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Last Updated:
May 18, 2008

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Dave remembers "Rook"

Song of the Week

This week we feature the demo version of last week's song, "Rook," from 1992's Nonsuch. This version can be found on Disc 5 of the Fuzzy Warbles series (if you don't already have it, you should), and is a remarkably complete sketch of the finished product.

Speaking of the finished project, one reason it's so beautifully finished is because of the wonderful piano and synth playing of Dave Gregory. Here's what he remembers about the writing, rehearsing, and the dramatic recording sessions surrounding this dramatic song.

DG: Among my very favourite of all Andy's songs is the mysterious and intriguing "Rook," which he demo'd in September 1990 as part of the collection that would make up the Nonsuch album the following year. Exactly what the song is about I couldn't say, though a doomy portent of his own mortality, wrapped up in the dark metaphorical plumage of a carrion bird, is what it always suggested to me. The lyric is perfectly complemented by the plodding, ominous piano chords, which suddenly take flight in the verse sections like a startled flock of birds. I could hardly believe my ears when I first heard it, and I'm still astonished at the relatively simple way he'd constructed the chord sequences, proving that one drop of pure inspiration is worth more than a sea of sweat and tears.

Andy had bought a new synthesizer, a Roland D-50, and had discovered a way of stacking samples on one key, something he always did when triggering snare drums. He'd added an extra note to a basic piano sample, tuned one fourth above the root key. By using just two fingers of his right hand, and his left index finger, he plotted out a simple four chord sequence, each chord comprising six notes in stacked fourths -- the very essence of pure jazz. This became the main theme of the choruses. For the verse sections he constructed four more tone clusters, battering the keyboard like a bongo drum and taking the time signature into a very modern 18/16; this was adventurous stuff indeed from the man who'd brought us "Science Friction"!

Once Andy had told me how the chords had been constructed, I set about deconstructing them and notating them, to see if they could be played. And, after several weeks' practice, yes they could! I would sit with the part just for the sheer joy of playing it, and couldn't wait to get into a studio and hear how it sounded on a professional grand piano. I made one small alteration to the choruses by omitting the octave note below the top melody line [see the manuscripts in the photo section]; I felt the movement lacked definition, as the chords played in that area of the keyboard sounded very muddy. So the finished choruses have a five-note chord.

What I hadn't reckoned, whilst merrily rehearsing at my leisure, was Andy's decision to record "Rook" to a click track. For this reason, the entire day -- Monday, August 5th, 1991 -- was devoted to recording the piano at Chipping Norton Studios. It was torture, and we actually lost four hours of the day when the Mitsubishi digital multi-track broke down, presumably in protest. The piano itself had also been a problem; much to the dismay of engineer Barry Hammond, it wasn't maintained or tuned regularly, and the tuner was only called in when the artist specifically wanted to record piano "keepers." The previous Friday, we'd attempted to record "Wrapped In Grey," but that was eventually scrapped when the piano went out of tune.

When we finally completed the piano part for "Rook," it remained untouched until 2nd September, when we overdubbed guide tracks of synthetic strings and brass in preparation for Andy's lead vocal, recorded the following day. The synths were true to Andy's demo, only altering very slightly the string lines at the climax of the final verse. I then wrote out the scores in preparation for the string players, and Guy Barker's trumpet and flugelhorn overdubs.

As September wore on, and after 56 days in the studio, cracks were beginning to appear in the relationship between Andy and producer Gus Dudgeon. Gus sat us down and gave us a stern lecture about how production decisions didn't just mean adding more overdubs simply because we could, and that if the Mitsubishi featured 32 recording tracks, it didn't mean we had to use them all. He was anxious to get the recording process over with, and start mixing.

This presaged an undercurrent of resentment from Andy, I think; the string sessions for "Rook" had not been as successful as he had wished, and on October 8th he and Gus began the day re-assessing and "correcting" the tracks. I left the studio to keep a dental appointment in Swindon, but when I returned later that afternoon it was clear something horrible had occurred; you could have cut the atmosphere in the control room with a knife. They were still working on "Rook," it still wasn't happening to Andy's liking, so in a fit of pique Gus had suggested that if the track wasn't working, he should "bin it"! Poor Gus's fate was, I think, sealed at that moment and he never saw the album out to its completion.

'Rook' was eventually mixed at Rockfield Studios by Nick Davis on Friday, 6th December 1991. For me, it's the jewel in the Nonsuch crown.

If budding pianists, tribute artists or forgers would care to tackle it, I've posted my original piano manuscript for your perusal in the photos section. Have fun!

7:27 PM

©2008 by Todd Bernhardt and Dave Gregory. All Rights Reserved.