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If I’m known at all it’s for writing about music, not actually writing the stuff – but it’s never stopped me trying. I’m very lucky indeed to have lots of friends – both bona fide professionals and fellow hobby musicians with amazing vocal or instrumental talent – who’ve always been up for helping out on recording projects. I learnt a long time ago that I’ve no charisma or great reliability as a performing musician, but the controlled environment of a studio can be a wonderful asset!
Here, then, are a few pieces of music from the past few years – polished up by the latest remastering software courtesy of the very obliging Cormac O’Kane – which all share the distinction of being ‘previously unreleased’ in any meaningful sense – though a couple came close…
‘Against The World’ (Harper)
Janet Holmes (vocal), Colin Harper (acoustic/electric guitars), Colin Henry (dobro), Ali MacKenzie (bass), Liam Bradley (drums/backing vocal)
Recorded in 2001 at Amberville Studios, Cullybackey, during sessions for Janet Holmes album The Road To The West, but unused.
‘The Fields Of July’ (Harper)
Conor Shields (vocal), Brian Connor (piano), Ali Mackenzie (bass), Liam Bradley (drums)
Recorded in 2001 at Amberville Studios, Cullybackey, at the end of sessions for Janet Holmes album The Road To The West, Conor – who contributed guitar and percussion to other tracks on the session – wanted to have a go at this song which had earlier that day been recorded by Janet, in a bigger band arrangement, for the album. I think we were all knocked out by this completely improvised, unrehearsed performance from all concerned. It’s the only song I’ve written about ‘the troubles’ in NI and Conor shares my view of such matters, namely this: all extremists of all persuasions are a blight on society and all our politicians are a (obscenely remunerated) waste of space. Conor has subsequently been involved in organising the East Belfast national election candidature of ‘Rainbow’ George Weiss and his ‘Vote For Yourself’ party. Me, I voted for him (or ‘myself’, depending how pedantic we want to be on the matter).
‘Be The One’ (Harper/Archer/Monro)
Janet Holmes (vocal, backing vocal), Tina McSherry/Gillian Pollock/Helen McGurk (backing vocal), Colin Harper (electric guitar), Gary Aiken (piano, keys, programming)
Co-written (words) with one-time Sweet Mary Jane vocalist Rick Monro – currently web-designer, for Janet Holmes and the Wildlife Albums project among others – and with singer/songwriter/guitarist Iain Archer (music), this song was recorded live in garage band style with a cast of several at Green Dolphin Studios, Belfast, in late 1995. Cutting a long story short Gary Aiken at Novatech Studios, Belfast, remixed it over Christmas leading to the version now available on The Wildlife Album (2004), but he also went a stage further in rebuilding it – with none of the original elements left – as this 90s pop kind of thing. It was quite exciting to be involved in at the time, I must admit – seeing something develop towards the tantalising potential commercial success: a novelty for me! I roped in all my great-women-singer pals, including for the first time Janet Holmes – someone I only knew from having seen SOS gigs in the 80s and who was at that stage living in Comber and not doing much music as far as I could see. She was up for it and did a great job – though I don’t think she was wild about the resulting pop production of the track. Me, I did something approximating a Richard Thompson style guitar solo and Gary made some kind of sense of a few different takes in the editing. It wound up on the 1997 100-only cassette-album Nothing Is Easy, credited to The Legends Of Tomorrow. Something I really needed to get out of my system at the time, but was too coy to put my name to! (Nevertheless… this wasn’t quite the end of the song and its many guises though: former Adventures songwriter/guitarist/production whiz Pat Gribben had a bash at remixing/editing the Janet version a couple of years later, adding a key change and guitar solo of his own, cutting a verse or two, sticking a harmony vocal section at the front… Not that I ever did anything with it. Really, we just don’t know when to give up, do we?)
‘Letting Go’ (Harper)
Helen McGurk (vocal), Martin Hayes (violin), Cara (flute), Steve ‘G:Raff’ Jones (guitars, bass, keyboards, programming)
Recorded during 1995 at Novatech Studios, Belfast, and with Martin’s amazing violining generously recorded at Matt Purcell’s studio in Ennis, County Clare, during a day off in a tour, this is another of those reworked-at-Gary’s tales. Originally a rather Waterboys-ish acoustic based thing, local production/multi-instrumental prodigy Steve Jones heard the rough mix – which wasn’t quite happening – and offered to mix/fix/remix it himself. Keeping Helen’s lead vocal and sampling phrases from Martin’s original violin performance – doubled on flute by his pal Cara, to add texture – he rebuilt the track from the base up. It was a master class in the art, and certainly indicative of his current career as musician/producer to the stars. Again, this has only ever appeared on the Nothing Is Easy cassette compilation – although the full Martin Hayes violin performance (too good to languish!) and my original acoustic guitar part were subsequently resurrected as the basis for the Janet Holmes recording of the song, available on her album The Road To The West (2004). Good job there’d been a click track…
‘Letting Go’ (Harper)
Tina McSherry (vocal), Colin Harper (acoustic guitar), James Devlin (electric guitar), Keith Law (bass), Cormac O’Cathain (keyboards), Feargal O’Cathain (drums)
A supergroup! This is another one recorded, pretty much live, at Green Dolphin Studios, Belfast, for the insane Nothing Is Easy project. It featured members of hot local rock bands of the era (1995) the New Brontes and Devlin Law and the peerless Tina McSherry of happening trad band Tamalin. As I recall, Tina arrived late for the session (an approach she retains to this day, I have to say!), hadn’t bothered listening to the demo, learnt the song from me on the stairs while everyone else was set up and raring to go… and effortlessly delivered a brilliant performance minutes later. Amazing. Everyone else delivered the goods too – Cormac twice in fact, as the engineer’s assistant managed, a few days later, to accidentally erase his original keyboard track. I’m honoured to say that while I later fell out of touch, for a year or two here and there, with all concerned, I’ve re-established contact in recent times and remain friends with all of them – every one of them a terrific songwriter in his/her own right. Feargal and Keith are now involved in TV production, Cormac is a studio wizard, TV composer and follower of dreams (rather like myself) – including his own ongoing recording project with the great Helen McGurk – while James Devlin, having taken three or four years out of music, is just now, at the time of writing (May 2006) coming back to live performance and remains as captivating as ever.
‘Can’t Chase The Devil’ (Duffy Power)
Terry Sharpe (vocal), Colin Harper (guitars), Mark McCluney (harmonica), Ali MacKenzie (bass), Conor Shields (bass)
Recorded as an ‘arrangement demo’ at Novatech Studios and at Peter ‘Duke Special’ Wilson’s Lingerie Studios, Belfast, circa 2000, this is a bit of an oddity. Having achieved a couple of successes in adding instrumentation to new guitar/vocal tracks sent over by British blues legend Duffy Power, things were becoming more difficult – in terms of interpreting exactly what Duffy was hoping for with each track. ‘Can’t Chase The Devil’ was a manic (and compelling as it stood) delta blues composition in its composer’s original form. I had an idea to reduce a couple of the chords to aggressive arpeggios and give it a more structured blues/rock framework. Ex-Adventures vocalist Terry Sharpe came along to Peter Wilson’s studio once the basics had been recorded earlier at Novatech and gave a great vocal performance, coming up with the Cream-like harmony parts as well. I added a rather bonkers ‘60s pseudo-Cream guitar solo – entirely live, even down to the brief pause in the middle where I’m clearly thinking ‘What the hell am I doing, and what do I do next?!‘ – and Mark McCluney wailed a bit on harmonica – despite not having one in the right key! In fact, Duffy I’m afraid thought the whole thing was in the wrong key and didn’t really care for the approach. I was a little disappointed – I did think we had something worth pursuing – but not offended: after all, Duffy has worked with the very best musicians there are in British blues/jazz/rock and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that I/we are not among them. But we did our best.