Bombs, bagpipes and a Brit award: How a Scottish regiment scored a most unlikely hit
A&R man Tom Lewis was in Basra for the riskiest recording of the year
Thursday 21 May 2009
Last year, the Pipes and Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards made one of the year's surprise hit albums, Spirit of the Glen. It outsold Kylie and stayed in the charts for weeks.
Soon after, the regiment were posted to Basra. For some of them, it was their fourth time there since the invasion. The only way to finish a follow-up in time for Christmas would involve some recording in Basra. The musicians are all front-line, regular soldiers. Fighters first, musicians second. They take their pipes wherever they go. We were going to have to take our recording studio to them.
When I announced this to my managing director, he effectively threw me out of his office. The company wouldn't sanction or insure me to go. However, I found that our policy extended to war cover and started the preparations. We were off to a war zone to make a record!
The regular coverage of rocket attacks on the British base started to make me nervous. Or, whenever I'd seek reassurance by joking with my MOD contacts or some of the regiment, they'd laugh but none could promise that I'd come back unscathed.
As well as recording the pipers, and inspired by the stirring Dunkirk scene in Atonement, we wanted the soldiers themselves to sing on the hymn "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind". Also, it had been suggested that we record a lone piper at the end of Basra runway. There are few sounds more stirring than a lone piper, and the hum of Basra in the background would only make it more visceral.
There were also the technical challenges. To record anything professionally, you need to be able to control the sound. Not too dead, not too cavernous. Most of all, it must be silent. Military bases don't have such studio spaces. The temperature out there often hit 50C, and Jon was particularly concerned that our kit was not tested for such conditions. Also, we had to travel light. We were on a regular troop carrier and our kit was not a priority. We decided on microphones, headphones and a laptop.
When you get out to Basra, the living conditions constantly remind you of the real dangers in which our forces work. The beds, nicknamed "coffins", are concrete cubes half-covered with a in-thick steel sheet and a ton of sandbags. Wherever you go, there are posters, some horribly graphic, warning of the dangers of ignoring the rocket alerts. And the heat is relentless. I don't think I've ever sweated so much, or drunk so much water. The soldiers wear incredibly heavy body armour and often sit in troop carriers or tanks for unbearably long periods. It is truly humbling seeing it so close.
The recording itself was stifling. We had to turn off the air conditioning for each take and the studio (the officer's mess tent) quickly became an oven. Playing the bagpipes is surprisingly physical, and one of them suffered heatstroke after the recording. The others went straight back out on to patrol. Angus Benson-Blair, who made such a moving speech last night, came in from a Basra town centre "teeth armed", put down his rifle, led the singing and immediately went back out on active duty. The most moving moment was Pipe Major Ross Munro's rendition of "Flowers of the Forest" in full ceremonial kit on the runway. He was suffering enormously but kept playing until we had our take.
'Spirit of the Glen: Journey' is out now on Decca. The Classical Brit Awards will be on ITV3 on Sunday 24 May at 7.45pm
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