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In 1993, I created a record that started life as an underground club anthem, and eventually crossed over into the mainstream pop charts. This track was my career peak, my highest achievement, the laurel I never actually rested on.. It was called ‘Eighteen Strings’, the band/pseudonym, was Tinman! At the time of its high level activity, speculation was rife of who Tinman was, and much talk of whether it was indeed actually ‘sampling’ Nirvana!?! Even though this track was my baby, I don’t recall such a story behind any other club record being so convoluted, surrounded in mystery and having the death of a rock legend thrown in for good measure. So, on with the real story: the truth, the creativity, the frustration and joy behind (what is I’m proud to say) one of the biggest dance hits of its time.
Why was the track made? First confession then.. I had entered the year of 1993 with a steady decline in my production workload. Having enjoyed a longer than normal (well, 5 years actually) ‘flavour of the month’ period with record labels and clients, my particular star was evidently fading. There was no specific reason, just that s**t happens and that was my place to be in at that time. But destiny and fate are curious bedfellows, because at such times when the industry you are connected to kinda turns it’s back on you to concentrate on ‘the next big thing’, you are charged with a massive surge of creative energy to re-affirm your ability, to re-invent yourself and make the people who turned away look back and really take notice again. Yeah, heart on my sleeve I know, but I’m not too proud as I said earlier to give you the truth behind ’18 Strings’..
So, my ‘bulls eye’ target was Pete Tong. I not only wanted him to play my track without knowing who was behind it, but make him join the queue to sign the damn thing! Studio time at DMC was harder to get at this time and frankly I needed to be away from that environment to aid the re-invention process. So, new studio’s, new sounds, new vibes: out with the old and in with the new. I managed to get studio time at a super well equipped studio called ‘Bunk, Junk & Genius’ in west London, and set to work throwing ideas around with an engineer friend called Andy Hughes (who subsequently went on join ‘The Orb’). Things were going ok, but I still lacked that single key element to inspire what was to come.
Shortly after, in a random conversation with a friend, I heard that iconic DJ’s such as Jeremy Healy and Dave Dorrell were ending their club sets with, surprisingly enough, grunge rock anthem ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana. And so the idea was born.. what if I could marry a rock guitar with the ultimate club track?
There was no issue of sampling the 4 chord Nirvana riff. Firstly, because Kurt’s guitar playing was only ‘solo’ at the beginning of the track (and not at full intensity), secondly because I wanted to create and have control over ‘my’ sound, and thirdly, getting sample clearance would be impossible. To achieve the ultimate re-play of ‘that riff’, I turned to my long time friend and guitar guru, John Moores (now a leading figure on the Apple Logic training circuit). With portable DAT recorder in hand, I sat with John at his studio and asked him to record the riff at 125 bpm and at varying levels of intensity. He delivered passes in a gritty funky style and various ‘thrash’ versions with a generous blend of distortion. He played them that night with particular venom and I left the studio pleased with many options to choose from.
Back at BJG, one track that Andy and I had previously worked on had a working title of ‘Heaven’. I then took the newly recorded Nirvana riff and blended it into various sections of this track but not initially as a dominant part. I remember the ‘Heaven’ demo as the nucleus of what ’18 Strings’ became, but what I had totally forgotten (until I found and resurrected the demo tapes from this session to assist in writing this post), is that we wrote and recorded a ‘female vocal version’. The ‘rap’ chant that appeared on the final record was not even thought of at this point. This vocal version (MP3 link below) has never been heard by anyone other than Andy Hughes, myself and the female vocalist (whose name I’m afraid I can’t recall). Listen carefully and you will however hear a lot of the final elements in this version
Something wasn’t right though.. I wasn’t getting ‘that’ feeling. This mix was not what I was searching for.. My conclusion was maybe I was just trying too hard. With an engineer at my disposal, an SSL desk and more synths ‘n outboard effects than you could shake a stick at, I still did not have that elusive creation. Needing then to go back to basics, I closed off the BJG sessions and took the audio parts back to the modest programming room at my house. A day or two later, after analysing each of the individual ‘parts’, it occurred to me that John’s guitars should be ‘front, forward and in your face’. They were just too powerful to be a background element! Also, the female vocal was frankly not needed – this track needed to be a raw, energy filled, mayhem inducing stomper (‘Stomp’, now there’s a name for a record label!!). So, sorting some studio time out at DMC’s most basic room, I re-assembled the track again from the ground up.
Above is the actual tracksheet from this session. This represents the audio on a 16 channel 1/2″ multitrack recorder. All the drum, percussion and additional samples were loaded into two Akai S1000 samplers sequenced by Logic Notator on an Atari 1040st computer (this was 1993, and computer based hard disk recording with ‘in the box’ synths and effects were a still a few years away). Now I was gonna get fierce.. The drum programming got tight, funky and with distinctive snare fills. The kick drum was gated to give it a gorgeous click on the attack with the warmth and punch of the low end following. The bass sound (sourced from a Roland Juno 106) was beautiful in it’s simplistic pattern, but complex in its ‘note hold’ LFO to pitch vibrato. With the flavours of the Clash ‘dub’ congas re-triggered to add additional groove texture, even without a guitar, synth or vocal hook, the rhythm track just had ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ was
As this energy filled session continued, I pulled out an old, obscure Sanny X release called ‘Rock Party/Smoke on the Water’ by Da Rock. It was a Beastie Boy’s inspired track which had elements of the Art of Noise and a Deep Purple riff. But what caught my attention was Sanny’s acapella pass. I locked onto two, but on the record, non consecutive vocal lines: “Everybody in the House” and “Rock The Party” – That was it.. I’d found the right vocal element to work with those incredible guitars. And wait, I had three guitar tracks, one thrash and two funky.. three guitars = ‘Eighteen Strings‘!
With the final mix 12″ and radio edit of ’18 Strings’ done, and having decided that I wanted to press a few promo copies on my own, self funded label, I headed off to one of London’s best mastering rooms, called, quite appropriately, the ‘Master Room’. I’d had mixes mastered and cut there previously by a great engineer called Arun Chakraverty. I trusted Arun implicitly to do a brilliant job and half the pleasure for me was just sat with him watching him work. He played the track through. Then he rewound the tape and played it again.. all the way through (without touching a single control on his desk). He turned to me and said “Paul, you have a hit record here..” And that was it.. he carried on with his mastering duties and I left, pleased as punch at what he’d said but thinking that a ‘hit’ was still an elusive dream.
The final master plate was sent to a west London pressing plant where a few days later, I was due to pick up 300 white label promo’s of the 12″ single. My vision of a self owned record label was short lived however. Unbeknown to me, Arun had cut an acetate copy of the track and sent it across to Pete Tong’s office with a note in it that read said something like ‘Pete, this is a hit.. Arun‘ (A man of few words, eh?). Pete duly played it on his Friday night Essential Selection show and evidently had the biggest reaction to a record played on air to that date. Come Monday morning, my phone rings and it’s Pete Tong’s A&R assistant asking for me to come to his office and see the man himself. I do that.. I sit in a chair at the end of a long desk looking into Mr Tong’s eyes as he says those immortal words.. “So, Paul.. how much do you want for this record..?“
The rest of the Tinman story would fill another blog post as long as this, so what follows is ‘bullet point’ dispelling of myths and rumours, and some facts ‘n figures to clear up anyone’s memory that can go that far back.. Also, play the MP3 link below to listen to the original promo mix that Tong signed, but, not ‘exactly’ the public released version..
- The Tinman 3 layered guitar sound WAS NOT sampled from Nirvana’s ‘Teen Spirit’ track
- During ’18 String’s’ peak promo activity, Nirvana’s Kurt Kobain committed suicide. The band’s management company ‘Gold Mountain’ were not exactly forthcoming with publishing clearance thereafter
- Only 300 official 12″ promo’s were the genuine article: Distinctive by the scribed note into the vinyl’s play-out grooves saying “To Danny the ‘Pooch’, New York City to Leeds“. With the radio edit on the ‘B’ side and catalogue number STP12/001 (Stomp records), any other vinyl was a bloody bootleg!
- The four chord Nirvana guitar sequence had to be re-played (again by John Moores) to emulate the Sex Pistols ‘Stepping Stone’ riff. This was to work around the problem of publishing non-clearance from the Nirvana camp. Ultimately, the version that was released by FFRR in 1994 was, shall we say, not quite the version I’d hoped for
- Sanny was happy his record’s acapella was used as a vocal hook on ’18 Strings’ – he bought lots of studio gear from the forthcoming royalties
- The video for the track was directed by a then young, upcoming director, who not only gathered most of London’s beautiful people together in one, and various places, but managed to film the crowd at the Anti Criminal Justice rally, holding ‘Everybody in the house’ and ‘Rock the Party’ banners – Geezer!
- When it entered the UK top ten, Tinman’s ‘live’ Top of the Pops BBC appearance was sabotaged by some young brit-pop band called Oasis – It got a ‘cut short’ video play instead
- The record had a ‘pre-sale’ figure of 80,000 copies, selling nearly two hundred thousand within a month and, with worldwide licensing, bumping into the millions
- The ‘Tinman’ pendant, photographed for the CD/Vinyl sleeve was in fact based on a ‘dancing man’ design made from horse shoe nails (I kid you not). I stumbled upon this on a stall in Dublin whilst DJ’ing out there for U2′s ‘Kitchen’ nightclub. FFRR paid for 100 of these to be made which they subsequently used for ‘promo’ gifts – I’ve since lost mine
- Although the ’18 Strings’ title came easily, the ‘band’ name ‘Tinman’ came after days of head scratching frustration – Thanks go to a Star Trek TNG episode for a ‘that’ll do..’ moment
- The dominant bell riff in the track was underpinned by a keyboard line I think played from a Yamaha sound module, inspired by the Two Bad Mice rave classic, ‘Bombscare’
- The punctuated vocal cuts in ’18 String’s FFRR radio edit was sampled and re-sequenced from a Yello track. I thought I’d got away with that one until their legal guys hit me with a bill for £3,000 shortly after release!
- The engineer for the Chris and James official remix of ‘Eighteen Strings’, was James Wiltshire: Ten years later, he’s now one half of The Freemasons
- The follow up single ‘Gudvibe’, should have made the UK Top 30 easily on release, but the label’s distributors messed up: not having sufficient copies pressed for release date – Thanks!
- ‘Eighteen Strings’ was remixed by myself and some friends in 1999 and sold literally.. nothing…