Did I not tell you about The Brians? Really? Well, let’s put that right, right now.
Mind you, I’m not making any promises. You probably had to be there. But it ranks as one of the maddest and funniest experiences I ever had making music.
It started with a phone call. My friend John Williams needed help. “Help!” he said. He was in Matrix Studios, where Driver 67 had recorded all of his hit. Oh, and his album.
“Working on a track here,” said John. “Struggling a bit. Could you and Pete pop by and lend a hand?” So I called Pete Zorn, and off we went.
John explained he had two problems. Actually he had three, but we didn’t find out about the third one till much later on. (And the third problem had problems of its own).
Problem one: the track had to be delivered to the record company, mastered and ready, at 9am the following morning.
Problem two: he just couldn’t seem to pull all the disparate parts together to make a coherent record.
So we had a listen. Well, Pete and I, we laughed like drains. This was a seriously funny concept, and mostly brilliantly executed.
The Brians are made up of the unknown brothers of big and famous stars. There’s Brian Brando, Brian Travolta, Brian Presley and Brian Costello. You’ve never heard of them, naturally.
The song, written by John Williams and his flatmate Anthony Pryce, was a series of rants about how ungrateful the famous brothers were. “My brother Frank, he did it his way. But none of the cash came my way!”
The vocals had been done by the engineer, Simon Heyworth – he of Tubular Bells and Car 67 (and the guide to the Driver’s Last Guided Tour. Versatile chap, young Simon).
It didn’t seem such a big deal. Mix the track, have some dinner, go home. We’d done it 1,000 times. But, when we started listening, really listening, and pulling up different instruments, the problems began to manifest themselves.
To cut a long story short (because there’s a much better one to follow) we eventually focused on the guitar as the problem. So we got the guitarist back in and re-recorded his parts. Since he was imitating all sorts of iconic players (Hendrix, Harrison, Clapton, Richards) it required a tour de force. But he was more than up to the task and we got what we needed.
Hours later, Pete and I thought we had it pretty much fixed and the stress levels were descending. John Williams even took a nap on the studio sofa. At 3am, we shook him awake to have a listen.
“That’s great,” he said. “Now, what about the B-side?”
Which was problem number three. Well, three, four and five. First of all, there was no B-side. There wasn’t even a song to go on the B-side.
But – and here’s where you kinda had to be there – the song that hadn’t been written or recorded did have a title.
And the title had already been printed on the labels.
And the master for the B-side also had to be delivered at 9am, with the A-side.
So, five hours to write, record, mix and master. No dinner. No sleep. Definitely no going home.
And so it was, at 3.30 in the morning, that Pete Zorn started scouring Matrix Studios for any spare instruments, while I sat at the piano trying to write a song – a song whose title had to be “Brian’s Sister’s Sue“, because ….. that was the title already printed on the label!
Now I don’t want to make a fuss, or claim that songwriting is a mystical art that requires some form of alchemy. But, honestly, the last place to start is with a title. And what kind of title is “Brian’s Sister’s Sue“? It’s a bit too precise in its punctuation to leave much room for poetic licence.
This was my first verse:
“My sister’s name is Sue, and I’ll tell you what I’d do, if I was you, I’d stay away from Sue. She’s a mean kind of mother. She’ll make a mess out of you”.
By the time I came up with that gem, Pete had found a rusty old Fender in a cupboard under the stairs. The strings were about fit for building a chicken coop. He also found a bass drum and a cymbal.
As he set it all up, he listened to my first verse and delivered one of his own:
“She drinks her own bathwater through a dirty straw and as sure as my name is Brian, I swear she ought to be against the law.”
Honestly, I don’t know how we did it for laughing. The very long day had definitely been chemically enhanced and by 6am it was all getting a little hysterical. Simon Heyworth, true pro that he was, foreswore anything but coffee, and kept the show on the road.
Of course, he had to learn the song, and sing it. Vocalist on the A-side; vocalist on the B-side – no getting away from it. He delivers it perfectly seriously and with some fabulous little emphases that rescue some dire lyrics.
But the funniest thing on the track, for my money, is Pete Zorn’s guitar solo. It is beyond wild and crazy. It’s the kind of thing Captain Beefheart would have given his right hand for; but Pete just did it. I can’t help it. Every time I hear it, I burst out laughing at the sheer balls of it. It’s so bad it’s brilliant.
And there we were, 9am the following morning, frazzled and hysterical (well, I was anyway) and in walks this perfectly coiffed and tailored woman, just to remind us that most people had had a night’s sleep, and were at the beginning of a new day.
She was Carol Wilson, the boss of the label this masterpiece was to be released on. We handed her the tapes, and we shot the breeze. I got the impression she was a bit surprised that it was all done and dusted, but she didn’t actually say so. She was perfectly lovely, and perfectly professional. Our paths crossed twice again, years later, nothing to do with music. She’s a big shot in the world of Professional Coaching now.
We ended up on TV, y’know, The Brians. We don’t have the clip (it’s not on YouTube). But I have ITV searching for it as we speak. My friends in the FB group Popscene tracked it down. (Thank you, guys). It’s catalogued, and it’s officially available. If I get my hands on it, you’ll be the first to know!
There’s a last little irony to this story. John Peel, in his eternal search for the bizarre and ridiculous, played the Brians. But he didn’t play the A-side. Well, he wouldn’t, would he? He was John Peel.
But I can say that the maddest song I ever wrote, accompanied by my most hackneyed piano playing, is the only track I’ve ever been associated with that was played on the John Peel Show.
Brian’s sister Sue achieved at least that much immortality.
God Paul – that is truly dreadful (the B-side I mean)! The guy who tunes my piano has an old gag about some of the shocking pianos he’s been asked to tune. ‘Put it this way,’ he says, ‘if it was a horse I’d have shot it.’ Ditto Sister Sue … Great story though!
Just shows, Jamie, how bloody-minded John Peel was, eh!?!
I actually remember that night Paul, I was waiting for everybody to finish in the large studio, so that i could power-down and switch the incoming power to a new distro board. It was a long night Happy days, IanH
Well it was mighty nice of you not to put pressure on us, Ian! I never knew that. Patient man.