Taking Flight With Wingless Angels
“You don’t in fact need a studio. You need a room. It’s just where you put the microphones.” – Keith Richards – Life
The road to “You Win Again” started Thanksgiving of ’95. “Wingless Angels” came out while we were on the road with “Bridges to Babylon.” I don’t know if it was ’97 or ’98; either late ’97 or early ’98. I remember that we listened to the test pressing in his hotel room while we were on the road. We were on our way to go to the gig and we put it on a little bit. Keith was like, “Oh, God, we have to pick this up after. I’ve never heard anything sound so exactly like it sounded in the control room when we were making it as this.”
There’s a capture the performance continuity running from Wingless Angels to Hubert Sumlin which carries through to today.
When I went to Jamaica to do the Wingless Angels project, I was supposed to be on vacation for Thanksgiving. Keith invited us and then I said I’d let him know, but I didn’t let him know. We just arrived and I called from the Montego Bay airport. I said, “Keith, we’re here.” He said, “Oh, great. Well, the good news is that you’re here. The bad news is that you’re not on holiday anymore because the boys are together and they’re around and we’re going to make a record with them.”
That was meaning the Wingless Angels, who didn’t have a name at that point. I had met the group 25 years earlier when I first met Keith after the “Goats Head Soup” sessions in Jamaica. The “Goats Head Soup” sessions were in March of ’73. In June of that same year, I went to Jamaica and found that Keith was living next door to my friend.
That was the first time I met those guys. That’s when Keith – during that stay while I was there with him – went and bought those drums. The day that we went to get those Nyabinghi drums, the guy that made the drums said, “Great, man. So glad you’re happy with the drums. I just have to tell you, they’re not going to be any good for 25 years.” He said basically that as they were new, they were worthless, because they had to have the atmosphere and seasonal changes.
With everything that was going to happen, it would take 25 years for them to be ready to be played, which was amazing. The fact that this all happened the way it did and it happened to be 25 years later was incredible. Maybe it was 26 years later; but whatever it was, it was close. That was astounding.
Let me relate another funny situation. Here’s Keith Richards who could have anything he wants. The funny thing about him is that at that point in his life, he never used private planes because he just wasn’t that kind of person. He only started to use private planes after 9/11 when he realized that it made you able to avoid the airports. Flying private wasn’t about the plane, but about avoiding airports. That’s the kind of guy he is.
I say this because he could have had anything he wanted. But with Wingless Angels it was more, “Okay, let’s find what’s around here.” We were able to find five microphones. I got a guy to send us a hot-rodded ADAT machine that was really as hot-rodded as could be, in terms of being super-quality digital on an ADAT machine. We only had four mic stands but we had five microphones. I took the fifth microphone and I gaffer’s taped it to the telescope. I said, “This’ll be the podium. If you want to go to the podium, there it is.” So there was this mic strapped to this telescope over in this one part of the room.
In ’95, when I arrived they were all there playing and I was overwhelmed by the whole situation. I wasn’t expecting any of this. Then I got confronted with the fact that we only had this certain amount of equipment and how that was going to be handled. Frankly, it frightened me. “Frightened” is a bit too strong of a word, but I was concerned. I was like, “Fuck. How am I going to do this?”
I ended up starting to try to catch up with their drinking.
But they were playing and I was drinking while walking around the room. This went on for a couple of hours. I kept thinking, “Well, we’ve only got this many mics so I have to figure out where I’m going to put these mics.” I was figuring that out by walking around the room when, finally, the alcohol got me and I passed out on the floor.
But it was that night that I figured out what I was going to do. I used these four microphones. In a sense, this started our development of simplifying the recording process. After we did that, he said, “Man, wouldn’t it be amazing to take what we did here and apply it to make a rock ‘n’ roll record?” That’s really what “Bridges to Babylon” was. That was 1997 between the Wingless Angels and “You Win Again” and Hubert’s record.
Bridges to Babylon
We intended to do that, but the situation was such in L.A., with Mick already having gotten involved with Babyface and all these things going on, it was a bit of a warfare thing between myself, Don Was, and all this crazy stuff. We didn’t get to really do what we wanted to do, which was make this rock ‘n’ roll record this way. We never got to really do that.
I did what I could along those lines when I mic’d the Stones, but I didn’t do that because it was too radical of a thing to do. You don’t land in a session with the Rolling Stones and start experimenting like you’re with some guys that have never played before. You have to do a bit of what you know is definitely going to work because you don’t have any second chance to capture what you mess up. I spent three-and-a-half minutes getting the drum sound on Charlie Watts, which is a record. That’s amazing and that’s true; meaning it was done simply but it worked and that’s what we used.
In the next installment, I’ll talk about how we recorded “You Win Again” in Keith’s low ceiling basement with five microphones.