Telling Stories - Tim Burgess (2012)
7. LA Wonderland
I was at a party round at Martin Kelly’s flat on Elgin Avenue, Notting Hill, during the 1995 Carnival. I was up a tree, smoking a cigarette and drinking beer with John Niven. He was working for London Records at the time, and they were interested in signing The Charlatans. He has since found fame as the author of one of the best books about the music business, Kill Your Friends. I was really keen to work with someone I liked and admired. I felt that he understood me, and he enjoyed the pleasures of tree-based drinking and smoking.
John knew the ballpark figure he would have to offer to sign the band, but it wasn’t just about the money. John was offering us the chance to be on their Decca label, most famous of course for being where Oasis took the idea for their logo … and for The Rolling Stones.
We were ready to leave Beggars Banquet. It’s not that we had any animosity towards them, just that we were changing. We’d made three No. 1 albums and Mark Collins was still sleeping on a blow-up bed in a shared flat in Stockton Road, Chorlton. (The alleged venue, incidentally, of a tryst between a certain world-famous singer and a Stone Roses crew member.) And he had a kid on the way.
Steve Harrison had MCA ready with a cheque in their hands. But my loyalties were to Heavenly. I wrote a note in biro: ‘Dear Jeff, I promise to sign to Heavenly Recordings.’ I felt that it was meant to be – Heavenly were already looking after us artistically and press-wise. My handwritten note is up on the wall at the Heavenly Social on Little Portland Street, and it might as well be written in blood.
But you don’t always get what you want. The band had five members and a manager, and there were conflicting views as to what should happen for the best. Some wanted security, the manager wanted cash, I was responsibility-free and just wanted to work with friends. And although Decca and John Niven were very appealing, especially to me and Mark, I am not sure whether a deal was formally offered.
It was felt, too, that Heavenly might not have the resources for our ambitions. In my opinion Jeff, Martin and Robin were pioneers – as well as doing PR they had always released records. I’m not sure whether ‘ambition’ came into their remit. What they did, they did naturally. They were cool precisely because they weren’t self-conscious about what they did.
I had already pledged my allegiance with my hastily written note, but unfortunately there was more to consider than simply doing what I wanted. So promise gave way to compromise. It was agreed that we would sign with Universal – or was it MCA then? Hold on, it may have even been MCA Universal. Record companies are among the most corporate organizations in the world and bands the least so, so the working partnerships can be bizarre, to say the least. Like some kind of music food chain, labels, imprints and companies are eaten up, spat out, merged and severed with monotonous regularity. Deals were done like playground football-card swaps, and bands were like kids in divorces while the takeovers went on – one minute fought over and loved; the next, abandoned and out in the cold. It was important for us to have as much stability as possible, and that’s what MCA and/or Universal offered. Kind of.
Back to the tree … It’s one of my favourite places in the whole world to hang out, though it never used to be like that. When I’d moved with my mum and dad to the village of Moulton, after my first day at school I went to a place referred to by the locals as ‘the swamp’, which boasted the big three of frog spawn, mud and a rope swing. I climbed my very first tree, a huge oak, and I made it to the top without looking down. At the highest point, though, tremendous fear came over me, an overwhelming sense of panic. The thick trunk had given way to ever-thinning branches, and it suddenly dawned on me how precarious my position was. The gang I was with went to find my mum, which was a little humiliating but not quite as bad as not being able to move. I was frozen stiff with fear.
I was talked into a calculated descent involving a few small steps for this young boy but one giant leap for my future desire to be centre stage. Slowly and gingerly I was guided down. When I touched the ground I felt like I had landed a plane after being talked through it, like in a ’70s disaster movie.
Afterwards my dad told me that I couldn’t be afraid of heights because he had climbed the Matterhorn and my mum had conquered Snowdon. So climbing must have been in my DNA, and soon I was charging up trees like a frustrated baboon in a safari park.
I’m not sure if everyone views their childhood with blind fondness, and the number of autobiographies based on abuse and neglect makes me think otherwise. My childhood is a blur of Christmases, birthdays, chocolates and relatives. And then some days of weird silences around the house with no explanation. I later discovered that I was being spared the news that a neighbour had committed suicide, or that Mrs So-and-So from over the road had walked out on her husband after going out for a pint of milk.
I was totally sheltered from the more problematic aspects of life in the big world. It was such a safe environment that, when tragedy did strike, it seemed to hit all the harder. I was in awe of a kid at school. He was the best rugby player and also the hardest kid in our year – another ‘cock of the school’, as he would be known in the ’80s in the northwest. After school we continued playing rugby, but we would see each other only at the weekends. Weeks passed and I saw less and less of him, and then I heard he was ill. He was undergoing chemotherapy, but we held out hope as he seemed like the strongest kid we knew. After several months he knocked on the door and asked my mum if I was in. He was on crutches after losing a leg to cancer. We laughed when I told him he looked more punk with his bleach blond hair. We spent an afternoon talking music and shared a cigarette. I returned the copy of Generation X’s ‘King Rocker’ I’d borrowed from him. It was the last time I’d see him alive. He died before reaching 18.
Some days just feel heavy with grief even before the news hits you. Like the day John Lennon died, there seemed to be something that everyone knew but me. Later that year I was getting a little more daring, and I persuaded a kid called Ollie, who I was hanging around with, to give me my first tattoo. Now it’s barely a mark, but at the time it seemed like the most daring thing ever. And then someone from school ran up to me and told me that there’d been a car accident and Ollie had been killed. Gruesome details, like the fact he had been decapitated, deepened the shock. In those days, bereavement counsellors didn’t exist and we were left to our own devices to deal with things. Most of us showed little reaction, but I could see sadness in the eyes of kids who didn’t seem to have a care in the world a couple of summers before.
I remember climbing half-way up a sycamore tree in the orchard that stood a little up the road from where I lived. I was alone and it was the summer of 1978 – not quite as hot as the famous summer of 1976, which had had its hosepipe bans and heightened stress levels for the car-cleaning obsessives, but it was a hot one nonetheless.
For my birthday meal in May 1976 I’d ordered soup of the day and a knickerbocker glory. I had to kneel on the chair to get to it because the glass was so tall. On my birthday in 1978 I had slightly more of a landmark experience, my first orgasm.
I loved the tactile qualities of a tree climb. You could almost feel its heart beat, so strong was the sense of the tree as a conscious organism. As I climbed to the top of these beautiful living things my friends would look up and ask how it was up there. I watched people gently passing by, girls drifting up and down the path in floaty dresses and skirts. I remember the smell of their hair and perfume. I was dreaming about gold and I was dreaming about treasure. I thought about getting my ear pierced and wanted to be a pirate scaling a palm tree with a knife in my mouth.
I have no idea why these thoughts were in my head, but as I hugged the cool tree in the warm summer I noticed something going on in my shorts. I’ll spare you the details, but from then on things were different. The girls at school, who had previously bored me or had been targets for dead arms or Chinese burns, were now viewed in a different light. I became shy around them but couldn’t take my mind off them.
I reckon life is made up of two kinds of people: ones who climb to the top of the tree and those who are just happy to sit and chat and hang out at the bottom. Then when I think about it properly, I realize it’s not quite that simple.
We delivered Us and Us Only in 1999. I think it really stands up well, but it was never meant to be commercial, it was meant to separate us from the Britpop pack, which it did. If Tellin’ Stories was our Blonde on Blonde (it wasn’t, but just pretend it was!), then Us and Us Only was our John Wesley Harding: detached and a step sideways. Perhaps difficult to promote.
But we were a new band now after all – we had to face life without Rob. Tony Rogers was our new keyboard player. He was a songwriter and contributed to the writing from the outset. Ironically, the loss of Rob had led to a new lease of life for the band.
I guess that shows the true strength of a group. Anyway, Universal promoted Us and Only Us really well, but it wasn’t the record they wanted and neither was our next, Wonderland. We made Wonderland without the label even knowing, in a dark room on a steep hill just off Laurel Canyon. I desperately wanted it to do well in America, so we really went for it.
I was living there now and I wanted our records to succeed in my hometown, Hollywood, LA. I thought about every aspect of the album with that in mind: where it would be written, its title, who would produce it, and so on. I have some of the best memories ever of Mark and myself, writing ‘Love to You’ and ‘Right On’.
It was all very inspiring, soul-stirring, Curtis Mayfield stuff! Warm evenings on my balcony at La Punta Drive, or La Punta Heights, as my mate Randy christened it, drinking margaritas and doing rail after rail of LA’s finest white powder. We immersed ourselves in the city and let LA take over; it became just as much part of the album as the songs or any of us.
The drugs were a very big part of it: LA coke, lots of it, dealers at the house 24/7. We never ran out. And the environment changed the sound, the sun flooded in, the shutters were open and the ideas were flowing. It’s an incredibly optimistic album.
The thing about going to Los Angeles to make a record was that, in my head at least, LA is everything from Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys to Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Byrds, Sly and The Family Stone, Rick James. It’s as broad as the Manchester sound, and beyond. It’s a big palette musically to draw from, and when we headed out to LA as a band, we were thinking along the lines of funk, soul and disco with possibly some country-inspired inflections on top of that.
We had Daniel Lanois come down to play pedal steel on ‘A Man Needs to Be Told’, which was quite a trip. Through his work with U2 I knew who he was, but I was now actually paying even more attention, because he had just produced Bob Dylan’s Grammy-winning comeback album, Time Out of Mind. Jim Keltner, who had worked on the same album, also came in to play on a couple of tracks. I loved how casual they were, but also how excited they seemed about checking out what we were up to.
The band arrived a week or so before we started recording, hanging out in clubs, going to watch bands. I was the only resident of the city, so I became the ‘tour guide’. They were living in Oakwood Apartments on Barham Boulevard, right near Universal Studios. They had a little set-up in Mark’s room so they could record ideas as they arrived. Mark was sharing with Tony, so I guess it was the party room, too.
We recorded at Danny Saber’s Kevorkian’s Lab on Wonderland Avenue – I would get dropped off at the apartments about noon and we would all drive over to the studio together. In the car, the music was cranked up, the roof down, the sunglasses on. Clichéd? Fucking definitely. But I love that little ritual set-up.
I like to do some kind of ritual set-up with most albums, and indeed each song, whether in the writing or the delivery of the final lead vocal. I set up the process, building myself up for the big moment. But the drive over Mulholland was particularly special. It’s a mostly two-lane B-road and occasional dirt track. We would exit from the 101 South with views of the city, Los Angeles basin and San Fernando Valley, and of the Hollywood Hills and Santa Monica mountains. It gave its name to a brilliant David Lynch film that was about to come out. In the afternoon, it was a sweet-smelling miracle: eucalyptus and jasmine with an abundance of wildlife, rabbits, eagles, hawks and deer. In the evening or early hours of the morning, it was silent – apart from the occasional sound of crickets when we stopped at a red light, soulful and mysterious.
The atmosphere had everything to do with the way the songs were shaping up. We would be writing in the daytime, but then we would record in a completely blacked-out room on the third floor of Danny’s house, which we started calling the junkie den. Just writing those two words sends a shiver down my spine.
Every one of us at some point or other said either we were not going to have a mad one or we weren’t going to go crazy at all while we were working. But every day it got a little darker and every next day we started a little later. I was doing huge amounts of cocaine. I had a dealer with me permanently. He used to sleep on Mark’s sofa and would come to meet me round at Danny’s after dinner. I spent less and less time at home.
This went on for seven weeks. Initially we were conscientious and would start work at three in the afternoon, but by the end of it we were starting at four in the morning.
We were writing songs as we went along. We’d brought a few ideas from England, and we would start songs and finish ideas downstairs in Danny’s kitchen, including ‘And If I Fall’, or ‘California’ as it was known at the time. I called it that just to see the look on Martin’s face.
We wrote at Oakwood Apartments, and me and Mark, who had come over for a couple of weeks on his own before the rest of the band, had written some songs together at my house – ‘Love is the Key’, ‘Right On’ and ‘Love to You’.
When it was just Mark and me, before the others arrived, we had spent a lot of time just talking and sightseeing, driving to the ocean, driving through the hills, going to clubs, cinemas, record shops, even the zoo: picking up vibes, letting them sink into our bones.
We would drive on the freeways, the 101, the 110 and the 10, and we would listen to the radio. The classic stations would be playing Isaac Hayes and Sly and The Family Stone. I remember a great moment, in the blazing heat, stuck in the traffic on our way out to Santa Monica, just before you get on the 110, tuning into the radio station. William Devaughn’s ‘Be Thankful for What You Got’ came over the airwaves, and it was really a huge moment for me. We looked at each other and we both thought, Fucking hell, what a song! This is it. We had never heard it before and it felt like a gift. This was the vibe for the record we were going to make.
I fell in love with LA. It was the beginning of a love story that lasted twelve years. Maybe I am still in love with it. It’s never going to go anywhere – I can always go back.
It’s a city with a completely unique feeling, unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s such a massive place and you can get lost in every sense. People constantly move in and people constantly ship out; it’s quite a vicious city at times. But that’s its appeal: like moths to a flame.
I could never have lived there without Michelle. She was my chaperone and my bodyguard! She never missed a trick.
In the twelve years that it was my home, I saw at least half a dozen bands that I knew from back in England come to LA to try and make a record, and every time they seemed to tank. They ended up leaving with varying degrees of critical and commercial flop on their hands. Either they lost it by getting too caught up in the myth or they lost it on drugs. Beware, the drugs are much stronger in LA!
Unless you have the steeliest willpower, LA is a very tough city to live in. It can suck you in and spit you out like nowhere else. But through a mixture of luck and judgement The Charlatans seemed to get it right. We even managed to make one of our finest records there.
We are truly the best band around when our backs are up against the wall. When people say, ‘Oh, The Charlatans, the most cursed band in the world,’ they should think of the many things we have got right: going to Los Angeles and throwing ourselves into the culture, stepping out of our comfort zone and making such a record to be proud of. That in itself, after what I have seen, is a major success.
Bands often acquire taglines which get attached by journalists every time their name crops up – the sibling rivalry behind Oasis, U2’s bombast, Coldplay’s beigeness, and so on. And the one that crops up with The Charlatans over and over again is that we are The Unluckiest Band in the World.
When it comes to the question of fortune, surely the unluckiest band in the world is the one you’ve never heard of. Maybe the guy from the label coming to check them out missed the gig from having a flat tyre on the motorway. Don’t get me wrong: we have had our fair share of misfortune as well as good fortune along the way, but not such a glut of the former that the ‘unlucky’ tag fits. Maybe I’m just an inherently positive person, but the fact that I found the other members of the band and they found me I regard as an amazing piece of luck.
If there is an elephant in the room that needs addressing then I’m more than happy to deal with it. One of the most annoying parts of the unlucky thing relates to Rob’s death. It’s distasteful to attribute the death of a friend to bad luck.
Imagine the band as four members of a family, and we have endured no more or less ‘bad luck’ than four siblings would face in more than two decades. We’re survivors who have overcome any differences we might have had, and the way we still write and perform means so much to all of us.
Our principal connection right from the start has been with the people who listen to our music. For our first few albums we would read reviews and hear directly from the fans. We always wanted to develop and keep moving forwards, and this would inevitably lead to being in vogue and sometimes out of it. But throughout all the changes there would be stories that people shared with us, stories that made it clear what the music meant to them. Over time people have been able to let us know how the band interacts with the story of their lives. These stories come from all over the world.
Recently, Mark and I toured the UK doing some reworkings of our songs with an acoustic feel, although each night we would go electric for a few songs too. The Dylanesque shouts of ‘Judas’ each night as I announced this never failed to make me smile. We had recorded our Warm Sounds EP, and it was great to be able to play small venues around the country with the stripped-down show – it wasn’t The Charlatans, but it was versions of the songs we did as the band.
After one of the gigs a member of the audience stopped us and told us that it had been a watershed moment in his life. He and his wife had been to watch The Charlatans perform as a full band nineteen times. Going to see the band was their thing: always travelling together to see us, going to festivals we played. That was our only involvement in their lives. They had never spoken to us but shared special times with us. He was in his mid thirties and said that his wife had died a couple of years earlier. The devastation of the loss meant he felt he had to let the band go too. He just couldn’t face it – he wouldn’t be able to enjoy or even endure a gig alone.
When he heard about the acoustic gigs he told himself it was maybe something he could manage – that it would make him remember their shared times but without it being too raw. He had bought a ticket and had watched the gig. Although deeply emotional, he felt it was part of his process of coping with life ahead. To have been such a significant part of their lives without actually knowing them is an astonishing thing.
Almost every song, from the most well known to B-sides and album tracks, seems to have had a special meaning and significance for someone. Every time I hear about these connections, it amazes me. Once, an excited guy passed on his thanks for something I took little part in but he wanted to share. Ten years earlier, he had been offered a job abroad and impulsively took it. His girlfriend had commitments in the UK and he thought they would find it very hard to maintain a relationship in different countries. They parted, and he thought it would be difficult for her to move on if he stayed in touch, so reluctantly they said goodbye. Ten years later, he had a sudden realization that he’d made a terrible mistake. Their shared love of The Charlatans would be his catalyst: he bought two tickets, packed in his job and flew home. Unannounced, he went to her door a couple of days before the gig with the tickets. She was with him when we were speaking.
It sounds like something out of a romcom, but these stories need soundtracks, and it’s a good feeling to provide some of them.
Having said that I do know a guy whose wife only allows him to listen to The Charlatans in the garage!
So, about that unlucky thing? I just don’t get it – I sometimes feel like the luckiest person alive, but I don’t often say it just in case something bad happens. I know that at certain points in life you come to a natural full stop and crave something new. Who knows what my life would have been like at 32 if I hadn’t been in The Charlatans? That’s how old I was when I first started going out with Michelle. We often said to each other that we would have met anyway, that it was karma, we were soul mates and we were made for each other, we were ‘meant to be’. But the truth is more likely that we would never have met.
Our adventures took us everywhere: backstage at The Rolling Stones’ Hollywood Bowl gig, front and centre seats for Eddie Izzard at Tiffany’s. Our wedding was at Laguna Beach, with a reception at the Chateau Marmont – an occasion made even better by the fact our record company picked up the bill.
We lived in the Hollywood hills; in many ways it was the dream existence. Admittedly the showbiz and glitzy lifestyle weren’t entirely me, but because Michelle liked it, I liked it. We were good together. I was a lad from Salford who’d grown up in Northwich, and she was a Georgia peach living in LA. An unscheduled visit to the Cheshire Salt Museum would be as unlikely for her as me stopping off in Little Five Points, GA. Or nipping into Hollywood, CA. But I did get to go there with the band and Michelle and I met after our gig at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater.
Aged 38 I realized I had a problem with drink and drugs. Who’s to say that I wouldn’t have got into that anyway living in Northwich? Though in truth this wasn’t county-level addiction, this was more like Olympic drug-taking. I certainly wouldn’t have had the experience and the resources to seek help unless I had been so openly surrounded by the perils and demons that inhabit rock ’n’ roll souls.
I am proud to have met, talked to and been smiled at by Elliott Smith. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make friends with, have a spat with and make up with Anton Newcombe from Brian Jonestown Massacre, a man I admire greatly but who I would definitely file under troubled genius. I certainly wouldn’t have had the adventures with Alan McGee.
In 1992 I was sitting naked at the back of the bus, high on anything I could get my hands on, calling management and band meetings and keeping a straight face. I was acting like a tour bus emperor, a cocaine Caligula. If I had had pets, they would certainly have been given as senior a role as I could have invented a title for.
In 1994 I found myself at the front of the queue for singing duties with The Chemical Brothers. It was my phone that rang, when frankly they could have had anyone they wanted.
In 1995 I got an unexpected call from a journalist called Johnny Cigarettes saying that The Charlatans had got Single of the Week in the NME with ‘Just When You’re Thinking Things Over’. Freakily, the same week Blur and Oasis had their battle with the singles ‘Country House’ and ‘Roll With It’.
Also in 1995 we had our second No. 1 album, and it was in some ways even sweeter this time round, like a nectarine that had gone through the rounds, been done for breach of the peace, been put in prison and come out a peach. It was sweeeet!!
In 1997 with Tellin’ Stories, guess what? It went to No. 1.
Us and Us Only: No. 2.
Wonderland – did I say that went to No. 1 as well? If I did I lied. It went to No. 2.
I think of all the great things that have happened to me as part of this unlucky band.
Meeting and becoming friends with New Order, Paul Weller, Mick and Joe from The Clash, Johnny Marr, Madness, Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding, Sam Morton, Joaquin Phoenix, Juliette Lewis and John McEnroe.
Being taken to see Woody Allen play clarinet in a hotel in Manhattan.
Meeting Alex Ferguson with my dad at Old Trafford.
Opening for The Rolling Stones, talking to Keith about Pirates of the Caribbean, having Mick tell me I could use his giant metal fans on stage as I would ‘probably melt in the Bulgarian heat’.
Having Sting put his hand out to help me off stage when we opened for The Police in Europe.
Having Ronnie Wood play a trick on me and locking me in his fridge that was the size of a modest apartment.
Partying at the Playboy Mansion.
Hanging out with David Bowie in the Isle of Wight.
Becoming friends with Terry Hall, playing matchmaker and introducing him to his future wife.
Driving around LA with Dave Davies of The Kinks in his 1962 Ford Falcon.
Smoking backstage with Toots.
Being included in the Christmas celebrations and eating Christmas dinner with The Horrors.
Recording with Pip Brown, otherwise known as Ladyhawke, one of my favourite people in the world.
Now, where was I? Ah yes, making Wonderland …
Working with Danny Saber was an experience. He was talented, interesting and hard work all at the same time. He’d sprinkled his magic on everyone from Marilyn Manson to Busta Rhymes and Seal. He was a multi-instrumentalist and at one point even slyly suggested that he take over the roles of the other three members of the band. Don’t get me wrong: he was only interested in making a good record, but that single-mindedness seemed to exclude some social skills – although maybe he could be considered a charmer when compared to Phil Spector, who would think nothing of pulling a gun to ensure he got the perfect take.
Every time we played in LA Danny would show up as a fan and a friend. I always loved seeing him, and Mark would end up jamming back at his studio, so it made sense for us to work together. But Danny had some of the traits of an egomaniac, and he took the view that Jon, Martin and Tony held the band back. They were all aware of this potentially unhealthy situation, but we continued talking to him in the hope he would give up on his fiendish plot of sidelining them.
I just wanted to further our horizons. Our original sound was linked to the Mad/Manchester scene. Next up came the geographically expanded Britpop. But I had always wanted to be an international band and thought that by keeping away from our comfort zone, by recording in LA and not going home to our families every night, we would keep the dynamic raw and fresh.
We had all lived close to the studio during the making of Us and Us Only, and I think the band spirit suffered from the burden of our outside responsibilities and our being fragmented. It was still a great record, but musically and conceptually I wanted more.
I can see why everyone was puzzled, though. With our big advance from signing to Universal, we had built our own studio space, the Big Mushroom: a rehearsal room, storage space and recording studio. We recorded all of Us and Us Only there, and it worked out really well. But with Wonderland, I, at least, wanted to keep as far away from Manchester as possible.
I’d been surrounding myself with great falsetto voices. I loved the way Kurt Wagner from Lambchop had all but ditched his deep, dark country-singing timbre for a more soulful approach on his recent album Nixon, and since moving to LA I had found a beaten-up copy of Curtis Mayfield’s Back to the World in Michelle’s compact collection of albums. I had been a fan of Curtis for a long time but had never really stepped outside The Impressions’ first album and Superfly. Now I was hooked and inspired.
Danny had his girlfriend, Stacy Plunk, living with him at the time, and she had a big part to play in the record. She was a back-up singer from the South, a country girl who had sung with Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Mitchell and Ann Peebles. Stacy was cool! She could sing gospel, blues and country, and so we got her involved from the get-go, and she became a big part of the atmosphere of the album. We would write parts for her to sing and hum backing vocals on, melodies with her in mind. It was something that we had never done before, but we got the bug and began to think about having other great musicians involved.
Twiggy ‘Jeordie’ Ramirez (Marilyn Manson/NIN/A Perfect Circle) would hang out at the house, as would Bernard Fowler (Rolling Stones/Herbie Hancock/Bootsy Collins), and it wasn’t long before they were singing along. Both supplied backing vocals and Twiggy played additional bass on ‘You’re So Pretty – We’re So Pretty’. (Unfortunately they didn’t get credited on the album sleeve for these contributions.) Jim Keltner (check out Wikipedia – he’s played with everyone!) did percussion on ‘Love to You’ and ‘A Man Needs to Be Told’, and then there was Daniel Lanois, U2’s producer, playing pedal steel on ‘A Man Needs to Be Told’.
Every couple of days we would have gangs of people showing up, taking a listen, wanting to party with us. It was mainly Harry the Dog and his crew. They would show up around 2 a.m., after the Cat and Fiddle pub had shut, bring over ‘party supplies’, have a listen and give the thumbs-up. The fact that it was a free-for-all added to the atmosphere. I love people popping in and out. It’s not an office. It was a very cool place to hang out, and a great place to work in.
We weren’t there for very long though. Initially, Mark and I went over to the house for a couple of days. We worked on ‘Love is the Key’ and recorded a demo of it to prove to the band that going to LA to work with Danny was a good idea. Altogether we had just four weeks there with all the band, writing and recording. Then there was a final week with me, Mark and Tony. The album was born!
We captured the city, the dark nights, the sunshine and crazy hours, the wildlife, a couple of fire alarms, and I think we even got the smell of cocaine, smoking and jasmine in the grooves – some potent cocktail. We were giving Sly Stone a run for his money.
I had taken to wearing flares again, shirtless and no shoes, and I had The Doors and Danny Sugarman’s book Wonderland Avenue in my mind constantly. This was the street where legends were born, and I honestly think that with our album Wonderland we added to them.
We did a few overdubs at the Big Mushroom, sadly without Danny. He is not a good flyer – well, he certainly said no to economy – but we were careful not to lose what we had captured in LA. Like divorced parents we would always have joint custody of Wonderland.
Not everyone in the band would look back at working with Danny and say that it was a pleasant experience. At times it was really difficult. He could be an asshole. But I really liked what he did, and I think the conflicts between us added something to the music. And we all agreed it was a great album.
I don’t think Danny and Tony took each other seriously, certainly not at first. Tony had worked hard on the previous record, his debut for the band, and he felt a huge weight lift off his shoulders after its success. He felt he had proved himself, and now, quite rightly, he was feeling frisky and wanted to be even more involved.
This wasn’t to Danny’s liking – he only wanted to work with me and Mark. When he recorded with Black Grape, he played everything. Being a multi-instrumentalist, Danny is used to working on his own in the darkness of his upstairs recording studio, and he likes to work at his own pace and choose his own hours. He really can play everything! He is fast; he can mix; he can do everything except sing and dance. Maybe he can even do that, I don’t know.
Eventually he began to respect Tony when he realized that he had come up with most of the musical ideas for ‘Is It In You’ and ‘You’re So Pretty’.
Danny would provide beats for Mark and me to sing and play to. He wanted to play bass, or he would get Twiggy in to play bass, and then he would get Stacy to do the backing vocals. He has a vision, and he has a sound. The thing about Danny is that he lives in his studio in LA and rarely goes out. He orders food in, and would occasionally ask Martin or Jon to go and get him a pizza.
If we had been producing Wonderland ourselves we would have unconsciously filled the record up with frills – just because that’s what naturally happens when five members of the band are producing a record. Making something via a committee is never the best solution, and Danny worked as a dictator, even going so far as to wear an SS outfit on occasions (particularly unsettling given that Danny is Jewish). The record needed him.
‘A Man Needs to Be Told’ is probably the centrepiece and, for me, the most interesting song on the album. It completely divided our audience. The song was written as a response to the music scene becoming macho again. I was quite despondent about it. When the Haçienda kicked off in 1987–8, I witnessed grown men from the building sites dancing on the stage, hugging each other. I thought I was witnessing a breakthrough. I didn’t have to walk around with clenched fists any more. You had to do that in Manchester in the early ’80s. In the underground market, and the Arndale Centre especially, there was always a chance you would inconveniently get beaten up.
But then, with the rise of lad culture, through Britpop and beyond, this beautiful moment seemed like it had never happened. Now I wanted to write something fragile, something without ego, almost feminine, as a protest. And to disassociate myself from that scene.
Danny really was an odd one. The band would often catch him doing my drugs behind my back. Sometimes even on camera. But having said that, a fellow drug-user nicking coke is often viewed as playing the game.
He became more and more demanding as the sessions went on, over money mostly. He knew that we were only there for a limited amount of time, but if he didn’t get what he was due, the shutters came down and the drawbridge came up. There was somebody home but the lights weren’t on.
Deep down, I knew Danny would never come to the Big Mushroom to mix Wonderland. He promised, and we were all prepared to be accommodating, but things were difficult. Eventually we came to the conclusion that Danny couldn’t function outside Los Angeles. Many people can’t. I can understand why. The city is beautiful. Everything you could ever want is there, and more. So he wanted to mix it in LA? Who wouldn’t?
For Us and Us Only we’d had Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock (Beck/Elliott Smith) come over to do some mixes. We couldn’t get them studio time in Abbey Road, but they wanted the Abbey Road mixing desk, so we found them a place with the same equipment in Rochdale – not quite St John’s Wood, but, hey! Never mind. Martin in particular felt let down by Danny’s failure to come over and do the mixing on Wonderland. We ended up mixing it with Jim Spencer, which was great, but with Danny gone, some of the space began to get filled up. It was perhaps more polished in the end than it would have been if Danny had mixed it. He would have kept it completely stripped down. Still, when Jim and I mixed ‘You’re So Pretty’, I was thinking this is as good as New Order’s ‘Confusion’, and I knew that it had to be the opening song on the album.
So there we were with this great album. We were all geared up to do well with it. We had label support in LA, and we did an eight-date tour, with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club supporting us, in the summer as a taster for what was to come. We were ready to go with our autumn tour.
We released in the US on 11 September 2001.
The autumn tour was cancelled.