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Classic Tracks: Tomorrow 'My White Bicycle'

Producer: Mark Wirtz • Engineer: Geoff Emerick By Richard Buskin
Published March 2014

Tomorrow’s pioneering paean to the joys of communal public transport has proved to be a classic of the British psychedelic underground.

In 1975, it charted in the UK Top 20 for the Scottish rock band Nazareth and crawled into the Top 100 just under 10 years later when covered by actor Nigel Planer in his guise as Neil, the hippy in BBC sitcom The Young Ones. Nevertheless, the original, non–hit version of ‘My White Bicycle’, issued by Tomorrow in May 1967, was, according to that group’s guitarist Steve Howe, “the first British psychedelic single”, and whether or not that’s strictly true, it certainly was one of the first.

Abbey Road engineer and producer Norman Smith (left) and Mark Wirtz. Abbey Road engineer and producer Norman Smith (left) and Mark Wirtz. Photo: Mark Frumento

“You have to remember, there was no such thing as a psychedelic sound at that time,” says Mark Wirtz, who produced the Tomorrow recording. “That was a record company invention. It used to be called ‘underground’, and we weren’t even thinking about that. We were just doing what we were doing, and it had nothing to do with psychedelic until the record companies called it ‘psychedelic’.”

“Psychedelic sounds were coming out of the West Coast of America in 1966, inspired by the use of drugs such as LSD,” adds Tomorrow’s drummer, John Alder, who back then was nicknamed ‘Twink’ but these days goes by the name of Mohammed Abdullah John Alder. “I was listening to the Electric Prunes, the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane and Vanilla Fudge, to name a few, while in England we had psychedelic music by the Beatles with ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and Donovan with ‘Sunshine Superman’.”

‘My White Bicycle’, written by Keith Hopkins (the real name of Tomorrow lead singer Keith West) and Ken Burgess, was inspired by the White Bicycle Plan: a community bike–sharing programme that industrial designer–inventor Luud Schimmelpennink of the radical Dutch Provo counterculture movement instigated in Amsterdam during the mid–1960s. After gathering 50 bikes and painting them white, the anarchic Provos parked them unchained all over the city so that they could be used and then left on the streets by anyone who needed them to get around.

The aim was to eliminate all motorised traffic in the city centre and improve public transportation, but the police impounded the bikes because municipal law forbade them to be left unlocked. So, the Provos then retrieved the vehicles, equipped them with combination locks and painted the combinations on the bikes, and even though the White Bicycle Plan still received no support from the local authorites, it served as the model for similar programmes that are today in force in various European cities.

“‘My White Bicycle’ was a total flop in England,” says Wirtz, “but it did well in Holland and, down the years, it’s come to be regarded as a classic.”

Making Arrangements

Born on 3rd September, 1943, in Strasbourg, Mark Wirtz had to endure an identity crisis when he was growing up.

“Even though I was half–Jewish and half–Catholic, the Germans occupying Alsace put a swastika on my birth certificate,” he says. “After that, the French claimed I was French, the Germans claimed I was German, and if I set foot in either country they would have pulled me into the military. It was crazy.”

Emigrating to England two days before his 16th birthday, Wirtz studied art at London’s Fairfield College of Arts and Sciences, as well as drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts before switching to Reigate College.

In 1963, while still at college, Wirtz launched a pop trio named the Beatcrackers which, as Mark Rogers & the Marksmen, was signed to a recording contract by EMI producer Norman Newell. On 30th July of that same year, Wirtz also signed a solo contract as a pianist, replacing Russ Conway who had recently departed the label, but he had to wait to do his audition at EMI’s Abbey Road facility.

“The Beatles were recording ‘All My Loving’ in Studio 2,” he recalls. “When they were finished, it was then my turn, and that’s when I met Norman Smith. He was also Norman Newell’s engineer, and so after that we worked a lot together.”

In 1964, while observing a session with singer Danny Williams, Mark Wirtz told Norman Newell that he thought he could write a better arrangement than the one he was listening to. The producer responded by handing the teenager a couple of song demos and telling him to prove it, but this was easier said than done. Wirtz had never written any arrangements, let alone ones for a 40–piece orchestra, so he bought a book on music theory along with some chart paper and spent the next two days beavering away inside his freezing–cold flat.

“With the help of that book, I wrote my first arrangement, and at the end of those two days I was exhausted,” he says. “So, I went to sleep and when I woke up a rat had eaten the arrangement. It was in shreds, meaning I now had a day to redo it and to do the second one as well.”

This is precisely what he did and, when the orchestra played both arrangements in the studio, Norman Newell loved what he heard. At the same time, news arrived that Newell’s regular arranger, John Barry, capitalising on the success he’d been enjoying as a film composer, had just quit EMI to join the independent Ember Records label. This provided a timely, unexpected and previously unlikely opening for the 20–year–old Wirtz to step into his shoes, and it was indicative of his prodigious talent that the veteran Newell chose him to be the company’s new wunderkind.

In 1965, when Newell quit EMI to concentrate on his successful and lucrative work as a lyricist, Wirtz likewise left to start his own production company, Colinio Productions. The first fruit of this enterprise and his artistic input, released through EMI’s Parlophone label, was the Mood Mosaic swinging–’60s pop instrumental ‘A Touch Of Velvet, A Sting Of Brass’, followed by the Mark Wirtz Orchestra album Latin A Go–Go for Ember Records.

In 1967, Wirtz accepted the offer of another veteran EMI label head and producer, the ultra–successful Norrie Paramor, to rejoin the company as an in–house producer, with the freedom to make his own signings and select the projects with which he wished to be involved.

The Day Before Tomorrow

After booking agent Bryan Morrison invited Norman Smith to attend a performance by the Pink Floyd at London’s UFO Club, he then took Mark Wirtz to another venue called Blaises — where Morrison was the exclusive booker — to see a band he was managing named the In Crowd. At that point, the group were making the transition from a mod–soul outfit into one that, as Mohammed Abdullah John Alder recalls, “was experimenting with long guitar solos as we began our musical change”.

“In January 1967, I went to the UFO Club and saw the Pink Floyd for the first time,” explains Alder who, in addition to Keith West and Steve Howe, played alongside bassist John ‘Junior’ Wood in the group that would soon rename itself Tomorrow. “The whole place was set up for a Mark Wirtz, 1968.Mark Wirtz, 1968.Photo: Mark Frumentopsychedelic happening. I got it immediately and wanted to be involved, but it was difficult convincing the rest of the band to change our name — the UFO would have never booked us with a name like the In Crowd — as well as our image and our repertoire. Steve was initially the most receptive to new ideas, and eventually Keith and Junior came along when they realised the benefits of this new wave.”

“I heard their demos, I thought they were terrific and right off the bat we got along great,” adds Wirtz, who signed the group soon after seeing them play at Blaises. “We just clicked; definitely a case of kismet.

“One of the reasons why I loved working with them was that the rhythm section was a trio, and so there was never a clash between the instruments. They would come into the studio, I would ask, ‘So, what have you got?’ and then Steve and Keith would get together to work out an arrangement for the song they were going to do. Steve would play the guitar, Keith would sing, and they would play me the tune while Twink and Junior would listen.

“I was always like the fifth member, sitting in on keyboards for all of their stuff, and I’d make myself fit in with the concept of their ideas. This was not about Mark Wirtz, it was about them, and so it was never a case of me auditioning, approving or selecting the material; it was just them really having it together to the point where all I had to do was say, ‘OK, great.’ Having an idea of the song and the structure, I’d just add myself into the arrangement as a keyboard player, we’d record it and three or four hours later we’d have a track. It was incredibly self–contained, they were very much on top of it, and so working with them was fabulous.”

Abbey Road: Horrible Studio

Now fast–forward to March 1967 and the In Crowd’s first EMI recording session, tracking ‘My White Bicycle’ in Studio 3 where, sitting alongside Mark Wirtz, was Geoff Emerick, then involved in engineering the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

“Geoff and I were like brothers,” Wirtz remarks. “We didn’t always have to talk in order to communicate. However, regarding the work he did with me and the work he did with the Beatles, whatever we respectively came up with was ours and remained a secret. Geoff never, ever disclosed how he did things with the Beatles, and he never disclosed to them how he did things with me, even though Paul McCartney has recently gone on record saying how I influenced his writing on Abbey Road with productions like Tomorrow’s ‘Revolution’ and Keith West’s ‘Grocer Jack’.

“My whole concept back then was to make records like movies, doing multiple edits and working in scenes that were later crossfaded. I could do that because I was an orchestrator, so I knew at point A what was going to happen at point F. It gave me the opportunity and the freedom to do many things I couldn’t do any other way. I mean, I couldn’t clear the studio, get in different musicians to record a few bars, and then ask them to leave and get in other musicians. Instead, I’d record certain instruments that shared common ground separately from instruments that had other things in common. Each group of instruments was like a mosaic, and I’d create different mosaics at different times.

“When you talk about the Abbey Road sound, you’re really talking about the drums: having the drums in front of vocals that were recorded almost dry, taking the front skin off the kick drum and the underneath skins off the other drums, close miking from underneath and using these really cheap AKG D19s, along with Fairchild limiters. Still, Geoff was absolutely insistent that whatever happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas.

“In Studio 3 at that time, we had the old consoles with the four huge faders in the middle that looked like the levers used to switch the direction of a train by shifting the rails. Let me tell you, back then Abbey Road was a horrible studio, not only because of the union–type mentality where you couldn’t move a mic an inch without somebody in a white coat being called down from upstairs to do it, but also because the equipment was antiquated. The console had one master EQ switch for ‘classical’ and ‘pop’, and that was a problem for someone like me who was a fan and disciple of Phil Spector.

“The sound that Spector created with his team was more random than absolutely by design, but if you wanted to emulate that kind of sound, you had to come up with a slightly more designed concept. Well, the EMI tape machines were all aligned to the CCIR curve: a classical EQ curve that goes very high up and very low down, but which is also very, very clean and lacks some of the low–mid frequencies. The American records were all recorded on a NAB curve, and that’s a very specific sound. So, when Spector produced George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass at Abbey Road, he couldn’t get his own sound.

“We didn’t have the time to reconfigure all of the machines to NAB; that would have been ridiculous, because they’d have to constantly switch between one or the other. However, Geoff did actually develop a sensational system; going to +3dB at 10 kilocycles across the board on every track and then to –3dB on playback. That meant it was clean but, by staying at 15ips instead of going to 30ips to adjust the curve, it still had that grit in it. Geoff became an absolute genius at doing that, and it was a secret. None of us ever talked about it, and he didn’t even allow it to be used for the Pepper sessions.

“Then things got interesting. We became friends with some of the technicians upstairs and they started inventing things for us. For instance, they invented the ‘presence box’ which, once you plugged it in, ensured the sound was focused on a shelf of 10 kilocycles of top end, which is very audible but also kind of transparent and definitely has some grit to it. We shared that with everyone. Nineteen sixty-seven was the year when, within a veryTomorrow drummer 'Twink', now known as Mohammed Abdullah John Alder, 2013. Tomorrow drummer 'Twink', now known as Mohammed Abdullah John Alder, 2013. short space of time, incredible things were written, forward motion was taking place in audio recording and we tried to battle the negatives of that studio. We even started using the downstairs toilet as an echo chamber, because the chambers that EMI were famous for were so pristine and so clean, I hated using them.”

The Sound Of Tomorrow

“Whereas the Beatles really liked Studio 2, Pink Floyd and I really liked Studio 3. Looking out to the live area through the control room window, the bass booth was to the left, at about nine o’clock, and Junior’s bass would be recorded direct injection and with an Electro-Voice RE20 mic on his amp. He liked to be near Twink, whose drums were on a podium and screened off to the side and rear at the far end of the room, at about 11 o’clock, miked with AKG D19s and all of the underneath skins removed, aside from the kick which had some sort of broadcast mic on it. I liked working with leakage, and I had overheads hanging in the room just for atmosphere. We’d dampen the snare with a handkerchief, a T–shirt or a towel, and we’d put paperclips in a little bag on it to create a rattle. Also, something that Ringo started and which we would like to do was put a tambourine on the hi-hat. The stereo overheads were a fair distance above Twink. And, while we used a Kepex noise gate, the Fairchild limiters and compressors were absolutely integral to — and very much part of — the sound.

“Steve Howe, looking towards the control room, was screened off behind and to the sides in the centre of the room, at about 12 or one o’clock, and again recorded with a combination of direct injection and an RE20 mic on his amp. As for Keith West, he’d sing along and do a guide vocal, but the actual recording was an overdub, captured with a Neumann U47 in a maximum of three takes. There weren’t that many harmonies, so it was very simple, and I kept my keyboard part very simple, too. I really tried to augment rather than compete. I was not the star. The stars were Keith’s writing and Steve’s playing.

“I remember, it was 10 o’clock in the morning when I listened to the demo of ‘My White Bicycle’, and then we began recording it. It didn’t start off as a particularly exciting track, but we were all into it and really enjoying ourselves while smoking a couple of joints, and what’s funny is that, for the part of the record where you hear a police whistle, Keith went outside and actually got a cop to come in and blow that whistle. There were joints everywhere and the place stank of marijuana, but the cop came in all excited, blew his whistle and then left.”

Whereas Nazareth’s hit version of ‘My White Bicycle’ is distinguished by Manny Charlton’s slide guitar and Dan McCafferty’s high–pitched vocal, the Tomorrow original is altogether different and sonically far more interesting. Right from the start, we hear backwards guitar and backwards hi-hat together with Junior Wood’s pulsating bass and Twink Alder’s driving percussion, punctuated by Steve Howe’s edgy guitar licks.

“The backwards hi–hat that runs throughout the entire song was my idea,” says Alder, while Wirtz recalls the excitement of experimenting with backwards guitar. “That wasn’t an orchestrated part,” Wirtz explains. “We just recorded a regular solo and turned it around. It was totally random.

“In all, three hours were spent on recording the instruments and maybe an hour doing the vocals. As for the mix, that may have taken a while, but altogether we’re probably talking about three sessions lasting a total of nine hours.”

Operatic Interlude

Shortly after recording ‘My White Bicycle’, Mark Wirtz would write and produce ‘Grocer Jack’, with lyrical assistance by Keith West who was the featured artist. Subtitled ‘Excerpt From A Teenage Opera’ in reference to Wirtz’s intention of creating what would have been the first ever rock opera, the single climbed to number two on the UK chart following its release in July 1967, helping to shape the so–called ‘Summer of Love’.

“I dreamed every note of that song,” Wirtz recalls. “The next day, I went into the studio and said to Geoff, ‘I’ve had this dream and I’m going to make a record of it. It’s about a grocer in this little village...’ and Geoff said, ‘You’re crazy. You can’t make a record out of that. It’s not rock & roll.’ I said, ‘Oh, man, wait until you hear it!’ So, we recorded it secretly, section by section, during down time at the end of other artists’ sessions — including the orchestra, the children’s choir and Steve Howe’s guitar — and I felt asTomorrow’s drummer, John Alder, who back then was nicknamed ‘Twink’ but these days goes by the name of Mohammed Abdullah John Alder.Tomorrow’s drummer, John Alder, who back then was nicknamed ‘Twink’ but these days goes by the name of Mohammed Abdullah John Alder. if I was cheating because I didn’t spend a lot of time creating the actual song. Nobody at EMI knew we were doing it.”

That October, a second Keith West Teenage Opera single was released. ‘Sam’, again with Steve Howe on guitar, just about cracked the UK Top 40. However, even though other tracks were recorded, the demise of the pirate radio stations meant Wirtz’s productions were accorded little BBC airplay and, without record company support, the project was abandoned. Still, it would help inspire Pete Townshend to compose Tommy.

The Parting Of The Ways

In the meantime, a second Tomorrow single, ‘Revolution’, was released in September 1967, when the band recorded the first John Peel session on BBC Radio 1, but by the time a self–titled album was issued in February 1968,the psychedelic trend was already becoming passé and the group disbanded shortly thereafter. While John Alder would subsequently join the Pretty Things for their concept album SF Sorrow, Steve Howe would find fame in the progressive rock field with Yes.

“Ultimately, Tomorrow couldn’t survive because they could not support Steve’s talent,” says Mark Wirtz, who relocated to LA in 1970 and Savannah, Georgia in 1996. Having been involved with numerous projects as an artist, writer, producer and even stand–up comic during the past four decades, he recently recorded his latest self–penned, self–produced album, Self–Licking Ice Cream, that includes out-takes from the Teenage Opera project. “Keith’s writing was terrific, but it was within a fairly narrow kind of field, whereas Steve could handle a really broad spectrum. He was far more talented than anything Tomorrow would ever do.”

Alder, who recently released his latest album, You’ve Reached For The Stars by Twink & The Technicolour Dream, disagrees. “Steve was, indeed, a rare talent,” he remarks, “but Junior was also a great bass guitarist and songwriter, and Keith was a very charismatic lead vocalist as well as a great songwriter.

“The problem for Tomorrow came about with ‘Grocer Jack’. Until then, things had been going exceedingly well for the band, but it was pushed to the sidelines when, from a purely business point of view, the focus switched to the Teenage Opera — that didn’t even exist — because EMI, Mark, Keith and our management could only hear the cash registers opening and closing. If the Opera had not reared its head, I feel sure the band would have gone on to greater things.”

Artist: Tomorrow. Track: ‘My White Bicycle’. Label: Parlophone. Released: 1967. Producer: Mark Wirtz. Engineer: Geoff Emerick. Studio: EMI