Youthful Adventures in Sound
By Noel McLaughlin
In the early 1980s, I started trying to make music. The ambition was not to be a musician as such. But to record my own compositions. Perhaps composition is too grand a word.
Music sketches might be a better term; music inspired by the whirl of post-punk experimentation occurring around me. It bequeathed to me the preferred concept of the non-musician (with ‘muso’ a casual term of contempt amongst my local post-punk peers).
I had saved up my first synth – a Moog Prodigy – and began playing in makeshift bands in the seaside town of Portrush in the hot summer of 1981.
In those days, Northern Ireland’s mix of Blackpool and Brighton seemed huge to my teenage self (even if it had a population of some 9000 inhabitants). My friends owned The Derry, a wonderful - if ramshackle - hotel on the Main Street. The rear was a disused bakery, which quickly became a rehearsal space for many of these transient collectives. Portrush and the North Antrim coast felt at a distance from 'The Troubles’, from the urban centres of Belfast and Derry.
In part, this was due to the simple fact it was a place associated with getting away to – and also of getting out of it (in the multi-faceted sense of the term), and – as an added bonus - getting into something else.
It benefitted from the proximity of the University of Ulster and a population of students, beatniks and bohemians from outside of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
This Main Street was full of small bars and hotels too numerous to list. Most put on ‘discos’ and accommodated live bands. It was a hotbed of activity, and this was maintained, albeit less enthusiastically, in the winter when the student population’s need for entertainment saw through the hiatus of winter, and between the more-lively Easter and summer holidays.
However, I was less interested in playing live. Instead, I loved recording. If some see themselves as ‘computer game kids’, ‘the early internet generation’, ‘the children of grunge’ and so forth, I am born of the age of the power of the tape recorder. The sheer excitement ushered in by the democratisation and affordability of the tape recorder cannot, and should not, be under-estimated: the novel ability to record a sound and then play it back. Before recording music became the goal, I’d record everything on one of those piano key cassette recorders in a case.
This may seem banal in the current context, but there was a magic – a mystery - to tape and taping before it became routine; not unlike the wonder of being able to film before every smartphone had video capability. Indeed, as a marker of the tape recorder’s authority, what came back on tape, and how this sounded, was far more important than what was going on musically in the room. I suppose what I am invoking here is the possibilities that emerge from nascent technologies, and their limitations, before their routinisation.
I saved up for a ‘portastudio’ as they were called at the time: a four-track cassette multitrack machine. Primitive and nostalgic now. But it was the cutting edge back then. My friend bought a bass guitar and a drum machine. We were good to go as a sonic duo. Days would be spent experimenting, building soundscapes, little sound poems or sonic sketches. I grew up in a seaside village of under 1000 inhabitants. Winters were long, and such experimentation in sound was more than just something to do. It was a mix of diary, purpose and existential problem solver…
We were very much inspired by the likes of David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts as well as Eno’s ambient albums, but also Japan, Gang of Four and Human League.
We had a preference for the exotic - for the mystery of Jon Hassell’s velvety, heavily-effects laden trumpet, snippets of treated speech from far-away locations and soaring, sweeping synth pads. We’d spend hours trying to recreate such sonic marvels, striving to create timbres that took us away from Northern Ireland, where we could imagine a deserted windswept beach on a Greek island, the bustle of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or the ambient sounds of the Himalayan foothills. Some of these sounds (and their related images) were of course well-nigh impossible to reproduce on this primitive equipment. But it didn’t stop me and my partner in this enterprise trying to sonically transport ourselves to another place, space or time. We felt connected to something bigger.
Not unlike the blog posts here, it was undertaken for the best of reasons: self-exploration, coping with reality, trying things out as an antidote to boredom. Test, strive, fumble … Enjoy making stuff up. In short, making sense of our world.
The best song/piece out of these years of recording is called Boat People. It’s one of two - perhaps three - that I can bear to listen to years later. In it, however clumsy the execution, I got something many musicians strive towards: the exoticness of somewhere else melded with something specific to home. While it might mimic folk I liked – Hassell, Eno and so forth - it conveys a sense of the roar of the North Atlantic a hundred metres or so from my little bedroom ‘studio’. The latter was lost on me until relatively recently: that where I was recording was as important as the exotic ‘elsewheres’ otherwise being conjured up.
‘I’m here on sea’, I croon in close-miked fashion at the songs end. ‘And it’s pouring down on the sails of my heart’.
It was all assembled around sounds, pads, loops, samples and rhythms of artists I admired. Creativity borne of imitation, but in some small way making its own thing out of all of this. I realise now, thinking back, that I was trying to build a private utopia out of sound, one that would act as a bulwark against the quotidian, that would envelope me - keep me safe.
What does it mean? Well, it joins the great ferment of music destined to be not heard by anyone apart from their immediate associates, friends and family.
‘His heart screams with no pity’, the song begins – and I think mine at the time was. But only, equally poetically, ‘when autumn’s dealings (were) done’.
We were approached to sign with an independent record label with major distribution. After some debate, we declined. It wasn’t why we made music, nor the direction we saw our lives taking. I’m happy about this and have never regretted once the decision. As Jimmy ‘the lips’ Fagan puts it in The Commitments, ‘we could have gone on to make albums, but that would have been predictable’.
People make music for reasons beyond the orthodox notions of performance and commerce. And, similarly, writers approach books beyond success, sales and celebrity. How Belfast Got the Blues emerged from not terribly different conditions.
On reflection, I’m so glad I made these little collages. Even if, in the broader scheme of things, it is destined not to mean much. It remains another small artefact seldom heard that at best provides some small compost for other ideas to grow.
Sometimes the thing itself, (and the process), is a more than ample reward.