When the Shades went into Priory Street Studios to make their third album they were working on a very tight schedule. Their first album had made the top sixty but their second had hardly done anything at all, and now their third one had to be good or they would have difficulty in getting another recording contract. They felt they needed to find a Christmas single that would help them out of their troubles, but they only had until the end of November to get this together. Any later than that and the record company would be unable to bring a single out--even November was cutting it pretty fine! They had decided to try something different on the new album and had become interested again in the music that was around in the middle 50s.
They had come across a song that none of them had ever heard of before, and it could be the one they were looking for. The song was called I'm Riding With Santa Tonight, by someone called Billy Smith. They decided they would give it a very genuine Bill Haley treatment, with saxophones and lots of shoo-bops-doo-wah-woo-bops-di-wops.
They worked on the rhythm track the first day, putting onto tape the drums, bass guitar and some funky rock-and-roll piano, with a rough voice-track to keep it all together. Late that night they played the various takes they'd done, to choose the one they would keep. Half way through listening to the first take the recording engineer started to look worried and began pressing buttons and pulling down slide controls on his mixing desk where all the sounds were controlled. When he was asked what was the matter, he said he was starting to pick up interference on the track that certainly hadn't been put on there by any of the band during the day. This was the first time he had worked in Priory Street Studios, and he was not used to the equipment. He played back the bit that he thought was wrong, and there was quite clearly a whining sound breaking in on the track. It could have been a loose connection, or even one of the band's stomachs rumbling.
They listened to all the takes, but the interference was there on each one, and the engineer couldn't find a way of shifting it. This meant a whole day of studio time had been wasted, and feeling pretty disappointed with their first attempt at a comeback, the Shades slid back home in the early hours to get some sleep before starting again the following day.
At two o'clock the next afternoon they turned up at the studio and did the rhythm track once again. But on listening to it that evening, instead of the interference having been cleaned off, it was now even more noticeable, and the engineer could not understand what was happening. It put him in a difficult situation because the band were now talking about using other studios; but he'd been booked for the next two months to do the album, and he was determined that was what he was going to do. After a lot of arguing and shouting the Shades were sitting on one side of the studio and the recording engineer and his assistant on the other and they weren't talking.
At that point the roadie who looked after the Shades' equipment came bouncing into the studio hoping to get an earful of what had been going on for the last couple of days. When he saw the glum faces he knew something was up, and had great difficulty in persuading the engineer to let him hear the tape. Eventually he was persuaded, and the roadie sat back and listened with a critical ear. The Shades knew that he never missed spotting a potential hit single and they often used him as a test of their music.
When the track came to the bit with the heavy interference the roadie began to brighten up, much to the surprise of everyone else in the room. When the track had finished, he said it was one of the best things he'd ever heard, and how on earth did they get the amazing effects? The engineer had to say that it was a mistake, and they'd been trying to get rid of it. The roadie said that that was ridiculous, and he managed to persuade everybody that if they pretended it wasn't interference but a very interesting form of synthesiser, it could be the hook needed on the record to make it sell. So it was agreed that the Shades would come back in the next day and put down some guitar work and talk about the vocals.
On the third day, at the end of the evening, they played back an almost completed track, apart from the lead vocals. Once again, the interference was there, and once again, if anything, it seemed to be a lot more dominant. But they had to agree with the roadie that it certainly did give the song a lot of crackle and bite. When the lead vocal was put on and the track finished and ready to go off to the record company for their approval--and hopefully then for release as a single--they all gathered for one final listen.
The odd thing was that the interference now seemed to have mellowed out, and was almost adding a very strange sort of harmony to the lead singer's voice. But everyone agreed that the track was good, and that it could work.
When I'm Riding With Santa Tonight eventually reached number ten on the hit parade, the Shades arrived at the Top of the Pops studio to appear for a Christmas edition and sing their hit single. While they were waiting in the canteen to be called up to perform, they talked with a producer friend and mentioned that they had recorded the single at Priory Street Studios. He nodded his head to show that he knew the studios, and then asked them if they'd had any trouble with the ghost.
The Shades looked at each other, and went whiter than the white make-up they wore on stage. The producer explained to them that Priory Street Studios had a reputation for its ghost, and that at one time the owners had thought of closing down the studio because of the electrical interference they kept getting on takes. They had gone as far as taking out all the equipment, having it thoroughly looked at and put back in again, but this had made no difference. In the early 70s the Studios had been completely re-modernised, and he'd assumed that the troubles were over, but he had heard that occasionally they still had problems.
The Shades didn't say anything, but after doing a strong appearance--though it was a rather shaky one--on the television, they went for a celebration party at a friend's house. They now had a good talk about the ghost story they'd heard, and they were all wondering whether it was the ghost that had made the single a success.
The following day they sent their roadie off to the publishing company where they'd found the song, with the job of looking through the catalogues and finding anything he could about the song and the songwriter. That evening he met them at the studio with some very interesting news. It seemed that Billy Smith, who had written I'm Riding With Santa Tonight, recorded his first and only album at Priory Street Studios. All the songs on the album were his own compositions--this was quite unusual in those days, as most of the early rock-and-roll singers in England sang other people's songs.
Unfortunately, just after the album had been completed he'd been electrocuted in the Studios when something had gone wrong with his electric guitar. The record company hadn't thought much of his album anyway, so it was shelved and eventually completely forgotten.
The Shades thought this was a pretty good reason for a ghost to hang about the studios and, wondering how they could best express their thanks to the dead rock singer, they decided to put a credit on the album--"Ghost Synthesiser by Billy Smith".
Apparently there has been no more trouble with interference at Priory Street Studios, which probably goes to show that a ghost is quite content when his music has eventually reached his public.
[Perhaps it's worth mentioning that this story came out at about the same time that Kate was working on the early version of her Christmas recording, December Will Be Magic Again, a song that she also performed on two British television programmes during the same period. (The song was finally released a year or so later.) Also, Kate has commented more than once since that time on the powerful sense of history she experienced while working in Abbey Road Studios.]
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©1990 Andy Marvick