I suppose I must have been about nine years old when my father brought home a Dictaphone from work. He used to dictate letters to his secretary, recording his voice on to a brown, spinning, flat disc. He knew that I might be interested in having some fun with it, and he was right. I immediately got to grips with the simple way it worked and set about some field recordings, the obligatory burps and goonish voices. My friend Stephen came over shortly afterwards and we tried recording the TV, switching channels to achieve pre‑razorblade, hard‑cut editing. I still recall guffawing at some of the strange chance links of phrases matching across various channels.
Moving on to a cassette machine soon thereafter, I read the manual to discover that there were three separate heads: record, play, and erase. By some leap of imagination, I figured out that, if I could stop the erase head from doing its job, I might be able to layer more than one recording. By sliding a piece of paper in between the cassette tape and the erase head I actually achieved my goal. This was a primitive precursor to the method of bouncing between Revox tape‑machine channels that I used years later. One run through recorded a piano track, a second run layered acoustic guitar and vocals. A final run allowed me to add some flute. The degrading of the quality of each recording was spectacular! The piano sounded underwater, vocals cottonwool‑mouthed, acoustic guitar all but gone, and the flute warbled like an old Mellotron. But this was multitrack recording. On a cassette machine. In my bedroom. Pre‑dating the Portastudio by over a decade. I was, to say the least, ecstatic. I proudly played the result to my sceptical Scottish mother:
“Who’s playing the guitar and the flute?”
“No, you’re playing the piano and singing...”
No amount of explaining would make sense of or clarify the situation — she thought I was messing with her.
The piano sounded underwater, vocals cottonwool‑mouthed, acoustic guitar all but gone, and the flute warbled like an old Mellotron.
Affordable multitrack recording systems were still a few years off. As soon as the Tascam Portastudio appeared I nabbed one. With rudimentary EQ, and a simple track‑bouncing system, this double‑speed cassette system allowed me to spread my wings — if only a little. Using a guitar pedal for some phasing effects, the reverb tank of a Peavey practice amp, and a Roland Dr Rhythm pedal for the drums, I was able to craft a track polished enough to reside on the B‑side of a giant half‑million‑selling single hit I had in Germany under the name of ‘The Catch’. And no‑one batted an eyelid! No-one in the record company questioned the quality of the recording. And it still sounds pretty good to this day.
I wonder how many other ‘B’ sides have exhibited such a complete lack of recording equipment pedigree. Hence the maxim: never say never!