27 February 1950 was one end of my wheel, and now, 70 years on from that day, I head relentlessly towards the other end of the wheel.
Everyone is supposed to have their magnum opus, defined accurately in my case by Dictionary as:
a work of art, music, or literature that is regarded as the most important or best work that an artist, composer, or writer has produced.
and this could be writing a book, climbing a high mountain, or running an ultra-marathon – in other words, something that is beyond the boundaries of your normal expectations of yourself. I have no inclination or ability to hang my hat on any of the foregoing, but I did write and record an album of 10 songs, entitled The Other End of the Wheel.
The actual recording took place in 2005, as a result of getting my song-brain in gear over the preceding couple of years, when time and inspiration permitted me to write both the music and the words.
I have played a guitar since persuading my Dad in the early ’60s, that this would be a good idea, having heard the Shadows play Apache and thinking that it couldn’t be too difficult (I was wrong there – if it had been that easy, everyone would have had #1 hits). The guitar duly arrived after some repeated persuasion, and him playing the old ‘you save half and once you have, I’ll put the other half to it‘ card. I can’t remember if this played out in full, but I did become the proud owner of a 6-string acoustic together with an Ivor Mairants Tutor book of chords. I learned the basic chords, found how they fitted together melodically, developed calluses on my left-hand finger ends, and found in no time that it was quite easy to strum along with all sorts of songs – I suppose this is because I have what is known as a ‘musical ear’. But my skill and confidence levels really increased when I found I could play the guitar parts in Paul Simon’s songs in essentially the same way as he could – note for note. Ray Davies’ songs, particularly from Sunny Afternoon onwards, were also comfortable to pick-and-strum along to. Fortunately hit songs of the ’60s weren’t complicated, and this ‘musical ear’ saw to the rest. I should add that all this ‘playing along’ was done by ear, not by reading the ‘dots’.
The guitar, and singing in general, took something of a back seat for much of the time up to my 50th birthday – career, family etc etc. I would always pick it up to keep my hand in, but nothing more serious than that. My inspiration to do something a little bit more serious was directed towards a fundraiser for the Romania Aid Programme in the early 1990s – duly recorded as a family effort on which we all sang, even Alice who must have been only 4 at the time. Every cassette made was sold, and raised enough money to buy a second-hand ambulance to ferry goods over to the orphanages there. A fantastic result!
Then it was our Silver Wedding anniversary in 1999 – and what lovelier thing to do than to write and record a special song for your wife. I did, and it was well received. The seed was sown….I enjoyed the process, so why shouldn’t I write and record an entire album.
I set to it without a particular plan and without specific influences. I wanted the music to form and settle within itself, with sequences of chords and notes which co-exist happily, and then the words and stories could settle with them, as if they should always have been together. I had grown to like that classic pop/rock combination of guitars, piano/organ, and soon I had completed the writing and arrangement of 10 songs with which I was happy. Then came the next big question. Where to record and who with?
I asked around, and the name Fred Purser at Trinity Heights studio in the west end of Newcastle upon Tyne cropped up more than once, on the basis of ‘if you want it done properly, he’s your man’. As I might only do it once, better to have it done properly.
I met up with Fred, explained all, got on very well with him, and a full-on 4 days were set aside in February 2005, for the recordings to take place. I would sing and play acoustic guitar, Fred (Penetration and Tygers of Pan Tang) would play lead and bass guitar, his friend Adam Burgess would play piano/organ, my son Adam (the M00bs and Big Red and the Grinners) would drum, and there were spot roles for daughter Alice on piano, and the family Clare – Roland, Linda, Jane and Peter, from Westbury-on-Trym – at whose house one of the tracks was recorded, and mastered by Fred in Newcastle.
Each song was layered up instrument by instrument, and Fred then waved his magic wand over it all, with the end-result being better than I thought it would ever be in my imaginations. It’s a cracking recording, well played and finely engineered.
The only outstanding difficulty when planning the recording, was the actual title of the album.
Sue and I had taken off to London for a few days in 2004, part of which was a prearranged ride on the London Eye, followed by a boat trip down the Thames. The Eye was great, and as we disembarked, we were looking around for the boat which would take us on part 2 of the event. Not seeing anything likely, I ended up asking a man in uniform. He volunteered straight away that the boat I wanted was at ‘the other end of the wheel’ – in other words, along the quay to the east end of the London Eye. Sue and I looked at each other, and smiled instinctively. We had our title!! An expression which means what you want it to, especially as wheels don’t have ends, but a title which resonated immediately.
The last track on the album carries the album title as well – a thank you for a life, about a wheel coming full circle, for which the album title seems particularly apt. And by one of life’s strange coincidences, on the day I was recording the vocal for this song, my brother Rodney ‘phoned to say that our Mother – 91 and in a care home – had taken a turn and was not likely to live much longer. After a couple more messages over the next couple of hours, Rodney texted to say that she had finally succumbed. I said to Fred that if I was distracted, it was because of the news I’d just received. He immediately assumed that the session would be terminated, but I was equally quick to say ‘no’, as carrying on seemed an honourable thing to do, and also a way of saying thank you to my Mum for all she brought to my life.
This new and unexpected circumstance added real depth and meaning to the words, and poignancy to the recording, which I hope shows through. I’m really proud of this song, as indeed I am of the entire album. It’s dedicated to ‘George and Elsie Barnes, without whom….‘. It’s my magnum opus and something of me to leave behind, come the day when my wheel ceases to turn.
The Other End of the Wheel – Rob Barnes (the song)