The Dole: recording punk in Peterborough

In 1977-8, when punk was THE thing, I engineered and produced a couple of Punk Rock singles by bands from Peterborough where I then lived.

I’d had no communications with either band for 36 years or so. Then late in 2015 an email arrived out of the blue from Matt Gillatt, the bassist on the second of those singles. His band was The Dole: Ian ‘Emu’ Neeve (vocals), Pete Howsam (keyboards), Matt Gillat (bass), Simon Page (guitar), Paul Vjestica (drums). Matt explained that Ian Neeve had recently been lost to cancer and the others planned a reunion in his memory and to reform for a few gigs.

The two sides of The Dole’s “double A sided” slice of punk excitement were “New Wave Love” and “Hungry Men No Longer Steal Sheep But Are There Hanging Judges?” Matt revealed that the record is still talked about, played and enjoyed.

For Matt and the other band members’ benefit, I racked my brain to recall something of the circumstances under which the two songs were recorded in an empty house in Peterborough.

At the time I was in partnership with Adrian Knight on a venture (Ultimate Music) which offered a bespoke record production service. That is, we’d record someone, have their records pressed and the record sleeves printed, so the artists could sell them at gigs. Recording bands and releasing record commercially ourselves was an afterthought. We had the tape recorders (an eight-track, a two-track (quarter inch tape) used to mix down onto, and my own Revox two-track) and a mixing desk (Allen & Heath, 16 inputs, 8 outputs) but no premises, so no “studio”.

I think it was The Dole’s manager, Joe Edwards, who suggested we record The Dole in the empty house.

For each song we did all the instruments first. When we came to record the vocals, it was clear after a few run-throughs that Ian wasn’t hitting the high notes, so I slowed down the tape. He therefore sang along with a lower-pitched backing track and wasn’t having to sing so high. It had the bonus of giving the vocals more punch when the tape was returned to the correct speed.

The lead vocals on both songs were double-tracked. I like the combined effect On New Wave Love, when Ian spoke the line “I was you were here” differently between the takes! Both takes went through the compressor/limiter, so they’re highly compressed (i.e. there’s hardly any dynamic range).

Matt recalled it was Simon, Pete and himself who together provided the harmonies. He said: “I have a vivid recollection of the three of us stood in line, finger in one ear trying not to laugh because we felt so stupid. We had never done harmonies before when playing live, but from that day onwards we did.”

I think three of the eight tracks on the master tape were used for vocals (the double tracked lead, and the backing vocals). Each instrument had a track except drums which, I think, had two: possibly a “stereo mix” of the kit. I think there was a lot of sound from other instruments spilling over onto each track. Each instrument would have been eq’d to lift it out of the mix. The mix was also heavily compressed. There was spring reverb (most obvious right at the end of New Wave Love).

The “quiet bits”: a series of edits
New Wave Love has several pauses. During these there was a lot of background noise and amp hum – and the compressor was amplifying it. Leaft as it was, it would have sounded terrible. So, during the mix, I quickly faded the master volume down to zero each time the instruments stopped and left a few seconds of silence on the quarter-inch mix-down tape. Then I put the master volume back up, ran the multi-track machine back a bit and restarted it to record the next part of the song on the mix-down tape.

The quarter-inch mix-down tape was therefore a series of sequences which I edited (in the way those things were done back then: using a razor blade). So you hear a clean silence in each break before the instruments come back in at the right moment.

On New Wave Love the organ volume was lifted in the mix during the instrumental break, then faded back before the vocal resumes. Otherwise I think the instruments were left at the same level throughout the mix.

I can’t remember if there was any delay echo on the voices on New Wave Love, but there is on Hungry Men: it’s evident on Ian’s lead vocal and of course very dramatic on the ‘ha-ha-ha’ (by Joe Edwards). The delay echo was introduced during the mix, using my Revox tape machine: the “echo send” goes into its record head, then is replayed to the mix a fraction of a second later (“echo return”).

Reception and sales
The single was well received and sold well but made us no money. This was largely because we’d supplied a large quantity to Lightning Records, at that time a leading distributor of punk rock and of independent record labels generally. After repeated requests for payment, we received one day without warning a large box from Lightning containing all their unsold copies of our earlier punk single on Ultimate, “Development Corporations” by The Now: we had sold Lightning all the copies of The Now’s single the previous year, guaranteeing them sole distributorship – the discs weren’t on “sale or return”!

Lightning stated that those returns cancelled out their debt for The Dole’s singles. It soon became evident Lightning was in financial trouble, had no funds and we would never be paid for The Dole’s record. The bottom line was that lost money on the two punk rock singles.

Sticky-shed syndrome
We used Scotch 206 magnetic tape – a popular tape choice in the pro-recording industry at the time – on the multitrack and mix-down recorder. Unfortunately Scotch 206 was found many years later to be one of the tape types subject to “sticky-shed syndrome”: the binder holding the magnetic particles breaks down over a number of years.

About a decade later I tried to play some of old tapes from the era: I heard a squealing noise and a sticky goo (the binder containing the magnetic particles) quickly built up on the tape heads and guides.  The sounds recorded on the tapes was lost forever.  You can read lots about sticky-shed syndrome on line.

Recording and releasing the punk rock records was stressful at the time, and commercially unrewarding. But I also have memories of a thrilling experience and meeting some great people. And it’s great to hear people are still enjoying those recordings of The Dole after all these years!

Royer Slater
January 2016


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