Horror in the studio
Germany Calling

b y   J o h n   C o u l t h a r t

The Midian Mailer, 1998

Recounting the creation of the
Lord Horror talking book


Left: Horror in the studio by Kris Guidio

A cold, wet January morning in 1994: I'm in a taxi heading up into north Manchester. As we pass the grim bulk of Strangeways prison, I can't help thinking of the two occasions David Britton has had cause to be within its smog-darkened walls. His second term behind bars the year before was for the 'crime' of creating Lord Horror, Savoy's most notorious character and also the reason why I'm in this cab sweeping past the wholesale warehouses and industrial detritus which constitute this neglected area of the city. I'm due to meet up with David and fellow Savoyard Michael Butterworth in a recording studio across town, the aptly named Cutting Rooms, where PJ Proby will be putting choice slices of Dave's novel onto digital audio tape.

The location of the studio, an expensive 24-track affair tacked on to a run-down college, is midway between Cheetham Hill and Crumpsall, a redbrick wasteland of derelict shops and crumbling Victorian estates. The cab passes a nondescript meeting hall with a plastic Arabian Nights dome fixed to its roof, a sign of its new status as a mosque. This architectural surrealism is echoed by the bizarre detail Alfred Waterhouse put into his design for Strangeways Prison, disguising a central chimney outlet as a fake muezzin tower built from Accrington brick. No calls to prayer issue from the chimney's silhouette which dominates the north Manchester skyline, only black smoke, often giving the impression that the prison is some vast and sinister crematorium. Waterhouse earned the nickname 'Slaughterhouse' from his contemporaries, owing to a fondness for facing his buildings in blood-red terracotta.

The area is rich in resonance for the occasion: nearby Hollinwood was where Britain's last hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, ran a public house, Help The Poor Struggler. Pierrepoint not only put William Joyce/Lord Haw-Haw to death but also assisted at the hangings of condemned Nazis after the Nuremberg trials. Running a pub filled in time between executions, close enough to Strangeways to dispatch some poor wretch in the morning and be home in time for breakfast. A few miles away, the town of Oldham (twinned with Innsmouth) with its generations of inbred mill-workers was William Joyce's home for a number of years. In between the studio and Strangeways is the ruined blight of Cheetham Hill, once one of the largest Jewish areas in Britain and the birthplace of Anthony Burgess. The directors of Granada TV's crime series Cracker will return here constantly in the coming year, obviously relishing its authentically deteriorated glamour. It's also the scene of a particularly violent episode of Jew-killing from the Lord Horror novel.

The others have already arrived as I carry my video gear into the studio. Since Dave has asked me to lend an extra ear to the proceedings, I decided I might as well video tape the whole session, something that hasn't been done before. I'll be called on later in the production to offer advice finding the appropriate ambience and deciding what samples should be used. While Dave and Mike are chatting with Stephen Boyce-Buckley, Savoy's perennial engineer/producer and music arranger, James Marcus Smith, known to mere mortals as PJ Proby, sits in a spot-lit corner talking quietly with his girlfriend. For a man only recently emerged from a decade and a half of physical and moral destitution, he looks incredibly healthy. Some months earlier doctors had given him a concentration-focussing ultimatum: lay off the drink or die. Fortunately for Savoy, PJ chose life. Dressed in a brown suede jacket, blue jeans and boots more suited to the OK Corral than Crumpsall, his slicked back grey hair shining in the spotlight, he radiates that strange magnetism people call charisma; easy to see how striking he must have been in the '60s, how he could command the attention of Elvis Presley and The Beatles. The sound of That Voice is totally out of place in this Lancastrian hell-hole, its Texan drawl still intact despite his years of living in sub-Coronation Street perdition during the Alcohol Years. Its inimitable phrasing, inescapably redolent of the Confederate South and its attendant lynch mob philosophies, is what David Britton wants to capture for the reading of his book. Having spent the last ten years luring The Voice from a man wedded to Carlsberg Special Brew onto Savoy's amazing series of Proby singles, it's time to see what can be done with the spoken word. The combination of that menacing Southern inflection with the most controversial novel since Last Exit To Brooklyn should prove to be an incendiary mix. The fact that he's sober for the first time in years is a significant advantage.

The recording takes three sessions in all, putting down lengthy passages from the novel: the opening scene describing Lord Horror's post-war island retreat, a scene of high violence and low comedy outside a Notting Hill synagogue and the Lord's encounter with the S&M copromaniac Frogmen in New York. Proby has some trouble at first getting a tone of voice he feels pleased with, before settling on a Walter Winchell / March Of Time broadcast style to set things rolling. His impromptu rendition of Winchell's call-sign "Hello Mr and Mrs America and all the ships at sea" is a perfect opening when we later mix it with Lord Haw-Haw's "Germany Calling..." signature. Dave's belief in The Voice pays off handsomely as each baneful turn of phrase delivers a threatening quality even the best actors would find hard to match—it literally swaggers, arrogant and aloof, lent credibility by the braggadocio of Proby's own personality. Fuck Anthony Hopkins—we'll stick with PJ, thank you very much.

Despite being given a copy of the book when it was published, this is the first time he's actually read any of it. His surprise and amusement at some of the more outré passages provoke some great ad libs which are left on tape during the later editing. On seeing the word 'labia', he takes time out to lecture his listeners with an expert's precision on the medical names for other areas of the vagina; mention of '50s' rocker Larry Williams prompts the recollection of an incident when Williams shot a man dead in the presence of Proby and friends. His nonchalance regarding the detailed elaboration of gross violence and sexual extremity, coupled with the matter of fact quality of his reading, are the perfect foil to the novel's baroque excesses. Lord Horror's virulent anti-Semitism cause none of the problems one would expect from a more 'responsible' individual—this is the man, on Savoy's Anarchy In The UK, who declared himself 'father of the KKK', after all—he sings Lord Horror's Jew-baiting version of The Hokey-Cokey like he means it. Even though he's consistently stated to interviewers over the years that his records with Savoy are "shit", the irrepressible Southern rebel in Proby enjoys the outrage they have often caused. At the close of the final reading he recalls the time he jammed the Piccadilly Radio switchboard during an interview about the Anarchy single, when he wistfully stated his desire to "one day be able to buy a record that was not made by a homosexual". He hopes this new recording may "put a weed up some asses".

Four and a half years later and the weeds are ready for insertion. The delay, the result of a period of financial turmoil for Savoy, seems to have been beneficial; the recordings are now richer and more developed than they might have been. Steve Boyce-Buckley has written a suite of dazzling string pieces, reminiscent of Samuel Barber and the Balanescu Quartet, which were recorded by players from the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Seventy minutes of atmospheric samples, mutated sound effects and drum breaks from Bo Diddley and Sandy Nelson, blend together to create a profoundly Weird Brew. Many of Proby's ad libs are left intact as a kind of comment on the narrative; the moment where he loudly hawks a wad of phlegm from his throat is the perfect accompaniment for the description of Lord Horror swallowing the body of one of the Frogmen.

This is a unique item, defiantly so, in the characteristic Savoy manner. Even the best of the William Burroughs readings (Dead City Radio, Seven Souls) don't travel this far in pushing the envelope of expectations for what a spoken word recording can achieve. Release is due in June 1999. Don't miss it—it's a killer.

For pictures from the Waste Land and Lord Horror sessions, see the Proby in the studio picture galleries.

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