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PAUL K JOYCE & GRANT MITCHELL: Recording Bob The Builder's 'Can We Fix It?'

Interview | Producer By Sam Inglis
Published March 2001

PAUL K JOYCE & GRANT MITCHELL: Recording Bob The Builder's 'Can We Fix It?'

Last year's best‑selling UK single came not from Westlife or All Saints, but a pre‑school kids' TV series. Sam Inglis asks its composer and producer how they turned the theme into a hit...

Just occasionally, a song comes along that strikes an unexpected chord with the record‑buying public and completely upsets the carefully laid plans of record companies, promoters, radio stations and chart pundits. No record better illustrates this phenomenon than 'Can We Fix It', an adaptation of the theme tune from the popular BBC television series for pre‑school children, Bob The Builder, which swept aside all competition at Christmas to sell more than 800,000 copies in just four weeks. A song originally intended to appeal to the under‑fives had somehow become a football‑ground anthem and a student disco hit, even though it received very little radio airplay. So how did those responsible go about giving it this crossover appeal?

The Theme's The Thing

PAUL K JOYCE & GRANT MITCHELL: Recording Bob The Builder's 'Can We Fix It?'

The single that conquered the charts is, for all its additional production, very much the same song as the 45‑second ditty that introduces Bob The Builder on TV. The original theme to Bob The Builder was written and recorded by freelance television composer Paul K Joyce, with lead vocals supplied by the show's principal actor, Neil Morrissey. When the production company Hit Entertainment decided to turn it into a single, they drafted in producer Grant Mitchell, last seen in SOS working with former Take Thatter Gary Barlow (November 1998), to give it a more contemporary sound.

Paul explains how he got the job of writing the music for Bob The Builder: "As a composer, the way it tends to work is that you're approaching companies regularly looking for projects that they might let you pitch for, and I'd contacted Hit Entertainment many times and got to know the music guy there. After several unsuccessful pitches for shows I was invited to pitch for Bob, and I got it. They didn't want to go down the familiar route of pre‑school shows, which is to do a fairly gentle theme; they wanted something with a bit more attitude, more 'laddish', I suppose, because it was going to feature Neil Morrissey's voice and was all about talking machines. I couldn't think of anything that rhymed with 'builder', so I thought the only way to do it was to build a chorus with the title sandwiched between 'Can we fix it?' and 'Yes we can!' and do a very simple rock song, basically. As it turned out, there are only four chords in it. For something like Bob, the writing was all done on guitar, but generally, I'll sit down at the piano and have a little tape recorder going, and just bash out some ideas, and then listen back to them the next day and pick out the bits that I think work.

"The most important part is the briefing. I met the producer and the director, and quizzed them about what it was that was most important about the series, the character profiles and what emotions needed to come out. It's very technical, but at the same time you want to come out with something that sounds unselfconscious, like you just trotted it off. I could quite understand anyone saying to me 'I could have written Bob The Builder'. I mean, it's only four chords and a few mentions of the characters. But it's more than that, because the words have got to scan well. For the words to fit perfectly, the melody's got to work with the words and vice versa.

"At the end of the day, you've got to reject some of what they say in the briefing and think 'Well, all right, they've said that, but that won't work musically.' I hate it when I'm asked to make changes which mean that the music and the words don't fit properly together, because then the musical emphasis can fall on the wrong part of a word and destroy the rhythm. There's nothing more satisfying than when the melody and the words fit together perfectly. For instance, one line in the song had to begin with 'Scoop' because it's so strong and positive, and would be wasted at any other position in a sentence.

"The main idea that came out in the briefing was that the characters in the show were a team. A lot of the things that I wrote down went straight into the lyrics. They had to work together, and they got the job done — phrases like this become like adjectives which have to be there, in my opinion, because they crop up again and again — they have fun, but they're a team, and they start work in the day and they work until the sun goes down. And, of course, they had the catchphrase of 'Can we fix it? Yes we can!'

"These build up and you start writing a few things down, and you think 'Oh, that sounds all right, and it scans quite well'. I prefer to write the lyrics and get the lyrical ideas early on, but the most important thing is getting the chorus right, and not trying to modulate the whole thing too much. If you modulated the chord sequence into the chorus, it would mean that the whole thing would lift too much, whereas keeping it in the same key and on the same chord at the end of the verse just makes it really solid — not childish, even though it has to be very catchy. You've got to be instantly pleased with a children's song.

"As a composer, you have to face that horrible point at the start of a track where you think 'Now what do I do?' You've got this blank canvas in front of you, and you think 'I don't want to do what I've done before, but I've got to please the producer and I've got to please myself.' But the great thing, if you can do it, is to please everybody. At the end of the day, if I've done the demo and I really want to hear it loud, it means that I'm pleased with it. If I don't like it, I can't expect anyone else to like it. I do it to please myself and nobody else, and once I've done that, they can take it or leave it."

Recording The TV Theme

PAUL K JOYCE & GRANT MITCHELL: Recording Bob The Builder's 'Can We Fix It?'

For his successful pitch to Hit, Paul Joyce had produced a complete recording of his Bob The Builder theme in his Nottingham home studio, which is based around Cubase VST running on an Apple G4, a Yamaha O2R desk and Emu samplers, all mastered onto a Fostex D25 timecode DAT. The demo recording featured guitar, organ, programmed drums, bass, and sampled trumpet, along with Paul's own vocals — a straightforward arrangement (see the screen shot on page 42) which survived largely intact in the version that was actually used for the show, the only major change being the substitution of Neil Morrissey's vocal for Paul's: "They wanted to make it even rockier than my original pitch, but the song was exactly the same. The lyrics were tweaked a bit to please them — it's always great if you do a pitch and essentially they like it, and you only have to do some fine‑tuning. It was all to length, they wanted a 45‑second theme, so that was all I wrote.

"The sequence of the song was the same as on the demo, but they didn't know what Neil's voice was like, so we had to send him the rough demo and see whether he would be prepared to do it. He was, so I suppose really the recording session was as much a test for his voice, because we weren't sure how it was going to sound. But as it turned out, he was absolutely brilliant, perfect for the voice. A born singer, I'd say. On the TV theme, all the voices are Neil. The recording of the vocals was done at the now‑defunct CTS studios in Wembley, with a Neumann U87. We did that in September 1998, and completed all the post‑production and mastering back here in my studio."

From TV To CD

The workstation area in Paul K Joyce's studio.The workstation area in Paul K Joyce's studio.

When the decision was made to record a single based around the theme from Bob The Builder, Paul Joyce was asked to write extra material to extend the 45‑second track into a three‑minute pop song. He then handed over his creation to producer Grant Mitchell: "For the single, Grant Mitchell oversaw all the recording sessions, so I supplied all the original audio files from the TV theme for him to basically use or not use, at his discretion. Some of the vocals and guitars survived into the single. There was a significant adaptation from the TV theme to the finished single, in that the TV theme had a much more straightforward rock rhythm section to it, and obviously it only lasts 45 seconds. So for the single I composed extra music and lyrics to give them more room for manoeuvre, and basically Grant Mitchell had free rein to create something that would have as broad an appeal as possible. Obviously he made the decision to put a kind of breakbeat in and give it more of that pop sensibility, which worked really well. It suprised me how dense the music was in the single, because my version for the TV show is very clear and transparent, there's only guitar, organ, bass and drums and some sampled trumpet, and that's it. His arrangement is much more dense, which is something that I would have been more inclined to do, so I was quite pleased that he'd done this. There are so many fantastic sounds in there."

The single version had a protracted gestation period. Grant Mitchell explains how the project got under way: "It came out of the blue. Hit Entertainment approached my manager in the summer of 1999, because the original idea was to put a single out for last Christmas. I don't know if they were determined that it was going to be a Christmas single, it just seemed the most natural time to put it out, I guess. We got three‑quarters of the way through it then, but I don't think Neil was available, and ultimately we reckoned that it was better to wait. Because the record was made over a long period of time, though, we kept adding to it, which is the nice thing about having the luxury of revisiting something. Usually if you've been thinking about it for a bit then after three months you think 'Ah, why don't I do that?', or 'Why don't I change that?' But in a way it was quite good that it was delayed, because over that period of a year, the programme itself gained a little more profile. I think it got a bit more interesting as well, because to be honest, I'd never heard of it when they approached me. They sent us some videos, and in the early programmes, the characters weren't as well‑formed, and it's developed since and got a bit more interesting.

"At the outset, the production company had the idea of actually putting out just an extended version of the theme. But then they thought 'Well, why don't we try to make a pop record out of it?' And that was where we started. So Paul sent us down the computer files from his recording of the theme, and he had written other bits for it. In fact, he'd written about 18 verses, it was turning into a bit of an oratorio or something — Bob The Builder, the concept single. So it wasn't hard just to pare it down.

"It was tricky, because we had to keep the essence of the programme, but make it into something that would work on a couple of different levels. We wanted it to sound good on the radio — not that it was played huge amounts, but that was certainly part of my thinking behind it — and hopefully to try to cross over so you get the kind of student thing. But at the same time, it was part of the brief to try not to alienate any of the TV programme's audience."

Getting The Job Done

Grant Mitchell (right) and his partner at G2 Productions, Graham Dickson.Grant Mitchell (right) and his partner at G2 Productions, Graham Dickson.

Apart from their vocal recording chain, which consists of a luscious Neumann M49 tube mic through a high‑end Avalon input channel, the recording setup in the studio co‑run by Grant and Graham Dickson is quite ordinary. All audio and MIDI recording is handled by Emagic's Logic A udio, running on a beige Apple Mac G3 with a Digidesign Audiomedia III soundcard. "We use the converters in the DAT when we're mixing stuff, that's why we've only got a poxy little desk," says Grant. "Everything lives in the computer — we've got screeds of plug‑ins and virtual synths. We've got this really quite big room, and there's bugger all in here except the computer and a couple of keyboards! But it seems to work really well."

Grant and Graham approached the project in exactly the same way they would any other pop single. "It is a novelty record, there's no getting away from that, but you go through the same process no matter what it is you're doing," insists Grant. "You work through the same sort of criteria — trying to make a vocal sound right and feel right and be in tune, trying to make the drums feel right. It doesn't matter what sort of record it is, it's just got to work, and all the component parts have got to interlock. Ultimately, you end up having lots and lots of different things, and just gradually pruning it down and moving stuff around."

The result of Grant's pruning and moving around was an impressively dense and busy mix — as the screenshot above amply demonstrates ("That's the Grant Mitchell Wall of Shite that I'm renowned for. More is more!" he laughs). Its pop sensibility was developed through the addition of a much more complex rhythm arrangement, consisting of a big‑beat‑style loop, a garage‑style loop, and some percussive samples and clapping from the show, all superimposed: "My original intention was to turn it into a sort of big‑beat thing, so we had the guitars, and then we laid a couple of big‑beat loops on top of them. Then I had a whole garage loop and I chopped it up and used it on top of that. We had all these building effects that we chopped up, put in and moved around, and panned them left and right so they're sort of moving around. There's a bit of a crowd underneath there too, and some timp rolls from the programme, with other timps on top."

The busy feel also resulted in part from the barrage of sound effects, snatches of dialogue, and fragments of incidental music that Grant introduced. "It's really all the effects that are bits of the programme that give it character. There's little bits of speech, little bits of guitar from the programme that I've thrown in. It's about trying to get the character of the programme across, so you're constantly searching for little bits of identity that you can take from the programme. But that, initially, involved watching about 50 programmes and listening to the sound. Foolishly, we got the BBC to get the production company to dub off about 20 programmes to DAT, and we just sat here for about two days listening to it all."

"For some of the time we had the track looping, and played the programme over the top, so you'd get a flavour of how it would sound," explains Graham Dickson.

"You tend to listen through to things and think there's a really good bit of humourous speech, or a line of music, and you think 'OK, we'll have that,'" continues Grant. "Consequently, you develop a library of loads and loads of things, and cut them all up there, and run the track and try to find spaces. Sometimes you'd get a bit of music, and you'd think 'Ah, that's good, if I tune it down a semitone and move it half a bar later so that it's in time...' It's amazing how many happy accidents you get that way. You get something that's really close to sounding like it was meant to be there, and you just need to chop it up a little bit. We started with the vocal and guitar, and we added more guitar, we added an acoustic and two electrics, and then finally, Kev, one of the lads who works along in the other studio, came in and played some 'hooligan guitar'."

The only significant compositional change made by Grant involved adding a key change towards the end of the song and altering the chord sequence under the last chorus: "That was just to turn it into a bit more of a hooligan thing by changing it from I‑IV‑V, just moving it into that slightly darker area — not the relevant minor, but a similar sort of thing to make it slightly bluesier."

The Morrissey Who Can Sing In Tune...

Before and after: the straightforward arrangement for Paul Joyce's original Bob The Builder theme in Cubase (top) contrasts with the dense final mix of the single 'Can We Fix It?' in Logic on Grant Mitchell's Mac (above).Before and after: the straightforward arrangement for Paul Joyce's original Bob The Builder theme in Cubase (top) contrasts with the dense final mix of the single 'Can We Fix It?' in Logic on Grant Mitchell's Mac (above).

Paul Joyce had sent Grant the audio files with his original recordings of Neil Morrissey's singing, and Grant arranged a second session to record additional vocals. "I got Neil to do some harmonies, and then I took a bunch of them and tuned them in odd ways. We went through the normal procedure of comping them. You'd do the same with any vocal, whether it's the best singer in the world or not. He can hold a tune, and with this it's much more about the general character of the thing.

"The 'Can we fix it?' bit is Neil and the two other cast members, Kate and Rob, who are absolutely brilliant. They do all the voices for the rest of the show. When they came down to work on some other tracks it was like having 20 or 30 different people in the room, because they could do all these amazing voices. Usually, if you're making records, you end up making up stupid lyrics for them anyway, just in the studio, so it's kind of an extension of that process — saying 'We'd actually really like you to do that please. Spout nonsense!' The 'Can we fix it? Yes we can!' thing existed from the demo, but what I did was I looked through all the other programmes and found various places where they said it, and laid them on top of the other ones. So sometimes there's quite a lot of them."

As work progressed on 'Can We Fix It?' over the year, Grant and Graham had been editing and processing the many different parts using plug‑ins in Logic, so there was not a separate mixing stage as such. "That's the great thing about working in that way, because you can constantly update your mix," enthuses Grant. "You never get to that thing where you used to have it all sounding really good, and you'd do a demo and sling it down onto a DAT, and when you came back to it, you couldn't get that sound any more. You're not stuck with that any more."

A finished master was presented to the production company on DAT — and the rest is history. After a lengthy duel for the top spot with Eminem's 'Stan', 'Can We Fix It?' secured the coveted title of Christmas number one for Britain's favourite animated construction worker. Hit Entertainment are, naturally, keen to exploit the popularity of their new‑found pop star, and as a consequence of the single's runaway success, Grant and Graham are now working on — what else? — a Bob The Builder album. Be afraid...

Construction Work

PAUL K JOYCE & GRANT MITCHELL: Recording Bob The Builder's 'Can We Fix It?'

One obstacle that Grant Mitchell and his studio partner Graham Dickson faced was that, having lost their previous studio space when London's Master Rock studios closed, they were working for much of the time in a half‑finished room: "It's kind of ironic that while we were working on Bob The Builder, the place was being built," laughs Grant. "There were all these bemused builders actually working, doing stuff, and they must've thought I was completely mad. I'd be there listening to the same four or eight bars over and over again, as you do. And there'd be a guy putting up battens in the wall. I really don't know what these guys made of it. They must've thought I was completely potty!"


As well as handling the main theme, Paul K Joyce also writes and records all the incidental music for each episode. "There are usually about 20 music cues per show — in a 10‑minute show, would you believe!" he explains. "It's quite punchy. It's all done with acoustic and electric guitar, so it's nice that it's not wholly electronic. I love electronic music, but unfortunately the way a lot of composers use it — I think it's often a budgetary thing, but they tend to just use the presets in sound modules, and everyone ends up sounding the same. Earlier on in my career I'd be as guilty as anyone!"

Some of this incidental music would later be added into the single mix, along with a lot of dialogue snippets and foley effects from the show. As Paul explains, these effects also add to the series' individual character: "I think they've been careful enough to have a new library of sounds that they've created, so it doesn't sound like any other show, because you hear all the same sound effects on other animations, where the sounds are all drawn from the same libraries."