create the original feeling and exuberance of the first semi-impromptu performance of 'The View from Here' continuously failed and Peter was forced to resort to edits and cross-fades to achieve, as near as possible, the required musical objective.
Finally, it was decided to substitute Bill MacCormick's voice for some of Simon's vocal parts. Never the happiest of lead singers, he found standing alone in the huge dining room, singing to a control room the other side of the wide hall and enormous kitchen a daunting experience. His singing lacked the necessary conviction and the songs involved sagged accordingly.
All was not gloom and despondency. A visit by Bill's brother, Ian, led to the production of the humourously entitled 'Fear (Eats the Soul)', some of which was recorded during the consumption of a large and alcohol fuelled dinner. And some of the pieces, like 'Dolphin Logic', 'Avalanche' and 'Tunnel Vision' captured the cataclysmic thunder that was at the heart of a decent Random Hold performance.
By Friday, 10th August the recording was more or less complete and so Bill popped back to his home in Penge. He got dressed up in a white Italian suit and, looking like a member of the mafia on their summer vacation, trotted off to Bromley Registry Office to marry his long time girlfriend Helen. The honeymoon was over by about 5pm on Saturday when he jumped back into his car and headed back to Ascot for the final tidying up at the studio.
The album was not to be mixed there, however, as Peter had chosen to use another studio, The Farmyard in Little Chalfont, for this purpose. Everyone arrived there on Monday 13th, August expecting a continuation of the same co-operative spirit that had more or less permeated the Startling sessions. For one member, at least, the coming days were to be something of a shock. Mixing was scheduled to run for seven days (from the 13th to the 19th). Again, this was a 'live in' facility and, for the first few days, the group duly congregated on the row of sofas and arm chairs lined up behind the desk. At the desk were Peter and the engineer Neil Kernon. Physically, therefore, their backs were turned on the group members and, to Bill MacCormick at least, it soon became clear that their backs were turned more than just physically.
Peter Hammill clearly had a very definite idea about the sound he wanted. Suggestions seemed unwelcome. The band appeared excluded from this part of the process. For Bill, this was a deeply frustrating experience. Although he may not have recorded anything like Peter's volume of music he had been in studios regularly since 1972 and was used to at least being able to make suggestions and put forward ideas. Working with Robert Wyatt, Phil Manzanera and to a great extent with Brian Eno had always been a co-operative venture where everyone's ears and ideas were used. This was not, however, Peter's view of how mixing should work. After two or three days, Bill decided he'd had enough and went home. The mixing was completed in his absence.
From time to time, different members of the Polydor A&R department had visited the studios. Alec Byrn (who later went on the work for EG) was their main point of contact along with Alan Black. It was they who had allowed the 'asking price' for the signing of the band to be cranked up to the £70,000 mark and it was they who were being looked to by their bosses to get a quick return on the investment. What was needed was a single and, to be frank, nothing stood out. No particular track shrieked 'hit'. But, needs must when the devil drives, as they say (quite who says this we're not sure and anyone who did say it would be regarded as a distinctly odd fellow) and the track 'Etceteraville' was selected as the Random's first foray onto vinyl. A release date in late October was agreed.
In the meantime, mixing over, the band returned to Wharf for a couple of days to continue the familiarisation programme that would have best been done before recording took place. Then, on Thursday 23rd, August they set off to watch Peter Gabriel play a 'one-off' at the Bath Pavilion prior to starting his own recording sessions, visiting Peter Hammill at his house near Westbury on the way. The following day, they played at Friars in Aylesbury before the band entered a strangely quiet period throughout the whole of September, punctuated only by a three day re-mix session at Trident studio over the 8th-10th. One of the main reasons for the inactivity was that David Rhodes has been asked to play on the new Peter Gabriel album being recorded in Bath on the Manor Mobile. There was little they could do in the absence of their lead guitarist/vocalist.
Rehearsals resumed on October 1st, again at Wharf, for a week. Polydor were gearing themselves up for the release of the single, now scheduled for the third week of the month. The band had been lined up for a series of dates at the famous Marquee in Wardour Street, Soho and were due to play every second Sunday there starting on the 14th October and finishing on the 13th November. In addition, they would play the Nashville on the 9th November before starting as tour supporting XTC on the 23rd. It was hardly a hectic schedule for a band with a single to promote and an album due for release.
'Etceteraville' was released to a distinctly cool critical reaction. The first review came from Ian Birch in the Melody Maker on 20th October:
"Gulp, another disappointment. Taking a cue in part from Phil Manzanera's solo work (which is hardly surprising, as Holder Bill MacCormick was intimately involved in at least 'Diamond Head', '801 Live', 'Listen Now' and 'K-Scope'), it stays within a rock format while experimenting gently round the edges. Perhaps producer Peter Hammill is most at fault. Instead of offsetting the band's bedrock base with a lightness of detail which would have helped focus the words, he's kept the sound, er, earth bound, almost as if he had kitted everyone out in diver's suits before they entered the studio. A shame."For reasons known only to the Melody Maker the single was reviewed again two weeks later:
Chris Bohn Melody Maker, 3rd November 1979 RANDOM HOLD: "Etceteraville " (Polydor POSP85) The combination of these men's earnestness and Peter Hammill's hefty production makes this a good album track plainly wasted in single form, though their penchant for melodrama ("Hang on tight, Johnny") unexpectedly catches you by the throat once or twice.Released six weeks before the band started any serious gigging, with no noticeable air play push (itself an indication of the dramatic collapse of faith being displayed by Polydor) and hardly any press coverage the single was dead in the water.
'Etceteraville' proceeded to sink without trace.
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