The Sound of Leamington Spa
uring the early 19th century, affluent Britons suffering from maladies of all sorts trekked to the tiny hamlet of Leamington Priors. There, ailments such as gout and rheumatism were soothed (or, it was whispered, even cured) by the town’s multitude of mineral, saline springs, which had been rediscovered by residents in the 1780s. Bathhouses such as the grandiose Royal Pump Rooms and Baths—featuring the world's first gravity-fed piped hot water system—were constructed upon the springs, allowing vast throngs of the opulent to “take the waters.”
During the 1980s, Britons again flocked to this tiny hamlet for entirely different reasons. Leamington is the home of one of the U.K.’s oldest independent studios, John A. Rivers’ Woodbine Street Recording Studio, and during this decade, Rivers became the producer of choice for many indie pop artists.
Today, still slogging away at Woodbine (he’s currently working with Ocean Colour Scene on its new LP), Rivers was wryly nonplussed when asked why he was such an artist favorite. “There's no real answer to that one, as I also produced many other music genres,” Rivers said. “It's just that I got well known for indie pop. Funnily enough though, that's what I seem to be making a big comeback doing now.”
Rivers’ contemporaries, however, are more willing to expound upon his prominent role during indie pop’s jangly, heady days. Like Martin Whitehead, founder of the Bristol-based Subway Organisation (one of indie pop’s most prodigious, short-lived labels), as well as C86 scenesters The Flatmates (a group more thrash than twee, however). Whitehead recognized Rivers’ ear for a quality tune and for listening to an artist’s ambitions.
“Most engineers in small local studios had little grasp of what these bands were trying to do at the time,” Whitehead told Twee.net, “and were still trying to produce booming drums, slappy bass, and choppy funk guitars. In the mid-80s, indie bands were very much on the fringe of what was happening…. A producer who understood them was worth traveling for. Even to Leamington Spa.”
During the late 1970s, the nascent Woodbine began as a simple four-track studio built into Rivers’ small terraced home. “I was always interested in music and sound,” Rivers explained, “and pretty well knew that's what I wanted to do from about 11 years old. I was a pro musician in my teens and early 20's. When that ended, I had some mikes and a small mixer with built-in echo, which I'd used on my keyboard set-up and that's what I started with.”
Fittingly, Rivers’ initially worked with artists who exhibited the same amateur qualities inherent in the indie pop bands he would produce later in his career. In 1978, he toiled on four tracks with Leamington’s own cartoonish punk act The Shapes (their equipment consisted of a Zenta bass, a borrowed drum kit, and an amplifier purchased from a Melody Maker advert). One year later, he spent three months recording with the anarchistic and enigmatic Godfrey brothers, more familiarly known by their pseudonyms Nikki Sudden and Epic Soundtracks; the sessions became A Trip To Marineville, the full-length debut by the brothers’ band Swell Maps.
Rivers’ penchant for attracting artists of the wildly eccentric sort continued with Felt’s antiseptic-obsessed frontman Lawrence, known for prohibiting houseguests from defecating in his toilet and bouts with lachanophobia (fear of vegetables). Rivers produced the band’s 1986 masterpiece Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, a mesmeric hybrid of guitar and Hammond organ that skips and bounds along, never allowing Lawrence to sit cross-legged and tarry over his melancholia.
“Working with Lawrence was like having a tooth extracted while being simultaneously battered over the head with a baseball bat,” Rivers joked, exhibiting a sense of humor that was key in collaborating with an individual as flaky as Lawrence. “Good end results, though.”
Immersed in left-of-center pop, Felt was Rivers’ gentle push back towards the median. His next project, however, was a full tug on the shirt sleeve. In 1985, Rivers was called on to produce the second single from Creation Records darlings The Loft, a quartet fronted by the oft-puffy Pete Astor. The end result was one of indie pop’s standout numbers, “Up the Hill and Down the Slope,” which featured a caprioling, circular melody, clumsy rhythm guitars, and cryptic lyrics detailing one gent’s desire to make a killing in the music business. The song was a massive hit, spending 19 weeks on the independent charts during the summer of ‘85.
Meanwhile, Woodbine began to outgrow Rivers’ home. “I started with only two tracks,” he remembered. “And built up through four, eight, 16, 24—to the dizzy[ing] number possible with ProTools, which I now use.”
Subsequent endeavors found Rivers continuing to dabble with indie pop, as he worked with acts featured on NME’s C86 compilation, as well as those affiliated with the scene the cassette lent its name to. In 1986, he produced the eponymous third single for Talulah Gosh, as well as its follow-up, “Bringing Up Baby,” two tracks constructed around Amelia Fletcher’s divine vocals and the band’s penchant for gussying up standard punk.
One year later, he produced the debut albums of two Scottish groups: The Close Lobsters’ Foxheads Stalk This Land and The Pastels’ Up for a Bit with the Pastels. The former features guitars kissed with summer sunshine and a knife-sharp, clean sound; the latter encapsulated what made Stephen Pastel so affecting to indie pop enthusiasts: when it comes to songwriting, emotionalism is often more crucial than aptitude (“Address Book,” “Baby Honey”).
Before the decade closed, Rivers produced Sharks, by the Postcard Records-inspired Mighty Mighty, and Crocodile Tears by The Chesterf!elds, its frenetic squalls of hyper-infectious guitar demonstrating why the band had plopped down an exclamation point into its moniker. Also, a working relationship with The Razorcuts churned out two albums (The World Keeps Turning and Storyteller)—and some of Rivers’ best production work. The Razorcuts sounded like beatific choir kids ditching songbooks and the loft for Rickenbackers and the garage, and Rivers deftly captured their puerile charm (“A Contract with God”) and occasional bouts of hyperactivity (“Try”) on both LPs.
One of the Leamington area’s most celebrated landmarks is the Midland Oak, which allegedly marks the very middle of England. Did Leamington’s central location also play a part in attracting so many artists to Woodbine? “In a studio you're totally isolated,” Rivers said. “So you could be in the North Pole for all the difference it would make.” However, Rivers believed economics was often a determining factor in selecting his services. “London studios tend to have huge running costs with little of that money producing a better recorded sound.”
In October of 2000, the aforementioned Twee.net began releasing compilations featuring long-forgotten indie pop from the 1980s. The series title? “The Sound of Leamington Spa.” It currently stands at five volumes and has drawn comparisons to the Pebbles compilations, which has highlighted hard-to-find 60s garage rock. Asked about the popularity of the series, as well as the swelling interest in the exuberant indie pop he once produced, Rivers exhibited his wit once more: “Some people just have cloth ears!”
Woodbine Street Studios