Music

The cottage music industry: on home demos

My name is Tim Walker, and I love demos.

Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea, I’m not talking about putting on a balaclava and marching down the High Street brandishing a large placard (honest). I am, of course, referring to those “rough” recordings that songwriters and composers make—often at home—of their works, to show record producers, record company reps, etc. their basic (or not so basic, sometimes) ideas, often as a springboard to the finished product.

For as long as I’ve been a home-recording enthusiast (pretty well two decades, now I think of it), I have pounced eagerly on any opportunity to hear what other musicians—the more well-known, the better—have recorded in their own time; sort of like “Before They Were Famous” for songs. I, for one, am delighted at the increasing trend amongst renowned artists for officially releasing home demos, often as extras on re-issues of past albums. Most notably, I bought “Homespun”, the CD of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding’s demos for the XTC album “Apple Venus Volume One” (1999), months before purchasing the final album (even though the demo collection was released later).

In another clear example of demo-love: I’m not a fan (as such) of the late Gerry Rafferty, but I ran out and bought the 2010 “special edition” reissue of his 1978 career-peak “City To City” (the one with “Baker Street” on it), mostly for the second CD in the pack, which contained eight of Rafferty’s original home demos for the album, including that of “Baker Street” itself. I understand that Rafferty had help from a friend with these—the demos are remarkably sophisticated for their time (c. 1976-77), and from listening to them, I’d guess they were made on a four-track open-reel recorder, as they predate the launch of the first cassette “portastudio” (the TEAC 144, in 1979) and are higher-quality than such a machine could produce.

The demo of “Baker Street” is a textbook example of how a decent producer (in this case, the late Hugh Murphy) can take an above-average song, and turn it into a record that will probably be played on classic-rock radio stations as long as they exist.

As you’d imagine, I like the demo in its own right—it has a charm of its own, and also demonstrates how Gerry Rafferty had a good command of arrangement as well as songwriting. On the demo, he sings a double-tracked vocal, against a backing of electric and (?) acoustic guitars, “string synth” (possibly an ARP String Ensemble from the sound), bass guitar, percussion and an analogue rhythm machine (presumably all played by himself). Points of interest for me include:

  • It’s noticeable how most of “Baker Street”‘s chord sequence and structure was retained in the final version—the ear-catching intro chords are already in place, though the counter-melodies played by Tommy Eyre’s Moog and Raphael Ravenscroft’s soprano sax in the intro, were to be added later. I also regret that one of Rafferty’s chord inversions was lost in the “proper” recording: under the G chord in the verse (“You dream the night away” / “…you find out you were wrong” in verse one), Gerry plays a D on the bass, which on the final recording was replaced with a straight G. Ah well, one can’t have it all…
  • As others (notably, Rafferty’s friend and erstwhile bandmate Rab Noakes) have pointed out, the demo indicates that the famous riff played on tenor sax by Raphael Ravenscroft, was devised by Rafferty himself—it is played by the composer on electric guitar through a wah-wah pedal. Credit where it’s due: Ravenscroft’s sax definitely catches the ear better, but as Rab Noakes puts it, Rafferty deserves recognition for coming up with a great counter-melody as well as a great song.

I can often listen to the “demos disc” of “City To City”, more comfortably than the final album itself, though this depends on my mood at any given time—it’s certainly not a negative reflection on Hugh Murphy’s production, as “Baker Street” is such a classic rock record (and there’s a blog post in its own right!).

Often, albums recorded partly or wholly at home have an intimacy and charm that draw me in, and can even sound like demos themselves. A couple of examples I could name, would be “McCartney” (Paul’s 1970 solo début), “White Ladder” by David Gray and “Small Moments” (2000) and “The Nightsaver” (2009) by David Kitt. (Kitt reputedly often records in the early hours, leading to the hushed vocals of “Small Moments”, whilst one review (I forget where) of “The Nightsaver”, alleged the album was named after an Irish electricity company’s night-time economy tariff, on which most of the tracks would’ve been recorded!)

I’d like to start writing songs more actively again, and have an idea or two of how to kick it all back into action… but more on that in time. Naturally, there’ll be demos involved, and I suspect you’ll get the opportunity to hear at least the less embarrassing examples! I’m just grateful that increasingly, well-known musicians are becoming more willing to share the process by which their works emerge into the world—not least because I feel I can learn a thing or two that way.

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