THE STORY OF SAY IT AIN' T SO JOE
Introduction of Paul-Samwell Smith (Producer)
I was actually at the same school as Murray, Hampton Grammar School in SW London, but he was three years below me so we didn’t know each other well. Then I was bass player in the Yardbirds and went on to become a producer, and I had the good fortune to work with Cat Stevens in 1970. It was after the success of Cat Stevens that Murray came to me with the songs that were to be ’Say It Ain’t So, Joe’ so I happily agreed to produce it, and I brought a couple of musicians from the Cat Stevens recordings into the Murray sessions, most notably Alun Davies, Gerry Conway and Bruce Lynch. But Murray had a host of great musicians that he brought to the sessions as well - people like Jim Cregan and Bob Weston, so we had a lot of fun bouncing in and out of Morgan Recording Studios in Willesden throughout the autumn of 1974.
It was a lot of fun working with Murray - he was very capable of recording a wonderful basic track of guitar and voice, sometimes with Alun playing a second guitar at the same time, that we would then overdub everything else on top, like bass, drums, backing voices and all the rest. But it was his ability to capture that magic original guitar and vocal that made the recordings so captivating. It takes both courage and talent to be able to sit all alone in a studio, or at best with one other musician across the room, and deliver a seminal performance of a song.
And we had fun. When Murray had Vicky Brown in to sing the song “You’re So Tasty” as a duet together, the electricity between Murray and Vicky was palpable and you can hear it.
The lovely Irish Whistle player on 'Boats Away’ was riding the waves with the Caribbean steel drums - just how I managed to mix up those two very different genres still worries me - and to end an evening with backing vocals like those (on ‘Boats Away’) with Susie Lynch (Bruce Lynch’s wife) and Alun Davies and Murray and I all contributing to the ‘Polynesian choir’ was a lovely way to bring a day’s session to a close.
I would go home to bed a happy man.
And I remember Island Records, who were trying to release the first single ’Say It Ain’t So’ and who were very worried about how quiet the track went in the middle section - the “Ooh Baby ...” section, that they asked me to remix it for radio play, so that people’s radios wouldn’t go so quiet in the middle of a pop song. I had a go, but it seemed to miss the point of the whole thing, that important moment of doubt and questioning that is the core of the song, so we abandoned that attempt. Almost 50 years later I still hear that track being played on the radio, so I guess we did something right.
Murray was always so casual, as well; no suits and briefcase for him! He would turn up to the studio in jeans and with a plastic carrier bag containing his notes, lunch, books, shopping lists and plectrums, his life in a sac. I was lucky to bump into Murray just when he had a great album ready in those notebooks, and it remains one of my favourite albums to this day.
In 1969 a very good friend of mine, Derek Ash, told me the story of Atlantis, a legend originally described by Plato. lt grabbed my imagination and never let go. l thought that the subject would make a wonderful musical and so started to write songs with this in mind. ln the past 50 years I have re-written the play three times and l never tire of the story.
In the early 197O's l recorded a concept album called 'Jesus Christ Superstar', in which I played the role of Judas. The writer and composer Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber had decided to do an album with the idea of having hit songs before looking for backers for their musical - the idea worked, the album was a huge success in America and enabled them to stage it. In looking for a way to present my ideas for Atlantis l decided to adopt the same approach. It was then up to me to find a record company to enable me to record the songs. Serendipity was to play a large part in what followed.
Firstly, when I went to the US to do promotion for 'Superstar', people thought, from the sound of my voice, that l was black. This was an immense compliment because throughout the 60's l was singing songs from the Tamla Motown and Stax labels and copying the style of my heros.... Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Wilson Picket etc. However I wasn't black and I was confronted with the inevitable reality check - it was time to drop imitation and discover my own voice. In writing these new songs for Atlantis I found my place.
At the same time the singer Cat Stevens had decided to become Muslim which meant cutting ties with his past and stepping back from his singing career. I deduced that his producer Paul Samwell-Smith was going to be looking for new artists to record. Paul and l had been educated at the same school, Hampton Grammar and although I was younger, he was aware of my existence and I was certainly aware of his as the bass player of the Yardbirds. I looked for the closest songs I had to Cat Stevens, got in touch with Paul and sent him tapes asking him if he would be interested in producing me. He liked what l sent and cautiously chose to record two songs - Say It Ain't So and Never Even Thought. These sounded good so Paul decided to do another two songs - Boats Away and When I'm Yours. He took these four songs to his friend David Betteridge, who was running Island records in Chris Blackwell's absence and they started to discuss an album deal. We continued to record another six songs all inspired by the intended musical, Atlantis. All albums work better when they have either a recurring theme or a thread to tie them together rather than the artist showing how versatile he is. This was certainly the case with Say it Ain't So, the album.
We started recording in Maison Rouge but most of the album was made in Morgan Studios, London, with Cat Stevens' musicians and a few of my friends. Alan Davies on acoustic guitar, Bruce Lynch on bass, his wife Sue on backing vocals, Jerry Conway on drums with Bob Weston and Jim Cregan on guitars. Described below is as much as I can remember about the inspiration and recording of each track.
SAY IT AlN'T SO
I'm one of a generation born after the war that had very few options for expressing their opinions and dissatisfaction with the previous generation in power. lt was in this climate that the protest song was born. While the overprotected middle class were looking for a 'primal scream' they were answered by the arrival in England of countless American bluesmen supplying blues festivals with their music. The Blues were often born out of pain and injustice, at the same time we were also made aware of modern Latin American folk songs telling us of dictatorship and torture - add to this the voice of Bob Dylan and his amazing protest lyrics and you had a full blooded movement called 'Folk-Blues". So by 1974 some of the songs I wrote were out of anger against poor leadership, the way the public were being misled and their subsequent political impotence.
lt was while I was watching a news report about how Richard Nixon still had an enormous following, despite Watergate and all the lies he had told the American public, that I felt compelled to write a song - Say it Ain't So Joe. In this report the TV journalist had gone to a small town in the State of Washington and ended up questioning the Editor of a local paper. He asked him why, in the face of such incriminating evidence, people were still blindly supporting Richard Nixon. The Editor replied with an anecdote about the most famous of all US Baseball players 'Shoeless Joe ]ackson', who in the 1920's had taken a bribe to sink his team in the World Series Baseball Final. For months afterwards fans were heard to be shouting around the Stadium “Say it ain't so ]oe”. Thereby implying, that even in the face of hard evidence, they couldn't accept that their arch hero had done anything wrong. My song was partially about how leaders let us down after they come to power and also about 'Joe Public' being unable to accept that they've made the wrong choice and voted for a dishonest man.
Whilst protest songs serve to make people aware, they have little effect on history. Despite this “Say it Ain’t So” has become more and more relevant with the passage of time and the ensuing years of political leadership. Take for example the election of both Tony Blair and George Bush at the turn of the century. They led us into the Gulf War under false pretences and gave us enough reason not to vote for them again, and yet under the pretext that there was no one else worthy of their positions, were both re-elected. The result was the financial crisis of 2008.
Even more relevant is that in my song I refer to the current leader “playing his Trump card", and we've just been through four years of mayhem with the very basis of Democracy being poisoned by “fake news" and Donald Trump. lt seemed to me that this would fit very well in the musical Atlantis, where we follow the course of events leading up to the last days through the eyes of a young hero. He sings “Say it Ain't So Joe” as a plea to the Elders who have put him on trial.
On this track drums were played by Glen Lefleur, congas by Brother lames, percs by Chilli Charles and string arrangement by Ann Odell - these were people who played with me previously
BOY ON THE BRIDGE
This is about the archetypal dilemma and struggle of any young man questioning his future. The bridge is a fulcrum - does he walk on and face the perils of the unknown but which may be more exciting than staying within the confines of safety and all that he knows. Ahead lies potential independence, behind is security but eventually boredom. Most mythologies talk of the dangers
of the journey which involve climbing the mountain, the goal is the summit but we're never sure of reaching it.
By the time we got to record this song it required a more electric feel so Bob Weston played lead guitar while Mickey Finn played rhythm. Bass was played by Nicky South, drums by [an almost prodigy) Simon Phillips. Wurlitzer played by Charles Jankle (of the Blockheads) and ARP string synthesizer by Ann Odell. In Atlantis, this is the song the young hero sings before setting out on his own leaving his nomadic family behind.
This song is an ode to all seafarers - the thrill of a journey on the high seas. While the joy is about sailing, Western man needs a goal to motivate his ambitions, in this case his destination - another country.
The myth of Atlantis is that its people sailed from the sinking island in four boats to the four corners of the earth - this was the story my friend told me that fired my imagination and ignited a passion which still burns today. Although it's a myth and there is no proof of any such civilisation, I can't help feeling that it is the missing cultural link that binds us all together.
Apart from Cat Stevens' band we were joined by P] Crotty on tin whistle and a steel band called The Tropic Isles, among the backing vocals were my brother, Anthony Head and his girlfriend at the time Pam Keevil.
WHEN l'M YOURS
This is a simple love song where a young man declares his all encompassing love for a woman - he is perfectly prepared to do everything she asks of him on the one condition that she never takes him for granted.
In the musical, concurrent with the young man's quest to ñnd himself and escape the final catastrophe, there is a love story of a girl he loses and later finds.
Bob Weston and myself played acoustic guitars, we were joined by Arthur Watts on string bass, Billy Day on organ with Bob Weston and Anthony Head on backing vocals.
SOMEONES ROCKING MY DREAMBOAT
We were in need of a different feel at the end of the A side of the album so Paul looked at the repertoire of songs I performed live and came across this retro version of an Ink Spots song. Binding the themes of love and the nautical experience we decided to try it out - it worked and was even chosen (questionably) as a single by Island Records. It was the only song on the album that I hadn't written and I never went as far as getting the rights to use it in Atlantis the musical.
This involved a jazz band who did their own arrangement with Tony Kaye on piano, John Altman on clarinet, Anthony Healey on trombone and Noel Norris on trumpet. Brian Brocklehurst played acoustic bass, Bob Weston played slide guitar, Mickey Finn electric and I played acoustic. Backing vocals, Anthony Head, Pam Keevil and Bob Weston.
SHE'S SUCH A DRAG
We needed a rockier song to start the B side, and while it had no place in the musical it was a song I had written that I really enjoyed singing live. Platform boots were in the height of fashion and while it made one feel a lot taller and imposing they looked pretty ridiculous, almost clown-like. Fashion had become exaggerated and androgynous.
The musicians on this track were the band I went on the road with - electric guitars were played by Bob Weston and Mickey Finn, bass by Nicky South and drums by the genius Simon Philips (who didn't come on tour with me). It was on this track that I met Liza Strike and Vicky Brown who I found deeply attractive and bore her in mind for a duet that comes later on the album.
NEVER EVEN THOUGHT
Back to the musical.... This is a song that the young hero sings alone about his childhood sweetheart. He is experiencing the pangs of love for the first time - he knows clearly what he feels but doesn't know how much to reveal as he doesn't know if she feels the same way about him.
This is again Cat Stevens' band who are joined by Jim Cregan and Bob Weston. On percussion we had Brother lames, Chilly Charles and Glenn Lefleur. Piano and strings arrangement on the ARP string synthesiser were written and played by Ann Odel.
SILENCE IS A STRONG REPLY
Bob Weston told me his granny used to say that “silence is a strong reply". I thought this was an interesting statement and together we wrote a song around this theme. Where there is hope in “Never Even Thought” this song has a darker conclusion. "When you fall in love right from the very start, you give your love and then they break your heart, when dreams are broken silence is a strong reply".
Bob played slide guitar, I played acoustic, Maurice Pert played log drums, Graham Preskett played mandolin and Bob sang backing vocals.
DON'T FORGET HIM NOW
Haunted and watched-over by my Scottish ancestry, this ode forced its way out of me. I felt it echo the lament of past generations and all those forgotten heroes. It lends itself perfectly to the passing of a Chieftain in Atlantis.
Electric guitars Bob Weston and Mickey Finn, bass Nicky South, drums Pete Thompson, I played Fender Rhodes piano and BV's Sue Lynch, Vicky Brown and Anthony Head.
YOU'RE SO TASTY
To leave on an optimistic note, this song represents the spark of connection from one human being to another, a spark that ignited mankind is there to be found at any moment between two people.
Vicky Brown and I sang this song face to face and l cannot deny the rush I felt, I was sorry when it ended. This song appears in the musical when the hero and heroine discover their love for each other which is cut short by an earthquake which splits them apart.
Electric guitars Bob Weston and Mickey Finn, I'm playing acoustic, bass Nicky South, drums Pete Thompson and Fender Rhodes Brian Johnston.
Generally, the word “producer” in France is what they call the person who finances the album. In the UK and America they are much more hands-on, they provide the artist with objectivity and guide the recording to completion. I have had various producers in my lifetime - most of them concentrate on providing the right atmosphere, by their choice of musicians, studios and engineers. They often sat back and let the “vibes” bind the music together.
Unlike these other producers, Paul Samwell-Smith is the “Real Deal”. He has complete mastery of recorded sound. He once described how he liked to provide a Cathedral-like framework for the way we hear the musicians playing together.
A minimalist, he exercised firm discipline combined with sober enthusiasm to get the song exactly as he wished to hear it, while avoiding any excesses that the artist might indulge in (vocally and instrumentally). This guarantees the simplicity and purity needed to ensure a long life for the record - the proof is in the fact that Say it Ain't So is still being played 45 years after being recorded.
Of course this is helped by Paul’s choice of studio and engineers. In the early days we worked with Robin Black at Maison Rouge and then went on to Morgan Studios where we discovered Martin Levan who had an all-round ability to handle rock and acoustic music. On occasions, when Martin couldn't make it I had the good fortune to work with Mike Bobak who recorded most of Cat Stevens' albums.
My memories of those months of recording are scant. It was a really enjoyable experience, with non-stop music and listening and a great deal of laughing. I have never felt more in my element. It was an environment which enabled me to “blossom” and I look back on it with pride.
In fact I still have a mental picture of the exact place on the floor of studio 1 at Morgan (marked by floor tiles) where the microphone stood (Neuman B47 tube) when I sang the definitive version of “Say it Ain’t so”.
I remember, for instance, when we were recording “Don’t forget him now” that Paul said he would like Bob Weston to try and find a guitar sound that would make people think they were hearing worms wriggling around in their brains.
If you listen to the track, more specifically coming out of the “bridge” into the third and last verse, I think you’ll find we succeeded in conveying that notion.
On another occasion, there was a discussion that has remained with me to this day. On talking about other artists Mike Bobak had worked with, he mentioned Rod Stewart and Gasoline alley (one of my all time favorite albums). bearing in mind how free, easy and natural the tracks sound, I ask how Rod managed to stay in perfect sync with the shifting tempo. Mike replied that Rod sang some of the songs line by line and sometimes word by word.
This underlines the dedication of the artist and the lengths we sometimes have to go to make a song sound natural and spontaneous. This puts Rod even higher in my estimation and shows how much we take for granted when we listen to the finished product.
Even thirty or forty years later when my two inch master tapes of the “Say it Ain’t so” were finally returned to me, the album was still giving me surprises. When shortly afterwards I was asked to do a new version of “Never even thought” for an advertisement, we needed to play the original track by track for comparison.
We put the master reel on a two inches Otari tape recorder and, apart from the delight of seeing the faders on the desk adjust to form a single line of 24 tracks equally aligned, they all sounded as fresh as the day they were recorded in 1975.
We also discovered a mystery track with an odd percussive “shuffle” sound from an indeterminate instrument or instruments. Suddenly an image flooded back in my mind of Paul, Bob, Alun, Bruce and myself in a circle rubbing our hands in tempo on the playback of the song around a Neumann microphone. Paul had suggested it as a complementary track to accompany and amplify the unusual strum (almost Latin) of my acoustic guitar.
THE ALBUM COVER
The album cover shows a man (myself) in a crowd of commuters who has as much right to express himself as anyone else. lt was shot by Gered Mankovitz with GAF colour film, (which was particularly grainy) with me standing in various busy London locations.
The back cover shot was originally inspired by a scene from the film "Metropolis". I'm kneeling to look like a prísoner flanked by two suited officials - it didn't quite work but the crop we used is interesting and ambiguous. It was shot by a friend of mine called Sean Wellband.
I hope this answers some of the questions you might want to ask me. What happened after the release of this album is another whole story which I will relate later.