The Making of "The Madcap Laughs"
The first session was booked for Thursday, April 10th,
in studio three. E.M.I.'s studio complex is still arguably one of
the best in the world. In 1969 it most certainly was. Studio
One was the largest, and almost exclusively used for large
orchestral recordings (when I had first seen it I was convinced a
helicopter could fly in it!). Studio two was always fully
booked, often by the Beatles, the Hollies, and other top E.M.I.
artists and, of course, the Floyd often were using it for
'Ummagumma'. Studio Three was the smallest, 'though still large
by studio standards, and more intimate than studio two (but less
technically advanced; studio two had 8 track machines while
studio three was still four track). Both Syd and I were
familiar with Number 3 (I had produced Love Sculpture's first
album there) so we settled for that one. Studio Two had a
control room set at a higher level than the studio itself, which
meant looking down on the musicians - and frankly I disliked
that. It's easier for the producer to see what's happening but I
felt it was harder for the musicians to see into the control
booth, and Syd needed a relaxed atmosphere. Plus, three was
easier to book at short notice!
Syd and I spent the first session alone (7 p.m. to 12:30) investigating the old tapes made a year earlier to see if anything was usable. We first overdubbed guitar and vocal tracks onto 'Silas Lang' ('Swan Lee') and experimented with ideas for 'Clowns And Jugglers'. Neither of these was eventually used (Clowns And Jugglers, re-recorded as 'Octopus', was used in another version), and we both agreed that the new songs were far better than the old tracks. But at least we had checked each other out and we returned to Earls Court ready to start afresh the next evening.
The next evening we got down to business proper. Syd was in a great mood and in fine form, a stark contrast to the rumours and stories I'd been fed with. In little over five hours we laid down vocal and guitar tracks (extra backings on most came later) for four new songs and two old.
The first we made (the engineer was Peter Mew) was 'Opel', at Syd's request. We both felt at the time that it was one of his best new songs *(1) After Dave (Gilmour) and Roger (Waters) took over production, I left the final say to them and Syd as to which songs were included in the final album. I was nevertheless very sad that 'Opel' was left out, especially in the light of what I thought to be lesser songs being included. I assume it was Syd's decision.* It took Syd nine runs at it to get a complete take, and even that was not perfect. Nevertheless it had a stark attraction to it, and most of the early takes were merely false starts. Anyone who has experience of studio techniques will appreciate that it takes several attempts to get the right feel and to feel totally relaxed. ('Hound Dog' took over 30 takes!) Many of the unsuccessful takes are merely lapses of memory, technical faults, popping the letter 'p' at the microphone, squeaky chairs, etc. Syd always had lyric sheets in front of him, and turning the pages was often caught on tape (it was left in on 'She Took A Long Cold Look'). Two complete takes were made, the rest were false starts similar to the ones Dave and Roger left in on 'If It's In You'.
Most of the tracks on this were just with Syd and his guitar. I felt that, with his guitar alone we could put down some songs and overdub backings later as necessary (contrary to usual policy of making backings and adding vocals afterwards). Next we did 'Love You' - again just guitar and voice. We did
several takes of this. The first was fast, in fact VERY fast (faster than the issued one). The second was very slow! Take three was a false start, and take four was the one we later overdubbed and issued. All three good takes were perfect, and in fact we weren't sure which take to use. The studio note says
'Best to be decided later'. All takes took less than twenty minutes to do. This was Syd at full tilt! At this session Syd was in great form, and very happy. No matter what people may say to the contrary, Syd was very together, and this was his first session with the new songs. Although Opel needed 9 attempts, Love You needed only one re-take. The next track we did, 'It's No Good Trying' was much the same. The very first take, with Syd and his blue speckled Fender Telecaster, was good. Take two was a false start, and take three was the version we used (although at 5 minutes 14 seconds it needed a little shortening). I kept Syd on the move, refusing too many retakes. And it was working. In the two hours between 7.30 and 9.30 we had completed several successful takes of three songs.
During the tea break we discussed going back to some of the songs started the previous year, in particular 'Golden Hair', and perhaps 'Late Night' although the original version of that had been destroyed, it seemed. We returned to the studio and started work on another new song, 'Terrapin'. In one take Syd laid down a guitar and vocal track that was to be the master! At my suggestion Syd double tracked his vocal part, and that was it! (He later overdubbed the solo).
When we resumed Syd overdubbed slide guitar (using his cigarette lighter as a slide) on the backing track of 'Late Night', plus the vocal. The vocal took no time at all, and we swiftly moved on to 'Golden Hair' which we had transferred from the original 4 track to an 8 track master. I do not know who the musicians were on this track, but the instrumentation was identical to the re-made version that Dave and Roger were to produce later - vibes, bass, drums and guitar. The version I worked on with Syd was not the one used on the album, although the remake was a direct copy of mine. This first version featured Syd's guitar more prominently. In fact there were two versions made at this session, the second featuring an added harmony vocal line by Syd. When I heard much later that Dave and Roger re-made 'Golden Hair' I was, to say the least, surprised. The issued recording, while technically better, is far less atmospheric than the original, and I still feel that a re-make was unnecessary.
By midnight we felt we had done enough for one day. We had worked on seven titles in one way or another, and we both felt we had made great progress. In the cab back to Earls Court we discussed our next session, and I was looking forward to a quiet and relaxing weekend. I told Syd I would pick him up the next Thursday as usual; Syd replied by saying he'd bring along some musicians to play on some of the tracks we were planning, and with that we parted company.
The following Thursday, as planned, I called a cab and went to collect Syd. We dropped in at Dave Gilmour's flat round the corner to borrow an amplifier, and set off for Abbey Road. At the studio we met up with Jerry Shirley and 'Willie' Wilson, the musicians Syd had invited along. The session was to be done 'live' i.e. everyone recording their parts at the same time, including Syd's vocal and guitar parts. As usual, Syd played his blue Fender Telecaster, unamplified, as rhythm. *(1) Syd had maintained fairly constant contact with David Gilmour, who's amp we were using. When he delivered the tapes for the 'More' album to me, David quizzed me as to how the sessions were progressing, although he showed no interest at the time in producing Syd. By April he had completed most of his solo contributions to 'Ummagumma', and had more time to spare.* We started with 'No Man's Land', and Syd ran through the song several times with Jerry and Willie following to pick up the sequences. After a little rehearsal we tried for a take to let everyone hear how we were progressing (frequently a 'take' is attempted, not for a master, but simply to check that the equipment is working correctly and to let the performers hear how they sound in the control room). After several other run throughs we went for a master, and in all we completed three takes successfully, the last being the best. The bass was later re-recorded *(2) The original bass track showed room for improvement, which we did later on during the session, after Syd's guitar parts had been recorded.* Syd then recorded the guitar solo and the spoken part, which was as unintelligible then as it is now! The other guitar part was overdubbed later (see session lists). Syd's guitar playing could, at times, be extremely erratic. He would frequently switch from playing rhythm to lead at double the volume, setting the meters well into the red and requiring a re-take. It was a matter of having too many ideas and wanting to record them all at once!
This April 17th session was the first that we did in Studio Two instead of Studio Three. Whereas the April 11th session had been mainly voice and guitar tracks, with no backings, this one was to employ Jerry Shirley and John 'Willie' Wilson (who also lived in Earls Court!). The greater scope afforded by the 8 track machine in No. 2 (Studio three was 4 track) would allow us to do more overdubs if necessary, particularly on 'No Man's Land'. No. 2 also had a much better drum sound (it is a larger studio) and it isn't hard to tell that Jerry Shirley plays extremely loudly in the studio, especially on 'Here I Go'. Compare the drum sound on this to Ringo's Beatles work of the time. They are very similar.
'Here I Go', the second song of the session, was also the second 'old-tymey' song Syd did on the album - that is using a music hall style chord structure. With its unusual introduction and overall theme, it shows Syd at his relaxed best. He wrote it, I seem to remember, in a matter of minutes. *(1) Syd nearly always had his lyrics in front of him on a stand, in case of the occasional lapse of memory. This song was the only one I remember him needing no cue sheet at all.* The whole recording was done absolutely 'live', with no overdubs at all. Syd changed from playing rhythm to lead guitar at the very end, and the change is noticeable. (Syd, however, would change like that often. Whereas it was accepted practice to record, say, the rhythm guitar for the whole duration of the song and then to go back later and overdub the solo. To Syd this was an unnecessary procedure! He'd mix them together. That accounts for the 'drop' during the solo, as Syd's rhythm guitar is no longer there!) The whole session lasted for just three hours (in the afternoon). At the end I casually asked Syd if he had any more songs for the next one in a week's time. 'Not really, but, er, I've got a weird idea I want to try out' was all he would say. 'Well,' I replied, 'does it need other musicians ? - because if so I'll need to book studio two again.' 'No' was his reply. A couple of days later I was none the wiser, and getting rather anxious. On the one hand I didn't want to book the wrong studio, and on the other I didn't want to hold valuable studio time with no real plans. Syd eventually said that he had no new songs but would quite like to see if there was anything we could do with one of Pete Jenner's old tracks, 'Rhamadan'. This was a long (even boring) track, lasting about 18 minutes, which Syd (or, at least, I have always presumed it was his playing) had made the previous May. It featured several conga drum overdubs, with no apparent theme or direction. Reluctantly I agreed to check it out, but said that we really didn't need a studio for that, we could use one of the mixing rooms. Just in case, I arranged for a stereo machine to be set up so we could mix it for reference later at home or in my office. On the morning of April 23rd., Syd and I again set out for Abbey Road.
Syd was carrying a small, portable cassette player, which I assumed he was bringing so that we could make him a copy of 'Rhamadan'. I was very wrong. 'I'd like to overdub some motorbike sounds onto 'Rhamadan'', he said, 'so I've been out on the back of a friend's bike with the cassette player. They are all ready to put onto the 'Rhamadan' four track.' When Syd played the cassette of the sound effects, it was terrible! Not only was it poor quality for casual listening, it was certainly no good for professional recording. Syd was quite insistent, so I said nothing more until we got to Abbey Road. I planned to let engineer (Peter Mew, I believe) reinforce my feelings. For almost an hour we struggled to wire Syd's machine into the 4 track master machine. The trouble with such an operation is that professional electrical fittings are bigger, better and more complex than those purchased over the counter of the average hi-fi shop. Someone in the workshop at Abbey Road had to actually make a connecting lead from Syd's cassette machine to the Studer 4 track. When we eventually wired the two together (cassette players are more common place in studios today with the increase in quality achieved over the last five years), it was apparent to all of us that the quality was not good enough. Even mixed into the conga drums at low level the tape hiss and extraneous noises were unacceptable.
Fortunately, E.M.I. came to the rescue. One of the many advantages Abbey Road possessed over other studios of the time was its superior back-up facilities *(1) The workshop that made up the connecting lead for us was also responsible, as a matter of policy, for taking apart any equipment from outside sources and checking that it was up to E.M.I.'s technical standards. When the Beatles wanted to record in their newly opened Apple studios, it was E.M.I.'s equipment that was shipped out, in bulk, to Apple to do the recording. All Apple Studios started with was an empty room! And it wasn't long before they were back recording in Abbey Road.* , including a large sound effects library. The next hour was spent selecting the right combination of starting up, revving, starting off and various gear changes, etc. for a thirty second tape, this time in stereo. Exactly what Syd intended to do I shall never know, because he later changed his mind and abandoned the project. Maybe it still lies, rejected, in the archives.
The session we planned for two days later was almost
abandoned due to illness on my part. I had suffered from colitis
for some time, and a recurrence of the illness prevented me from
attending the session. All that we planned to do was transfer
all the tracks originally made on 4 track to 8 track for more
overdubs, and I suggested to Syd that he might like to go ahead
on his own and mix them down himself. Studio Three was now
(just) able to cope with 8 track machines, although it still had
the old 4 track mixing desk. Nevertheless it was an improvement
which we wished to take advantage of, especially as we had
decided to overdub backings onto 'It's No Good Trying', 'Clowns
and Jugglers', 'Love You', and several others (see appendix). I
noticed when preparing the appendix that 'Opel' was among them. Syd had obviously, at this stage, not decided to exclude it from
the album. I still think, to this day, that this is one of his
best and most haunting tracks, and it was tragic that, for
reasons unknown to me, it was not included on the final album.