Wednesday, April 23, 2014

TMFW 33 - The Zombies' Accidental Rookie Engineer (Who Went on to Big Things)

2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the "British Invasion," which started with the Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964.  In August of that year, The Zombies had a #2 hit in the US with their first ever single "She's Not There."  The recording of that song is the subject of today's TMFW, but it's worth a brief detour to extoll the virtues of The Zombies' catalog.
<detour> At the end of this week's Mad Men, the credits featured The Zombies' "This Will Be Our Year," from their record Odessey and Oracle (full length record on YouTube).  Yesterday, Slate took that as an opportunity and made a post that highlights some of their best work.  Slate's selections are good, but they omit "Friends of Mine," which is also well worth the time. You can buy the mp3 version of Odessey and Oracle for $6.99 on Amazon; the record is easily worth it. </detour>
Okay, back to the story of the day.  The Zombies (that name apparently narrowly beat out the contender "Chatterley and the Gamekeepers") got their big break when they won a local "battle of the bands" contest.  Their prize included a recording session for Decca records.  Rod Argent, the principal songwriter of the group, took the opportunity to write a new song for the session.  Drawing inspiration (and the first line of his tune) from John Lee Hooker's "No One Told Me," Argent wrote "She's Not There." 
The band's first ever recording session was scheduled for an evening in June, 1964.  When the band got to the studio, they found that the Decca engineer assigned to work with them had been at a wedding earlier in the day, and had gotten very very drunk.  In that state, the engineer was very confrontational and loud, to the point that the band's lead singer Colin Blunstone started to question whether he was cut out for the music business.  In an interview from 2011, Blunstone told the story:
We got that session and we had a fine producer and engineer, but because it was in the evening, at lunch time, the engineer had been at a wedding. And he got very drunk. He also became very aggressive. We never met him before. I was thinking, 'cause he's shouting at us...I remember thinking if this is the recording industry, I don't think this is for me. That was my first session.
Thankfully, Blunstone got a reprieve from the abuse when the engineer passed out right at the soundboard.  From the same interview, Blunstone recalled "we were quite lucky 'cause he passed out. Just out cold. And so four of us got an arm or leg and we had to carry him up a flight of stairs and put him in the back of a black London taxi. And off he went home. His assistant took over..."
As it turns out, the assistant was a fellow named Gus Dudgeon.  Dudgeon had started at the studio as a "teaboy" and worked his way up on the controls.  But he'd never had the opportunity to work as a true recording engineer until his boss passed out drunk and they needed a quick stand-in.  (Note: this story sounds like one of those "too good to be true" tales, but it's told consistently in several different places.)
From his surprise start as a proper engineer, Dudgeon went on to great things.  Among dozens of notable projects, he produced nearly all of Elton John's records in the 1970s, including Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and he produced David Bowie's seminal record Space Oddity
Dudgeon and his wife died in 2002 in a car accident in England, but he left a substantial legacy behind.  One wonders whether the history of pop music might have been different if that initial engineer had RSVP'd no to his friends' wedding. 
BONUS FACT:  Gus Dudgeon produced XTC's great 1992 album Nonsuch, which featured TMFW favorites "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" and "Dear Madam Barnum."
BONUS FACT 2: Decca records famously passed on signing the Beatles after the band recorded several demos there at a tryout in 1962.  In passing on the band, the label allegedly predicted that "The Beatles have no future in show business."  Instead of The Beatles, Decca signed Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. They went on to have a handful of hits - including three singles that went gold - but they are probably most famous for being a trivia answer. 
BONUS FACT 3:  The unusual spelling of Odessey and Oracle is said to be an accident by the artist for the album cover, which the band was too nice to correct.

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