How to build a ship in a day
On Monday Suede went into the studio for charity. Tomorrow you can buy the record. Ryan Gilbey was on hand with his pool cue. Below right, Andy Gill admires the final cut
Friday 08 September 1995
But did that sort of attitude win us the Second World War? No, it didn't. And if anything has helped Suede last this long, it's their collectively stiff upper lips.
The plan is this. Seventeen bands spend Monday recording a song for the Help! album, a musical melange to help children in Bosnia. Tapes are delivered by 7am Tuesday, and by Wednesday 30,000 copies have been manufactured. As you read this, they are making their way across Britain, ready to go on sale at 9am tomorrow. Everyone gets a good deal: the money goes where it's needed and nobody has to sing "There won't be snow in Africa" or watch Boy George and Simon Le Bon share a mike.
Suede have elected to cover "Shipbuilding", a gut-wrenching tale of clashed loyalties during the Falklands War which Elvis Costello co-wrote for Robert Wyatt and later recorded himself. "I don't agree with cover versions generally," explains bassist Mat Osman. "If a song's good, there's no point covering it. If a song's bad, well, there's no point covering it. We chose 'Shipbuilding' because we didn't just want a song that we liked. It had to be relevant."
The pedigree is impeccable. They've plumped for Olympic Studios where much of the Rolling Stones's Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed were recorded. The most pleasant surprise of all is that the song is being produced by the legendary team of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who oversaw the Wyatt and Costello versions of "Shipbuilding". Langer co-wrote the song, too. "That means we take suggestions from him that we might not take off anyone else," says drummer Simon Gilbert.
Descending the stairs at Olympic, the chipper opening of Bowie's "Lady Stardust" wafts toward you from the piano, where singer Brett Anderson is poised. Throughout the day, he will dip into his repertoire (which also includes "Wuthering Heights" and "The Girl from Ipanema"), smoke cigarettes, wander through the studio practising his harmonies, and smoke more cigarettes. With smudges of stubble, a dandy's lopsided fringe and that confident stride, he might have been dreamt up by Dumas.
As people scurry around in a mild tizzy, Janet Fraser-Cook examines her monitor. She's here to direct some of Channel 4's documentary about the making of Help!, and specifically asked to film Suede's part. "They're great people," she confides.
The great people drift in and out. The speakers eavesdrop on Richard, who is talking shop in the studio and gamely explaining to someone, for the thousandth time, how he came to join Suede.
"What were you doing before?" the voice asks.
"Oh, I was at school," Richard deadpans.
Clive Langer is looking drained. "I wasn't even supposed to be in the country," he tells me. "I'd already said no to doing this project because I knew I'd be in France. But when Al told me which song Suede were doing, I thought, 'Oh, it's got to be worth coming back early for that.' "
It hasn't been quite what he expected, though. "When I thought of Suede, I imagined we'd do it with noisy guitars, a great big goth sound. But I turned up for rehearsal and they were sitting there with a piano! We may still get some guitars on it, though; add a bit of danger."
At 1pm, with the band still waiting for that first run-through, Elvis Costello's assistant calls with a message from him: "Good luck, and thanks for picking 'Shipbuilding'." Brett is visibly boosted by this. A Mirror reporter asks the band to donate something for a charity auction. A cymbal and a fiver are rustled up and signed. "Haven't you got anything else?" the fellow asks, a little disappointed. Brett sates him with the promise of a tour jacket.
Rehearsals finally get under way. They are swift, and the first taped run-throughs promising. "Just like Challenge Anneka, isn't it?", Richard says excitedly, rubbing his hands. "Yeah, I can just see her knocking out a version of 'Shipbuilding' in an hour," Mat replies.
The first signs that a camera crew may not be the best guests to entertain when you've only got half a day to finish a song start to emerge. Janet wants to film three complete runs of the song. "If we can't, you don't get your slot on the documentary," she says when the band voice objections.
"We've got to finish this track," Simon insists, indignantly, "so that's the least of our concerns." "Is it?" she replies. As she leaves, Brett storms back in, furious at the interruptions. "This is ridiculous!" he announces. "Rich, they want you to go in there and mime." Richard looks non-plussed. "What to - 'Disco Inferno'?"
It could be worse. GMTV called earlier and demanded access. Luckily, Channel 4's indomitable producer Helen Terry rebuffed them. But Suede will still have to please an MTV crew before the song is halfway to completion. Clive and Alan, also becoming increasingly disgruntled by the demands of the Channel 4 crew, strike a compromise. Janet can have the band to herself once the final mix is under way. She looks pleased. She has no inkling that her cameras won't roll until after midnight.
The song's skeleton is constructed for the arrival of Guy Barker, who plays a chilling trumpet with wah-wah and distortion over the middle of the song. James Banbury of the Auteurs arrives to record a cello part. Richard, who gets chatting to him but doesn't realise which band he's from, scoffs at James's suggestion that the new Auteurs album will be one of the best of 1996. Mat shakes his head, laughing, when he hears this. "He's a right little charmer, our Richard."
With everything else laid down, it's time for Brett to be committed to tape. We've heard his guide vocals all day, so it's a shock when his newly lush, luxurious voice fills the control room. "Listen to that line," Clive tells us. "He's singing 'winter's coat' instead of 'winter coat'. I was going to correct him, but I like it. It's him."
"He invented a word during rehearsal," Mat reveals. "Instead of 'skilled in', he was singing 'skilding'."
"That's Dutch, isn't it?" Clive asks.
There are still some details to add: a Hammond organ, a tidal wave of harmonies. Richard creates a web of guitar feedback, but Alan decides that knitting it into the mix would add an extra four hours. Simon has gone home to watch EastEnders; Mat takes time out to humiliate me at pool. The band reconvene at midnight for Janet and her crew (who request that Brett doesn't puff on camera), and the mood is still buoyant. But time is bearing down upon Clive and Alan; it will take them until 6am on Tuesday to perfect the final mix. Until then, the corridors and staircases at Olympic are alive with Brett's voice, soaring through the early hours into daylight, the song's opening question - "Is it worth it?" - hanging in the air. On the evidence of Suede's contribution, you don't even need to ask.
Artists for War Child
Go! Discs 828 682-2
Ethically impeccable and logistically impressive, the music recorded in a single day for Help! offers a compact snapshot of the strength and diversity of current British pop. It's doubtful whether any other country - America included - could have undertaken the same task with the same no-nonsense approach, and extremely unlikely the resulting LP would have been so varied, or of such overall quality.
The album comprises roughly half new material and half covers and re- recordings of old tracks, the latter enabling a few heavy friends to lend their weight to the cause: a guitar-slinging Johnny Depp guests on Oasis's new version of "Fade Away", while the finale of "Come Together" features Paul Weller, Paul McCartney and Noel Gallagher doing just that. Familiarity and faithfulness, though, make these the least interesting tracks. Some covers are pleasantly bizarre - the Manic Street Preachers' "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head", for instance, walks the same kitsch tightrope as their "Theme from M*A*S*H" - though two are among the best tracks here: the Charlatans' shuffling, baggified take on Sly Stone's "Time for Livin' " is at least as good as anything on their recent album, while the moody, blue-country heart of "Ode to Billie Joe" suits Sinead O'Connor's chilly vocal temperament perfectly.
The new material generally plays to each artist's strengths. Stereo MCs' "Sweetest Truth" is a typically irresistible, smooth-sliding groove, the Boo Radleys' "Oh Brother" another winsome strumalong, and Portishead's "Mourning Air" a parched, creepy crawl through a desolate urban landscape. Also in the sampladelic vein, the Planet 4 Folk Quartet (Andy Weatherall and Dave Harrow) contribute a bubbly little melodica dub, and the One World Orchestra (rumoured to be Bill Drummond) offers a sample-collage which thrusts together The Magnificent Seven theme and Serbian radio transmissions, one of the album's few overt references to the conflict.
Current chart champs Blur, in their former guise of Seymour, chip in with a quizzical rococo instrumental - "Eine Kleine Lift Musik", which is as off-handedly amusing as its title. The most impressive track is by Radiohead, whose "Lucky" continues the grand emotional sweep of The Bends. More importantly - amazingly for a charity record - there are virtually no lemons. Kudos to all concerned. AG
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