Download the PDF of the Walking The Ghost Back Home CD Booklet for comprehensive sleevenotes and lyrics.
“I keep telling you, get together with Hewerdine. Do some stuff with Boo…”. So spaketh Michael Gott, old schoolfriend of Boo Hewerdine’s, part-time matchmaker and full-time assistant manager of Andy’s Records warehouse in Ross Street, which is where my Cambridge geography degree had taken me. As a jobbing drummer I was also playing with various early 80s Cambridge bands, including The Wobbly Jellies (briefly signed to Virgin) and Somewhere in the Foreign Office (featuring Chris ‘Brass Eye’ Morris on bass), as well as doing gigs on the southern jazz circuit. Boo worked in The Beat Goes On, the legendary Cambridge second-hand record shop that was also an outpost of the Andy’s empire, and was well known as former frontman of The Great Divide, a highly regarded Cambridge band who had been signed to a real record label (Ensign, a subdivision of Chrysalis whose roster included The Waterboys and Sinead O’Connor) and who’d had real records out that you could buy in the shops.
Boo also had a publishing deal with Ensign and he initially invited me round to his house to play me two new songs that he was intending to demo, ‘King Chicago’ and ‘She’s My Bible’. I was half expecting some slabs of 80s electro pop – similar to later ‘Divide’ material – but instead I heard something much more acoustic and organic, with lyrics that immediately pulled you in. Boo asked me to play on the demo, and we cut three songs in a small studio in Islington (one of which is included here). We also scheduled in some tentative writing sessions together at a friend’s house in rural Thriplow, and here we would convene to wrestle with a faulty reel-to-reel Revox whilst searching for some common ground.
Initial songwriting sessions were promising although rather lacking direction, and we were sort of wondering whether or not to pursue things when a guitar riff, some chords and a line of vocals descended from the ether and coalesced into something much more solid. There was a strong opening line (“Bone-bleached and cloudless sky…”) with a chorus guitar part and harmonic shift that just ‘did it’. The song was provisionally called ‘White Hotel’, and whilst it never quite got finished, it definitely made us want to explore further. The rest of 1985 saw us writing individually and collectively on a regular basis whilst quietly carving out our agenda as a stronger identity emerged.
We were in agreement that most 80s pop music was very bad indeed and that a lot of this was linked to the rise of digital technology and it’s generally soul-sapping usage in record production. We agreed that music should be based around the idea of performance and should be played on real instruments wherever feasible, avoiding the use of sequencers, drum machines and digital brass stabs. Backing vocals were to be used sparingly, and there would be no eye liner or foolish shirts. Songs should aspire to being durable in some way by containing elements in the music and lyrics that would hopefully draw people in and hold them there. Later, some people observed that Bible music had a ‘yearning’ quality, which we took to be a good thing.
At one writing session Boo played me a chord sequence that he’d come up with which worked well when cycled (G – D – A min – C). I changed the last chord to a G/C (implying C maj9) and worked out a contrasting section in E minor, and a couple of hours later we’d finished ‘Graceland’. We went for an all-day breakfast at the cafe in Norfolk Street and then played through the song again to see if it passed the leave-it-for-a-bit-and-then-see-if-you-remember-anything-about-it test, and it still sounded pretty good. Soon afterwards we wrote ‘Mahalia’ together and found ourselves on a bit of a roll, and by the end of the year we had enough material to make a record. We also made some tentative live outings around this time (Boo on guitar, me on keyboards and snare drum), although our first gig at The Burleigh Arms on Saturday July 13th was rather patchily attended due to an unfortunate clash with Live Aid, the biggest musical event of the century.
Walking the Ghost Back Home (WTGBH) was recorded and mixed on a shoestring between October to December 1985 at Red Shop Recorders in Islington, and out in the misty fens at Spaceward Studios near Cambridge. Boo paid the studio fees out of his own savings (I didn’t have any savings) and local musician friends were cajoled into adding their services as and when required, including drummer Dave Larcombe, bassist Clive Lawson and jazz saxophonist Kevin Flanagan. Boo and I produced it on the hoof, and tracks were laid down quickly, often as warts-and-all first or second takes. The album was also mixed quickly with a minimum of studio processing. And that was it – no click tracks, no sequencers, no Syndrums, no Pro Tools, no autotune…
I did the artwork for the album and singles sleeves, spidery inked line drawings that were heavily indebted to the Swiss artist Paul Klee. These seemed to be a good fit with the music, and above all I didn’t want the sleeves to look tacky and commercial like so many musical products of the time.
The album was released to little fanfare in mid-’86 by Backs Records, a small Norwich-based independent label who were part of the then-Cartel, and initial press reviews were enthusiastic and even slightly over-the-top (Melody Maker: “The freshest pop sound I’ve heard so far this year…The songs are all relentlessly classy.” NME: “One listen to their debut LP….and you could find yourself sprouting wings and being transported to realms of transcendental delight.” Music Week: “The best debut album of 1986….Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’, Television’s ‘Marquee Noon’…now add to the list of greats ‘Walking the Ghost Back Home’ ”).
The lexicon that emerged included use of words and phrases such as “melodic”, “well-crafted” and “sophisticated”, and we were steered into the Quality British Songwriting pigeonhole with contemporaries such as Prefab Sprout, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Aztec Camera, Deacon Blue, Del Amitri, Danny Wilson and Microdisney. Smiths and Steely Dan influences were noted, and later on I was very pleased when we received a letter from long-serving Dan producer Gary Katz asking if he could do our next album. We started to get played on regional and national radio stations, and soon we had garnered enough exposure (much of it word-of-mouth) to enable WTGBH to enter the top ten in the Music Week Independent charts.
Marcus Russell (later manager of Oasis and creator of the Ignition empire) heard the album by chance in the bar of his rugby club in Harlow, and got in touch. We met up for some beers in The Mitre, and then we had a manager (no deals or written contracts, just a handshake, some belief, and a genuine love of music). Presently, we found ourselves being courted by competing record company A&R personnel who would get us pissed and then try to sign us, and people were after the rights to our songs as well. In the end we chose Chrysalis Records because their head of A&R Stuart Slater was (very uncommonly for an A&R person) a musician and a music fan, who (like Marcus) seemed to genuinely like our stuff and get what we were about.
By this time, we had assembled a more permanent band line-up including guitarist Neill Maccoll and drummer Dave Larcombe, and shortly afterwards we embarked on the ‘Walking the Ghost’ live tour which took us the length and breadth of the UK, performing in venues such as the Aberdeen Beach Ball Room and the Wendover Wellhead Inn. We weren’t expecting very much, but people started to show up to the gigs, people we’d never met before who knew the words to our songs and who even stayed until the end of the set. Some came with specially-constructed frog hand puppets, an odd response that we chose to ignore. Live, we could all play our instruments, and whilst reviewers usually commented on our musical competence, some would also lay into us for being just a bit too ordinary on stage, too studiedly ‘muso’, not quite extroverted or opinionated enough. We didn’t shout or put our feet up on the monitors or waggle our crotches at the audience, and Boo never once attempted to crowd surf. We didn’t seem to be quite playing ball in the era of 80s high showmanship, preferring, of course, to let the songs speak for themselves.
Despite the occasional flack, things continued on an upward trajectory in the wake of the album’s release: C4’s ‘The Tube’ broadcast a specially-made video of ‘Mahalia’; we played in Europe, acquiring some German fans who stalked us for the next two years; we were voted Best British Band of 1986 on South Africa’s national radio station (!); we got invited to Paul McCartney’s party (!!) and sat quietly in the corner nibbling canapés. A few years later however, after our full-major-label-treatment second album ‘Eureka’ and subsequent re-releases had failed to produce a top 40 hit, we would go our separate ways after our sales statistics were deemed insufficient to support the mini-industry that we had created. And that, apart from one or two re-groupings and some further recording in the early/mid 90s, was pretty much it for The Bible.
Returning to the WTGBH recordings twenty five years on it is notable how well the songs have stood up to the test of time, and I’m glad that we followed our then slightly out-of-kilter traditionalist stance by playing our music on real guitars and pianos rather than succumbing to the digital blips, parps, thunks and handclaps of prevailing 80s production methods.
Above all, WTGBH was the result of a time rich and relatively stress free, pre-record company period in which we were basically writing songs to please ourselves. We never wrote with an audience or brief in mind, and if we didn’t think something was up to scratch, we wouldn’t do it. And when we had enough songs that made it through quality control, we put them out there to see if anything happened. And, actually, quite a lot did…
Tony Shepherd, July 2011