MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Fairport Convention’s “Liege & Lief”

The making of Fairport Convention’s Liege & Lief

By A.D. Amorosi

“Come all ye rolling minstrels/And together, we will try/To rouse the spirit of the earth/And move the rolling sky”
—“Come All Ye,” Fairport Convention

Contrary to popular belief, the rolling minstrels of Fairport Convention didn’t form in 1967 to change the way audiences heard the woody folk traditions of the British Isles and hot-wire the primeval acoustic form with radical, dusky electricity and authenticity.

Bassist Ashley Hutchings, guitarist Simon Nicol and Charlie Christian/Django Reinhardt six-string acolyte Richard Thompson just wanted to emulate the harmony-filled, Dylan-inspired sounds of America’s West Coast—the California cool of the Byrds and Joni Mitchell—when they got together. And that’s what Hutchings, Nicol and Thompson did, at first, while working in a rehearsal space (Fairport House) in the northern London suburb of Muswell Hill. On its eponymous debut as Fairport Convention in 1968 with singer/autoharpist Judy Dyble, vocalist Iain Matthews and percussionist Martin Lamble, the band-starting trio used their best ringing harmonies on covers of Emitt Rhodes, Tim Buckley and Richard Farina while penning their own like-minded, pre-psychedelic folk rock.

“We certainly weren’t comparing our songwriting to those great artists,” says Hutchings. “We were only starting to compose, and that’s just what came out. In retrospect, I believe that we rejected our own very early songs and ideas, but at least we were trying to find our own voices.”

By 1969, however, the founding trio replaced ’60s American folk with dark, old, British traditionals and blistering rock-outs that mirrored the thrush-filled mien of the moors and the songs of the wood. They switched out Dyble with the darkly intricate and clearly beautiful voice of Sandy Denny and welcomed new members such as dance-band drummer Dave Mattacks and Dave Swarbrick (one of the U.K.’s most in-demand fiddlers and mandolinists) to Fairport’s fold.

Swarbrick and Mattacks didn’t feature on 1969’s What We Did On Our Holidays, but the fully remade Fairport Convention came into its own with the same year’s torrid, transitional Unhalfbricking. Knotty-pine epic Liege & Lief became arguably the finest, most haunted, truly British folk-rock album of all time. Along with crafting many a misty-mountain hopping mood, the Fairport Convention of Liege & Lief gave rise to haunted, like-singing folkies Kate and Anna McGarrigle, the Incredible String Band and Nick Drake, as well as musky rockers Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, to say nothing of the American freak-folk movement and all the nü-folk artists who dared to bare their autoharps.

“We found that traditional music from the U.K. and Ireland spoke to us in a profound way,” says Thompson of the signatures, simplicities and complexities of British folk. “This was the music from our own corner of the planet, and we felt that it would also speak for the audiences of Britain if we could contemporize it by playing it amplified. Once you sing a song that is centuries old, and you feel the ghosts of all the other singers who have passed it down and modified it and polished it, you get hooked on the tradition.”

That’s Liege & Lief to a “T.” By paying heed to the bracken-and-brush-filled whimsy of self-arranged traditionals (“Reynardine,” “Matty Groves,” a sun-dappled suite of “The Lark In The Morning,” “Rakish Paddy,” “Foxhunters’ Jig” and “Toss The Feathers”), as well as terrapin originals (Thompson’s mournful “Farewell, Farewell,” his fiery “Crazy Man Michael” written with Swarbrick, Denny/Hutchings track “Come All Ye”), Liege & Lief finds equal dedication in the Brit, the folk and the rock sides of that full-blooded, three-headed hydra.

“It was magical, all of it,” says Joe Boyd, Fairport’s manager, producer and the leading lion of the burgeoning U.K. folk scene of the time.

“There was a shared aesthetic with Pentangle, Shirley Collins and the Incredibles, but we weren’t influenced by these other acts,” says Hutchings. “We were a rock group playing folk and rock. A lot of these other acts swung the folk. We rocked the folk.”

Liege & Lief was the ancient and the future all rolled into one serious, mysterious and mischievous whole, a deservingly separate entity from the just-released, seven-disc Come All Ye: The First 10 Years Fairport boxed set that breathes its own rarified air.

The group’s journey to Liege & Lief involves not nymphs and fairies, but rather a deep and abiding love for and fascination with folk’s traditions, and the dislocation that difficult and tragic moments bring to the extended family of a band.

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Graham Parker & The Rumour’s “Howlin’ Wind”

The making of Graham Parker & The Rumour’s Howlin’ Wind

By A.D. Amorosi

One thing Graham Parker appreciates when discussing his earliest work is to not call him or his lyrical output “angry.” It’s a word never uttered by this writer in regard to the now-66-year-old, East London-born Parker’s writing: a cliché forever bandied about by hollow critics who probably haven’t really listened to Parker beyond his often blistering vocal delivery.

“When I’m writing, I don’t write angry or think angry, so I appreciate that you noticed this, and thank you,” says Parker. “Sadly, all critics see or hear is anger. Not me, though. ‘With a little humor, always with a little humor,’” he says, quoting the Dr. Yen Lo character in cinematic Cold War drama The Manchurian Candidate with the evil intonation.

There are many such laughs to be had talking with Parker, guitarist/bandleader Brinsley Schwarz, organist/pianist Bob Andrews and drummer Steve Goulding: most of the team behind Howlin’ Wind, the smart, snarling, roughly soulful and reggae-tinged 1976 debut by Graham Parker & The Rumour. “When you have a good time, you get a good record,” says Andrews, talking about not only the laughs shared with longtime friends in Brinsley Schwarz (the band named after the man, which ended in 1975 only to become the Rumour later that year) but also recording with Nick Lowe, Howlin’ Wind’s producer and one-time Brinsley bassist/singer.

You can’t get to Parker’s grouchy, skanky, literally horny Howlin’ Wind, with its smugly sarcastic lyrics, scuffed-up vocals and scorched-earth soul-garage demeanor, without the Rumour. And the Rumour remains dormant without Parker, a great backing/collaborating band without a front. “I think back, and yeah, it was, and is, a pretty symbiotic relationship,” says Parker. The Cajun-Jamaican flavoring of the Bontemps Roulez rhythm section was the cherry on top.

Post-pub rock and pre-punk (a matter of months in between; mid-1975 to January 1976), Howlin’ Wind closed the door on one relaxed-fit movement and popped the top on the ragged, spiky rage of another, with topics such as lousy schoolmasters, God, social justice and bad romance on the tips of their lips. “Punk rock in England doesn’t really occur without pub rock,” says Schwarz. “If we hadn’t pushed these places to be available for gigs—because there wasn’t anywhere to play save colleges and arenas then—where would punks have built their nests?”

The aggressive rebellion of punk, its untutored musicianship and its anarchistic everything, was never really a draw for Parker and the Rumour, as Howlin’ Wind wasn’t recorded by a bunch of snot-nosed youngsters. “No, no, when punk really hit and those kids were spitting out of so-called appreciation, I wasn’t having that,” says Parker with a laugh. “I didn’t get that far to be spit upon.”

Considering Schwarz and Lowe were in bands since 1966 such as Sounds 4+1, which morphed into Kippington Lodge, the immediate predecessor to the epic Brinsley Schwarz; that Andrews played organ for U.K. soul/pop songstress P.P. Arnold around 1967-68 before joining Kippington Lodge, etc.; and that Goulding and Rumour bassist Andrew Bodnar met in 1970 before becoming Skyrockets, then the reggae/Cajun-inspired Bontemps Roulez before hooking up with Schwarz, Andrews and Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont, this crew of seasoned vets had been around the block.

Maybe they were seasoned but not well-trained. “We definitely always needed to get much better, until we actually did,” says Schwarz, recalling the debacle of a disastrous, over-hyped Manhattan gig at its start and hauling his namesake band into one house where they rehearsed all day out of necessity.

“We studied album sleeves closely, but we weren’t trained musicians at all,” says Goulding of playing with Bodnar in Islington and forming local bands. “We spent most of our time playing along to records and lusting after expensive instruments.”

Still, when it came to 1975, the just-broken-up Brinsleys—as musicians—were well-worn-in with their chops handsomely sharpened, and known for their abilities (and propensity for having a good time) in the pubs of London. Lowe even told GQ in 2011 that manager Dave Robinson “saddled (Parker) with this band that had just broken up and came with all their in-jokes and were fully formed in a way.” That’s Lowe’s dour outlook. (Lowe declined to be interviewed by MAGNET for this story.)

The fully formed vibe Lowe spoke of is what gave Parker’s prickly poignancy a sage authority, its weight, its “soul shoes” glide when set in the company of the then newly anointed Rumour. This team of players’ well-rounded, often sloppy, brutal but buoyant, genre-babbling musicianship gave Parker’s debut—from the stinging groove of “White Honey” to the confessional gospel of “Don’t Ask Me Questions”—might and bite. “Pub rock” as a tag was nothing more (and nothing less) than combine-churning boozy music boiled into one frothy, funky mess—the Band meets the Meters meets the Wailers meets the Famous Flames meets the Faces—made by hungry men no longer at the beginning of their careers. “I didn’t know anything about pub rock, but I did know that these guys had been around,” says Parker of his collaborators.

Parker, however, was also no spring chicken (25!) when he got to the soon-to-be-rechristened Rumour and Dave Robinson, Brinsley Schwarz’s manager. “Morocco, Gibraltar, Channel Islands, the whole of Europe; I’d been all over by the time I was 18, as that’s what you did at 18, because you didn’t need money to live,” says Parker of his restless youth. When he did need cash, he worked while home at his parents’ house in Sussex at the Chichester rubber-glove factory, or breeding mice and guinea pigs. “Between traveling and odd jobs, I had a fantastic time meeting people and harvesting ideas,” he says. “Then I’d fuck off and go to Morocco because that’s where Burroughs and Kerouac went; hippies, too, the whole Marrakesh Express.”

Though Parker had instruments as a kid, he’d never thought much of music. Suddenly, though, buying an old acoustic guitar in Guernsey, totaling up the sum of his experiences in squats and sands, allowing the youthful influences of Eddie Cochran, the Supremes, Van Morrison (“a true poet who happened to be a phenomenal white soul singer”) and the latter-day inspiration of Bob Dylan (“honestly didn’t get into him until Blood On The Tracks”) to take root turned his head around.

“Something came out the other side, and nobody of my generation was doing that particularly, or at least I didn’t hear it: the soul, the rock, the poetry,” says Parker. He confesses a love, too, for “the early singer/songwriter types” such as Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Neil Young. “That’s the only thing that I took from the hippies,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t like their noodling music, but some of their writers were devastating.”

Parker got the writing fever and, by 1974, songs came pouring out. To him, the melodies were based on old tunes that he loved, that mix of which he speaks. Along with his then-fresh feel for Dylan (“I was upset with myself for not getting him sooner”), Parker was inspired by elements of social justice and class in his U.K. homeland and began developing a lyrical style and subject matter. “I had no interest in politics, per se, but I knew what justice—and injustice—looked like when I saw it, being part of the working class and with England being a classist country,” he says. “It’s still based on class there—if the ruling class could break the working class, they would.”

Parker sought to integrate the poetry of disgust, discrimination and inequity into his first tunes such as “Back To Schooldays,” which wound up on Howlin’ Wind. “Even the love songs, I wanted them to have that taste, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it, really,” he says. “What I came up with was ‘Don’t Ask Me Questions,’ which I think makes love into a social issue.” As for the burgeoning Dylan influence, Parker insists that you can hear him grappling with that on “You’ve Got To Be Kidding,” with its compact chords and emotional output.

Parker wanted to point fingers, but he did not want to preach. “I can’t stand that,” he says. “Preaching is the last thing I wanted to do.” Caustic humor, often subtle, became his guide, a lyrical flip he’s used ever since. “I still don’t think that people get the jokes, but there you go,” he says.

Either way, Parker believed that he was truly on to something in 1974, as at that time (the era of prog rock and post-glam), “there were certainly no new acts doing something original with this,” he says. In this case, something tough, soulful and social.

“That felt good,” he says. “I just had to make the right connections, meet musicians who weren’t hippies. Go to London.”

This is where Brinsley Schwarz, Bontemps Roulez and Dave Robinson come in.

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Pete Yorn’s “Musicforthemorningafter”

The making of Pete Yorn’s Musicforthemorningafter

By Hobart Rowland

Musicforthemorningafter couldn’t have been foisted on listeners at a less-opportune time. In March 2001, the music industry was smarting from the dotcom bust, and things would only get worse. Among the top-selling artists that year: Michael Jackson, NSYNC, J.Lo, Shaggy and Staind. Meanwhile, critics were beside themselves over the Strokes’ debut, the White Stripes’ third effort, Jay-Z’s monumental The Blueprint and Radiohead’s overrated Amnesiac.

Could a guy with suburban-Jersey roots, a Smiths fetish, a communications degree from Syracuse University and a last name that falls toward the end of the alphabet really stand a chance—even with Columbia Records’ backing? The answer was “yes and no.”

musicforthemorningafter did go gold, and it’s nearing platinum status 16 years later. But the lasting impact of Yorn’s remarkable debut was the precedent it set for others of his ilk. Simply put, it was a singer/songwriter album that didn’t sound like a singer/songwriter album: vast when you’d expect insular, hard-rocking and blunt when delicate and sensitive would’ve been the easy out, and so impeccably crafted and well executed that it could’ve only been the result of a group effort.

Yorn and collaborator R. Walt Vincent were operating in the best sort of creative vacuum—one governed by their own crazy ideas and brilliant mistakes, its boundaries dictated only by the amount of wine and pot consumed and the limitations of their ’80s vinyl collections. And it certainly helped that they weren’t on the clock. “We were not a priority at the label,” says Vincent.

It also didn’t hurt that Yorn—aside from having a shitload of great songs—had two older siblings with serious clout in the entertainment industry watching his back. Kevin, the oldest, is a high-powered attorney for superstars such as Matthew McConaughey and Scarlett Johansson. Middle brother Rick has established himself as a formidable Hollywood producer, manager and talent agent (think Leonardo DiCaprio). “I had this classic Slingerland five-piece drum set, and I gave Pete a couple of drum lessons when he was maybe six or seven years old,” recalls Rick, who’s six years Pete’s senior. “I came home one day, and I hear someone going off on my drums in the basement. I figured it was a friend. I go down there, and it’s my little brother—and he’s just killin’ it. Then he got piano lessons, and later he learned guitar and bass. We knew he had a special gift.”

The way Rick sees it, raw talent and a single-minded persistence combined to keep Pete out of law school. After college, he found his way to Los Angeles, setting in motion much of the narrative that follows.

Pete Yorn: I started writing when I was 13 or 14—just shitty songs. I was trying to sound like the Cure or something.

Rick Yorn: All through college at Syracuse, Pete kept sending me songs, and there were so many gems. To this day, I’m always the one that Pete plays a new song for. Together, we share a love of music. For many shows early on, I was his drummer.

Pete Yorn: I wrote a lot at Syracuse. A big catalyst was the cold weather. I just stayed in and smoked weed, and sometimes I’d write three songs a day. It was a lot of quantity back then. I had these crazy long-distance bills because I was always calling L.A. so Rick could check out my new tunes.

Rick Yorn: I remember that moment his junior year when my dad was still pushing law school, and I kept hearing these songs, and they were incredible.

Pete Yorn: When I graduated from ’Cuse, I moved out to L.A. with this über-confidence. I was a kid. I had no idea how the music business worked. But I was lucky. I had places to crash; I could sleep on my brother’s couch.

Rick Yorn: I remember telling mom and dad that their son was a fucking genius and they should just let him go.

Pete Yorn: From ’96 to ’98, I was playing out in L.A., trying to get things figured out. I had a band called Million, but nobody knew who the fuck we were; I think we played out twice under that name. Maybe two and a half years in, I played this show at the Roxy, and some guy from MCA offered me a deal. But it was really shitty, and I was advised not to do it.

Rick Yorn: Two key things that happened were his residencies at the Viper Room and Largo. He started getting a following.

Pete Yorn: I made a record with Don Fleming (producer for Sonic Youth and Teenage Fanclub) that was gonna be my debut record. We banged it out in maybe a week and a half in May of 1998. I was really into layering, and I’d play everything myself. I’d start with the drums and just keep building until I had the track. I was also into reverb and compression, and everything was super blown out. I was getting into Guided By Voices at the time.

Don Fleming: Pete sent me some demos before he was signed, and I was impressed with his songwriting and his style. I always found more substance to artists who can explore a darker side, and I felt Pete was really writing some great material.

Rick Yorn: The Fleming record was brilliant—really lo-fi. They made it in New York over some strip joint. It was very drug-infused … a lot of weed being smoked.

Pete Yorn: Fleming was so cool and laid-back. I re-created a lot of the demos I was doing in my bedroom, only in a studio in New York City. I was super excited about it, but it’s very “of the time” soundwise. When the 20th anniversary comes next year, I might be ready to put it out.

Fleming: I hope the full record that we made will see the light of day.

Rick Yorn: Pete had this idea to title it thenightbefore, and he owns it, so we’re thinking about doing something with it. Anyhow, Virgin stepped up and wanted the record. But they loved the first half of it, and they wanted to work on the other half, which was Pete’s favorite half.

Pete Yorn: I drank a whole bottle of white wine before I went to this lunch with these guys, and I was such a cocky little shit. “Simonize” and a lot of songs I just loved were on the second half. I didn’t understand how they couldn’t get that.

Rick Yorn: He was basically just like, “Fuck you, I’m not changing anything.”

Pete Yorn: Pretty soon after I got back from New York and was still figuring out how to get the Fleming record out, I met Walt during a smoke break at a Sloan concert at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. He said he had this digital rig and a little guest house in Van Nuys. I thought digital recording was so nerdy and not cool at the time, but I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t so much the car but the driver.

R. Walt Vincent: The songs with just him on acoustic guitar had this alt-country feel, but I wanted to do something different with it. I wanted to try all the fun shit you could do with Pro Tools.

Pete Yorn: I had some basic tracks that I’d laid down in my basement, and I got the files to Walt. We opened “Just Another Girl,” and he laid down these beautiful, big-sounding horns and some strings. I was inspired by that, and I did some ’60s-influenced overdubs. I remember driving home listening to the song on CD and thinking, “Holy shit.” I went back a week later, and we built out another song … and then another.

Vincent: I was listening to Garbage and New Order around that time, and Pete was a big New Order fan. The Smiths were huge for both of us, so there’s a lot of that in Pete’s thing.

Pete Yorn: Growing up, I was into Britpop and other bands from England, but I was also getting into Neil Young, Led Zeppelin and the Stones. musicforthemorningafter is a blend of that. When we were making it, I was really into Teenage Fanclub; I was really into Wilco and Son Volt. I could’ve made a straight alt-country album.

Vincent: We’d get the basic track down, and then just really fuck around. We sort of fell in love with the randomness. We’d goof off, then one of us would get serious, and the other would say, “Dude, what are you talking about—that’s the shit.” A lot of the ideas came from us not trying to be cool. It was like, “Rather than fight over an idea, let’s do another idea.”

Pete Yorn: We had a really good groove going, but it was laid back. By June of 1999, we had early versions of “Just Another Girl,” “Life On A Chain,” “Lose You,” “Sense,” “Black” … I remember I just laid down the drums to “Black” and went off that. Walt brings this extra emotional weight with these melodies I wouldn’t normally hear in my head.

Vincent: What got me about Pete was this sensitivity. What really moved me in his songs was what I called “the tug.” That sort of became my go-to word—looking for that brokenhearted, emotional thing. It’s something that’s deep inside Pete, and I wanted to get that out. He’d been used to lumberjack singing onstage with a drum kit behind him. But I was like, “Dude, sing quietly; get right next to the microphone.” I’d adjust his headphone mix so his voice was super loud, and he had no choice but to sing softer if he wanted to hear the track. That brought out a lot of the tug of Pete’s voice, which is why I think people really connect with the record.

Pete Yorn: Working with Walt was such a new process that I was writing songs in the studio on the fly. I was going through a breakup with a longtime girlfriend at the time, and “Lose You” came out of that. Unconsciously, a lot of stuff was pouring out of me.

Vincent: Some people at the label didn’t think I existed at all; they thought Pete made up my name so they wouldn’t think he was doing it all by himself—like he was trying to create this mythical producer so they wouldn’t fuck with him.

Pete Yorn: At some point, we finally got a meeting with Columbia Records. I go to see (Columbia president) Donnie Ienner in his office with my guitar, and Donnie’s smoking a cigarette. He’s like, “Play me something.” I play “Murray,” and he goes, “That’s pretty cool; what else you got?” I play “Just Another Girl,” and he’s like, “We’ll let you know. Thanks for coming in.” And that was it. I didn’t hear anything for weeks, and then Donnie’s top A&R guy, Will Botwin, comes out to L.A. to check me out. As fate would have it, I was just over at (producer) Tony Berg’s house, who lived nearby. He showed me this chord on the guitar, and I went home and wrote “Life On A Chain.” Will comes to see me and asks if I have anything new. I play him “Life On A Chain,” and he goes, “All right, let’s do this.”

Vincent: If you listen to “Life On A Chain,” it will swing and not swing at the same time. When I came up with the bass line, we were both busting up, because it had this “go, greased lightning” feel. Then I dug up a sample of some record noise, and I was like, “Now it sounds like the song starts in the ’40s and makes a jump into the 21st century.”

Pete Yorn: I’d been working with some unknown dude in a home studio in the Valley, but I was really confident in the music we were making. I had no illusions that working with a big producer was gonna do anything.

Continue reading “MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Pete Yorn’s “Musicforthemorningafter””

MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Wire’s “Pink Flag”

The making of Wire’s Pink Flag

By A.D. Amorosi

Though born of the punk moment, ethos and conviction, the debut of Wire on Pink Flag—conceived, executed and produced as a full work, rather than conforming to the era’s focus on DIY sound or singles simply strung together—has as much to do with punk as cheese does with giraffes. From its fast-and-furious, stripped-to-the-bone approach to its fleetingly short, often fragmented songcraft (21 tracks in less than 36 minutes); from its intentional dissonance without eschewing melody or big production values to its precision-driven stops and starts and the detached, acerbic wit of its abstractionist lyrics, Pink Flag sounded like nothing else of its time, in its time and—dare we say—in this time, 40 years later.

“It was deliberate, we were deliberate—even though we hadn’t done this before,” says guitarist/vocalist Colin Newman of Pink Flag’s sonic assault and modern primitivism. The album happened so quickly after the quartet’s formation that you can’t help but guess that such haste added to the persistent aggression—an artful minimalism with no display of, or interest in, rock ’n’ roll. The sense of urgency and experimentation that informed Wire’s 1977 debut would also figure into the band’s evolution.

“There was strength and a lack of compromise in their music from the start,” says Mike Thorne, the A&R man and producer who got hold of Wire—Newman, guitarist Bruce Gilbert, bassist Graham Lewis and drummer Robert Gotobed—barely six months after its inception. Wire appeared alongside Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex and others on Thorne’s The Roxy London WC2 (Jan-Apr 77) live document of the Covent Garden, London, club at the dawn of punk. In September 1977, Thorne got the foursome signed to EMI’s Harvest division and recorded Pink Flag at London’s Advision Studios with a shockingly layered (and decidedly un-punk) sound.

“When it became just the four of us working together, we got some very basic ideas down very fast,” says Lewis. “Like the stopping and starting of everything together was very effective.” He laughs. “And being in tune was good, too.”

As the “just the four us” phrase lingers in the air, one thing becomes clear at the start of this story: There would be no Pink Flag, follow-up albums Chairs Missing (1978) and 154 (1979) or even much of a Wire at all if guitarist/vocalist George Gill hadn’t broken some bones and taken time recuperating. “Ah, George,” says Lewis with both an air of sweet reminiscence and near despair. “The four of us collaborated and cooperated with each other in a very straightforward fashion, where with George, well … he tended to be ill-disciplined, really.”

Lingering too long on Wire’s origin story would be boring, if not for the fact that it occurred so close to Pink Flag. Before Wire formed, its members were rooted in art-school traditionalism: Watford Art College for Newman, Gilbert and Gill; Hornsey College of Art for Lewis, a textiles major who transferred to fashion design and had a hand in creating the oversized T-shirt with huge lettering fad. Newman and Gill both had something close to musical experience; Gotobed—née Grey—had been a vocalist in an R&B group, the Snakes, whose other members went on to form the Motors.

When Newman got to Watford, he immediately came to share a house with fellow students, including Gill, who began utilizing the college studio run by Gilbert, himself an experimentalist when it came to tape loops and musique concrète. “Bruce was always in it all for art, never music,” says Lewis of his friend and Wire’s true Dadaist. (Newman even recalls how Gilbert was influenced by Dadaist godfather Marcel Duchamp and his notion of ready-made art.) “Besides, Bruce was always embarrassed by the display of music, of standing onstage as a band person.”

Eventually, in 1976, Gill (the songwriter), Newman and newly minted guitarist Gilbert became Overload. Gilbert, who had befriended Lewis, asked him to come to a session with his bass. “I lied and told them I could play, so I had to borrow one from a friend,” says Lewis. Gotobed met Newman at a party where each was impressed with the other’s black-heavy sartorial splendor. Overload was complete—except for that band moniker.

“Overload is a rubbish name, but that’s when we had George in the band,” says Newman, with a hint of arch distaste, as if he’d eaten lemons dipped in gravel. “Bruce used to come ’round often, as he lived nearby. When Graham and Robert joined in, we realized that we had to have a proper name, like, ‘We have a gig and have to make up a name quick’ deal.” Newman hung lists of names around the Watford flat, but it was Gilbert who came up with “two really good ones,” in Newman’s estimation: the Case and Wire. Newman and Co. liked the one word un-wordiness of Wire—the starkness, the bluntness, the vagueness—one that ultimately fit with Pink Flag’s short, sharp feel. “Mind you, our good taste didn’t stop promoters from printing our name in barbed-wire lettering,” says Newman. “That was so common in the punk ’70s. So obvious. So hateful.”

For the just-born Wire braintrust, being obvious was a cardinal sin on par with murder, adultery and bad taste. Yet Wire was stuck in the rocky sea of ’70s obviousness—of old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll done fast and sloppy—that was the then-burgeoning punk movement.

“One thought that the ‘punk movement’ would be the start of a very open, experimental situation for all mediums,” says Gilbert. “And although it was true initially, it soon became very clear that it was a superficial and commercial bandwagon.”

Newman went a little further with his level of aversion. “Most of punk rock was bullshit, messy, disorganized,” he says. “I never got that whole thing where bands didn’t care if they made mistakes. Wire cared.”

Punk was not what Newman or Gilbert were listening to. They didn’t have friends in London’s 1976-77 punk-rock scene. “Nobody in punk bands then actually liked seeing other punk bands—they only went to sneer at each other, to mock,” says Newman.

Instead, Wire’s members were fans of the Euro-mantic likes of Roxy Music or the repetition-heavy Can and other krautrock acts. On the American side of the ledger, there was the Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers and Patti Smith. (Mention to Newman that interviews between this writer and British punk avatars such as the Damned’s Dave Vanian and Public Image Ltd’s Jah Wobble yielded nothing but compliments for Wire, and Newman is genuinely surprised. “Somebody had to like us because we got signed, but we never heard from anyone in that scene in our initial time out,” he says. “We actually never heard from any musicians until American hardcore hit in the ’80s.”)

As Overload turned into Wire, only the brevity, speed and directness of the Ramones and Buzzcocks were attractive to the band members. “That was the problem with most of punk—it was sloppy,” says Newman. “I loathed sloppiness.”

And who personified sloppy “punk” more than anyone? Good old George Gill, a brash lad who loved a good histrionic guitar solo. The five-piece’s lone demo session from August 1976, produced by band pal Nick Garvey in a basement studio in Stockwell, features one delicious artifact that would come to mean something on Pink Flag: the original raw, rocky take on “Feeling Called Love.”

“Did Colin say all that about George?” asks Lewis, chuckling. “Thing about George is that he had a lot of attitude, which was quite useful at the beginning. People were either scared by or enthralled with him. It was all a bit crazy and chaotic with him in the band. And his songs weren’t terribly good. But the rest of us were connecting at the same time.”

That connection came together more quickly when Gill broke his ankle in February 1977. “He was stealing gear from some punk band, an amplifier, and fell down a flight of steps at some pub in Kilburn,” says Newman. “So much for punk brotherhood.”

This accident, however, was when Wire truly began, bonding more as musicians. They suddenly began rehearsing with frequency, intensity and haste, and with the blunt sound that would become Pink Flag’s signature.

However, the members of Wire did not become friends at that point, beyond the camaraderie shared by Lewis and Gilbert (then and now). “We were never lads or drinking buddies, but Bruce was my connection to music,” says Lewis.

“No, we were never pals or hung out, though I dare say we had—and still have—something different between us, in that we are probably like a family, albeit a radically dysfunctional one,” adds Newman.

With Gill gone for the time being, Newman began to push forward his songs to the rest of Wire. “To start, though, we did actually play George’s songs—just better than he did, and without him,” says Newman dryly. “That’s the kind of discovery that made us look forward.”

Newman stops and insists that this was Wire’s shining hour. “I can’t emphasize this enough,” he says. “That accident became Wire. We went from being immediately messy to extremely organized. I began to write, too, which was odd because I certainly didn’t fancy myself a songwriter before that.”

During that initial three-week period of rehearsals sans Gill, out came in quick succession the stripped-down roar of “Lowdown,” “Brazil,” “12XU,” “Strange,” “Mr. Suit,” “Three Girl Rhumba” and “106 Beats That”—all of which found a place on Pink Flag. “Lowdown” came first when, following a Damned concert that Newman and Lewis attended, the latter handed the former a set of lyrics to a song the guitarist had played during rehearsals.

“I think I was fairly up front about writing lyrics after that,” says Lewis about the abstract visions culled from dreams or history books or rich concepts in his head, such as the thrill of “12XU.” “The text of ‘12XU’ is special being a three-hander between Bruce, Colin and myself—my edit, though. It manages to encompass self-censorship, transgender sexuality and queer slang—that ‘got you in a corner, got you in a cottage’—whilst turning a cliché and advertising smoking.”

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MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Buffalo Tom’s “Let Me Come Over”

The Making Of Buffalo Tom’s Let Me Come Over

By Hobart Rowland

It’s fitting that, for quite a few Buffalo Tom fans, 1992’s Let Me Come Over was their introduction to the band. It was, after all, the official unveiling of “BT Mach 2,” a trio much less tethered to its influences and the punk aesthetic, with a rhythm section that was finally finding its form after a few years on the road. As for the songs, they were light-years more nuanced and tuneful than anything the group had previously attempted. Seen from varying perspectives, Buffalo Tom was either folk music for Pixies fans or alt-country delivered with a boozy New England swagger.

By the time Let Me Come Over was released, 25 years ago this past spring, Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz (guitar, vocals, songwriting), Chris Colbourn (bass, vocals, songwriting) and Tom Maginnis (drums) had been grinding away for eight years. Embraced from the start by critics and fans in England, BT toured internationally behind its self-titled 1989 debut and 1990’s Birdbrain. They’d first assembled back in 1984 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, also the place of origin for more widely celebrated outfits Dinosaur Jr and Pixies. Though the group might argue the merits of Let Me Come Over’s breakthrough status, it did pave the way for greater commercial success a year later with Big Red Letter Day. Beggars Arkive recently unveiled a 25th-anniversary reissue of Let Me Come Over, enhanced with Buffalo Tom’s first-ever live release, a frenetic, crisply recorded 1992 show in London.

“We didn’t have a lot of extra stuff,” says Janovitz, explaining the lack of any unreleased tracks from the studio sessions. “We didn’t have the luxury.”

Indeed, nothing is wasted on Let Me Come Over. It’s a lean, mean, fully formed statement—one whose acoustic-balladry-on-steroids formula and subsequent variations have sustained Buffalo Tom into middle age. In conversations with MAGNET, the band members recall how it all transpired, with some help from esteemed Fort Apache Studios producers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie.

Bill Janovitz: If you listen to our first two records, it goes from muddy to less muddy—just a step above home recording. It was basically the lunatics running the asylum. [Slade and Kolderie] weren’t trained engineers, and there was a lot of pot being smoked and a lot of beer being drunk. It was like hanging out at a loft and wondering who was in charge of pressing “record.”

Paul Q. Kolderie: Sean Slade had worked with Buffalo Tom at Fort Apache on the first record and Birdbrain. Then we started working together quite a bit.

Sean Slade: Having Paul there seemed like a natural progression.

Kolderie: J Mascis (who produced the band’s first two albums) wasn’t gonna do it, so I came in as the other producer.

Janovitz: Birdbrain was kind of dark. We were experimenting with different things, writing-wise and style-wise—sort of feeling our way through stuff and weeding our way through our influences. I look at those first two albums as one big tour, heading over to Europe and playing to all these big crowds. I’d never been off the East Coast until I got into Buffalo Tom. It was a really exciting time, but it was all sort of collapsed into one. We were just happy to have a second record, never mind a third one.

Chris Colbourn: We all had jobs and families at that point, and there was pressure to get off the road. We were going down our own path, but I figured that path would be a very lonely one. The direction of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur seemed to be what everyone was overwhelmingly interested in.

Janovitz: Looking back, the list of Fort Apache bands was pretty amazing: Dinosaur, Big Dipper, the Pixies, Throwing Muses, the Lemonheads, Blake Babies—and the Breeders, eventually. But it wasn’t like there were multiple projects going on and we were all hanging out in the lounge. We’d see people coming and going; I didn’t even meet Throwing Muses until we were on the road. And it was a really difficult time in Boston to get gigs. We didn’t headline there until we headlined in London. Still, it was a great time. It was our little clubhouse. There were these Christmas parties with J Mascis playing drums with some version of the Pixies.

Colbourn: We were definitely underdogs. We were like the little brothers of Dinosaur Jr—the JV team. I think people were a little bit surprised, after Birdbrain, that there was anything else there.

Continue reading “MAGNET Classics: The Making Of Buffalo Tom’s “Let Me Come Over””