Producers Steve Marriott & Ronnie Lane
Engineer Glyn Johns
Courting controversy courtesy of its lyrics and acclaim for the still novel production techniques, this Small Faces classic was a hit both at home and in the US. John Pickford reports.
The summer of 1967, forever known as The Summer Of Love, was an incredibly fertile period for pop music. The sonic experiments pioneered by the era’s artists, producers and engineers ushered in a new progressive age, when, for the first time, a distinction was made between lightweight pop acts and serious rock bands. The Small Faces, a group of London mods, had already enjoyed a string of pop hits with Decca when they signed to Rolling Stones manager Andrew ‘Loog’ Oldham’s Immediate label in 1967, allowing them much more artistic freedom.
Itchycoo Park was conceived by bassist Ronnie Lane, who took the melody from the hymn God Be In My Head while finding lyrical inspiration in a magazine article that mentioned ‘dreaming spires’ and ‘bridge of sighs’. Several locations have been cited as the real Itchycoo Park, though guitarist Steve Marriott once stated that it was Valentines Park in Ilford, while Ronnie Lane told the group’s biographer, Paulo Hewitt: “It’s a place we used to go to in Ilford years ago. Some bloke suggested it to us because it’s full of nettles and you keep scratching.”
Sessions for the track began in the summer of 1967 at Olympic Studios in Barnes. At the time Olympic was considered to be one of the best studios in the country, favoured by The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix; earlier in the year, chief engineer Keith Grant had recorded Procol Harum’s ground-breaking chart-topper A Whiter Shade Of Pale. One of the main attractions of Olympic – aside from its line-up of top engineers – was its highly regarded solid-state mixing console designed by Dick Swettenham. Such was the desk’s clarity of sound, other studios wanted one, leading Swettenham into manufacture (see Studio Icons No32, Issue 123, for the full Helios story). The backing track featured Marriott on acoustic guitar, Lane on bass, Ian McLagan on Hammond organ and Kenny Jones on drums, recorded onto one of Olympic’s Ampex 4-track tape machines.
Once the vocals were added and the track mixed, engineer Glyn Johns made a copy of the tape and played both tapes simultaneously, recording the results onto a third machine. During this process Johns manipulated the tape flanges to alter the speed of one of the machines, producing a swirling effect as the two recordings became separated by a few milliseconds, sweeping through the frequency range. This technique on its own is called flanging; however, engineer Glyn Johns inverted the phase of one of the machines to produce a deep phasing effect. With simple flanging, the two signals provide sound reinforcement, but inverting the phase of one machine causes the signals to cancel out at certain points; when the signals reach the point of zero delay they are of equal strength but opposite polarity, resulting in a ducking effect.
Johns had learned this technique from fellow Olympic engineer George Chkiantz, who had observed The Beatles using the effect during a recording session in June, as organist Ian McLagan explains: “The Beatles had used (phasing) and George (Chkiantz) happened to be working on the session. Some weeks or days later he was tape-op with us and he said, ‘Oh, you might want to try something like this’, and he showed us how to do it.”
To most pop fans in 1967 the effect was startling and the music press coined the term ‘skying’ to describe the swooshing sound. However, the effect was not completely new: Les Paul – the inventor of multitrack recording – had used phasing techniques on his 1945 recording Mama’s Blues, and Toni Fisher’s 1959 hit The Big Hurt also featured deliberately phased sounds.
The Beatles had discovered flanging and phasing as a by-product of ADT (Artificial Double Tracking), invented in 1966 by Abbey Road technician Ken Townsend. ADT uses a delay time of around 30 milliseconds to create a double-tracked effect; reducing the delay time further produces the flanged and phased sounds that became synonymous with the psychedelic era. The Small Faces’ Steve Marriott had his own explanation as to how Itchycoo Park’s special effects were created. When asked on live radio how it was done, he replied: “I pissed on the tape.”