Hugh Featherstone, a troubadour of our times
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cassette album "the Black Tape" 1983
 
Black Tape cover photo of Hugh Featherstone  
Click on a track title to see lyrics & notes further down the page.
SIDE I   SIDE II  
Ivory tower 2:10   7  Radio Berlin 3:21
Back to Davy 2:55   8  Stay another day 2:17
Blue machine 4:58   9  If you feel the same 3:03
Raindance 2:52 10  Someone else's child 3:39
Graduation honours 3:14 11  Stevenson's Rocket 3:50
King of the ocean 2:34 12  Then 2:36
All titles written and composed by Hugh Featherstone
 
 
Black Tape cover photo of Hugh Featherstone by Martine Passagez

The big picture. Hugh with his trusty rosewood 12-string Washburn guitar, customized by Gary Levinson.

"the Black Tape" cover photo by © Martine Passagez.
 

In 1983 Hugh got smart and produced a solo limited edition cassette album. Easier and cheaper to produce, mail out and carry to concerts than LPs, cassettes tapes were all the rage before CD became king.

By the early 1980s more people were listening to cassette players than record players. The sales of walkmans (walkmen? walkpersons?), ghetto blasters and car cassette players were booming. (Read more about the rise and fall of the cassette below.) Portable was more potable. Music was becoming a movable feast, and Hugh was moving right along with the buffet.

The package was plain and simple: just a black and white photo and tracklist on the insert of the cassette case, and his name on the label of the eponymous tape itself. The musical production was also pretty barebones, with Hugh on six and twelve string guitars, a bit of electric gituar, and the occasional bit of accompaniment, notably Roxanne Paul's harmony singing on If you feel the same, and Hugh overdubbing his own voice (e.g. on Someone else's child).

This apparent simplicity is belied by the sense of space and depth as well as the intimate warmth of the recording. You can bet that Hugh was using some incredible microphones and paid minute attention to the mixing. I had to dig an old cassette player out of mothballs to listen to this tape again (December 2008), and was amazed at the clarity and dynamic of the sound, for example, on Blue machine.

Hugh's musical performance and vocal delivery are also much more relaxed on this recording, and he seems to be having a lot of fun. The experience he gained recording his first three albums really pays off here, and you can sense that he is more at home and in control in the studio. For instance on Raindance, which hurtles along at breakneck speed with some nifty guitar work and a death-defying lead break, he really lets rip. On King of the ocean, a totally insane post-rock romp featuring a finger-snapping effect and sparingly used bass and drums, the musical colour is so intense throughout that you don't even notice that it's nearly all produced by Hugh's voice and electric guitar alone.

The sense of confidence, exuberance and freedom which comes over in this solo album may be partly due to the fact Hugh at this point was not beholding to a publisher or record company and that he was not obliged to make concessions and compromises with a whole bunch of musicians. Though his confidence on stage and in the studio continued to grow immensely over the next two decades, it is not until Live at the Chapel (2005) and Friendly skies (2008) that we again hear Hugh really let loose with such verve and audacity.

Through the 1980s Hugh stood steadfast in his decision to stay outside the mainstream of the music business. As he had written in the song carry on the song (on the LP Announcer), "the music business digs your grave". Having moved out of London - then the epicentre of popular music - some years before, he was about to move out of Darmstadt - just a plectrum's throw from the moneyed movers-and-shakers of Germany's financial centre Frankfurt - to a small town in eastern Belgium. Had he stuck around in either city, he could have doubtless cemented the connections needed to make a commercial impact with his talents. But he had already seen how other musicians had traded their principles and artistic integrity for a designer suit and three minutes on Top of the Pops. Hugh wasn't about to be dragged down that slippery slope.

Moving country meant starting from scratch, finding new concert venues and other musical collaborators, and it was not until 1993 that he felt ready to release another collection of his songs (the CD West of Eden with the band Red Shift). Meanwhile, he was honing his songwriting and performing skills and penning songs and poetry dealing a wide variety of themes. At the same time he and his wife Martine were bringing up their three children, two of whom - Philip and Kim - were later to join Hugh's musical oddysey. Philip (a.k.a. Philby) spent much of his childhood practising drums in the family attic and played African bush drum on West of Eden before joining the original line-up of Hugh Featherstone and a Panel of Experts (see Live at the Chapel) as well as designing the covers for Hugh's last three CDs. Kim (a.k.a. Kimbastian) grew up to be an accomplished singer and dancer, and features regularly at Hugh's recording sessions and gigs all over Europe. Not to be left out, Hugh and Martine's oldest, Sara also sang as part of the "Favourite Girl's Choir" on the song "my favourite planet" on Negotiations and lovesongs.

The black tape represents a watershed in hugh's life and career. Not only was he about to relocate geographically, he was also leaving behind the life as a folksy solo singer-songwriter to arrive once again in a more upbeat, rock-oriented groove, as in the days of his bands Foreign Bodies, Pierre Le Suit and Best Foot (early to mid 1970s). And this is where we came in.

The very fact that this compilation was released on a cassette tape made it at the time a much more accessible medium, though these days anybody lucky enough to own a copy probably no longer has the retro-technology necessary to actually play the damn thing. So it goes.

David John, 2003
 
  The rise and fall of the cassette format

If you've got nothing better to do, here is a bit of blather about cassettes to pass the time.

During the 1970s the cassette tape became ubiquitous. Originally called the Compact Cassette (CC), it was also known as the audio cassette, and since its demise the few retailers who still sell them stock them as "MCs". Duh? Its compact format made it eminently portable - it even fitted into a pocket, a handbag or a car glove compartment. Advertisers compared its dimensions to those of a cigarette pack. How politically uncorrect can you get? Cough, cough. Cassette players were also cheap and portable so that everybody could sonically pollute their environment with music anywhere, anytime. Instant aural gratification. With your ghetto blaster you could blast your ghetto, rock the casbah (Sharif don't like it), pow the picnic, bitch the beach or noise-up the neighbours. Ah, isn't choice choice?

Most cars had a cassette player, which meant that drivers could listen to their favourite music and not have to depend on the vagaries of radio programming or uncertain reception. Radio stations were forced to reappraise their programming to compete with this new phenomenon. "Drivetime radio" was about to be born.

What was especially revolutionary about cassette machines is that they came with a record button and microphone (earlier models had external mikes, while most later machines had one built into the body). Not only could everyman record noise from the radio or stereo (with the right plugs), he could also record himself warbling in the shower, or his child's first ga ga. Oh bliss! Who could have guessed that such innocent doings could lead to the dreaded age of karaoke?

The cassette recorder proved a boon to wannabe popstars, as musicians could buy, beg, borrow or steal a cheap machine and record rehearsals, gigs and demos for pennies.

Sales of pre-recorded cassettes began to outstrip those of vinyl discs. But the vast majority of tapes in circulation were homemade copies of records, with commercial bootlegs being more common in eastern Europe and third world countries. The recording industry started the scare campaign "home taping is killing music" and considered various ways of trying to prevent what seemed to most people an innocent pastime. The ensuing "debate", which is characteristically not a dialogue between interested parties but rather a frenzy of media headlines and legislation provoked by industry lobbyists and publicists, continues today around home CD recording and unofficial music downloading from the internet. Criminalize the opposition! Great idea, comrade billionaire.

This continual hand-wringing by megarich multinational music corporations has been lampooned by T-shirts and stickers with slogans such as "home fucking is killing prostitution". Says it all, really.

Meanwhile music is still alive and kicking and few people sympathize with any financial discomfort the big music labels claim to be suffering. Poor wee things, you've only yourselves to blame.

The irrestible rise of the walkman in the early 1980s made it seem to many that the days of records were numbered, which indeed they were, but for other reasons. What is now known as the walkman was originally launched by Sony as "the Stowaway". They changed the name after realising what were perceived at the time as negative implications: there had been a spate of people so desperate to flee their home countries that they had hidden in the cargo holds and even undercarriage compartments of jets, often with fatal consequences. Lax airport security was making headlines for reasons other than terrorism, and suddenly any romantic associations the word stowaway conjured up seemed to have evaporated.

Cassettes were meanwhile proving themselves indispensible in other fields. They drove the programmes of early micro computers, and the Sony Professional walkman became a must-have for journalists.

One of the perceived disadvantages of the cassette was sound quality. Its designers had managed to fit four tracks onto a tape only 4 millimetres wide and a fraction of a millimetre thick - at the time an astounding technical achievement. But the space available for recording and playing back complex information at high quality at such low speed was problematic. Tape hiss and other distortions, despite electronic filters developed by Dr Dolby and others, drove discerning listeners to distraction. True hi fi buffs despised cassettes. Heat and prolonged use also caused the plastic base of the tape to distort. The magnetic information itself was continually eroded by friction caused by contact with the play and record heads and guide capstains which had to be cleaned and demagnetized regularly. All this, added to by the cheap build of most cassette players (the motor was often connected to the tape drive by nothing more than an elastic band!) led to the particularly unpeasant distortions such as "wow and flutter". If you haven't experienced it, you are better off not knowing more. Just don't ask.

The cassette had competition from other formats as a popular carrier of audio information. Apart from the vinyl disc itself, which by now could reproduce upto an hour of high quality audio on micro-groove technology, and the new compact reel-to-reel recorders, there was also the 8-track cartridge tape (cartridge / cassettte - only marketing mindset semantics?). As its name implies, its wider, more robust tape could fit 8 tracks of high quality electromagnetic information. Inside the lightweight plastic casing the tape was an endless loop which could be played again and again without having to rewind or turn the thing over (the bane of cassette listeners). Not only that, but 8-track players allowed you to play a specific track number at the push of a button - no tedious fast-forwarding or rewinding (very energy intensive for battery powered appliances).

8-track proved very popular with car and truck drivers, particularly in the USA (most 8-track tapes were produced by country and western artists). But its downfall lay in its large size and the unavailability of 8-track recorders. The 8-track went the way of the Betamax video format (claimed by afficianados to be superior to VHS), their demise now blamed by pundits on poor market research. More compact versions of tape-loop cartridges were developed for specialist use, e.g. for computer applications and radio station jingles and ads, but they were never successfully marketed for more general use.

The research departments of manufacturers were constantly producing technical improvements to both cassette tapes and players. Tiny advances in the mixes of ferric and chrome particles on the recording layers were emblazoned on cassette packaging. NEW! IMPROVED! LISTENING ENHANCEMENT! etc. Developments in players and recorders were swift and significant, especially the ability to play/record both sides of the cassette continuously. But the weight of sales pitches was always on new gizmos and gimmicks. One of the weaknesses of cassette technology was the ability to find and cue specific music tracks (unlike records, 8 track tapes or later digital media). Various systems were developed, but never satisfactorily - one reason why cassettes never became popular with DJs. Other developments included the "L Cassette", L presumably for larger, which promised significant quality improvements. NCO (Never Caught On). There were even suggestions that the VHS video cassette format would provide far superior quality for audio recordings, but that was a non starter. Walkmans the size of house bricks? No way.

If the CD and the flash card had not come along, perhaps the compact cassette could have become an almost perfect medium by now. RIP compact cassettes. And pretty soon it'll be RIP compact discs. As with the pianorole, wax cylinder, shellac and vinyl discs, the days of the CD, its successors DVD, Blue Ray, etc. and even ever smaller faster hard disks must be numbered. Despite their sophistication, speed, digital fidelity and impressive capacity, they still depend on the principle of a damage-prone medium spinning beneath a reading apparatus (horn needle, diamond or ceramic stylus, laser head, etc.) which itself can damage the disc.

The digital flash card, in all its bewildering formats, is tiny (more comparable with an After Eight mint than a cigarette pack), virtually indestructible, and there are absolutley no moving parts involved. I recently saw a TV show in which a flash card was cooked in boiling water for several minutes. The plastic casing looked a bit warped (like a melting Dali watch) but the chip itself was fine and its data could be downloaded without problem.

David John, 2003


- Well, that passed the time, didn't it?
- It would have passed anyway.

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Hugh Featherstone in the 1980s

photo of Hugh from
the Black Tape cover
 
"the Black Tape" lyrics and notes  
More info about this cassette album at the top of this page.

Text in this rather fetching blue-green is by Hugh.
 
"the Black Tape" Ivory tower  

track 1

Written 1981

A live version of this song appeared on Hugh's 2005 CD Live at the Chapel.

A powerful song about the value of friendship, which reveals the core of Hugh's personal beliefs.

 

It's hard not to compromise family and friendships when what we call the "real world"
is setting the pace, but these will abide after the last deadline is past.

This was an audience favourite back in the old folksy solo days.

This is a message to the friends I knew
I’m what you made me, my thanks to you
Hold on to what you believe
Hold on and do not deceive

Despite the wonders of lands afar
Don’t ever change; I love the way you are
Now hold on to what you believe
Hold on and do not deceive
Your light has kept me alive when no one was there
The truth is, we all survive just because somebody cares

Too many keepers in the human zoo
So many people come to lean on you
But hold on to what you believe
Hold on and do not deceive
Though we may all have different roads to run
We’re sure to meet where all the roads are one
So hold on to what you believe
Hold on and do not deceive
Your light has kept me alive when no one was there
The truth is, we all survive just because somebody cares

Your light has kept me alive when no one was there
The truth is, we all survive just because somebody cares

All you magicians in the Ivory Tower
Seeking admission to the throne of power
Hold on to what you believe
Hold on and do not deceive
 
"the Black Tape" Back to Davy  

track 2

Lyrics coming soon



 
"the Black Tape" Blue machine  

track 3

Lyrics coming soon



 
"the Black Tape" Raindance  

track 4

Lyrics coming soon



 
"the Black Tape" Graduation honours  

track 5

Lyrics coming soon



 
"the Black Tape" King of the ocean  

track 6

A rockier version of this song appears on Hugh's 1993 CD West of Eden

There's a boat in the harbour
there's a girl on the shore
she's only sixteen
he's about thirty four
just an innocent sailor
no more thirsty than most
and in love with wth the prettiest
thlng on the coast

Now McKirk said to Sandy:
"why don't you be mine?"
she said: "I only step out
for a ship-o'-the-line
get your papers together
and straighten your tie
'cause you'll never make captain
with that look in your eye"

So McKirk he pulled hard
for a couple of years
on a Panama merchantman
out of Tangiers
till the day finally came
when they gave him a break
he's a captain of line
and they're cutting the cake

But it's had to keep floating
so easy to sink
when you have to keep drowning
your problems in drink
'cause the girl of his dreams
wasn't one for his heart
he was only her sideshow
she was playing a part

In some tropical hotel
he's out on the floor
Sandy laces her sneakers
and walks out that door
well it isn't that happiness
evaded McKirk
but if life don't come easy, well
you just have to work

There's a boat in the harbour
a man on the quay
he's been drowning his sorrows
since a quarter-to-three
with a jug on the table
and a glass in the hand
he's a king of the ocean
but a fool on the land
 
"the Black Tape" Radio Berlin  

track 7

Lyrics coming soon



 
"the Black Tape" Stay another day  

track 8

This song later appeared on Hugh's 1999 double CD Me & Miss Wray.

It's time I put all this stuff behind me & started
writing songs for "grownups", if only...


stay another day
when you're looking through the people you've known
i don't want to be another who just tried to own you
but stay another day
of all the places both far and near
there'll be few that you'll remember
like the time together here
i'm not just saying it
i'm singing it, playing it
holding back the tears ... stay

why does everybody have to know
where the highways and the byways
all eventually go

stay another day
when you're looking back across the years
i dont want you to regret you didn't stay for ever here
 
"the Black Tape" If you feel the same  

track 9

Written 1981

Another version of this song appears on Hugh's 1999 double CD Me & Miss Wray.

Roxanne Paul sang the harmony.
Thanks Roxanne and where are you now?


well, i decided to write you a letter
although we haven't spoken yet
because i've seen your face in the usual places
and it's one i can't forget
we may not suit each other or
maybe your daddy's too rich and i'm too poor
but when it's said and done i can't lose no more
so i'm laying out my bet

there ain't enough time in the world today
to play that waiting game
so won't you meet me at eight by the factory gate
that is, if you feel the same

i asked a friend what your name was
he said, boy, don't even try
that's the number one local heartbreaker
and i do not tell a lie
well maybe it's true you run around
but that just means you're searching, you haven't yet found
so let's rendezvous on neutral ground
and we'll see who's first to cry

because there ain't enough time in the world today
to portion out the blame
but i'll stand by you just like lovers do
that is, if you feel the same
you may not be that good for me
or maybe you don't intend to be
but i caught your signals like a ship at sea
there ain't enough time in the world today
to argue or explain
so i'm mailing this right to your heart tonight
and i hope you feel the same
 
"the Black Tape" Someone else's child  

track 10

Another version of this song appears on Hugh's 1999 double CD Me & Miss Wray.

It's easy to think we own our kids, in fact they just borrow us for as long as
we are necessary. Things get complicated when partnerships dissolve and
new alliances are formed. Children can be highly pragmatic, and that hurts.


awake on your own
you walk across the lawn
you could almost feel you belong here
up against the dawn
but it's someone else's, someone else's home

messages descend
you know you can't pretend
love is not the kind of thing
to borrow or lend
when it's someone else's
someone else's friend

such a tiny smile
you held it for a while
raised it up through tears and laughter
to join the rank and file
but it's someone else's, someone else's child

awake on your own
you walk across the lawn
you could almost feel you belong here
up against the dawn
but it's someone else's, someone else's home
someone else's home
 
"the Black Tape" Stevenson's Rocket  

track 11

Instrumental piece performed on 12-string guitar.

The English engineer George Stephenson (1781-1848) and his son Robert built and ran the world's first passenger train between Stockton and Darlington in 1825. He called his locomotive the "rocket" because it could reach the astounding speed of 30 miles per hour. In this bright, cheerful piece you can imagine the gay giddiness, delight and excitement of the passengers as they are whisked along iron tracks through the countryside of Hanoverian England.

Hugh has a soft spot for the technical pioneers of the 19th century, and he also wrote a song titled Praise to Victorian engineers as a tribute to the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
 
 
"the Black Tape" Then  

track 12

Lyrics coming soon




 
Hugh Featherstone plays Kraushaar Guitars
 
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