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Archives for November 2009

My Top 10 Maida Vale Sessions

Mike Engles | 17:31 UK time, Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Last Friday the BBC celebrated Maida Vale's 75th birthday and I've worked at the famous studios for nearly half that time.


I joined the BBC as a Studio Manager in October 1972 and in April 1974 started in the then Radio Resources Group 2 doing live music and programme work mainly for Radios 1 and 2.
I started music balancing in 1976. I have done countless sessions for both John Peel and Andy Kershaw as well as other BBC programmes that needed live music. I also did live concerts for Radio 1, including the first Live Aid in 1985 and the Nelson Mandela Concert in 1988 for which we won a Live Music Bafta.

I have been coming to Maida Vale since 1974 and in October 2002 started working with the Maida Vale Transfer Suite, helping to oversee the digitising of the BBC radio archive. We've been transferring programmes from tape and DAT to make WAV files. Quite often we came across a programme I helped record. These are 10 of the most memorable sessions I've been involved with.

Slapp Happy - Europa (25/06/1974)
I was the Tape Op at this session in June 1974, just after I joined the music recording group Group2. I really enjoyed the session and loved the songs. It is what I thought epitomised the 'idea' behind doing sessions for radio. It seems that the original was lost, but someone recorded it 'off air' and gave it back to the BBC.
> Slapp Happy - biography and discography

Viv Stanshall's - Aunt Florie (16/10/1975)
It was I think the first of the Rawlinson's End series for John Peel on 16 October 1975. This session took a long time to do. We started at about 1pm and I did not get home till 4am. I had to be in for another session at noon. It involved recording the music, some of it arranged on the day, so there was a lot of waiting about. We also had to record and edit the dialogue, made difficult, because Viv usually arrived at sessions bearing a carpetbag full of white wine and brandy and some exotic musical instruments. He was a true eccentric. I do remember him once turning up for another session wearing a kimono and flip-flops and this was in winter! It was a real treat to do this session. Some of the musicians also played with Slapp Happy. The Rawlinson's End idea, after many subsequent Peel Sessions, went on to become a record and then a film. Again for me this kind of session is what Peel Sessions were all about. Viv Stanshall was one of the most inventive and charming people I ever met. The piano is supposed to sound as if an old lady was playing it.
> Viv Stanshall - biography and discography

The Damned - Neat Neat Neat (30/11/1976)
I assisted on this session at the height of radio's punk era. Actually I don't remember too much about the actual session, but I do remember overhearing the band as they were packing up their stuff and I was putting away the mics. The band were complaining about the roadie, who had not turned up and that he was always drinking, drove too fast and that one day would kill them all. According to them the roadie "did not give a f***". This amused me as it seemed that the 'roadie' was the best punk of them all. Punk was refreshingly good as it was a break from all those prog bands like boring Van der Graff Generator. Sorry Van der Graff Generators fans!
> The Damned - biography and discography

Ivor Cutler - Gruts for Tea (20/02/1979)
It is now over 30 years ago, but I still remember Gruts for Tea. I recorded this for a John Peel session and it was the first of many times that I recorded Ivor Cutler. He was a very small courteous Scottish man, who on the day of this recording arrived at Maida Vale, armed with aphorisms printed on pieces of paper (like in crackers) and handed them out to everyone he met. Like Viv Stanshall he had a terrific imagination and could conjure up a really vivid turn of phrase. I remember another session with Ivor for Radio 1. The DJ handed over with a forceful "Take it awaaay Ivor". There was silence for about five seconds (death on Radio 1). Then Ivor says "Tek what away?". I was killing myself laughing and waving frantically at Ivor for him to start.
> Ivor Cutler - biography and discography

3 Mustaphas 3 - Introduction (21/01/1984)
3 Mustaphas 3 was a musical collective who had an alter ego of being itinerant musicians who hailed from a town called Szegerely, somewhere in the Balkans, possibly Albania. They were a sort of Middle Eastern dance band, who spoke in a sort of pigeon Serbo-Croat. They were very capable musicians who could play in almost any style. The head of the band was Ben Mandelson (Hijaz Mustapha). These sessions were always great fun, as they used a huge variety of instruments and they could also play them extremely well. They had a series of songs called Chilling Tales in which wolves seemed to figure a lot. The collective slogan was "Forward in all directions". They also acted as a backing band for African musicians when they did Maida Vale Sessions.
> 3 Mustaphas 3 - biography and discography

Bhundu Boys - Rugare (21/12/1986)
I had recorded the Bhundu Boys earlier in 1986, but I remember this particularly well. It was just a few days before Christmas and they turned up on a Sunday at Maida Vale on a very cold day, wearing clothes more suitable for a day out in Harare. They were in thin cotton shirts, trousers and light jackets. Their tour organisers had not arranged any warm clothes for them. They were really cold, even in a warm studio, so when it came to do the vocals, they had real trouble singing, so the producer and I decided to take them to the Tennis Club in Maida Vale to buy them some whiskies to warm them up. We were able to get some reasonable performances from them but they were not at their best. I also remember giving them a lift to where they were staying, which was quite near to where I live. They were very versatile musicians and could play in any idiom, being used to playing for hours on end in the beer halls and shabeens of Harare. I used to play the session at home as I really like African music, so one day as I was walking up my street, I could hear my six-year-old son and his friend Owen shouting to anyone who would listen, "We are the Bhundu Boys, we are the Bhundu Boys". This still makes me smile.
> Bhundu Boys - biography and discography

Nirvana - Drain (03/09/1991)
I used to get contacted by Nirvana fans asking about this session. My main memory is of Kurt Cobain lying on the sofa in the control room, asleep as we sound checked the rest of the band. They had come over from Europe during the night to do the Peel Session and then were to return directly after the session and were all quite exhausted. During the drum sound check Dave Grohl used just one stick, as he only had one. Someone had been sent out to get some more. The drums sounded really good using just the one stick. He used two sticks for the recording and I thought that the drums were now sounding awful. I suggested half seriously to the producer that we should get Dave to use the one stick for the session and tie the other hand behind his back, but of course this didn't happen.
> Nirvana - biography and discography

Gorky's Zygotic Mynci - Bocs Angelica (19/12/1993)
They were one of the most charming and inventive bands I have recorded. They sang in Welsh, were not necessarily the greatest of musicians, but were original and their arrangements and sounds had a wonderful quirkiness. In this song you can hear Euros Childs conducting the band (distant voice picked up by the guide vocal mic). I decided to keep it in as it added to the charm.
> Gorky's Zygotic Mynci - biography and discography

Cuban Boys - Hanging on the Telephone (06/12/1998)
During the late 1980s and 1990s I recorded many 'machine bands', that is bands that only used samplers and electronic instruments. I thought that the Cuban Boys were one of the most inventive as well as being great fun to work with. This is a Blondie song. John Peel loved cover versions. I think this was a very good arrangement, especially the backwards-vocal effect that we had to do for it. It took some time to achieve it, but it was worth it
> Cuban Boys - biography and discography

The Toques - Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed (18/08/2002)
This was one of the last Peel sessions I recorded. It was a good way to 'go out' as I really enjoyed the session. They did four songs, all of them quite different. They had drums, bass, acoustic steel guitar, keyboards and a string section. It certainly was not the usual drums bass guitar thrash. They did a country style version of the Black Crowes song Jealous Again. I like the Black Crowes. Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed is an arrangement of an old Blues Gospel song, again not a bad thing to my mind.
> The Toques - biography and discography

So, that's my top ten (in chronological order). What are your favourite BBC sessions?

Editor's Pick of New Releases, October 2009

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Mike Diver Mike Diver | 13:00 UK time, Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Good news, music fans - October was pretty cracking for releases worth investing in. So assuming you've some change troubling your pockets, take it down to your local record store (do people have local record stores anymore?) and part with it in exchange for one or two of these cream o' the crop discs.

tarotsport.jpgF*** Buttons - Tarot Sport
(ATP Recordings, released 5 October)

Writes reviewer Louis Pattison: "This band's greatest skill is in creating earworms, melodies that sneak into your head and stay put. A noise band with tunes might sound like a contradiction in terms, but F*** Buttons have carved out a sound that owes more to personal inspiration that tradition, and here it works like a dream."

Read the full review of Tarot Sport

Watch the F*** Buttons' Surf Solar on YouTube

- - -

wroughtiron.jpgNancy Elizabeth - Wrought Iron
(Leaf, released 5 October)

Writes reviewer Nick Barraclough: "This is a sincere and genuine album of songs devoid of contrivance. The listener almost gets a feeling of illicitly listening in on a private performance. It's that rare collection where you feel she'd have written and sung and played them exactly that way even if they were never to be recorded, the mood a happily uncompromising one."

Read the full review of Wrought Iron

Nancy Elizabeth - Feet of Courage

- - -

isla.jpgPortico Quartet - Isla
(Real World, released 19 October)

Writes reviewer Chris Parkin: "Sure, their love of the minimalists makes for the same cyclical grooves and a less-is-more attitude as Knee-Deep in the North Sea, but in Portico's Balkan-infused melancholy, thrumming textures and skronking outbursts, it's a deeper, scarier world this time. A second Mercury nomination shouldn't be out of the question."

Read the full review of Isla

Portico Quartet - Line

- - -

thebqe.jpgSufjan Stevens - The BQE
(Rough Trade, released 19 October)

Writes reviewer Will Dean: "Sufjan Stevens is one smart cookie. You could hear it in the arrangements of albums like Illinois and Michigan, you can tell it from his witty and idiosyncratic overlong song titles, and you can witness it via his grand ambitions. And here he's recorded a classical/techno/indie epic about a bit of tarmac. And he's done it beautifully."

Read the full review of The BQE

Sufjan Stevens - Interlude I: Dream Sequence in Subi Circumnavigation

- - -

astrangearrangement.jpgMayer Hawthorne - A Strange Arrangement
(Stones Thrown, released 19 October)

Writes reviewer Sam Hesketh: "A label that has built its reputation on the back of artists such as Madlib, J Dilla, Oh No and Guilty Simpson has thrown the curve ball of the year by releasing an album that sounds so authentic of soul it could have come from the Detroit of the 60s. For those who are fed up with the new wave of soul and want the real thing, Hawthorne has stepped up with a cracker of a debut."

Read the full review of A Strange Arrangement

Mayer Hawthorne - Maybe So, Maybe No

- - -

forgetthenightahead.jpgThe Twilight Sad - Forget the Night Ahead
(Fat Cat, released 5 October)

Writes reviewer Mike Diver: "Forget the Night Ahead captures its makers at the peak of their abilities. It's an album to return to frequently, fresh nuances rising through a fog of dizzying distortion with every listen, and unequivocally one of the best rock records of 2009."

Read the full review of Forget the Night Ahead

Watch the I Became a Prostitute video on YouTube

- - -

Those with cash to spare may also want to investigate new releases from The Flaming Lips (Embryonic), A Place to Bury Strangers (Exploding Head), Shafiq Husayn (Shafiq En'a Freeka), Tony Allen and Jimi Tenor (Inspiration Information 4), Themselves (CrownsDown), Matias Aguayo (Ay Ay Ay), Rachel Grimes (Book of Leaves), Boo Hewerdine (God Bless the Pretty Things) and Converge (Axe to Fall).

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