Going Mobile Mobile

NHcompleteThe first time I ever read about the Mobile Mobile was in Dave Stewart’s liner notes for The Complete National Health (still possibly the most prized item in my entire music collection) – the band’s first two albums having been recorded on it -, the reference made all the more intriguing by the repeated mention of an unnamed “famous rock star” being its mysterious owner.

Wrote Stewart,

[In March 1977], the kind-hearted Mike Dunne, custodian of a mobile studio named the ‘Mobile Mobile’ (yeah), who I met when playing on Hugh Hopper’s album “Hoppertunity Box”, took the view that we had a band, he had a studio, so why didn’t we record an album ?

(In fact the first time NH used the Mobile Mobile was in January 1977 to record a demo of “Tenemos Roads”, which marked the end of Bill Bruford’s tenure as the band’s drummer)

Stewart went on to explain that the studio was…

…property of a FAMOUS ROCK STAR. While the FRS battled to find musical inspiration in the Bahamas, Mike set about recording groups he liked at very reasonable rates, such as nothing.

I got to know more when I interviewed Hugh Hopper some time later and our conversation turned to Mike Dunne. Explained Hugh,

Mike was the assistant at Advision when we were doing Soft Machine things – probably “Fifth”, it was certainly “Six” cause we did “Six” at Advision – and I was doing “1984”. I became friends with Mike, and Gary Martin, who was the engineer. They worked together as engineer and assistant. I became friends with both of them. Outside of music we were actually very friendly – we used to go on holiday and things like that.

I was then finally told who the “famous rock star” was : Jon Anderson, lead singer with Yes. Anderson had hired Mike Dunne as sound engineer for his personal studio, first used to make his 1976 solo album Olias Of Sunhillow. The extensive booklet which came with the latter album included a photo of the production team with Anderson and his then-wife Jenny, plus Mike Dunne, Brian Gaylor and a couple of other guys.

olias_team
Any help in identifying who is who on this photo, apart from Jenny and Jon Anderson, would be most welcome !

Coincidentally, around the same time (April 1999) the above-mentioned Brian Gaylor got in touch with me – he told me he was involved in organising a secret 50th birthday party for Mike Dunne and wanted a contact for Hugh Hopper to invite him. I duly obliged, and since Brian’s name was familiar from the credits to the National Health albums, I took the chance of asking him about his involvement with the Mobile Mobile. Over a few e-mails I got to know quite a bit more about it.

Wrote Brian,

Around 1974, I shared a flat with Mike King, a maintenance engineer at Advision. I had been maintenance/sound engineer at Mayfair studios, but was now doing odds and sodds from home. Yes were recording at Advision, with Mike Dunne as assistant. Jon Anderson and I think Chris Squire were offered a deal on MCI equipment. Around the same time; Mike [Dunne] had a nasty accident on his motorbike, his leg in plaster. So Jon had an idea. Mike King organised cabling to enable the MCI stuff to be connected easily and laid out a plan, with Mike Dunne, to enable the MCI package to be broken down into discreet modules, enabling the entire studio to be dismantled and transported easily, making a mobile studio but not in a truck – Mobile Mobile was born !

oliasI was brought in to finish off wiring and help Mike Dunne, who stayed in the flat. The assembly was put together in Seer Green, Buckinghamshire, where Jon Anderson had a large house. I was retained as tech help and employed by Yes to help on their forthcoming US tour. We recorded “Olias” in Seer Green. I can’t remember much technical stuff apart from arranging a bowl of fake flowers to flash when the phone rang, and dressing a quadrophonic panner box in furry fabric to look like a rodent. Both were successful!

When the US tour started, Mike [Dunne] was given the remit to go forth with the recording equipment and make loads of money – which he singly failed to do, as everyone we recorded were ‘just about to get a deal’! We did have a good time, though. During this period we had the studio in a pig farm, an ex-mortuary – The Point, next to Victoria Station – and finally in Ridge Farm, which hitherto had been a rehearsal room, if a 16th century barn can be called that! This was a good way, thinking back, to waste my twenties.

hoppertunityboxHugh Hopper’s Hoppertunity Box was made during the Spring of 1976, while Yes were away on an extensive North American tour. Remembered Hugh,

We were always talking about doing something together. But I pushed him and he kept forgetting. Terrible memory, Mike! Then I met him one day in London, in Notting Hill, and I said, “What about this record ?”, and he said, “Oh, yes, yes…” So finally we did it. It was mostly done at a film sound studio, a lighting place actually, in London, called Lee’s studios, which was just a space that you could rent – a big, big space. That’s where Jon Anderson had installed it. Then it moved to a farm, a pig farm actually, near Tring, North-West of London, about an hour’s drive.

Through my intiial contact with Brian Gaylor I was able to get in touch with Mike Dunne. Regrettably, what should have been the beginning of a long, detailed and thorough interview petered out, for no particular reason – if I remember correctly, I sent him follow-up e-mails and got no reply. I assumed he was either busy with other stuff, or not as interested as I was. Sadly, both Mike and Brian have now passed away.

What exchanges we did have centered around his time at Advision. Wrote Mike,

yesadvision
Yes recording Fragile at Advision, August 1971

I started there around 1970/71. I simply wrote and asked for a job – I’d been looking at other studios for a while. I started at £12 per week as a tea boy, and became Eddie [Offord]’s assistant within about a month. At that time it was one of the best studios around, and it was ‘hot’, so lots of good bands worked there.

You can’t separate Advision’s success at that time from the work of Eddie Offord, who had simply the best pair of ears around at the time. He created the Advision sound which was imitated for a decade. He was a greater engineer than the bands he worked with. I was lucky enough to be his assistant, and later his togetherness as drug abuse started to take over.

We then discussed his work with both Soft Machine then Hugh Hopper at Advision.

I had been a BIG fan of the Softs since the very beginning – after Hendrix, I probably listened to them more than anyone else in the late 60s. In fact we used Soft Machine compositions for our marriage in ’70 – we walked up the aisle to “A Certain Kind” played and arranged by my friend Robert Kirby! I knew more about the band than anyone else at Advision. Although I was happy to work with Eddie as assistant – and anyway they needed a studio employee on the sessions, as Eddie had left by then -, I was making my own way as an engineer.

1984“1984” was brilliant fun! Gary and I were as much into the loops as Hugh was. In fact, Hugh encouraged us to come up with as many ideas as we could, we did crazy things with tape machines and enjoyed every moment of it. The band sessions were some of the best I’ve worked on. Gary Windo was simply incredible. Another important thing for me was that at that time bands were really nit-picky and would spend hours doing take after take to get everything spot on, with a consequent loss of feel. Hugh, on the other hand, would often go for one or two takes if they captured the essence of what he was after.

We knew that we were doing something a bit different – lots of people thought it was amusical – and perhaps amusing. It’s for others to decide whether or not it’s groundbreaking. In fairness, the use of tape loops wasn’t uncommon at that time – we just took it a bit further than most.

Incidentally Gary [Martin] and I became great friends, even buying a house together. After a year or so in the house, Gary’s disenchantment with the business reached a peak and he moved to the country to make lutes – after which I never heard from him again.

Interesting stuff there – sadly, as I said, we didn’t get a chance to continue our conversation and discuss either Hoppertunity Box or the National Health albums.

Of the sessions for the eponymous NH album, Brian Gaylor remembered :

I hadn’t heard any of the music until we recorded it, but I loved the NH stuff. I used to have a tape somewhere of a Dave Stewart song called “Tenemos Roads” which I really liked… When recording, I’m pretty sure they would all play together. I remember being well impressed by the written scores for the music. Dave would often scurry around fiddling with people’s crotchets and semibreves before re-taking. There were some overdubs, but I’m sure the bulk of the performances would be in one take.

Ridge_Farm_July_78
Ridge Farm in the Summer of 1978

As for Of Queues and Cures,

It was the first thing we recorded on Jon Anderson’s 24-track MCI equipment when we moved to Ridge Farm. Then we had a cracking summer recording a reformed Bad Company and a reformed Roxy Music – Bryan Ferry wouldn’t take his swimming trunks off in the sauna! – and others.

Among the other albums Dunne (often with Gaylor) worked during this period were Steve Hillage’s Open, Mirage’s Now You See It (with Brian Godding, George Khan, Steve Cook and Dave Sheen), Van der Graaf’s Vital and Jon Anderson’s second solo effort Song Of Seven, as well as albums by The Slits and The Pop Group. Dunne appears to have subsequently retired from the music industry. In our initial contacts, Gaylor wrote to me that Dunne was “always very enthusiastic about the music, although he teaches these days” – but I’m not sure what he taught. As for Gaylor,

Brian_Gaylor
Brian Gaylor

I’ve normally been on the technical side of things, usually studio maintenance, but I also played guitar in a band called the Regents – [in 1985] we did a song called ’17’ that got into the charts in the UK and bits of Europe. [In the late Nineties] I designed a big four storey complex in Acton, London, owned by Andy Morris who wrote/produced early (good) Lisa Stansfield songs.

Gaylor was subsequently involved in the building of yet another recording studio in Oxfordshire, as well as designing a revolutionary new kind of light aircraft – tragically, he was killed in a hang gliding accident in 2003. Mike Dunne passed away more recently, around 2014. I am happy to have had a chance of documenting some of their career for posterity but frustrated, particularly in Mike’s case, to have missed the opportunity of a more thorough discussion as there was plenty more to address.

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