The second half of the 1960s saw a dramatic shift in the way albums were recorded, not only technically, but artistically as the roles of producer and musician morphed into new conduits for freedom and creativity. As artists' perceptions of studio sessions shifted from documentation to a blank sonic canvas, production roles grew from staff positions at record labels managing budgets and scheduling, to that of advocates helping artists realize the creative possibilities of multitrack recording. Musicians themselves were now assuming the role of producer.
Outside of being a member of Pink Floyd (and co-producing their albums with the group), David Gilmour's career in the control room has included projects for artists ranging from the Sutherland Brothers & Quiver to The Dream Academy, but he first found himself serving the creative genius of Pink Floyd's founding member, Syd Barrett, on his solo albums, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett.
Later, Gilmour became a major catalyst in launching the career of legendary singer-songwriter Kate Bush. Bush's first album, The Kick Inside, includes "Them Heavy People;" a song about Gilmour as an inspiring mentor and his advice to trust her inner vision as a young artist in a rough business. But before that, he produced several albums for a young, UK band called Unicorn. With a sound that blended British folk and American country rock, Unicorn's lilting yet unique melodies, sense of humor, and tight harmonies gave them both a traditional and forward-looking feel, but a wider audience eventually eluded them.
Late in 2018, Omnivore Recordings released Laughing Up Your Sleeve, 20 previously unissued Unicorn demos from 1973 to ‘74, produced and engineered by Gilmour in his home studio in Essex, with David even playing pedal steel on the beautiful "Sleep Song." I had the privilege of mixing and mastering these recordings, and during this process I developed a growing list of questions about how Gilmour achieved such stunning quality at his home studio on eight tracks (drums occupying only one track) and using only headphones as monitors.
I recently posed these questions to Gilmour, along with Unicorn bassist and co-producer Patrick Martin. Gilmour's responses were characteristically laconic (see sidebar), but my wife (singer-songwriter Rebecca Turner) and I were lucky to catch up with Martin in the UK and talk further about his experiences working with Gilmour, as well as on Kate Bush's demos in the summer of 1973. I prepared for this conversation with a Spotify playlist, choosing a few songs from Laughing Up Your Sleeve, and then moving (mostly chronologically) through the Gilmour demos. My playlist starts with David's 1978 self-titled first solo album cover version of Unicorn's "No Way Out of Here." Then there are four Syd Barrett songs that he produced in '69 and '70, and Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." https://spoti.fi/37F75gD
David Gilmour met Unicorn at a wedding, and asked to sit in on "Heart of Gold" with you guys. Was there anything else you played together at that event?
No, he just asked if we did that. He came up to me and said, "There are numbers out there I didn't recognize. Are they original songs?" And we said, "Yeah." And he said, "Do you do ‘Heart of Gold?'" And we didn't actually do it in the act, but it's something we all jammed on. He asked, "Can I come up if you're going to do that?" He came up, we did it, and at the end he said to me, "Give me your phone number." He didn't say why, but I gave him my number! A week later he phoned me up and said, "I just had this studio put in my house. I wondered if you guys wanted to come and put down some of your original songs so you can demo them. It's new and I'll be experimenting, but I won't charge anything for it. Do you want to do it?" No, why would I want to do that? Get lost, you nasty man! [laughter] So, we all turned up there with a van for the gear, pulled up out in the back, and he said, "You can bring in what you like, but do you want to have a look at what's in here? You can use any of it." I walked in the room, and he's got them hung up on the wall like that... Jesus. A '60's [Fender] Strat, a '53 [Fender] Telecaster, and a Fender P Bass! "Yeah, okay. We'll use those."
Those will do!
He had two [Fender] Twin Reverb combo [amps]. He'd changed the speakers in them from the Fender speakers to Celestions; he preferred them. Bass I DI'd. There was a Wurlitzer electric piano in there. I remember it was an American one, because he had a transformer to knock it down to 100 [volts], because we're at 240 [volts]. There was a lovely maple Ludwig kit, and he said, "Pete [Perryer, Unicorn drummer and main vocalist], you can use that." At Christmastime we'd done some live BBC Radio [appearance], and David had said, "Do you want to take the Ludwig kit? Sounds better than your Trixon." So, Pete borrowed it, and I think I phoned David up to say, "When do you want the kit back?" I happened to mention, "It's Pete's birthday." And he said, "Tell him to keep them. I've been wanting to get a Gretsch kit." I went ‘round to Pete's house. Pete was one of 12 children, and it was like bedlam in his house. He was still in bed, and I said, "Hey mate, you've got a Ludwig kit." He said, "What do you mean I've got a Ludwig kit?" I said, "David's given you the Ludwig kit." And he went scratching, "Have I woken up or...?" [laughter] All Pete had to do was buy some cymbals. That's the sort of guy David Gilmour is.
Back to the playlist... we've gone from Gilmour's productions for Syd Barrett into meeting you guys at the wedding. I tucked in Monty Python's "Gumby Theatre." You'd mentioned Gilmour played that during a session, as an icebreaker.
It wasn't just the "Gumby" thing. It was a matter of watching Monty Python again, after a day's recording that had gone really well. His girlfriend [Ginger Hasenbein] cooked us a meal. I remember meatloaf – I'd never had meatloaf before. She was American, his first wife, Ginger. It was before she was his wife. We had that and the strange-smelling cigarette we puffed. David had this early version of a video recorder and played Monty Python. When you see it the second time, you spot things you hadn't seen the first time. I think he was laughing so much at the way we were laughing. A magic moment. I can picture the room and everything. He has a great sense of humor.
Toward the end of the Unicorn tracks on the playlist, I included Unicorn's original...
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