Basing Street Blues
While 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.