- The Observer, Sunday 14 June 2009
They’re on hundreds of hits – but you won’t know their names. Graeme Thomson meets six session musicians who’ve made everyone from Girls Aloud to Paul McCartney sound better.
I refuse to call them backing vocals, it sounds so nondescript,” says Beverley Skeete with an imperious giggle. After two decades of singing “complementary” vocals with everyone from Tina Turner to Robbie Williams, Skeete has perfected her pitch. “We make a huge contribution. When I listen back to Let Me Entertain You I think, ‘I helped to make it like that,’ and I’m very proud.”
If making great music is almost always a team sport, session musicians are the undecorated journeymen. For every Cristiano Ronaldo hogging the glory, there’s a rump of dedicated pros keeping their heads down and the show on the road. Listen to Girls Aloud’s Sound of the Underground and what leaps out: the technical brilliance of the vocals? Don’t be silly. It’s that irresistibly twangy guitar, brought to you by a sessioneer called Shawn Lee. Or try to imagine Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side without Herbie Flowers’s hypnotic bass line. Impossible.
Though session musicians are sometimes caricatured as musical mercenaries, eyeing their bank balance as they phone in another slick, soulless performance, the six players interviewed by OMM here displayed humour, humility and passion about their work. Traditionally session musicians had to be able to read music and do what they were told, whereas the modern breed play by ear and have greater scope for creativity. Geraint Watkins, who has played piano with Van Morrison, Paul McCartney and, most impressively, Shakin’ Stevens, makes a distinction between what he does and “someone who can read music and play anything at the drop of a hat. That’s a bit sterile, like a machine. I like things a bit looser.”
Most of them have a history of dodgy record deals, a few obscure singles, band mates that let them down. They might blame bad luck, management or timing, but in their hearts they know they lacked that quirk of DNA – rampant ego; ruthless ambition; the X factor – that stardom demands. Having drifted into session work many, including Watkins and Skeete, still release records, play solo shows or put songs on MySpace. Fame, however, is no longer an ambition. Instead, they serve other people’s songs without overshadowing the main attraction; on stage they are often less visible than the dancers.
There is no hint of bolshie attitudes. The key is to be reliable, professional (cliched rock’n’roll misbehaviour is liable to result in a P45), discreet (a good session musician practises omertà), adaptable, patient and, above all, get on with people. “You’re Only as Good as Your Last Gig” is the mantra. Follow the rules and playing sessions can be a good living, but in the age of ProTools, slashed production budgets and reduced record sales there are no guarantees. None of the six musicians employs an agent or manager, instead relying on word of mouth, chance, and established connections, while they all operate a flexible scale when it comes to fees. It doesn’t always work. Watkins recalls once doing “six songs for 100 quid”, while Skeete has learned to steer clear of the “dangling carrot” syndrome – play now, get paid when the song is a hit. But what if it isn’t?
As long as artists and producers are honest and upfront, music usually takes precedence over money. “If I hear a young band and I really like the music, we’ll work out whatever they can afford, pretty much,” says Pino Palladino, the Welsh bassist whose fretless sound defined the 80s as surely as JR Ewing and the Rubik’s Cube, and who is now a permanent touring member of the Who. “The only way I remain enthusiastic is by playing on stuff I feel good about. You can get very cynical if you just turn up and play the notes.”
Between them, our six-piece session band has performed at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and the Hollywood Bowl, Glastonbury and the Grammys, Central Park and the Colosseum, while their recorded work has reached hundreds of millions. Not a bad return, even if they remain unknown and, like any other job, the work can be a grind. “Get up early, fly out, stay in a hotel room facing a car park, go straight to a windowless room and play for 12 hours,” laughs Palladino. “There’s not a lot of glamour in that.” So why do it? “I wanted to be a musician,” he says. Simple, really.
1. Beverley Skeete
Sung on … Walk on By (Gabrielle), It’s Raining Men (Geri Halliwell), Return of the Mack (Mark Morrison), Millennium, Let Me Entertain You (Robbie Williams)
“You have to do what the song requires. Even if you’re not a huge fan of the music, you have to make it your cup of tea because your enthusiasm can turn it into something it might not otherwise have been. It’s very unforgiving: if the artist is wrong, it’s a little artistic moment; if we’re wrong, we’re sacked! But I’m doing what I always dreamed I’d be doing. I was rehearsing with Annie Lennox once and I got a session with Tina Turner. I was watching the clock so I could rush off, but Annie wanted to go over something. Of course I couldn’t say to Annie, ‘Can you hurry up, I’ve got a better offer!’ Eventually I get there, late. I ring to say I’m outside and Tina takes the phone and says, ‘Hey girl, I been waiting on you. You better be damn worth it!’ I get through the session sweating buckets, and afterwards I said how honoured I was to work with her, and how sorry I was. She said: ‘Honey, you were worth it!’ It was one of the highlights of my life.”
2. Pino Palladino
Played on … Wherever I Lay My Hat (Paul Young), Get Here (Oleta Adams), Alone with Everybody (Richard Ashcroft), Surprise (Paul Simon), Endless Wire (the Who)
“On some of the early Paul Young stuff it was shocking to me how loud they’d mixed the bass. I was playing all the hooks, so that sound became identified as bringing success, which is bullshit really. It’s about the song, the timing, all sorts of factors, but there are quite a few artists I’ve worked with where I’ve contributed more than they would have expected, coming up with sub-hooks that make the record better. It certainly worked for me; for a few years people were phoning from all over the world wanting that sound. It became a pain in the arse eventually.
“It’s important to be able to reinvent what you do. When the call came to play with the Who I was working with Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, and I had to change my whole style. The manager said: ‘John [Entwistle] is dead. Can you do a gig at the Hollywood Bowl in three days’ time?’ You don’t turn down something like that. It was only afterwards that I thought about the consequences. Pete Townshend’s direction was, ‘Play whatever you want, just as long as you play loud!'”
3. Karl Brazil
Played on … All the Lost Souls (James Blunt), We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things (Jason Mraz), Songs for You, Truths for Me (James Morrison)
“I did an album once which I won’t name where I replaced every drum track that had been recorded. We call that demo-itis. Making James Blunt’s album, on the other hand, was one of the best experiences. We toured together as a band then went to LA for four weeks for the album – it came out exactly as we made it. It’s probably the simplest gig I’ve ever done, but he really makes you think about what you play. He’s got great craft, and he’s a witty guy, really humble. I don’t get too defensive about him, but if somebody walked up to me in a pub and called James a right so-and-so, I’d have a go. Personality is so important. If I’m putting a band together, you have to have a great bunch of people. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you’re only on stage for two hours max; the rest of the time you’re at airports or on buses together, so you have to get on.”
4. Geraint Watkins
Played on … This Ole House (Shakin’ Stevens), Back on Top (Van Morrison), Run Devil Run (Paul McCartney), Fashionably Late (Linda Thompson)
“No click tracks for a start. I hate that thing banging away in your head when you’re trying to play. That’s why recording with Van Morrison is really good, because it’s all live. He records everything from the minute you start; there’s plenty of bloody pressure with Van! Sometimes he just sits with a guitar and starts singing. We’ll start playing along and when he finishes that’s it – that’s the take. I wish it could always be like that. It really is a buzz, because there’s no hiding place. McCartney was a little more particular – do this, do that – but he wasn’t coming out with the stuff he’s got the reputation for, telling you exactly what to play. He was all right with us. Is it a good living? No, not really. I’ve got my thing, but it doesn’t quite spread far enough. I like being a sideman, though. I think you need a bigger ego than I’ve got to have a solo career.”
5. Simon Clarke
Played on … (as a member of the Kick Horns) Parklife (Blur), Screamadelica (Primal Scream), Connected (Stereo MC’s), Want One (Rufus Wainwright), Firin’ in Fouta (Baaba Maal)
“We’re all classically trained. I studied the flute but got bored, came to London in 1982 and started playing sessions with Roddy [Lorimer, trumpet]. The crucial moment came when Roddy thought of the name, the Kick Horns. That made all the difference. There’s lots of passionate people in music and they all work differently. Rufus Wainwright’s producer Marius de Vries will have Midi files of melodic lines, and it’s very clear how he wants the horns to work. Then we might work with the Stereo MC’s and Rob [Birch], a lovely man with a great imagination, will say ‘I want to hear something a bit like this,’ and sing terribly quietly while we desperately try to work out what he wants. We first worked with Eric Clapton a few days before his Albert Hall gigs. He played us one song, sent us off to a room for 10 minutes, and then we had to play with the band. That was scary. But it’s always collaborative, always full of variety. I once came home to find a note from my wife saying Michael Field had called. I was busy but eventually I phoned back. Turned out it was Mike Oldfield.”
6. Milton McDonald
Played on … Spiceworld (Spice Girls), Light My Fire (Will Young). Tours: Ray Davies and Take That.
“Doing this work is 50% ability, and then all the other stuff: social skills, the ability to listen with an open mind. I’ve played on some records I wouldn’t play at home, let’s say, but I treat it all with respect. I can find something worthwhile in almost anything. Often the guitar isn’t a feature – nobody is going to particularly notice what I’m doing on a Spice Girls record – but you have to keep your ego in check. I’ve played live with Take That almost from the start, and that’s a really nice gig because their shows cover a lot of styles. There are loads of dancers and effects, a massive production, but whereas some people would do the music in a cheap way, they never have. It feels like quality. Playing with Ray [Davies] is the same, but that’s purely musical.
“Am I discreet? It’s not in your interests to talk about anything you’ve seen. I’m working for people who are friends, too, so I wouldn’t do it anyway. It’s a carefree life, in a way. If you shirk responsibility it’s not bad. Week for week, it’s good money, but there are quiet times. Then when I’m busy I’m busy all the time: my children don’t see me, and it’s hard to have any kind of home life.”