Saturday 10 May 2008

NICK HAEFFNER the great indoors

1987 saw the release on the Barn Caruso label of "The Great Indoors", the only album by Nick Haeffner. An acclaimed masterpiece of English Psychedelic, this eclectic collection of superb songs and music fairly brims over with ideas and invention. In the press, glowing comparisons were drawn to the likes of Syd Barrett and Kevin Ayers, and while these are worthy comparisons, neither were to serve as straight influences on Nick. Unlike many of today's psych bands who draw directly from the original psychedlic era, Nick's influences instead went back to earlier sources; R&B, classical music and jazz - the same influences that inspired and shaped the music of these earlier artists, and it is this common musical heritage, filtered through an gifted talent, that led Haeffner into similarly fertile pastures rather than any direct debt owed to Messrs. Ayers and Barrett.

The seeds of "The Great Indoors" were planted in St. Albans back in 1979, in the days when Phil Smee ran Waldo's, a local indie label that had up to then released singles by Watford Art College punk band The Bears who soon became new wave act The Tea Set, releasing two singles on Waldo's, each sporting the kind of complex and engaging sleeves that were to become Smee's abiding passion with Barn Caruso years later.

Nick, along with drummer / friend Gary Hawkins, had seen local songwriter and oddball Clive Pig playing in a St.Albans pub, and had approached him after the gig with the idea of demoing one of Pig's songs "Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen" on the two tape machines Nick had set up in his bedroom. They took the resulting demo round to Phil Smee's house to play it to him, and he rejected it. Twice.

Nick: "The third time we came back with a different demo of it and he suddenly decided he'd fallen in love with the song, so he put it out as a single and we nearly had a hit with it - except that the B.B.C. hastily withdrew it from their play-list when they discovered the forbidden words "black bra" and "cystitis" in the lyrics".

Nevertheless a few thousand of the Clive Pig And The Hopeful Chinamen single were sold, and while it wasn't a hit a music publisher was impressed enough with Pig's songs to offer them studio time to record several demos. Meanwhile Cally Callomon, drummer with the aforementioned band The Tea Set, came a across a particularly mind-bending guitar solo Nick had performed on the demos, and after a quick reshuffle of members Nick was asked to join his label mates.

By this time, two of what were to become established Haeffner favourites, "Steelgray" and "The Master", already existed in demo form and the latter had appeared on a Waldo compilation tape, Nick going under the name of Nick O'Teen. With little space within the Clive Pig set up for the ideas growing in him, and with Pig's lack of interest in the songs Nick had been writing and demoing in his bedroom, the move to include Haeffner in the Tea Set seemed advantageous - as it turned out however, it was to prove an even more frustrating time for him.

Nick: "We were New Wave, plain and simple, that was the time we were making it and that's what we were part of. Hugh Cornwall of the Stranglers heard a John Peel session we did whilst he was languishing in jail and supposedly flipped over a version of the old Spencer Davis hit' Keep on Running' we'd included, so once his sentence was up he approached us to record a single with him producing".

The Tea Set were signed up to the Strangler's management, and in keeping with the New Wave / Independent image that was in vogue in 1980 the band formed their own label 'Mainly Modern', although the financing for the single came direct from EMI with a budget of a few thousand.

Nick: "We were booked into Wessex studios, which besides being hugely famous was also hugely expensive. Of course we were pretty awed by all of this - it was quite something for us to go in there. Unfortunately Hugh Cornwall turned out to be very scientific in his approach - he used to be a chemist or something he did everything unbelievably slowly".
By the time Cornwall had methodically squeezed a competent performance from the rest of the band for the B-side "Keeping on Running", which he had insisted on working on first, the huge budget had all but vanished.

Nick: "The other three were pretty much into the glamorous lifestyle and image, and I didn't really know what to make of it all. I was very much into the music and I couldn't handle any of the personality politics going down. I felt that the others didn't take the music seriously enough at all, the songs never got worked out properly. They were three massive forceful ego's constantly vying for front position in the group with me shoved to the back trying to work on the music".

Totally unwilling and unable to compete in this constant battle of ego's, Nick got to be the one left behind when the other three went to Paris to mix the single, and the results were predictably disappointing.

Nick: "There was a lot of feeling that it had all turned out pretty crappy, especially since we now had to use the track as the A-side. We recorded the B-side quickly in a cheap 8 track studio and that turned out passable, but the single was a flop for obvious reasons. Still, after that we did extensive tours supporting The Stranglers and The Skids, and there was some idea that we had quite a bright future. EMI financed recording of an album, and the band as a whole were a bit more musically competent after all this touring. We bashed out an album's worth of songs in one week in a studio in Essex with Steve James (son of "Carry On" legend Sid) producing. I didn't get on very well with him at all. He was very much into Kraftwerk, very trendy, very tightly recorded stuff - and I was into much more of a rock thing, bash it down, tart it up later. I wanted quite a layered sound while still recording it quite roughly, I had very strong ideas about the production. The album was shelved by EMI soon after.

We recorded one more single, this time for Demon, the B-side of which was a reworking of 'The Master' called "The Preacher" -and then we just drifted apart. I was always the muso in the band while the rest, with their Art College background, were very much into the ideas side of things, and this was quite relevant in the way I approached my album later because I'd learned a bit of the craft of music from my time with them, and also had gained a lot of exposure to much more adventurous concepts and ideas."

All this time Nick had kept in contact with Waldo's, who by now had blossomed into psych reissue label Barn Caruso under the guidance of Phil Smee. He had also maintained his involvement with Clive Pig, recording 3 cassette-only releases for Waldo's, for one of which, 'Sailor with a Telescope', half of the songs were written by Nick including a third version of "The Master". Clive's control remained far too strong within the group for Nick's liking however.
Nick: "All this time I would be bringing Phil Smee demo's of stuff I had done in my bedroom, and while he was always interested in it all I don't think he really saw any particular style there. There was no doubt that my guitar playing was seen as particularity psychedelic, however. In return Phil would ply me with endless tapes of different music to get my head around - he'd give me every single album by someone like John Cale or Captain Beefheart, and I'd go home and listen to it all. Then he gave me tapes by the likes of Nick Drake, Van Dyke Parks and the Beach Boys "Smile" album. I've got older brothers and a sister, and that's more where the folk-rock connection came in; Sandy Denny, Leonard Cohen, Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention. Phil was always pushing my ideas in a more psychedelic direction, but that's as far as things went. By 1984 1 got a bit fed up being the "quiet" one in the band, so I put together two tapes, "Bugaboo" and "Explesives", of all the guitar work I'd ever done along with a few of my demo's, and Phil agreed to put the tapes out through his then newly-formed Barn Caruso label. I mainly used it as a sort of portfolio, sold a few, but nobody seemed very keen to do anything for me."

During 1985 Nick kept his hand in at Barn Caruso, recording an E.P. as the Remayns, a one off idea from Cally Caloman, and was also involved with another part-time project called The Wylde Kitchen. Phil Smee, who was looking around for new blood to contrast and complement the label's mainly reissue nature, then gave the green light to Nick's solo album.

Nick: " In the end it was a case of having so many ideas that in spite of myself, it all sort of burst out. I was very lacking in the confidence to do it, but I just kept listening back to my tapes and thinking 'Damn it, this is good stuff'. And all the while I was playing demos to people and they were saying 'Hmmm, well .......

Painstakingly, Nick set about recording the album with producer Brian Marshall over a period of 8 or 9 months, jumping in at the end of other peoples' sessions to lay down a piece of music and hanging around until somebody hired a piece of equipment he could borrow for a few hours.

Nick: "It was during the making of the album that I got into The Kinks and all that sort of stuff, which became quite important to me. There was a certain consciously English approach to the album. It's not as simple as that because there are obvious American influences, but that was the basic idea. There was however an element of tension growing between me and Brian over the production. Now I admired Brian a lot because he was an ace muso and how to do anything - he had great musical ideas. He had grown up in the Sixties and had absorbed quite a lot of psychedelic styles, and a lot of the more conventional psychedelic references would be Brian's influence. But having said that he was also very conservative; for instance on the track "You Know I Hate Nature" I had to fight quite hard not to do things too conventionally. Brian really wanted Seventies rock drumming on it, but I was insisting "No, no for God's sake - it'll sound like Queen!" to which he would reply "What's wrong with that?". I actually wanted the track to sound more like a waltz. If you were to compare the earlier demo's with the finished tracks you'd be able to see Brian's input clearly. The other thing that Brian helped me with was that I had, for an indie album, terribly unrealistic ideas for semi-orchestral parts that would come from listening to things like Nick Drake's "Bryter Later". If you were to try to do that kind of orchestral thing nowadays it would just be unbelievably expensive, but we did have 80's technology on our side.

The string quartet on the first track is entirely sampled - that was a 50/50 thing; I wrote the cello parts and then played on the sampler and then Brian came in and arranged violin and viola parts to go over the top. Still I found I had to fight to get my ideas across. Then about halfway through Brian fell ill with this terrible Arthritis he's always suffered from, and so for the rest of the album I was left in control". Part of the control Nick exerted was to insist in a real string quartet on two other tracks. Andy Pearce was brought in to do the arrangement, and they turned out just as he had envisioned they would. While still in the midst of recording, Barn Caruso put out two 12" singles, each with three tracks apiece. The first was Brian Marshall's mix of "The Master" backed with a different version of "Steel Grey" coupled with an audacious version of the Kevin Ayers classic "Song From The Bottom Of The Well".

Nick: "The second 12" was also well received and the tapes for the album were completed soon afterwards. There really was a feeling of great surprise when it was all done, even Brian Marshall thought I hadn't really known what I was doing, sort of splashing around with all these madcap ideas I had - I handed him the finished mixes and he came back with an incredulous "It's a really good album!". By the time I'd finished it though, I'd lost all objectivity towards it so I left Phil Smee to come up with the running order. I was more than happy with the one he eventually decided on - although I wasn't so happy with the delay in putting out the album."

When it eventually saw the light of day, the beautiful front cover it featured was one of the first things to grab peoples' attention.

Nick: "I definitely think the front cover is Phil's finest hour. When the album finally came out everyone I knew was completely gobsmacked by both the album and the reviews it got - nobody had shown confidence in me and the response came as a complete surprise. At that time there was a lot of interest in Barn Caruso which definitely helped in getting the album listened to by the media"

The album was certainly remarkably well received. The Guardian, said "The best sixties style psychedelic release of the week is not Sgt. Pepper on CD but the debut by Nick Haeffner - an album that is unexpectedly varied and wonderfully refreshing" - a comment picked up on, not surprisingly, by the Barn Caruso press vehicle.

NICK: “I was very much the golden boy at Barn Caruso for a while there. The album sold 1000 copies, covering its cost, went into a repress and then became their first CD release (with extra tracks taken from the 12"-ers plus a double-length 'Don't be Late'). I met Alan Moore (comic writer extraordinaire) at a comic signing and he was ecstatic, saying the album was never off his turntable - what a compliment, I mean I really respect Alan Moore. It was all very exciting, yet as it turned out it was ultimately disheartening."

As it was, Fundamental Records put the album out in the States, but with no inner sleeve information and little publicity. The CD release was another shambles; "Top" magazine had made it their Indie album of the year but in the follow-up advert inserted into the Mag, Barn Caruso totally forgot to mention the CD release at all.
Three gigs around London were arranged to promote the album. The first, at the Bull & Gate "Timebox" in Kentish Town was not publicised at all.and was consequently sparsely attended, but by the third, at the 100 Club, the audience was sizeable and highly appreciative. The line-up each time consisted of Nick on guitar and vocals, ably assisted by Andy Pearce on violin and tuba.

Nick: "I'd thought that would be it, really - just take Andy out with his violin and his tuba. We practised very, very hard and after we'd done the album it became obvious that both of us needed to be sure of what we were doing. In the end we had to just make it extremely tight, we would have preferred in a way to muck about a bit with the structures but it just turned out that they were such fiddly songs that we both had to know exactly what we were doing. The sets went down very well I feel. Andy took a big pride in what he was doing, but he was kind of a bit bitter because I couldn't pay him and he felt - well, he's a professional musican and so somewhere or other there should be some money in it, especially as people said it was so good."

The last time Nick played live was at the "Strange Things are Happening" launch party in a Mexican cafe in Soho, and for the only time with a full band: Andy Pearce on tuba and violin, and the old Hopeful Chinamen' rhythm section consisting of Dan Brown (bass), Gary Hawkins (drums) and Brian Marshall on keyboards.

Nick: "That was at 'The Break for the Border', which was my favourite gig although there were a lot of things about it that weren't good. It seemed to go down alright and I got a buzz out of playing with a "real" band - I wished then that I could take that band out and do some decent gigs with them. Robyn Hitchcock came over after the set, shook my hand and asked me what my favourite mammal was!'

But time was passing, and all the critical acclaim was just now so many words in the cuttings file. Sales of the album dried up at around the 3000 mark, and things were starting to look bleak for the financing of a follow-up album, "Revenge Of The Wholesome Rodean Girls". The idea had been touted round late the previous year that Andy Partridge of XTC might produce the album, but that lay on the shelf gathering dust with the demos that had been recorded for it. Against all the odds, Nick Haeffner had produced a masterpiece of contemporary English music that at first had been given a boost by being on Barn Caruso when interest in the label was at its highest - in the end though, being on Bam was Haeffner's ultimate downfall. Nick is firm in his gratitude to Phil Smee, without whom the album would never have seen the light of day, but the blame ultimately lies with the business (rather than the artistic) side of the label. In early 1988 the label collapsed and was sold off to Demon Records, who were unimpressed by sales of around 3000 and uninterested in delving into the reasons why, although they did eventually ask him to cost-out the possibility of a follow-up album. Nick returned to his college studies, a three-year course in Philosophy and History, and put his musical interests on the back-burner. At the beginning of1989 fate took a hand and Nick fell seriously ill; for a while he felt the shadow of the reaper cross his path, but he's fought back, completed his college studies and is once again bursting with ideas.

Nick: "It's been 5 years since I started recording "The Great Indoors". I've changed, my musical ideas have changed, and people hoping for a "Great Indoors Mark Two" may well be disappointed. People thought it was a very pastoral album, and it was maybe a reflection of what was going down in my life at the time. Since then I've been living in London and any new album I do will reflect on my urbanised lifestyle. There will be some things that will overlap with "The Great Indoors", enough reference points to give some consistency, but it will be more like a "third" album - the second album just never got made. I've been talking recently with new people, entirely unconnected with the old album -there's a whole new generation of people getting into psychedelic through the clubs who are keeping it contemporary, which is something I've always fought tooth and nail for in my work. I thought "The Great Indoors" was the most modern-sounding record on Barn Caruso. I'm also very interested in films these days; there's a guy I know who has done videos for The Shamen amongst others and he seems to have the right attitude to my work. He sees a lot of the humour hidden in it and there's an idea floating around of doing a video album. I've got quite a few ideas up my sleeve".

As this article was being finished, news came through of Nick's college results - he got a First, which could change quite a lot of things and open some new doors for this very deserving soul. He's been doing some recording work with Genesis P. Orridge, who seems very keen that Nick should get back into music as quickly as possible. Nick Haeffner is one of our last National Treasures, a man now cast adrift by our unsupportive music industry, an industry only interested in product and fads, incapable of nurturing talent of a truly gifted nature. If the likes of Nick Drake, Kevin Ayers, Syd Barrett or Richard Thompson were starting up today rather than twenty years ago, they too would be suffering the same ignoble fate currently being handed out to Nick Haeffner who is at present without a British record label. But he will return - for what he lacks in self confidence he more than makes up for in self belief. A remarkable talent like that just won't lie down. Nick Haeffner - support him, for the Master's still with us.

Update. As it turned out that second album never got finished. Nick retired from music but continued to be creative in other fields. He wrote a book about Alfred Hitchcock and .....well check the links below for more....

1 comment:

Keith Fletcher said...

sad indeed that the second album nevr happened as 'the great indoors' is a supurb album. I have a worn out LP and a Nimbus self distructing CD of the album. Foe how much longer they will last i dont know but after 22 years i still have not grown tird of teh album