It wasn’t my idea to make a solo album.
I wouldn’t have been so presumptuous that I could do it. I wouldn’t know where to start and I didn’t have the money. However, Neil Rook and Tom Carter thought differently, so, blame them.
It was 1996. Much to my relief, I had dissolved Little Games and had no plans to lead another band. I was in a couple of others and, as a sideman, all I had to do was show up for the rehearsal or gig. Didn’t have to organize, arrange, make decisions. I had cast off a mighty weight.
Besides, Little Games was falling apart; scrambling to keep it together was adding to my stress. The few gigs we had were well-performed but the money was pitiful. I didn’t care about the money, but it was embarrassing to give working musicians a pittance and I didn’t want to stand in the way of people paying their rent. This caused a lot of conflict and lead to the end of Little Games.
By this time, I was writing most of our songs. I’d compose a simple (ok, primitive) song on a guitar that I played very badly. I was terrible but knew enough to slap together a few chords and apply lyrics, often written over breakfast with a hangover. I’d put the song on my four track recorder. Add drums, bass, another guitar. I’d transfer the four tracks to a stereo cassette deck, which created a two channel mix of the bed track. The two tracks then would be transferred back to the four track, and voice and anything else (other percussion, BGs, guitar solo) would be added onto the two free tracks. Then, the final recording would be mixed again onto cassette.
The abiding rule was that I would be responsible for every note. In this way, I amassed 10 tapes that I called The Jeffrey Dahmer Experience. The grisly things I would do in the name of music. At the same time, I had banded with Neil Rook, Tom Carter and Benedict Patrick to form a loose songwriting aggregation called Mutt. That’s a story in itself.
Carter ran a recording studio called Magic Lab. There, during Mutt breaks, I would play a cassette of my latest atrocity. Rook and Carter didn’t cringe and thus became aware of my Jeffrey Dahmer experiments. Between Neil wanting to try record production and Tom having a studio, the two of them hatched the idea of producing a solo album with me as the soloist.
Spurring them on was a backer who had been convinced that I had a celebrity profile, could call in a few big names to appear on the record, had the songs and yak yak yak. On paper, this seemed like a good proposition, but by the time I was set to record, the backer had backed out. Maybe he knew something we didn’t.
Undaunted, Neil and Tom proceeded. The former choosing the songs from my tapes and the latter, a keyboard player, rearranging some of them. Putting a recording band together was easy. For the bulk of it, I got Ra McGuire to sing BGs, Tim Hewitt on bass and Brian Smith on guitar. Three fifths of Trooper. I would drum. Ra and I were good friends and he had participated vitally in Bruno and Little Games recordings as either producer or adviser or as a singer. Tim simply was drafted and I figured Brian (Smitty) could use a change from the Trooper sound.
The first session didn’t go well. Smitty and Tim were fine. The problem was with my drumming. Each song we’d attempt was OK on the first take but not right. When we went to a second or third I’d get more cautious with each pass and often lose confidence altogether. There was nothing wrong with the tracks but they lacked spark; they seemed timid. So, I fired myself. Neil and Tom got in their standby drummer, Phil Robertson, who aced his parts the next day.
In the end, my drumming survives on “Scattering The Ashes.” Back on course, the recording proceeded from day to day without incident. Much to my surprise, everyone we asked to participate did it if their schedule allowed. Thus, the album has appearances by Craig Northey and Doug Elliott of Odds (“Scattering The Ashes,” “Little Richard Says”), Carolyn Arends (“Strange”), David Gogo (“This Wheel,” “Guilty”), Bill Henderson and Howie Vickers of The Collectors (“Early Morning”) and Keith Scott of Bryan Adams’ band (“Five Guardian Generals”). As well as members of Trooper, are Don Harrison of Sons Of Freedom, and members of Little Games and BGM. In fact, two songs were recorded with Little Games — “Little Games” and “Strength” and one, re-recorded, dates from BGM — “Alcohol And Tears.”
I got the feeling that a few musicians expected to be playing something weirder or more challenging. I am a music critic, after all, and it’s supposed we have more sophisticated or esoteric tastes. That might be true in some cases, but I was an unschooled musician and the songs on offer were the best I could do. I also wanted a more conventional record that wasn’t dated by trends in recording or arranging.
“Little Games” is one of the last recordings by Little Games, “Scattering The Ashes” is based on my mother telling me she sensed my Dad’s ghost near her. I’m not a great believer in such metaphysics but I liked the idea of a soul that has to wander until it has a resting place. Craig and Doug added a lot to the song, as they did with “Little Richard Says,” which was inspired by seeing Little Richard on a talk show in which he flowered over everything. “Strange” is straightforward. “Guilty” can be interpreted several ways, but essentially it’s about how we are our worst critics. I can’t listen to “Strength” anymore. When I wrote “Strength” I had a vague idea of what it means, but after my stroke, I knew exactly what it now means. Cuts too close to the bone.
“Working Undercover” has an unusual structure but basically comes from Little Games’ last drummer, Radar, who was thrown into confusion when his wife left him. “Alcohol And Tears” is a thematic variation on “Guilty” but I really like the lyrics. “This Wheel” more or less is an attempt to write a spooky blues.
If there is one regret about the sessions it is that “Early Morning” is the track that got away. In the back of my mind, there was a notion to include a cover of a forgotten song by a great Vancouver group on each record I made. “My Hometown” by Seeds Of Time is on the Bruno LP, “One Ring Jane” by Mother Tucker’s Yellow Duck on Lumpy’s.
It was while emceeing a Children’s Hospital Christmas benefit at which a reunited Collectors appeared that I realized The Collectors had been a big influence on me. I drunkenly asked Henderson and Vickers if they’d be guests on my record and they consented. There really wasn’t much for them to do but they were joined by McGuire on the BGs to “Seventeenth Summer,” another Collectors song, that was inserted to our arrangement of “Early Morning, and Bill played some guitar. The Collectors’ original is aggressive and angry sounding. Ours is much smoother and doesn’t bristle nearly as much.
As well, Bill might have felt crowded. My brother, Don, plays amazing lead guitar on one track during the guitar free for all at the end, Smitty occupies the other channel and he’s amazing, too. Bill squeezes in where he can in the middle. However, having Howie and Bill with Ra in the studio together swapping a few tales was a highlight.
Smitty influenced the record just by being Smitty. The original idea was that my record might be an opportunity for him to experiment or go outside the way he usually plays, but he has such a strong style that, rather than him bending to us, we bent to him. This might be more apparent on a track that was cut from the album. Neil had an idea that we cover The Bee Gees’ “I’ve Got To Get A Message To You,” but, try as I might, I couldn’t get it. Had no feeling for it. Later, Smitty bolstered the track with some very crunchy guitar. This reminded me of The Small Faces and, suddenly, I knew what to do. It was too late, however, as the track had been dropped.
It hasn’t been lost. My vocal was erased and Neil sang it as part of the Mutt recordings. Again, that’s a story in itself.
The album was called Five Guardian Generals. While in Victoria (possibly while Little Games was shooting the video for “To Love And Die”) I saw a display of Korean and Japanese art at the Museum there. One of the things that caught my eye was a faded Korean tapestry called Five Guardian Generals. It depicts officers surrounding their emperor/king. In truth, I can’t tell who is a general or who is the emperor/king but I was intrigued anyway. Who are these generals, when did they live, what became of them?
The tapestry suggested a song, which suggested an album title, which logically suggested the album art.
The album, which sounds good courtesy Neil and Tom, has never been released. It was sent out to a few labels in the old fashioned, pre-Internet, way with the hope of one of them signing us. Generally, it was well-received albeit with back-handed compliments along the line of “better than expected.” Like, I was going to put out something substandard?
There were some serious attempts to create interest that didn’t succeed and there was one small label that initially agreed to release the record, but, when push came to shove, nothing more was heard from it. The sweeping changes created by the new technology were to come later so these can’t be blamed.
At that time, there were articles that stated records by middle aged solo males weren’t selling. There were a few exceptions — Elton John being one — but everyone else was having trouble. As I was a middle aged solo male (and, suspiciously, a music critic who already had kicks at the can with BGM and Little Games) and no Elton John, I evidently was a poor bet. The album was pressed in a very limited quantity of about 35. A few still exist and there has been talk of making it available via the web.