Recording

Classic Tracks: Rockpile's "Teacher Teacher"

Recording Rockpile's song "Teacher Teacher"

As Andy Schwartz aptly points out in his liner notes for the twentieth-anniversary reissue of their only album, Seconds of Pleasure, Rockpile did things backwards: Most signed 1970s and ‘80s bands would have gone into the studio, recorded an album, then toured, hoping to build a career that would lead to further albums and tours. But the four members of Rockpile—Nick Lowe (lead vocals, bass), Dave Edmunds (lead vocals, guitar), Billy Bremner (backing vocals, guitar), and Terry Williams (drums)— had been writing, recording and playing live together for years before they released just one album. And then they “broke up.”

Before the band that recorded Seconds of Pleasure existed, the name “Rockpile” had already been employed as the title of an album that old-school/rockabilly artist Edmunds had released in 1970. Edmunds subsequently toured as “Dave Edmunds and Rockpile,” with a band that included Williams on drums. But the group that became known as Rockpile didn’t form until Lowe and Edmunds began recording together in the mid-1970s.

Just prior to the Rockpile years, Lowe had been fronting his group Brinsley Schwarz, named after his guitarist, the famed pub rock musician who also played in The Rumour with Graham Parker. Brinsley Schwarz the band split up in 1974, just after making their album The New Favourites of… Brinsley Schwarz, which is notable for including Lowe’s version of his composition “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.”

After the Brinsleys disbanded, Lowe (then signed to Stiff Records) and Edmunds (Swan Song label) began appearing on each other’s records, such as Lowe’s Jesus of Cool (1978; titled Pure Pop for Now People in the U.S.) and Edmunds’ Tracks on Wax 4 (1978), which was the first album to feature all of the Rockpile members on every track.

In 1979, the two lead singers simultaneously reached new heights of popularity with the release of Lowe’s Labour of Lust, including his signature hit “Cruel to Be Kind,” and Edmunds’ Repeat When Necessary, including his popular versions of “Queen of Hearts” and Elvis Costello’s “Girls Talk.” Both of those records were recorded by the members of Rockpile, but with the headliner singing all of the lead vocals on his album.

There was just a lot of writing and recording happening between Lowe and Edmunds on various projects, and all of it was taking place in Eden Studios, also the site of the sessions for Seconds of Pleasure. This album, which contains this month’s Classic Track, “Teacher Teacher,” was recorded and mixed by engineer Aldo Bocca, who had come up in London studios the way engineers did back then—by starting at the bottom and learning on the job.

“I started when I was 17 at a studio that isn’t there anymore, Command Studios in Piccadilly,” Bocca recalls. “It went broke about a year after I joined it. I was very lucky to get the job. I was a guitar player and a keyboard player, but technically I had no knowledge whatsoever. I was making tea and coffee and running for people. There wasn’t a university to go to in those days.”

At Command, Bocca met U.S. engineer/producer Marty Lewis (Jimmy Buffett, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Rita Coolidge). “He spotted something in me which he liked, and said, ‘I’m doing this session in Nova Sound,’ and he got me a job in there. Nova Sound [formerly Recorded Sound Studios] was one of the oldest studios in London, in Bryanston Street. Because I had half-lied myself in there, I did a lot of learning very quickly.”

At the custom console in Eden Studios (pre-SSL): Engineer Aldo Bocca (seated) and assistant engineer Neill King.

Bocca worked his way into a staff engineer position at Nova, and later left to join the one-room Eden Studios, where he became chief engineer, sharing technical duties with Roger Bechirian. “That’s where I met Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Elvis Costello—all the Stiff Records people that I worked with,” Bocca says.

Eden had been founded in 1967 in the Kingston upon Thames neighborhood, but moved to Chiswick, West London, in 1972. Many of the sessions that Bocca engineered there were done on the studio’s custom console, which Bechirian had helped to build around the time the studio moved. By the time Rockpile recorded Seconds of Pleasure, the studio had acquired one of the first SSL 4000E consoles in England.

“We had one of the first Studer A800 machines, as well,” Bocca says. “Eden was the first studio in the world to have those two top-notch machines working together, which everybody followed suit and did afterwards. Those were the two machines everybody wanted to use then.”

Sessions for Rockpile’s “Teacher Teacher” (written by Kenny Pickett and Eddie Phillips), like almost all of Rockpile’s songs, began with the musicians bouncing around arrangement ideas in the studio.

“Nick might have an idea, so Billy would pick his guitar up and Dave would join in, and they’d all huddle around the drum kit and see what would we do with the drum part,” Bocca says. “They’d flesh out the parts of the song and try it. We’d put it on tape so everyone could come into the control room and listen. Then it would be, ‘That’s not bad. Let’s just change this bit or that bit.’ And they might go back out to try again, or maybe take a pub break, then come back and see if it’s working.”

The arrangement that Rockpile developed for “Teacher Teacher, with Lowe singing lead, is highly rhythm-driven, the way many Lowe songs are, with layers of acoustic and electric guitars driving alongside Lowe’s bass, while occasional electric guitar trills and register changes keep things moving. Lowe’s voice seems to be doubled, or maybe tripled, and Edmunds and Bremner add harmonies in the choruses (“Teacher teacher teach me love/I can’t learn fast enough/Teacher teacher teach me more/I got to learn to love for sure”).

Bocca says that Lowe sat in the control room with the engineer and his assistant, Neill King, when they got to tracking; his bass parts were taken direct. “We knew that if we wanted to, we could always throw an amp out into the studio and re-amp his bass part later, but I don’t think we ever bothered with that on this record,” Bocca says.

“Terry would be in the main studio, which wasn’t huge,” he continues. “It was mainly paneled in wood and had a thin carpet. But down the far end, there was a hard floor, and that’s where we put drums. It wouldn’t exactly be an explosive John Bonham room sound, but it gave just a bit of space.”

Bocca says that drum miking was always a process of trial and error, but since he knew Williams and his kit well, he would usually start with the same scheme: an AKG D12 or Neumann U87 on kick, Shure SM57s or AKG C414s on snare and toms, and more 414s as overheads.

“And then in a tiny little vocal booth, Dave or Billy would be playing an acoustic guitar and singing a guide vocal, so the drums wouldn’t bleed onto that mic,” Boca adds. “And if the performance of the acoustic guitar or the vocal was really good, you could keep it. There were always at least three people playing at that stage.”

Rockpile: Terry Williams, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, and Billy Bremner.

Final guitar parts and vocals were overdubbed, and Edmunds or Bremner, like Lowe, would sit in the control room. Bocca recalls that on the Rockpile sessions, Edmunds actually sent his guitar direct, through the SSL console. This may have been in part because of the strong faith and appreciation they all had for the new board. Bocca also used the onboard preamplifiers on every input, including vocals, which he says he always miked up with a Neumann U47 or U87.

“I used the onboard SSL compression on nearly everything,” Bocca recalls. “It was built into the mixer, and it was very good. I had some LA3As and other Universal Audio compressors. I used those on vocals where it mattered the most, where you want something smooth.”

During the mix, Bocca would add a fair amount of outboard reverb, which has become a trademark ingredient of Edmunds’ vocal sound in particular. The engineer doesn’t recall exactly what he used on “Teacher Teacher,” but the studio offered an EMT 150 plate, which he would often combine with tape delay and delays created on an Eventide Harmonizer to assemble the various rich, vintage vocal sounds on the album. Overall, Seconds of Pleasure’s arrangements and sonics walk a line between retro 1950s rock ‘n’ roll and early new wave.

The SSL’s automation was also a great boon to the mixing process, because, unlike the studio’s previous custom console, the E Series board didn’t require three pairs of hands just to move the faders. But that doesn’t mean the musicians didn’t stick around for the mix sessions.

“We used to get to the studio at midday and we’d still be there at five in the morning,” Bocca says. “We put in a lot of hours. A lot of it was gassing and laughing, obviously, but we got a lot done, as well. [After hours], we were always at each other’s houses. We had a five-year party, basically.”

Seconds of Pleasure was a Top 40 album in the U.S., Canada and the UK, while “Teacher Teacher,” the only charting single from the record, went to U.S. Number 51. (On a perhaps unrelated note: Another song about illicit feelings between teacher and student also released in 1980, The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” did slightly better, rising to U.S. Number 46.)

“On reflection, I’d say my [feelings] are that Rockpile was a posh bar band,” Nick Lowe said in the few lines he wrote for the Seconds of Pleasure reissue liner notes. “We specialized in playing Chuck Berry music four times faster than anyone else. We got together for fun and when the fun had all been had we packed it in.”

Even five-year parties must end eventually, apparently, and Lowe and Edmunds have rarely worked together in the 36 years since Rockpile disbanded, though Bremner and Williams have appeared with each of the lead artists more frequently.

Bocca went independent a few years later, traveling to Japan, L.A.—wherever the work took him. Today, he’s living in Hastings, and though he has been out of the recording industry for a while, he’s currently building his first personal studio.

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