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[MAY 99] THE BLACKROOM

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The Story So Far… Roger Lomas

I decided that I’d had enough of interviewing pop-stars for a while. So I decided to take a look at the un-sung heroes of pop; those people who sit behind the mixing desk and try to inject that extra something into a song; the elusive ingredient that makes it a hit. Roger Lomas is such a man. A brilliant producer, live engineer and ex-popstar. He has been recording music and making hits along the way for twenty years or more.

Roger Lomas with Prince BusterThe interview took place in Roger’s 24 track custom-built studio at the bottom of his garden in Styvechale. Roger is a classic local maverick. He doesn’t give a damn about what people think of him, liberally uses the word crap to describe things he doesn’t like, and greets most people with a thumbs up sign and a jauntily hurled: ‘hello boy’. He’s hilarious.

I love his mercurial personality, but beneath his bluff exterior, lurks a serious and very shrewd businessman. He’s refreshing in the world of the music business. He has no credibility hang-ups, he’s no poseur and is as at home in his local the Open Arms on Daventry Road, as he would be taking tea with the Queen.

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Q  Where and when were you born?

I was born on 8 October 1948 in Keresley Hospital.

Q  Where did you grow up?

I come from a working class background and grew up in Foleshill. I went to Edgwick Junior School and Broadheath Secondary Modern.

Q  When did you first become interested in music?

I had no particular interest in music until one day my brother’s best friend called round the house. He was on his way to the local tip and had a battered acoustic guitar with just two strings on it, which he was going to throw away, but he asked if we wanted it. So we took it off him. I must have been about 14 at the time. I thought why not learn to play it. I went to a music shop bought a set of strings and a chord book and a little set of pitch pipes and started learning the chords. In a matter of weeks I could play it. Before that I never even realized that I was the slightest bit musical. It was one of those lucky things. Some people have dreams, but I didn’t. I had no dreams about music as a life, no other interests outside of fishing or stamp-collecting.

My brother was a drummer in a band. Occasionally I went with him on gigs, but I never thought I wanted to be in a band. After I learnt to play the guitar, I caught the bug and totally lost interest in everything at school. Until then I’d been good at school, but I went downhill, once I found I could play the guitar.

Q  When did you first think about making a career out of music?

I’m one of these people who has always wanted the best of everything. So I didn’t want a crappy old acoustic anymore. It had to be a good guitar. After I bought myself a better guitar, it just went on from there. I formed my first band at school, just before I left at 15. I left school at the earliest opportunity and started playing lead guitar professionally in a local band. It was called St George and the Dragons. I played my first gig in public at the Foleshill Social Club. We mostly did pubs, so I’d have to hide out the back till we went on stage, because I was underage.

We did 60’s Beatles songs. People didn’t write their own songs in those days. Even the Beatles didn’t write their own songs in the very early days. We were a covers band. The Beatles were our main influence. It fizzled out after a year.

I had no real intention of working, because in those days wages were so low, that you could easily earn as much being in a band working a couple of nights a week as you could working all week in a regular job from 9-5.

I had a job for a year and 5 months to pay off the HP instalments on my musical equipment. I also worked in various other bands. The last proper job I ever had was at Courtaulds as a lab technician for 6 a week. Then there was this job going for 7 a week in an engineering factory across the road, which I took, but I hated it after a week. So I clocked in one Monday morning, thought this is crap and clocked out again. From that day to this, I’ve never worked in a proper job. I’ve just been self-employed.

I was struggling after I stopped working, what with all the HP payments, but I’ve always been enterprising and I was adamant that I wasn’t going to work for anybody. So I would make coffee tables and sell them just to keep my head above water.

Q  How did you get your first professional musical break?

Roger Lomas in The SorrowsI always stood out from the other musicians in town, because I was like a spoiled kid, I had all the best gear. I was 17 when I bought a Gibson guitar and the biggest amp you could buy in the world. It was a Vox amp, designed especially for the Beatles when they played the Shea Stadium gig in America. They used to call them Vox Beatle Cabinets. It was on a big swivel stand. There was a local band in Coventry called The Sorrows, who had had a fairly big hit in England, called ‘Take a Heart’. I think it got to No 19 in the charts. In those days if you had hits abroad it wasn’t instantaneous like now. You tended to get a hit abroad about a year after it was a hit in England. The Sorrows were on the verge of splitting up, there was only three members left out of the original 5. They were only staying together because of contracts for a couple of future gigs. Then out of the blue, they were contacted by RCA in Italy, because the record had gone to No 1 there. RCA wanted to release the track recorded in Italian. The band had to go out and promote it. Their manager was looking for another member.

I put a lot of the things that happen in my life down to fate. I got the job with The Sorrows because I had exactly the same guitar equipment as they had. As far as they were concerned, that’s what clinched the deal. Initially I was asked to join the band just for the tour.

We flew over to Italy and the tour was phenomenal. The Italian version of the record went to No 8 and the work flooded in. We ended up living in Rome for 2 years. We were treated like real pop-stars. However, by June 1966 Italy was flooded by English bands and our edge was eroded. So the band gradually fell apart.

Q  What did you do after The Sorrows split up?

I came back to Coventry and set myself up as a session musician. I started dabbling in song writing. I wouldn’t class myself as a natural songwriter, but I’m good at recognizing a good song that somebody else has written.

I joined The Dodgers, a local band that had a deal with Island Records. At the time the original bass player in the band was the bassist from Badfinger. He left and I took over on bass, which I shared with the other guitarist, because I didn’t want to be playing bass all the time. Some of the members were from Coventry and the other half from London. We did an album for Polydor and had a few singles out, but the timing was bad. The band was a cross between the Beatles and Bad Company, which was unfortunate because punk was big then. We recorded another album, but the record company rejected it.

Q  When did you decide to start recording other bands?

By 1977, I was more into the recording side of the business. I built a 4 track studio in the garden of my house in Broad Street, Foleshill. Then one day Neol Davies knocked on the door. He said: ‘I’ve got this great song I’ve written and I want to make a demo’. Neol at that time was known as a rock musician around town, so I was surprised to find that it sounded like old ska. But I have a commercial ear, which is necessary if you want to be a successful producer. I recognized that he’d written something good, even though it was not my kind of thing.

We made a proper track and spent a week on it, which was unheard of in those days. It was just an instrumental track featuring a trombone solo, which I put through a flanger and used long delay echoes on it. Everybody was pleased with the results.

I did the rounds with it, because I had a lot of contacts in the music business, but nobody was interested it. I think it was too soon for that sound. It was 18 months before The Specials recorded ‘Gangsters’. I didn’t know The Specials then, because I wasn’t into the punk thing. I knew this song was good though. Eventually it ended up on the B side of The Special’s single ‘Gangsters’. By that time our track was called The Selecter. Initially 2000 pressings were done through Rough Trade. Then of course, 2-Tone happened.

Q  How did you start recording at Horizon Studios in Coventry?

Originally Horizon Studios was an 8 track. Barry Thomas, a local businessman had put a lot of money into it after his car number plate business got into difficulties. I got my foot in the door, because he didn’t have any contacts in the music industry and I did. This was in 1976-77. It was 2-Tone that put Horizon Studios on the map. In 1979 the studio upgraded to 16 track and it was a convenient place to record for the emerging 2-Tone bands.

I used it to record Bad Manners, The Selecter and The Modettes. I also recorded The Bodysnatchers single for 2-Tone, ‘Let’s Do Rocksteady/Ruder Than You', but we did it in London.

Q  What is your best memory of that time?

In 1979, I was definitely flavour of the month, as far as producers were concerned. At one stage I had three singles in the Top 30 and all three bands on Top of the Pops the same night. I was very busy. That was a once in a lifetime thing.

Q  Did you enjoy being the producer instead of the pop star?

It was very frustrating actually. I was earning lots of money, but I wasn’t in a band anymore. I was just cooped up in a studio all the time. It got to the stage where the money didn’t mean anything anymore. I just had to get out of the studio. So I got into live engineering. I loved being out on the road again, even though I was still behind a mixing desk.

Q  How did you get involved with Bad Manners?

Magnet Records approached me in 1980 to produce them. They invited me down to a record company Christmas party to have a meeting with them. I met the band and we had such a good time, that I didn’t bother to listen to their demo tapes. Buster Bloodvessel was brilliant. He was larger than life. I knew that the band couldn’t fail, because he had so much charisma.

Q  How many hits did you have with Bad Manners?

We had a couple of No 3’s with ‘Can Can’ and ‘Special Brew’. We had a total of 14 hits.

Q  What’s your best memory of working with Bad Manners?

My favourite memory was the story behind recording ‘Can Can’. Buster wanted to do it, but the rest of the band thought it was a crap idea. Buster knew he could sell it and I knew he could sell it. He’d already convinced me. We were booked into the studio for a week, but after 3 days, Bad Manners ran out of things to record. So I suggested trying to record a demo of Can Can. In the absence of anything else, the band eventually agreed to do it. When we played it to the record company, they were knocked out by it. Even the band thought it was good.

The following week we did a proper recording session. Can Can is a classical music piece, which would normally be played by a 50 piece orchestra, so it was a difficult recording task. I had to make the song sound as big as an orchestral piece. I ended up using 40 or 50 tracks on a 24 track tape machine, so I had to bounce lots of tracks together. It took me a day and half to mix it. The day I finished it, I just knew it was going to be a massive hit. Sometimes, you just know. It was perfect Bad Manners.

Q  Why were you more attracted as a producer to Bad Manners, than the other 2-Tone bands?

They suited my personality much better than 2 Tone. They were non-serious. I have a serious side, but I don’t let it get in the way of my job. I liked all the rough edges on their albums. It was the imperfections on a Bad Manners record that sold them. Sometimes, if things were too good, I had to make them sound worse. On the second album, Buster had to play a trombone solo, but it was sounding too good in the studio, even though he’d never played a trombone before. So I had to make it sound worse. That track was ‘Fatty Fatty’.

Q  What caused your break-up with Bad Manners?

I did their last record in 1982. After the fourth album Bad Manners got very serious. They thought their fourth album was the best, but I think it’s the worst, because the character we got in the first album was lost by then. Suddenly they wanted to be taken seriously, because they were fed up with being seen as the 2-Tone joke band. My attitude was to ignore the comments of the other people in those bands. Why worry about the credibility angle, when the public loved them as they were. After all, it was the public who bought the records and they weren’t bothered. That’s always been my attitude. I don’t care what reviewers think. All my worst reviewed records have all been hits and big sellers. Bad Manners weren’t convinced though, so they died a natural death, along with the rest of 2 tone.

Q  What did you do after that?

Then I built a studio. Being a producer of that kind of music, is like being a Soap star, you get typecast. It made it difficult for me. I didn’t approach anybody, because they used to approach me. I probably turned down too much stuff. I was offered the Undertones by EMI but I passed on it. I was offered the Q tips, with Paul Young, but I couldn’t do it. Look what happened with both those bands. But you do what you think is right at the time.

But production was quite new to me then and I was literally going from one project to another. I wasn’t pacing myself properly. I had no time off at all. I decided that the only way I’d do anything outside of 2-tone would be to stop altogether.

I built a small studio at Horizon for a while with an 8 track set up. I gave studio time away to record local bands, as long as I had an option on their recordings. Some of the bands were rubbish and I got a bit of a reputation for telling bands to split up at that time. Well, why beat about the bush!

Q  What are you up to at the moment?

I don’t make plans. I live one day to the next. I don’t operate like a commercial studio. I don’t invest money in studios to get the money back. I want a studio for making good records.

Roy Wood has been a good friend of mine since my days in The Dodgers. We met when we were both recording in the same studio. This was long before Wizard. I mix his live sound, book his gigs and co-produce his recordings with him. I’ve diversified over the years. I’ve toyed with the idea of being a booking agent. I’ve never liked agents at all, but now there is a new breed of younger agent, who’ve been in bands themselves, who know the score. I’ve only been an agent for the past year.

I’ve got my fingers in lots of pies, so who knows what might happen!

[INTERVIEW BY PAULINE BLACK - MAY 1999]
  

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