Track By Track: Audience - The House On The Hill

By John A. Wilcox

A cornerstone act of Tony Stratton-Smith's Famous Charisma Label, Audience hit their peak with 1971's The House On The Hill. The album was produced by Gus Dudgeon and engineered by Robin Cable at Trident Studios with a cover designed by Hipgnosis. I asked Trevor Williams to take us track by track. Here's what he had to say...

Track One: Jackdaw
TW: The song was well developed as a live feature before we got it into the studio, so we knew pretty well where it was going. It did, however, take a lot of rehearsals to get it from small beginnings. Initially, Howard's very basic lyric and thrashing chords were going nowhere until Keith completed the accusatory lyrics about a compulsive thief of things and women alike, and added a bridge, inspiring Howard to tidy up the chord sequence and build the song around two guitar riffs - one gentle, one heavy. At that point, the band got involved and Keith and I developed the main riffs and added a third, the basis of which I subsequently realized I'd nicked from Steve Still's languid bass line on Crosby Stills and Nash's Wooden Ships! To break the pace, Tony had the idea of driving the bridge into a Fats Domino groove and the rest of us added a somewhat tongue-in-cheek traditional rock 'n' roll riff. The ethereal flute section was originally planned to build slowly into a storming sax solo but it lost momentum when Keith dropped out to switch instruments. To fill the gap, I started to noodle around on bass, but it still didn't have the required punch when Keith came back in on sax. Something about the mood of my solo kept pulling me instinctively towards a minor key and I suggested Howard switch from a major key to a sort of West Coast Zappa/Airplane/Doors double-time minor sequence to give me something more substantial to work with. Tony added a sizzling hi-hat and I realized I could now go in heavier and decided to try the solo with a fuzz pedal. Having found a nice line to finish my solo and cue Keith back in, and loosely inspired by Zappa's Hot Rats, I got Keith to double up with the line, which worked nicely. And that suggested we could develop the idea further - into a whole series of unison lines. It worked, but it sounded even more interesting when Keith tried it with clarinet, and once committed to clarinet that was the instrument Keith used for his ferocious solo leading back into the verse. Overdubs on this track were few. Apart from double-tracking some of Howard's vocals and Keith's sax riffs, Howard added some gentle counter-point guitar behind the flute solo and Tony pumped out some Jerry Lee Lewis piano on the bridge. In retrospect, I would have liked the track to have finished with the tight, short, sharp sections of mass improvisation we used to end the number on stage, but it might have been a nightmare getting the precision for recording purposes. We were never as clinical as King Crimson......

Track Two: You're Not Smiling
TW: Howard originally brought this forward as a finger-picking country and western number, collaborating with Keith to produce the main riff and a lyric about returning home to find the lady appeared to have lost interest. The band approach was to remove the country feel, slow it down and keep it fairly minimal, hence the sparse backing to the verses, the arranged counter-point bass, the bass and drum breaks and unison sax and bass riff. The bridge, featuring Howard and myself, was written with The Coasters in mind. The recording stayed pretty true to the already established live version, with Leslie cabinet effects added to Keith's sax but no other overdubs. In retrospect I regret the frantic bass lines on the fade-out, which worked live but detracted from the song's flow on record. This track was recorded in the presence of Jerry Gilbert from Sounds magazine, during the course of which Gus inadvertently (maybe) spilled a carton of yoghurt all over me. Smelling cheesily, I took the tube home wearing a cardigan borrowed from one of the studio girls and buttoned up backwards under my jacket so it didn't look too uncool. My uncool was nonetheless reported in Sounds!

Track Three: I Had A Dream
TW: This one came to me as a fairly blank canvas from Howard, who had the entire tune and chords sorted. Based around the only words he had in mind - the title - I wrote the story of a man who couldn't be sure whether his girlfriend's interest in another man was real or imagined. On stage, the song was very minimal. Gus kept it that way in the studio whilst adding guitar, sax and vocal harmony overdubs by Tony and myself. I've absolutely no regrets about this track.

Track Four: Raviole
TW: Audience was formed from a soul band called Lloyd Alexander Real Estate. In its latter months it gradually metamorphosed into a progressive jazz rock band in which one of Howard's instrumental features was Raviole, a piece with both Spanish and Indian influences. The title came from an unrelated raga-like piece I'd written for the band I was in before the Lloyds - Pastel Tangent - and was based on the Ravi (Shankar) of India and the Ole of Spain. The live version played by Audience included a number of segments we'd used in earlier instrumental pieces - I'll Sleep On That (Audience's first set opener), incidental music we'd written for the film score of Bronco Bullfrog and another Lloyds instrumental feature for Howard based around Cat Stevens' I Love my Dog. The whole thing could last 10 minutes on stage but, for recording purposes, it was drastically reduced, which rendered Keith redundant. Tony and I joined Howard for the latter sections and Robert Kirby was drafted in to write a complimentary string arrangement on which he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. The whole piece was recorded live. My only regret is that my bass at the end is slightly out of tune.

Track Five: Nancy
TW: Another song that started off in country vein, but unlike Smiling, it retained some of those values. Howard and I collaborated closely on the tongue-twister lyrics about a country girl who cared little for wealth, and I have to admit I had Tony Joe White's Polk Salad Annie in mind. This was an edgy song to perform live. Even in the studio, it was tough to get the timings spot-on, given that we were in and out of three distinct rhythm patterns. Once we had the backing track down, including the trademark sax and bass riff, Howard had to fit the lyrics in place with clarity and at blistering pace, which took a fair number of takes. The sax and fuzz bass parts, designed to sound like a full brass section, had to be just as precise. Howard overdubbed harmony vocals on the choruses and he, Tony and myself double tracked the gospel shouts in the middle section. Tony also added tablas in any break he could find between verses, which I don't remember anyone else attempting in a country/gospel song! If there is anything I'd change about this track it would be the somewhat frenetic bass and drums, but maybe they were right for the time.........

Track Six: Eye To Eye
TW: We usually tried to take new songs on the road before recording them, simply because it gave them the chance to develop. However, this one was never played live, although we did sing it live whilst miming the backing on Top of The Pops. It fell to me to complete Howard's original idea of a stonewall discussion between men of different generations sung over a James Brown-like guitar figure. When the band got involved it veered away from the JB feel and Howard and I sung the entire song in unison beneath a bass and flute riff. I wasn't in the studio when Keith overdubbed the flute solos and I recall Howard thinking I wouldn't like the swirling echo effects used. But I did, and I wouldn't have wanted this recorded any other way.

Track Seven: I Put A Spell On You
TW: One of the only two non-original songs we ever took into the studio - the other was by Mozart! The Screaming Jay Hawkins classic had always been a favourite of ours and we spent a lot of time honing the arrangement. Basically, what was recorded was what we played on stage with the sole addition of vibraphone, which Tony used to compliment the counter-point bass lines.

Track Eight: The House On the Hill
TW: Audience had used this song live as the closing number from the start and had recorded a lightweight version on our first album Audience. Prior to Audience, it had been in Lloyd Alexander Real Estate's set, sung, not by Howard, but by Bill Cox, and previous to that, it had fallen to me to sing the song with Pastel Tangent. I'd originally written HOTH in 1967, the Hammer Horror theme loosely inspired by Edgar Allen Poe and, on joining the Lloyds, Howard had amended the tune and chord sequence. It was good to get a second chance at recording the song, because the Polydor version hardly represented where Audience was now. Apart from double-tracking Howard's voice on the last two verses, the track was recorded entirely live, the only studio effects enhancing Keith's echo sax solo. It's what it was, is and ever shall be!

Track Nine: Indian Summer
TW: This track was not on the original album, but, having been a minor hit in the USA, Elektra Records added it to the US version. A pity, in my view, as it unbalances what Audience members all consider is an otherwise perfectly balanced album. The song represents the only occasion, under pressure from management, that we deliberately set out to have a hit single. I was never comfortable with the idea of going down this inorganic road and I've never stopped cringing at the twee Oh, oh, oh vocal harmony interlude. However, despite my reservations, the song stands up pretty well. It was based on a fingerpicking idea of Howard's with no more than the repeatedly sung title. I took it away and came up with a story about an ageing gent finding love late in life. The band, rehearsing acoustically in Tony's living room, opted to take a minimal approach, leaving Howard to sing the verses over a tuneful guitar and flute accompaniment. When it got into the studio, we found the usual motif of unison sax and bass for the chorus, which was belted out by Howard and myself in complete contrast to the gentle verses. Changes? Yes, get rid of that Oh oh oh nonsense!


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