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Classic Tracks: The Rolling Stones 'Start Me Up'

Engineer: Chris Kimsey By Richard Buskin
Published April 2004

Chris Kimsey today at Sphere Studios, his current base in London.Chris Kimsey today at Sphere Studios, his current base in London.

In 1981, 'Start Me Up' became one of the Rolling Stones' biggest hit singles. Yet it was actually a reject from a previous session, and only saw the light of day because its infamous co-writers had fallen out...

After starting his career at Olympic Studios in Barnes, South London, during the late '60s, Chris Kimsey engineered albums by Bad Company, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Mott The Hoople, Spooky Tooth, Ten Years After, Peter Frampton and the Rolling Stones, before assuming a production and/or engineering role with the Stones, Jimmy Cliff, Pete Tosh, the Cult, Joan Jett, Killing Joke, Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe, Marillion, INXS, Duran Duran, the Gypsy Kings, Soul Asylum and the Proclaimers. Kimsey engineered Some Girls, Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You for the Stones, and was also associate producer on the latter; more recently, he co-produced Undercover and Steel Wheels with the band, as well as the Flashpoint live album. Currently based at London's Sphere Studios, he has recently worked with new bands the Cortez Loop and the Bandits and is writing a lot of his own material.

Cobbled Together

Released in August 1981, Tattoo You is widely regarded as the Rolling Stones' last great album; an ingenious division of rock tracks on one side and ballads on the other captures "the world's greatest rock & roll band" close to their best. Nevertheless, despite the confident musicianship and apparent consistency of material, the record was actually little more than a compilation of tracks that had been discarded from previous albums, with virtually no new input from the musicians themselves. And it was Chris Kimsey who devised this idea out of necessity.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, you see, were no longer on the best of terms. While the guitarist wanted the band to remain true to its rock and R&B roots, the frontman was more interested in movie acting and following contemporary trends, and the result was that neither fancied spending their nights together in the studio. So when the band's financial adviser, Prince Rupert Loewenstein, decreed that it was time to deliver a new album, Kimsey came up with the solution.

"Since I'd recorded a number of songs during Some Girls and Emotional Rescue that they'd never used, I assumed there must be other bits and pieces lying around," he explains. "So, I spent a couple of months going through all their tapes and I found these gems: 'Waiting On A Friend' and 'Tops' were from the Goat's Head Soup sessions; 'Slave' and 'Worried About You' were from Black & Blue; 'Start Me Up' was from Some Girls; and 'Hang Fire', 'Little T&A', 'Black Limousine', 'Neighbors', 'Heaven' and 'No Use In Crying' were from Emotional Rescue. I did rough mixes at Olympic of everything I'd found, sent them to the band members, and then began working on the tracks.CLASSIC TRACKS: 'Start Me Up'

"Only 'Waiting On A Friend' was already complete. The main thing missing from most of them was Sir Mick's vocal, because he hadn't finished writing the lyrics, so those parts were recorded in Paris in mid-1981. They'd rented a bloody warehouse on the edge of the Peripherique [ring road] in a horrible part of the city — all industrial sites and train sidings... no restaurants! I don't know who'd found the warehouse, but it was big and cheap, they put the mobile truck inside there, and it was so cold that, when Mick did the vocals, you could see icy breath coming out of his mouth. I remember that place to this day. It was absolutely diabolical."

Not that the other band members were too concerned about this. After all, none of them showed up — Keith, who lived in Paris, would only show his face during the New York mix sessions. Instead, Kimsey was pretty much left to his own devices, and, fortunately for his blasé employers, he turned out an album that would top the US charts for nine weeks on the strength of an extensive stadium tour and the smash hit singles 'Start Me Up' and 'Waiting On A Friend'.

Orange Hessian Cubes

The definitive latter-day Stones rocker, 'Start Me Up' is distinguished — like many of the band's other classic tracks — by an instantly recognisable opening guitar riff. However, it actually started life as a reggae song, committed to tape in March 1975 during the Black & Blue sessions, before being cast aside and re-recorded with a totally different arrangement at EMI's Pathé Marconi Studios in Paris in January and March 1978.

"That was another bizarre environment," Kimsey remarks. "The live area was a huge oblong, but you couldn't see the left-hand side of it at all from the control room at the far end. What's more, the walls were decorated with these goddamn awful orange hessian cubes and white pegboard — a classic case of the French going for moderne and getting it horribly wrong. It was awful. The only thing I liked was that, despite the floor being shiny graphite, those orange hessian cubes soaked up any reverb and so the huge room wasn't at all echoey.

"There were loads of screens, as well as three or four booths dotted around the place. When party guests turned up, they were put in those booths. Otherwise, they were never used. I set up the band in a semicircle facing the control room, with the drums in the middle, Keith to the left of Charlie from my perspective, Ronnie's amp next to Keith, and then, to the right of Charlie, Mick's guitar and Bill on the end. The keyboards were in front of the control room window. Screens were placed behind the band and used as divisions between each amp, so that each of the guys were in their own little booths without anything in front of them. That meant they could actually hear what was coming out of their amps, and I also put up a little Shure PA for them to hear Mick's vocals as well as Charlie's snare and kick.

"There's quite a characteristic drum sound on Some Girls, and as the guitars were so loud it helped to have Charlie's snare fill up the room a bit more. I didn't really want them to use headphones, I wanted to create sort of a live atmosphere, and they went along with that. I remember being terrified the first time Mick and Keith ever came in the control room, because they just stood at the back and whispered. But then they said, 'Yeah, it sounds great. OK, next.' That was it. They knew it sounded great.

"That having been said, God knows how anybody knew it sounded good, because the control room was the weirdest place of all. For one thing, you couldn't fit more than four people in it. And for another, the wall slanted outwards as it went towards the door, with the desk placed at an angle to the speakers so that the left-hand speaker was closer to you than the right-hand speaker. It looked like a complete shit-hole, yet somehow it sounded amazing. There were these huge great JBLs that could tear your ears off, and it was very rock & roll."

A Great Sound At A Cheap Price

Jagger's background at the London School of Economics was playing its part. "Mick had got that room for, like, 200 quid a day," Kimsey states, "and after having been there for about three weeks I was really enjoying myself, working with a lovely old 16-track EMI desk and recording to a Studer A80 with Dolby A at 15ips. I'd got used to the sound and was having a great time, at which point Mick said, 'Er, we're going to move into the real room.' I said, 'What do you mean? What real room?'

The layout of Pathé Marconi Studios in Paris for the Some Girls sessions, when 'Start Me Up' mutated from a reggae song into a rock & roll number. The PA was a Shure column with a small horn at the top and two bass units below, raised 7 feet into the air.The layout of Pathé Marconi Studios in Paris for the Some Girls sessions, when 'Start Me Up' mutated from a reggae song into a rock & roll number. The PA was a Shure column with a small horn at the top and two bass units below, raised 7 feet into the air.

"Next door, the studio area was just as huge, and the control room had this absolutely enormous Neve — you had about 70 channels in front of you and a whole sidecar to the left of the monitoring that went back another four feet. In fact, the control room was the complete opposite to the one I'd been using. You could put a hundred people in there, but it sounded awful and I hated it. So, I talked to Keith and said, 'Do we have to move? It sounds so good where we are and the band sounds great.' Well, given the price, I don't think it took very much to talk Mick into staying. He kept asking, 'Does it sound all right in here? Does it sound all right?' and I'd say, 'Yeah, it sounds great. We're getting great results.' Thank God we stayed there."

With the songwriting taking place in the studio, tracks would be worked on for a couple of days, left alone for a while, and then worked on again, sometimes ad nauseam.

"'Miss You' took quite a time to come together," Kimsey remembers. "Bill needed to go to quite a few clubs before he got that bass line sorted out. But he did sort it out, and bless him, it made that song. Then, immediately after 'Miss You' was recorded, 'Start Me Up' got straightened out. They'd been throwing it around as a reggae song, but they rearranged it and, within 24 hours of 'Miss You', 'Start Me Up' was recorded."

No Reggae, No Like

"After they cut it, I said, 'That's bloody great! Come and listen,'" Kimsey recalls. "However, when I played it back, Keith said, 'Nah, it sounds like something I've heard on the radio. Wipe it.' Of course, I didn't, but he really didn't like it, and I'm not sure whether he likes it to this day. I don't think it's one of his favourite songs, although it's obviously everyone's favourite guitar riff; his guitar riff. Maybe because Keith loves reggae so much, he wanted it to be a reggae song."

As part of the aforementioned semicircle facing the control room, Mick Jagger recorded a guide vocal, singing into a Shure SM58 that was going through the PA; Charlie Watts was captured with a single Neumann U47 valve mic above his maple Gretsch kit, a Neumann U67 to the side of his floor tom in order to provide a stereo effect — a technique borrowed from Glyn Johns, who would record the drums with a total of four microphones — a Sennheiser 421 on the top tom, an AKG D25 on the kick (with a Shure SM57 going to the PA), an SM58 on the snare and an AKG 451 on the hi-hat.

"The PA was aiming at the drums, so the snare would actually come back through the overhead mic and create this quite unique sound," Kimsey explains.

While Bill Wyman's Fender Mustang bass was DI'd and going through an Ampeg Portaflex amp, the Mesa Boogie amps of Keith Richards and Ron Wood were close-miked with valve U47s, and Jagger's with a U87. Richards alternated between a Gibson Les Paul Junior and his red and cream Fender Telecasters; Wood played a Strat, a Zemaitis, a Fender B-Bender Tele and a pedal steel. "I used the 87 on Mick's guitar because his sound was always so loud," says Kimsey. "With Keith and Ronnie it was 47s, padded down and using the desk compression which was amazing."

While no keyboards were played on 'Start Me Up', the setup for other tracks comprised a couple of AKG 414s on the piano, a DI'd Wurlitzer, and a Hammond miked with a pair of SM58s on top and a U87 below.

All On Edge

"Including run-throughs, 'Start Me Up' took about six hours to record," says Kimsey. "You see, if they all played the right chords in the right time, went to the chorus at the right time and got to the middle eight together, that was a master. It was like, 'Oh, wow!' Don't forget, they would never sit

down and work out a song. They would jam it and the song would evolve out of that. That's their magic. So, for Charlie it was especially difficult, because he would never know where anything was unless Mick was doing a guide vocal — that's why I got him to sing through the PA setup. Charlie would follow Mick to determine where the chorus was or whatever, and sometimes Mick would change it, confusing everybody even more. They'd all be on the edge, and that's why it was so great when they did get it right together.

The EMI desk used to record 'Start Me Up' now resides in the studio of songwriter and producer Terry Britten, who has added the additional sidecar modules. The EMI desk used to record 'Start Me Up' now resides in the studio of songwriter and producer Terry Britten, who has added the additional sidecar modules.

"After that, they would leave the song, listen to it over the course of several days, and if they did come back to it they'd generally change it. I mean, Mick would want to come back and do everything faster, but generally they would come back and do something completely different. That was a good lesson: if you're going to do it different, change the key, change the tempo. What's the point in redoing it two beats faster?"

Whatever the point, 'Start Me Up' was not revisited once the master take had been achieved, possibly because of Keith's indifference towards it. Instead, it was left with a fairly raw and basic rock sound.

"Throughout the recording, Charlie kept it very straight ahead and Keith just went for it," Kimsey recalls. "It was like 'Oh, I remember this,' as they played along, and it just stuck together with a lot of space. That's the song's magic, really."

At the same time, the engineer was having a fine old time, adding reverbs and delays while leaving very little to the mix. "They'd be in the middle of a take, and I'd never know if it was going to be the master, so I'd try all sorts of things," he says. "As it was quite a discrete desk, I could do that kind of stuff, meaning that I'd be changing sounds during a performance that might turn out to be the master. Still, they always left me to get on with my job and never, ever mentioned anything about the sound."

Industrial Heaters

Now fast-forward three years to the vocal sessions in that freezing cold Paris warehouse, and once again Chris Kimsey was left alone... almost totally alone, hanging around for hour after hour, day after day, while Mick Jagger checked out the city's social scene. Consequently, what could have been achieved in a matter of days ended up taking six weeks.

"I rented a flat, and I wouldn't leave that flat until I knew he was on his way, because it was so bloody cold down there," Kimsey says. "We had to hire industrial heaters to warm the place up before we got there. It didn't make any sense at all, aside from the fact that Mick loved Paris and their truck was parked there inside a warehouse that cost next to nothing.

"We put some screens around him, otherwise it would have sounded ridiculous in that giant place, and I recorded all of his vocals with a valve 47. That's what I always used when he was overdubbing without the band, whereas the Shure SM58 is a lot more direct and therefore ensured far less leakage. If you're pumping it through a PA and put a 47 through there, you'd start getting feedback and it just wouldn't work."

What did work, when Jagger showed up for a session, was his ability to perform quickly and effectively, completing a song within four or five takes once he'd sorted out the lyrics. In most cases, he already had a verse as well as an idea of the chorus, and he'd repeat the same verse until he came up with more words.

"He'd give it the full performance, moving all over the place," Kimsey confirms. "It was great to watch and equally great to record. He knows how to work a microphone. He might be at the back of the control room, just a bar before the verse, and all of a sudden he's in front of the mic. He backs off in the chorus when he's singing loud, he gets in close when he's singing soft, and he knows what to do. Keith, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. You need a shotgun to get him in front of the mic. He'll wander all over the place while singing, taking an attitude of 'You do your job, you record me.'"

This was never an issue on 'Start Me Up', which, regardless of the image conveyed in the promotional video, actually features Jagger performing all of the backing vocals as well as the lead. "He's very good at sounding like Keith on harmonies," remarks Kimsey.

Power Mixing

Once the vocals were completed, mix sessions for Tattoo You took place in New York at Electric Ladyland and the Hit Factory, with Bob Clearmountain also taking care of some mixes at the Power Station. Among the latter was 'Start Me Up'. "Bob's and my mixes were so very close, there were a few times when I listened to what I thought was his mix and it turned out to be mine," Kimsey says. "I remember driving down LA's Pacific Coast Highway shortly after Some Girls had been released, and hearing 'Miss You' on the radio. In his version of the mix, Bob had edited out the sax solo, and this was what I thought I was listening to on my hire car's great stereo system. I was thinking, 'Wow, this sounds amazing. Bob really is a genius!" But then the sax solo came on and I nearly left the road. I couldn't believe it. That taught me to not get too precious about my own work." 

Learning... From Mistakes

While assisting on the sessions for the Stones' classic Sticky Fingers album at Olympic in 1971, Chris Kimsey didn't work on the centrepiece song, 'Wild Horses'; but he did nearly destroy it. Engineered on eight-track by Glyn Johns, the recording required more tracks and so Kimsey was assigned the straightforward task of making an eight-to-eight copy. With one 3M machine in Studio One and another at the opposite end of the building in what was then known as the reduction (mixdown) room, the trainee decided to make the copy immediately after the session ended, at about three in the morning, when no one else was around.

Accordingly, he put the master reel on one machine, loaded the virgin tape onto the other, checked all the connections, pressed Play on the master, ran the two-minute journey to the reduction room to make sure the correct signals were coming in, pressed Record, ran another two minutes back to the main control room, rewound the master, again pressed Play, and then returned to the other room to monitor the copy. So far, so good. However, after about a minute, the incoming sound slowed right down and ground to a halt. Trouble. Running as fast as he could to the Studio One control room, Kimsey duly discovered that the takeup spool was bent and stuck, causing the tape to wrap itself around the capstan motor until it stopped.

"The tape had wrapped itself neatly around the motor, but with creases every inch and a half," he now recalls. "I was shitting myself. I started lifting it out, incredibly slowly and delicately, and hours went by before, at around six in the morning, [studio manager] Keith Grant came in for an early session. Well, he took one look at me in a big heap on the floor, and after asking what happened he got a big, heavyweight iron — obviously not hot — and helped me press out the creases. It took me hours, and then I had to sit there and play the tape for hours and hours and hours to get the creases completely out. To this day, none of the guys has ever been told about this."

Why bother? After all, Kimsey hadn't escaped quite as easily a few years earlier, when starting his career as an Olympic tape-op-cum-teaboy. Showing off the copy room equipment to a girlfiend, he spotted an opportunity to impress her even more when Steve Marriott of the Small Faces popped his head around the door and asked, "'Ere, mate, can you make a copy of my album? We've just finished mixing it!"

At this point, Kimsey didn't even know what mixing was, but he was happy to comply. Putting the master and copy reels onto a couple of Studers, he set both machines in motion and then wondered why no sound was forthcoming. "'Ere, where's the f***in' music?" Marriott enquired. "It should be startin' by now!"

When Kimsey took a look, he noticed that he'd put both machines in record. A good 30 seconds had been wiped off the first track on the album. Yet, unaware of the work that had gone into Andy Johns's mix, he coolly remarked, "Oh, never mind. You'll just have to do it again." Marriott was less than impressed. "He had to go upstairs and have the song remixed," Kimsey recalls. "However, about five years later, when I was engineering a Humble Pie session, Steve told someone the story and then turned to me and asked, 'Is that guy still here?' 'No, no,' I said, 'they got rid of him ages ago!'"