DIARY OF AN LP
RADIOHEAD's 'The Bends' is a composite of studio demos, live takes and on-the-floor drunken vocal takes, with producer John Leckie piercing it all together.
JOHN LECKIE IS unarguably one of the most successful record producers in the land. Beginning his career in the early Seventies as an engineer at Abbey Road Studios, he has produced Simple Minds, The Fan and The Stone Roses among many, many others. Radiohead were first attracted to him through his work with Magazine, XTC and their psychedelic offshoot, The Dukes Of Stratosphere. He was approached by Radiohead in the summer of 1993, only months after “Pablo Honey” had been released, and before “Creep” eventually became a hit.
“They sent me a copy of the first record saying what did I think,” he says, “and also, at the same time sent me a copy ofsome demos the new songs. It was all supposed to start in January ‘94, but at the time I was doing the Ride LP, and it over-run a little bit, so they had to hang around for about three or four weeks before we could start.
“Everyone knew that there would be some big songs on the record because good demos had been done ofthem – the guitars and the singing and the ideas were there. One thing I think that’s important with Radiohead songs is to get the feel right. The tempo is very important and it’s sometimes a difficult thing to pin it down.”
FEB 28-MAY 1:
RAK Studios in north-west London for nine weeks of recording and mixing.
“We started in RAK Studio One – a big studio, and the band wanted a room with daylight. There’s an API desk there which is one of the best because it has very simple electronics and the EQ is fixed in three dB steps, so you don’t fiddle about as much as you do with SSL. With API you normally just turn everything full on basically and it sounds great! It gives you a very beefy, clear natural sound, I think.
“To start off with, the record company wanted a single first. They wanted the follow up to ‘Creep’ basically, but we couldn’t select one track to be the single, and so we ended up trying to choose four – and if you’re starting off an album trying to record four hit singles, everyone gets a bit twitchy and you begin to question everything. It kind of affected the first few weeks recording because every three or four days, the record company or the manager would turn up to hear these hit singles, and all we’d done was got a drum sound or something.”
The tracks that were earmarked as possible singles were “The Bends”, “Sulk”, “Killer Cars” and “Nice Dream”.
“We did those, and I mixed them, and the opinion was that it was all a bit too manic. The original version of“The Bends” was more overpowering than it is on the record – it was a bit much to take, the vocals were screaming more and things were just cranked up a bit more – it was more angry than passionate, I think because of what was going on in people’s heads. Anyway, I went off to Abbey Road to mix these tracks and the band stayed in RAK to do some B-sides with the engineer and knocked out ‘Black Star’, which of course ended up on the album. The start of that, the way it fades up, was done at the cut. Originally it came straight in.
“After the first three or four weeks of this period, we all had a meeting and it was finally decided that they weren’t going to release a single after all. So from there on in, there was an air of relief to the sessions. In the second month up until May, we did nearly all the tracks really, with overdubs and everything and then the band went off on tour in May.
Most groups at the moment favour live recording, but Radiohead recorded the basic tracks for the album in a different and quite unusual way.
“The majority of the songs were put down with Thom playing a rhythm guitar along to the drums and laying down a guide vocal. That’s probably I do most things actually, and I don’t understand why other people don’t do it like that because you’ve got a vocal and rhythm guitar, and songs – if they’re written on guitar – stand up like that. What you need to do is get the drums down, of course, so that’s the way I cut it really, with the rhythm guitarist and drummer.
“On some of the songs we kept that guide vocal too. Thom’s such a great singer that it’s difficult to say with him when he’s ‘off’ or when he’s not doing it – he maybe gets a bit throaty sometimes, or when he goes for his high notes, sometimes there’s a danger of him screaming or not quite making them. Apart from that, it’s very easy doing vocals with him.”
Most of the parts were worked out beforehand, so it was a process of simply committing the songs to tape.
“Sometimes a bass line would almost be written in the studio, but all of the guitar parts were more or less written. Jonny is probably the most improvisational one, so sometimes you couldn’t tell exactly what he was going to do.
“‘Nice Dream’ was one of the first things we recorded, and it was quite simple really, it was just a case of what to do with it really. We didn’t want it to sound too sappy obviously because there was a great danger of it sounding a bit too airy-fairy – we wanted it to sound a bit sinister, which I think we achieved. There are some noises at the end of the solo part which we look from a tape I had of sounds of the Arctic which I got at Vancouver Aquarium. Just a daft idea of mine.
“‘Planet Telex’ was originally called ‘Planet Xerox’, but they couldn’t use the word ‘Xerox’ because it was trademarked. It was done one night at RAK when the cook was sick or something, so they gave us a hundred quid to go out to a restaurant, and they had a few bottles of wine – which is something that Radiohead don’t often do – and so we came back to the studio buzzing. We’d had this idea for the playout of ‘Killer Cars’ to use some drum loops, and so we got the Mac up with Soundtools and put them together in a sequence, which then became ‘Planet Telex’ and it look about half an hour, the whole track. Thom did the chards piano chords and the way we got the tremolo was by gating the piano from the drumloop, and I put same delays on it. Thom did the vocal lying on the floor after another bottle of wine!
“With ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, they wanted to use strings and Jonny said he would score for them. They had a friend, John Matthias, who could play violin and they wanted me to fix a cello player, and that turned out to be this girl I know called Caroline Lavelle who plays on Peter Gabriel’s stuff. But when they arrived, I realised that we had this violinist from Oxford who was a student, together with probably the best cello player in the world! So there was a slightly uneasy atmosphere to it, particularly since Jonny hadn’t written any parts out. But we built it up track by track and it worked really well. The day before that we’d recorded Thom just singing the song with an acoustic guitar and we worked around that. We didn’t replace the voice and he kept the time himself – the drums were one of the last things to go on.
“‘Just’ was originally going to be a single, but people thought it was a bit too long and complex, particularly the second half with all the arranged guitar parts. It’s very live-sounding and I think we were a bit worried it sounded a bit like Suede. ‘Street Spirit’ was done with Ed playing the arpeggio part to a click and we dubbed to that. We used the Solina siring machine on that, and it’s got a sound you just can’t get anywhere else.”
The Astoria, “My Iron Lung” recorded
“We tried to record it at RAK, and they were doing a live video at this gig and so they had a mobile parked outside and that’s where they got the version on the album. It was just a case of dubbing the vocal over the live version, which was perfect.”
JUNE 16-JUNE 30:
The Manor, Oxfordshire
“We finished nearly everything at our time there. I think it helped that they’d been on tour because they had confidence in a lot of the songs again, which I think they’d maybe lost during that lengthy recording period. At one point, Thom was thinking about scrapping some of the songs and writing more.
“‘Bones’ was a difficult one because it’s all about intensity and it’s got that kind of R&B 12-bar rhythm to it, but it’s more broken up and fractured. We had various attempts at it, and when we went to The Manor, they’d been on tour and hammered the song around. They came back into the studio with loads of energy.
“My best memory from these sessions is ‘Bulletproof’ which we did one Sunday afternoon. It’s very dreamy and it was a hot summer day. Again we did it with drums and Thom and then put all the spooky sounds on, which was basically Jonny and Ed making strange noises with echoes and E-Bow and things. We tried arranging these effects and stuff and it wasn’t really working, so in the end we turned their headphones off. It was totally random, and we just left it in.”
AUGUST 1-SEPTEMBER 1:
Leckie at Abbey Road mixing the album. Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade mixing at Fort Apache, Boston
“During this time I mixed ‘My Iron Lung’ and the six B-sides that went with it. It was an awful lot of work and you know, they can’t be as good as the stuff on the album because they’re B-sides! In the end, they turned out great though. When it came to mixing the album, no one came! Then they started asking for copies of the multitracks and I realised that they probably had someone else mixing the album as well, and it turned out it was the same team who mixed the first album – the record company had been going on about trying to get an American sound for the record from the minute I got involved.
“The annoying thing for me a little bit was that there are things on there that they’d told me not to do originally – like use big reverbs on the voice or use certain tones that were forbidden – that the Americans did. I found it quite funny. There’s a lot to be said for other people mixing stuff because sometimes you’d get so into it that it’s a good idea to have a fresh outlook on it with a total stranger. The finished product is a lot harder. I don’t think I could have got it sounding quite as blasting as that.”
Abbey Road recording “Sulk”
“We’d attempted ‘Sulk’ at RAK and The Manor, and we knew it could be better because people would say that they’d heard it better live. We did it in a weekend – we started on Saturday afternoon and by Sunday night it was all finished. So everyone was really relaxed about it and no one could understand why it had been such a struggle in the first place because they played it every night on tour. It was a bit of a problem for Thom because he wrote it when he was about 16 about the Hungerford killings, and the last line was ‘Just shoot your gun’. But he was worried about it as it didn’t mean anything any more, and particularly after the Kurt thing, he didn’t wont to sing that. So he changed it to ‘You’ll never change’.
“‘High And Dry’ was one of the songs on the demos, and I said to the record company that I thought if was amazing and it was the best one, but the view from the band was that it was too good for this record and they were going to save it for the next one. So it was put aside and never mentioned. We finished everything else, mixed it all, and then ‘High And Dry’ come up, and we hadn’t heard it for a year, so we put the tape on and decided to go with it, so the one on the album is the demo version. It’s strange as well that after all the worry about singles, this is the one that eventually went out just before the album.”
AMPS HEADS, DRUM HEADS AND RADIOHEAD
“Equipment-wise, Phil uses Drum Workshop drums which are excellent, Colin’s bass is a Musicman and he plays that through an old Mesa Boogie with Peavey graphics, but for most of the album we didn’t use the Musicman, we used a Fender Mustang. They also have same sort of deal with Gibson, and so I sent them down there and they came back with a whole taxi-load of Gibson guitars to try out, but we didn’t really use them in the end. They tried the Firebird, but they didn’t like it, and they had a big semi-acoustic bass which sounded great, but it was impossible to play. Colin couldn’t quite get his fingers round it.
“With the amplifiers, Jonny wasn’t quite happy with the live sound he was getting at that time and he was quite disappointed with a lot of the guitar sounds on the previous record, so he wanted to work on guitar sounds and maybe find something that he could take out on the road. His set-up was a Fender for his dean sound and a smaller one for his dirty sound, but we tried all sorts of things – Marshall cabs, Bassman, AC30 – and it was taking a long time. Some things would sound great on their own and we’d put it into the track and it maybe wouldn’t be big enough or it would be too big. In the end we were right back to the original set-up because he responded to it – if you gave him a big Marshall cranked up, he would be sort of frightened of it – and so he worked with what he was comfortable with. It’s to do with kind of playing quietly as well, because on stage he’s very quiet, although when it’s miked up and amplified, it sounds huge.”