The strange origin of the UK Reggae big bass sound: John Hassell Recordings, Barnes.

Britain had developed a strong Reggae culture of its own by the mid-1970’s. Reggae, and its predecessors like Ska, naturally seeped into the UK via the communities of immigrants who had come to the country from Jamaica since the late 1940’s. Britain’s pop tendencies have often been to take music from the west (usually America) and re-imagine it and sell it to the world. Reggae was similarly absorbed and reinvented and this process was often led by the children of the original Jamaican immigrants.

There is a brilliant series of BBC documentaries under the heading of “—— Britannia” where the history of a particular genre in the UK is traced from origins through to where it sits now. The Reggae Britannia film is particularly good. It’s not available on YouTube but until it is shown again on the BBC, you can currently see it here. It’s highly recommended.

One story that leapt out from the documentary (at about 46 minutes in) is of strange goings on in the leafy London suburb of Barnes. The John Hassell Recordings studio was based in a residential house in a quiet street – Nasser Roaud – in the area. It’s output was to feed British Reggae Sound Systems throughout the country.

Olympic Studios was just round the corner in Church Road. So while Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and The Eagles were working in one street, John Hassell was working with a different clientele in the next. He was a jobbing recording and mastering engineer who had a small label of mainly middle of the road (and unsuccessful) artists. This is an example of a John Hassell Recordings label from his company which is explained in more detail here.

In 1977 Dennis Bovell who was a leading figure in UK Reggae came into his life.

Bovell explains in the documentary: “Whilst thumbing through the yellow pages one time looking for a place to cut an acetate I found Hassell Recordings. Phoned up. Gone over there, (found) an elderly gentleman who was famed for smoking a big fat cigar: John Hassell. And we’d go into his house, his living room and he’s got this wonderful German disc cutting lathe set up in his front room. And his wife Felicity offered us a cup of tea, a cup of coffee and then we’d put on these tapes, this like reggae.” This picture is a screen grab and shows John and Felicity meeting clients (please excuse the poor quality, photos of the Hassells are elusive):

Bovell continued: “Imagine stumbling on that through the yellow pages like. And then we were telling other people listen that we’d found the guy that knows how to cut reggae. You can have a fantastic sounding thing on the tape and then it all falls to pieces at the cutting end of things. And someone who was sympathetic to the frequencies would know how to capture that sound from the tape and onto the disc and John was the master of that”

John Hassell just liked the sound of the music particularly the heavy dub sound: “It’s an esoteric world, it’s a world of subtlety and refinements.”

Graeme “Mr Goody” Goodall who, despite being a white Australian, was one of the early legends of Jamaican recording engineering. He also remembered using John to master records (in this forum entry on www.stevehoffman.tv): “Doctor Bird used John Hassell recording in Barnes, a suburb of London. I think that many of my competitors used Derek Strickland at Pye. It was difficult to get the UK mastering engineers to understand why we wanted a certain eq in the process. If you get the chance to compare a JA pressing , a UK pressing and an US pressing of the same “tune” on 45’s, you will notice the difference. I figured that the only way that I could cope with this was to escort John Hassell (who was, to all intents & purposes, blind, due to an incredible incident that he survived during W.W. ll) to NYC & Jamaica. His incredible Golden Ears quickly picked up on the differences.”

We’d love to know more about the life and work of John Hassell. He looked like this…

But helped make this by Doctor Bird….

If you know more please let us know.

“No place for a woman in a recording studio”. Delia Derbyshire denied by Decca invents (soundtrack to) time travel.

There are not that many prominent women in the history of recorded sound. Indeed there are not that many women working in recording studios even today. Boffins and creatives have tended to have the odd Y chromosone or two. The recording studio can be like a gang hut. A step from Lord of the Flies in one direction and a hop and a skip from a soldering iron in the other. Not a place for a lady then….at least that was what the head of Decca Recording Studios in London thought in the late 1950’s. When recording enthusiast Delia Derbyshire applied for a job, she was told unequivocably that Decca did not employ women in their recording studios. (An executive from Decca Records would also famously turn down The Beatles a couple of years later as they thought guitar bands were on the way out…..)

Like The Beatles, Delia was not one to be put off easily. She landed herself a job at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1962 and went on to create some of the most experimental music of the 1960’s and in doing so turned the recording studio itself into a star. The workshop is best known for having created the most famous theme music on British TV, Doctor Who. But there was way more to its story and that of Delia Derbyshire, one of its central characters.

In 1966, she founded a music entity/pop group called Unit Delta Plus with fellow Radiophonic Workshop member Brian Hodgson and EMS founder Peter Zinovieff. This organisation pre-dated the British Electrical Foundation by 15 years and Kraftwerk by 4 years and was a vehicle to create and promote electronic music. They played at The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave at which The Beatles’ “Carnival of Light” had its only public performance in 1967. Delia also helped set up the Kaleidophon studio in Camden Town with Hodson and fellow electronic musician David Vorhaus. The studio produced electronic music for various London theatres and, in 1968, the three founders made an album as the band White Noise.

Here is part one of an excellent radio documentary about Delia with appropriate images (you can find the other parts on youtube)

And here is a fascinating snippet of Delia playing the tape machines:

And finally here is Electric Storm by White Noise.

George Martin documentary review

Thanks to the wonders of the BBC Iplayer I finally watched the Arena documentary Produced By George Martin last night. It was even better than I’d hoped for. If you are in the UK you can still just about catch it here and I’d advise you to ignore the Bank Holiday sunshine for an hour and a half to do so immediately. It went over many familiar tales that make up the George Martin story but also uncovered some things that were new to me:

1. The device of using son Giles to interview his father really worked, with Giles gently needling his father to reveal some of the steely drive that is not always apparent when you meet George (who is one of the most polite, generous and entertaining men on the planet).

Giles teased his father, in the way that only sons who get on very well with their Dad’s can do, into opening up slightly. He revealed glimpses into George’s competitive nature, his workaholism and his very obvious pique at the relatively tiny rewards that EMI offered him as a reward for the phenomenal success that he’d delivered with The Beatles and the other Parlophone acts. The hurt at John Lennon’s comments and behaviour during Let It Be was also palpable.

2. I thought I knew a lot about George’s pre-Beatles career but was delighted to find he’s recorded even more seminal recordings across a range of genres that I’d thought including The Archers theme tune. He really was a key player in inventing the modern recording industry.

3. The scenes where George talked to Paul McCartney were wonderful. The pair of them were incredibly affectionate, respectful and deferential to each other. Clearly old warriors with a lot of shared battle scars enjoying each others company as they reminisced. George remained encouraging to the younger man, gently praising Paul each time he remembered what was happening in the photos they were looking at. I wonder if there is anybody left on the planet who Paul can enjoy this sort of relationship with.  He certainly seemed to value it.

Just as this documentary focussed on George Martin’s contribution to musical history and the wonder-story that was The Beatles I’d like to see more about how Abbey Road Studios and its engineers – Ken Townsend, Ken Scott, Alan Parsons and the rest – helped George and The Beatles make their sounds. Is there anybody out there making a documentary on this? Its Abbey Road’s 80th Birthday in November – would be good timing for such a documenatry.

Obituary for Roger Beardsley

Roger Beardsley

We have learnt of the sad passing of Roger Beardsley who was a great friend of the EMI Archives and of many of us who have worked there over the years. Roger was a passionate restorer of early recordings and also one of life’s fun people. Lunch with Roger always seemed to end around tea time and was never boring! Our thoughts go out to his family.

We have found the following information on Music Preserved website which Norman Lebrecht has added to in his Slipped Disc blog.

It is with the heaviest of hearts that we report the sudden death of Roger Beardsley on 7 April. His loss will be felt keenly wherever good music and old recordings are treasured, but our condolences go first to his family. Roger was the transfer engineer responsible for remsatering all of Music Preserved’s archive of historic recordings: a mammoth task he undertook with the love, enthusiasm and expertise that made him acknowledged worldwide as foremost in a highly specialised field. His care and expertise were second to none. Roger took a leading role in the work and growth of Music Preserved. He leaves a huge legacy of music, of living experiences that would otherwise have been lost to the ravages of time, and that may now be absorbed, studied and most of all enjoyed for as long as there are ears to listen. He also leaves a wide circle of friends who counted themselves lucky indeed to enjoy the company of a warm, witty and affable man who was never short of a good joke or a sharply observed apercu.

More from Roger’s CV:

Roger Beardsley began his professional music and recording career at BBC Radio Leeds, where he was a presenter/producer of a weekly music programme (1974-1983). He then became a freelance recording engineer, producing first LP, then CD releases for a variety of organisations including the BBC, following the basic premise that too many microphones cloud the sound. As a second-generation 78 collector, Roger felt that historical re-issues were a travesty of the originals, hence changed his focus from ‘live’ recording to audio restoration. He has produced 400+ CDs to date, covering every sphere of ‘serious’ musical endeavour recorded over the last 110 years – from Vess L. Ossman in 1895 to Kiri Te Kanawa in 2005. He has received various awards for his work, including ‘Classic Record Collector’ for Bartók Quartets (Pearl, 2003) and Kathleen Ferrier and Friends (Pearl GEM0229, 2005), and a ‘Diapason d’Or’ for Gerard Souzay (Pearl, 2002).

Roger is Director of Historic Masters Ltd, which produces limited editions (in the form of direct pressings from original metal masters) of important 78 rpm material from the EMI Archive. He is also a Trustee of Historic Singers Trust, working with the EMI Archive Trust to catalogue their holdings of historic material. So far he has identified 24,000 original metal masters (1900-early 1950s) and located over 1,000 important masters thought destroyed in Germany during World War II. He has produced ‘Fonotipia Ledgers 1904-1939’ (CD-ROM, Historic Masters, 3rd ed.), a database-format discography detailing over 10,000 recordings made by this highly important Italian company.

Roger was a member of the Academic Advisory Board of CHARM and is Technical Consultant (audio restoration) to the Music Department of Kings College London. He is also a member of the Music Preserved Council, an organisation dedicated to conserving, restoring and making available unique recordings of broadcast performances from the 1930’s onwards that would otherwise have been lost.

Produced By George Martin

George Martin:The thinker

There was a recent article by David Hepworth in The Word magazine where he concluded, after listening to the recently remastered Beatles albums, that the group’s recordings – as distinct from their myth – were even more extraordinarily good than is generally recognised. The quality exceeded the (ongoing) hype. Whilst undoubtedly genius was in Abbey Road’s Studio 2 during those six intense Beatle-tastic years, it was not just the song-writers and performers who were channelling it. Revered producer George Martin’s fingers are all over the finished recordings and it’s true to say that the records could not have been made in the same way without him.

There is another chance to see into the world of George Martin when a BBC Arena documentary “Produced By George Martin” is aired on BBC2 on Bank Holiday Monday April 25th at 9pm.

As often seems to be the case when genius is flooding through a situation; much perspiration is also required to deliver on that genius. Like many a veteran of the sixties, the decade passed in a blur for George Martin but his blur was a result of supremely concentrated effort. “My workload was enormous and I had such little time,” he recalls in the documentary.

You can read a nice piece from Jon Savage in the Guardian about the new George Martin documentary here.

BBC Archive Hour – Walls Of Sound

I happened to put the radio on for five minutes yesterday afternoon and came across this extraordinary documentary on Radio 4. I would heavily recommend it to anybody interested in the history of recorded sound. Its still available on the BBC Iplayer here until part way through Saturday 2nd April.

This is how the BBC described the programme:

When Nelson Mandela was tried 1964 he famously said, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve, but, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Without the British Library’s sound conservation work we would never have heard this. The trial was recorded using a Dictabelt system. The recordings soon became unplayable. The Dictabelts were brought to the British Library where digital transfers were made, allowing us to hear what Mandela said, and how.

In 1924, in Paris, James Joyce was recorded reading from ‘Ulysses’ and the British Library’s disc is as highly prized as its Blake, Hardy and Lawrence manuscripts. Alas, we’ll never hear how they read their work.

These are just two of recordings of immense importance that without the work of the Sound Conservation Centre would be lost. And what a loss that would be. The British Library has invested millions in the Centre and appointed its first ever Curator of Radio. Audio is being accorded the conservation effort usually devoted manuscripts and old masters. All this, the radio historian Sean Street argues in this programme, reflects a fundamental change in attitude to sound itself.

In a massive undertaking our sound archives are being saved, restored, digitised, catalogued and opened to all. Street observes all this and talks to curators, technicians and users. Throughout we hear amazing recordings from the libraries walls of sound that, until this change in thinking about sound, few knew about, and fewer could listen to. We listen as these recordings find their rightful place in the documentary heritage of the nation.