Thursday, 18 July 2013

Roy Harper (Harpic) -4

I had never made an album before but it couldn’t be that hard, could it? After all, surely it was just a matter of common sense? I knew my way around studios from my days as a session musician and the process seemed pretty straightforward.


I was later to learn that logic and common sense are not in abundant supply in the music industry. That I achieved my goals, by and large, was not a matter of luck though. It was down to meticulous planning, careful thought and good fortune to work with some quite extraordinary talent.

We had twenty eight thousand pounds in the kitty, half of which was earmarked for the recording budget (which had to include payments to musicians) a few grand to keep the office going and the rest to promote the album. It sounded like a lot at the time, except…as I rooted through Roy’s accounts within the context of straightening out his convoluted tax affairs, it became clear that his last album for EMI (Unknown Soldier) had come in with the princely price tag of £160,000 – more than ten times as much as I had allocated for Work Of Heart (the title of the new album). Still…what did EMI know about making records? They’d only been doing it for an eternity (that’s not as tongue-in-cheek as it may sound. It remains my belief that most major record companies know naff-all about how to make good records, as my later production escapades were to confirm).

The first task was to find a producer. I had always been a big fan of the production on the early Peter Gabriel albums – Jeux Sans Frontiers, Biko, Salisbury Hill et al. The album covers credited Steve Lillywhite. He seemed a good choice. So I did what any sensible executive producer should do but I now know never in fact does – I rang the artist for a reference. I’d had occasional dealings with the talented Mr. Gabriel during my Buzz Music days, and he was extremely helpful. Rather than confirm Steve Lillywhite’s credentials, Peter raved on about an unknown producer/engineer with whom he was currently collaborating on his current – fourth – album (Shock The Monkey etc). This bloke lived in Peter’s neck of the woods – Bath – and was, according to the great man, a complete and utter musical and production genius, a former composer and classical musician called David Lord. If Roy was looking to the best producer in the business, I should call David.

So I did.

Disappointment followed. David was politeness itself, and said he would love to hear the demos but…he was far too busy mixing Peter Gabriel’s album to take on another project. Sorry – thanks but no thanks.

John Leckie wasn’t chosen as an alternative to David Lord. Quite the opposite. John had always been top of Roy’s short list, but had been tied up with a production in London. Until – suddenly John became available, and the production chair was filled.
Accordingly, I sent Chapel Lane Studios a fifty percent advance on studio time and the recordings commenced.

It turned out to be a fraught process. Roy proved pernickety in the studio to the point of infuriation. John Leckie knew how tight the budget and therefore the timescale was, and began to suffer increasing stress trying to push the album forwards, particularly as Roy was used to months and even years to make an album (Unknown Soldier had eaten almost eighteen months in Abbey Road). The musicians we’d found turned out to be sensational, whizzing through the backing tracks on schedule with world-class performances. Except…

We recorded the backing tracks to a drum programme, laid down on a brand new state of the art machine called an Oberheim DMX, programmed by a friend of Bob Wilson’s who flew the private plane for ELO (don’t ask…life is weird.) When the time came to replace these 8 bit samples with real drums, we hit problems. A friend of John Leckie’s recommended a young drummer (whose name escapes me – fortunately so, perhaps) but the sessions turned out to be a disaster. Sadly, although talented, the youngster’s lack of studio experience let him down badly and ten days were lost desperately trying (and failing) to lay down drum tracks. All the while the stress grew, and Roy became ever more domineering in the control room. Maybe I can understand, as he really did have his life on the line. This was not merely a career saving album, but with the bank ready to pull the plug on his house and financial pressures closing in, the stakes could not have been higher.

John Leckie did an amazing job of shaping, tracking and tightening the backing tracks against all odds but eventually the pressure told and he cracked. He downed tools one day and high-tailed it for the sanity of the hills.. He was, after all, a human being and carried his own personal burdens. Thus it was that I was called to the studio half way through the project to salvage a crisis.

I found a set of excellent backing tracks, minus drums, almost ready to mix. John had engineered as well as produced, and had worked fourteen hours a day progressing the project in the face of Roy’s ever changing mind and more pressures than any producer should have to bear. But I was left with no engineer, no one to mix, no drummer and no track sheets.

Crisis? What crisis? This was my first album. Maybe all recording sessions were like this…

I’d always been a massive fan of a greatly underrated singer-songwriter called Judie Tzuke. Apart from a voice to die for, she wrote (sorry…she writes) intelligent, timeless songs and has always attracted top-flight musicians to her band. In particular, I’d always been impressed by her drummer, a guy called Charlie Morgan. So I found his number from the Musicians Union, rang him up and booked him for an eight-hour session. What I didn’t tell him (until he arrived with a drum kit and Dolby, the dog) was that I wanted him to overdub an entire album in that short day.


John Leckie had left a well-managed set of tapes, complete with click tracks. Tom Oliver, the main live sound engineer I used for my tour productions, was drafted in to engineer and we sat in the control room with Charlie listening to a playback of the album. He loved the stuff. And he went for it.

I’ve worked with some great drummers in my time (Mannie Elias, Gavin Harrison, George Jackson Jr and many more) but never have I experienced such magic in the studio. Charlie’s energy didn’t flag, any more than his enthusiasm. And lest any of you drummers out there belittle the task of overdubbing forty minutes of music in less than eight hours, it should be pointed out that Roy’s songs aren’t easy. They bristle with time changes, dynamics, subtle extra bars here and there. The title track, Work Of Heart, is twenty minutes long and covers a vast range of light, shade and tempo. But Charlie rose to the task and achieved far more than could ever have been expected. Indeed, there are sparse licks and tight fills on that record that still send a shiver down my spine after a thousand listens. So hats off to Charlie Morgan – drummer supreme. Last I heard, he was a regular member of Elton John’s band. I’m not surprised.

So thanks to John Leckie, Charlie Morgan and Tom Oliver, we had our backing tracks. We were only slightly over budget and schedule, what’s more, although with such a tight budget ‘slightly over’ was a major consideration.

Now to work out how to get the damn thing mixed.

More in hope than expectation, I put in another call to David Lord in Bath. As good fortune would have it, he suddenly had time available (there are plenty of biographies detailing the falling out of David and Peter Gabriel, so I have no intention of touching on that here.) Moreover, David had his own studio in Bath – Crescent – and was prepared to provide his services to mix plus studio time for a week at a figure that precisely equated to my remaining budget, taking into account that I had hired a second engineer to assist with the mix – Paul Cobbold, one of the Rockfield crew and an old friend. A few economies had to be made, though, which meant I spent the week of the mix sleeping in the back of my Volvo estate rather than lavishing precious funds on a bed and breakfast.

Rock `n` Roll (oh my aching back…)

David Lord is a genius. Irrespective of any personal factors, I am happy – nay proud – to shout his musical, production and engineering credentials from the highest mountaintop. Peter Gabriel was right - the man is a musical genius.

David realised John Leckie’s production vision perfectly. He added various overdubs, including some keyboard parts of his own. I’d always imagined sax on a couple of the tracks, and contacted Dick Morrissey. What a geezer…inspiration in every breath, and a master of his instrument. He also knew a few tricks. For example, there was one particularly snappy solo on (yes, you guessed) a Gabriel album, and I wanted that vibe for one of Roy’s tracks. Dick explained that he’d cut the solo on tenor with the tape slowed down. When the track was replayed at normal speed, the sax sounded tighter, snappier and hovered between the ranges of alto and tenor. So that’s what we did and it worked like a dream. Like Charlie Morgan, Dick was the master of the first take. These guys were pros (unlike me) and it was such a privilege to work with them. As much as anything else it made me happy that I hadn’t pursued a career as a session musician. I was nowhere near these guys’ class.

And so Work Of Heart finally saw the light of day – a collection of great songs, faultlessly performed, beautifully recorded and mixed by a genius. I had made my first album on budget (a paltry fifteen grand) and pretty well on time. If I have one regret, it’s that John Leckie was never given the production credit that he so richly deserved, but then that’s Roy. He rang to compliment the finished product, and to say how much he liked David Lord’s mix. John was a true friend to Roy and modest to a fault.

And what happened next?

Well…I rewrote music bizz history a little. I negotiated the first ever commercial sponsorship for an album marketing campaign (Maxell Tapes gave me £35,000 to promote the record), negotiated heavy preorders with a couple of chain stores and charted the album. ‘Work Of Heart’ was voted album of the year by Derek Jewell in The Sunday Times and was also named one of the five albums of the year in Music Week. We shifted thirty five thousand albums through Pinnacle, an independent distributor (the equivalent of selling three hundred thousand on a major as I was later told by the publisher, Dick Leahy). The band toured and were great, with Tony Franklyn, Bob Wilson and George Jackson ably supported by Jackie Graham, Mo Birch and Ruby Turner on backing vocals. On their night, they were dynamite – a million miles from the old-hat crustiness many associated with Roy Harper. And then, just as I had overseas licensing deals lined up with promised advances in excess of £60,000 I learned a bitter (but valuable) lesson about the music business.

Public Recordings numbered amongst its major shareholders Robert Plant, Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, David Gilmour, Robert Grayburn and me. However, in my innocence, the label had no formal agreement with the artist – he was merely a fifty per cent shareholder. One day, a contrite and embarrassed Roy appeared in my office with news that his accountant had advised him to liquidate the label and buy the master tapes back from the receiver for £100 (without his consent to release, they were worthless to anyone else). He could then release through a new label and use the proceeds to buy another house to replace that foreclosed upon by Barclays.

‘Sorry Mark,’ Roy mumbled, ‘but this is the only life I’ve got. I have to think about myself.’

I have no idea whether the business scam worked out for Roy. Possibly. Possibly not. I was left high and dry in Birmingham with the wreckage of the label and all the bad vibes associated with a bankrupt company.

David Gilmour and Paul McCartney had been right. Roy’s investors never saw their money back, let alone a profit. But I guess they knew that all along. I was the novice in the Harper stakes.

Apart from being a great learning curve, I take great pride in ‘Work Of Heart’. It was an album that should have been impossible to make. Even today it sounds fresh and stands beside any other album of its era in terms of quality and creativity. It is rated by most reviewers of Roy’s output as his second greatest album after Stormcock. Indeed, Roy personally rates the demos (released as Born In Captivity) as his favourite album, or one of them at least.

Born In Captivity cost four hundred pounds (my time was donated for nothing – a bounced cheque) and Work Of Heart cost a fraction of what the record companies I later worked with imagined. Indeed, after I came to London and joined the music mainstream, intent to learn from the major record companies I worked with, I was amused to find that they were more interested in discovering how I’d achieved the results and accolades represented by Work Of Heart rather than trying to teach me their tricks.

I could only offer one answer – always trust talent above cheque-book production.
That rule remains as true today as it was in 1980.

You better believe.

Roy Harper; Born In Captivity/Work Of Heart Science Friction HUCD008


Friday, 12 July 2013

Harpic 3

Nineteen seventy-nine marked the end of one decade and the dawn of another, mirroring the changes in my life.

My time was increasingly devoted to the task of resuscitating Roy Harper’s stalled career, no longer from a tiny rented house in Hereford but from a makeshift office in Birmingham, cobbled together in reclaimed derelict space above a recording studio in Gas Street, spitting distance from the Canal (an appropriate description as it happens; this was definitely downmarket – even less salubrious than the shabbiness of Rotten Park, where Annie and I rented a dilapidated flat).

For several months a fellow traveller shared the Harper universe that increasingly dominated my life. One of Roy’s old mates moved into The Vauld for a while, seeking refuge from a collapsing marriage and his own career hiatus. Being more of a jazzer than a rocker in my youth, Led Zeppelin had passed me by. Indeed (and perhaps amazingly) I was wholly unaware of the mega-star status of Robert Plant, the new arrival who hung out with Roy and I during this period. Indeed, nothing about Robert’s bearing or mannerisms betrayed his status in the rock firmament. He was down to earth, unpretentious and about as normal as any muso could be. There were occasional glimpses that he was a little less than an aspiring Brummy, though, as one treasured anecdote demonstrates (and I’m sure Robert will excuse me if I slightly guild what is a real-life lily…)

A frighteningly posh Jaguar car showroom occupied a large expanse of street around the corner from my dingy Gas Street office. One day, Robert phoned me. ‘Mark,’ he said, ‘I noticed a neat Jaguar convertible in the showroom round the corner. Do us a favour, mate, and pop in to see how much they want for it.’

I duly complied.

Now, those who know me will attest to the fact that I’m something of a sartorial disaster. My standard wardrobe comprises jeans, whatever shirt comes to hand in the morning and a comfortable jumper. My hair may be a mess these days, but it’s positively neat compared to the mop that flopped across my head twenty-seven years ago. In short, I guess I’d sheepishly own up to the fact that more often than not I’m one stitch removed from a tramp or (more kindly) a plumber’s mate rather than a music bizz impresario. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the dishevelled figure knocking the glass window of the super-posh Jag showroom was ignored for several minutes before a tetchy salesman answered the door, more in irritation than welcome.

‘Piss off son,’ came the welcoming response.

‘No, please,’ I pleaded. ‘I’ve been asked to get a price on one of your motors for a mate.’

A scowl accompanied by a half raised hand suggested that the salesman intended to give me a clip round the ear rather than any advice. He hesitated, though, probably unwilling to crease his dapper ‘Top Man’ suit.

‘That…’ I pointed at the convertible XJ6. ‘How much?’

I doubt that the salesman could have mustered a more derisory response had he practiced for a month. ‘Forty Thousand,’ he scoffed with a smirk. ‘Pounds, that is, not pence. Now piss off, sonny.’

I left Mister Jaguar Salesman chuckling at his naff joke and wandered back around the corner to report back.

‘Forty grand, eh?’ Robert’s voice on the end of the phone was curious, his interest clearly pricked. ‘Do us a favour, Mark, and ask what they’ll do for cash. See how much you can knock them down.’

Ten minutes later I was knocking on the plate glass window again.


‘What now?’ The Jag salesman strode rather than wandered to the door, murder in his eyes. ‘I’m busy. What do you want this time?’

I took half a step back and cleared my throat. ‘The convertible…’ I pointed to the gleaming green XJ6. ‘What’s your best deal for cash? Cash pound notes?’ It was just as well I’d taken that step as I swear the salesman would have taken a swing at me and ended up with blood on his pinstriped shirt. His mouth opened but not a word came out.

I tried again. ‘How much for cash? The bottom line? Rock bottom?’

Although his voice mouthed the words ‘piss off…’ what came out was…’thirty five thousand pounds,’ before he caught his breath, pointed to the street and hissed… ‘now stop wasting my bloody time…’ and slammed the door in my face.

I can honestly say that I’ve never enjoyed any moment more than when, two days later, Robert and I wandered into the showroom to confront my best buddy (not), the car salesman. Robert laid his briefcase on the counter, flipped open the lid and pulled out a banker’s draft made out for thirty five thousand pounds. Done deal.

I was never able to walk past the Jaguar showroom again without that slick, foulmouthed sales-weasel rushing out to greet me with news of his latest bargains.

Don’t judge a book by its cover and all that jazz…

But back to Roy Harper.

My strategy to revitalise Roy’s ailing career was two fold; firstly, to find a great band to back him on the gigs that we both agreed were essential to raise his profile and secondly…to choose the right record deal. Yes, that’s right. In my naivety I believed that every record company in the world would be blown away by such an amazing demo album and fight one other to sign the great man.

Hmmm…I had much to learn.

We held auditions for backing musicians in Pete King’s recording studio, below my office. These took the form of a couple of days recordings, which Roy and I later mixed at David Gilmour’s private studio (later developed to become Hook End Manor). Sorry folks…that is yet another story.

We trawled Birmingham for musicians and one name kept cropping up – that of guitarist Bob Wilson, formerly of The Steve Gibbons Band. He topped our list, was offered a gig after (probably) twenty seconds in the studio and fully justified his reputation as being very special. Had Bob lived in London, he would have had the pick of any band in the business as he was both an exceptional player and a true pro. And a diamond geezer to boot. In terms of bass players, we’d pretty much decided on a guy called Dick Cadbury who ran a studio in Gloucester and had quite a pedigree on the session scene. I asked my old mate, drummer George Jackson, to come and lay down drums for Dick’s audition and he was happy to oblige. George had run the drum shop at Buzz Music for a while and was a great player. As chance had it, he was now resident drummer with the Birmingham Top Rank house band, and so was local. However, just before the audition Dick rang up and cancelled, leaving us with a booked studio, a guitarist (Bob Wilson) a drummer but no bassist. I asked George if he could drag along a dep, and this is how we first met Tony Franklyn.

I’ll never forget that first session. I’d been nervous when George turned up with Tony, for Tony was a lad, a kid, a giggling seventeen year old. ‘Just listen,’ George whispered. So we did.

Tony had recently joined the Top Rank band from his native Derby (I think) as resident bass player. He read dots fluently, was a dab hand on clarinet and had made the gig his own immediately. Although shy and a little overawed by the occasion, all his nerves evaporated the moment he plugged in his Precision bass.

We were gobsmacked.

Now, I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the most talented musicians of my generation in one capacity or other. I have high standards and can recognise an exceptional musician when I hear one. I can honestly say that Tony Franklyn was a league above any other teenage muso I’ve ever heard. On every score, he dripped talent. His sound, his timing, his fluency, his precision – on every score he was not merely the finished article but was already a highly individual voice. Am I over-egging the cookie? I think not. Indeed, he had the same effect on Jimmy Page and Paul Rogers when, upon the demise of Roy’s band, they asked him to join The Firm and tour stadiums in the States. By all accounts he stole show after show, despite being half the age of the other superstars in the band. Fender have now afforded Tony the ultimate accolade by naming a bass after him – a copy of his trademark fretless Precision (hence his nickname as ‘The Fretless Monster’)

So Roy’s band was taking shape nicely. I’d even unearthed some superb backing vocalists who later went on tour with us – Ruby Turner, Mo Birch and Jackie Graham. Those girls could sing, as the world was later to discover when they all signed separate solo record deals. Meanwhile, I started the rounds of London record companies, demos in hand (and those were the days when there were upwards of fifteen majors clustered around the West End).

My meetings proved puzzling. Pretty much everyone was curious but…I was soon to learn that Roy had developed what might best be described as something of a reputation as a loose cannon in the industry, as was summed up by my dealings with Simon Potts at Arista.

I left the demos with Simon (whom I knew quite well from my Haircut 100 days) and met up with him again a week later. He sighed and shook his head. ‘I don’t think so, Mark.’ He was sympathetic. ‘Good luck, though.’ He smiled. As I got up to leave, disappointed he added… ‘Oh, do you mind if I keep the demos? They’re amazing –the best demos I’ve ever heard. Roy’s a genius. There’s a classic album waiting to be made…’

‘Well why not sign him, then?’ I was puzzled.

Simon shrugged. ‘What? Sign Roy Harper?’ He shook his head. ‘I don’t think so. Life’s too short…’

With all the majors passing one by one, we were left to find another strategy. The solution came initially from Roy.

According to Roy, his superstar friends would be happy to invest in a label and finance the making of the record. Guaranteed. After all they were mates, weren’t they?

And so the lunacy began.

I formed a record company – Public Recordings – and committed my remaining resources to the project. A friend of mine, Robert Grayburn, also invested some working capital (thanks Robert…you’ll get it back one day, I promise…) and Roy gave me a list of his ‘friends’ to contact for additional investment. An injection of five thousand pounds as a loan would buy shares and points on the album. Easy, eh?

In my innocence I believed so.

Over the next three months I wrote letters and held meetings with a series of potential investors whose records graced my collection. I sat in Bill Curbishly’s office making a presentation to an inebriated Pete Townsend, spoke several times to Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull (who had always publicly claimed Roy as a major influence) and put in repeated calls to Jimmy Page whom Roy was adamant would chip into the kitty. All of these offered verbal support, but nothing more. However, one by one investors did send cheques. Robert Plant and David Gilmour needed no persuading, although Gilmour quietly suggested that the likelihood of ever seeing his money back was about as remote as a hike on the dark side of the moon. I realise now that he knew Roy better than any of us. So that was ten grand in addition to the ten that Robert and I had invested. Kate Bush was an avid fan and had covered one of Roy’s songs somewhere down the line. I met her several times (and a new hero was born; what an unpretentious, lovely, generous, honest human being…) and one day a note arrived with a cheque for three thousand, all she could afford at the time. So we were nearly there. Just one more investor, and we’d have the budget we needed to make the album at long last.

The pressure mounted. Pressure from Barclays to repossess Roy’s farm, pressure to keep the musicians we’d found for the album on-side, pressure to confirm the pencilled studio dates at Chapel Lane outside Hereford, close to Roy’s house (meaning we had accommodation for the band). I needed one more investor, but all I was getting were rejections. Rejections from Pete Townsend, stoned silence from Jimmy Page, haughty indifference from Ian Anderson, until…

The phone went.

‘Hello. Public Recordings.’

‘Can I speak to Mark please?’ It was a familiar voice. I racked my brains, trying to place where and who and when…


‘You sent me a tape with a letter asking me to invest in your new record company.’

‘Ye-es…’ I answered hesitantly. Who was this? It was such a familiar voice that I assumed I was speaking to someone I knew well.

‘I love the demos. I think the album deserves a chance. I’ll put a cheque for five grand in the post today. OK?’ …a pause… ‘ and thanks for thinking of me.’

‘So…you’re a close friend of Roy’s?’ I was still desperately struggling to place the voice, too embarrassed to ask who it was in case it was an obvious friend, desperate for a clue.

‘Me? A friend?’ The caller laughed. ‘No. We only met once. Linda and I were recording at Abbey Road and dragged Roy in to help out with backing vocals. But I’m a big fan. Always have been. So is Linda.’

I knew. The voice. I knew who it was. And if I hadn’t, I would have found out soon enough. The caller confirmed in his own modest style…

‘Oh, I’ll send a personal cheque, Paul McCartney, rather than getting MPL involved. Less paperwork needed.’ As I gasped, he added… ‘And by the way, regard it as a gift rather than an investment. I may not know Roy very well, but I know him well enough. I won’t expect to get it back. But good luck with the album anyway, Mark.’
And the phone went dead.

At last we had our money courtesy of Robert Plant, David Gilmour, Kate Bush and Paul McCartney. Oh, not forgetting Robert Grayburn and me, of course.

Rock and Roll…

(to be continued…)

Roy Harper; Born In Captivity/Work Of Heart Science Friction HUCD008 

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Roy Harper - 2

I often wonder how recording engineers and producers stumble into their (often accidental) careers. I found this in my archives the other day and enjoyed revisiting an eyelash of my own, and UK recording, history. Maybe it might interest others?
HARPIC (Roy Harper)

Bear with me, dear reader (if you do in fact exist) as I delve into the fading greyness of my hazy memory banks to recount a strange, strange episode in my professional life.

I spent most of the 1970’s developing a business, Buzz Music, in Hereford, a sleepy and forgotten but extremely beautiful English county town a ten-league-boot stride or so from the Welsh borders, half an hour’s drive north of Kingsley Ward’s famous (infamous?) Rockfield recording studios in Monmouth.

From humble roots as a small record shop, Buzz had stretched and yawned it’s hippy wings and spawned guitar, drum and keyboard sales departments, a large flightcase factory and touring PA rigs, putting us at the heart of the anarchic two-tone and new wave music scene of the late 1970’s. I could write chapters about my madcap adventures with The Selecter, The Beat, Bad Manners, The Pretenders and more, but will spare you this indulgence. Suffice it to say that these were crazy days – the archetypical sex, drugs and rock `n` roll years of ill repute. Please kiddies, be warned – such a lifestyle is seriously prejudicial to your health and should be avoided at all costs. Stick to liquorish and pussycats, don’t inhale and live a quiet, uneventful life. Otherwise…you might end up like me (heavens forefend). Those days are far behind me now but I wouldn’t have missed them for all the microphones in China.

Back to the plot…

Like Icarus drawn to the sun, Buzz reached for the skies and eventually burned its wings. The collapse was slow and painful as my partner, Alan, and I spent a year working for the receiver to pay off the company’s debts. We succeeded, but emerged in 1978 broke and jobless.

By this time, I knew how to coordinate a rock and roll tour, knew the promoters, the sound rig and lighting suppliers and found I could turn a buck applying my knowledge and contacts for the benefit of clients. So it was that I found myself scraping by with a series of tour production gigs that kept the wolf from the door.

One fine day, totally out of the blue, I received a call from a Mr. Ian Tilbury, self-styled impresario and artiste manager. One of his clients had recently moved to a small village outside Hereford and wanted to hire some bits and pieces of recording equipment to make a demo of his next album. Could I supply a Brennel Mini 8 recorder and a Roland space echo, a DI box and some cables for a couple of months?
Indeed I could, I replied, at a price. A deal was done (I could sub hire the eight track and the margin would pay at least a week’s rent), and I arranged to deliver. And who was the client, I asked?

Roy Harper, came the reply.

I drove the equipment to Roy’s farmhouse– The Vauld – in the village of Marden with my hands trembling at the steering wheel. For this was my one, true musical hero, a man who’s Magnus Opus – Stormcock – was rarely off my battered turntable. I was about to meet my musical god. It was a feeling that I’ll never forget, a high that ranks with any I’ve ever had before or since.

Roy had bought The Vauld with the proceeds of a large EMI advance after renegotiating his Harvest contract following success in the mid 1970’s. Part of the deal was that EMI supplied him with a recording console – one of only three dedicated studio desks built by Jeff Byers under the ‘Midas’ banner. Very Neve-like and built like a battleship, this was a quirky twenty four input, eight buss beast bristling with transformers. It was somewhat idiosyncratic but (as I now appreciate) it sounded great.

Roy had converted the old Granary behind the farmhouse into a grand annex, including a gallery where the Midas lived. By this time – 1978 – he had parted company with EMI after the failure of the horrifically expensive ‘Unknown Soldier’ album (initially recorded as ‘Commercial Breaks’ but revamped at great cost after EMI’s cold response). In typical Harpic fashion (Harpic being Roy’s nickname in the bizz) Roy had retired from the music scene to breed sheep (an occupation for which he was utterly unsuited) and smoke dope. Meanwhile, he had fallen out with his longstanding manager, Pete Jenner, and entrusted his career to the slick but shadowy Ian Tilbury.


Roy’s coffers were pretty well exhausted by now, but Tilbury claimed to have Geffen Records hanging by a string, hot to trot, ready waiting and willing to sign with a huge advance, subject to…subject to hearing demos of the next album. There was insufficient dosh in the kitty to put Roy in the studio (in no uncertain terms, as I was later to discover) so the cheap option was to let Roy loose with an eight track, his old Midas, a Shure mic (yes – one mic) and some bits and pieces. Ian was confident that a set of polished demos would result.


I unloaded my bits and pieces from my trusty old Volvo, tugged my forelock with trembling fingers, humped the Brennel upstairs via the tradesman’s entrance, hooked the machine up to the old Midas and made sure that everything was working fine. I recall that Roy seemed confident that I could leave him to it, and Verna, Roy’s girlfriend, made me a cup of scented tea before I tugged my forelock once more and hit the road for Hereford and home.

I had met the great Roy Harper. What’s more, he seemed like a nice guy. Lovely gaff. Ah…what a memory for the collection.

I slept well that night.

Two days later I received a phone call. Apparently Roy was having some problems recording electric guitars (he was experimenting with a couple of early Tokai’s sent to him by the importer as a mark of respect – another fan. They were exceptional Fender copies…better than the real thing, I’d go so far as to say). Like a sloppy Labrador at his master’s beck and call, I headed back for Marden, The Vauld and Harper’s modest home studio.

‘I can’t seem to get the DI box working,’ muttered Roy, his forehead creased into an uncomprehending frown, his finger pointing at the small metal box on the floor.

‘I’m not surprised…’ came my reply, wide-eyed and horror-stricken.

This was the moment when I realised that, musical genius or not, matters electronic and mechanical were not Roy Harper’s forte. Lying on the carpet was an MXR DI box with one cable going to Roy’s guitar, one cable going to the Midas desk, and the third going from the XLR output to…to the mains. For reasons best known to the Muses of Marihuana, Roy had decided to slam a mains plug on to one end of a mic cable and plug a redundant output of the DI into the 240v mains supply. That he lived to tell the tale is remarkable.

One thing was crystal clear. This man should never, ever, EVER be left alone with any kind of electrical appliance, let alone the spider’s web of cabling associated with a multitrack recording rig.

And that is how I was called upon, by force of circumstance, to apply my fairly extensive live sound engineering skills to a humble recording rig. As of that moment, I became Roy’s demo engineer.

Over the course of the next two months, I visited The Vauld every evening after my other freelance duties were done, with double-bubble at the weekends (thanks to the tolerance of my longsuffering girlfriend, Annie Jay). Personally, it was anything but a drag as Roy, Verna and I became friends. I found Roy one of the most cultured and learned musicians I’d ever met; beneath the surface, he was miles from his eccentric public persona. Thoughtful, considered and…well, to be honest he was (and probably still is) somewhat bonkers in the best tradition of English eccentrics. Musically, though, the period was an education that went beyond any I could have hoped for.

By this stage in his life, Roy had made half a dozen (or more) albums and had probably done more gigs than most successful artists do in their lifetime. The bulk of his previous recording had been done at Abbey Road with a roster of engineers that reads like a who’s who of recording alumni – Alan Parsons, John Leckie, you name them, Roy had worked with them. Whatever anyone might think of Roy’s voice, he was a singer with few peers, capable of effortlessly and meticulously double, triple, quadruple tracking a vocal in one, two or three takes. He could instil a degree of emotion or subtlety or finesse to his extraordinary lyrics without parallel. His guitar style was extremely personal, and although not an ‘educated’ player, his style has influenced hundreds of acoustic musicians down the years. Moreover, he had a unique way of leaving gaps in an acoustic track, ready to overdub a related part and build up the backing with crossed rhythms and guitar harmonies, creating a rich patina against which his voice could weave and soar.

For a young, naïve makeshift engineer, the experience of working with such a sophisticated and practiced musician provided an education without parallel. As a studio virgin, of course, I wasn’t aware of how privileged I was to work with someone capable of such intense and relatively faultless performances, take after take. The recording rig was basic to the point that any experienced engineer would cringe. There was no click track, no sequencing, no computer (computer? Roy would have had a heart attack) – nothing other than the Midas, the Brennel (with no autolocate, of course), a pair of Tannoys, a Delta Lab DL1 delay/modulator (for Roy’s electric guitar) and (I think) a Roland Space echo for reverb and delay. Yet over the course of those two months, Roy and I recorded what was later to be released as an album – Born In Captivity.

I contributed a lot of ideas to the arrangements and even sang backing vocals on one song – Stanley – but take no credit. I’d aways arranged the songs in all the bands I’d played in, and enjoyed chipping in ideas and making suggestions. They talent was Roy’s and Roy’s alone. But somehow I engineered the sessions and achieved a passable result, sufficient to meet with Ian Tilbury’s approval and conviction that the tapes would swing the Geffen deal. Tilbury remained bullish about this until, that is, his cheque for the gear hire bounced and he disappeared to America having mortgaged Roy’s house to the hilt (by virtue of the Power Of Attorney Roy had granted him during a particularly dumb and trusting moment) and pocketed the proceeds.

So there we were, Roy and I, me an avid fan, the two of us good friends, a decent set of demos in the can and…and Roy staring ruin and bankruptcy in the face. Drastic action was called for.

Enter John Leckie, engineering genius and human being par excellence. Out of the goodness of his heart, John came up to The Vauld and rerecorded some of my demos and polished others (a few were left alone, inflating my ego hugely). He did a superb job given the lack of gear, but then John Leckie will ALWAYS do a superb job without complaint or fuss. (Come on, some of you ‘credible’ superstars – get John on the case with your next album. He’s too modest to hustle his credentials, but he has more talent and musical ability in his little finger than most ‘happening’ producers who seem to dominate to plumb jobs these days). Meanwhile, I was preoccupied with an extremely time consuming but surprisingly lucrative tour production gig. Despite this, Roy’s predicament remained at the forefront of my mind.

By this time – 1979, I guess – I’d established an enviable reputation for providing top class sound, lighting and logistics for UK and European tours. I knew the ropes, and could usually skim twenty or more percent from other quotes and come in on budget.
I was offered several potential tours by major record companies, but could only take on one. I recall that I whittled the options down to two possibles – a new EMI band that offered a decent profit and an Arista act that intrigued me. I submitted a reasonable budget to Simon Potts at Arista but he came back to me with an alternative proposition; the band in question was not a priority act, and Arista were looking to trim costs wherever possible. If I was prepared to undertake the tour production and coordination at cost, he was prepared to agree a contract whereby I would get 20% of any profits the tour generated. Now, as all you pros out there know, agreeing to such a deal on an unknown act is tantamount to commercial suicide. Bands lose dosh on the road in the early stages of their career, and the dates that the band’s agent had booked hardly left much scope for profit even if they sold out. However, I really liked both the band and their as yet unreleased album and went with my gut instincts. Although I was skimping and scraping to make a living, I negotiated a bonkers contract with Simon Potts and Arista. I’d do the tour at cost, but would pocket twenty per cent of any profits generated.

And the band?

An unknown act called Haircut 100.

The week before the tour hit the road, Haircut’s first single raced to the top of the charts. Hysteria broke out. The tour gigs were swapped for larger and larger venues, and as many punters were locked out as could be shoehorned in. And then the tour was extended. The clubs were cancelled in favour or Top Ranks, and then municipal halls were added – larger and longer and longer and larger. I recall sitting with Simon Potts at the back of the (then) Hammersmith Odeon on the first of five sell-out nights, looking at Arista’s sales figures. Two weeks before Christmas, Haircut’s first album was shifting one hundred thousand copies A DAY. Eat your heart out, Artic Monkeys. This was the 1970’s. When an album shipped big, it shipped B-I-G. And the band put on a great show, night after night. Sadly, they couldn’t cope with the pressures of so much sudden success and record company politicking destroyed the goose that laid the golden egg. After my involvement, the band bombed in Europe and the States, Nick Heyward (a decent talent) was persuaded that his future lay in a solo career and that was that – another ink blot on the history of pop.

So I had brass in pocket, the opportunity to take my foot off the rent-gas and a continuing belief in Roy Harper and what I genuinely believed was a great album waiting to be recorded. But Roy needed a manager. He was broke, The Vauld was close to being repossessed by the bank and there was no sniff of the promised Geffen record deal in the air.

A longstanding friend at the time was John Mostyn, formerly manager of The Beat (and later manager of Fine Young Cannibals). John was currently at a loose end, so I drove him out to see Roy and we spent the afternoon chatting. Fingers crossed, I drove John back to Birmingham, imploring him to take Roy on as a client. As we hit the outskirts of Brum, John shook his head. He didn’t believe sufficiently, he confessed. Roy just wasn’t his bag. However…he turned to me and winked…why didn’t I manage Roy? I had the belief John lacked. I knew Roy. And for the first time in years, I had filthy lucre in the bank. And after all, management was a combination of common sense, efficiency and industry contacts. I would learn the rest in time.

Why not?

Why not indeed?

And that’s how I was persuaded to embark upon one of the more crazy episodes of my life…

(to be continued…)

Roy Harper; Born In Captivity/Work Of Heart Science Friction HUCD008

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Roy Harper pt 1

I've had several emails asking about Mr. Harper lately, so I'll post the three part chronicle of my years with Roy that I previously posted on another blog. Apologies to those who've already read it, but ,maybe it will satisfy more recent reader's curiosity...

Roy Harper     Stormcock/Work Of Heart. Part One

Let me take you back to one of my many previous incarnations…

Buzz Music was an adventure that occupied my time and energies for much of the 1970’s.

Buzz started for the want of anything better to do, I guess. After graduating from college (history and economics), I plied a trade as an itinerant musician, doing sessions in a variety of theatre pits and recording studios around the midlands (doubling and occasionally trebling on guitar, sax and flute if you must know; not just double bubble, but as MU members out there will know, triple bunce…) However, having acquired a wife and child en route, I decided that I needed a more secure means of existence and invested my modest savings in a tiny record shop in…well, in Hereford of all places.

Therein lies another story.

In this present age, we bemoan the passing of small, specialist record stores but the rot set in decades ago. Believe me – I was there. In the early 1970’s, the government abolished something called the RRP – the strict resale price set by manufacturers to enable them to police selling prices of their products in the high street. In many ways this was positive, and amongst other things led to the growth of discount mail order stores such as the original Virgin operation. However, it also meant that chain stores and supermarkets could slash the price of top selling albums to the bone and use them as lost leaders to attract punters into their stores to buy their other overpriced wares - toothpaste, vitamin pills aftershave and the like.

Buzz Music therefore found itself deprived of the juicy sales that effectively subsidised our heaving racks of obscure back catalogue. Without a bumper harvest of chart sales, times became leaner and leaner and leaner and my partner, Alan Kitchen, and I struggled to make a living wage. We therefore looked around for ways to supplement our paltry incomes.

For a while I taught guitar part-time and delivered freezers and washing machines for the new Comet electrical store across the road. Alan was an excellent electronics engineer and took in repairs in his spare time. Thus we scraped by.

As my guitar pupils progressed, they asked me to find them better guitars. Alan and I cleared out a derelict room at the back of the record store and I cut a deal with Ivor Marantz guitar shop in London to buy new Spanish guitars at wholesale prices. Word got round and those initial orders financed a small stock of acoustic guitars, strings and accessories and within a few months our guitar room had become the haunt of local musos from miles around. This was when I invested in my first commercial teapot. Indeed, I recall Buzz’s sales slogan…’If the prices don’t slay ya, the tea will…’ Very Funky Junk.

By 1975, the Buzz Music guitar shop had become perhaps the best outside London and bristled with vintage Fenders, Gibsons, Guilds and Epiphones brushing shoulders with new US axes and some of the excellent instruments beginning to emerge from Japan – Yamaha and Ibanez in particular. We employed one of my pupils, Jimmy Scott, to run the show and he became the biggest guitar geek in the universe, able to identify the year of any Fender or Gibson at one hundred paces. Oh, he also became an ace guitarist and eventually joined a modest little band in London called The Rhythm Method (quickly changed to The Pretenders at the record company’s insistence) and made quite a decent name for himself (although he chose to add his middle name – James Honeyman Scott.) Sorry folks, but scurrilous tales of me, Pete Farndon, Jimmy Scott and the Hereford crew must also wait for another day.

Following the success of our guitar shop, we moved naturally and not so gradually into other areas of musical retail, taking over the rest of our building with a series of departments that included killer drum and keyboard showrooms, perhaps the largest PA store in the country and eventually the first serious pro recording supplies outlet in the UK (although our London rivals - Andrew Stirling, Andy Beresa, Andy Monroe and Ivor Taylor collectively known as Turnkey - would no doubt dispute this.)

Buzz mushroomed, adding a flightcase factory - Sound Enclosures - and a backline and PA hire company, Soundgate, to the rosta. By the late 1970’s, our rigs and backline were on the road with Selecter, UB40, Madness, Burning Spear (Winston Rodney), Duran Duran and many other top bands. We even did Glastonbury one year, summoned at short notice by Michael Eavis to do the sound for a modest gathering in one of his larger barns – Hawkwind (of course) and a few selected invited acts including my all time favourite….Mr. Roy Harper.

Now, as you’ve probably gathered, I was something of a musical snob back then. Don’t get me wrong – I had eclectic tastes. In between my ECM and jazz favourites (Pat Martino, Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Tjor Ripdal, Bill Connors et al) nestled equally treasured albums by Supertramp, Gentle Giant, Yes, Lou Reed, Jefferson Starship (‘Ride The Tiger’), Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, Jackson Brown (‘Late For The Sky’) Joni, Bob Dylan and many more. But one record spent more time than any other on my Transcriptors turntable, warming my Tannoy 111LZ speakers – ‘Stormcock’ by Roy Harper.

When I first heard Harper, I hated him. His voice was a whine, his music meandering and incomprehensible, his acoustic guitar phasing in a strangely electronic way compared to the pure precision of my early guitar heroes, John Renbourn, Burt Jansch and the governor, Davy Graham However, the gateway to Roy’s genius came one insane night when I visited a former schoolmate for a weekend binge at Manchester University. His college was hosting an all night hootenanny – the predecessor of raves, I guess. Headlining were a wacky bunch called ‘Pink Floyd’ who drowned the main hall with an echoey racket for an hour and a half. As an aside, I should mention that their gig was recorded and later released as most of ‘Ummagumma’ although the album bore little relation to the gig. Apparently, even back then they were masters of studio overdubs and fixing in the mix. Still…

Well after midnight a hundred or so of us defied whatever drugs we had ingested and made our way to the refectory upstairs to witness an hour of sheer genius by a longhaired bearded weirdy wielding a small-bodied Martin acoustic (000?), a massive spliff and an anarchic attitude to his hosts. At his bidding we raided the kitchens to satisfy the communal munchies while we sat spellbound by his performance.
This was Roy Harper at his best, sharing his world of poetry and emotion, leading us on a musical journey without parallel. His intricate guitar work was a universe away from the naïve finger picking of Nick Drake, his style unique - aeons beyond any other musician I had ever heard. Here was a true visionary who had developed a complex guitar style to express concepts normally untouched by popular music. And his voice…it weaved, ducked, dived, soared. He was (and I believe, still is) a musical one-off, creatively head and shoulders above his contemporaries.

The gig was a seminal experience for all those lucky enough to be there. We shared that night with Roy, and he let us into his life with a candour beyond anything I had previously experienced.

From that moment I became an avid Roy Harper fan. I can honestly say that Roy was the only artists that I travelled the country paying precious bucks to see perform. I had many musical heroes but only one true idol – Roy Harper.

‘Stormcock’ epitomises the genius of the man. The album contains four songs and four songs only, but their breadth, diversity and lyrical depth provide a variety unmatched by the lifetime’s output of many lesser artists. Recorded at Abbey Road, of course, for EMI’s flagship ‘Harvest’ label and guided by Pete Jenner’s wonderfully sympathetic and understated production, the album features Roy’s stunning multitracked vocals and acoustic guitars assisted by a second guitarist – Jimmy Page, with perhaps his best recorded acoustic guitar work. Yes, there are passages where Roy and Jimmy are reinforced by an orchestra and yes, there are piano stabs, percussive jabs ad even the odd sitar here and there, but only where the tension or melody need underlining. Even today, the record sounds modern and uniquely inventive. The production was wholly original, although many of the techniques have since been copied, pasted and kneaded into the mainstream. Like true love, however, the first adventure is always the best.

I listened to Stormcock endlessly and despite years of immersing myself in these four songs, always found more within the grooves. A subtle melody here, a lyrical phrase there, pangs of emotion everywhere. For a decade I lived with an image of the Romantic visionary to whom Led Zeppelin dedicated a famous track (‘Hats Off To Harper’) who lit up Pink Floyd’s albums with his vocals (‘Have A Cigar’ from ‘Wish You Were Here.’) and who was invited to open headlining tours and festivals for The Who and Pink Floyd. Yes indeed, Roy Harper was the ultimate musician’s muso, the English Dylan, the poet to a generation of rock superstars.

So ‘Stormcock’ must be included in my ten most seminal albums. Thirty-five years on, it remains fresh, original and unique. If you don’t know the album check it out. You may hate it, but give it time. Like Bob Dylan, Olives or Provolone Cheese, Roy’s music is an acquired taste but by god it’s a taste worth acquiring.

In most reviews of Roy’s discography, Stormcock is rated as his ultimate achievement. Many, however, rate ‘Work Of Heart’ as his second greatest album, and it was perhaps his most critically acclaimed on release, being voted ‘Album Of The Year’ by both The Sunday Times (Derek Jewell) and Music Week in 1982. It was also the first album I ever produced, albeit accidentally.

How an unknown fan came to manage, form and run a record label and ultimately produce his long-time musical hero is a strange tale indeed, and one that I will recount in part two of my examination of Roy’s music, with special reference to ‘Born In Captivity’ and ‘Work Of Heart’.

Strange times, my friends…those were strange times indeed.

Roy Harper     Stormcock       Science Friction HUCD004

(note; sadly the CD has been badly remastered. If you can find an original copy of the Harvest release on vinyl, the full dynamic scope of the album will be revealed)

Saturday, 25 May 2013

DV or not DV...Zat iz ze question

A forum for DV customers, suppliers and staff – past and present – to post their experiences of the wunderbar new shopping experience

The background.

On May 10th 2013, White Rabbit Records Limited, the owners of DV247 (Digital Village) ceased trading. Simultaneously, a new company, DV247 Limited, took over the assets of the company (but not the liabilities) and attempted to continue business as if nothing had happened.

Not quite…

At 10.42 am on May 10th, minutes after this magical Paul Daniel-esque disappearing (white) rabbit trick, in a piece of disinformation that would even make Tony Blair blush, Gavin James of Digital Village posted this remarkable piece on the Sound On Sound forum.


Something very exciting has happened here at DV247 and it is with great pleasure that we unveil our new partnership with the European retail giant, Music Store.

As part of the transition we will be moving all our back orders over to our new system where we will be able to allocate existing orders which should ship immediately. As a result, customers will receive an email from either the sales person they placed their order with or one of our ‘My Order’ team who will provide a date on which to expect delivery.

Please be assured that this is a well-planned procedure and we have made every effort to ensure a smooth transition…

When I first read this, I assumed it was an attempt at sarcasm by a hacker. After all, who in their right mind would sack a third of their workforce, write off millions of pounds owing in redundancy pay, unpaid invoices to suppliers, VAT and PAYE due to HMRC, close seven stores without warning and effectively decimate the lives of many staff and small suppliers and then announce brazenly that ‘Something very exciting is happening here…

Has the man no shame? Has he not one iota of sympathy for longstanding colleagues sacked overnight without warning or proper compensation? Has he no embarrassment at stiffing scores of suppliers who have supported his business for twenty years?
I think this statement speaks volumes for the ethos and callousness of DV management.

Oh, and it’s also factually misleading.

Firstly, DV’s relationship with the new owners (Koelner Parkhaus GmbH, as associate company of MSP - Music Store Cologne) is as much a partnership as my relationship with you, whoever you are. MSP, or their convoluted holding company (details please, DV 247 - I'd love to know the tax and other relationships between all involved) own the new company, lock stock and barrel. There is not the slightest whiff of partnership involved. DV247 Ltd is as German as BMW, Volkswagen or Bratwurst.

Back orders…ah, here’s an interesting issue.

As part of his purchase of THE ASSETS of White Rabbit Records Ltd (including the website, customer and mailing list, Romford property, goodwill – ha! – fixtures and fittings and stock), Michael Sauer, the owner of Music Store, claims that he will honour in excess of £350,000 of back orders - £350,000 of customer’s money taken by DV almost certainly in the full knowledge that they would never be able to supply the goods. So well done, Herr Sauer. Hmmm…looking a little more closely, he’s not being quite as generous as first meets the eye. Firstly, because Music Store now has the right to collect over £400,000 of money owed to DV, somewhat more than the ‘generous’ agreement to supply gear already paid for by customers. And secondly, because I am very reliably informed that MSP paid the whopping total of £27,000 for all DV’s stock. Yes, that’s right – less than the price of an average second hand Mercedes.

Now, just how much stock has he acquired for the around the cost of a modest bedroom studio? It’s impossible to say, as according to the administrators, Grant Thornton, they didn’t bother to get a valuation of the stock, the fixtures and fittings (computers, networks, desks, vehicles if any, shop display units and a mass of other trappings) or even the Romford property, acquired as part of MSP’s dodgy ‘prepack’ acquisition.

So DV had £27,000 of stock, did they? Not according to accounts filed eighteen months before, where the figure seems closer to £4 millions. Not according to strong rumours of £1.5 millions of stock currently locked in the warehouse of their distribution company. And not according to the flashy photographs of the ‘Romford Superstore’ blazoned all over their website.

But as Gavin James so proudly and publicly bleats, customers awaiting their orders should be in receipt of an email from the salesman they dealt with (maybe forwarded from the dole office) detailing when they should receive goods. If you’re one of these customers, please post details of your experiences below. Did you receive the email? More to the point, have you received your order yet? I’d like to hear from you – ideally good news, but if not, let me know anyway.

So what of this stock? Of course, most (and more) was unpaid for and in all likelihood will never be paid for. The most recent figure I’ve heard was that unpaid bills to suppliers top £3 millions and counting. Most suppliers have something called ROT (retention of title), which means that if the goods haven’t been paid for, they remain the property of the supplier, who can reclaim them. But as with all aspects of this appalling saga, nothing is as simple as it seems. Indeed, as more and more information comes to light, it seems that this prepack was rushed through with indecent haste, maybe because the directors knew that the warehouse was about to foreclose on stock due to unpaid bills, or maybe because DV had not submitted their accounts for the year ending 30th September 2012 and were about to be blacklisted by credit rating agencies and therefore suppliers, who’s insurers would immediately stop cover because of the failure to submit accounts.

Anyway, what of the very, very many items of unpaid stock that have already been sold? Well, the unlucky purchaser may soon receive a letter telling them that they don’t actually own the goods they paid for and have received, which must now be returned to the original supplier. And as for all the goods in the Romford store and distribution warehouse subject to ROT, the lawyers are sharpening their teeth and polishing their fins as they circle what by all accounts is becoming an embattled and increasingly isolated company. There is a sniff blood in the waters around Romford…

The managers of DV Romford (the same bunch that cleverly steered the company onto the rocks) are still at the helm and are refusing to release anything to suppliers including, I’m told, stock loaned to them for demonstration purposes and to which, therefore, DV 247 Limited have not the slightest legal claim. So much of the much vaunted stock that the advertisements and website loudly promotes and shows in the racks at Romford actually belongs to others and is effectively being held hostage. But the bulk of stock - £1.5 millions – is locked in a distribution warehouse in lieu of unpaid warehousing and shipping bills. And my understanding of the legal position is that irrespective of whether much of this stock belongs to suppliers, the warehousing company may have the right to auction off the gear to settle their outstanding account, adding insult to injury.

So where are we now?

It may seem that the initial outrage and kafuffle surrounding the bankruptcy and prepack sale have died down. Not a bit of it. For despite the tailing off of public protest, behind the scenes the legal artillery are lining up. The MIA (a trade association) have taken specialist legal advice, which has questioned the legality of several aspects of the sale. Indeed, I suspect that our friend Gavin James may live to regret so proudly trumpeting the ‘…well planned procedure’ as many aspects of that planning may prove to have been so ‘well planned’ as to be unlawful.

Mr. James may well have to explain his ill-chosen words in the High Court one of these days.

So while the battalions of lawyers sharpen their quills and wade through a pile of statutes, DV will attempt to persuade the outside world that it’s business as normal.

But is it?

I have yet to hear of a single UK supplier who has agreed to sell to the new DV247 Ltd company. There may be some, but in that most if not all are owed money, none are likely to reopen accounts and resume supplies until and unless they are paid. And White Rabbit Records Limited would appear to have no remaining assets with which to satisfy creditors – MSP bought pretty much anything of value (for a pittance it is rumoured). Similarly, all the UK suppliers I’ve spoken to have made clear that they won’t repair or replace faulty goods until their outstanding bills are paid, even if they are under warranty. Why should they? Indeed, many already have goods awaiting repair in their workshops where they will continue to malinger, possibly until Romford freezes over.

But never mind, MSP will now undertake future repairs and honour existing orders and warranties, won’t they? Early news is less than encouraging. The much vaunted ‘next day shipping’ seems to be taking more like four days than one to arrive, and I have stories of incomplete shipments, B stock and broken goods being received. And can MSP cope with the tidal wave of faulty returns (for the next four years, remember) let alone a doubling of orders for their empty looking warehouse? And what about the DV 30 day money back guarantee? Word is circulating of unhappy customers being offered credit notes or alternative goods in place of their money back, as was loudly promised when they bought their gear. I’d be interested to know if this is true.

Of course, these may just be isolated incidents, but one of the main reasons for this post is to provide a forum for you, the Great British Public, to share you experiences, opinions, concerns and news with others. I’m going to sit back for a couple of weeks before posting an update, so for now this forum is all yours…

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Digital Village

On May 10th, White Rabbit Records Limited – the owners of the Digital Village music retail chain – quietly announced that they had gone bankrupt and called in an administrator. But then, as if by magic, a new company, DV247 Ltd, rose like Phoenix from the flames, promoting a flashy new website and claiming to be bigger and better.

Should anyone care about the latest company restructuring to hit the high street?

Well, yes. Because there’s more to this than meets the eye. And there are a lot of losers from this carefully planned, cynically premeditated business sleight of hand. There are scores of loyal hardworking staff, for instance, who turned up to work at eight of the nine Digi Village shops to find the doors locked and the business closed forever. Only one ‘Superstore’ will remain open in Romford. Or should that be ‘Supershowroom’? Because by and large, all sales processed by the new company will now be handled and shipped from Germany rather than the UK. Goodbye jobs and goodbye UK taxes. Or should that be auf wiedersehen, mug.

This prepack administration (whereby a new structure has been carefully prepared behind the scenes so that the company can fold and write off debts but then resurface minutes later under new ownership with a clean balance sheet) leaves plenty of people out of pocket – staff, who must now hope they’ll one day receive some or all of overdue wages, holiday pay and other benefits, the VAT and tax authorities, suppliers and possibly landlords of the now defunct shops facing unrecoverable rent arrears. And of course, DV’s loudly trumpeted ‘four year warranty’ isn’t worth the paper it is printed on (not that it ever was). Indeed, all warranty on goods sold by the company are now invalid. Thirty days sale or return? Forget it. If your gear breaks down, you’re stuffed.

There may well be other losers – time will tell. For example, as a supplier, Funky Junk received and shipped valuable orders just three days before the bankruptcy. I’m sure these were prepaid by DV customers and the proceeds safely banked, but we’re most unlikely to be paid. We’re now in a long queue of suppliers classified as ‘unsecured creditors’, despite the fact that our invoices make clear that we retain ownership of the goods until the invoices are paid.
"...the administrator sells the business before the creditors have an opportunity to say whether or not they approve of the sale transaction. It is this aspect that has brought some pre packaged sales into some disrepute." --Purnells (read more)
By most reasonable definitions, this verges on fraud. The DV directors had been planning this for some time. The new (German) owner had been in place and a new website built for weeks if not months. The directors knew full well that there was no chance of suppliers being paid for orders shipped in the days before administration. They must have known that staff wouldn’t be paid (and no doubt hid the knowledge behind friendly smiles as they passed longstanding employees in the office, the shops or the car park) and must have known perfectly well that the VAT they were collecting on behalf of the government (and paid by their customers and suppliers alike) would never be handed over to the relevant authorities.

These prepack bankruptcies would not be legal anywhere else in Europe. And nor should they.

So how did this state of affairs come to pass, and what are the implications for the future?

For the last few years, Digital Village have pursued a policy of aggressive pricing and discounting, attempting to force down pro audio and instrument prices and drive the competition out of business. It was a crazy policy and had the opposite effect from that intended. At times, DV advertised prices equivalent to or only marginally above their buying prices. And the result? Irrespective of sales volume, the company has been unable to generate enough profit or margin to pay their bills. Hence bankruptcy. Most well run businesses in the same sector saw this coming, and like us have had to grit our teeth and shrug our shoulders when clients asked us to match DV’s prices. No, we can’t price match, we said politely. Not if we want to stay in business, anyway. But of course customers neither know nor care about the business nuances of pricing in a competitive market. Damn it, I even had pressure from within my own company to match DV’s prices on our website, as otherwise we would appear ‘expensive’. And much as I understood the logic and the pressure, I always resisted. To pay good wages to keep the best crew in the business and to continue to give our unique service report, we have to make a modest margin. No one drives a Mercedes at Funky Junk (my wheels are a screwed onto a 1990 BMW 320 which cost me £300 six years ago. I love it though – that’s a different story). I take no pleasure in having been proved right about pricing, but then again, it didn’t need John Maynard Keynes to work out that any company that tries to sell at cost or marginally above is destined for Carey Street.

So what about the future?

The assets of White Rabbit Records Limited (trading as Digital Village) have been purchased by the owner of Thomann-stylee Cologne music supermarket, Music Store, via a brand new company called DV247 Limited in a carefully planned and executed ‘prepack’ administration. As I said earlier, DV have effectively written off all their debts to suppliers, customers, staff, landlords and the taxman, retaining their profile, trading name, website (revamped to provide a new front page for the English version of the German Music Store site), mailing and customer lists and stock – all purchased for a pittance from the receiver for a previously agreed amount (almost certainly well below open market value).  And a careful study of the website makes crystal clear that orders placed with DV will be shipped directly from Germany (taking two to three days to arrive). Want specialist advice? Learn German. Need to return or exchange faulty goods? Allow at least a week for international shipping. Need gear repaired? God knows what you’ll do – the new glitzy website is strangely silent on the matter. And what about warranty support? That certainly isn’t going to happen in the UK. Almost certainly DV will be buying all their gear in Germany. And as official service agents for Royer, Manley, Tube Tech and others, we certainly won’t be authorised to repair equipment supplied directly by a German company, even if ordered via a UK intermediary.

It’s interesting to note that DV’s website prices have risen overnight, by anything up to 30%. Well, they had to of course. But keep an eye on the value of the Euro. We may well see prices flopping around like The Pet Shop Boys in a hurricane as exchange rates wander too and fro.

Lest you wonder, these words don’t reflect professional jealousy. I wouldn’t engage in such sharp business practices even if the roof over my head depended on it. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I believe in honouring my word, whether that means paying my bills (if not always bang on time), honouring warranties, commitments to staff and customers or being straight with colleagues as to my business plans and strategy.

Overall, this shave-down is very poor practice, verging on fraud. But ultimately, all that really matters to you, the customer, is that you can get good prices and a professional level of service and support.

That remains to be seen. But I, for one, will neither buy from nor sell to this dodgy outfit. You can’t divorce morality and honesty from business (or life, come to that) irrespective of what the lawyers and accountants tell you.

Eccentric (11.05.2013)

UPDATE 14.05.2013:

MIA questions DV247 deal

The MIA has issued a statement following the purchase of Digital Village's business and assets by German-based Music Store.

In the statement, MIA chief executive, Paul McManus, voices his support for the 31 Digital Village employees who have been made redundant due to store closures and announces that the MIA legal team will be reviewing the SIP 16 report that is set to be published shortly by White Rabbit Records administrators Grant Thornton.

The full statement reads as follows:

“This is a bad day for UK MI. There is no pleasure to be taken in the falling of what was our largest UK retailer. There are many, many staff today without a job who have given years of loyal service to the industry and I would encourage any of them to send me their CV’s so that we can act as a resource centre for the industry. We did this with Sound Control and managed to bring affected staff together with employers.

Aside from the tragedy of the staff, there is, naturally, the wider issue of what this means to UK MI. The many millions that DV brought to the UK economy and industry in terms of sales would now appear to have gone offshore.

Our first priority is to ensure that the due diligence applied by Grant Thornton under SIP 16 has been correctly discharged. This Code of Conduct is there to ensure that the sale of the business was achieved in the best interests of both Digital Village AND the creditors.

The MIA legal team looks forward to viewing the SIP 16 report that Grant Thornton will shortly publish, accordingly. There may well be good reasons highlighted in this report, but it is a huge shame that, as far as we are aware, no UK retailers or suppliers were given the opportunity to make a counter bid for the business in order to keep it UK-owned”. 

For more information, contact Paul McManus via e-mail or the MIA office on 01403 800500.

UPDATE 18.05.2013 from Music Industries Association:

Urgent MIA update on Digital Village

The MIA recently held a meeting of major creditors of White Rabbit Records Ltd (DV) where a number of issues were raised, as well as some important points of action that may be to the advantage for creditors to consider:
1) The MIA feels that the only practical way to have a reasonable chance of creditors succeeding in recovering what is rightly due to them under their 'retention of title' (ROT) clauses is to join together as a single voice to put the case to the administrator or liquidator.  Recent experience with large retail insolvencies have shown that for creditors to maximise their recoveries in respect of ROT stock, it is essential that they join forces together, paying lawyers/accountants as necessary to achieve the required result. Without this leverage and action taking place without delay, it is likely that creditors will not be as successful in recouping as much of their debt as they are entitled to.  This is because the new business continues to trade and is, in all likelihood, using creditors' stock to bolster their sales.
2) The industry is waiting for the SIP16 report from the administrator to confirm that the pre-pack arrangement was carried out on a valid basis allowing for the best return for creditors and the UK industry in general.  It has been reported that the DV web site had been managed by the purchaser prior to the company going out of business/ceasing to trade. This would seem to be contrary to best practice and possibly illegal.
3) There seems to be confusion regarding the marketing of the pre-pack, as no UK Company appears to have been advised of it.  It will be interesting to see the administrators' reasoning for this lack of marketing as it may be contrary to best practice and ultimately, if proved, there may be a potential to bring claims against various parties because of the concern that the sale may never have been marketed through the appropriate channels and therefore effected at an undervalue.
4) A critical element that can't be overstated is the fact that the facilitators for the liquidated company, iforce group (distribution), are currently holding the bulk of the stock that will be subject to ROT and are themselves a major creditor. As such, they are highly unlikely to allow any access to our industry stock until they have been paid all outstanding debts.  This is immaterial to any promises from the directors of the new or old company and/or the administrators.
5) There remains much confusion and mixed messages amongst the UK's distributors about the structure, purpose and format of DV247 Ltd. Many companies are hesitant about signing any fresh distribution agreements until clarity is established.
6) It is advisable for MIA members to insist that a creditors committee be set up to consider and question the actions of the directors and possibly the administrators as without this there will be little leverage that can be applied to achieve a successful outcome for the UK MI industry.
7) Ultimately, MIA members may conclude that they are unhappy with the actions of the directors and/or the administrators in effecting the pre-pack sale of the business in the manner they have.   Accordingly, subject to the having the support of creditors, which is only really achievable if we stick together, it may be necessary to consider appointing other independent insolvency practitioners to look into the actions of the directors and the administrators so as to confirm that the sale has been at arm's length and carried out to an acceptable standard.
In conclusion, we believe it is essential to resolve the ROT position as soon as possible and creditors are urged to contact the MIA with a view to us co-ordinating matters.  We hope to write to you shortly after receipt of the SIP 16 report but, in the meantime, should you require any further information or explanations, please do not hesitate to contact us.
MIA - Music Industries Association

For those interested, please now see my follow up blog -

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

How Music Works

Well, it’s spring and that means snow…oh, and the return of Pop Pornography in the shape of prime time Karaoke, The Voice.
As (both) my regular readers will know, I made my views on this glitzy garbage known first time round and I have little to add now.

I’ve just started reading an extraordinary book by David Byrne called ‘How Music Works’. And when I say extraordinary, I mean it.

I can’t recommend this collection of essays highly enough to all of you – all of us – involved in the creative process. Although it’s an easy read – the ten chapters are really stand-alone essays covering different aspects of music – the content is so thought provoking that the ideas stay with you, feed your mind and plant seeds that grow and grow and grow. This truly is ‘baby bio’ for any musician’s brain.

Whether you like Byrne and/or Talking Heads or not, the man is a great communicator and paints such a graphic picture about music, technology, the creative process and the music business that everyone involved in our industry, from absolute beginners to grizzled old cynics like me, can learn a huge amount.

For those involved in recording and production, chapters such as…
Technology Shapes Music; Analogue
Technology Shapes Music; Digital
In The Recording Studio
Business and Finances
aught to be essential reading,. Indeed, the thousands of music technology and recording courses up and down the country should put How Music Works on the curriculum immediately. They won’t because most don’t know their recording arse from their musical elbow…but therein lies another bugbear of mine.

The contrast between the creativity of Byrne and the bland manufactured vacuum that is ‘The Voice’ could not be starker; it is the difference between a musician and a mimic. Although not a biographical work, Byrne’s enthusiasm for all forms of music shines through as he describes his lifelong love of and search for emotion through sound from every continent and culture. And his explanation of his personal creative process is enlightening. Never satisfied with a conventional approach to writing – music or lyrics – recording or even releasing his work, Byrne strives constantly to push his art to the limit, to find new ways of expressing himself and explore the possibilities of technology. Standing in front of a microphone and singing has as much to do with his music as lacing up boots has for a mountaineer; both are essential but tiny parts of a larger process.

Although only part way into the book, I’ve already learned a lot. For example, like most of you I assumed that the classic Talking Heads albums were children of their time (the late 1970s/early 1980s), recorded at huge cost over months in top class studios. Not a bit of it. Indeed, Byrne, his fellow band members and Brian Eno, the producer, worked in a way that anticipated many of today’s artists, demoing material on Tascam portastudios or Teac four track machines, then rehearsing and laying down backing tracks in bass player Tina Weymouth’s loft apartment before mixing in the studio. Even where the band did record in a conventional studio, they worked quickly and, at Brian Eno’s suggestion, played together in the live room rather than relying upon acoustic separation, isolation and overdubs as was the production vogue back then. But there was more…

Talking Heads ‘Remain In Light’ changed the way I heard and made music. It was, and is, a quite extraordinary album that shattered convention when it was released. It was the first rock album I heard that relied upon groove to define the songs in a way that even the great Funk projects of the time didn’t quite manage. I guess I’d always taken the album for granted, as a natural progression from a talented and adventurous band. But Byrne’s description of the process that led to the tracks has made me reassess my assumptions.

The band set out quite deliberately to redefine song structure and work in a unique way, starting with a collection of rhythmic grooves without chord changes or conventional structures and then adding textures and finally Byrne’s incredible melodies and lyrics. What is of relevance to my present waffle is the fact that these songs could not have existed without recording technology – the songs relied upon tracking and overdubbing , chopping and editing (on tape of course – it’s easier now) and then sophisticated texturing and mixing in the studio. But this was not an expensive process. As I said earlier, the grooves were cut in the bass player’s loft apartment, Byrne then worked with a stereo recording to experiment with melodies, structures, textures and lyrics and modest studio costs only really kicked in during the later stages of dubbing and mixing. The greatness of what is, to me, one of the seminal albums of the last thirty years lay in the talent and creativity of those involved, not big budgets and glitzy production values.

If I’m trying to make a point, it’s that today’s musicians, producers and record companies appear to have lost the desire to experiment and push creative boundaries. We seem to live in an age where the ‘artist’ requires (or demands?) expensive equipment, production teams and sophisticated technology to express him or herself. It is almost as if there is an assumption that without such trappings, recordings cannot exist. And the result? A decade of bland recorded sterility, lacking or maybe even overwhelming the creative spirit.

Are The Voice and X Factor a cause or a symptom of the stifling of talent? Well, maybe both. Because firstly they present ‘music’ as a soulless, homogenised product – the result of a carefully contrived and expensive production manipulated by show business spivs - and secondly they promise a short cut to popular acclaim. These shows suggest that the route to making a recording career can be from warbling in the bath via a television talent show to massive budget recording sessions and international promotion over the course of a few months – your milkman can easily become the next Elvis Presley overnight.

Do we get what we deserve? Maybe. Maybe we don’t search hard enough for that rare, true talent that still exists and if we glimpse it, perhaps we don’t appreciate it sufficiently and support it through the trials and tribulations of the early years of development. Indeed, we offer loud and usually false praise for every vague talent that comes along rather than allowing it to mature and develop a unique identity before shivering in the spotlight of critical appraisal. Everybody wants to cash in quick – ‘Money, money, money’ (to quote one of the ‘mentors’ on The Voice) – rather than nurture and allow the creative buds to slowly bloom.

But all is not doom and gloom. It never is. There will always be truly talented musicians ploughing an individual furrow in bedrooms, private studios, backroom bars or sweaty gigs around the country. I know many young engineers and producers pushing their limited technology to unexpected limits and digging new furrows in the tired fields of our industry. But what do they do with the results? Again, Byrne offers answers by examining different ways to release and distribute music, and invaluable advice about retaining rights and licensing where appropriate.

Look – if you haven’t ever bought or read a book in your life, break the habit and pick up a copy of ‘How Music Works’ by David Byrne. If you are in any way involved with recording, writing or making music, you’ll not merely enjoy it, but you’ll learn so much; this book will stay with you forever. And for the cost of a couple of takeaway Pizzas, you can feed your soul for years.

Oh, and if possible, please order it from your local bookshop rather than those tax-dodging scumbags at Amazon.

David Byrne – How Music Works…published by McSweeney’s

The Eccentric Blog… reproduced in conjunction with