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Tom Newman - Interview

  by Andrew Twambley

published: 31 / 7 / 2022




Tom Newman - Interview

Andrew Twambley talks to record producer Tom Newman about his work on Mike Oldfield's 'Tubular Bells', working as an in-house producer for Virgin Records, managing their Manor Studios and recording a song with The Great Train Robbers.





Article

If you say the name ‘Tom Newman’, a lot of people will scratch their heads and say “Who?’… but most people of a certain age will have a least one album in their collection with the name of ‘Tom Newman’ inscribed on the back. Tom is a producer and was the “guvnor” at The Manor near Oxford. which was one of the first residential recording studios in The UK. The Manor was owned by Sir Richard Branson. who came up with the idea with Tom, that musicians would flourish if they got out of Central London and were able to create music in a relaxing residential environment. There he discovered a long-haired kid called Mike Oldfield, and Tom went on to produce all his albums until the mid- 90s. We chatted with Tom about Sir Richard, The Manor, Mike Oldfield, but then veered off into such subjects as getting General Franco’s lawyer’s daughter pregnant, dealing in dodgy “knock off” records and recording a song with The Great Train Robbers. Life has never been dull with Tom Newman…and he is a great bloke… PB: Before you became a superstar producer, mixing with people who own their own islands, you were in quite a few 60’s bands playing music. How did you transform from musician to being a producer? TM: [Laughs] Well, it began with a great long list of hideous failures. I started off, in the early 60s, with a band called The Playboys, which then turned into The Tomcats, and it was a four-piece, and at that time I lived in Perivale. Of course, Richard Branson was a Perivale boy as well, but, I didn’t know him then. We played in the local village hall doing Shadows and Duane Eddy stuff, but soon afterwards the blues thing happened and we all got into that. We used to all hang out at Jim Marshall’s music shop in Hanwell, West London on a Saturday morning. Everybody went to Jim Marshall’s, and then he started making amplifiers and we bought two of them. By then we were a blues band, and we got a gig in a place called Beat City in Oxford Street, which was an underground beats club run by Alexis Korner and a massive bloke called Alex Herbage, who ended up in prison for fraud. We were the resident band and life was looking good. Alexis Korner had an old E Type XK120 Jaguar convertible, and this guy Alex Herbage, who was about 27 stone or so [laughs] when he got into this open E Type his belly went all over the gearstick…and broke the car! PB: He sounds like Peter Grant from Led Zeppelin. TM: Oh, he was the same size as Peter Grant. And it was just a very funny situation. Anyway, the whole of the Beat City club thing went wrong due to money problems and then the band broke up, but eventually we reformed as a band called July who were more psychedelic. We started off with Speedy Keane as our drummer. who was in Thunderclap Newman and eventually wrote ‘Something in the Air’. We did a gig in Ealing Town Hall, and we made about £400 - £500 because it was the first gig we had ever put on ourselves. We trusted Speedy with the money, but he spent it before we saw a penny. So, we had to sack Speedy Keane, but he did okay as he got in with Pete Townsgend who we all knew from Marshall’s on Saturday morning. Speedy was a little git [Laughs]. Anyway, we decided to go to Spain with our old drummer Chris from The Tomcats, and we spent two years there and we were signed to Phillips in Spain. We covered all the Rolling Stones records and Beatles records in Spain because they couldn’t get the real thing. General Franco was running Spain at that time .so it was really strict. We got away with it for a while but then I got in some trouble with a lady…Well. I got her pregnant and so I had to marry her because her father was Franco’s lawyer. Had I not married her I would have become one of the “disappeared” and we wouldn’t be chatting today (Laughs). PB: A wise move. TM: None of us fancied spending a life in prison…and I mean LIFE! It was serious. PB: I think knocking off Franco’s lawyer’s daughter was a schoolboy error. TM: Well. it was indeed. There’s no doubt about that. At the time I loved her and it was brilliant, so I didn’t see it as a naughty boy thing. It was all my fault and I couldn’t get out of it. Anyway, that all went very well but then her pregnancy became difficult and she didn’t want to have the baby in Spain because the medical attention was abysmal, so we came back to England and it was fine for a bit. I was still desperate to be a rock and roll star, and so the relationship all fell apart. She went back to Spain with my son Thomas, and she stayed there ever since and didn’t want to speak to me, and I never saw her again. PB: You got into producing about that time, didn’t you? TM: I was living with a girl called Jackie Byford in Cleveland Square up in Bayswater, and she was working for this guy called Richard (Branson) who had a magazine called ‘Student Magazine’. He was trying to create a kind of student ‘Time Out’. It was very good actually, because it was trying to help people in various ways. A lot of students were getting pregnant. and it was before the abortion thing and it really concentrated on the things like that, things that mattered that were not covered elsewhere. Jackie wanted get rid of me as I had taken her flat over with two old military tape recorders. and I was recording songs that me and my bandmate Pete were playing. She only had a tiny flat, so she asked me if I wanted to go and see Richard, the guy who had this magazine, and see if he fancied having a recording studio. I went to see Richard, who was sitting in bed with this girl Mandy, who was his secretary, and she was typing away, and I got on very, very well with him and I still do. PB: Did he have his pyjamas on? TM: I don’t know what he had on his bottom half, but he had a great, big white woolly sweater on. When I met him he was eighteen or nineteen and we gelled immediately. He was interested in the idea of a studio, and he said that he would think about it and get back to me. He asked me back a week later and he was very keen on the idea. So, we went down to see this basement under a church. I could see it would work, but it would be very kind of weird and limited because it was a crypt. We cleared the crypt which involved disposing of a load of skeletons and coffins and dumping them. The vicar was a kind of hippy vicar, and he didn’t care what happened to the bones or anything. I don’t know what his denomination was. On the same crescent as the church was a flat where George Martin lived at the time. Richard asked George to come and have a look at this church. George loved i,t but said that it was interesting and acoustically brilliant but too small. He said that if we wanted to do the job properly it needed to be a commercial studio. It went on from there and Richard eventually put in a bid in for The Manor. We went out to look at The Manor, and it was amazing because it had a squash court and loads of rooms. So, Richard borrowed some money off his Auntie Joyce, who was part of the Coutts Bank, and we bought The Manor. It was £30,000 and included thirty acres. Imagine the good times that was going to produce! PB: Where was The Manor? Near Oxford? TM: Kidlington, Oxfordshire, yeah. Just opposite Kidlington Airport. I knew nothing about recording studios at the time, but I decided to build this studio and Richard would give me cheques to get bits of equipment. I learned as I went along. He would give me a Coutts cheque for whatever I said we needed. We bought some 4 track machines. and then George Martin had just gone to 16 tracks, so we talked to Richard and said we just had to have at least 8 tracks. We bought that gear and moved it in…then Richard got nicked for doing naughty things with records. PB: How do you mean naughty? TM: Richard realised that the back page of 'Student Magazine' was a good place to make money, so he started to sell records. They did have a shop, but he put lists of records for sale on the back of the mag and developed a taste for selling music. He soon realised that if you export the records you don’t have to pay purchase tax, so we bought this old transit van and went to the old vinyl factory in Hayes, which was part of EMI at the time. They had skips full of records that were faulty. They were in boxes in blank white sleeves. We bought a van full of these records, all at scrap value, and we drove it down to Dover and exported all these records. We got the export papers signed by the customs, got on the ferry, got to the other side, and knocked them out in France. But then Richard thought, “Why take them all the way there wasting time hanging around and on the ferry?” Once he got the papers signed, he went back to the customs and said, “I left my briefcase in the hotel,” and so they let him out again with the licence and everything signed and sold them in his shop and via the magazine! All was great until one of the accountants at EMI was looking in ‘Student Magazine’ and saw all the top albums at prices impossibly low even for mail order or retail. The cops got involved with customs and used an office opposite Richard’s shop to spy on him. Eventually they had enough evidence and they nicked Richard. I was just arriving in the van one morning, saw all these coppers, so did one with a couple of the secretaries. PB: What position were you in at this point? TM: I was the CEO of The Manor, so we shifted everything up to Oxfordshire. We’d set up a company to work The Manor. I knew nothing about business so left that to Richard. The Manor started to function and we started recording. Richard was definitely getting some money out of it, so we got our first band in, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. PB: Viv Stanshall and Neil Innes? TM: Yeah. I made an album with them called ‘Let’s Make Up and Be Friendly’. At that time there were a lot of teething troubles with the equipment. Things were slow so Richard sent another band down because he was desperate to make some money. This was The Arthur Louis Band, a kind of a soul band with this hippy kid as a stand-in guitar player…Mike Oldfield. Anyway, when we were recording this demo for the Arthur Louis Band, Michael came up to me with this little. tiny reel of tape that he had been doing of his own stuff on. It was sensational! At that time Richard’s cousin, Simon Draper, was involved with Richard running the record label, so I sent the demo up to London for Simon to listen to and he loved it. Richard, bless his heart, didn’t really twig to its value because he wasn’t really into music. He was an entrepreneur and was daring and resourceful, but he didn’t have a great musical appreciation at that time. Simon persuaded Richard that it would be a good thing to start to the record company with a massive bang and Mike was the future. So, we took some real actual studio time, and recorded the first part of ‘Tubular Bells’…and the rest of it is history. PB: How old was Mike Oldfield at this point? TM: I think he was eighteen, might have just been going on 19nineteen He is roughly ten years younger than me. It all started from there really. The whole point of The Manor for me was to give myself studio time because I still wanted to be a rock star. I eventually I got studio time and I made an album called ‘Final Tom’, which came out on Virgin, but I don’t think Richard ever wanted me to be anything but guy that ran The Manor [laughs]. PB: How did you interact with Mike Oldfield? Because he seems like a very serious classically trained musician, and you seem to be kind of a guy that never bothers with rules. You just do what you want. TM: Yeah, well I got on ever so well with Michael. He is not classically trained at all. He is just a natural genius, who can pick up pretty much any instrument and master it. When I first met him, he couldn’t play the piano, but by the time we had done side one he could play the piano like Liberace or Elton John. He’s had an unnatural weird aptitude to the point of being Asperger’s. When I first met him, he was on the verge of tears all the time. But we used to go down the pub when we started ‘Tubular Bells’ and drink a couple of pints of Guinness, and he would become looser. He had no social skills whatsoever. I remember having one conversation with him in the pub, and he said, “I'm terrified of being flesh and blood.” He lived in this really dark, scary place, and at that time he couldn’t handle the idea of his body having all this blood and organs. He hated the idea that he you could cut him. He was like that for up until about ’76 when we recorded ‘Hergest Ridge’. He did this kind of thing like scientology where you end up on the floor screaming and shouting in public in a big hall. and that seemed to stop all that fear. It’s like a rebirthing thing, and from that moment on he became a complete unbearable twat for about two or three years. He thought he was the King of the World. and he could command anything and it would happen. Lovely guy though… PB: Turning back to The Manor, how did you get Viv Stanshall to appear as the announcer on ‘Tubular Bells’…and how did you control him? TM: We couldn’t get rid of him! Mike stayed at The Manor. He got one of those little rooms up in the top. I was doing the Bonzo Dog album at the same time, and when we finished the Bonzo Dog album we couldn’t get rid of the Bonzos. Vivian stayed on because he was just having a good time and he was permanently drunk. He would drink one or two bottles of brandy a day. He was entertaining but he could be a pain in the neck, so when we were doing ‘Tubular Bells’ Vivian was still living at the Manor and we just got him to do it. What started out as a laugh became an integral part of the album. PB: How was ‘Tubular Bells’ received at first? TM: It started off as a bit of a slow burner. but after John Peel played it then it started to take off and then and then Melvyn Bragg did a programme called ‘Second House’. which was an arts programme and we performed it live with a variety of musicians including Mick Taylor from The Stones and Steve Hillage. Shortly after that, the main theme appeared on ‘The Exorcist’ and BOOM! it was in the charts for about ten years . PB: Who else did you run into down the Manor? TM: Oh, blimey! We did a Cat Stevens album called ‘Catch Bull at Four’. I recorded that with Paul Samwell Smith. He was the bass player with the Yardbirds. He produced it. I was just the engineer. PB: Wasn’t Leo Sayer down there a while? TM: Yeah, he was next I think. Adam Faith produced it. Two days in, we just concluded that the band just wasn’t cutting the mustard, so Adam said to me, “What do you think?” and I said, “I don’t think they are much good.” The next morning Adam sacked the band. I mean it was the right thing to do as I don’t think the ‘Silverbird’ album would have been the classic it turned out to be, but it introduced me to the viciousness of the music business. PB: Is there anyone else of note you can recall enjoyed the facilities of The Manor? TM: Yes. plenty…and they all loved being there and wouldn’t go! I remember times with Gong, The Strawbs, Tangerine Dream, Van Morrison, Queen recorded part of ‘A Day at the Races’ there and Public Image Ltd recorded ‘Metal Box’ there. PB: [Laughs] Amazing times …A little bird tells me that you once either recorded or tried to record the Great Train Robbers. TM: Oh yeah! Oh blimey, well it happened a bit later. I had opened a studio on a barge in Little Venice, London on the canal. The local pub was The Warwick Castle, and it was a really interesting pub because it was a big U-shaped bar which was frequented by all sorts of characters, all of whom had their area at the bar. There was a musician section where Rick Wakeman was a regular, and one end would be all the dodgy solicitors and lawyers and another part was infested with questionable car dealers and mechanics. Then there were the dodgy cops, who were a bunch from Paddington Police Station. While we were there. Paddington Police Station turned from an ordinary cop shop into an anti-terrorist unit and the cops – I can’t name names obviously – they got rid of everything that made it an ordinary police station which included rooms full of gear. You could buy a new Rolex in a box very cheaply [Laughs]. And all the cocaine got distributed back into the system. So, I met a fella in the pub. He was dodgy as fuck. but he wrote some brilliant songs and he was good mates with all the Train Robbers crew. Anyway. he played me some of these songs, one of which was this Train Robbers song and it was a real cockney Chas and Dave sort of thing, about the actual robbery. So, I recorded this song on the boat. Richard lived on a boat three down from my studio. I took this to Richard and he loved it and Simon Draper, who was still running the record label, liked it as well and they decided to try it as a single. This was after the Train Robbers had all come out. They were free. The guy who wrote the song said that I had to go and meet them. He took me up to a pub in Islington that was owned by one of them, Tommy Wisbey. Bruce Reynolds met me at the door and took me upstairs in this pub, and they are all up there in their smart suits with their minders. It was scary. There was this giant at the door to the room and he took one look at me – I had very long hair and I looked like a scruff and I didn’t wear shoes in those days. He took one look at me, and it was like he just wanted to pick me up and pull me to pieces then eat me! He instantly loathed me [Laughs]. He started coming towards me growling, and Bruce had to get between me and push him back. Bruce was full of charisma, so this gorilla shuffled backwards, still glaring at me, making noises. Totally bizarre. Anyway, the funny thing of the whole episode was that they wanted to know what was in for them and I said, “Well, you will get a percentage – 5% of the records takings.” But they wanted ready money upfront. I said that I could ask Richard PB: So, they weren’t going to be on the record then? They were just going to approve the lyrics, were they? TM: The original plan was that they should be on the record, but they couldn’t sing, and they weren’t interested in singing. They were quite happy with the project as long as they got paid. I asked them how much and they said, “Two grand.”. I went back to Richard and told him. He wasn’t happy but agreed and I arranged to meet Bruce the next day in a pub. I handed him the cash and he looked at me and asked, “What’s this?” I explained that it was two grand…and he said, “No, two grand each.” There were about ten of them. I told him there was no way Richard would agree to that. Bruce just laughed and said, “Where does he live?” I wasn’t going to tell him, but once the Great Train Robbers and their minders leaned on me eventually they worked out that Richard lived three barges from me PB: Did he ever go visit him? TM: Well, a day or so later, the guy who wrote the song told me to meet him at The Warwick Castle, from where you could see Richard’s barge right in front of us. These three black limos parked up outside, and four suited gorillas got out and went into Richard’s barge. We could hear nothing, but five minutes later the gorillas came out, got back in the cars and left. The songwriter called Bruce, and Bruce told me everyone was happy…apart from Richard. I went to see Richard the next day and asked him how it was going. He said in an offhand way that we weren’t doing the Train Robbers thing because he had just set up Virgin Air and the financiers would have nothing to do with criminals. PB: What happened to the record? TM: It never got released. I've still got the tape of it somewhere. Richard never mentioned the incident but I found out from his PA that these geezers had gone in to Richard’s room. There were some lowered voices and then they left. She told me that she was scared shitless … “It was just like a movie!” She said she looked at the chequebook afterwards. and there were several cheques missing and they were crossed out, and he didn’t put anything on the counterfoil. I've never spoken to Richard about it and he has never mentioned it again. PB: Thank you.



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