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Basing Street Blues

Basing StreetWhile driving through Notting Hill yesterday I spotted construction fences erected around a familiar landmark. This deconsecrated church is the site of what was once Island’s first recording studios, and it’s where I lived very happily for several months in 1975, in the apartment behind those three deep windows, created during the conversion of the building a few years earlier.

A great deal of history was made during the 1970s in the two studios that occupied the ground floor and the basement, with their 16-track Helios desks. The Wailers’ early Island albums were sweetened and mixed there (and much of Exodus was actually recorded on the premises, after Bob Marley had fled Jamaica following an assassination attempt). The Stones (bits of Goats Head Soup, I think), Traffic (parts of John Barleycorn Must Die and all of The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys), the Eagles (Desperado), Led Zeppelin (the basic track of “Stairway to Heaven”), Brian Eno (Taking Tiger Mountain and Another Green World), Jess Roden, Sparks (Kimono My House, produced by Muff Winwood, the studio’s manager), John Martyn (Solid Air), Roxy Music (parts of Manifesto and Flesh + Blood) and countless others worked there during that era. Somewhere I’ve got a rough-mix cassette of a terrific song that Stevie Wonder recorded with his touring band in one late-night session during a British visit and never released.

Old churches used to make good studios, although Island’s architect chose not to retain the high ceiling that gave Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio in New York City, a converted Presbysterian church and the location of Kind of Blue, such exceptional reverberance. But both Basing Street studios, especially the basement, had a wonderfully funky atmosphere, very different from the ambiance of the big-label operations like EMI at Abbey Road, Pye in Cumberland Place, Decca in West Hampstead and Philips in Stanhope Place. Olympic in Barnes was its only real rival for dirty-ass rock ‘n’ roll, although a lot of Island’s folkier artists also liked Sound Techniques, off the King’s Road, where John Wood held sway.

My favourite memory of Basing Street, apart from sitting in the window watching Carnival go by in the days when the event was still of modest size and relatively lightly policed, is of the night Chris Blackwell cleared the big studio and held a party for Jorge Ben and his band, who had just finished a week at the Olympia music hall in Paris. They played their full set — “Filho Maravilha”, “Taj Mahal”, “Pais Tropical” and so on — and they were dynamite.

Towards the end of the decade it was bought by Jill Sinclair and Trevor Horn, and became Sarm West. Their ZTT label had its HQ there, it became the site of the Band Aid recording, and other layers of history were added. Now there are new plans. There will still be studios in the basement at Basing Street, but the above-ground building is being reconfigured to include “high-quality duplex apartments behind the retained and restored Romanesque facades”, according to the developers’ signs attached to the fencing. Given the way property prices have gone in Notting Hill over the last 20 years, I suppose the only surprise is that it didn’t happen sooner.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Fascinating read, Richard, particularly envious of Jorge Ben session, having seen him in Rio in 1977 I think it was, around the same time as Rod copped the idea for Sexy. Why is he not better known?

    April 4, 2014
    • Beats me, Richard. He’s fantastic. Just sort of fell out of fashion, I think. That Olympia gig was recorded by French Philips and released about a week later on a wonderful album.

      April 4, 2014
  2. Great stuff! Wonder how long the studios will last with nouveau riche living directly above… (P.S. You need to find that Stevie Wonder cassette!)

    April 4, 2014
  3. poebiz #

    I did one of my first stories here, doorstopping Jethro Tull who were recording Aqualung in late 1970. Not having had much experience I thought that this was how real journalists got their material. Ian Anderson none-too-pleased fro what I can remember.

    April 4, 2014
  4. That is somewhat sad but I suppose changing technology and property prices have conspired to make it inevitable. My only visit was for the 1974 Island Christmas party when the wonderful Ronnie Lane and Slim Chance played a ‘spirited’ and thoroughly enjoyable set.

    April 4, 2014
    • I was there, too! I’d completely forgotten it. Nice to see people writing about Ronnie and that band again.

      April 4, 2014
      • I saw Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance at Maidstone College of Art, probably 1974, they seemed like a band of gypsies. Robert Elms played a great ‘four for’ tribute to Ronnie today on his radio show. Lovely music.

        April 4, 2014
  5. Steve Hurrell #

    My memory from there is of filming the whole day of the BandAid recording, when the whole place seemed extremely chaotic. Standing by the desk when the various different singers recorded their lines was surprisingly moving. I was sad the hear of Jill Sinclair’s death recently.

    April 4, 2014
  6. crocodilechuck #

    Cracking post, Richard-always wondered where those Bob Marley records were made in the UK.

    btw, Columbia’s 30th St Studio was an ex-Orthodox Church.

    April 4, 2014
    • Thanks. But I think you”ll find 30th St went through two or three ecclesiastical incarnations — Presbyterian first, then Lutheran — before ending up as an Armenian church.

      April 4, 2014
      • crocodilechuck #

        I withdraw my incomplete qualification as to the religious denomination of the 30th Street house of worship ;)

        April 5, 2014
  7. My memories from the late seventies are of Maurice (or Morris?) Dolby the cat, the wonderful Gladys fixing lunch for everyone and some wonderful music being made.

    April 4, 2014
  8. geoffnoble #

    I forwarded your interesting piece to my friend David Macdonald, former conservation supremo at Kensington and Chelsea, who replies as follows:

    “I do remember having a meeting about this site some time ago. I had been the one responsible for getting the area designated as a conservation area. The last one before I left. We were encouraging the developer to keep at least part of the building as a recording studio.”

    Good to know that our planners are savvy to what the Japanese call ‘intangible heritage’ as well as bricks and mortar.

    April 5, 2014
  9. Two memories of the Island days stand out, and they both involve Chris Wood, bless him. First I was conducting a large string section (no idea what for!) when suddenly the studio door burst open mid take. “Emergency, emergency” hollered Chris as thirty odd string players downed instruments ready to flee the studio. “Anyone got 2p for the telephone??” On another occasion someone had left a Dan Armstrong transparent guitar propped against a chair.”Watch for the guitar Chris” buzzed the engineer as Chris hesitated, took one step forward and crashed into the guitar on his way out. “Watch out for the guitar Chris” boomed the voice again as he returned and plowed through the poor guitar for a second time

    April 5, 2014
  10. Chris C #

    I was there one night with Mott The Hoople and Guy Stevens who was producing them. Someone came in to complain that they were running over time whereupon Stevens tore the studio clock from the wall, placed it on the floor and jumped on it.

    April 7, 2014
  11. Fred Shuster #

    Depressing photo. This destruction of what’s left of London is hard to accept.

    April 23, 2014

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