Classic Scottish Artists: Bobby Henry
One day they'll give me the chance to make a radio series about members of the community of musicians and artists who are, for many, a touch off-piste but who nevertheless have made magical contributions to music culture. I alluded to this in a recent blog on Capercaillie and have warmed to the subject again this past week or so, with a somewhat heavy heart.
Let me digress for a moment. A small but perfectly enthusiastic incarnation of my Pearlfishers recently guested at the Ceol's Craic event at CCA in Glasgow. During sound-check I glanced out and there in the corner, making the International Sign for "I feel and can demonstrate emotion" (fanning one's eyes with two rapidly flapping hands, the better to dry emerging tears), was my old friend Jerry Burns, just in from a sophisticated and doubtless enigmatic European City. After catching up on some tears and years of nonsense, talk fell to someone who was once very important to both of us, the artist Bobby Henry of Coatbridge, Lanarkshire.
I met Bobby in 1984 when, recently returned from a stint in London, he was producer gun-for-hire-to many Scottish groups. As I recall one could procure his services for £50 a day if the studio was 16-Track, or £100 a day if in a 24-Track facility. I was vastly impressed by this ultra-professional (in retrospect, bonkers) pricing policy. While in London he had recorded with the group BIM and signed a solo deal with Charlie Gillett's hip label OVAL; the cover of the single Head Case featured a grinning, be-wooled Bobby with the legend "Cardigan: Lene Lovich", something else we all found utterly impressive. Best of all was actually working with the guy in the recording studio (24-Track if you must know). Over the course of about six months Bobby taught me how to make records; he crafted basslines with hooks the size of a house on top of my ickle songs, got drummers to play like they were half-cut (in hindsight not difficult), blended guitars, guitars, more guitars then some 12-string guitars until the word 'chime' was redundant, added daft backing vocal hooks - one favourite phonetic was "Voo" - and gorgeous quasi-orchestral flourishes on a cool instrument called The Emulator. Everywhere I looked Bobby's magic was turning up, on amazing records by Friends Again, Valerie And The Week Of Wonders, His Latest Flame, The McCluskey Brothers and Hue and Cry (the first pre-major label wax Here Comes Everybody), always adding a quirky muscularity to the dish of the day. There was darkness too, the empty, rattling ambience of Ravenscraig in dust, and grim, angular modernism in the songs from his (still-unreleased) solo album Russo's Jukebox. There were definitely night creatures in the margins of Bobby's music.
Some of that strange atmosphere seeped into the songs and sound of Bobby's greatest moment; and I hope one day we can make a Classic Scottish Albums around the record he cut with Jerry Burns in 1992 for Sony. The blend of Jerry's evocative lyricism and enchanted, half-whispered vocals with Bobby's haunted approach to harmony and layering of sounds proved defining. In the song Pale Red their heady mix finds its finest expression and the music almost floats off the planet, light and dark and dark and light as it rises. Completely My Dear and Sometimes I'm Wild are among other recordings that manage to suspend motion and emotion in mid air. Jerry and Bobby debuted their new work in Glasgow at The Old Athenaeum and that little mini Theatre Royal was filled with music industry hacks (me included) chomping free chicken legs and sausage rolls with increasing silence as something otherworldly happened on the stage. I think I saw something fragile in between the music and the people and the industry that signalled a somewhat short-lived blooming; possibly hindsight but in any case it proved to be so. The music exists though, timeless and perfect and still vibrating. Please seek out Jerry Burns if you can, along with Jerry's other great recordings. You'll find some Bobby solo stuff too, if you look hard enough, in the shadows somewhere.
A few days after our chance meeting at the CCA Jerry and I were in touch again, this time because of news that Bobby's health was in bad trouble. He passed away on 20th September 2011, as 'quietly smart as ever' according to JB. In common with many gifted artists Bobby walked a real thin line all his life between the darkness and the light; I remember him saying we should make some music arrangement sound 'tough' (he often used that word 'tough') before putting some sweet little sparkling guitar licks on there. And it was tough, and it was sweet underneath. As one of Bobby's night creatures said, in the song She Called Me Robert:
Inside we're soft; inside we're very, very frail.
RIP Bobby Henry.