Before time began

Before time began… well, before MY time began, there was my dad; George Kenneth Doran, a jazz musician. There was also my mum, Kathleen Doran, a drama teacher who loved to immerse herself in the world of amateur dramatics, productions, playwriting and throwing all-night parties for several hundred people, all who would flock to our modest house and drink whiskey, beer and wine until breakfast time.

People would be scattered all around the place – on the stairs, in the garage, in the garden, in the toilet throwing up. But at some point in the night, an acoustic guitar would appear and all these strange grown ups in their flares, big collars and chunky shoes would start to migrate towards this source of energy like thirsty wilderbeast homing in on the last waterpool.

Someone would then begin to croon out an old lancashire folk song with suggestive lyrics and laughter would erupt around the room. I didn’t really understand what was funny at the time, but the laughter was contagious.

What was more interesting to me though, was the hold that music had over everyone. It brought everyone together, physically and seemingly spiritually. Ok I was only 6 or 7 years old and I didn’t understand  what ‘drunk’ people were… but I understood that there was some kind of magnetism in that simple acoustic guitar.

The Guesstrack Recorder

As a 7 year old boy, I liked to break most things. Not out of disfunctional aggression you understand, but I often broke things because I wanted to know how they worked. I took things apart, but always failed to put them back. The inquisitive force was strong but the engineering logic was AWOL.

This used to drive my dad insane. I could usually tell how much I’d upset him by the loudness of his trumpet playing directly after giving me a clip round the ear.

However, for some reason, he let me loose on the one piece of household equipment that I managed not to break and that was a Phillips 4 track reel to reel tape recorder.

I don’t think there was a way of hearing track one whilst simultaneously recording onto track two, so I had to guess what was playing on track one in order to ‘compliment’ it with a new creation on track two. I found this fun and would try to experiment with beats and time, trying to sing on top of a track that I couldn’t hear. This resulted in some totally radical avant-avant garde sonic mixes… by which I really mean a crock of audible shite.

Shit though it may have been, it was the kind of shit I liked doing.

The Uncool Years

Baker, James Bond, Pilot, Footballer, Actor, Artist, Animator, Author, Meteorologist – I wanted to be all of these things at some stage in my childhood. However, I was always surrounded by music – dad taking me to his smoky jazz gigs, mum taking me to her musical productions and now my sister, Susie, was subjecting me to her early oboe lessons – an eclectic mix of music that led me to tune my bass-less crappy mono radio into the noisy frequencies of Radio Luxembourg, to try and find my own kind of music.

At 10 years old I used to make electric guitars, carefully cut out from cardboard and coloured in with felt pens – because this is all I wanted when I heard the likes of The Clash, The Buzzcocks, Blondie and even Sham 69 on Radio Luxembourg. Those overdriven, razor sharp guitars were just enhanced and compressed further by the poor reception

However, the guitar noise was just the animal side of what I liked to hear. I’d been brought up surrounded by musicals and bold melodies were now somehow ingrained in me. I found myself having an obsession, at 10 years old with anything with big fat harmonies, no matter how uncool – Renaissance (The Northern Lights), Abba, Dr Hook and ELO – I think I played ELO’s Out of the Blue album, every day, for a year.

String by String

When I was 13 I found an old EKO acoustic guitar in the loft with two strings – the top E and B strings. I started strumming the open strings and quickly worked out that by pressing the B string on the second fret, I had two fundamental chords that I could sing lots of songs to. I brought it down to my room and for the next few weeks, I went through all the possible harmonic combinations that two strings has to offer.

My dad must have noticed my new found obsession and after a few more weeks, very kindly added a third string. This threw a whole new level of complexity into the mix. Although it was small step for guitar minds, it was a giant leap for me. I messed about with 3 strings for about a year. It was enough to keep me busy and frankly it made me feel like I knew what I was doing.

The fourth string brought major confusion and I had many internal debates with myself as to how the hell I was going to hold down 4 strings at the same time. A few months later and the 5th and 6th strings were added. I should probably claim the record for the slowest ever guitar restring in history, spanning almost 2 years.

This slow introduction helped me to learn everything I know about notes, scales and chords. However, I also play the guitar completely wrong – using my thumb instead of barre chords amongst other bad habits.

Clinkety Clankety Tape

The mysterious guesstrack reel to reel recorder that had kept me busy for several years was now an ancient relic. As technology started to shrink, the mighty cassette tape became a viable demo medium.

A number of clinkety clankety devices appeared such as a Fostex X26, in which I’d record 3 tracks, then bounce them all to one mono track, then record 2 tracks and bounce those ones to another mono track and then fill the remaining 2 tracks… giving me a whopping 7 tracks. This was adequate for some early demos but I soon started to get track-rage when I just couldn’t record what was in my head.

During this time, I amassed hundreds of demo tapes, which could only be played by a 4 track. I was recently filled with nostalgic curiosity and as the old fostex has been dead since I spilt beer all over it in my early 20s, I had to go out and find another on ebay. The excitement of lining up all my old tapes was quickly quashed by the realisation of how bad they were.

Monkeyland

Armed with a cassette full of nosiy demos, in 1990 I joined local indie band – Monkeyland as singer/guitarist. Every few days, Neil (Bass guitar), Dixie (Guitars), Woody (Drums) and myself would trudge along to the dingy, sticky floored rehearsal studios in Westhoughton. As the rooms were small, we had to crank all the amps up to max in order to be heard above the drums. This also meant that there were distorted harmonics and rogue frequencies flying around everywhere to the point that I can never really hear my own voice. This was probably a good thing anyway.

Very early on, just before we recorded our first demos, Woody decided to pack it all in. We decided to carry on. I had to hire a drum machine for a weekend, program in all the patterns for about 20 songs and record them all to tape, in 48 hrs before I returned the machine. It was probably because I was half asleep doing this that half the drum tracks were about twice as fast originally intended.

We added bass, guitars and vocals and our first demo album was produced: The J.R.Hartley Tapes. We played it to Woody who must have thought it had potential as the next week he was back in hot seat.

C86 / 4AD

I should add here, that I had actually moved on from my confused, eclectic, childhood radio listening. In my late teens I’d started listening to John Peel and Andy Kershaw, amassing countless tapes of C86 bands – Ultra Vivid Scene, Robyn Hitchcock, Mighty Lemon Drops, The Dentists, The Weather Prophets. And then 4AD bands such as Pale Saints and Pixies. This all fused with Neil and Woody’s love of The Blue Aeroplanes and The Close Lobsters, Dixie’s love of the Fall and then we all shared a love of The Chameleons and The Smiths.

To be continued…