Making The World’s Most Dangerous Recording

15th March 2010
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Making The World’s Most Dangerous Recording

Tom Lewis, A&R Decca Records

The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Brit-winning album was recorded during a tour of duty in Basra. Tom Lewis, A&R at Decca records describes his experience of traveling to a war zone.

Twenty minutes before landing and we’re just entering Iraqi airspace. I’ve never sat in a Hercules before. It’s cramped, hot and very loud. Sounds like a World War 2 film. The body armour is very heavy and digs into my back, a constant reminder that I’m heading to a place where people might want to kill me. The soldiers around me look calm; possibly even bored. I’m not. My mind is racing – probabilities that my flight will be the one shot out of the sky or that I’ll be the one in whose bed the rocket lands. The statistics should be very comforting but it’s impossible to be rational. The plane lights turn to green and then total darkness. Everyone reaches to put their helmets on. There’s nothing to distract me. I try to calm myself by remembering happy moments from a recent Welsh family holiday. Doesn’t work. The plane starts its tactical descent banking hard left then right than left again. If anyone wanted to shoot at us, they’d be able to hear us but not see us. In the tiny windows, the oil fires light up the ground. I hadn’t realised they’re still burning.

The plane lands and we’re rushing off into the blasting heat of the Basra night. It’s like standing in front of a massive hair dryer. We’re given the drill for rocket attacks (if you hear the rocket alert, hit the dirt and stay down) and rushed onto a bus towards the arrival terminal and some familiar faces. Concrete blastproof barriers everywhere. I find myself constantly checking how close I am to relative shelter.

My last visit to the studio involved a taxi across London. I sign artists and make records for a living. What on earth was I doing in Basra?

The previous year, The Pipes and Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards made one of the year’s surprise hit albums, Spirit of the Glen. It outsold Kylie and stayed at the top of the charts for weeks. Soon after, the Regiment were posted to Basra. For some, it was their fourth time there since the invasion. The only way to finish a follow-up in time for Christmas would involve some recording in Basra. The musicians are all front line, regular soldiers. Fighters first, musicians second. They take their pipes wherever they go and we were going to have to take our recording studio to them.

When I announced this to my Managing Director, he effectively threw me out of his office. The company wouldn’t sanction or insure me to go. However, I found that our policy extended to war cover and started the preparations. Jon Cohen, the producer, was also up for it. We both felt that the album would have a greater emotional quality from the circumstances of its recording. A great record is more than the musicians and the songs. It’s the legend behind the album’s creation – the personalities, the studio, the zeitgeist etc. It all felt glamorous and a bit romantic. We were off to a war zone to make a record!

The regular coverage of rocket attacks on the British base started to make me nervous. And whenever I’d seek reassurance by joking with my MOD contacts or some of the regiment, they’d laugh but none could promise that I’d come back unscathed. My wife was supportive but nervous.

We were obviously going there to record the pipers. But, inspired by the stirring Dunkirk scene in Atonement, we wanted the soldiers to sing the hymn ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.’ Finally, it had been suggested that we record a lone piper at the end of Basra runway. There are few sounds more stirring than a lone piper and the hum of Basra in the background would only make it more visceral.

There were the technical challenges to overcome. To record anything professionally, you need to be able to control the sound. Not too dead, not too cavernous. Most of all, it must be silent. Military bases don’t have such studio spaces. The temperature out there often hits 50 degrees and Jon was particularly concerned that our kit was not tested for such conditions. Also, we had to travel light. We were on a regular troop carrier and our kit was not a priority. We decided on microphones, headphones and a laptop.

When you get out to Basra, the living conditions constantly remind you of the real dangers in which our forces work. The beds, nicknamed ‘coffins’ are concrete cubes half covered with a ½ inch thick steel sheet and a tonne of sandbags. Wherever you go, there are posters, some horribly graphic, warning of the dangers from ignoring the rocket alerts. And, the heat is relentless. I don’t think I’ve ever sweated so much, nor drunk so much water. The soldiers wear incredibly heavy body armour and are often sat in troop carriers or tanks for unbearably long periods. It is truly humbling when you see it so close.

The recording itself was stifling. We had to turn off the air conditioning for each take and the studio (the officer’s mess tent) quickly became an oven. Playing the bagpipes is surprisingly physical and one of the men suffered heatstroke after the recording. The others went straight back out onto patrol. Angus Benson-Blair, who made such a moving speech at the Brits, came in from Basra town centre “teeth armed”, put down his rifle, led the singing and immediately went back out on active duty. The most moving moment was Pipe Major Ross Munro’s rendition of Flowers of the Forest in full highland ceremonial kit on the runway. He was suffering enormously but kept playing until we had our take – an incredibly beautiful piece of music recorded in the most intense circumstances.

Spirit of the Glen Journey has touched anyone who has heard it. The fact that it was recorded in Basra serves as a constant reminder of the risks these musicians take in the service of their county. Scottish pipe music is stocked full of emotion as it is. The circumstances behind this record make this music all the more powerful. I’ll always be very proud of this experience but think I’ll stick to the taxi through London from now on.

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