March 30, 2006

Making My Houdini

Tactics' first album "My Houdini" was recorded at Basilisk Studios in Hurstville (Sydney) over a roughly six month period in 1980 by the band itself (David, Angus, Ingrid, Geoff, Robert) with several other musicians in the Green / Doublethink stable. It was basically engineered and produced by Martin Bishop and Stephen Hocking, with funding and oversight from the omniscient (and very patient) Roger Grierson from his Paddington aerie for what was becoming Green Records.

That doesn't really give much away, does it? In reality, it was a six-month mess of intrigue, tension, fights, endless retakes, sometimes great music, fruitful musical experiments and accidents, relationships gone bad, edgy cameraderie, grinding poverty, stifling cigarette smoke, bad food, and all-day sessions followed by all-night gigs. That's how I remember it, anyway, as a minor participant on the sidelines, not part of the band itself, but (accidentally) a small part of the whole Tactics Thing by then.

Following Tactics tradition, although the idea was to just go into the studio and quickly lay down a bunch of well-rehearsed songs and put it all out as soon as possible, there wasn't actually any coherent plan for making this happen. The resulting six months of negotiating some sort of path between two abrasive egos (David and Martin), and fiddling with (and arguing over) every single note and sound as many times as possible became something of an unmusical trial for many of us, but the results seem worth it twenty-five years later.

While virtually all of the actual songs on My Houdini had been written well before recording started, large parts of it — especially the production and effects — are still accidents or the result of experiments in the studio; a lot of stuff was made up as the recording went along. Some obvious bits are outright mistakes: every time I hear Bob's drums coming in at the start of Buried Country I have to smile — that was left in because we'd all got so used to it by then it sounded "right"; when I listen to Angus's guitar playing on something like "My Line" I remember the agonies we went though to get him playing at least plausibly in tune (he had a natural ear for what was in tune and what wasn't, it's just that his guitar had intonation problems), and how much had to be just left as-was in order to get something done…. The horn lines in Come To My Senses and No More Talking were, I think, some of the very few little bits of My Houdini that weren't agonised over or re-written or re-recorded in slightly different ways a dozen times in as many weeks (mostly, in the case of the horns, because the players actually wanted to be paid for their work by the hour…). Bob's drumming and Geoff's bass playing were also pretty much left alone after the initial laying down, but due to the the limited number of tracks at Basilisk, even these were sometimes affected by (or accidentally erased during) bounce operations.

My Houdini would have sounded rather different if it had been recorded somewhere else in different conditions — it wasn't just about Tactics and the triumph of Studdert's creative Will; it's also about Martin Bishop and Stephen Hocking, and their willingness to experiment and play around at great length with stuff (gear, sounds, drugs, etc.), no one ever quite understood. Much of the sound and production of My Houdini was possible because Martin was (initially, at least) hungry for a success with a project like this, and was prepared to do a lot of the work for nothing or very cheaply. Even though in private (to me, at least) Martin was absolutely scornful and derisive about Tactics and their music, I think he was deeply attracted to David's sense of certainty and destiny, and figured he could hitch a ride to better things.

Basilisk Studios itself was actually just a typical inner-suburban Sydney house, a short walk from Hurstville railway station, that Martin had converted into a working studio. In some mysterious way (presumably due to his fairly rich father), Martin actually owned (or not — it was always hard to tell) the place, and had slowly over time built up an odd collection of studio gear and instruments in what used to be one of the larger rooms (someone-who-was-there just told me it was the main lounge room plus the little "sunroom" that was attached to it). Never mind that his neighbours hated the noise (Martin didn't bother that much with sound-proofing, and I can remember Martin insinuating several times that he was going to beat up a neighbour who'd tearfully asked him to stop so her kid could sleep), or that Martin's manner usually pissed off or scared potential clients — My Houdini and Basilisk were going to be the springboard for Martin's success, ground zero for his eventual (and, in his mind, absolutely inevitable) ascension to the Greats of music and studio production.

Martin's predictably dead now (a fatal combination of drugs and increasing paranoia, I suspect), but at the time he'd been a sort of friend of mine since high school (Martin, Angus, and I all went to the same school in Canberra), an increasingly mercurial, tyranical, and paranoid character usually strung out on one hard drug or another (mixed with great quantities of softer drugs, and even greater parts of denial). Or maybe he wasn't strung out at all — a large part of the image he wanted to present was about just hinting at some tortured mysterious menacing darkness in there somewhere and keeping people guessing about the truth. I never saw him again after we had to steal the master tapes back from him to remix elsewhere, and there were serious issues with putting his name on the album's credits.

If you look at the record label itself, it says "Produced by TACTICS and Stephen Hocking", which is pleasing: Stephen's still a good friend of mine, an unsung part of the early Tactics story, somewhat written out of the plot by later revisionist (or just forgetful) memoires and histories. Stephen was then (and still is) a photographer and musician, and was just as central to My Houdini as Martin; Stephen's also the (uncredited) photographer behind some of the more interesting and lasting images from this part of the Tactics story.

My role in all this? Not much beyond being good friends with many of the people mentioned here (especially Angus, Stephen, and David), and having to do things like getting Angus home after a gig or dragging him to Hurstville the next morning, or listening to opposing tirades from David or Martin on one subject or another, or making sure Angus didn't sell all his posessions for money. At one point Angus just, erm, "lost" his guitar for a while; I found it exactly where I expected to find it after a few days, in the old pawn shop up in King Street, and had to help buy it back. He ended up borrowing my old Ibanez Les Paul for a while — it's in the mix somewhere, as is my Fender Jazz bass (for rather different reasons). At another point Martin asked me to build him some more studio gear (I was an electrical engineering student at the time, so this was light relief), and we spent a few days on some byway or other exploring the effects this new gear had on some sound or other in a cloud of smoke somewhere around midnight.

I remember late one night Robert was sitting around quietly drinking a beer in my house in Abercrombie Street after a session at Basilisk. He looked over at me after a while and said something like how he thought he was going to kill Studdert if he made one more fucking change to the drum sounds on some song or other. Of course I'd had to listen to one of Studdert's quiet tirades earlier that day in the same room about the supposedly bad drum sound (Robert was always by far the straightest and most straightforward of Tactics people, and one of the few who nearly always got his playing and sound exactly right the first time).

And My Houdini itself? I'll have more to say about it later, but I can't separate the music from my experiences of the time or the circumstances (personal and otherwise) of its recording, so don't ask me for any sort of objective view. Phil T has a canny take on it all (inevitably rather different from mine), and a bunch of links to what other people say about Tactics and My Houdini, so you could do worse than start with his encyclopaedic No Night Sweats site and take it from there. Me? I still listen to My Houdini every month or two (it's on my iPod); I still get those shivers up my spine and a certain mixture of awe and anger every time I hear it.

(Part of both A History Of The Sky and Punk (and Later)).


At 3/30/2006 3:17 pm, Blogger Phil said...

another terrific memoir, mr little. all of voigt grew up around hurstville but we didn't know about this studio until tactics recorded there. when did martin start it up?

i listened to "my houdini" again recently and was struck by how well it holds up today. "long story" is on the inner city soundtracks comp and it stands out dramatically amongst the other puny efforts - you can tell a lot of time went into the recording. and especially when compared to "glebe" which sounds just dire (the songs aren't as good either).

thanks again.

At 3/30/2006 6:07 pm, Blogger Jimmy Little said...

Phil -- thanks! I can't remember exactly when Martin started Basilisk (Stephen H. would probably have a better handle on that), but I don't remember it being more than a year before My Houdini. I know he'd worked with Particles and a few other people (including Iva Davies, bizarrely enough, for a very short time…) in Basilisk before Tactics, and Stephen and I had recorded with Martin on some of his songs there, but I'm a little unsure of the actual pre-Tactics timelines.

As for My Houdini itself, I've always thought it was one of the best Oz records of the era, but I also still have a strong affection for Glebe, for very different reasons. A minority opinion, for sure… I'll probably end up writing about both records at my usual ponderous length over the next year or so.

At 4/01/2006 4:00 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Mr Little you have really captured the flavour of the times. My own recollection is of course the same but different. The central drama of that whole time for me being the bust up and the seizing of the master tapes from Martin and our permanent estrangement. Now at last it can be told.

It was largely at my urging Martin agreed to record Tactics first album on the understanding that studio time would be charged at concessional rates and we would use the project to educate ourselves in the process. We had been operating for less than a year and had done very little real production. Mainly demos and independent singles. Including, as you allude, the demos of "Can't help myself" and others for Iva Davies when he was still doing David Bowie covers in Flowers.

As you note Martin and Dave were often in conflict. Martin envisaged himself as a heroic guitarist in the Jimmy Page(or Hendrix) mould. In the emerging movement (punk, post punk, new wave) this superceded archetype was deconstructed and derided. That hurt. Martin imagined himself to be a talented songwriter. Dave was a talented songwriter. Martin was spending his life working on My Houdini but Dave was tardy in paying even the laughable pittance Martin was charging. Both very intelligent. Martin: cold, analytic , machiavellian. Dave: manic, turbulent, volcanic
Both given to grandiose notions of self.

We made many mistakes in the struggle with our own ignorance, the technical limitations of a largely untried studio and with the limited and undisciplined musicianship of the band. Yet in failed attempts to replicate what others have done you can discover great things.

The most friction arose during the recording of Daves vocals. This was the last step in the recording process. As you know he has a, ahem, unusual vocal delivery. We had heard him sing live of course but I recall it came as something of a shock to hear him reproduce that, all too faithfully, in the studio. I think Martin was apalled that the instrumental tracks we had slaved over were about to be debased by this caterwauling. Dave, for his part was aware that many people found his singing unpalatable but they were his fucking songs and he was going to fucking sing them. He refused (or was unable) to soften the delivery. He was, however, very anxious and that of course exacerbated the deficiencies in his performance. It was a tense scene.

To complicate matters I had started sleeping with Martins ex girlfriend, Rosemary, but for various reasons we had not gone public.

It all came to a head one afternoon after a fierce argument between Martin and Dave. I forget the precise issue. As Dave drove off in a fury Martin declared that he could easily resolve the issue with the demagger (a powerful electro magnet used to degauss the heads on the tape recorders , remember them?) It would also very quickly erase any tapes it came near. I had seen him engage in some pretty questionable behaviour but this was too much. I had become friends with the members of the band in a way that Martin hadn't. To hear him so casually refer to the destruction of all that time and effort by these people simply to demonstrate his power outraged me. At the time I believed he would do it (now... well, how can we know?)

The events from this point are a bit fuzzy. I warned the band that to protect their masters they should remove them from Martins hands. Legally they owned the music on the tapes but they had to pay for the actual reels.

There was also a bizarre little moment the next day when Rosemary and I were out together and failed to acknowledge Martin as he was stopped at traffic lights near us. We heard through a third party that he was furious at this perceived slight. The fact was though that he had just inherited his mothers old car after driving around for years in that increasingly battered yellow corolla. No slight was intended. We just didn't recognise the car.

Within a couple of days we had packed up and moved into Surry Hills leaving "Hurtsville" forever.

I was never happy about Martin not getting a production credit on the record and I remember trying to convince Dave to do so but to no avail.

The last time anyone I knew saw Martin was when Anne Macdonald spotted him on a bus with a woman. She said they looked like they were on their way to rob a bank.

Listening to the record now is a very mixed experience. It's a great collection of songs. I don't think we did them justice. Yet there are times when even now I get a buzz from a moment like the crazy rush at the end of "Outdoors" or the wild solo on "National Health" that out Birdmans Birdman (if you know what I mean) The painful moments when I listen to the solo on "My Line" and hear that some idiot fiddled with the tone settings half way through dropping it in. And knowing that idiot was me.

At 4/02/2006 3:53 pm, Blogger Jimmy Little said...

Stephen — thanks for the great comments and additional memories. I vividly remember the anger and commotion the threat to the tapes caused on the Tactics side at the time, and I guess I still have no doubt that Martin would have done it. And I wasn't going to mention the Rosemary thing — even though it was one of the central aspects to the larger story (in my memory, at least). All I'll say here is that it wasn't the only relationship that was causing trouble at the time…

At 8/15/2006 12:24 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

G'day Dr Jimmy

While researching for the reissue of My Houdini and Glebe, I trawled through some old mags in my collection and found this review.

My Houdini reviewed by Tyrone Flex - Roadrunner April 1981

This is an awesome album. It will become many things to many people. It strikes too deep, too sharp to go unnoticed, and once inside it’ll never leave. I caught a glimpse of the amphetamine rush and splinter that was Tactics soon after their move from Canberra to Sydney, but never imagined being served up such a diverse trunkload as this, their first offering.

There’s a lot to digest in the twelve tracks here present. But to analyse in detail would be to crawl into the chest marked “Spin out” and swallow the key. Enough to say that the images taste ruthlessly reflective of what we are, what we wont admit, where we’ve been and what lies under this “Burried Country”. Not a duff line in sight, but many splinters. No poetic wanking but a language that feels ancient in tone, yet modern in content. And the wit chills me almost as much as it heats and propels.

Production and musical aspects are the same – a diamond hard blend of haunting dynamics, imaginative sounds and sheer consistency. I know it sounds like all praise and no criticism, but I honestly find little need to do so, the damn things so neatly bound yet unfettered and open. Bass and percussion just melt together, smooth and lumpy. Guitars and quartz like piano skitter and sing around a voice that gives new credibility to the nasal effect – Redgum seems decidedly trite after this (sorry kids).

My Houdini will be a rather hard act to follow. Up thru the heaps of meaningless junk, Tactics is the Nautilus surfacing.

At 8/15/2006 8:21 pm, Blogger Jimmy Little said...

Thanks again, "a squared". They don't make reviews like that any more (or maybe they do -- I don't read reviews). I particularly like the "Redgum seems decidedly trite after this (sorry kids)." bit, which seems like something I might have written ("Tyrone Flex" -- now who was that, eh? Not me, for sure).

At 9/27/2006 10:25 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Out of the haze of memory comes a night from the Tardis (well two, actually, 23 & 25 September 2006): Tactics reformed, playing lots from My Houdini and bits from Glebe at what seemed the last pub in Sydney willing to host a post-punk micro-reunion, the Excelsior in Foveaux St, across from ye olde Trade Union Club and the neversleeping antheap of the underground taxi base.

A gig mag conspired to deplete the faithful by pointing them to the other Excelsior in nearby Glebe, and I couldn't drag the 15 year old punkette from home along... but there were still enough of us for critical mass, including your very own A Squared and Anonymous (sound engineers on second and first records respectively, with A Squared on the mixdesk again on the second night, and Anonymous down from the country for 12 hours), the serious sisters Astrid, Madeleine and Ingrid (she on stage), and a bizarre cast of aging dinosaurs and cupcake princess types the rest.

I was under the influence of nostalgia and memory, the first for that distant near-forgotten milieu suddenly revived in the flesh (with the help of these pages), and the second for the soundscapes and aural promises swirling in the mix on My Houdini (the only album I was really familiar with, not heard in years but embedded in deep strata ready for the trigger).

The real sounds of the live band came to me overlayed with the special effects and sonic conceits of the remembered studio album (was there ever a more studio album than my Houdini?!) - a deleriously great result, as if the work of a psychic remix engineer with the latest post-neural FX box - perhaps the late Martin B down the aether, playing with yet another techtoy? Not sure if anyone else had the same reception, pity if not.

Unlike the decidely patchy (OK, shockingly awful in parts) Monday gig, the Saturday gig was one long UP escalator, culminating in the encore one of the earliest songs, Standing by the Window, the words of which I'd earlier found myself muttering under my breath during the long night drive into town from the SeaChange hut. (Someone commented on the ludicrousness of Dave Studdert singing 'I couldn't think of what to say, couldn't think of what to say' - the wild lyrics and startling images bursting again out of that breaking sound wave belied this claim of a tied tongue.)

It was a real thrill to be in a tiny, capacity crowd (top marks for the micro venue, felt packed and sweaty) roaring aloud along with the choruses on anthems like New York Reel and Second Language. Amazing how many people knew the words, or at least the loud bits.

Did I say anthems? What had in the past on vinyl sometimes sounded like disjointed sketches or scratchy dead-ends here came into their own, full-bodied rolling stock, rattling along the rails with urgent momentum and thundering mass. Great to dance to, the supremely excessive drummisms suddenly making a lot more sense, and the plunging bass making you want to take up that axe again.

Dave's vocals were less screechy than at their worst, but still carried the implied menace of a nicely tuned angle grinder creeping too close to one's extremities, the ideal clear vehicle for his lyrics and vision.

Speaking of 'down the aether', new guitarist (whose name escaped me, sorry) did a ripper job of channeling Angus' angular guitar. Angus, who is recuperating in the North, was remembered from on stage, as were your correspondents Anonymous, A Squared and even Jimmy Little (names decrypted of course).

Ingrid's alternately delicate and urgent keyboards were just right, though memory had to add in some of the effects from the studio sound. The noise from the boys behind her seemed a bit distracting at times for her, though I reassured her later that the loudness actually made a lot of sense and worked (easy to say from off stage).

Can you tell I thought it was a truly great gig? Even Monday, which recovered from a classic punkoid dwarl in mid set (capped by DS' out of tune guitar just as the exploratory lines from Glebe deflated all drive and urgency) to finish if anything better at its best than Saturday. Enough to restore your faith in the whole damn thing, to give the early Tactics songs a setting where they all made musical and sonic sense (some for the first time), and to restate Tactics' claim to their place in the first rank of original Oz bands of that era (and this one too for that matter, because I'd rather listen to this stuff than most of the formulaic dross that seems to infest the live dives today.)

Will we hear its like again? There's some talk of Dave being able to make it back from London again next year - let's hope so.

At 9/27/2006 8:49 pm, Blogger Jimmy Little said...

Ah, the mysterious CupTime CakeModulator (can I just call you Cupcake?) — thanks! Any objections to my promoting it to an inaugural guest article here under the main bits? (I'll just cut and paste it appropriately) — it deserves better than just being a comment…

At 9/28/2006 5:16 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes of course, call me what you like (though my oarsmen call me CakeTime); I assumed the threshhold of entry was pseudonymity, and I had help encoding from the now departed punkette. And do as you see fit with the rant. I've never accepted that we must remain trapped in a plane where neither virtue nor obscurity are rewarded...

At 9/28/2006 8:18 pm, Blogger Jimmy Little said...

Then you shall be "CupCake"... (pseudonimity's hard to maintain, no? I already know who "Anonymous" (usually) is, and as for "a squared", well, if that name's not a dead giveaway mr a**** ar****, I don't know what is...).

At 10/01/2006 12:13 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not seeking anonymity here, it's an identifiable (for those who know me)performing/artistic pseudo, that works well on blogs too, though it's hard to write it mathematically as it should be written. BTW, you confused me momentarily as there are only 3 *s in a***.

At 10/01/2006 12:16 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sydney Friday 4th July 1980 - My Houdini was on its way to becoming a piece of vinyl. All the best music was on vinyl. I lived in a terrace in Abercrombie Street, Chippendale, next door to Angus, Cup Cake and Jimmy Little. There was a hole in the fence for easy access and people shuttled back and forth all the time. There was a renovation done upstairs at the back of our house that made a long room. We asked Tactics if they’d play there, we’d have a party and let them work in the new material to an audience. I started drinking at 4pm, pacing myself to peak around the band’s second set and stayed with the grog all night. By 8.30, no one had arrived and we were worried we’d put on a dud show. By 9.30, the house was packed, the crowd filling up on their preferred substances and the band cranked up. The noise upstairs had the floor moving and dust came out of the cracks in the ceiling in the kitchen and lounge room. The sound set up was simple, and the gig looked after itself. I was high on grog, music, dancing and Trudy. Cool. Tactics play our house - ripping through what was to become My Houdini, and some stage favourites. One for my Pantheon of great gigs.

At 10/01/2006 4:03 pm, Blogger Jimmy Little said...

A squared -- thanks for the great story, it all adds to the memories, no? And sorry for misspelling your first name -- hell, those asterisks are way too messy to count properly. Oh well...

At 10/05/2008 7:09 pm, Blogger dafyd said...

Hi, my name is Dafyd Williams and i finished the recording and mixed My Houdini. Unlike the acrimony that preceeded my involvement we all got on like a house on fire. I think that is evident in the results. The album was finished at my studio at the time Yorkstreet in Melbourne. If you have an original copy of the album check out the order of credits, very telling. Please lets set the record straight, only those that were there new what went on, because we did not have any bagage between us i know that was a huge relief to them at the time. cheers

At 10/05/2008 7:31 pm, Blogger Jimmy Little said...

Dafyd — I'm not sure what bits you want to set straight, but have at it…

At 4/21/2010 5:17 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah --memory aye -- dodgy topic --
Phil and the voight crowd have always had a hard-on about how bad glebe supposedly is --- persumably they wanted MH2 which wasn't the intention -- as for the tardiness with money --- well, Bishop made the original deal no one forced him to - he knew we were broke and he liked it that way --- my recollection is he'd always bring up the cash owed whenever he wasn't getting his own way --- which given the fact he didn't have a clue about what we doing or about the aesthetic of the moment -- (i mean he wanted to be a guiter hero 4 god's sake) was quite often.
If you read these posts carefully you can see through the who hah quite easily,
We were absolutely right not to let him drag us down.
He was all front -- with a fragile ego and not enough personal courage to throw himself into the darlo side of it and make something positive for himself --- he sat in his squalid little house in the burbs some one else had paid for, and did nothing but be negative from the sideline about everything.
he got lucky finding us and resented the fact that we were prepared to give it go and stick our necks out -- still he'd grown up in a tiny town in a tiny public school and undoubtedly thought he deserved better being the king of that little pond and all -- self pity and a wounded ego was about his lot -- the band saw right through him from day one and despite his supposed cold analytical mentality and manipulative ways he ended up with shit didn't he -- which he prob liked, as it feed his sense of grienvance and self pity.
Basically he was using us (not very well) and he was entirely dependant on the fact that we had a shitty manager and no other options. And of course being the person he was he constantly reminded us of this while suggesting things like 'you should get rid of this person or that person' -- people say he was manipulative but it was all so childish and obvious -- allied to the fact we had a dumb useless self aggrandising manager the entire result is a tribute to our focus and steve's.

As Angus used to say quietly to the rest of us, he was a classic example of conrad's telling phrase " the greenish sickness of later youth" but he wasn't alone in all of that -
I'm glad people still like MH and still feel it holds up - stepping through the piles of dog shit to get it done -- well least we had the guts to do it, the belief to hang in their for 8 months and the songs and the musicianship to justify it in the end. And if that's a inflated sense of self worth, well give us more of it.


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