Brother on the Slide: the ‘clunky, funky’ story of the RAH Band. A British success borne out of soul weekenders, jazz arranging and noodling to emerge ahead of his time.

Timeless dance music made in the 1980s, using guitars and pedals at first and later augmented by an early synthesiser – all manipulated by an avowed jazz man and largely self-taught studio creative who never went clubbing…

We’re not talking Prince but rather the UK’s Richard Hewson however there is a similar sense of a one-man band doing his own thing to stunning effect. Back in 1985 the Richard Anthony Hewson Band aka the RAH Band peaked in the charts with Clouds Across The Moon. Without wanting to take anything from that achievement, it’s perhaps Richard’s intentional work for the dance-floor that truly marks him out as a lone visionary.

RAH Band
MOONING OVER MUSIC: The RAH Band

The impending release of the Producers Choice album, a compilation of the RAH Band’s club tracks from 1980 to 1988 by Martin ‘Atjazz’ Iveson, shows how productive and funkily successful Hewson was back then – and how potent his tracks still are today.

Richard is now in his mid-seventies and still putting in the hours in his converted garage studio. He was born in Stockton-upon-Tees, County Durham, in the North-east of England, where he stayed till he was ten. His dad moved the family to Cheshire and then Croydon post-World War 2, but the Surrey suburbs didn’t appeal and Richard joined the Navy, inadvertently starting off his musical career in the process.

‘That’s where I started doing music really as somebody left a guitar in my cabin. I ran ashore and bought a book, ‘How to Play the Guitar’. That would have been in the Fifties. The first ever tune I learnt was Green Door,’ he said down a phone-line with a note of glee in his voice. ‘I was coming to music quite old as I was 16. I progressed along and after leaving the Merchant Navy after a couple of years. I got quite good. I had a day job and was doing jazz gigs in the evening – I was a jazz head, not really a pop man at all, and started to make a living as a jazz guitar player. This was ’63, ’64.

‘I’d moved to London at this point. I met Peter Asher of Peter and Gordon fame. His sister, Jane, was going out with Paul McCartney at the time, so I met Paul. He had this gig at the time with Mary Hopkins, the Welsh folk singer. I went to college for a night course to learn orchestration. Peter said Paul was looking for an arranger, but he didn’t want one of the ordinary pop arrangers around at that time. So he said ‘why don’t you try Richard? He’s a really good guitar player and he’s studying orchestration so give him a go.’ So that was my first gig in the pop business [arranging The Long and Winding Road] for The Beatles.’

Still a jazzer at heart, Richard recounted how London luminaries Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott were around in the mid Sixties. ‘I played in Ronnie’s a few times with a guy, Kenny Wheeler [trumpeter long associated with Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker]. We had a little band, played around town with some great musicians. They’re all gone now – except for one guy I occasionally use: Pete King, a brilliant alto sax player. I believe he’s still around but he’d be my age, in his late Seventies.’

As a young man, Richard had reasonable ambitions by any modern rule of thumb. ‘I was a jazz head and had these ideas of jazz guitar playing, I wanted to be like Jim Hall [esteemed guitarist who worked with Bill Evans, Ella Fitzgerald, Ron Carter, Sonny Rollins], but I was getting married and had a young family, and jazz does not pay. It was, like, £5 a gig if you were lucky, in Ronnie’s and other places. So, as the Mary Hopkins thing did very well, I got drawn into the pop arranging side simply because of the success of that which paid a lot more than jazz.’

Richard had already started composing in his own right: ‘I wrote little tunes, not pop. But the arranging side of things really took over and I spent most of my time in the Sixties arranging. The list of people I worked with is endless. I didn’t meet all of them, that’s the funny thing. You just worked on the analogue tape, almost like you do today, except the tapes were flown across the Atlantic.

‘Some people like Supertramp, they recorded in the studio and I was there… …Carly Simon, Diana Ross – she just sent the tape over and I had to work on it and send it back. With Art Garfunkel [when still working with Paul Simon], he came over to London. The big artists usually would send a producer and a tape, and you’d work to that. I did that up until the mid Seventies.

‘After that, I started to realise that arranging was not the future for me. It was okay money but you don’t get royalties for arranging. There’s no residuals at all. I was watching all these guys make millions out of things I’d worked on and I was making forty quid. I thought ‘This ain’t it. I’ve got to start writing and producing my own stuff’.

I hired a little multi-track machine, did something in my bedroom, was one of the first bedroom bands I suppose, and made The Crunch. That was huge – still is – and I thought this is better, there’s a few bob coming in now, so I cooled off on arranging and concentrated on production.’

The Crunch is of its time, all punky and glittery if not a slight football terrace stomp. Although it’s a galaxy away from Richard’s later work, he valiantly and understandably still appreciates it. ‘It’s the first one I did on my productions so I was cobbling together whatever I could lay my hands on, play it myself then add on the brass in a professional studio to finish off the track. In those days, instead of using the reggae session guys, I used the jazz players, like Pete King who’s on that track. It’s got quite a jazzy feel to it. I did that one and it did very well, and I kept working and did the RAH album, which was basically jazz funk. I wanted to have a hit but with a pop jazz record.’

If one sees the multi-racial line up (including a black female guitarist) of the RAH Band on a 1977 edition of Top of the Pops, ‘The Crunch’ appears to put the lager into schlager; it’s more Oi! than anything else, but Richard laments that the footage available on YouTube and other sharing sites doesn’t have the actual song he composed and played.

crunch
THE REPLACEMENTS: Two of the group hired for the Top of the Pops pretence

As for the diverse group who stomp their way through the performance? Not a single one of them was known to Richard and he himself did not appeared on camera. ‘I was so busy with arranging. You only get a day’s notice and I couldn’t do it as I was already booked to do an orchestral session, so RCA Records in their wisdom decided to just hire some guys off the street. Just some random guys. In those days you had to play live, you couldn’t mime.’

With The Crunch reaching No. 6 in the pop charts, the R(ichard) A(nthony) H(ewson) Band were up and running… if not stomping quite like before. An instrumental release Jiggery Pokery/Porridge emerged in a similar fashion to its precursor; this was then followed by Is Anybody There, a reggae-influenced 1978 single with a male vocal refrain singing the title. It’s more substantial as a track – and also more restrained than the slightly frenzied Crunch – and Richard was amused to hear of Jiggery mentioned as he reported that he had recently responded to an industry pitch looking for a reggae pop record. How ever much success a man can have, he still feels the need to hustle.

With the release of Electric Fling, the RAH Band‘s releases took on a more blacker sound with what sounded like an organ, front and centre of the single, backed by some subtle keyboard and FX work in the background alongside wood percussion. It’s a little reminiscent of George Martin‘s Theme One (1968) – where the Beatles producer merged Bach, James Bond themes and the sounds of the Fab Four – with Hewson outlining how creative he had to be in the studio.

‘I didn’t actually own a synthesiser. All those sounds on that and going back to The Crunch were manipulated guitars through pedals. I was eventually given some synths by Roland. One I still use, the first one I got, was the Roland JX8P, which was fantastic, and then the SH5 [analogue mono synth with ring modulator, released in 1976]. But I was trying to develop electronic sounds without using synths. Synths like the mini-Moog were only just coming out at that time and I was busy developing my sound through pedals. I didn’t worry about it but when I was given the synths, I thought ‘oh, this sounds good!’

roland_sh5
THE KEYS OF LIFE: Roland‘s SH-5

 

1980’s Tokyo Flyer was the first track to feature Richard’s synth work and its pulsing synth lines showcased his new-found ability to use a sequencer. He was now indicating his innate affinity with the dance-floor, but un-beknownst to dancers brought to the floor – he was very much a homebody instead. ‘I rarely went out to clubs and such, only if it was a party. The biggest influence on me at that time because of the synths was Giorgio Moroder. He got into synths around the same time as me, perhaps earlier, and that famous backing track for I Feel Love uses the JX8P.’

Richard was now playing guitar, bass, drums and keyboards on every RAH release but the next change in his musical direction/set-up came when The Falcon was released the same year. Unlike the previous singles, Richard dropped the pace to a two-step rhythm and a sax took the lead, with a guitar line still present though muted.

‘A young of friend of mine who’s sadly not with us any more, Ray Warleigh, a young alto sax player, and a drummer who, again, has gone, Barry de Souza [respected session man who played on Lou Reed‘s Transformer LP], those two guys were good jazz mates. I’d written everything for The Falcon but thought it would be nice to have some sax on it so that brought it more into jazz-funk, and took it up a level.’

1980’s Tokyo Flyer was the first track to feature Richard’s synth work and its pulsing synth lines showcased his new-found ability to use a sequencer. He was now indicating his innate affinity with the dance-floor, but – un-beknownst to dancers brought to the floor – he was very much a homebody instead. ‘I rarely went out to clubs and such, only if it was a party. The biggest influence on me at that time because of the synths was Giorgio Moroder. He got into synths around the same time as me, perhaps earlier, and that famous backing track for I Feel Love uses the JX8P.’

Richard was now playing guitar, bass, drums and keyboards on every RAH release but the next change in his musical direction/set-up came when The Falcon was released the same year. Unlike the previous singles, Richard dropped the pace to a two-step rhythm and a sax took the lead, with a guitar line still present though now more muted.

‘A young of friend of mine who’s sadly not with us any more, Ray Warleigh, a young alto sax player, and a drummer who, again, has gone, Barry de Souza [respected session man who played on Lou Reed‘s Transformer LP], those two guys were good jazz mates. I’d written everything for The Falcon but thought it would be nice to have some sax on it so that brought it more into jazz-funk, and took it up a level.’

 

DJs like Chris Hill at the Caister Soul Weekenders and Greg Wilson at Wigan Pier were the first to pick up on the record, according to Richard, and it became a club record before it crossed over into the pop charts. ‘We had quite a lot of success at Caister. I never went myself but I had a great champion in a guy called Greg Edwards. He probably helped to break the RAH Band more than anybody in the dance scene.

‘Greg was on Capitol [Radio] at that time. I think his show was Soul Spectrum on a Friday and a Saturday. I would put a white label of a track in the post in a mailer and send on a Thursday to Greg [Edwards]. On the Friday he’d been playing it on the radio! This is how it was then. Back in the day there were no committees or playlists; it was just straight on the radio and gave a great exposure to the record.’

For themselves, the two Gregs are still positive about the RAH’s work. Mr. Edwards remembers Richard as ‘a very talented one man band’, whilst Mr. Wilson put Richard’s work into context: ‘They fell into the newly emerged British Jazz-Funk movement, along with bands like Shakatak, Level 42, Freeez and Linx.’

At Wigan Pier as elsewhere, Richard’s productions proved to be potent. The support he received from radio and club DJs was essential as there was little in the way of press exposure for the RAH Band. Compounding this was a lack of gigs. Richard admits there was no touring, no personal appearances at Caister or other soul weekenders. In his defence, he thought it was common knowledge that the band was only him, but he now knows not everyone was cognisant of that.

‘Mostly everyone realised it was a one-man band and it wouldn’t have been practical [to tour] but, funnily enough, I was invited to the Jakata Jazz Festival.’ On the phone, Richard emphasises the name of the city and festival, partly still amused and partly still in wonder, perhaps, as to why he didn’t board a plane to Indonesia.

‘[The festival organisers] didn’t know it wasn’t a real band. On the bill at the festival was the first guy I ever worked commercially with as a jazz musician, Herbie Hancock. He was booked to do a film called Blow Up [1966]. Herbie was the same age as me and he was playing with Miles Davis at that time. I was at college at that time and my teacher said he had a gig with Herbie. He said he was going to plunge me in at the deep end and I’d take it over as Herbie didn’t know anything about orchestration so I had to go away and work with him on this film. Oh my gawd!’

Herbie
A HEAD: Master pianist Herbie Hancock circa late 1960s

‘So when that Jakata thing came up, I wondered if I should put a band together and go and see Herbie again, but I didn’t.’ Would the necessary inconvenience of assembling a band and then rehearsing them not have been a small price to pay for travelling around the world on someone else’s dollar? Richard replied, a little ruefully: ‘It was not in my blood to play tours. I’ve never tried it… it might have worked, [but] I just didn’t have it. I didn’t feel I had the stage presence that you need to do that. I was just a musician and I loved playing in a studio, recording. That was the heart of it and still is.’

Although he and the chief Headhunter, one-time Miles Davis band member, weren’t to meet again, Richard was able to touch bass with other jazzers close to his heart. ‘During the early Eighties, I did enjoy doing a few jobs in Los Angeles and working in a different environment. One of the biggest thrills then was working on a film called Xanadu [starring Olivia Newton John] as an arranger-cum-composer. They wanted a big band for a few tracks in the film and they asked me if I could do it even though they had all these great guys over there.

‘I thought it was a great chance so when I got to LA, the contractors asked me who I would like to use and I said I didn’t know… I asked him if he had any of [Count] Basie‘s band members? He said [adopts a laid-back voice], ‘yeah, I think we’ve got quite a few around here’. He got them together and on the day, I put the music on the stands and these guys, all older guys, very cool, wandered in and sat down, ‘Hey Ben, how you doin’? How’s the family?’ Not looking at my music and I was thinking ‘oh dear, I hope you start looking at it in a minute’. But I stood up on the podium, ‘One, two three four’ and bam! I’d never heard anything like it. There’s something about the American jazz players… …that was amazing, a great, great experience.’

Slide
MAN ON FIRE: The label for ‘Slide’

Back to Blighty and such was Richard’s love of working in his home studio, a next release quickly emerged in 1981. Accompanied by Warleigh and de Souza once more, Richard came into his own. For its time, Slide would have a commercial chart-friendly sound with the sax at the forefront, but the whole track chugs along very nicely still most notably because of its growling, dirty bassline. ‘The whole album revolved around those two tracks,’ said Richard and his work started to become ever more blacker and ever more efficient at filling dance-floors – then and now.

Riding on a Fantasy (1981), a track which might have sneaked out under the name of Donald Byrd, was a still-commercial but tightly-controlled piece of jazz funk. ‘I guess it was my way of interpreting my idea of what pop music was, I guess. I was still heavily into jazz but through the arranging I grasped the construction of pop records as I worked with lots of people who were good at that. My approach was a combination of jazz music, which is linear, and pop music which tends to be four-bar, eight bar structures. I did a bit of both and mixed it up a bit.’

The B side to Riding… is Rock Me Down To Rio. It has an uninterrupted groove with what appears to be a vocoder on top of proceedings… except, as usual, Richard wasn’t using one. ‘It was all my jazz guys playing the brass bits and I was singing in unison. I could sing quite high then… I can’t now!’ A brief attempt followed but Richard quickly protested that it wasn’t possible.

So is it not difficult to to make dance music if you don’t leave the studio? ‘I do a lot of listening to the specialist shows and pick up what’s going on. I am a frustrated dancer, probably. I can’t do what’d I’d like to do but I know the moves I’d like to make if I could! My sons and grandchildren will be listening to something and I’ll say ‘Have you heard the new Post Malone track?’ he chuckled. ‘With dance music, even today, a lot of people start off with a groove and don’t think about the song until afterwards… I know I’ve done that many times. But first of all you build a groove, that’s the most important thing.’

Ramsey Lewis is another jazz man whose career easily took in disco and funk and Richard admitted ‘I was probably influenced [by him] as a lot of the things he did have a ‘stop’ at the end, a dramatic pause, and I did pick up on that.’

R-954986-1177035817.jpeg
THIS WAY UP: The 12″ release’s label (Discogs)

Such pauses are a recognisable RAH trademark and can be heard on Downside Up, his third single released in 1981. Cut from the cloth as Slide, its irresistible groove and part-Italo, part-Loft vibe is just as important as its minor keys, springy bass and hefty kick drums. The B side Dream On continues with the space theme – ‘astronomy was a hobby of mine’ – but the A side showed that Mr. Hewson had now honed his skills to a raised level.

Downside Up and the other 12 tracks on the Producers Choice compilation are going to be ‘beefed up’ by Martin Iveson as Richard outlined: ‘He’s going to re-master them, not edit them, and put them out in their original form.’

michael jonzun
CUTTING CREW: The hugely talented Michael Jonzun

Tears And Rain (1982) showcased the first vocal on a RAH track. Everything was much more subdued due to the angelic, youthful voice of Richard’s ex-wife and a typical love lyric. Again, the B side is an altogether more interesting affair. Hungry for Jungle Love is (seemingly) another vocoder track with electro vibes, redolent of the Jonzun Crew, courtesy of the now embedded Roland technology.

‘The session girls did the vocals for me which was a bit of a departure as I didn’t normally use them. I wanted a bit more of a hungry, jungly sound. There were two great vocalists, Sue and Sunni, who did all the soul and jazz vocal sessions. I was using the Roland a lot at this point, added to guitar and bass. It was a busy time for me. Still string arrangement work and the RAH Band at the same time. I had a good set-up with a 24-track which I’m still using now, still rumbles on.’

‘My way of working is quite clunky by most people’s standards. I have a digital recorder, a multi-track one, which edits brilliantly. If I wanted – like with this new album – to do remixes of old tracks, I can feed the analogue into the digital track to work on it. I’m not using digital machines to finish masters though. I’ve still got all of my old gear, though a lot of it has broke. My son, who’s a jazz musician and writer, when he comes round and asks if we can switch on something and I have to tell him it’s not working. I have an old Soundcraft desk which is brilliant but a lot of the channels stick and some of the buttons don’t work. It really needs a big overhaul.’

Richard continued to work with his then-wife on songs like Perfumed Love Garden and on and on dance-floor-orientated tracks such as Messages from the Stars (1983) [remixed by Atjazz back in 2010]. Its synth work complements the vocal well and the Long Wave mix is especially effective with so many different keyboard parts. 1983’s Sam the Samba Man explored echo with bass to the forefront and 1984’s Dream Street had the spirit of Sharon Redd and top electro boogie label Prelude. By 1988, and Nice Easy Money with its spoken word samples, he’d changed with the times and tried to keep his sound fresh after having issued at least two singles every year between 1980 and 1989. Technology was beginning to speed ahead with the limitless possibilities of capacity if not creativity…

‘When I think of using computers compared to my way of working, I think there’s too much choice. I went to a show the other day and this guy was telling me he had a new sequencer pack which you could put in your computer and you’d have 30,000 different drum sounds and I thought ‘Which one would I pick today!’ I have three drum sounds so I have to use one of them. It sounds primitive but when you have a blank canvas that’s three miles squared – blank – where do you start drawing? Whereas I have one that’s about six inches squared, if you like, and I know where I’m going. It’s kind of clunky, funky….’

Producers Choice has a vinyl release scheduled for Record Store Day on April 18th with a digital release on the 26th.

 

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