“Pimpled, understated Mike Thorne first sprang to prominence as a thin, pale tape op on Deep Purple and Fleetwood Mac sessions in London during the early seventies…”
Well, you can’t let a lead like that pass by without following it up can you? It turns out that Mike Thorne’s first major contribution to vinyl history was the ‘machine startup’ at the introduction to Fireball, a Christmas Eve 1970 stereo recording of London’s De Lane Lea Music air conditioning plant turning on. Mike’s personal and entertaining account of this momentous snippet of Deep Purple recording history appeared in Darker Than Blue Issue 59 (some copies still available at our store) but deserves a wider audience.
“The recording studio, with its strict, socially-tiered structure as it existed in the good old days, is no more. As with all change, there are gains and losses. The gain for us now is the accessibility to the general population of musical electronics, both sound producing and sound recording. The downside is the loss of a fixed studio with a structure assuring the tea boy/apprentice that he might be humble but he was also learning an important and satisfying craft. One day, he too could be a name on an album in millions of record collections. He could put up with quite a lot for the promises. Recordings are now the worse for the loss of that passing-on of skill and experience.
If you wanted to climb to the next rung and became a card-carrying recording engineer, you would work hard, observe, and seize any occasion to take over the studio for a practice session. On Christmas Eve 1970, I was that tea boy, eager for action and to learn something new. But no-one had booked the studio. I was hanging out in the cramped reception area of De Lane Lea Music, chatting with receptionist Andrea. I was terminally bored, with no agenda save waiting for the boss’ phone call to permit us to start our holidays. Boredom has its cures, although they say idle hands are the devil’s workers.
I had never been bored on an orchestral session, since the assistant has to work harder than ever keeping the studio and maybe 20 musicians up, running and content. Incidental to orchestral sessions, I had enjoyed the singular sound that the air conditioning made in the string section mics when it was turned on after a take. Such was the racket when it was running that sounds smaller than a Marshall stack were not recordable without turning it off. And I do remember hot and crabby string sections after one unairconditioned take too many. Yet it came to be that this AC unit was perhaps the most appreciated in recording history.
Several expensive mics were placed strategically in the grubby air conditioning closet. With a little plate reverb I created what to my beginner’s ears was the most enveloping stereo machine sound. Forget all that fancy Stockhausen electronic music I’d been listening to: this was mine, and it sounded enormous. I turned the machine on, waited a little to appreciate the full glory of its sostenuto, then turned it off (generating a massive electrical click on the tape, another De Lane Lea feature). The machine gradually wound down. As it did, the church bells from next door coming down the air shaft gradually faded up. God was smiling. I faded the recording, edited out the click, put the master in a box and credited the performance to the West Uzbekistan Percussion Ensemble. It went into the tape store, where it languished forgotten.
Boredom had never been a characteristic of a Deep Purple recording session either. When I first arrived at De Lane Lea, the group was coming off the success of Deep Purple In Rock, an album which I personally didn’t like because of its anticipation of progressive rock. Each musician was a musically accomplished individual and they were flirting too much with the fancy stuff for my taste. At that expensive but earthy and street rock and roll studio, we got to fight for who wouldn’t have tape-op duty on their sessions. The vibe, as they say, was bad, although I can’t guess why from this historical distance.
However, Deep Purple (then) recorded (some of) their classic Fireball album with us, and had become very changed. They were suddenly such an open, creative, relaxed pleasure to work with that we lowly assistants were now fighting to be on their sessions. Came the mix, I was assisting engineer Martin Birch on the title track. One of the group turned to Martin and said, ‘What we need to get this track going is the sound of a machine starting up.’ Martin hummed and hawed for a little, until I whispered in his ear.
The West Uzbekistan Percussion Ensemble masterpiece was immediately transformed to be the start of the opening track, although it had to be transferred in mono for the mix since my glorious stereo could not pass through the limitations of a 16-channel mixing desk and an eight-track multitrack tape recorder. A happy session concluded with delighted clients.
Fireball remains a classic, ground-breaking record but like many early and unrecognized masterpieces, the career-best recording of the West Uzbekistan Percussion Ensemble has been lost to posterity.”
Of course the question is has that priceless reel of tape survived? Sadly I feel that this is very unlikely. I certainly haven’t found anything this strange amongst the tape archives on my many hunts, and it’s not a name you’d be likely to forget. I suspect it got left at De Lane Lea and skipped when the place closed down.
Simon Robinson. Thanks to Mike Thorne.
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