By 1975, British rockers Be-Bop Deluxe had recorded and released two albums on EMI’s Harvest label without much notice in the States. The first, Axe Victim in 1974, produced by Ian McClintock and recorded at AIR Studios in London, was succeeded by Futurama in June 1975, recorded at Rockfield Studios. Produced by the prolific Roy Thomas Baker, the album, which yielded two hit singles in England, “Sister Seagull” and “Maid in Heaven,” had little impact here.
But with Bill Nelson, the group’s leader/mastermind guitarist, taking the producer’s chair for the first time, alongside Abbey Road engineer (and now co-producer) John Leckie, at Abbey Road Studios in 1975, they were poised to break the ice worldwide with the recording of their third LP, Sunburst Finish, and its hit single, “Ships in the Night.” The song set the stage for fans to be introduced to Nelson’s complex songwriting and production, evidenced by another standout track, “Sleep That Burns,” which closed the album’s first side.
The album was recently reissued by Esoteric Recordings in England in a deluxe edition, featuring both stereo and 5.1 surround remixes by Stephen W Tayler. It also includes early versions of several of the album’s songs.
Drummer Simon Fox and New Zealand-born bassist Charlie Tumahai had joined the band the year before, with guitarist Nelson tracking keyboards himself during the Futurama sessions. For touring, a true keyboardist was required, so a young player, Simon Clarke, from a band in Sheffield called Mother’s Pride, was added to the lineup (after being asked to adopt his middle name, Andy, under “We already have a Simon” band rules…).
“We advertised for a keyboard player, and Andy turned up,” Nelson recalls. “He had been a church organist at one time, and was the most technically able. He was very much into bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and King Crimson—prog was his bag. The only problem we had with him was that he looked like a stereotypical hippie—very, very long hair, mutton chops and an Afghan coat! We said, ‘C’mon, Andy, get a haricut, smarten yourself up,’” he laughs. “He refused. He said, ‘I’m a musician. I’m not dressing up.’”
It was an eclectic mix, among the band: Nelson’s melodic, Hendrix-inspired guitar playing (eventually earning him a “guitar hero” title, something Nelson resists), Fox’s powerful Keith Moon/Aynsley Dunbar-inspired drumming, Tumahai’s soul/reggae roots and Clarke’s classical training. “We had four diverse tastes going on, which made it interesting,” Nelson notes. “When I wrote the songs, I used to have in mind what these guys could do.”
Producer credits were not something Nelson paid much attention to when listening to records. “I was a huge fan of Hendrix in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I just loved the sound of Electric Ladyland. But I had no idea about Eddie Kramer or anybody like that. I had tons of records, but the last thing I’d look at was who had produced it. It was the music and the artist that I was drawn to. I never realized there was somebody in there producing it.”
His experience with Baker on Futurama wasn’t the smoothest, so when EMI was ready for the band to make a new album, Nelson notes, “I had that kind of bravado you have when you’re young, so I just thought, ‘I could do this production lark,’” he laughs. When he told label execs of his desire to produce, they balked initially due to his lack of experience, but suggested pairing him with one of their staff engineers at Abbey Road, John Leckie, who, it was felt, was ready to make the move to producer.
Leckie had joined the studio in February 1970, beginning, as most did, as a tape operator working under veteran engineers such as Pete Bown and Phil McDonald. He was the only engineer (as tape operator) at the studio to have worked on all four Beatles’ solo album projects that year: a few days’ work on Ringo’s Sentimental Journey, McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Every Night” from his debut LP, John Lennon’s striking Plastic Ono Band album, and all of McDonald’s 8-track recording for George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. These included the demos for the album, recorded in April, with Phil Spector and McDonald, while Bown was mixing the Fabs’ Let It Be. “Pete was the only one who would work with Spector,” Leckie chuckles.
He continued at the studio, becoming an engineer not long after and continuing work with McCartney on occasion, tracking Wings’ “Hi, Hi, Hi,” remixed by Alan Parsons, as well as the single’s B-side, “C Moon.” Leckie’s other artists leading up to Sunburst, included Mott the Hoople’s first album, Robin Trower and Procol Harum, among others. “It was full-on, nonstop, seven days a week,” he recalls. “And whatever came up, I’d just accept and do. And work, work, work.”
Nelson had mixed Axe Victim tracks with Leckie at the studio in mid-April 1974. “John was the only engineer there who would come in on Easter!” Nelson recalls. “And we got on really well.” So when Harvest Records A&R exec Colin Miles suggested Leckie to co-produce, it was an easy “Yes” for Nelson.
The two met for lunch and discussed the project, Nelson sharing a cassette of his demos for the songs he intended to record. “I had musical and arrangement ideas, and John knew the board and had sound experience,” he notes. “He was a facilitator in a big way. If I could imagine something, John would know how to pull it out of the hat. The idea was that we could cross-fertilize, teach each other what we were good at.”
As seen in the new deluxe edition’s booklet, Nelson kept a handwritten journal of song candidates for recording. “I’d get songs finished, which I’d jot down as possible tracks to use on the album,” he explains. “And others were just titles that maybe I might have a vague idea about, but they didn’t take anywhere. Some were written, possibly demoed, but never used.”
The list also offers one of a few possible album titles, here noted as Thrill Seekers, which eventually became Sunburst Finish. “I wanted the first three albums to be kind of a guitar trilogy,” he says, noting that Axe Victim and Sunburst Finish are obvious references, while Futurama was named for the cheaper British guitar young players in England sometimes purchased. “A friend of mine had one,” he adds. “I had an Antoria. The Futurama was about the nearest thing you could get to a Stratocaster in the UK at that time.”
Nelson would typically create demo recordings at his home studio, initially on basic 2-track stereo cassettes, before working with 4-track cassette machines (such as the Tascam Portastudio) to try out and develop parts, taking advantage of the machines’ ability to bounce from three tracks to one. “We’d work with that in the studio to try and get the arrangements as close as possible to the way I’d demo them out. That’s not always an easy route to go down because, inevitably, they never will be exactly the same. Sometimes the demos had something the 24-track versions didn’t have, usually a rawness and spontaneity. Sometimes, they simply were going to be different.”
The band would hire a rehearsal space to nail down Nelson’s often-complex compositions and arrangements. Says Leckie, “When they arrived, they were completely rehearsed. They knew the songs, they knew all the parts. They were top-notch musicians.”
Tracking a Sunburst
Basic tracking for Sunburst Finish began on Monday, October 6, 1975, the band working mostly in Abbey Road Studio 2 that week, in Studio 3 the following week, and in Studio 1 for at least one day in between. Strings, a few overdubs and some mixing were performed at AIR Studios London, in Oxford Circus.
Though he had mixed there the year before, this was the first time Nelson and the band had recorded at Abbey Road. “The whole thing was magic,” he recalls. “The outside looked so innocuous, almost like a semi-rundown house. But when you walked through those doors and got into the labyrinth of the studios, it was another world. And there was such a history to the place—not just The Beatles, but bands like The Shadows, who I’d been big into and started playing guitar the way they had recorded. In fact, at that time, they were still recording there.”
While Studio 2’s control room still featured its EMI Hayes-made TG mixing console, Studio 3 had recently received a new Neve desk, ready for 24-channel recording and complete with a 24-channel monitor section (it has since been updated, of course, and is now owned by Paul Epworth). “It was referred to as an ‘EMI Neve,’” Leckie explains. “EMI equipped all the studios around the world, from Mumbai to Australia to South Africa, with them. They trashed out the TG EMI mixers and reinvested in Neve. And they had such a big order that they became EMI Neve.”
Cue sends were prefade, and auxiliary reverb sends were post-fade, depending on how they were connected at the Siemens jack field (patch bay), using the original three-pin German Tuchel connectors (TRS phone connectors were mostly used in the States, and later at Abbey Road, also with GPO connectors). And, among other things, it had one feature Leckie loved. “Every channel has an input meter. As soon as you plug a mic in, you see the meter move. I know Paul Epworth appreciates that, too.”
The tape machines had begun an upgrade, as well, with the studio moving from 16-track to 24-track, adding new Studer A80s and (A62s for 2-track mixing/effects), easily connected and disconnected. “You would wheel them about. If one packed up, if something happened, you would wheel ‘em out the door and get another one.”
An important feature of the machines—particularly to groups like Be-Bop Deluxe—was varispeed, which was operated via a varispeed controller device, four of which were present in the building and connected via a card inserted into the back of the machine, versus a simple plug connection, as was the case with older modified 3M machines there.
“It was a big contraption that you would wheel in,” Leckie notes. “There were four in the building, but only three of them worked, so if someone else was using it, you could have two. And if Pink Floyd was in Studio 2 sharing your A80 varispeed card, then Be-Bop Deluxe couldn’t use it.”
While pop recordings at the studio at the time were typically recorded at 15 ips, with Dolby A, Sunburst Finish was tracked at 30 ips, non-Dolby. Why? “People were going, ‘Hey, man, have you heard this Bob Dylan record? [1975’s Blood on the Tracks]. It’s running at 30 ips with non-Dolby!’ The A80s could run at 15 or 30, so I decided to record Sunburst that way. It was one of the first records I did that for. And even though it was running at 30, it was still pretty noisy. But it’s silky, really, so you don’t notice it.”
Tape stock was EMI’s own EMITape 815, the oft-seen variety in blue boxes. Tapes were regularly reused—as evidenced by tape boxes for this project—wiping reels of unused takes a few days after recording, once a master had been identified (particularly important for recording done at 30 ips, which used up stock twice as fast). And unlike later practice, the master was not cut out and put onto a master reel for further overdubbing (“OTR” as often marked), instead simply marked “BEST” by the second engineer/tape op and kept intact on its original tracking reel.
Leckie was assisted in Studio 2 that first week by Mark Vigars, who, at the time, typically worked strictly with Paul McCartney, when the ex-Beatle was at the studio. The following week, and thereafter, Peter James was assistant/tape op for Leckie, as he would be for many years, along with Haydn Bendall, as James worked exclusively with Pink Floyd on such projects as Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here.
The choice of tape op was dependent on the answer to a simple question: “When you’re dealing with a working environment, where Be-Bop Deluxe or Paul McCartney books 10 days, ‘Can you work 24 hours a day for the next 10 days?’ If Mark would say, ‘No, I can’t,’ and Pete would say, ‘I can work 24 hours for the next 10 days,’ that’s how the decision was made that week,” Leckie laughs.
Recording began that Monday, October 6, with the tracking of two songs, the first being “Fair Exchange,” the intricate album opener, which went through 11 takes, though Take 2 was “Best.” “Life in the Air Age” was also tracked over several reels, but without success, and was tackled the following day. “Like an Old Blues” followed.
The day began, though, with three takes of the Side 1 closer, the complex, fascinating “Sleep That Burns.” Though these takes were abandoned, a day or so later the group and team moved over to the studio’s cavernous Studio 1, where the master, Take 11, was eventually tracked. Overdubbing on the other songs already recorded continued in Studio 2, apparently unavailable for one of the other days that week for this recording, or, as Leckie puts it, “We either did it out of necessity, or maybe it was some wild, stoned thing, ‘Let’s do ‘Sleep That Burns’ in the big classical studio!’” he laughs.
The studio was indeed cavernous, built for symphonic recordings with large orchestras. “It actually has a four-and-a-half-second decay,” Leckie notes. “If you hit the snare drum, it takes four-and-a-half seconds to die out.”
As a result, for recording pop recordings, the studio built what Leckie refers to as a “cabin,” a band-sized enclosure, complete with a roof, pushed together from two halves to create a much smaller space and limit the natural reverberation. “You could set the band up around the control room window, with all the gear—and behind you is this f–ing cavern. But right in front of the glass, it’s dead. And you’re nose to nose at the glass, which is a great vibe. You look forward, and there’s this tiny room with the musicians in it.”
“Sleep That Burns” has a hard, rocking core, built of layers of Bill Nelson guitars. But mid-song, it breaks into an almost Flamenco-like cutaway, placing the listener in “a café in paradise” dream sequence.
“The song is about dreams,” Nelson offers. “I had a fascination with how we spend so much of our time asleep, dreaming. And dreams don’t make sense. It was intended to be an epic track. I thought of the song as being a kind of a movie, with a cutaway to this scene in the center, where the mood changes. And you get this picture in your mind of the café, the narrator sitting there with waitresses around him, from both the style of the music and the sound effects,” before shifting back to a hopeful, rocking conclusion.
The basic track included Nelson’s instrument of choice for the album, his stereo Gibson ES-345. Though he rarely, if ever, recorded the instrument taking advantage of the stereo outputs, it was occasionally tracked using a pair of his favorite Carlsboro 100W amp heads and six 2x12 SAI [Schroeder Amplification, Inc.] speaker cabinets. “I’d use one for clean sounds and one for overdriven sounds,” he explains. But, Nelson notes, more often the two outputs were fed to a twin-channel preamp booster box and summed to a single output, fed to one Carlsboro.
While engineers at most studios at the time would mike a guitar amp with Shure SM57s or 58s, that option wasn’t available for Leckie and his colleagues at the facility. “There were no Shure microphones at Abbey Road then,” he says. “I never saw an SM57 or a 58 until I left Abbey Road.” In this case, he would use a Neumann tube U67 condenser mic. “Today, I always pair that with a dynamic, an SM57 or 58, and create a balance between the two. And I’m pretty up front, just about half-an-inch away from the speaker cloth. You can’t go wrong with a tube condenser mic, backed up with a 57 or 58, something that’s not too bright.”
For effects, Nelson would make use of a favorite arsenal, which included an HH Slider Tape Echo, a Uni-Vibe phase shifter pedal for creating chorus effects, an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff fuzz pedal, and MXR Phaser and Flanger pedals.
His acoustic guitar, played throughout, was an Ibanez copy of the Gibson Everly Brothers model, with its pair of twin pick guards. “I’ve still got it, actually,” he says, somewhere among his collection of 70-plus guitars.
Tumahai’s powerful bass playing, accompanying his vocal harmonies, was from a Fender Telecaster, “which is very heavy, very bass-y,” Leckie says, noting that he both cabinet-miked and tracked with a DI. The bassist, who died in 1995, “was a big hero to the Māori people back home [in New Zealand] because he came, he saw, he conquered,” Leckie adds. Charlie meant a lot to all his people. He made a great contribution to Be-Bop Deluxe.”
SM57s were also missing from Leckie’s drum miking arsenal, the engineer instead opting for the studio’s commonly used Neumann KM84 for Fox’s snare, avoiding KM86s. “The KM86 is very temperamental. They have a switch for changing the mic pattern, which is always a bit dodgy. They sound good, but they’re unreliable.”
Though Fox typically played double-kick drums onstage, Leckie preferred just a single in the studio, miked usually with an AKG D20, which became the popular kick drum mic at the studio, succeeding the D19 Norman Smith famously used for Ringo Starr in the early ’60s). Overheads were handled with U87s or U84s, “depending on the song—the U87 if it’s roomy and quiet, and if you want definition, the U84.”
For the “Sleep” basic track (and most of the album), Nelson played his ES-345 through an MXR Phase 90 pedal, plus the Uni-Vibe on a very slow modulation, giving the rhythm guitar (heard in the left in stereo) a jangly, almost 12-string sound. And along with bass and drums, Clarke played Studio 1’s nine-foot Steinway grand piano, miked in stereo with a pair of U87s, revealing, once again, his classical training as he skillfully doubles Nelson’s complicated playing live, something he would often do on Be-Bop recordings.
When the band reconvened the following week, on Monday October 13 in Studio 3 with Leckie (assisted by Jeff Jarratt and Allan Rouse this day), they first tackled three takes of “Blazing Apostles” (third take being Best), followed by a tenth try at “Crying to the Sky.” Several sets of takes of “Crystal Gazing” were recorded—on the same reel as the other tracks—continually wiping previous unused takes to save tape, with one of several Take 3s becoming the master.
The next day, October 14, the group, now assisted by Peter James, tried four more takes of “Crystal,” which were abandoned and recorded over, with the copying of “Sleep That Burns” from the recording made the previous week on Studio 1’s 16-track A80, onto Studio 3’s 24-track. “Studio 1 only had a 16-track then, because it was a classical studio,” Leckie explains. “And, of course, when you copy onto the 24-track, the recording becomes degraded due to added noise, for the whole backing track.”
A mass of overdubbing then began, with countless tracks of fascinating, creative, fun parts added that indeed create, as Nelson envisioned, an epic recording. “Those things happen spontaneously once we got the basic track down,” Nelson explains. “Then I’d say to John, ‘Oh, let’s try putting this on and see what happens.’ And then, if it worked, ‘Let’s try and double-track it and put a harmony on,’ and so on and so forth. The problem is just not overloading things too much, because I get so many ideas, and there are so many details I can put in. And you can go on forever. So, at some point, you have to just pull the plug and say, ‘That’s it. Don’t touch it!’”
While in today’s Pro Tools environment there is seemingly limitless space to keep adding, that was not the case on 2-inch 24-track tape in 1975. “We were in the world of overdubs and dealing with track restrictions,” Leckie explains. “Our minds were focused on what we could embellish, what we could do, within those space limitations.” Sometimes he would find space on unused tracks, say, where a synth part only appeared during verses, allowing him to drop in Clarke’s tack piano during the dream sequence, before the synth resumed on the final verse.
“Because these were the pre-digital days,” says Nelson, “you had to be fairly clever about moving things around. We’d bounce harmonies together to a single track, and then free up those four tracks and add something else. It’s a skill you no longer need when working in Pro Tools.”
Mixing with more than one item (and sometimes three) on a single tape track required more than one pair of hands, as remix engineer Stephen Tayler, himself a veteran of Trident Studios from the same time period, explains: “Those tracks would be brought up on multiple channels on the desk, and then probably Bill, John and the assistant would each be dropping tracks in and out at the appropriate times. It required quite a bit of skill.”
For “Sleep,” Nelson first doubled his Gibson with a second, more rocking part, one which he notes is “kinda of an homage to Pete Townsend’s playing on ‘Baba O’Riley.’” The pair, heard left and right, offer the hard power chords not only in the verses, but in the verse intros, which end with what sounds like a Nelson high guitar part. It’s actually Clarke playing a MiniMoog, using the instrument’s modulation wheel to give it a lead guitar sound. Nelson then added a pair of acoustic guitars, doubling those parts, and another electric “galloping” part, chugging alongside the others. On top of that, a beautiful high arpeggio guitar appears in verses, which Nelson says would sometimes be recorded at a slower speed, to provide a higher pitch on playback. “It’s virtually a wall of sound of guitars,” notes Tayler. “It’s remarkable.”
Clarke added an ethereal electric piano part, heard on choruses, as well as a choir-like part played on Abbey Road’s Mellotron, the very one used by The Beatles eight years earlier on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” “I bought that single the day it came out,” Nelson recalls. “It was the first time I heard a Mellotron—I loved that strange, ethereal flute sound it had. We had to hire one for when we went out on tour. And it was always a nightmare because different voltages would take it slightly out of pitch, as would temperature changes.”
For the song’s dream sequence, Clarke not only played the Studio 3 tack piano, but also added a 1950s sci fi-sounding synth “swoop” from the MiniMoog. But what gives the “café in paradise” its authenticity are a pair of “Café atmosphere effects” and “Café crowd effects” tracks, assembled from sounds taken from Abbey Road’s sound effects library to go with many created by the band. These included clinking dishes and silverware from the studio canteen, as well as bandmembers providing some rather fun/funny voice callouts, shouts and laughs directed by Nelson in the studio. “There’s even a kiss you can hear. I can actually still picture Charlie doing that at the mic!” Nelson recalls fondly.
The studio effects library contained discs, as well as quarter-inch mono tapes, of effects compiled over the years by studio veteran Stuart Eltham, then stored in a passageway at the end of Studio 3, leading to the main corridor and the studio’s Room 43. “You could go into the tape library and find whatever you might need,” Nelson says. “When these ideas came up, it was fairly quick to locate the right sound. Somewhere in there you’d find something that would fit.”
The sequence ends with a stirring backward guitar solo, recorded as one might expect by marking the start point—which would be at the end of the forward-playing sequence—with a Chinagraph marker and then flipping the tape over and recording passes of random lead guitar playing.
“It might sound composed, but it is random,” Leckie explains. “You can’t shift it around like you can today in Pro Tools, so you would record three or four takes and then choose the best bits.” Sometimes, he explains, hearing the now-backward backing track in one’s headphones would throw a player off, “so if it was too confusing, you’d just mute the backing track. You’d watch for the cue mark on the tape, and tell him, ‘When I say ‘Go,’ you start playing.’ And when you turn it over and play it back, magic happens.”
“Ships in the Night”
Overdubbing continued on the album through that second wee, in Studio 3, with “Heavenly Homes” being given a shot on Tuesday, Take 2 at the very least marked “Complete, but not good.” The troublesome track was given 34 (!) passes on Friday, October 17, recording over the original “Fair Exchange” reel from October 6, tracking dozens of takes, before rewinding and beginning again, a total of three times, before reaching “Best” on Take 34.
The song is important here because it skillfully led into the album’s hit single, “Ships in the Night,” recorded the next day—all day—on Saturday, October 18. The song is notable for being Nelson’s least favorite track. “EMI were looking for something they could release as a single, and I’d never considered the band to be anything but an album band,” Nelson says. “I considered hit singles as belonging to the domain of ephemeral pop acts, rather than the currency of a ‘serious’ rock band.” Like it or not, working half-heartedly on his Wurlitzer electric piano at home, and beginning simply with the title phrase, he crafted a bona fide hit.
The band spun through 12 takes in Studio 3 (tracking over the original three takes of the October 7 “Sleep That Burns” passes), with Take 11 marked “BEST – V GOOD.” The basic track consisted of drums, DI bass, an electric rhythm guitar and Andy Clarke playing the song’s cool, signature space-age electric piano riff. (A mix of Take 11 is heard as a bonus track). But something was missing.
Studio 3, a few years earlier, had been remodeled with a drop acoustic ceiling and carpeting, replacing the effects of the seaweed drapes hanging from the walls of the other two studios, creating a decidedly dead room. “It was designed to be a small acoustic space, and it wasn’t that anymore,” Leckie describes.
“Ships” had a decidedly reggae feel, and the sound of Fox’s recorded drums didn’t reflect that. The remedy was found in a small corridor, accessed through a red door at the back end of the studio, which led both to the studio’s Room 43, originally Studio 3’s control room, until 1963, when it was moved to the other end. “It had a linoleum floor—it was the only ‘ambient’ space at that time, since Studio 3 was so dead,” Leckie says. “In addition to the other mics, I set up a pair of ambient microphones, to pick up more of that live sound, particularly for Simon Fox’s snare drum. He was so perfectly tuned, and the resonance of his snare hits the melody and the voice just right. That’s why Simon Fox is a great drummer.”
The band was set up around the red door, within Studio 3, to allow for good visual contact, with their instruments placed in their usual positions in the room, partitioned with gobos. After recording a drum test to pin down the sound—and having recorded the track all day—the group nailed down three takes, with the third becoming the released master, on which overdubs were tracked.
The next morning, on Saturday, October 19, the group ran through six more tries (though stuck with the previous day’s Take 3), and had to do so quickly. “That little corridor not only opened to Room 43, but another door opened out to the studio reception area, and we got a lot of complaints about noise,” Leckie laughs. “They could hear it in the canteen downstairs and in mastering upstairs, so we had to hurry it up.”
Overdubs were quickly applied, starting with a second electric rhythm guitar from Nelson, again, like “Sleep,” doubled with a pair of his Ibanez acoustic parts. Clarke doubled the arpeggioed electric piano part with an organ, giving the song a true signature sound. Another Hammond part was tracked, appearing on choruses. A bass synth gives Tumahai’s low note hits on the chorus an especially deep “boom.” And Nelson added a pair of electric guitars playing lead lines in the verse intros, which are highlighted with some “quacking” synth from Clarke on the MiniMoog.
Verse intros also have a distinctive buildup, again skillfully played as a Hammond part, doubled with piano. “In my demo, I had that as a line in the guitar, but Andy just doubled it and put twice the notes in,” Nelson explains. “Bill would do that as a challenge,” Leckie adds. “He would do that run-up, that scale, and he’d challenge Andy Clarke to do it on the Moog—and then someone else would do it. And it made for a great part, something that’s really a signature for the song.”
A special guest appears on a solo break—Nelson’s younger brother, Ian, on saxophone, which was recorded at AIR Studios, Leckie recalls, as were strings and some other overdubs. “He came down from Yorkshire, where he was studying music; he was very young at the time,” Nelson remembers. “Clarinet was really his main instrument, but he had this beat-up old Barrett saxophone, and it was really difficult to get it completely in pitch—some notes are a little sour! But I remember sitting with him, going through the solo, note by note on the guitar, because I had an idea how I wanted it to go,” which can even be heard on one of Nelson’s lead vocal tracks, as he whistles the part, in one section, says Tayler. “It took quite a while for us to get that together, but we eventually got it,” indeed having his brother double the part.
Sunday morning, after trying those additional takes, and before recording the last song, “Beauty Secrets,” Nelson, Leckie and the band did something interesting: They recorded a 7-second link piece, to join the end of “Heavenly Homes” to “Ships in the Night.” The former ends with a full-band “Bomp” hit; the same sound, in the same key, marks the beginning of “Ships.”
“I would take mixes home and listen there, and have a think about which track I would prefer to open the album,” Nelson says of his typical process. “And then I’d think about, where does it go from there? What mood do we develop? And one of the considerations would always be what key the next song would be in. And, if possible, you’d want to modulate from one key to another.”
In this case, the two songs were in the same key, so Nelson devised an arpeggioed guitar piece, with the full band hitting the “Bomps” at the beginning and end, Nelson playing his Gibson, onto which he tracked two more electric parts and two acoustics. Leckie then added some backward reverb as an introduction.
The single edit (tightened up by clipping down one of the verse intros) began with the original “Bomp” from Saturday’s Take 3, though Leckie notes that, over the years, that hasn’t always been the case. “Sometimes they’ve included part of Bill’s guitar run from the link piece, which isn’t correct. That’s not the start of the song.”
Stephen Tayler’s remix of Sunburst Finish for Esoteric took advantage not only of his skills with modern plug-ins that emulate period effects and techniques, but his experience working many years as an engineer at London’s Trident Studios during this same period, tracking such acts as Brand X, Bill Bruford and Peter Gabriel, among many others. “We all had very basic tools back then: equalizers, compressors, echo plates and tape effects. And that was it.”
Working in Pro Tools, Tayler utilized plug-ins that emulated vintage Neve and Trident equalizers, Fairchild and UREI compressors, plate echos, tape delay and even tape emulation, to “give it the sound one expects from a mixdown,” he says.
But for some effects he used a true analog approach—though still done in Pro Tools—for things such as phasing and flanging and reverse reverb. To produce phasing at Abbey Road, Leckie would draw a signal from the 24-track’s sync head and feed it to a quarter-inch machine, and then mix the 24-track’s playback head output of that same track against that of the playback head of the quarter-inch, whose speed would be raised and lowered using the varispeed device.
“I used that same kind of thinking/approach here,” says Tayler, “playing two recordings at slightly different speeds at the same time. It’s not a plug-in.” Similarly, reverse reverb was produced by flipping the recording in Pro Tools, applying reverb and recording that, and then reversing that reverb track and playing it forward in the mix together with the original track, just as Leckie would have done. The mixes aren’t 100 percent matches to Leckie and Nelson’s original, but that wasn’t fully Tayler’s charge.
“The main motivation for doing these new stereo versions was to do the 5.1 surround mix. The stereo is just a bonus,” he states. “I would try to match the original, up to a point, and then would discover things that I felt were interesting that I might want to bring out a little more,” such as the “Sleep is coming, don’t you worry” background vocal line toward the end of “Sleep That Burns,” something which was somewhat buried in the original mix. “You try to maybe reveal some things, but stay within what people’s memories of the track are.”
For his part, Nelson says, “I still record every single day,” at his home studio, as he has continually since the Be-Bop Deluxe days, including his recent three-disc Auditoria, containing an eclectic plethora of complex, fascinating tracks, available on his website.
“I release everything now on the internet,” he says, with a sense of liberation. “There are no record company restrictions on what I can do. Sometimes I release six albums a year and sometimes four. But the days of doing one a year are long gone. Everything doesn’t have to be a brow-furrowing experience. Some things can be really deep, and you can take ages over them, and other things can be light and fluffy, just spontaneous creations for the fun of it.”
Live playing, though, he says, has little appeal. “The studio is always just a fascinating place to be in. I feel that, when you’re in a band touring, you’re like an actor. And when you’re in the studio, you’re like a painter. I prefer being a painter to an actor. And I still feel like I’m only beginning.”