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2nd and 3rd February 2000

When Martin rang out of the blue and suggested I stop off at Rockfield to visit the band and see them in action mixing the new album I was momentarily taken aback. After all it isn't every day that one of the gods leans down from above and says "Fancy a trip to Mount Olympus? Oh, and don't forget to bring the sandwiches...." I mean to say, Rockfield! This studio is one of those legendary places that feature so strongly in the legends of the legendary Manband. It's Mecca, Jerusalem, and El Dorado all rolled into one package. It's where Man have done their best work. It's a studio with presence and character. I thought about it for a nanosecond and said; "Yes!" Then I said, "If you're sure, I'd be thrilled to visit you there and make a nuisance of myself."

"See you next week then, we're looking forward to it." said Martin.

I stayed for two afternoons and an evening, but sadly couldn't accept the offer of a bed for either of the two nights as I had to get to work one day, and get home the next. If I had my time over again though........

Rockfield - The Quadrangle Studio
The Quadrangle

When I arrived around 2 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon Martin was up and about and looking for Dave Charles who's been in the engineer/producer chair. Martin had been driving Dave's car (a silver Renault) the previous day when the exhaust fell off it! He was a little edgy about whether the car had been fixed, what the bill might be, and what sort of mood Mr Charles might be in as a result. It all looked in order though. The fitters at ATS had scratched their heads thoughtfully, rubbed their chins doubtfully, pursed their lips mournfully and asked "Is it a leased car?". Dave had said no, it was his own. "Oh that's different then" they chorused and quoted him a sum not too much in excess of £100. "What would it have been if it was leased?" asked Dave. "Well, if it was leased it would have been a lot more. These lease companies pal, they insist on having just the right part, just the right manufacturer. Nothing else will do but the exact replacement see. Costly see. You're very lucky." Now whether Dave sees it quite the same way is open to debate, after all he wasn't in the car at the time the old one fell off. With Monmouth currently in chaos though, due to some roadworks which have closed the Monnow Road bridge, little incidents like this were quite likely to occur. Martin began to breathe a little easier again.

Into the communal kitchen area to put the kettle on and we discovered Deke, just finishing the first cup of tea of the day, and mulling over the possibility of a second. George Jones was bouncing around the kitchen (I'm convinced somebody's been feeding that boy on springs), and did the honours for us. Also present was road manager and band helper Mick Williams, down from Edinburgh for the week and acting as unpaid cosseter, cook, tea-maker, van mechanic, whipping boy and sacrificial lamb. Mick has a fine rapport with Leonard who regularly lambasted him with that scathing, coruscating Llanelli wit. Mick took it all in good heart and while I was there rolled all his joints using Deke's dope!

Micky Jones was nowhere to be seen. He was, of course, still in bed.

While chatting over a cuppa, I mentioned the new Eagle compilation, and it soon became apparent that no-one in the band knew anything much about it. They were pleased it was coming out though, and recognised that it would keep them on the record shop shelves for a little while longer.

Before long Martin, George and Mick headed off into Monmouth to pick up some groceries so I had a chance to sit down and chew the cud with Deke. He told me he's been asked by Kingsley Ward to write a definitive history of Rockfield. The suggestion is that this would be a well-financed hardback top-quality effort, and Deke indicated that it would be done through a major publisher. Everyone seemed very upbeat about the idea, and it cropped up in conversation a few times while I was there. It'll keep Deke busy for a while at least. There's a possibility that the book might also be supported by a CD collection that exemplifies Rockfield through the decades, possibly a two or three disc affair.

We talked about progress on the new recordings, and what it felt like for them to be back in Rockfield again. Andrew Lauder was expected to put in an appearance during the week, although he didn't show while I was there. He'd rung Deke for the first time in twenty years just a few weeks previously. Martin had sent him a sample tape of the new material, and he'd liked it very much. Deke described Andrew as, "a lovely man who never criticises. If he likes something he'll use it, and if not he'll just nod and then take no action. He's possessed of a kind of benevolent inactivity."

I mentioned that I'd heard some early mixes when I was in Swansea at Christmas, and was keen to hear the progress that had been made since. I admitted somewhat sheepishly that one of the songs had brought tears to my eyes when I 'd first heard it. "Oh that's great, "he replied. "It can't be too bad then if it's having that effect." Although most of the work has been done, there are still a few rough surfaces to polish and holes to plug. The eight tracks have all been recorded and four of these were pretty much in the can. One of the four remaining songs had been mixed on Tuesday night and needed fresh ears to check all was ok. We adjourned to the studio where Dave had set up the tape and reloaded the saved mix for approval. The song was 'Face To Face' and yes, it was the one that had so affected me in Swansea!

Deke showed me the page long list of album titles that have been put forward as candidates; 'The Anachronism Tango', 'The Ultimate Secret', 'Out Of the Blue', 'The Usual Suspects' were amongst their number. I confess I didn't find any of them immediately rivetting, but as always the ideas were continuing to flow.

The bridge of the starship Rockfield
Captain Charles prepares to engage
the warp drive.
The Flight Deck

The final mix passed muster, and was copied to DAT for security, plus a vocal-free backing tape was also made because you never know when you might need one. The control room in the Quadrangle studio is pretty impressive. The room is dominated by a Neve 60 mono input/8 stereo input - 48 channel output VR console mixing desk (custom built of course), with automated faders (Neve's Flying Faders application running on an antiquated 286 PC!) and midi-synched mixing, which provides the heart of the system. Recording is done on Studer A820 24 track decks, of which there are two that can be linked together master/slave if required. The outboard effects are primarily reverb and delay units, with a hefty array of equalisation also. There's an Eventide H3000 Ultra Harmoniser in there somewhere and also a Yamaha SPX90. Valve or transistor pre-amps are used to warm up or otherwise goose around with the sound, and then a range of noise-gates and compressor/limiters leading to the final mix decks. Also in evidence is a sizeable PC running Cubase VST, this seems to have replaced an Atari running Cubase V2 that's mentioned on the Rockfield web-site.

As well as seating for the engineer and various occasional chairs, there's a large low table, and a large low couch. The couch was very comfortable indeed. The table was neatly stocked with the essentials for mix-down; cups of tea, Digestive biscuits, cigarettes, lighters, rizlas, ashtrays, Viz magazine (good - the Bottom Inspector, and a brilliant ad for 'matt emulsion wife paint, covers unsightly spouses with a single coat'), Melody Maker magazine (crap), a Health and Safety equipment supplies catalogue (?), and a stack of Quantegy (they used to be called Ampex) 24 track tapes in boxes. The new album in the flesh.

Beyond the control room is the main studio. A large and simple rectangular room with nothing in it except a fabulous Bosendorfer grand piano. At the rear of this is an acoustically isolated live room, traditionally used as the drum booth. Off to the side are two further isolated live rooms. On the opposite side of the control room is a larger live room, known as the playroom as this also contains a pool table and a table tennis table. Apparently most people seem to prefer this room for instrument recording and Micky's amp was set up in here.

Another minor adjustment
Dave and Martin

Dave Charles is very relaxed, and laughs and smiles so readily that it's impossible not to warm to him in an instant, he's a real diamond. We talked about the missing 5th Helps album, and Malcolm gradually tiptoeing back into the limelight. He knew that Richard and Ken had been working with Ron Sanchez in Donovan's Brain. He seemed quite open to the idea of revisiting the unfinished material, and mentioned that Malcolm has some newer songs to contribute also. Dave was surprised and pleased to hear that one of Sam Apple Pie's albums had recently been spotted as a CD release.

The route from rock musician to recording engineer was a very natural one for him to take. When Help Yourself began working and recording in Rockfield it would occasionally transpire that at various crucial moments the recording engineer would disappear. Dave would act as surrogate dial twiddler, fader slider and button pusher, because as he said, someone had to do it, and it all looked fairly simple really. Monmouth was almost home territory as his parents had moved to the area and he was frequently down staying with them. He'd often meet Kingsley Ward in town, and also spent quite a bit of time at the studio. It wasn't long before Kingsley asked if he fancied training to become a recording engineer, and the rest is history. At the first Welsh Convention, when performing as Iceberg, Deke casually introduced Dave Charles as being "Dave Edmunds' personal recording engineer, so he's very rich!"

With the studio located in very rural surroundings - it is actually housed in a series of extended and renovated farm buildings - country life is often to the fore. Dave told us of the morning he arrived to start work, only to discover everyone down at the bottom of the lane moping around a ramshackle shed and tutting dejectedly. There was no actual activity of course, just much scratching of heads and pulling of chins. This is, we were told, a prime example of the traditional country pursuit of shed watching. Deke mentioned an acquaintance of his who had just taken delivery of 50,000 bees. "Very nice," opined Deke, and then asked, "Have you named them yet?"

While the next tape was being spooled, and the computerised mix loaded up Deke and Dave swapped Captain Beefheart stories. Deke explaining why Mr van Vliet has now dedicated himself to the cause of oils and canvas in attempt to be taken seriously by the art establishment. "I've seen a few of his paintings," he said. "Some of them are quite good, but some of them are just rubbish". Dave reminded Deke of Beefheart's memorable description of cocaine as that "God-damned philosopher powder".

Mixing's a serious business
Martin, Micky and George

George Jones soon rejoined us with the news that his father had surfaced at last. "Jones senior has arisen," he said, "and he's not happy." George suggested that Micky was a touch annoyed that so much of the day had gone by already but when he found his way to the control room he seemed in good spirits.

Dave then told us of a Sam Apple Pie trip to a rock festival in France way back when. When Sam Apple Pie turned up in their van and eventually found the organiser, they were told that the band wouldn't be playing that day. The festival was running a little late. About two days late. It had also now been relocated to Belgium. "It's ok though," said the organiser, "We'll put you up in a hotel in Brussels overnight, it's all arranged. Oh and by the way, could you take Frank Zappa with you? He's staying there too." Dave explained how they somehow overcame their shock and bundled the fearsome Zappa into the van and rattled and rolled their way to the hotel. "I mean," said Dave, "Frank Zappa! He was a genius, and we were just, you know, just five blokes from Walthamstow!"

Zappa insisted on paying for breakfast the following day before they trundled back to the festival site. Although Zappa and Captain Beefheart were present, they had no bands with them and just acted as unofficial MCs for the show. Occasionally they would stand up and contribute to a few numbers with whoever was onstage at the time. Sam Apple Pie backed the Captain on a couple, and then it was thanks and goodbye.

Years later Dave was visiting the BBC with John Eichler, and collided with Beefheart in the corridor. "Hey there again," said Beefheart to Dave, "You're the guy with the red drum kit." Dave was amazed that he'd been remembered after such a short acquaintance. Deke pointed out that Dave's red kit was just about his favourite ever set of drums. I'd agree, it certainly always sounded pretty good to me on those Iceberg albums.

Beware backseat drivers!
Deke and Dave

The next song up for mixing was 'Run, Runaway' which at the time had an alternative title of 'Victim Of Love'. While the fundamental structure of the song was all present and correct there were still some little flourishes missing. A few ideas were kicked about to see how the chorus could be made to flow more naturally, and eventually this turned out to be simply fixed by the addition of some tambourine. After an attempt to add some more harmony vocals was abandoned, Deke added some little piano figures to each chorus. When you hear the song, see if you can tell which piano is Phil and which is Deke. The added piano echoed Micky's low range guitar lines but brought them up an octave or so and completed the balance perfectly. As the middle section of the song nears its end, Martin's voice was alternately brought forward in the mix by reducing the reverb, and then moved back by increasing it and raising the volume a touch. The assembled parties deemed it "very Matt Monroe".

During the introduction to the song Deke throws in a pair of pull-offs on the guitar as it reaches an end. "Do you think they're a bit rough, a bit casual?" He asked. "I love them," replied Dave, "They sound as though you just don't care! It's great." Someone suggested maybe it was about time they got a proper guitarist in. Perhaps a real professional who could pretend to sound like Deke, but who could play a bit too. The song has a great platform to build from with Bob's drum pattern adding a fabulous little stutter to the underlying rhythm, and some solid aggressive guitar playing. Micky casually rips out some superb guitar lines to support the vocals and reminds us all once more how grossly under-rated he is.

During a brief lull the telephone rang and Dave answered it. It was Mr John the builder on the line, wishing the band good luck and checking how things are going. Deke took the call and wanted to know if Clive could nip over and mend a hole in his mum's roof. There was a certain amount of humming and hawing, two experienced negotiators in their prime. Eventually Deke cracked and asked "Yes, but realistically Clive, when could you do it?" More debate followed. Martin then piped up from the corner of the room, "Ok then Clive, surrealistically when could you do it?" Martin explained that working at Deke's mum's house is always a bit of a laugh, they spend more time eating and drinking than working. He took the phone from Deke and said, "Ignore all that Clive, Deke doesn't really want you to do any work at all, he just wants to get you round the house and fuck you". They have a few minutes chat, none of which bears any resemblance to sanity whatsoever. When he put the phone down Martin laughed, "Brilliant, a five minute conversation with the Crintster, and I didn't say a single sensible thing. You have to get in there first with Clive."

Deke concentrates on the imperceptibles
Deke

For the next few hours I'm privileged to watch and listen as the final mix takes shape through some arcane but invisible process. It's almost created by osmosis, soaked in from the air that the boys are breathing in and out. The packet of Digestive biscuits gets some attention. Tea is drunk. "Can you just drop Micky's guitar a fraction there so it doesn't dominate the vocals?" The ashtray gets fuller and more tea is drunk. "I think that slide guitar should be up a touch just there". Deke relaxes back into the couch and listens, eyes closed. Martin sits up attentively, watching Dave at the board closely. Micky sits back quietly, crosses his legs and hugs his knee, saying little during each pass. He agrees or disagrees with each suggestion; "Ok, try that and we'll see how it goes" or "I think we're just digging a big hole for ourselves there." George Jones and I keep our council for the most part. George cradles his dad's Stratocaster for company.

A break was taken for dinner. Dave went home for his, but in the kitchen and dining room of Rockfield's residential accommodation Mick had been busy taking care of business for the band. He'd prepared a terrific meal of steak in ale, served with broccoli, roast potatoes, roasted carrots, and mashed carrots with swede. All this was washed down with a few welcome glasses of red wine. It was a relaxed and congenial meal as everyone unwound and gave their ears a rest. After everyone had eaten Deke turned his attention to the newspaper as the rest of us took a quick and mildly disinterested look at Leicester vs Aston Villa in the cup. It was a game that lacked any real punch, and was only briefly enlivened by a solitary goal on the stroke of half time. Dave returned, bringing with him several generous slices of Christmas cake, which were eagerly seized upon by one and all. We headed back to the studio.

The 'Run, Runaway' mix was really starting to fly now, and before long the band were satisfied with what they were hearing. It took some time to get the levels just right as the final mix was secured to digital master, but eventually all was well. We learned that the football match ended 1-0. No one was interested.

As the next tape and its mix were loaded Deke told us more of the Zappa/Beefheart alliance. The recording for Beefheart's 'Trout Mask Replica' was overseen by Zappa, who wanted to ensure that the captain and his Magic Band felt as comfortable as possible during such an important time. To put them at their ease he arranged at considerable expense to wire the house they were living in for sound. Every room was miked, all the hallways too. Each musician had his own space to work in, and the atmosphere was just perfect to capture some of the spontaneous creativity. All was well apart from Beefheart who seemed less than delighted with what was going on. He moped and muttered around for a short while before Zappa asked what the problem was. "Well," replied the captain, "We thought this was going to be a proper job, but look." He gestured around at the microphones and amps and recording paraphernalia, "You're trying to do this on the cheap!"

Within hours the entire entourage and all their equipment had been relocated to the nearest available recording studio and work began in earnest. Interestingly when the bills for the sessions turned up for payment by the record company, one of them was for services rendered by a local tree surgeon. Enquiries prompted Beefheart to explain; "We were playing at a high volume and there are trees right outside. We had them checked out to make sure they weren't under any stress, and figured you should pick up the tab." The bill was paid.

While the band turned their attention to creating the soundscape for 'Out Of The Blue' I took my leave and said goodnight. I had to attend a business meeting in Cardiff early the following morning and was forced to turn down the generous offer of a bed for the night. During the drive I was able to reflect on the difference between the songs as they sound now and as they did when I was privileged to hear some early mixes just before Christmas.

What an album this is going to be.

I'm sure I've seen this building before
Rockfield barn

Mid-afternoon on Thursday I made it back to Rockfield and caught up with the further progress that had been made. After changing into something a little less formal than my business suit I took a quick tour around the outside of the studio to get some sense of the atmosphere and to take a few photographs. This place is full of Manband and related history, for example the location for the sleeve shot on the back cover of Clive John's 'You Always Know Where You Stand With A Buzzard'. When I got back inside, Deke was in the control room and had a keyboard set up. He was adding some rushing wind sound effects to underpin the guitar solo that he plays on 'Out Of the Blue', and the touch of atmosphere thus provided does indeed make a difference. There's a finely judged decision to be made, should he go for 'Gale', 'Typhoon' or 'Hurricane'? It was 'Gale', and ultimately the sounds were only mixed in to support the second half of the solo, just slightly edging into the chorus that follows.

Deke Leonard - The one-fingered weatherman
Deke blows a gale

During an 'ear-break' Dave told us of his experiences with some very pleasant and polite Japanese record producers who he'd been working with recently. A particularly exacting pair, his clients sat to attention and listened intently to each mix. Their suggestions indicated acute hearing; "Ah, can you reduce this track by 0.2 decibels preese?" So Dave would accede to their wishes. He doubted though that such fine adjustments could really be distinguished, and after being asked to alter one level by 0.1 decibels he opted to do nothing, but just imply that he had. When the mix was played back, his clients looked crestfallen; "Ah, you didn't do it..." they chimed. Dave apologised, and suggested that perhaps the computer hadn't responded to his adjustment. When the mix was eventually completed to their satisfaction, the Japanese producers expressed their delight; "Ah, great mix, great mix." and gave up a round of applause.

Continuing the theme he told us of a short tour around Japan that he made with Dave Edmunds, who was the star of the show. One of the dates was in the ancient city of Kyoto. Edmunds, who is well known for having absolutely no sense of direction whatsoever, managed to fall asleep in the tour van as they drove into the city centre. The show that night was taking place in a department store. With space at such a premium in Japan the populace are forced to exploit whatever room is available. The room was changed from store to stage with stunning accuracy and inventiveness. Partitions, racks, display stands were all removed and replaced by temporary staging, measured to fit to the nearest millimetre, it was a remarkable feat of precision engineering. With Edmunds arriving asleep, he had no idea where he was, or of the layout of the city. Feeling restless though he decided to take a brisk walk round the block to clear his head. Within moments he was utterly lost, and began to look around for signs of something familiar. In Kyoto.

It soon became obvious that very few of the local people could speak English, and Edmunds wasn't going to attempt any Japanese. He wandered about aimlessly for some time, looking hopefully around corners and up alleyways, desperately seeking some hints as to where he might be. A polite tap on the shoulder caused him to turn about face. He was confronted by a short, smartly dressed businessman who quietly said; "Ah, excuse me. You are lost." Edmunds was forced to agree. His benefactor led him a few paces along the street, turned the corner and suddenly there they were, back in front of the venue for the night. The Japanese man pointed upwards, where Edmunds saw a greatly enlarged image on himself on a giant TV screen, one of many screens advertising various products and events in the area. He turned to thank the businessman and was astonished to discover that he had vanished as quickly as he had arrived. "He came from nowhere," Dave suggested, "and he returned to nowhere." The eighth samurai.

More minor adjustments
Deke, Martin and Dave

Back to the matter in hand and once again the next few hours were spent fine-tuning. Adjusting the imperceptibles. 'Out Of The Blue' has a wonderfully anarchic bass line from Martin, and a fine spaghetti western solo from Deke to bring the song near to completion. Micky's vocals are confirmation that his voice is still everything it used to be, plaintive and melodic, and distinctly 'Man'. A few early notes in his guitar solo were pushed upwards slightly to give them a little more emphasis, and then it was pretty much done.

Dave Charles had some difficulty getting the final levels just right on this mix as it was secured to digital master. As he explained, with traditional taped masters you can push the levels very slightly into distortion without losing it, but with a digital copy as soon as you cross the line it's all pretty much useless. The trick is to get the levels as high as possible so the maximum information is recorded, but without allowing any distortion at all. One very short passage was causing all the trouble, but eventually this was cracked and the master, with a vocal-free backing tape version also, was secured.

Micky and Martin told us of their experiences touring in Kenya with Peter Singh. It seems Peter's now going under the name of 'The Turbanator' and is still to be found getting up to sing in various night-spots around the Swansea area. In Kenya though the venues were somewhat more esoteric. Micky recalled a 25,000 seater football stadium, an impressive location no doubt, but somewhat hollow when only around 50 people came along for the show. Another show was played in a Hindu temple. Not bad, a Sikh Elvis impersonator playing a Hindu temple. All in all both Micky and Martin recall the two trips to Kenya with some affection. Martin had been living at the Hope and Anchor when the invitation to do some shows with Peter came. He first demurred but the offer of fifty quid a night eventually made it a more attractive option. The act gradually got better, and when the chance to travel to Africa came up it was readily taken. The first trip was brilliant, with the strong Kenyan Sikh community lapping up every note and word.

The second tour though nearly came apart before it got started. There was considerable doubt initially about whether anyone would be paid and it was decided to wait until some cold hard cash was seen before travelling. A plastic bag stuffed full of used notes was handed to a courier in central London. This was rushed to Heathrow and passed to the waiting musicians as they were due to board the plane for the flight out. With the main issue now firmly dealt with, the tour went ahead pretty much as planned. Although it perhaps wasn't quite as successful as the first trip, Micky and Martin treated the experience as something of a paid holiday and just enjoyed themselves.

Sounds great from where I'm sitting Dave
Martin and Dave

Back in the studio the next song, 'Some People' was spooled and made ready to go. This has an alternative working title of 'Love Isn't Love' and benefits from an interesting arrangement with several distinct parts. The close out features a chirpy little Beach Boys style vocal from Deke, and there's plenty to maintain the interest on the way. It was decided that the song needed some further guitar parts from Micky, and perhaps one of the verses needed to have its vocal re-recorded. Before the work on this began in earnest, the call to dinner arrived. I regretfully took the opportunity to bid my farewells and start on the journey home to Yorkshire.

Two afternoons and an evening in the company of the Manband, in one of their spiritual homes. There's not much that could beat this in the top ten list of Manfan fantasies. When Martin had first invited me I was reminded that later this year the band may be visiting Sun studios. To record in the same building that Elvis Presley laid down so many epoch defining songs all those years ago. This trip is something of a pilgrimage for Martin and Deke and Micky. Martin had told me a few days earlier that he was really looking forward to it. Not that they expected to do anything more than perhaps just whiz through some rockabilly stuff on acoustic bass and guitars, material that would be familiar to followers of the Silverbirds. "I'd be delighted, "Martin had said, "To just be able to listen back to what we did, and to know that it was recorded in the same building, the same room that Elvis had worked in." I told him that visiting Rockfield was like that for me, only in this case Elvis had not yet left the building.