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Flatmates - Part 8

  by Martin Whitehead

published: 13 / 1 / 2002



Flatmates - Part 8

intro

Chapter 17: Shimmer Our new management were keen to crack on with a new single. Their long term plans were to get a recording contract with a major record company. A new single would give them mate


Chapter 17: Shimmer Our new management were keen to crack on with a new single. Their long term plans were to get a recording contract with a major record company. A new single would give them material to take around the record company A&R departments, and they would be able to work on its promotion prior to its release. We had a new song in the set called ‘Shimmer’. We’d been playing the riff to it in rehearsals since before Rocker left, but during the summer of 1987 it evolved into a song. Jamming around one afternoon Sarah came up with a bass line that made the whole thing fit together. She regularly denies knowledge of why I gave her one-third of the song writing royalties to ‘Shimmer’, but before her contribution all I had was a handful of chords. Her contribution pulled it all together and made it a song. Lyrically the strangest things can influence me. I’d had these chords for ‘Shimmer’ kicking round for ages. One hot summer’s day Rocker was giving me a lift to view a second hand car I was interested in buying. As we drove over the Avonmouth bridge near Bristol the heat haze was rising off the motorway. Rocker pointed to it and remarked "Look at that shimmer". Hmmm, I mused and jotted a line or two in my pocket notebook. The lyrics and particularly the line in the song about "there’ll never be a star for you because of what you put me through" were influenced by the musings of a very drunk girl at a party I went to when I was 15. After too many Cinzanos she was staring out the window muttering that there was a star for everyone. Sometimes influences just fall together in lucky combinations. Globeshine also managed several producers, one of which, Chris Allison, had previously produced the Wedding Present’s ‘George Best’ album. Chris produced ‘Shimmer’ for a nominal payment. His cab bill which he’d charged to the studio all along and which got tagged onto the bottom of the studio bill was more than he was officially paid for producing the track. Given that he was working for a fraction of his normal fee (still more than the 4 of us saw for playing most gigs mind you), and that he’d got us a day in the 24 track Powerplant studio free of charge, I paid the cab bill without quibbling. Remember that apart from the Janice Long Session e.p. and tracks on various compilations, The Flatmates were recording for Subway, which was my own label, and so I was having to pay to make all these recordings myself. Subway was never even a limited company. Every expense came quite literally out of my pocket, or even more literally out of the cheque book of Revolver Distribution who would subtract those expenses from my next month’s sales. One of the ideas that myself and Joel were into was to keep what was essentially a guitar band but to pull in more influences from what were broadly "dance" acts. We hated the identikit dance pap of Stock Aitken and Waterman, but liked acts like Prince, especially Wendy and Lisa’s contributions. It was my clear and definite intention that ‘Shimmer’ should have been driven by a sequencer riff. I wanted to pull the Flatmates away from the slightly fey, amateur bedroom scene that indie was descending into. We recorded ‘Shimmer’ at Strongroom Studio in December 1987. Chris Allison hired in an Akai sampler, as this was in the days before they were standard kit in every studio. We sampled a plucked guitar string (no sample libraries in those days) and wrote a sequenced part in the studio on Steinberg’s Pro 24 software, the pre-cursor of Cubase, running on Chris’s Atari computer. It was a great sequence and great sound. During the mixing of ‘Shimmer’ at Powerplant we got a great tight snare drum sound that Joel was really excited with. Brian Hallin was convinced that we needed scalding guitars and Deb’s effervescence in no small amounts. Abrasive guitars had worked for The Wedding Present and so the theory followed that that was what The Flatmates needed. Chris Allison seemed to be taking his instructions from Brian, rather than me. As the founder member of the band, the songwriter, the owner of the record company and the individual footing the bill this irked me no small amount. By the time Chris finished the first mix of ‘Shimmer’ that was suspiciously light in the sequencer department, there was no time left, conveniently I thought, to do a further mix. In the end ‘Shimmer’ did the job it was meant to. It came out on 7th March 1988 and in the week of 9th April went to number one in the indie charts, making every A&R department aware of our name. Again we made Peel’s Festive 50, again at 42. In that context it seems churlish to complain that it isn’t what I wanted. If you listen carefully you can just hear the sequencer in the quiet guitar bit in the middle. What I wanted was a Georgio Moroder-esque floor filler. Shortly after ‘Shimmer’ came out The Motorcycle Boy created the sound I was after on ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ and I really wish we’d had the credit for doing it before them. We recorded the B side and bonus tracks for ‘Shimmer’ with Sooty at S.A.M. studio in Bristol. ‘On My Mind’ and ‘BAD’ were songs that had been in our set since almost the very start. ‘On My Mind’ got rewritten from a frothy jump about song to a more measured composition. It got a completely new chorus, and a new guitar hook underneath the jangly intro that was itself a generic Byrds riff being a cross between ‘Five Miles High’ and ‘So You Want To Be A Rock’n’Roll Star’. ‘BAD’ had only ever been an open ended instrumental. I wrote a verse of lyrics for it and when we went into the studio it still had an improvised first and last section built around the central 16 bars which had lyrics. Despite that it worked really well, probably because we’d been playing it for 2 years before recording it. The final track was a cover of a Bob Dylan track, ‘If Not For You’, which Olivia Newton John had had a hit with in the early 70’s. Jeremy Woods, a floating member of The Five Year Plan came into the studio to play the harmonica part which became the icing on the cake. Chapter 18: Cheer Up…It Might Never Happen! Deb’s unwillingness to even pretend she wanted to play the New Year’s Eve gig was not the first time she’d made her feelings public. It’s rarely that everyone in a band feels 100% up for doing a gig. Being in a band, even a moderately successful indie band entails long days, late nights and sacrificing home comforts for stranger’s floors. Sometimes you just have to put aside your wish to go home and curl up in front of the TV for an hour or so and try your best to look like you really want to be in The Scunthorpe Leisure Centre on a rainy Monday in February. All of us in the band, except maybe Rocker, had failed to do it at some time or other, but Deb wore her feelings rather more openly than the rest of us, especially in interviews where she could be blunt about the perceived merits of the band. Not having a socio-political agenda, many ‘serious’ musical journalists would lay into us, and Deb would frequently be found in interviews all but agreeing with them. On the other hand, when she was on top form there were few people who could be as captivating as Deb. She could hold the attention of an entire room without having to try. Producers we worked with would never cease singing the praises of Deb’s voice. Rarely would Deb need a second take at anything, and if a pedantic engineer requested a third take, serious boredom would set in on her part. We would frequently double track Deb’s vocals to get that rich, Spectoresque, vocal sound. After doing one perfect vocal first take, nine times out of ten Deb would do a perfect match of the first vocal at the first attempt. She could also do all this after smoking half a packet of cigarettes whilst waiting to do her part. Deb could be either totally into what she was doing and be quite brilliant or be totally disinterested. It was a volatility that was completely unpredictable and impossible to settle. If we were about to push for a major recording deal, which had every sign of happening for us, the last thing we wanted was a singer who was going to change her mind at the last minute. Joel, Sarah and myself advertised for a new singer, just to see who was around as much as anything. We filtered out the obvious timewasters and met a handful of potential recruits. We settled on one girl who we’d like to hear sing at a rehearsal. We gave her tapes of our songs and copies of lyrics. In the meantime Deb had heard we were making enquiries. We talked it over with Deb and in the end we decided to go with the devil we knew. Our management were also aghast that we should want to replace Deb. It was all very well for them, they only saw the good performances, they didn’t have to live with her so to speak. I knew that Deb was a brilliant singer and could be a great performer, but I knew that we had months of hard work ahead of us if we were to land a major record deal. I didn’t want Deb announcing her departure just as we got offered a deal, or even worse, walking out in the middle of recording and having a half finished album that would never get released. Not only did we end up keeping Deb, but we also recruited Tim Rippington as a second guitarist. I’d known Tim for about 6 years or so. In the early 80’s I wrote a fanzine called Undergound Romance. I came across a band called The Inane who had just left or were in their last year at school, all bar their drummer who was still about 14. Tim was the guitarist and vocalist in the Inane, who later became The Five Year Plan. Tim had been playing the local gig circuit for all the time I’d known him and wanted to do more. We needed a guitarist to fill out our live sound and to add that something extra. I told Tim what we wanted and he was happy to slot into that roll. It was with this line up of me, Deb, Sarah, Joel and Tim that we set out on tour with The Wedding Present. A support slot gained completely unmeritoriously and due simply to the fact that we shared the same management.




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