Song Of The Day 2/26/2017: Pet Shop Boys – “West End Girls”

The Final 32

Turning the World On With My Smile

The first job I had out of high school was at Sacramento City Hall. It was a desk job. I lasted one day. I was canned for wheeling my chair across the floor from desk to desk too much. Christ, you buy chairs with wheels on them and expect people to just sit quietly and let efficiency pass them by? See, that’s our whole political problem in a nutshell.

My second job was a temp position at Pacific Bell. I stuffed bills into envelopes on the swing shift. Back in those days people used to pay extra for long distance calls, and we had to stuff letters in paper sleeves explaining to them how much money they owed. We also burned logs to keep warm.

My third job was one that lasted a while, working for The Sacramento Union. This was the newspaper Mark Twain wrote for. The Union was the conservative competitor to The Sacramento Bee, which was pounding the Union in circulation numbers. I worked for the ad department as a courier. I drove a red Nissan Sentra around Sacramento, delivering and receiving proofs from local businesses. That was the bulk of my responsibilities. The dream was alive.

Things got really slow, so I went to Chillicothe, Ohio.

Adventures in Professional Certification

Rolling Stone had these advertisements for something called The Recording Workshop. It was a five-to-six-week program intensely focused on the basics of audio recording and, if you desired, an extra week of more advanced projects. It’s still situated in Chillicothe, Ohio, a small town about 50 miles south of Columbus, about 80 miles east of Cincinnati.

I somehow convinced my father this was a worthwhile expense. I don’t recall that we did a lot of haggling over it. I think its being an activity that had potential influence on a bonafide career was at least attractive in a certain sense, as was that it wasn’t necessarily in cahoots with the moral turpitude of rock music. Let everyone else nod off if you want, but the recording engineer doesn’t really have room in his life to be drunk or high. Whatever the case, they went for it. I went out to Chillicothe in April for the five-week program.

It’s really a great set-up. The main campus is on the outskirts of Chillicothe, which itself is an outskirt of Ohio. Students mainly lived in groups of four to six in cabins and houses on a steep hill across the street from the academy. All the accommodations had full kitchens and bunk beds. My roommates were Brad, a lanky, good-natured guy from Spearfish, South Dakota; and Patrick, a less lanky, good-natured guy from Oklahoma.

Although we had full kitchens, we regularly ate pizza and drank beer at a small convenience store-slash-café about a block or two from the campus. It was run by a very kindly old gentleman who’d owned it a long time. When the Recording Workshop came along they primarily served its students and instructors and kept themselves around largely for them. They had a jukebox, but since they didn’t keep up with modern music they relied on students to tell them what to put in there. Brad and I were fans of “West End Girls” and Level 42’s “Something About You,” so they put those songs in their juke on our recommendation.

The workshop was worth the money. Well, I didn’t spend the money, but if I had it would have been worth it. I worked on state-of-the-art analog equipment. I showed a special flair for editing, which I try to emulate on the mixtapes today. For projects we worked on songs that a lot of the instructors at the Workshop had recorded, basically for us to manipulate however we wanted. The instructors whose songs I worked on seemed happy with what I tried to do with their compositions in the mixdown process. Not all of it worked because of technological limitations, but they liked my gumption.

Students got the chance to make their own recordings too. I made one. It was an instrumental somewhere between Music for Airports and Chariots of Fire. It originally had lyrics but I left them off the final mix for some reason, probably because I was singing them.

One-Take Legends

One night Brad was looking for me. I think I was in the old man’s café. They had a situation at the Workshop: A longtime associate was doing a recording there and they needed a pianist immediately. I put down whatever I was doing and headed over with him.

The artist was named Foley. He was an RW associate from Columbus who played bass. He became known for having his own custom bass that allowed for higher tunings, so he could solo as if it were a guitar. His solos were unbelievable; the bass sounded like no bass or guitar I’d heard before, or since.

He was doing a jazz fusion track in one of the studios, and he decided that there was a spot that needed a pretty straight jazz piano solo. I guess Brad mentioned my name and they sent him out looking for me. He probably knew he didn't have to look very hard.

Foley told me what he needed. He’d already comped some of the chords on the piano himself, but needed someone with more experience improvising to do a solo on top of those chords. The track was a pretty hard-hitting R&B/rock deal, with this sudden, straight bebop break in the middle. That was where I was going to do my thing.

Foley outlined the chords for me and told me I’d have as many takes as I needed, so I went in the studio to lay it down. I ran through it a couple of times without the tape running (which I learned you’re not supposed to let happen—the tape should always be running). I wasn’t near ready when they told me they were proceeding with Take 1, but that was all right. They had the studio for the night and I could use as many takes as I needed.

So I ran through the first take and did the solo. There were a couple of timing flubs on my end, I thought, but it wasn’t bad for a first try. I wound it up with a stabbing chord and finished it up. I told the engineers through the monitors that I felt warmed up and we could go ahead and do another take.

Foley got on the mic. “No! That was it! You got it! We’re done!”

I don’t think I’ve ever done anything in one take in my life. I even do about two or three takes on my Star Time announcements, for God’s sake. And here one of the crazy-best musicians I’d yet encountered was telling me I’d nailed it in one take?

Yeah. Okay. I got a little bit of a puffed head from that. That was an accomplishment.

Since we had studio time that now was going to go unused, Foley and I just sat and talked about our musical interests for a half-hour. He was single-minded and focused, and really a big source of encouragement.

We never met again, but he did pretty well for himself. Foley went on to join Miles Davis’ band as one of his final bassists, and was in the touring band for hip hop group Arrested Development. He recorded a solo album called 7 Years Ago... Directions in Smart-Alec Music that Motown put out.

So yeah, that went well. I took a reel tape with the song on it when I went back home, but never found the means to transfer it to something I could play for everybody else. It’s probably still in someone’s attic, or in storage at NASA.

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