Wizard Wednesdays: Exclusive Skylarking Bonus Notes with XTC’s Dave Gregory
In case you’re just tuning in, in the past few weeks, I had started what a series of Wednesday blog entries featuring selected content from my upcoming history of the productions of Todd Rundgren, entitled A Wizard A True Star: Todd Rundgren In The Studio, published by Jawbone Press. Order now!
I remind everyone that my book is not just about Todd Rundgren music, but about ALL of Todd Rundgren’s classic studio productions, with exclusive first-hand tales of the studio from Todd and most of the principles from: Meat Loaf: Bat Out Of Hell, Sparks: (Halfnelson), Hall & Oates: War Babies, XTC: Skylarking, New York Dolls: New York Dolls + Cause I Sez So, Patti Smith Group: Wave, The Band: Stage Fright, Cheap Trick: Next Position Please, The Tubes: Remote Control + Love Bomb, Bourgeois Tagg: YoYo, The Pursuit Of Happiness: Love Junk + One Sided Story, Steve Hillage: L, Psychedelic Furs: Forever Now and Grand Funk: We’re An American Band + Shinin’ On. And yes, I even talked with all key Utopia members (all lineups), and get Todd’s take on the making of Badfinger’s Straight Up and and his interactions with George Harrison.
On Wizard Wednesdays, I will be leaking, editing and remixing material from both the book and my unused notes. In the first two weeks, I covered Todd’s own Healing and Todd albums, and last week I leaked some stuff from the discussion of Todd’s production of New York Dolls (1973). This week I wanted to share some of my full interview with XTC’s Dave Gregory, for the chapter about the making of XTC’s Skylarking.
Dave was amazing. He’s been one of my musical heroes since 1978 or so, but what I didn’t realize is that the man has either an amazing memory or a really detailed diary. He also sent us a series of personal snapshots from the sessions, and we used a couple of these in the book. I had to do these interviews with him via email and usually that’s a drag, but Dave’s long-form answers (most of which were too long to use in their entirety in the final text), could have been a book on their own. For instance, a simple question about the band’s arrival at Newark Airport, to drive to Woodstock and begin the album, elicited this response:
PAUL MYERS: Dave, to begin with, why don’t you give me your initial impressions of arriving in America?
DAVE GREGORY: We flew to the States on Virgin Airlines, which was probably the cheapest ticket at the time, landing in Newark NJ on the evening of April 6th 1986. Two crates containing our guitars had been shipped over separately. I packed two flight cases with the following instruments: Martin D.35 acoustic, Wal Pro II and Epiphone Newport basses, Rickenbacker 12-string, Squier Telecaster, Gibson ES-335, Epiphone Riviera, Epiphone Dwight and a 1966 Stratocaster. Later, in San Francisco, I purchased my 1953 Les Paul. All the guitars were used on the record except the Dwight and the Strat. Todd was very keen for us to use his black Ovation 12-string electro-acoustic, which made it on to a number of tracks. [Later, during recording] we had a problem finding a hook for ‘Earn Enough For Us’; we had the sound, with the Rickenbacker through a Tom Scholz RockMan, and I remember all of us sitting in the control room as I tried variations on the basic theme until eventually it fell into place. He suggested re-introducing it over the final stanza, then playing four ‘G5s’ over the end triplets. He then had me double-track it, and he may have beefed it up further with piano later. That was about as involved as he got with the guitars; most of the parts we’d already thrashed out previously. But it did illustrate his strength as a producer; not interfering unless it was necessary, and always having something up his sleeve for when things didn’t work.
PAUL MYERS: Dave, I know you were a Todd fan already, did you have any special anticipation as you headed from the airport to Lake Hill and Utopia Sound?
DAVE GREGORY: Having cleared customs and collected our baggage, we assembled in the arrivals area and looked for our contact, but found no-one! Great – this is going to be some adventure – we didn’t even have a contact number. We didn’t have any money either, apart from a bit of cash brought from home, as credit cards and ATMs were not part of the established way of life that they are today. After about 40 minutes, a rather flustered blonde lady came running up to us, full of apologies, explaining the delay was due to the filthy weather and heavy traffic. Her name was Mary Lou Arnold, and had been Todd’s PA for many years; the journey from upstate New York had taken about 4 hours! We piled blearily into the camper van and Mary Lou began the long return journey, all the while the rain beating down relentlessly. We were all very tired but in good spirits, and the conversation flowed quite effortlessly, though quite what our driver’s impressions must have been of these three bucolic English guys and their Rabelaisian humour I can’t imagine. As we finally left the freeway and ventured on to the dark country by-roads approaching Woodstock, the rain falling with ever-increasing intensity, it felt as if we were part of some opening sequence from an old horror movie – thunder-claps, forked lightning, the lot!
DAVE GREGORY (Cont.): Todd’s property was located high up in the woods, near the foot of the Catskill Mountains, at the top of Mink Hollow Road in Lake Hill, NY. The whole area had a strong resonance with me, being close to West Saugerties, where The Band had recorded “Music From Big Pink”, and where Bob Dylan had his famous motor cycle accident in 1966. It was quiet – perhaps too quiet – and was set in the most perfect rural idyll imaginable. There were a few houses close to Todd’s, but we never saw the neighbours. The guest house was a timber-framed, white-painted building with sky-blue window frames, built on a bank next to the road. It had a basement, it’s own garden and a balcony at ground level with a big swing-chair – that ‘Big Pink’ vibe, pure rural Americana. We rolled out of the van, grateful to be ‘home’ at last; I threw my suitcase into the first room I found with a bed in it, while Andy and Colin scoured the upstairs for the choicest room. They didn’t find it – I’d lucked out and picked the master bedroom! I established ‘squatters’ rights’ and moved in. It had a huge, comfortable bed with a radio and hi-fi system next to it. On the disc turntable sat a white label test pressing of Todd’s ‘A Capella’ LP. (Now it can be told, gentle reader; I liberated that disc and took it home with me)… The next morning, the rain having cleared, we explored our new surroundings. Behind the guest house was about an acre-and-a-half of land, surrounded by woods. At the far end of the property, at the end of a long drive, stood a large, modern-looking bungalow which was the Rundgren residence. Outside stood a gorgeous red Eldorado Convertible, just waiting for a little tlc to get it running (I don’t think it ever got it). Half-way between the bungalow and the house stood a large, glazed timber shed with a stone chimney stack in one corner; Utopia Sound Studios!
The studio was open so we went inside, where we found a variety of instruments and amps gathering dust, and looking somewhat neglected. A 1968 Vox Super Beatle amplifier – impressive looking, horrible-sounding things we never got in England – stood against a wall on its chrome stand. A grand piano stood in one corner, next to an ornate screen that a fan-dancer might have used; there were some Indian instruments hanging on the chimney breast, including a sitar; and lurking in another corner was the much-vaunted Chamberlin, which we had been promised would be a suitable replacement for our (absent) Mellotron. Opposite the Chamberlin stood a shelf containing boxes of 2” master multi-track tape reels, many of them Todd’s own recordings. I could hardly believe I could actually touch some of this stuff! On the wall behind the wooden stair-case that led to the control room was a blown-up painting of the “wizard” cartoon that adorns the back of the “Runt” LP.
The biggest surprise for me, however, was entering the control room and discovering Eric Clapton’s world-famous Gibson SG guitar, complete with its restored Fool artwork, sitting on a stand. It was still Todd’s main guitar and had taken up permanent residence at his place of work! Since Clapton’s sound with Cream had been among my biggest influences as a guitar player, to see the actual instrument he’d used right in front of me was a like a bolt from the blue. I decided that I’d finally reached rock heaven – all my musical dreams and aspirations were about to come true.
Later in the conversation, I asked Dave about Todd’s arrival…
DAVE GREGORY: A day or two later Todd arrived and work started immediately. Rehearsals? I don’t remember any rehearsals at Utopia, though we’d done our woodshedding in my living room before leaving. Todd decided quite quickly that we needed more equipment, so a trip to New York City was arranged. The long drive south and back again gave us an opportunity to get to know him a little better, and we looked forward to getting down to some serious work. We came back from the city with a Prophet X synthesizer (like a double-manual Prophet V), a couple of small ukelele-type instruments from Mexico (tiples), and a big assortment of percussion.
Space doesn’t permit me to reprint the whole transcript here, but I’ll share a couple of “how’d-they-do-that?” moments. First, Dave’s super solo on “That’s Really Super Supergirl”, which he played on Todd’s celebrated “Fool” SG, once owned by Eric Clapton.
DAVE GREGORY: I really, really wanted to play the Clapton SG on something, and Todd agreed to let me use it for this solo. Of course, it sounds more Todd than Eric, but that’s OK! It was strung with acoustic bronze-wound strings, which he allowed me to remove. While changing the strings in my room, I took the opportunity to remove the pick-guard and control rout cover, in order to examine the artwork more closely. I was surprised to discover that the paint had been applied directly on top of the factory cherry lacquer, which was still visible beneath the pick-guard. At some point the guitar must have been dropped vertically, because there was a serious crack in the wood under the controls; it would have been possible to break a corner of the body clean off. It was only the cover plate that was holding it together!
We recorded the solo in the control room, neck pick-up via the Scholz Rock Man and whatever devices Todd used to produce that uniquely Utopian effect. That SG felt very comfortable to play, the neck has a nice profile even with all the paint covering it (Clapton quickly scraped the paint off the neck, but Todd had it restored). Months after the album was finished I was listening at home to Utopia’s “Ra”, when Roger Powell’s ascending trumpet lines in the middle section of ‘Magic Dragon Theatre’ struck a familiar chord. I noticed that subliminally, I’d borrowed the same little 5-note runs for part of my solo! Todd can’t have considered it important enough to mention…
And Dave talked about recording various parts, including his work on “Dear God”, the song that would pay off for XTC in America.
DAVE GREGORY: There aren’t many guitar solos as such on the album. The rubbery arpeggios in ‘Dear God’ marked the entry of my latest, and most prized, instrument – the ’53 Gold-top Les Paul, purchased in San Francisco the day before we left. I later used it again for the solo on ‘Extrovert’ (last song to be recorded, Todd absent, session engineered by Chris Andersen and George Cowan).
DAVE GREGORY (Cont.): The nylon-strung guitar part on ‘Sacrificial Bonfire’ was a bit of a problem at first; I couldn’t play the part strongly enough in finger-style. So Todd wrapped a nylon Dunlop pick in gaffer tape, and said “Try this”…well, it worked! I still have the pick somewhere. I’ve never used it for anything else. Can’t remember whose guitar that was; it might have been Colin’s but I’m not sure. The fuzzy lead lines in ‘Grass’ were the Epiphone Riviera through the ghastly Vox Beatle amp – it was there, so we had to use it. Andy played the main hook on ‘Meeting Place’ on the Epi, in an unusual tuning and capo’d up at fret 3. For some reason the G string was louder than all the others, so Todd un-screwed the pole-piece from the neck pick-up and that solved the problem.
The only shame about doing a book like this is, after the embarrassment of riches that is Dave’s ten-page transcript, I also had to somehow fold in content from my exclusive interviews with Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Prairie Prince and Todd. I’ll leave you with Dave’s summing up, which I believe we kept in the book:
DAVE GREGORY: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Todd Rundgren saved XTC’s career. He did exactly what he’d been hired to do, against all the odds: get us a hit in America. ‘Dear God’ – which Andy had removed from the album in order to accommodate ‘Another Satellite’ – had turned up on a promo EP released to DJs by Geffen Records, and had become a turntable hit. Suddenly, there was a surge of interest in XTC – where’s the album with this song on it?? Geffen, quite naturally, panicked and re-pressed up a new master with ‘Mermaid Smiled’ removed and ‘Dear God’ inserted in its place. Then it was decided to release ‘Dear God’ as a single and a video was made, which not only enjoyed heavy rotation on MTV but was also nominated for a Grammy Award (I think it was a Grammy? Or was it an MTV Award?). Very embarrassing for all the decision-makers concerned, proving once and for all that the artist is not always the best judge of their own work.