The Virgin Years Part 1: “Lazy Afternoon”

The Virgin Records recording of Lazy Afternoon fell out of the detritus of the God Bless the Unemployed sessions.

Nic Kinsey and I spent a lot of time drinking together and discussing the making of records. Lazy Afternoon started life as an exercise in making a “pop” single, whatever that means?. A lot of what went into the production while not revolutionary was not exactly the way most people went about things at that time.

I had already figured out the concertina part for the recording – it was exactly as played on the GBTU album, although I think it might have been transposed.

The triplet guitar part emerged in the front room of Nic’s house in Hoddesdon. Nic had a degree in electronics from Manchester University, but he always claimed that when it came to being a studio designer and builder the most useful part of his education had been his “O” level GCSE in woodwork.  

He had owned an American 60’s strat at some point, which he sold to Russ Ballard. He had also subsequently built a Fender Mustang clone for himself and a bass guitar which usually lay around in the front room among the model aeroplane wings and dismantled car engines.

By this time the guitar only carried one string, but that proved to be sufficient for our purposes. The track opens with a 8 bar solo played on one note from this one string guitar – a kind of triplet stutter. The string wasn’t plucked or strummed, but pulled up and down sideways across the grub screw Nic had used as part of the bridge assembly. This eight bar solo was something of a red herring however, as having firmly established the key, the song then modulates on bar nine.

That’s really all the instruments we had: these two home made guitars and the concertina. Most of the rest is “found” sounds – although admittedly you will find all kinds of useful things lying around in a recording studio: this band’s keyboard, that band’s guitar, left in the studio overnight. I don’t even know where we got the concertina from.  I suffered quite badly from Rattling Roaring Willy syndrome at that time, so we must have borrowed it from somebody? Neil Wayne possibly, although I’m  not sure he had entered the picture at that stage? The drums? That was something else. I guess some band using the studio had left a kit lying around, so we probably borrowed their kick drum. Nic had initially laid a click track down by slapping his knee for three minutes and ended up with a lot of quite bad bruising on his thigh but a pretty good click track – his timing was immaculate! The kick was played over that and for a while that’s all we had – a kick drum playing ‘fours’ for three minutes, and I don’t mean on a loop. There is no snare on the track , and the clap sound is two trays being banged together.

Next thing was the octave bass part, which was played on the home made bass. Dave Manzie who was knocking around at this time christened this as the “thwackma oom” bass part, and that was pretty accurate.

I guess the concertina went on next. Here we wanted a very slight beating, thickening of the sound, and so we double tracked it using the varispeed on the multitrack to slightly detune the second concertina. The result was half way between a concertina and a double reeded accordion.  

Livingston Studios at that time was still based in New Barnet and boasted a Studer A80 16 track machine, a Sound Techniques desk, and 4 Neumann U87s which was a pretty good complement for that era. Tape hiss was a serious problem if you were running any more than 8 tracks. Most people then were using Dolby A noise reduction. At the point where the studio was kitted out the budget had just about run out when it came to noise reduction, as a result of which there were only 8 Dolby 361 units and these typically were applied across the first 8 tracks.

Nic’s father Ray was the nominal manager of the studio, and one morning we rolled in around lunchtime and he enquired:

“How’s ‘turd’ going?”

Nic and I looked at each other, a little perplexed. Turd?

“Yes, ‘turd’, that appalling racket you’ve been working on the last few weeks”.

It would be possible to write a book on the personalities and the dynamics of the bizarre cast of characters that occupied 32a East Barnet Road during that period, but that’s for another time.

From then on pretty well every track we worked on got a turd designation, so there was Turd mark I, Turd mark II and so on. Hughe de Courson’s song “Le Romance Photo” I think was Turd mark III. We got to about turd mark VII, but none of the others saw release, other than the Dam Buster’s March, which was a part of the Concertina Record, and strictly speaking something else entirely.

I mentioned Russ Ballard earlier. He and Nic and a music manager called Dave Blaylock had been involved in trying to get a deal for a band called “Hello”. The original song demo for “New York Groove” was done at Livingston, and they eventually had a hit with that, as did Ace Frehley of Kiss . Anyway it was agreed that Dave Blaylock would attempt to get some record company interest in the song as a one off single deal. I’m not sure he ever really believed in the song, but to give him his due he gave it a fair crack of the whip. We got to second and third A & R meetings with a number of big labels but ultimately always got turned down at the last hurdle – we even went through the traditional rite of passage of being turned down by Decca. As a result of which Lazy Afternoon was sitting on the shelf at Livingston Studios by the end of 1973, and it remained there for the next couple of years.

Bizarrely during this period Richard and Linda Thompson had a crack at the song: I played concertina and Dave Mattacks played drums as I remember. I don’t think that version was ever released though. I knew Richard through a strange folk club that Steve Ashley had started round about that time in New Merlin’s Cave in Kings Cross, and he heard me singing the song there.

For whatever reasons, and I can’t remember what they were now other than I really believed in the recording, in late 1975 I decided to have a go at selling the single myself. Dave Blaylock had been trying to flog the thing as a finished master. I had the bright idea of describing it as a quite advanced demo that simply needed a little polish and further small investment in order to finalise things. I rang a whole bunch of record companies and managed to get meetings with a number of established A & R men. I remember talking to Bell, who were big at that time and meeting Dave Dee who by than had stopped being part of Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch. Dick Leckie was another one.  

Eventually I ended up seeing Jumbo Van Reenen who was working in the A & R department of Virgin. (At this time Virgin was still a small, but growing, independent label.)

He played it to the weekly Virgin A & R meeting and there was a relatively good reception for it. Simon Draper, however, was not convinced and it was looking a little ‘iffy’. Bizarrely Jumbo was playing the track to someone in his office and Richard Branson walked by and waxed enthusive. I wish I could say “and the rest was history”, but it did mean that a deal for the release of the single was then pretty much waived through.

I was also at this time working quite hard on what became the Concertina Record, and we eventually ended up with a deal with Virgin to release both Lazy Afternoon and the Concertina Record. A deal in principle had been offered just before Xmas 1975 and we finalised things in the early months of 1976, giving us a June release date. An advance was paid of £750 which was quite a lot of money in those days. I remember arriving at the Builders Arms in New Barnet where Nic and Neil Wayne were having a quiet drink, and brandishing the cheque signed by Ken Berry and drawn on Cootes bank.

As regarded the extra polish the song required it was agreed that we could go up to The Manor studios in Oxford, and have half a day to mix the record. The Manor was a fully residential studio and cost a fortune to hire with studio and 8 bedroom stately home – complete with staff to wait on you hand and foot normally attached as part of the deal. We got Spaghetti Bolognese in the kitchen, and stayed in a motel down the road.

The single was release in June 1976 and was quickly championed by both John Peel and Annie Nightingale. It was, in fact, a John Peel single of the week two weeks running. It came quite close but never made it onto the Radio 1 main playlist, and so faded away in this country. We made it onto a number of regional playlists, in particular Radio Nottingham hammered it. They were still playing it as recently as 2013.  

It was at this point that life took one of its strange turns. I arrived back at my flat in Harlow one evening to discover that a telegram had been delivered the text of which read “All indicators point to a hit in France, Laurie Dunn”. Laurie was the International Territories manager at Virgin, so I thought I’d better give him a ring. Turns out that the tale was that Lazy Afternoon was being played on heavy rotation on French Radio, was selling 30,000 copies a day, and was lurking just outside the French top thirty.

To be continued …

Deep Lancashire: Rawtenstall Annual Fair

“Rawtenstall Annual Fair” was my contribution to Topic Record’s 1968 compilation “Deep Lancashire”. I’ve always had pretty ambivalent feelings about this one. Recorded in the summer of 1967. I had already gone off to the University of Sussex by this time, but the project was on the go even before I left Lancashire.

Harry Boardman had made the arrangements and carried out all the negotiations with Topic Records. The plan was to make an album of predominantly Lancashire Industrial Ballads. Harry was overjoyed. Topic had pointed out to him that such an album had very limited commercial prospects. However they were prepared to offer the contributing musicians an outright payment of £50. Not £50 per artist or track, but £50 for the whole album, or LP as they were called then. This would of course be lin lieu of any royalties and would act as a one time only payment. At £3.50 per track, or 3 pounds 10 shillings as it was then we all agreed that this was a very generous offer!

Funny thing is it turned out that when the album came out pretty well everyone in Lancashire bought a copy. Fast forward thirty years to 1997 and the album is re released on CD. Same thing happens, presumably the vinyl copies everyone bought first time round were worn out by then?

To add insult to injury Rawtenstall Annual fair was also included in Topic’s “Three Score and Ten” anthology released in 2011.

Obviously most sales now are via iTunes and such, and if I go into the iTunes store then it’s clear that RAF is indeed one of the more popular items on the Deep Lancashire album.

A nice touch from Topic Records was that they managed to spell my name wrong on the original 1968 release. In spite of having this pointed out to them they managed to then not correct this for the 1997 CD re-release and to make it a hat trick they spelt it wrong on “The Three Score and Ten” anthology.

These things happen and I could counter balance it with tales of later in my career when significant advances of money were made against recordings that subsequently sold zilch.

The crazy thing is that I wasn’t born in Lancashire, but Yorkshire, and probably shouldn’t have been on the recording in the first place. I sometimes wonder if there isn’t some karma in there.

The Whirlpool

A recent recording. What more can we say?

October. Song. Poster.

Lea says:

I think this was done some time in 2008. It was course work from when I did an Audio Music Technology degree at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. One of Geoff Batty’s* courses as I recall.  I had a flat for a while in St Matthew’s Gardens, with a very odd shape, and acoustic material recorded quite well in there. This was done with a pair of AKG 414’s in a ORTF setup, with nothing added. The concertina is a Lachenal Excelsior. I quite liked it but it went during the 2012 -2013 financial crisis (personal not global) – probably about the time that Naomi was putting Robin and Bina on at the Portland Arms.

Naomi says:

The gig was only a few days away when I learnt there was no poster for it. After the initial disappointment and realisation I would have no keepsake from a gig where I shared the stage with my hero I quickly knocked this poster up at work. I still consider this one of the best things I’ve ever drawn.

Poster for Robin Williamson, Portland Arms, 11 October 2012
Poster for Robin Williamson, Portland Arms, 11 October 2012

* here’s a pic of Geoff seated at the organ!

The Purple Gang: Granny Takes a Trip

Jo Beard contacted me a few months back to see if Naomi and I would be interested in contributing a couple of tracks to an album celebrating the life of the late great Trevor Crozier – one of the giants of the much maligned Scrumpy and Western genre. I spent a little while working with Trevor back in the nineteen sixties – the very last few months of 1969. They say if you can remember them then you weren’t there, but it’s the seventies I can’t recall! I’ve agreed to write some stuff for the sleeve notes. It was a long time ago, and a as I look back I’m not finding it easy to do. Better then to put something about Jo here for now 🙂

Jo, of course, is inextricably tied up in my mind with The Purple Gang and their classic “Granny Takes a Trip” single. One of those songs where I can remember to this day exactly where I was when I first heard it – the lounge of  The Langham Guest House, Charlotte Street, Brighton.

What I didn’t realise was that I had already seen the Purple Gang perform live at one of the Manchester Sports Guild’s Monday night shenanigans – what would now be called an open mic session. Then known as the Young Contemporaries Jug Band, they were a bundle of energy. So it was no big surprise that they were now off down to the Smoke with a record deal and on the old radio. Granny Takes a Trip is one of those classic songs that never quite made it. The legend is that it was banned by Radio 1 because of it’s drug references. I’m not so sure.

The thing was that while The Gang might be off down to London with a record deal, it was actually key to make sure that the deal was with the right label, and Transatlantic Records was not the right label! Tim Hart gave me two valuable pieces of advice – bizarrely during the period that I was hanging out with Trevor Crozier. One was don’t sign to Transatlantic Records, and the other was to always make sure when signing a record contract to get as much money in advance as you possibly can because none of them will ever pay royalties. I managed to follow the one piece of advice, but not the other when I signed to Transatlantic a couple of years later for what was then their largest advance ever. Much to the annoyance of Bob Pegg of Mr Fox who were also with the label.



Terry Southern & the History of Virgin Records

Virgin Records book sleeve
Cover of Terry Southern’s History of Virgin Records

I guess the story of Lea’s “Virgin Years” will be told elsewhere, but here’s a quirky little thing that turned up a few years ago. Richard Branson commissioned Terry Southern to do a History of Virgin Records. When, I’m not sure? But it was after he had flogged it all off.

Terry of course claimed he wrote the screenplay for Easy Rider. There seems to be some argument about this, but he certainly wrote the screenplay for Dr Strangelove and Barbarella.

Anyway, I got a whole page in the book and here it is:

Lea Nicholson
Lea Nicholson from Terry Southern’s History of Virgin Records

I must have really liked dressing up in those days!

Here’s some more info on Terry Southern


Naomi Randall & Lea Nicholson as Lungs

Naomi has painted us both as lungs and it is agreed that this is to be our logo. She has given me the original and bestowed all rights in the picture to me! I have stored it in the large chest that Louise gave me for my birthday one time. It’s with various bits and bobs of personal copies of vinyl – Horsemusic, God Bless the Unemployed, The Concertina record and even a very rare copy of Brothers and Sisters are Watching You –These change hands for a couple of hundred pounds on Ebay. There were only ever a hundred copies of that album pressed, and I believe that a guy called Dave Crackett still has about fifty of them, so there really are very few in circulation.