Album art by Matthew Gould
From this sparsely populated blog, you might think I hadn't done anything music-related since May 2014. That is not entirely true. Shortly before the gig at The Grey Horse (or shortly after - I'm not sure, I've slept since then), I was invited to join The Mighty Handful as a full-blown six-string exciter.
"...and then they told me it was a concept album!!!"
(For those who are interested, the band's website is at http://mightyhandful.com, and you can purchase Parts 1 & 2 of 'Still Sitting in Danny's Car' - an everyday tale of rock folk, pubs, time travel, and a job swap with Death - by clicking on and following this lovely linky-type thing.)
Of course, I said yes. I don't quite remember what promises of fame and fortune were forthcoming. Nor do I remember why the Gods Of Prog allowed a duffer like me the chance to widdle all over the masterpiece that is this album. I do remember Mighty Ralph "The Lamb Died Down In Broughton" Blackbourn warning me that I would be swiftly ejected from the band should I ever recreate a guitar solo note-for-note at a gig. I assure you, Ralph, that won't be a problem - just ask Hi-on Maiden!
Since some time in the glorious mid-summer of 2014, we have met nearly every Wednesday in a convenient boozer and, more often than not, make it out of the pub for a couple of hours work at Mighty Towers. Whilst we often achieve something we like, whether it be some luscious electric piano or some groove-tastic low-end rumblings, the nights are often truncated before we take full flight due to it being a school-night. [Ooh, that rhymes - Ed.] I have managed to adapt my working life to accommodate being slightly groggy on a Thursday morning, but it would be nice to do a bit more of this 'making music' malarky without worrying too much about the consequences.
Shortly before this shot, someone suggested that perhaps Phil Collins didn't kill Genesis...
Handily, the band has access to a small country retreat where one might take a short holiday, make racket into the wee hours without fear of being a nuisance neighbour, and not worry about getting home to bed. So, after comparing calendars and finding some mutually convenient dates, we arranged to gather in the South West during the weekend before Easter and thrash out as much of the remainder of the album as we could.
Friday (or, Episode I: Gangsta's Paradise)
I schlepped over to the sunny realms of Surrey to meet up with the ever-lovely Mighty Gary "hot tea-bagging" Mackenzie - drummer, dreamer, raconteur - who had kindly volunteered to drive me down. We set off with a suitably prog soundtrack, and in no time at all we had arrived. Mighty Matt "pimp my margarita" Howes had arrived a couple of hours before and set up a recording space in the large kitchen-dining room.
Bending time...and space...
The remaining Mighties, who had been tasked with bringing provisions, were a couple of hours away. So, after a cheeky lager and a listen to some recent popular songs (playing a quick game of "Who should sue who?" while we were at it), we wandered up to the local public house - The Tally Ho! - for dinner and beery things.
Shortly after returning to the digs, we were joined by the rest of the band which, perhaps inevitably, led to a long night of booze-fuelled, Spotify-soundtrack-ed nonsense! We remained conscious enough (and, indeed, conscientious enough) to arrange a 8:45 kitchen call for breakfast in order to get to work as soon as possible.
Some light entertainment...
Saturday (or, Episode II: Sextuplets and Early Diddling)
I awoke, and after declaring that pouring rum on top of wine on top of beer the night before wasn't one of my brighter ideas, I wandered downstairs. Mighty Tom "doesn't he look funny without ears?" Halley had found his way from a comfortable bed to slightly less comfortable red leather corner-seat. That takes skill! Ralph had gone for a run, and Matt was on breakfast duty. I've always admired people who Get Up Early And Do Things. Any time I try to do that, I'm usually overcome with waves of nausea.
Following a hearty breakfast and drinking all the tea I could fit in ("twelve's my limit"), we got to work. Tom, appropriately looking like Death, laid down some bass on 'Soul Trader', which I think is slated to be the closing track on part 4 of this 5-EP collection. Ralph did some ivory tinkling, and I added some dirty guitar. Somewhere in between, while Matt was comping together some of our better takes, the rest of us went into the sitting room to hone our barbershop skills… (you'll have to wait for part 4!)
Ralph demonstrates the Five Basic Elements of a Correct Piano Posture...
We achieved quite a lot on the Saturday, all told. I remember feeling a little icky at a certain point in the afternoon, and I'm sure that Tom had also turned a whiter shade of pale, but we sucked it up and went off to the local shop for more provisions. A frightening amount of alcohol went in the trolley, causing quite a stir in the aisles with the locals wondering where this party was happening and whether they would have to put the authorities on alert. We assured them that we were experienced professionals, and returned to the manor for some more work and such.
I then laid down the guitar for one of my favourite songs from part 3. There were several cries from Ralph and Gary for "a bit more chukka-chukka", which was slightly at odds with what our fearless leader seemed to be comfortable with. I think we found the right balance - it could have sounded a lot pr0n-ier! We also had a pop at our a-cappella close-part harmony extravaganza, and once we had a good-ish take Matt had a lovely time playing around with it using a new production toy.
"Let's all go down the Strand ('ave a banana), oh! What a happy band!"
While Gary was cooking up a lovely pasta dinner, Tom knocked out the bass part for the title track in short order. After dinner, Matt performed a quite frankly astonishing vocal which is surely going to take a few breaths away when it is unleashed on the world. On reflection, that was one of my favourite parts of the weekend. Everything was perfect. The atmosphere, the sound, the lighting, the attitude, the slight inebriation….everything. Perfect. Crikey. I love those moments, and when they happen, you have to make the most of them. Matt certainly did.
From that point on, it all becomes a bit hazy. Gary did some drums, including a swing version of the title track which probably won't wind up on the final cut of part 4 but which we simply must record and put out as a b-side. We then got enormously gin-soaked and laid down a series of gang vocals for part 3's singalong number, 'Madame Geneva' - the requisite drinking song. That was proper good fun, and was followed by yet another Spotify (or should that be S-prog-ify?) session, but shortly thereafter I decided vodka was the way to go and promptly fell into a black hole.
Caption competition time...
Sunday (or, Episode III: "It reminds me of… I can't remember")
I won't lie. Sunday was not my finest day. Pouring vodka on top of wine on top of gin on top of wine on top of Guinness, as it turns out, is a recipe for all-day Icky-ness. All of my various 'escape hatches' were on high alert, and it wasn't until very late in the evening that I felt right. Ralph and Matt (you remember - those people who Get Up Early And Do Things) had gone for a swim, and Tom seemed on better form too; he performed some particularly dreamy fretless bass on 'Drowning In The Light', a choice cut from part 4.
I always wondered what the back of a bassist looked like.
What I really needed was a coffee. I had even brought some of my own with me, although sadly there had been no coffee-making paraphernalia in sight. In the late afternoon, I saw Matt returning across the courtyard from the main house with a large cafetiere in his hand. I have never been so happy. A big hug and a big mug later, I felt much more human. and while Ralph was putting some keys on 'Drowning…' both Tom and I found ourselves leaking from the eyes a little. This track is going to be utterly beautiful when finished, and the lyrics are just sublime. When it was my turn to play, I somehow managed to block out the internal horrors and find The Zone, gently contributing some atmospheric guitar to the piece.
Sadly, Mister Tom had to take his leave, so Ralph drove him off to a nearby station while Matt, Gary, and I turned our thoughts to a track from part 3 which was in need of an intro and some WHOOSH! noises. Ralph joined in and even found time to cook a lovely chilli (that I was supposed to cook, but Death became me instead - sorry Ralph!). After dinner we took on arguably the biggest challenge of the weekend, 'Albion' - quite possibly the most technically demanding piece of music on the album. The mission was this: find a vocal rhythm, melody and lyric that could sit atop the already fairly chaotic arrangement. This proved to be one of those artistic endeavours which necessitated a lot of swearing and screaming, before - at around 4am, just as two of our number had given up for the evening - Matt landed on The Right Part. It's going to be killer.
Monday (or, Episode IV: "But you ARE playing In Time…")
The next day began lightly with coffee and breakfast sandwiches, before tackling a particularly important song from part 5. Matt and Ralph found a lovely sound for the keys, and developed some splendid counter-melodies for the latter half of the track leaving room for a potentially glorious keyboard solo.
Ralph went homeward in the early afternoon, and the remaining three of us settled down to sort out some drums for the wonderful, tuneful, heartfelt, dare-I-say-it pop song (shush!! keep it to yourself) from the end of part 5. A short interlude was enforced when one of the lighting circuits tripped, and we couldn't find the fuse box. It turned out to be hidden behind a bit of wall which, in turn, was behind a framed photograph. Clever, that.*
Time for a quick game of "Spot the dead guitarist"
After a quick stock-take of the work we had done over the weekend, we ambled back to The Tally Ho!, marvelling en route at the names people have given to their second homes in the country ("Yewtree Cottage? That's unfortunate.") We thought it apropos to give Matt a break from being hunched over the laptop producing everyone else. As we sat down the local knitting circle was in full swing ("Do you want to see my finished cardigan? I'm going to donate it to Oxfam.")
We talked about comics, something Matt & Gary both love, to give us all a break from prog. I made it my mission to drink as much Doom Bar as I could possibly manage. I achieved the mission objective in spectacular fashion, and we zig-zagged back to the farm to play each other songs until it was time to fall over.
Tuesday (or, Episode V: "So, uh . . . we gotta get up, y'know and go to the studio in the morning, and then we record for about two weeks and then we, uh, we leave again")
The morning was all about coffee, sausages, and potato wedges that just wouldn't cook. After a lovely melange of leftover breakfast items and a bit of tidying up, we said our farewells and hit the road. Gary treated me to one of FZ's finest collections, and I treated him to a lengthy de-tour to sarf eest Lahndahn (thanks GM - I owe you a beer or three!).
The studio dog
All in all, I had an absolutely fantastic time. I learned a lot from my fellow Mighties (including that we can spend long and concentrated periods of time together working without annoying each other too much), and I can't wait to do it again sometime.
Until then, with all the love in the world, I remain,
Mighty Chris "what do you mean I can't have all the solos?" Harrison
Those links again:
Check out the Mighty Handful's mighty website at http://mightyhandful.com, and
Buy our stuff at http://themerchdesk.com
*Both myself, and Mighty Ralph, have spotted that this event actually occurred on Sunday night. However, for the purposes of narrative flow, and the fact that the story behind the album does include elements of time travel, I have elected to leave this chronological calamity intact in prose. If you want a reliable narrator, I suggest you look elsewhere (and, in the run up to a UK General Election, I wish you the best of British luck!).
Photos by Rachel Howes, Ralph Blackbourn and the author.