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Classic Tracks: “Life in a Northern Town,” Dream Academy

Every once in a while a song comes totally out of left field, far away from the mainstream, and for some inexplicable reason becomes a huge hit. One such tune was the 1985 Top 10 smash “Life in a Northern Town,” by an unknown new English band called Dream Academy.

Every once in a while a song comes totally out of left field, far away from the mainstream, and for some inexplicable reason becomes a huge hit. One such tune was the 1985 Top 10 smash “Life in a Northern Town,” by an unknown new English band called Dream Academy. It’s such a pretty, pastoral song. The instrumentation is dominated by ringing acoustic guitar, oboes, alternately swooning and insistent strings, various keyboards, and booming and cracking percussion. Nick Laird-Clowes’ pleasing, unmistakably British lead vocal is gently plaintive, and his fragmentary and impressionistic lyrics have a wistful, even nostalgic, ring to them, with their references to a Salvation Army band, Sinatra, Kennedy and The Beatles. Smartly placed sound effects—wind, screaming girls at a Beatles show—give it a Pink Floydian touch. But it’s the irresistibly upbeat African-sounding chorus—Hey-a ma-ma-ma, etc.—that really sells the song. How can someone not sing along to that? Lots of folks did, throughout America and around the world. An appealingly artsy MTV video helped, too.

Thirty years after co-writing the song with one of his two partners in The Dream Academy, keyboardist Gilbert Gabriel (the third was Kate St. John, who played the double-reeds), Laird-Clowes is still happy to talk about his band’s halcyon days. Real Gone Music’s superb, just-released two-disc Dream Academy retrospective called The Morning Lasted All Day (a line from “Life in a Northern Town”) kicks off with this month’s Classic Track and includes a fine selection of cuts from the three D.A. albums that came out on Warner Bros. between 1985 and 1990, as well as a handful of B-sides, one-offs and unreleased tracks. Laird-Clowes remastered the project with Steve McLaughlin and also wrote the extensive liner notes.

Laird-Clowes and Gabriel first played together in the final incarnation of a post-punk band that the former fronted called The Act in the early ’80s. Gabriel came on board as a keyboardist and impressed Laird-Clowes with his expansive musical knowledge and his facility with the then-new ARP Solina String-Ensemble synth. “We shared rooms when we were touring and he played me, Erik Satie and Ravel, and then he played me and Steve Reich; it was fantastic! There was a whole world of music I hadn’t understood,” Laird-Clowes says. “I thought, ‘I’ve been copying people, and I don’t want to do that. I sound like Tom Petty or Elvis Costello.’ So Gilbert and I spent about year—nine months of that before we met Kate—just trying to find our own sound.”

The seed of “Life in a Northern Town” was planted in the living room of the house where Gabriel was living in Southgate, north London. “He and I had toast and tea,” Laird-Clowes remembers, “and we talked about this idea of writing something with an African chorus. I don’t know why—this is a few years before [Paul Simon’s] Graceland. We sat on the ground, and instead of him playing the electronic keyboard, I had my guitar and he had his, which I think only had three nylon strings on it. And we started blocking out these chords. I think he was encouraging me to play these arpeggios—‘Maybe more like this’—and I suddenly felt like I was in the world of Nick Drake [a moody British singer-songwriter who took his own life in 1974 and remains revered by many musicians]. Anyway, we hit this idea of an African chorus and probably worked on it for an hour or so, and then worked on some other songs.

“I went home to my flat in West London,” Laird-Clowes continues, “and I listened to some of the things we’d done on my little cassette machine. I started playing with it, and words started to come, but I couldn’t remember the chorus. We’d done something too complicated. So I just started going ‘Hey-a ma-ma-ma…’ and that was that. I think I wrote two of the verses, and I wrote the other verse the next morning and went back to Gilbert’s. Very soon in this process, I met Kate for the first time and asked if she would come and rehearse with us, and we went together out to Southgate and we played that song for the first time, and it suddenly all took shape.” Soon, St. John also brought by some of her friends from the classical world to augment the group’s developing sound.

The group’s new manager, Tarquin Gotch, liked “Life in a Northern Town” so much he sent them over to the basement studio of Warner Bros. UK engineer George Nicholson to get it down on tape. “We went to George’s little house in Notting Hill and made a demo of it,” Laird-Clowes says. “I was playing guitar, Kate was playing cor anglais [English horn, in the oboe family], Gilbert was playing the Solina string synth, and George had the drum machine. Originally, it had an instrumental section in the middle, but that made it too long so we cut it out. We had no bass on it. In fact, when we finally recorded it, everyone said, ‘This will never be a hit in America because it hasn’t got bass on it.’”

Next, Gotch bankrolled a fuller demo version that he and the trio hoped would land them a deal. “We went into the best budget-priced studio we could go to, which was Jerry Boys’ Livingstone Studios in Wood Green, and I took the drummer from my previous band, The Act—Derek Adams—and Kate’s flat-mate, June Lawrence, and they all came in and sang with us. George made us block out the harmonies in stereo. We got the song down pretty good, did a rough mix of it, and that was it.”

On the strength of that well-developed demo, and eight or 10 less fleshed-out recordings of other tunes Laird-Clowes and Gabriel had written for a prospective Dream Academy album and recorded in inexpensive studios, they managed to land a deal with Warner Bros. The first task at hand was “to go back in with David Gilmour and overdub over the top of ‘Life in a Northern Town.’”

From left: Kate St. John, Gilbert Gabriel, Nick Laird-Clowes

Photo: Just Loomis

Laird-Clowes had known the Pink Floyd guitarist since the late ’70s and even hired his brother, Mark Gilmour, to be the lead guitarist in The Act. “I played the song for David and he said, ‘I think it’s the best thing you’ve ever done,’ and he came up with a couple of little ideas.” Later, when Warner Bros. suggested bringing in Gilmour as a producer on the album, “I asked David and he said, ‘Absolutely; that’s great. But I’m not sitting in the studio with you for four months. You do that, then bring it to me and I’ll go through the things I think need changing and if you like it…’ But he was incredibly supportive and always said, ‘You’ve got to follow what you believe in,’ which I took to heart.

“A lot of what we did on that song [on the Livingstone Studios demo] stayed pretty much intact. We got the backing vocals, the guitars were mostly there, 85 percent of the keyboards and probably all the cor anglais and oboe. I redid the lead vocal later, and did some other back vocals later, as well.”

Gilmour had his own studio in an outbuilding on his enormous estate in Henley known as Hook End Manor, an hour west of London, in Oxfordshire. “It was nothing special,” says engineer Andrew Jackson of Gilmour’s studio. “It was in a barn. There was a huge playing area, which was great, but the control room wasn’t anything that good. It had a Soundcraft board, which was decidedly a midline desk. And it wasn’t really meant as a proper production room, but rather something he could mess around in. I remember it had UREI 813s as monitors, which were kind of strange, and the control room was not acoustically treated. It was just kind of shoved in a small room. There were a few bits of outboard gear, but again, nothing special.” Jackson had worked with Gilmour on some latter-day Pink Floyd and various solo projects and was enlisted to work on the Dream Academy album.

“When I arrived, David and Nick were working on ‘Life in a Northern Town,’ trying to mix it,” he says during a break from working on Pink Floyd’s next album. “I found out afterward that was about attempt number five or six. David had done some work trying to get it better, like with the Rototoms [so prominent on the track]. There was a mix that had been done at some point where they were fantastic [Nicholson’s ¼-inch Livingstone demo], but no one had ever managed to get them the same. So [David] literally took the entire mix and cut those little bits out and flew them in by hand. It was almost like a really early version of sampling, but it was done cutting tape and laboriously putting in each one.”

Laird-Clowes cut a new lead vocal at Hook End using one of Gilmour’s Neumann U 87 mics, and also re-did some of the guitar. “We recorded over the mix again and again,” Laird-Clowes says. “Every time I got something I thought was better, like a guitar line, I went in and put something over it.” Though he says he wrote the song on a Guild acoustic, the guitar on the recording “is probably one of David’s Ovations. I think the prevailing wisdom was to use these new guitars that supposedly sounded better.”

Gilmour was also helpful when it came to layering in the sound effects that appear in the song. “I’d always wanted to do that, and David was really good at showing me how you could make soundscapes—you didn’t just put in a sound effect, you made them up out of four or five different tracks of things; you made little sound worlds, like the winds on that song.”

Some of the power of “Life in a Northern Town” comes from the creative employment of different reverbs, particularly on the percussion. Jackson’s memory is “we had an EMT plate and a Quantec, one of those early digital boxes. You listen to a Quantec now and you think, ‘God, that’s grainy,’ but at the time they were pretty good.” Jackson used UREI compressors, “and there was a Klark-Teknik delay line that had three taps on it. I tended to put that in front of the plate, and have a wet-dry mix as well, so there was the plate, and then the plate a bit delayed, a bit delayed and a bit delayed. You had multiple impressions of the same plate, which would stretch out the front of it more and make it more grandiose-sounding. I believe we also had a [Eventide] 910 Harmonizer.”

Jackson says the song was mixed “in little sections,” with him, Gilmour and Laird-Clowes each manning a different stretch of the Soundcraft console. “You’d learn your moves and then do two or three takes of the section. You’d cut the best one out, add it to however far you’d gotten, and work your way through the song like that until you were finished.”

“It’s really a collage,” Laird-Clowes concludes. “We put an awful lot on and took an awful lot off, but it was a real vision. It has depth. I got exactly what I wanted, and I didn’t give up until I got it that way.”