Text in this rather fetching blue-green
is by Hugh.
Recorded in London and Epsom between 1973 and 1975.
For my brother Philip who pushed on ahead of us all ...
Several of the tracks on this, my first album, were recorded at home on a two track Nagra through one of the earliest Kelsey/Morris mixers my brother Graham designed before he founded Soundcraft. Others were recorded at Central Sound, London, as a demo financed by the American company Kinney Records, while the remaining four tracks were made by Island Records at their Hammersmith studio.
At that time I was due to sign a contract with Island, who had just made a mint of money with the legendary Greek songwriter Cat Stevens and the equally legendary Bob Marley. What I was not told at the time was that the deal was conditional on Paul Samwell-Smith, Cat Stevens' producer, agreeing to produce me. The tapes were duly sent to Samwell-Smith in New York. He phoned back to say that he only wanted to produce "real" rockbands in the future, he was tired of producing solo artists.
The next day I arrived in Hammersmith to be told that the deal was off. This was embarrasing for the people at Island, who were pretty sure they wanted me, but it was even more embarrassing to me, as I had told all my friends I had a record deal with a major label!
As far as I know, Paul Samwell-Smith never produced another major artist. However, his work with Cat Stevens, particularly the utterly brilliant Catch Bull at Four, is surely a sufficient monument for anyone.
Arriving in Darmstadt, Germany, a few years later, I played a gig in the local folk club and quickly became flavour of the month there. It was during this time at the Krone that I was introduced to Michael Stühr, writer and editor of radical literature. He liked my music and suggested we make a record. I told him I already had the tapes and so Empty Houses was quickly finished.
I used my own sleeve design featuring a super-romantic photo from Don Stevenson. I am sure that I have never really looked that good. If politics is the art of the possible, photography is the art of the improbable.
Listening to it now - the choirboy voice, the slightly pretentious lyrics - I'm surprised I even got past the door at Island. It seems I matured late. Yet some of the songs, such as Coaster, Night Train, Silver Flute, Edge of Town or Lights are still very solid and worth revisiting.
Credit might be due to:
Paul, for his acoustic picking
Henry, for all the keyboard work
Simon, for learning the bass
Richard, for hitting things with sticks
Jon, for the alto sax
Graham, Phil at Island
and Big roger, for mixing and keeping it reasonably cool
Kurt, for the master tape
Sanchi and all at No. 76 for being there
Don and Rosi for photos and patience
Gisela for the ms decal
and ms himself for the black sleeve and the backing.
Published by ms edition, Darmstadt, Germany
Are you sitting comfortably?
Choirboy voice and 70s sensibilities aside, Empty Houses is a startling debut album, with its contrasting dreamsongs and biting social satire. With hindsight (now available at an optometrist near you), at the time this places Hugh in a songwriting vanguard, right on the cusp of the end of hippy aquarianism, which was receding as fast as some of its acolytes' hairlines, and the advent of a much harsher approach which was to come to the fore with the arrival of punk and new wave music. That this transition was nothing new - merely a recycling of the kind of cultural renaissance that had brought us the acid wit of Bob Dylan and his generation in the 1960s - was not lost on Hugh, and he explored it in his album Announcer (e.g carry on the song).
For his growing number of admirers, especially throughout Britain which he had finally forsaken in late 1975 when he moved to Germany, this first record was a treasure. Uptil then, his live performances were the only way to get a fix of his music, although a couple of extremely lo-fi cassette copies of his gigs (yes, there are Featherstone bootlegs out there, see the discography page) were passsing among friends.
Hugh played me the Island tapes during a visit to his parents' home in Epsom. We arrived from Wales very late in the evening, so he sat me an armchair, fitted me with some expensive headphones plugged into an even more expensive reel-to-reel tape machine. "Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin..." he may or may not have said - difficult to say with the phones wrapped around my lugholes - then he turned the tape on ...
... Now, I was young and unexperienced, and had never before listened to music from such a high quality source. So I was atonished at what I heard. I swear, I could hear finger tips sliding up and down strings and caressing piano keys. A richly sensous experience. I was especially beguiled by the driving, yearning guitar rhythm of Lights. What a blast! That kind kind of thrill you just can't buy.
became my favourite, and it was a morale booster to hum it while hitchhiking through Europe, e.g. waiting for a lift on a rainy Sunday evening on the Yugoslavian border. Well, it would be, wouldn't it?
David John, September 2003