Who and the What?
The Middle

The Middle

Dave: ...we recorded a lot of material, now we were using the name Plimsollline. Like that, all one word, we liked the three ‘l’s’ together. We responded to an ad in one of the music papers – ‘artists wanted’ or something like that. Anyway much to our surprise we were offered a deal and we put together an album called Tap Dancing in Slush.

Brian: Tap Dancing in Slush was a 5 track EP to go with the LP Behind Closed Curtains. These collections were recorded between 1978 and 1979 and were made up of the first 'tunes' we were prepared to reveal to the outside world. We answered an ad to send tapes to an indie record label, Raw Records of Cambridge. This guy, Lee, liked what he heard and it was he who suggested the EP/LP releases. As it turned out he didn't put his money where his mouth was and he disappeared. Still, it did give us confidence and we went and met with A&R men from Virgin and Rough Trade. Geoff Travis of Rough Trade gave us useful advice and also suggested we invest in a good multitrack tape recorder. This we did and eventually Struve & Sneff happened.

Dave: We’d settled into a routine by then. We usually met to record on a Saturday, in those days we recorded in my bedroom, later renamed ‘Sneff’s Surgery’. We’d try to record a new piece each week, we’d meet up mid week and talk about ideas to try that Saturday. Often on the Saturday I’d have a new loop tape to play to Brian which would form the basis of the new piece. Or one of us would have come up with a new technique or, ‘what would happen if….’ It was quite exciting, we were discovering new ways of playing. We’d discovered the prepared guitar many years earlier and, I think, we discovered it quite independently of other guitarists, like Fred Frith. I can remember hearing about the prepared piano and thinking ‘you could do that with a guitar.’ Of course in the late 1970’s synth bands were becoming popular. We liked some of the sounds they made but we couldn’t afford our own synthesiser. So we set about making synth-like sounds by other means; tape effects, prepared guitars and so on. Hence ‘Sneff’s Surgery’ the surgery was where we doctored and treated sound!

Brian: I went on a holiday to the west coast of America in 1979 and part of it was in San Francisco. Naturally as a fan of the Residents I went to check out 444 Grove St. [the Ralph Records Store] to buy some records. The place was very secure and I had to use an entryphone to get in. Turns out that I was very lucky as they had a policy of not letting people in, but because I had an English accent they saw me. I got to look over the place and saw things like Snakefinger's 'Dolls' from the 'Spot' single cover, artwork etc. I asked if they would like a copy of Struve/Sneff and one guy said he'd like to listen to it. He took it into a small room (the studio) and played about 3 tracks, he came out and said he thought it was 'excellent'. I spent the rest of the holiday feeling VERY HAPPY. Later I found out the guy was a Resident. So, after a few letters and tapes of new material we received a letter to say they wanted to sign us. Eventually Jay Clem came down to Portsmouth to see us in the Surgery and the deal was done. In early 1981, Dave and I went to San Francisco for 3 weeks to meet all the Ralph crew, do some press stuff and mess around with the Residents in the studio.

The releases of Songs for Swinging Larvae and Arabic Yodelling occur on The Residents' Ralph Records label in 1981 and 1983.

Brian: RatL only ever once played live, in 1980 at a hall in Portsmouth. We did it to promote the local LP South Specific which we had 3 tracks on. We were one of 4 bands to play, a rock band, a punk band, a 'pop' band and us. Each band had it's fans/friends there…there were a lot of heavy looking punks and skinheads in the audience which worried us a bit.

Renaldo and the Loaf autographs grace a copy of South Specific for an Australian friend

Our music was very much constructed in a studio so we knew we couldn't play our recorded songs live, so we decided to do an improvisation which was often a starting point in making our songs at that time. So we set up a long-delay tape system using two Akai decks we had - the idea was borrowed from Brian Eno. The machines were separated by about one metre, the sound was recorded on the first deck and played back on the second then fed back to the first and so on. This produced a long echo which repeated and decayed slowly. We went on first and did a 20 minute piece. When we decided to stop, the music carried on by itself so I had to tell the audience we'd finished…which itself carried on repeating. I doubt if anyone there would have heard anything like it before but it was well received…even the punks applauded. So that was that.

We almost played another show in 1985. We were asked by Doublevision (Sheffield-based label closely associated with Cabaret Voltaire) if we could do a live presentation at a theatre in London to support a showing of Residents videos they were planning. We worked with some guys from the Portsmouth School of Art to design a stage set and planned to do 4 songs to a backing tape with me singing live…Dave was going to construct a loop tape live on stage which would play out at the end. We were planning to do 'Hambu Hodo', 'The Elbow Is Taboo', 'Like Some Kous-Kous Western' and one more that I can't remember. One of the guys at the Art School knew Neneh Cherry and she agreed to dance for us with two other women….this was just before she became well-known. Needless to say this all never happened as the theatre was a new building and couldn't get it's fire safety license in time so the show was cancelled…..I think one small advert appeared in NME for it.

Dave: When we first went to San Francisco in 1981, there was this idea to record an album from scratch in four days [with the Residents]. So we spent a couple of sessions just jamming with the tape running and then started going through the material and looking for the best bits that we could work up into something. It was hopelessly optimistic and we quickly realised that we couldn’t do it in 4 days, so the project was shelved.

Brian: Day 1 was the jam and selection of bits to use. Day 2 we would split into two groups, one to write lyrics/devise singing (me and Rez's) and the other to consider overdubs (Dave and Rez's). Day 3 we would record the overdubs . Day 4, mixing. Needless to say this did not go to plan. It turned out the Rez's and we were very similar in work methods and although we all thrived on the spontaneity of the improvisations, the processes that followed needed to be very carefully considered. For all it's 'anarchic' quality , Rez and RatL music was/is extremely crafted (or at least a strict quality control). We ended our visit with a tape of selected sections of the improvisation with some limited overdubs, this tape exists and was given the working title of '4-Daze'. No plans were made to complete it.

In 1983, after the London Mole Show, Dave and I met with the Rez's backstage and we talked about that tape. The Rez's had a space in their diary for us to get together again and they suggested we try and finish the project. A date of September 1983 was set. Unfortunately, Dave could not get the time off but I was lucky to be able to spare 3 weeks and so I went to San Francisco. Dave created some loop tapes for me to take and I took a bouzouki, rababa (one string Egyptian fiddle), and a mesmer (a reed instrument). The next 3 weeks were intensive and quite hard work (in the nicest way). The Rez's instruments were still in transit from Europe so we had a limited selection to chose from. Mostly we used a Yamaha synth, a Resitar (an electric guitar with all strings tuned to E), drum machine, assorted percussion and voices…and of course the talents of Snakefinger and Nessie Lessons. I was disappointed not to get my hands on an Emulator.

The songs were all based around the jam session [from 1981]. One of the Residents had transferred selected bits (chosen by us all in 1981) onto a 16 track tape , these either acted as templates for songs and were completely written over or, in certain instances, parts of the original bleed through ('Sailor Song', 'Womans Weapon'), sometimes chunks of the original feature heavily ('Monkey and Bunny'). Mahogany Wood was the only new song, this featured one of Dave's loops, I played the bouzouki bits and so I guess this one was the most RATL-like track. It is also the one where I got to sing almost with a Resident. Usually we took turns as our voices were so different and didn't mix on top of each other. I had a lot of fun playing the Resitar which I used a lot, in fact just about all the guitar stuff that is not obviously Snakefinger. 'Africa Tree' was one I enjoyed the most. The mixing was completed just a couple of hours before I had to fly back.

The releases of Title in Limbo and Struve and Sneff occur on The Residents' Ralph Records label in 1983 and 1984.

The Middle
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