Interview With Judge Smith
by Belway Thomas
on 14th May 2000
- Can we get one small point cleared up first? Where did you get the
- I was born with it. I have several forenames and that's one of them.
A friend of mine, the late John Hargrave - 'White Fox' - the writer, mystic
and leader of the Green Shirts started to use it in the mid-Seventies
and other friends followed suit.
- What's your musical background?
- I grew up during the Sixties and, musically, my roots are in that
decade. But I hope it doesn't show too much!
- Any major influences?
- Hundreds, and only some from the Sixties. I could list dozens of
names, but often individual recordings were equally important. Bowie,
Cream, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Sex Pistols, Peter Hammill,
Frank Zappa... I've learnt the most from Hammill and Zappa.
- I can't say I hear much of that in your music.
- Thank God for that! If your influences can be identified from your
own work, then you're not assimilating the stuff properly. It's not
going in deep enough, and you end up simply reflecting your influences
in the form of imitation. I'd hate to write music that people thought
was Bowiesque, and fake Zappa is truly horrible.
- Quite a few of the names you mentioned are involved in 'Curly's
Airships' in one way or another.
- Yes, I've been very lucky to actually work with some people who were
important parts of my artistic education.
- Speaking of education, are you a trained musician or self-taught?
- I'm not sure if I think of myself as a musician at all. In terms of
conventional musical skills, I can sing, though some may dispute that,
and I'm an incompetent drummer. That's about it.
- There must be more to it than that.
- Well, I write music, or more correctly , I make up music. I can't
actually write it down in dots and bars, and I can't, properly speaking,
play it. But on the other hand composing music is not the same as
playing it. Music gets played by musicians; it gets written by
composers. The jobs are different, even when it's the same guy doing
- Do you feel your lack of musical skills limits what you are able to
- It hasn't so far. I find I'm able to imagine quite complex music in
some detail. I can hear it in my head. And by tapping away with one
finger, a keyboard and a sequencer, I can slowly build up a picture of
what I'm hearing. Sometimes I'll work on this picture until it becomes
the finished image, but on other projects, like 'Curly', it remains a
sketch for other musicians to listen to and replace with their own
I'm sure I write better music as a non-musician than I would as an
average guitar-strummer. I emphasise the word 'average'. There is a
great temptation for a not-very-good musician to write things he or she
is able to play, rather than the things he or she is able to imagine. A
really good musician, who can play whatever comes into his head doesn't
have that problem, but if I can't reach that standard, I personally feel
I'm better off not trying to play that riff from 'Smoke on the Water'.
- What is your motivation in spending such an enormous amount of time
and energy on a project that is quite so far outside the mainstream?
- You make 'Curly' sound a bit weird, but it seems pretty
straightforward to me. I suppose my attitude is down to a Sixties
thing: the idea that rock n'roll could be a serious art form. It's not
a fashionable view at the moment, but there was a brief window of time
when it looked as if rock music might have a parallel development
alongside regular pop-music, dance music, entertainment music, into
something more ambitious, something bigger, more intellectually
challenging. What we got, of course, was a lot of pretentious bombast
and noodling, with a few notable exceptions. Unfortunately, the people
who could have taken the thing forward tended to be also very good at
bashing out hit singles. The Money Power is very hard to resist. In
fact the music industry and the entire rock culture itself simply
doesn't encourage considered, developmental work. I'm trying to avoid
the word 'progressive' here; a good word spoilt.
- But you resisted the lures of commercialism?
- No fear. I did my best to make money out of rock n'roll. I didn't
sell my soul because no one offered to buy it.
- Where did this idea of 'Songstory' come from?
- I've always wanted to tell stories with music. Most of my regular,
normal-length songs tell stories of one kind or another. I'm less
interested in doing straightforward love songs, for example. The
telling of stories is a primal human activity; cavemen were doing it.
And what do you have to do when you tell stories? You need to convey
emotions, atmospheres, moods, excitement; and music is fantastic at
doing this. That is what music does. And I think that of all kinds of
music, rock music does it best of all. It's the most powerful and
versatile communicator of emotions, feelings, moods, vibes… anything
intangible, there is. Just add words, language, to cover the other,
tangible, stuff: information, narration, facts and so on, and you get
what should be the ultimate storytelling medium.
- But is there anything particularly new about that?
- No, songwriters are doing it all the time. I just like the idea of
doing it on a bigger canvas. I've always liked the few really long
classic singles: 'Bohemian Rhapsody', 'Music', 'MacArthur Park', 'Mr
Blue Sky', 'Wuthering Heights' and so on. Not the ones that just repeat
the same tune over and over, or have long instrumental jams over the
riff and five-minute drum solos, I like the ones with lots of different
sections and tempo changes, and something different every minute or so.
- But isn't pop music's greatest achievement the three-minute single?
- Of course. Don't misunderstand me; I love regular, normal pop
records. Three minutes of heaven. But rock n'roll music can do other
things as well. Art forms move on; they have to, or they stagnate and
- But in this day of short attention spans, do you think people have
the time and inclination to sit through two-and-a-quarter hours of
- Well not everybody. Why should they? But there are plenty of people
with the interest and the capacity to follow 'Curly's Airships' through.
It's not as if it's difficult music or intellectually obscure. Hundreds
of thousands of people read novels, poetry , serious non-fiction that's
far more demanding than this, and listen to classical music that's far
tougher-going than this. As I said, by those standards, 'Curly' is
pretty straightforward. It's just the scale and format which are
- If not unique.
- Well I have to say that I'm unaware of anything else like it.
- And where did your obsession with airships come from?
- Hang on a minute. I'm not obsessed with airships. I'm interested in
airships. I'm obsessed with music… But I do think that airships are a
wonderful metaphor for human aspiration: an escape to heaven from the
confines of earth, a simple concept, a beautiful idea, that proves
horribly dangerous and difficult to achieve. But the idea of airships
has certainly appealed to me my whole life. When I was about thirteen,
I met Barnes Wallis, who designed two of the airships I've written
about, in his famous drawing office at the old Brooklands race-track.
He was rather irritated that this boy wanted to ask him about airships
rather than hypersonic flight, which was his consuming passion at that
time, so the meeting was not a particular success. And about twenty
years ago I was lucky enough to spend some time with Captain George
Meager, one of the last surviving rigid airship pilots, and certainly
the last living man to have piloted the R.101 - he made one flight and
thought it was so dangerous he refused to have anything more to do with
it. A great character, a real airship hero. I learned a lot about the
attitude of these 1920s flying men that afternoon.
- How did you set about the writing?
- Well, I spent about six months reading everything I could lay my
hands on about airships, the British Airship Program and the period in
general. I had to get the period stuff right, as well as the facts.
And the 1920s language was very important to me. I ended up reading a
lot of Dornford Yates and Dorothy L Sayers to get the slang and the
catch-phrases, and a lot of aviators' memoirs to get their frame of mind
and view of the world.
- It's an interesting period.
- An extraordinary period. The generation that survived the First
World War felt they were living a charmed life; anything was possible,
and personal danger just didn't enter the equation. They were not like
us; it was a totally different mind-set. Imagine the prototype of a new
aircraft today making it's first test flight with it's designers and
chief executives of the company on board, or filling a passenger craft
with highly explosive hydrogen. This wonderful, 'Roaring Twenties' view
of life was a major factor in bringing about the disaster, of course.
- Presumably, with a project this size, you have to plan everything out
first, the plot and characters and so on.
- You certainly do, but the trouble was, I didn't do it, at least not
initially. I deliberately started off trying to write the words and the
music just as they came into my head, without any forward planning. The
idea was to be more 'intuitive' and 'spontaneous', so I just wrote and
wrote, without looking forwards or back, for a period of about six
months. Then I thought I'd better see what I'd done. I found I'd got
an hour-and-a-quarter of words and music, and I'd barely even started
the story! It was horrible. I didn't know what to do. If I carried on
the same way, the finished piece would be about five hours long. There
was nothing for it but to bite the bullet and scrap the lot. I had to
start again. I was able to reuse a lot of riffs and chord sequences,
but the bulk of the work was in the melody lines and the words, and they
were a complete write-off.
- How long did the whole writing process take?
- As opposed to the recording process? I suppose about two years at
least, and that doesn't include a six months' gap when I had to relocate
from Norfolk to the South Coast; that's to say, dismantle the studio,
find a new place, do it up, move house and then rebuild the studio. It
turned out to be six months to the day from switching off the equipment
for the last time in Norfolk to my first day's work in the new studio.
- What's your studio like?
- I live in a small bungalow on the edge of the South Downs. I had to
find somewhere with very little traffic noise and not on a flight path,
and bungalows are good for recording in because there's no one above or
below to be blasted out by the noise. I have three rooms, kitchen and
bathroom, and the biggest room is the studio, so basically I live in two
rooms: a little cramped but I live alone so it suits me fine. As for
equipment, the project was recorded on a Fosdex half-inch, sixteen-track
recorder, so we're not talking high-end, big budget recording here. My
set-up is about as basic as you can get and still achieve professional
- I take it budget considerations were important.
- What budget? There was almost no money, and there was no record
company or publisher, or producer, or management involved. If we hadn't
got a small grant from the National Lottery, I don't know how we'd have
finished it. In terms of budget, 'Curly's Airships' is the musical
equivalent of 'The Blair Witch Project'.
- Can you tell me something about the grant you got?
- It was from a scheme called A4E, 'Arts for Everyone', in which the
Arts Council distributed money from the National Lottery for arts
projects, with far less bureaucracy and red-tape than is normally the
case. It did a great deal of good and enabled hundreds of small
projects to get off the ground. We were very lucky. Naturally the
powers-that-be soon put a stop to it, and small grants are now very
difficult to get.
- I take it that no one actually got paid.
- Out of the eighteen performers involved, only three were paid, and
they weren't paid very much. I fed them though. It's one of Judge's
Rules of Recording: 'Always feed the musicians.' If a good musician
likes the music, they will do anything for you, but they have to eat.
- 'Curly's Airships' doesn't sound like a piece of low-budget
recording. It's a very big, complex sound. It sounds as if it was
recorded somewhere big and expensive.
- Thank you; I'm glad. You see, a low-budget production, be it film,
album, whatever, doesn't get any points from the audience for being done
on the cheap. The public doesn't make any allowances. The person who
buys a copy of 'Curly' doesn't care how much it cost to make; the
listener just wants it to be very, very good. This CD will be judged by
the same standards as a production costing half-a-million to make.
- That must be a bit scary.
- It doesn't bother me. This record is a classy piece of kit, made by
professional artists working to professional standards. That's what
makes something sound good, not the money you throw at it. I should
make it clear though, that the sound quality of the final product is
mainly due to the superb mixing and mastering, and of course, that
definitely wasn't done by me, or in my studio. I had great musicians
and all I had to do was to get good, solid recordings of what they did.
- You use quite an eclectic line-up of instruments.
- I suppose so, but the instrumentation is pretty controlled; there's a
logic to it. The main line-up is guitars, organs, bass and drums, with
some saxophone touches; that's all.
- No synthesisers?
- None, just organs, so the basic sound has a classic, and quite retro,
flavour. The music isn't retro, just the sound. Then there are a
couple of acoustic airship-shanties with accordion, banjo and mandolin;
some tango sections with accordion and Latin percussion, and four
marches for military band. There's also a piece for a 1920s dance band
and some passages for sitar and tabla. That's about it.
- How did you do the military band stuff?
- I did a deal with an arranger friend of mine, Michael Brand, a
terrific composer and arranger, who wanted some help with a musical he
was writing. I wrote a few lyrics for him, and, in return, he arranged
my marches for a wind band and got it recorded. His company make wind
- And who are the Mystery Marching Band?
- What can I say? It's a mystery.
- I can see how military marches would be appropriate for the story,
and the dance band number, but how do Tango and Indian music fit in?
- The Tangos all relate to the character of Lord Thompson, as sung by
Peter Hammill. Thompson is very debonair, very dashing and romantic, a
great ladies' man. I see him as something of a lounge lizard, so I'm
making a reference to the 1920s Tango dance craze by making all his
music Tangos. It's not real Tango, of course, just a rock n'roll
version - of a 1920s British dance band version - of real Tango.
- And the Indian music?
- The R.101 was attempting to fly to India when it crashed, an almost
impossible journey, given the condition of the ship. So each time Curly
thinks about this very daunting prospect, we hear the Indian
- Those passages sound very authentic.
- I know an excellent Dutch percussionist and tabla player called Rene
van Commenee, so I contacted him and he organised his sitar partner,
Tammo Heikens, to arrange my themes for the instruments. Rene was
working in the music technology department of a large arts college in
Utrecht and he arranged for me to give a couple of lectures there. In
return, the college paid my fares and let me use their excellent
recording studio to record these bits of music. They did a wonderful
job, I think. It was just another one of the hoops I had to jump
through in order to get the record made without any money to pay for it.
- And the rest of the band?
- Basically all my friends have been press-ganged into helping me. I
called in all available favours. Almost all the performers are chums of
mine. Do you want me to run through them?
- The organist is Hugh Banton, who I've known since 1969, when Peter
Hammill and I recruited him for the Van Der Graaf Generator. A
phenomenal musician. He's one of the last of the classically trained,
psychedelic-gothic Hammond organists who came through in the late
Sixties: Keith Emerson, John Lord, Vincent Crane, that guy from Procol
Harem, Ray Manzarek from the Doors - kind of. But I think Hugh was
always the most radical. And the wonderful thing is that his music
hasn't softened up or mellowed. He's now a successful organ builder; he
designs and installs his own computer-driven church organs. He's a
cultured man, very respectable, but underneath there's a wildman. Let
him loose on some interesting music and he'll come up with
extraordinary, sometimes quite shocking and scary stuff. An amazing
- I noticed that he also does the airship engine sound effects on the
- Yes. I spent ages tracking down authentic sounding period recordings
for the engine noises; I even went to an air show with a DAT recorder to
tape some old aircraft, but when Hugh heard my efforts, he said 'I can
do better than that' and started experimenting with the organs. He came
up with some great sounds, and I thought it was very appropriate to use
instruments where possible, rather than sound effects. He created
entirely different sounds for three airships, and makes them accelerate,
go into reverse, idle and switch off.
John Ellis, the principal guitarist, had an equal impact on the work.
I've known 'Fury', as his friends call him, for over fifteen years.
He's one of my closest friends, but this is the first time we've done
any serious work together. He's another master musician, the complete
professional, but his punk roots are still there, and he plays with
great energy and attitude. He works very fast and produces an enormous
variety of work. I've never met anyone who knows more about so many
different kinds of music. Both Fury and Hugh put in a vast amount of
time on the project, and between them, they really defined the whole
sound and character of the thing.
I suppose the next most significant performer is David Shaw-Parker.
He's another one of these multi-talented blighters: a successful
professional actor, a musician, singer, writer. I met him through his
interest - one might say devotion - to the music of Peter Hammill.
David wrote a marvellous book on the subject called 'The Lemming
Chronicles'. He's very cosmopolitan and at home around Europe, and has
developed this wonderful style of Mediterranean guitar. So he plays all
the acoustic guitar parts on 'Curly' with this great Franco-Spanish,
candlelit-bistro-style panache. He also turned out to be a cracking
banjo player, so I took full advantage of that as well. Finally he
sings some 'character parts' and is one of the actors who do the
fragments of 'overheard' spoken dialogue. A knock-out talent.
Then we come to my four guest-star vocalists. Don't know who to start
with. Alphabetical order! Arthur Brown sings the part of the Chairman
of a Whitehall committee which keeps appearing, and he's also the
tormented airship commander, 'Lucky Breeze'. This was really amazing
for me: to work with a real idol of mine. At the end of the Sixties, I
saw most of the great, classic performers of the time, including
Hendrix, the Stones and so on, but I've never seen anything as
completely mindblowing as the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. It really
opened up a world of possibilities to me. To describe his show as
theatrical is misleading; it makes him sound posey and posturing.
Arthur is performance art. And what a singer! I got to know him quite
recently when he moved back to this country from the States, and it was
so nice to find that an idol need not have feet of clay. He's a
wonderful man, very spiritual, a guru figure in many ways, and, best of
all, his voice and energy are undiminished. When I told him about the
project, he asked me if he could be in it. How lucky can you get? It's
high time he was a world star all over again.
Pete Brown I knew of in the late Sixties as one of the country's leading
young poets, and of course, as the lyricist for Cream. He took an
interest in the Van Der Graaf, and we've been in touch intermittently
ever since. He's also an excellent singer and all-round percussionist,
and, these days, he's in demand as a record producer specialising in
Blues. He's always taken a kindly view of my stuff, and when I realised
that I would need some good, 'real' percussion, and that there were a
few extra bits that needed singing by a different voice, he was the
obvious choice. He added a completely different vibe to the tracks he
played on. He's a big personality and it comes over in his music.
What can I say about Peter Hammill that hasn't been said before? I've learned an enormous amount from him, not only as a composer but about
the way an artist should approach his work. I've known him for a very
long time, and it was an obvious thing for me to ask him to sing on
'Curly'. He's pretty easy going about doing little one-off projects and
guest appearances, as long as the projects are what he would call
'honourable work'. They're probably a bit of light relief from his
constant recording and touring. He's done more than fifty albums now,
you know, and within those records, in my view, you can find some of the
most profound, advanced and perfect music that has ever been made under
the name of pop or rock. Anyhow, on 'Curly' he's just singing, and he
takes the part of Lord Thompson, the villain, or perhaps the tragic
hero, of the piece. He does it perfectly, of course, with that
wonderful, saturnine voice of his.
Paul Roberts I've known for a much shorter time. I met him through John
Ellis, of course, and their work with the Stranglers. Paul's a great
rock singer and a really dynamic front man. The Stranglers live shows
are very well done indeed; it's a tight band. Paul does a variety of
bits and pieces on 'Curly', including the important big-ballad 'It's the
Silence that Kills You', which he does solo and then again, later, as a
duet with Arthur Brown. Good combination! There's another bit where he
had to do some singing in a 'helium voice', you know, a very high,
munchkin voice, in a section about the dangers of inhaling the gas these
airships were filled with. Rather than fake it electronically, we
decided to do it for real, so the studio ceiling was covered with gas
balloons for him to inhale. By the time we got it done, he was passing
out on the floor. He's a professional.
I should also say something about David Jackson, the saxophonist, who
I've known since 1970. He was in a band I had after leaving Van Der
Graaf Generator, and when my band broke up, he joined VDGG. On 'Curly'
there was always going to be a horn or woodwind part doing odd lines
throughout the piece, and I'm delighted that David was able to do it.
Of course he's a great improvising musician, and this project doesn't
give him much scope to cut loose, but his sound is unique; it couldn't
be anyone else playing. Only really fine sax players develop a unique
voice. On one track he recreates the sound of the entire sax section of
a 1920s dance band to perfection. He also loves playing penny-whistle
and he's very much to the fore in the shanties.
- What about the other main voice?
- You mean our Tenor. One of the original sounds I had in my head at
the very beginning of the project was a classical tenor voice. I could
hear this high, rather unearthly, male voice in various different
contexts: a very particular kind of voice, not an operatic tenor -
frankly, I dislike that bellowing and braying intensely - it had to be a
church voice. They call it a 'soft tenor' but to me it's a different
animal. The problem was that the worlds of choristers and of rock
n'roll don't interface very often, and it was some while before I was
able to find a singer who was good enough to do the stuff I'd written,
which is not easy to sing, and who would have some sympathy and
understanding of what we were trying to do. I think we did very well to
find Paul Thompson. At the time, he was principal tenor with the choir
of Christ Church College, Oxford, and he's now doing post-graduate
studies at the Royal College of Music.
I've told you about the Dutch sitar and tabla players, but not about the
accordionist. His name's Joe Hinchliff, and he's with a band from
Brighton called 'Tragic Roundabout' who do music from Eastern Europe,
the Balkans and the Middle East: 'Klesmer' music and that sort of
thing. I was in Lewes with Arthur and we saw them busking. It's great
get-up-and-dance stuff, a terrific band. So Joe was able to add some
authentic gypsy flavours to the tangos and some folk-roots credibility
to the shanties.
Rikki Patten is another Brighton musician; he plays quite a lot for
Arthur Brown. He's really talented at guitar and organ, but on 'Curly',
he has a very specific role as Supplementary Guitarist. My tunes, my
vocal melody lines, are pretty complicated in places, and they use quite
a lot of unusual notes, so I like to double the more surprising bits
with another instrument. It makes the tunes easier to listen to and
follow. So once the principal recording was finished for the whole
thing, I went through it and identified the places where the tunes
needed a bit of extra help. Hugh added some of these phrases on organ,
but others would sound better on guitar. John Ellis was, by this time,
up to his neck in other projects, so I recruited Rikki for the job. He
plays a Gibson, while Fury uses a Fender-type guitar, and, as any
guitarist will tell you, they make completely different sorts of sounds,
so this added a nice extra dimension. Rikki brought a lot of individual
style to this very unpromising job, and I hope to work with him again in
a more substantial way.
Where are we now on the list? Yes, Ian Fordham on Bass Guitar. I did
most of the bass lines myself, with sampled sounds, but there were a few
tracks where I couldn't get it just right, so my old chum Ian, who I've
known since the mid-Seventies when he played bass in my group 'The
Imperial Storm Band', came in. In fact he'd already devised an
excellent bass part for one track, because the tune started life years
ago as a prospective theme tune for the TV show 'Spitting Image'.
- Which track was that?
- Not telling. Guess. Oh yes, and he plays Double Bass for the
'Hughie Banton's Mayfair Aviators' track.
There are three remaining performers, all professional actors. Nick
Lucas is involved in the little pieces of 'overheard' control cabin
dialogue, and he also sings as a member of the awful Committee. I've
known Nick since I was thirteen! And he brought his chum Mike Bell to
help out. I had an actors' day at the studio, with mics set up in
different rooms and people running about to get the effect of movement.
The only woman performer we have is Gwendolyn Gray, a most remarkable
lady whose stage career started in the 1930s. She was a leading lady
throughout the Forties, and did some of the earliest British TV
commercials, amongst other things. She's been a close friend of mine
since I wrote a musical about her late husband about twenty-five years
- What was that?
- 'The Kibbo Kift', written with Maxwell Hutchinson. Gwen is now
almost ninety and was in her late 80s when she recorded the part of the
Medium for me. She's now partially sighted, so when we did the
recording, I wrote out her lines for her on huge sheets of card. She
was brilliant, I think: very convincing.
- Was it a deliberate decision, not to have any other women in the
- Good Lord no! But inescapably, the story is about life in the
Services in the 1920s and, regrettably, women at that time were not
directly involved in the events we're dealing with. Of course it would
have been extremely interesting to explore the domestic and romantic
lives of more of the characters, but I think it would have been wrong to
put in a number for Curly's wife Suzie, for example, or Lord Thompson's
exotic mistress, just for the sake of having more of a female presence.
I was cutting, cutting, cutting all the time, and it's still a long
piece. There just wasn't the space.
- So once you had your band and your singers, how did you organise the
- As I've already said, it was a long drawn-out process. Once I'd got
through to the end from the writing point of view, I edited together a
super-rough demo of the whole thing, with very simple accompaniment and
my voice singing everything, just to see how it worked and whether all
the separate bits joined up properly. As a result of that, I made a few
changes and amendments, but, surprisingly, I found I didn't have to do
any major rewrites. Then I divided up the music into sections for
recording purposes. These aren't the track divisions on the finished
CDs; they're smaller sections, and each one was recorded separately. In
one of those spooky coincidences, it turns out that there were exactly
one hundred and one of these.
- As in R.101...Now, the CDs are divided into 'Chapters' and also
tracks. What is the thinking behind that?
- The fifteen Chapters are the main divisions of the story, like the
chapters in a book, hence the name. They relate to the story rather
than the music. If you didn't want to listen to the whole work, then
one or more consecutive Chapters would make a logical chunk to hear.
The tracks, on the other hand, divide along musical lines, each track
tends to make sense as a piece of music; although with my style of
writing, most tracks are made up of several contrasting fragments. Now,
how technical do you want me to be? Can I talk nerdy?
- Be my guest. We are on the Internet after all.
- OK. Here comes the science. Each of these mini-tracks, which might
be anywhere from 30 seconds long to three or four minutes, started life
as a piece of half-inch, 16 track recording tape with a strip of SMPTE
time code on one track. My guide tracks were composed on an Atari
computer sequencer, using simple sampled sounds from my old Emax
sampler. These covered all the basic guitar and organ parts as I
thought they would be, and I recorded these, one at a time, to tape,
using the time code off tape to drive the sequencer. Then I'd devise
the bass lines and the drum parts using a Peavy Spectrum Bass module and
an E-mu Procussion box of sampled drum sounds.
- The drums sound very realistic, not like a sequencer.
- Nice of you to say so. It's quite possible to achieve a very
realistic drum track, but it takes an awful lot of button-pushing. It's
very time consuming, and of course you have to be a drummer, even a bad
one like me. Modern dance music is built on the shortcomings and
limitations of drum machines, and of course exploits their considerable
advantages, but if you want to create the sound of a real drummer
playing a real drum kit, you have to put in a lot of work. OK, so the
bass and drum parts I've just done, are intended to be the finished
article, but I just record them roughly, as a guide.
- Why is that?
- Because to record the drums onto tape properly would take up around
eight tracks, and the bass would use up another two, and I haven't even
started on the guitars or organs or vocals. So for this reason, the
bass and drums never go onto the finished multitrack tape at all; they
are added at the mixing stage. Right, so then I do some rough vocals,
and then John Ellis would come down and the real recording could begin.
He'd stay for a couple of days, and we'd work through fifteen or so of
these little pieces. I'd have the chord sequence written out; he'd
listen to the piece and interpret what I'd done. He might come up with
several different ideas which I would never have thought of in a hundred
years. Most of the rock-based pieces had several different guitar
parts, but we worked very quickly, recording over the top of my rough
tracks. John used just one guitar, a Fender Strat clone, and a Q-verb
GT effects processor which went straight into the desk and onto tape,
mostly without any further processing. He is an excellent programmer
and would create new effects with the Q-verb, on the fly, for every
- What about the organ?
- We had to be quite innovative about this. Hugh lives in the North of
England, and I'm on the South Coast, and it would have been quite
impractical for him to have to bring these large instruments a very long
way for the dozens of recording sessions it would take to record his
stuff. However, he has a Session-8 hard disk recording system of his
own, so we decided to use that. Once the guitar tracks were done for a
worthwhile number of short pieces, I would do a rough, mono mix of them
onto the Left hand track of a DAT digital cassette tape, with their bits
of time code going down from my multitrack master tape onto the Right
hand side of the DAT. I'd send this to Hugh in the post, along with
chord sheets and cassettes of my rough ideas, and he would transfer the
DAT tape to two tracks of his Session-8. He could then work at leisure,
working out and recording his own parts onto the remaining tacks, and
sending me cassettes of what he'd done, for me to listen to.
Finally, when we had a worthwhile amount of material covered, I would
put the 16-track in the car - which was quite a job in itself; I had to
install a block-and-tackle to hoist it into its box, and ramps to get it
out of the house - and take it up to Hugh's place. Then we'd link my
machine to his, to make his Session-8 run under the control of the time
code on my master tapes, and we could transfer Hugh's organ tracks onto
my 16-track, in sync with the guitars and everything else. That was the
idea; in fact we had problems with the synchronisation, which tended to
drift out on the longer pieces. Hardly surprising really; regulating a
computer with an old-fashioned tape recorder is like trying to control
an electric clock with a steam-engine. Still, it all worked eventually.
I had to make eight or so visits, of a couple of days each, to get the
job done. This was, in fact, a very agreeable way for Hugh to work, as
he could experiment far more without me breathing down his neck, and I
think the organ work is stunning.
- Do you like to keep a firm control over everything?
- In some respects, yes, I'm a control freak. I know when it's right,
and I know when it's wrong, and when it's wrong, it has to be put right.
But otherwise, I hope I'm pretty open to the moment and to other
people's ideas. There's no point in having great musicians if you don't
give them the space to do their thing. Far more often than not, they'll
come up with something better than you originally had in mind. Of
course, it depends on the material. I try very hard to write music with
strong bones: real chord sequences that go somewhere, riffs that stick
in the mind, big tunes - even if I don't always succeed. And if music
has strong bones, it will take any amount of weirdness or wildness or
anarchistic creativity that a musician might throw at it.
- Would it have been better to have everyone working and recording
together at the same time?
- Possibly, but I rather doubt it. That situation, of a band recording
everything at the same time in the same room, doesn't happen as often as
you might think. And it usually ends up with each musician going back
and re-recording their parts again, separately. But it is true that
this project was done in a particularly fragmented way. Hugh and John,
in fact, never met during the entire recording process!
- Was it hard to keep motivated for such a long time?
- Motivation isn't really a problem for me; once I get my teeth into
something, I don't let go. I'm very tenacious. But it was very
exhausting, very demanding. I won't do anything so big again without
outside support. There were some major setbacks to deal with as well.
I managed to do the classic computer goof of not backing-up my work
often enough. I filled a floppy disk with drum and bass parts, about
three months' work, and thought I'd better back it up. Got out a fresh
disk to format, and put the wrong disk in the machine and re-formatted
my original disk! All gone. No excuse; as my girlfriend sometimes has
to point out, I can be a complete plonker. Just had to go back and do
it all again. Still, I'll never make that mistake again.
On another occasion, I was held up for weeks because I had to give up my
best microphone. I'd been using a beautiful old 1950s RCA ribbon mic,
the kind Elvis Presley used, which I'd been lent years before. Then, in
the middle of recording my finished vocals, I got an urgent call to say
that the owner needed it back double-quick. Good mics are not cheap,
and I had to sell my beloved Hammond organ to buy a replacement. And of
course the Hammond had to be serviced and advertised before it could
eventually be sold etc. etc. Still, when I got low, I found that
listening to what we'd done soon cheered me up.
- Are you still pleased with it?
- To be honest, I'd have to say yes. It still gives me a buzz. But
who knows, I could be deluded.
- Not all the recording took place in a studio, did it?
- No. You mean the location recordings?
- Yes. What was the idea behind recording at the churches and the
- This is what I call the Conceptual Art element of the project. I
thought it would be fun to try and record some bits of music at places
that are associated with particular parts of the story. So, for one
section that takes place the night before the R.101 starts it's final
flight, we recorded the organ part in Cardington parish church, which
was the local church for the Airship Works. You can see the airship
sheds from there, and the mass grave of the R.101's passengers and crew
is in the churchyard. Members of the crew worshiped there, and the
organ is the same instrument that was in use at the time. We use it on
a setting of the 'Ave Maria', which seems appropriate.
Then we had a dramatic organ solo which happens as the R.101 is flying
low over Beauvais Cathedral, shortly before the crash. So Hugh and I
went to Beauvais and recorded the solo on the gigantic cathedral organ
in this astonishing building. We combined this mission with a
pilgrimage to the crash site and the huge and impressive memorial, put
up by the French. We also visited the splendidly eccentric R.101 Museum
in the town.
The third location we used was the R.101's shed at Cardington. This is
still there, though pretty shabby today, and mind-bogglingly huge.
Nothing gives a better idea of the size of these airships, particularly
when you realise that the R.101 fitted into the shed with only six feet
to spare at either end. There's a whole section of the piece that
describes Curly's reactions when he first sees the half-finished airship
inside the shed, and this section features sound effects of the thing
being built, with drills and riveters banging away, and a grand guitar
solo. These were already recorded on tape, and so I made a cassette
tape of the construction sound effects and another one of John's guitar
solo: just his guitar, nothing else. Then we took a cassette player
and a battery-powered guitar amp up to Cardington, and played these
tapes loudly in the middle of the shed. We recorded the amazing echoes
and reverberation on a portable DAT recorder, and at the mixing stage,
these were mixed with the original sounds. The shed was in use at that
time as a warehouse, full of plastic dustbins, and we only got in there
by the good offices of Den Burchmore of the Airship Heritage Trust. The
guys working there kindly turned off their fork-lift trucks for five
minutes while we scurried about the alleyways between huge piles of
dustbins trying to catch these sounds.
The were a few other minor examples of Conceptual mucking about. For
example, there's a passage where John was trying to make the sound of an
airship breaking up in flight. He needed a piece of rough metal to
scrape over his guitar strings so we used a piece of broken airship I
happen to have. I thought it was worth going to all this trouble just
for the hell of it, just to say we'd done it, not so much for the
acoustic results that I thought we were likely to get, but I was amazed
at what a difference they make. The Cardington church organ sounds
delightfully English and authentic, while the Beauvais recording is
astonishing. We did it on a cassette recorder, because we didn't have a
DAT recorder available, but the sound is fantastic, quite unlike
anything else on the record. Well worth all the effort. As for the
stuff we did in the airship shed, I would have thought that, with modern
digital-echo and reverb processors being available, our recordings of
the ambience in there would have been redundant, but these passages have
a unique quality of sound which we couldn't have achieved otherwise. A
lot is down to David Lord's skill during the mix, of course.
- How was the mixing done?
- David Lord mixed my last CD, 'Dome of Discovery', and he seems to
have a weakness for difficult and not very profitable projects. I know
him because his studio and Peter Hammill's studio share the same
building. He's an extraordinary man, a serious classical musician and
composer, turned rock'n'roll producer. Delightful company, and
effortlessly brilliant at what he does. His contribution to 'Curly's
Airships' was absolutely crucial; the quality of the finished sound is
down, very much, to his work.
For the mixing, I had to take my 16-track, my computer and my sound
modules down to Bath and transfer all sixteen tracks of my master-tapes
onto David's large array of ADAT digital recorders. Then, as we mixed
each individual 'fragment' or mini-track of music, the time code, now
safely on David's system, could control my computer which, in turn, was
driving my sound modules and playing the drum and bass parts in real
time, as the mix happened. This meant that, if my precious drum and
bass stuff wasn't up to scratch, David could oh-so-diplomatically
suggest an alternative, and the parts could be changed in my computer's
sequencer there and then. The finished mixes were transferred onto
David's hard-disk editing system, and stitched together into the tracks
as you hear them. I had to schlep all my gear up and down to Bath about
eight times between March 1999 and January 2000, thirteen weeks work in
all. In between stays in Bath, I was recording my finished vocals,
which I find is a wretched job. I love singing, but recording vocals is
hell when you have to do all your own button pushing at the same time as
well. Of course the vocals on 'Curly' made the mixing a very delicate
- Why, particularly?
- Well, because a songstory is a narrative form, it's absolutely
essential that all the words can be heard and understood first time
through. With a normal song, you can afford to set the vocals back a
little, make them sound good with echo and reverb, and maybe you miss a
few words the first time you hear it. That's ok, because it usually
doesn't go on too long and, if you want to catch all the lyrics, you can
listen again carefully. It can be interesting and intriguing to have
the voice a bit indistinct. But a songstory goes on too long to be
forever straining to follow the words. Understanding the narrative has
to be effortless; otherwise the listener will eventually lose interest.
That's what I believe, anyway. So David had to tread a narrow path
between making the voices sound clear and making the voices sound good.
- What's your final verdict on the project?
- The verdict should come from a jury not a Judge. What can I say? I
don't think there's anything else like it - not that I know of, anyway -
but the fact that something's unique doesn't necessarily mean that it's
any good. I think I've done something that hasn't been done before, but
I don't know if I've done it well, or even whether the something I've
done was worth doing in the first place. I hope people will tell me.
interview with Judge conducted by Sean Kelly and David Scoffield, in
September 1995, see The
Judge Smith Interview.
have other questions about Curly's Airships for Judge, please post
them on the Ship's Log and he will do his best to answer them there.