Once Upon A Time
Released on 7th November 2011, this is Robb’s first full electric band recording since 2008, and features nine songs with The Irregulars, who on this recording are long-time powerhouse rhythm section John Forrester on bass and Charlie Waygood on drums, augmented by the ferocious fretwork of new recruit Tim Sanpher on guitar.
Recorded as live as possible, with only the vocals, a harmonica part and tambourine overdubs, the album is a superbly loud and lively collection of songs set against the fairy-tales of contemporary Britain and Europe.
The band played a few gigs to celebrate the album’s release in various venues from Belgium to Bradford.
Irregular Records were also very excited to release their first recording in vinyl format since 1991! A second album “Happily Ever After” was released in the following Spring.
- Once Upon a Time
- Prince Charming
- Magdeburg These Days
- Feast of Fools
- Second Division Life
- Long Road Home
- Falling Down with You
RECORDING AND COVER
Once upon a time this album was to have been called “Euroville”. I had accumulated a number of songs that were written or started or related to various different countries of the European union. Charlie was the first to express reservations. I was a bit worried about how a themed album would fare (they used to be called “concept” albums), and Charlie pointed out that most people in the UK probably wouldn’t care tuppence about the state of Europe, and though most people who like what we do are probably a bit more broad-minded about things, nonetheless it seemed a bit of a risk giving critics etc another reason to ignore us.
The media and the bizz already had plenty of reasons to ignore us with this album. For a start-off, it wasn’t ever going to fool anybody into thinking that it could be nicely filed away downstairs or at the back of the shop or in the half-a-rack or wherever else the” Folk” section, if it features at all, is hidden. Our fig-leaf of folkability, our dear mate and melodeon maestro Roger Watson, wasn’t with us on this one. His last gig had been at Glastonwick Festival in June 2010. His doctor had taken him off the pills prior to heart surgery. He was too weak to carry his melodeons, his amp packed up for a bit, but when he got it working he played like a demon. There are films of this on You Tube. The following week, he went for surgery and had a stroke instead, that has left him unable to play, or sing. We didn’t for one second want to try to find another melodeon player. Roger is the Irregulars’ melodeon player, full stop. But without Roger, and with Tim on lead guitar, rather than pigeonhole us grudgingly as “Folk”, it would probably be easier just to ignore us altogether. I mean, rock music, whether it’s metal, punk or indie, is something teens and twenty-somethings do, with appropriate silly haircuts, funny clothes and ostentatious tattoos. And that’s not us.
Anyway, we went ahead with it nonetheless. In January we recorded sixteen songs as demo versions. We recorded them all live at Transmission Studios in Hove, our studio of choice, with the genial wizardry of Ali Gavan at the recording controls, and they sounded pretty good. Although I was trying to avoid anything too thematic, as the opening track was very likely going to be “Once Upon a Time”, I had written a song called “Happily Ever After” that would be the last track, and the songs were sort of arranged to present an emotional narrative (but I usually try to do that with albums anyway).
Listening to the recordings, it seemed that a good title would be “Happily Ever After”, but then we felt that sixteen tracks were just too many to put on one album. I’d noticed with earlier albums of fourteen tracks, tracks tend to get lost, or overlooked. Albums stuffed full of tracks seem like great value-for-money bargains, but they also prove a bit difficult to get all the way through. I was wondering if this is just cos I grew up listening to vinyl, where you had to get up every five or so tracks to turn the record over. But I think there’s something about attention-span, and the free-time you can devote to listening, that does mean if you exceed much more than ten songs or forty minutes, then it’s likely you’re just using music as wallpaper.
Coincidentally, whilst thinking about these questions, I had just started listening to music on vinyl again. One of the reasons for this was discovering that the latest Stooges album, “The Weirdness”, on vinyl, had a whole side of extra tracks you didn’t get on the CD. So a turntable needed to be purchased. Even listening to records on the cheapest system from Richer Sounds that I could afford, music just sounded so much… better on vinyl than it did on CD. I looked at my vinyl copy of “Raw Power” (well, actually, two copies cos I found that you can buy both the Bowie mix and the Iggy mix in one gatefold version!). It had eight tracks on it. No-one complained that it was too short. This suddenly seemed the way forward: release the recordings as two different albums, and release it not just on CD and download, but on vinyl too, which would be very exciting, a proper Irregular Record, the first one since 1991. I looked at the songs and found there were more or less eight songs that were a bit on the negative side, and eight songs that were a bit more… positive. The eight slightly more negative songs would form the first album, “Once Upon a Time”, and the eight slightly more positive songs would be the second album “Happily Ever After”.
It’s not quite as simple as that. There are variations in mood, and content, on both albums, and both albums are still essentially a collection of songs set against the fairy-tales of contemporary Europe. We thought the first album ended up a bit short, so we took “Feast of Fools” from the second album to make the number of songs on “Once Upon a Time” up to nine. This means we have to record some more tracks for the second album, one of which is going to be “Tottenham Burned”, which probably, thematically, would have fitted better on the more negative first album – but then again, maybe not. Although “Happily Ever After” is – to put it mildly – partly an ironic title (at one point I was thinking of having a cover using a photo of Berliners standing on and milling around the Berlin Wall), and not all sunshine and bluebirds and fluffy love songs (again, ironically, the most overt straightforward love song closes the first album) it’s good to have some variety of tone on both albums.
At the time of writing this, the plan is to use the same images and covers for both albums, but have the first release lettered and duo-toned (John Forrester’s clever idea) with blue and the second album with red. This seems a good idea particularly as we decided it was time to put out an album with a cover featuring a Band Photo (rather than something more obscure like an ironic use of the Berlin Wall). I hate photos. I feel deeply self-conscious whenever I have to do that sort of thing. I much prefer interesting, more obscure, complex images like an ironic use of the Berlin Wall. Unfortunately, apparently, this is not a position shared by most members of the CD-buying public. They like faces. They like smiling faces, too. Maybe this is just because that’s what they’re used to (Bruce Cockburn has a song that remarks upon how magazine covers are all either men’s faces or women’s bodies), or maybe the market-research psychological gibberish is true, “we” subconsciously relate instinctively better to faces and smiles. Whatever, in the past I have definitely noticed people browsing Irregular CDs at gigs, choose a CD with a gurning Johnson mugshot over a CD with a far more aesthetically pleasing artwork cover image.
We had never had a proper band-photo album cover ever, so we thought maybe now was the time to have a go at one. Also, I reasoned, it would prevent me from indulging my propensity for the Berlin Wall approach to album covers that would not only have signified “concept album” but also “Euro-concept album” to boot. Charlie’s partner Claire Pullinger is an actual, for-real, photographer; they studied a range of classic band-shot album covers, and showed us some options – brickwork or plain background? Heads or bodies too? Eventually, we managed to get us all in the same place at the same time (Friday night in Hove). The light had “gone”, apparently, by the time we all turned up, but we found a wall and arranged ourselves in rock’n’roll style against it, Tim looking particularly rock’n’roll after a long drive back from France. Fog decided to start rolling helpfully in off the sea, too, so we parked John’s car over the road with the headlights on and the engine running and hoped no-one would nick it while Claire took the photos. They are – as photographs – really really good. We chose the two we liked best, and unable to decide on a favourite, put the one where I am having a bit of a go at nearly smiling on the front, and the one where I’m holding a Telecaster instead on the back. They are so good, we will very likely use them twice.