Having nearly made it in the '80s with an awesome sound on a par with Trevor Horn's productions, UK electronic music stalwart Mark Shreeve is back, with his sights set on Hollywood. Here he discusses vintage gear, multi‑million pound albums, and Samantha Fox.
The age‑old adage 'never judge a book by its cover' certainly rings true in the case of Mark Shreeve. Standing before me at a recent London music trade show, my first impression of Mark, both resplendent and menacing in head‑to‑toe bikers' leather, bore little resemblance to the man within.
Our second meeting took place in more sedate surroundings — in Mark's unassuming semi‑detached house, whose exterior, perhaps intentionally, does little justice to the well‑equipped recording studio it contains. Inside, no fewer than 17 synthesizers and sound modules of varying vintage are ergonomically arranged around a central Allen & Heath Saber Plus 28:24:2 mixing console, and various ancillary recording equipment lines the walls, including three synchronised Alesis ADAT digital 8‑tracks and extensive outboard effects.
Of course, Mark's gear wasn't always this impressive. In 1973, when he first embarked on recording his own electronic music after hearing Tangerine Dream on John Peel's Radio One show, Mark's equipment comprised a solitary Yamaha CS30 analogue monosynth (which he retains and uses to this day), a string machine, and some crude effects and recording facilities. He sent his first demo tape to the now defunct electronic music cassette label Mirage, who subsequently released his first three albums on cassette. In 1981, Mark's professional music career began with Thoughts Of War, his debut vinyl album for the Uniton label.
Extending his setup to include a Sequential Circuits Pro One monosynth, Roland Juno 6 polysynth and Roland TR808 drum machine, Mark recorded his much‑acclaimed Assassin album for Uniton in June 1983. This featured an excellent interpretation of 'Assault On Precinct 13', director John Carpenter's classic theme to the film of the same name.
Following a very well‑received performance of Assassin at the first UK Electronica festival in Milton Keynes, Mark won a major recording contract with world‑wide distribution, care of the newly‑formed London‑based Jive Electro label — a big breakthrough for a relatively unknown musician. Jive's intention was to bring electronic music to the masses, with an impressive international roster headed by Germany's mighty Tangerine Dream. Assassin was subsequently re‑issued to coincide with Mark's appearance at the 1984 UK Electronica.
As a result of the Jive deal, Mark was given access to the company's Battery Studios in north‑west London, as well as all of the then state‑of‑the‑art instrumentation the studio contained, such as the Fairlight CMI music computer, and PPG Wave 2.3, Yamaha DX7, Roland Jupiter 8, and Oberheim Xpander synthesizers. These were employed to devastating effect on Mark's 1985 album Legion, whose recording costs reputedly soared into seven‑figure territory!
Even by today's standards, Legion sounds both impressive and contemporary. The title track was released as a single, and featured regularly on the soundtrack of Channel 4's popular American Football programme. As far as Mark's 'legions' of fans were concerned, life was looking very rosy indeed for their hero.
Despite Legion reaching Hollywood ears (via the soundtrack to the motion picture Jewel In The Nile, it would be another three years until Mark's next opus, Crash Head, would see the light of day, at a further cost of around £50,000. All was not well in the Jive camp, and events between the two albums make for fascinating reading.
"At that time, lots of people were made to leave Jive. We were going to do a kind of big concept album with me writing all the music and employing people like Phil Collins and Def Leppard, but the guy whose idea it was to get all these musicians involved was sacked.
"Jive Electro was stopped, because they suddenly discovered that Tangerine Dream weren't quite the pull they once were — at least in the UK. It didn't matter to Tangerine Dream so much, because they were like a self‑contained unit, whereas I was involved with projects other than my own music and became part of the furniture at Battery Studios, doing pop music and soundtracks.
"But Jive still wanted an album from me, so I was trying to put Crash Head together at the same time. I thought one or two of the tracks we did initially were not really me, and too influenced by the pop stuff. I wanted to do some extra tracks, so it was put off for another year. By that time, Jive Electro had been sold, and I was on the straight Jive label. In the end, it was like they'd spent all this money and felt obliged to release the album. The first I knew about it was when someone rang up and said he'd just bought my new album!"
Crash Head is an incredibly powerful and polished recording — almost heavy metal on synths, in effect — featuring the talents of respected rock guitarists of the day. I suggested that Mark must be a 'closet metaller' at heart. "Well, it struck me that when heavy metal bands used to book into Jive's studios they always came with an entourage of beautiful women, so I thought, 'I'll have some of that!', because when I looked around at the synthesizer players, they never had any! No, seriously, I would have been a Richie Blackmore or Eddie Van Halen if I could — but I can't play the guitar well enough!"
Although Mark's time at Battery Studios proved quite fruitful, I couldn't help but wonder if he was saddened that Jive Electro never really fulfilled their promise of bringing electronic music to the masses: "Compared with what I'd been doing up to the point of signing the deal, Jive Electro was just a dream come true. At the time I thought that even if it didn't work out, at least I could no longer use the excuse that I didn't have the right equipment — because Battery was one of the top studios in the country.
"Like many other people, I hoped that electronic music would catch on with the boost from Jive. When I signed up, they told me they thought there was a market for it that had yet to be tapped. They placed large adverts in the music press — not just for my music, but for Tangerine Dream's stuff as well.
"However, you have to get some kind of airplay. That's how Tangerine Dream became big in the first place — because of John Peel and Radio One. Klaus Schulze also used to get a lot of airplay — not necessarily over here, but certainly in mainland Europe. People don't generally buy a record just because of an advert — and why should they? I wouldn't buy something I hadn't heard. In the end, it doesn't matter what a record company or an artist does. If no‑one hears it, no‑one can form an opinion as to whether they like it or not."
Obviously electronic music is not alone in facing this perennial problem, yet here in the UK there is currently only one weekly radio show devoted to the genre — BBC Radio Derby's Soundscapes.
To all intents and purposes, Mark dropped out of the musical limelight following Crash Head and his subsequent departure from the Jive organisation. So how did he end up in the enviable position of owning his own state‑of‑the‑art home‑based studio several years later? In a nutshell, this can be attributed to a successful sideline in library music, with several CDs currently available.
Mark pointed out that this can be traced back to 1984, and the Oracle album for Bruton Music, with whom he continued to work until 1991: "A representative of Bruton came to me and said that he'd listened to Legion and that apart from all the 'weird shit' all over it, they'd like to remix it as a library album. They took off all the jet planes, the atom bombs and the babies being murdered, and stripped the tracks down to the bare essentials.
"Having already recorded all the main tracks for Legion, I had no input whatsoever into my first library album. That was a one‑off at the time, and became one of Bruton's most successful library music albums, with pieces ending up all over the BBC and elsewhere."
As Mark explains, by the time of Crash Head, there had been a complete reversal, with all the tracks being written for library music and then 'worked up' for the album. Nevertheless, this method of working proved no less fruitful. Mark notes that "library music worked quite well for me for a long time" — and the contents of his studio bear witness to this statement. A glance around reveals a mouth‑watering selection of electronic instrumentation, including an Akai S1000 sampler and many synths, among them an ARP 2600 modular, Korg Wavestation, Kurzweil K2000, Oberheim Xpander, PPG Wave 2.3, Roland Juno 60, Studio Electronics MidiMini, and a Moog IIIC modular system (see the 'Getting a Moog On' box elsewhere in this article) to name but several 'classic' synthesizers. A Roland Jupiter 8 has recently been sold due to space limitations!