John Collins – A Producer’s Story
One of the most enigmatic names in the story of 2 Tone, John Collins was drafted in to produce the label’s finest moment, Ghost Town, after Jerry Dammers lauded his production on Victor Romero Evan’s ‘At The Club’. Below is an interview with John plus excerpts from ‘Ghost Town – The Producers Story’ from Johns’ LocalRecords.com website.
What was your background up to 1981, how did you get involved in writing and producing? And why reggae and dub?
I was born in 1950, grew up in Tottenham and had an interest in records from an early age. In the 60’s I had a Saturday job in a record shop in Tottenham High Road which had a special section for West Indian customers, so I got to hear a lot of Jamaican records. Around this time I got a tape recorder for Christmas and started to experiment with my own recordings. I had a basic acoustic guitar that I was learning to play and attached a pick-up and built a volume and tone control circuit from “Practical Electronics”.
In 1969 I went to University College London and graduated in 1972 with a degree in electronics and got a job at a research laboratory in Battersea. I was there for over six years and during that time I continued buying and building equipment and making recordings. I also got married and moved into my own house in Tottenham.
My wife was a teacher at a local school and ran a dance group which consisted of students from West Indian families. I helped out with the sound for performances and got to meet Victor (Romero) Evans and Nat Augustin who were in the dance group and started writing and recording reggae tracks with them.
The laboratory where I worked closed in 1979 and I decided to try being a full time record producer and began putting out records on my own label aiming at the reggae market. There was a network of reggae shops and distributors like Dub Vendor, Third World, Hawkeye, Arawak and Jetstar. I would take the records round myself, they would play one and, if they liked it, they might buy some. If a record started selling you would start getting more orders . Doing this was daunting at first but I got a lot of encouragement and advice. The shops all had sound systems playing the latest hits which helped me keep up with the latest developments in reggae. “At The Club” was recorded and released in 1980.
What did you know of The Specials before working with them and what were your expectations prior to meeting them?
I’d heard all their records on the radio and had seen a TV documentary about them. I even sent a demo tape to 2 Tone after seeing the programme. There seemed to be a lot of black/white cooperation in music at the time with Rock Against Racism and bands like The Specials and UB40. The Specials fans appeared to be mainly teenagers, I was in my late twenties at the time and was listening to records by people like Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs. I also had the “Man From Wareika” album by Rico and went to see a couple of his gigs. I was a bit in awe of meeting him and Dick Cuthell.
What did they say they were trying to achieve with the songs particularly Ghost Town?
My understanding was that Ghost Town was about the decline of industry and the rise of unemployment in Coventry and Why? was written in response to a racist attack on Lynval. I think they were writing about what was going on around them, but the main motive was to make a hit record! The decision about which of the three tracks should be the A side was made on which one sounded the best.
How long in total did the Ghost Town sessions last at Woodbine Studios in Leamington?
My recollection is two weeks.
Friday Night, Saturday Morning was made available on a BBC archive CD of Peel Sessions with that session marked as date unknown, but it is a slightly edited version of the one you produced, any idea how the BBC would have this and think it’s one of their sessions?
I do recall being asked to do this radio friendly edit for Chrysalis (cutting “piss stains”) to give to John Peel. This was before the record was released and was on tape. This might explain why it was regarded as a “session”.
Jerry has said that every part of Ghost Town was worked out, that there were little or no rehearsals so to speak, how prepared was the track, and what elements were improvised or found in the studio?
When I had my first meeting with The Specials they were rehearsing in a room in a pub in Coventry and they played the three tracks for me. Rico and Dick weren’t there so there was no brass but all the other musical elements were there. There were no sound effects at the start or end (I added that later during mixdown in Tottenham). Brad was playing his full kit so the drumming was busier than on the record.
During the sessions at Woodbine I remember waiting for Jerry to finish off the lyrics before the vocals could be recorded but this wasn’t a problem. From the outset I got Brad to set up just snare, hi-hat and kick to get a less busy, heavier groove.
Jerry had a home entertainment type organ which was ok for comic cheesy sounds but Woodbine had a Hammond which was just the thing for reggae. I got Jerry to over-dub a two handed organ shuffle on it. It wasn’t what he was used to doing and after a few drop-ins nearly gave up in frustration saying that it felt like the tempo was varying and maybe this wasn’t a good way to work after all. The engineer, John Rivers, checked the tempo with a stop watch and found it to be solid and Jerry carried on, but it nearly all ended there!
The band played and sung right to the end of the track where Jerry played a falling organ figure that sounded a bit like laughing (I left it in on the 12″ edit, just before Rico’s solo). I think Jerry had a fade finish in mind but I did the the dub style ending during mixdown by muting various parts and fading up the sound effect.
Rico’s solo was obviously improvised and laid down on a track alongside the vocals and other parts so this had to be mixed separately, with the unwanted parts muted, and edited into the 12″ version.
Terry’s toast was over-dubbed later in Tottenham as he came up with the idea after the Woodbine sessions.
There have been stories of Terry wanting Friday Night, Saturday Morning to be a vocal and piano only recording but being overridden by Jerry, do you have any knowledge of this, also the demo version of Why? has been doing the rounds on the internet for a while, again was Jerry the one who dictated the direction of the final recorded arrangements etc?
Terry was professional and cooperative but didn’t say very much to me. Friday Night, Saturday Morning was pretty much Jerry’s arrangement. I suggested the descending semi-tones and double tracking on the chorus. I liked this track a lot particularly Terry’s vocal and all the keyboard parts that Jerry played.
The drumming on the internet version of Why? is much busier than on the record for the reasons given earlier. I suggested that the bass line go down rather than up at the end of each phrase. Horace did this but had to tune his E string down a tone to get the low D – I still think it sounds better. It was left up to me to dub up the mix.
Were there any specific musical reference points for the Ghost Town track, either by you or by Dammers & The Specials?
I took a 12″ of “What A Feeling” by Gregory Isaacs to Woodbine to test the sound of the monitors. It’s a Sly and Robbie rhythm similar to Gregory Isaacs’ “Night Nurse”. I think this influenced Brad’s playing, it certainly influenced me in getting the drum sound.. Also I had used the idea of fading up a track through a sound effect on “Lift Off”, the B-side of “At The Club”, and the idea of fading out under a sound effect on “Working Dub”, which I had put out on Local Records previously.
You mention that you left out a toasting recording of Terry, we’re there any other elements tried or recorded that were not used on the finished versions?
Just some congas on Ghost Town.
Much has been made of the tensions within the group at this stage and during these recording sessions, how did it feel for you as an outsider trying to work within that? Did you have dealings with some members more than others? Did you socialise with the band outside the recording sessions?
There were clearly tensions in the band but they were all cooperative and professional with me. I think it helped that they weren’t all in the studio at the same time. I was invited to the pub but as I commuted from Tottenham by car each day I was unable to go. Jerry was my main point of contact with the band – he was the one who phoned me in the first place.
Do you have personal keepsakes from the sessions? any photos or any alternate takes that would get us collectors excited about..?
I did get a signed publicity photo for my cousin’s daughter who was a big Specials fan…
Excerpts from ‘Ghost Town – The Producers Story’ from Johns’ Local Records website.
It started in March 1981 with a phone call from Jerry Dammers. He had heard a reggae record I had made at home in Tottenham, At The Club by Victor Romero Evans, and asked if I would be interested in producing The Specials. Suspicious that it was some sort of joke, I nevertheless agreed to travel up to Coventry a couple of days later to meet the band and was surprised to find that they were serious. They were surprised to find that I was white.
There were clearly tensions in the band, they needed somebody to unite around and they seemed keen to work with me. Jerry was disillusioned with high tech, expensive studios and liked my homemade approach and reggae credentials. He had found a small 8-track studio in Leamington and although it was a step down for The Specials, it was a step up from my 4-track home studio. It was decided to go there to record three songs for the band’s next single. I was given a producer’s contract for 2 points and an advance of Ł1500 which was a good deal for an unknown producer.
And so the experiment began. On the first day in the studio I wanted the rhythm tracks to be recorded: drums, bass, rhythm guitar and guide organ. The Specials usually recorded by all playing together live, but I was used to building a backing track bit by bit. They wouldn’t have all fitted in the studio anyway. I got drummer John Bradbury to set up just his bass drum, snare and hi hat; and bass player Horace Panter to plug directly into the mixer, going for a Sly and Robbie sound. The other songs for the single: Friday Night Saturday Morning and Why? were also begun in the same way.
The drums were mixed down (bounced) to one track (mono) as were the rhythm guitar and shuffle organ, freeing up tracks for more overdubs. The track laying and bouncing continued for a couple of weeks. Time wasn’t a problem, the studio was relatively cheap and I was told by The Specials’ manager, Rick Rogers, to “take as long as it takes”.
When the backing vocals were added it still hadn’t been decided exactly where they would be used so, to keep the options open, I got Jerry, Neville, Lynval and Terry to sing throughout the track – this was before samplers. This turned out to be very useful for the ending; by the time they got to the end of the track, “this town is coming like a ghost town” had become an hypnotic chant.
After the tracks were laid, I spent the following three weeks at my house in Tottenham mixing and editing. I had to get an eight track tape machine to play the multi-track tape but continued to use my home-made equaliser and compressor units along with MicMix Master Room XL-305 spring reverb and DeltaLab DL-4 echo units going through two Teac mixers onto a Teac A3300SX 1/4 inch tape recorder.
Since there was no automated desk, I mixed each section of Ghost Town separately and spliced the sections of 1/4 inch tape together manually. To keep the 7 inch version close to three minutes long I decided to leave Rico’s trombone solo for the 12 inch version. Other things I decided to leave out altogether including a “toasting” (reggae rapping) Terry Hall section – I thought the middle section (“Do you remember the good old days…”) featuring Terry worked brilliantly and for me it was a case of “less is more”.
It was at this stage I sorted out the beginning and end of Ghost Town by using my kit-built Transcendent 2000 synthesiser to make the ghost sound effect at the start of the final mix, fading up The Specials from Brad’s drum count-in and fading down the synthesiser under Jerry’s chromatic diminished chord sequence. At the end, I muted everything apart from bass, drums and backing vocals, dub style, and faded the ghost synth back up just before The Specials come to a halt, leaving the synth on its own again for a few seconds before the final fade.
Click here to visit Johns’ Local Records website at www.localrecords.com