Alan Eden (Drums)
Al Hodge (Guitar)
Dave Quinn (Bass)
With thanks to Alan Eden, here’s the story of The Golant Pistons and The Mechanics which all links in part to the early days of The Sawmills studios
Back in the late 60s’ Alan established a name as a folk rock drummer, slowly building a solid reputation as one of the best in the field. He was also an experienced recording artist and had played alongside established folkies, Bob & Carol Pegg as a member of Mr Fox, recording two LP’s for Transatlantic Records.
A stint in a re-formed Trees followed the demise of Mr Fox as well as numerous sessions that included The Incredible String Band and Magna Carta.
Like many musicians at the time he took up other paid gigs to keep food on the table, cabaret work being one of the more stable ways to earn an income.
Living in Hertfordshire he had been working for 18 months backing up Helen Shapiro’s cabaret act when he decided to make the move to London and it was here that he was approached by Producer / Arranger Tony Cox. Tony had worked with all the major names in the folk rock field and was looking for a drummer for the Mick Greenwood Band, which Alan would fill. The bass player was Dave Peacock (late of Chas & Dave)
At the time Tony was recording a lot in Sound Techniques Studio in Chelsea. He spent so much time there that somebody jokingly suggested that he bought his own studio instead. This didn’t seem like such a ridiculous idea to Tony and he set about sourcing locations.
Tony & Alan along with the rest of The Mick Greenwood Band were rehearsing in a rented farmhouse in North Devon when the call came through about a property in Cornwall that Tony might be interested in. A minibus was duly hired and the entire entourage made the drive to Golant to view an old building situated in splendid isolation on the bank of the River Fowey!
This was Sawmills! Then owned by author Denys Val Baker and, to put it mildly, in something a dilapidated state with only half a roof and no windows it looked a daunting task to turn this shell into a hi-tech recording studio. With the main access on foot or by boat it seemed even more unlikely that this was the spot. Tony however decided it was totally unique, had grace and charm and promptly set the wheels in motion to purchase it.
Two excellent books about the the Val Bakers time at the Sawmills
A immense amount of work was required to bring it up to spec for living in let alone trade as a viable ‘`First Division’ recording studio.
Many people couldn’t understand why Tony had chosen such a remote location, but at the time it was becoming more common for bands to choose to locate the countryside and escape city life to record their next masterpiece. Many bands were recording in makeshift barns and cottages but Richard Branson’s Manor in Oxfordshire and Monmouth’s Rockfield were among the few places that offered high-spec residential recording facilities in rural surroundings.
Gerry Gill’s Roche Studios were attempting something similar not far away albeit on a smaller scale and initially focussing on supporting local artists and with more of a ‘hippy vibe’.
Sawmills, as a new studio venture would offer high-spec production facilities with some of the best in the business working as an in-house production team. The production work would generate the income, allowing them to build up the facilities, creating an environment and space to make their own music.
Glamorous it wasn’t!
Alan was initially taken on board as another ‘pair of hands’ but soon became an integral part of the management team. He would look after the maintenance as well as the logistics side of things, such as liaising with Artists, Management, Record Companies, Instrument Hire Companies, etc., etc.
“For a brief period we were ‘camping out’ in a tent in the sitting room with candles for light and a generator for power but pretty soon the building work was underway in earnest” said Alan;
One of the key workers involved in building and maintenance from the early days was Chris England, who was drumming locally with Tamarisk.
“Money was extremely tight. Tony had pledged to buy Sawmills and fund the restoration and conversion work but we were obliged to scuttle off and do the occasional gig or session ‘up country’ to survive day-to-day” said Alan “I soon became enamoured with the idyllic lifestyle that Sawmills, Golant and Cornwall in general offered and put all my efforts in helping to get Sawmills ‘off the ground’ and established as THE place for residential recording in the UK”
The Sawmills as it is today
With the building secured they began to fill up the space with equipment and had a stroke of luck. Jerry Boys, Chief Engineer at Sound Techniques in London was fed up with city life and decided to move to Cornwall. He was well acquainted with Tony through the studio and decided he would like to get involved with the new venture. Jerry is an expert at recording acoustic instruments and had his own ‘client base’ plus he also brought with him a large amount of vintage valve equipment.
Obie Clayton, Jerry Boys and Tony Cox at the Sound Tecniques Desk
With the studio now nearly ready to go Alan could get on with another of his roles, sourcing local musicians to play on sessions. With no drumming opportunities at the studio Alan was keeping his hand in by playing with local bands, including a loose residency with Kris Gayle & Goudie Charles in a Newquay hotel. This also gave him a good opportunity to spot talented local musicians who could be approached to work at Sawmills.
Bookings were now coming in and the studio was starting to build up a workload. Alan would now focus on the new areas involved in running the studio, which would still include the day to day running of the staff and accommodation including cooks, cleaners and the general maintenance plus looking after artists, management and labels, but would extend to also include PR. “Our first publicity slogan was ‘The mills are alive with the sound of music’ but I didn’t think of it … I wish I had, it’s a neat line. I can’t remember who had the idea for that slogan!”
“It was hard work keeping such a remote studio running smoothly, when a band arrived they and their gear had to be brought in by boat down the creek, and if a piece of equipment was needed or broke you couldn’t just nip out and get a replacement. More often than not we worked a 24 hour day … the tide table became our most used item of reference”
There was no shortage of talented local musicians who would come and play on sessions, but they were also lucky to have access to artists who had relocated to Cornwall such as backing singer Leslie Duncan and Justin Haywood of the Moody Blues who was living in Bodmin at the time as well as Ralph McTell in London Apprentice.
While the musicians picked were clearly very talented, Alan was finding that there was no real continuity and knew that he needed to start looking at putting together a house band that could be relied upon, rather than a fluctuating line up of players. To quote Alan “it may sound pretentious but our models were the Stax house band, Motown and the Nashville rhythm sections. I’m not saying we could emulate them or were in the same league but the need for a regular, tight, empathetic unit was paramount if Sawmills’ was to succeed”
Despite having access to Mark Griffiths, guitarist with Matthews Southern Comfort (and ex Mick Greenwood Band) and Tim Renwick of Sutherland Brothers & Quiver (and more recently Pink Floyd), the studio regularly needed the services of guitarists and Alan regularly called up his contacts in London tor suggestions. On one occasion a ‘fixer’ turned to him and asked why he was always contacting him for leads when one of the best players in the country lived on his doorstep. He referred of course to ‘Big’ Al Hodge from Bodmin.
Alan, 2nd from right. 1968
Al Hodge was playing as one half of the duo Smith & Jones at the time, having left The Onyx and London behind at the turn of the decade. On recommendation alone Alan hired Al ‘sight unseen’ (& unheard!!).
Alan remembers the fateful day: “My first encounter with Al was quite a memorable experience to say the least. He arrived for his first session late, sporting a massive beard and wearing a duffle coat and large wellingtons and looking not unlike a crazed Fisherman! He proceeded to take from a bin liner, as he had no case, a black CSL … the cheapest Les Paul copy available. He hadn’t brought any spare strings or an amp as he couldn’t carry it! (due to his being late he had missed the tide and had walked down the railway line that connected Sawmills to Golant)”
Al Hodge, early 70s
The session that I booked Al for was, understandably, quite important. We had to show ‘London’ that we were serious contenders in the art of making & recording great music. I had promised our clients a shit-hot guitarist and I was beginning to get a bit concerned. Well I needn’t have worried as within minutes Al had charmed the socks off everybody so they stuck it out and let him have his chance. He began to tune up doing the same party trick Les Dawson used to do, deliberately playing wrong notes. But a question mark still hung over Al’s ability to deliver as he was an unknown quantity to us and as we were now well into the session Tony was beginning to lose patience and wondering why on earth Alan had hired this crazy Cornishman.
The clients needed a big, melodramatic ‘Carpenters-style’ solo for their song but what with the lateness of the hour and general fooling around they may well have settled for some inspired strumming! As if to tempt fate Al then explained that he needed to play the CSL in a rather peculiar manner as the neck was bent but he could bend it back so it stayed in tune! Of course, on literally the first take he played a stunningly emotive solo that blew everybody away. He then played it again note for note, adding a harmony part! We had just witnessed a Masterclass in guitar playing from one of the most unlikely of characters. With that he wrapped up with a ‘Was that alright yer buggers?’, returned the CSL to the bin bag and was on his way, probably to catch some waves!”
Al was soon brought on board as a regular session musician and before long Alan was recruited to augment Smith & Jones before playing with him in a more permanent configuration as the Al Hodge Band with Derek Fitzpatrick on bass and vocals. Derek ran his own business and so couldn’t fully commit so the search for a bass player began.
As Sawmills had failed to find a local bassist with the breadth of experience needed for studio work it was decided that they would have to ‘import’ one. Enter Dave Quinn
“This is one of those spooky stories where you are convinced fate is guiding you” said Alan. “I was in London when Tony rang from the studio. Charlie & The Wide Boys had borrowed the studio Wurlitzer piano for some London gigs. It was now urgently needed for some overdubs. Could I go to the Nashville, wait ‘till the end of the set & then load the Wurly into the company Volvo and speed home? Well The Wide Boys did their stuff, went down a storm but couldn’t strike their gear until after the main bands’ set so I was obliged to hang around and catch the Diversion’s dynamic funky, soul-pop. Lene Lovich fronted the band and they lent heavily on a ‘Rufus/Chaka Khan’ style but boy, they were hot! Standing just to the left of the drummer and playing up a storm on a salmon pink Precision was a slightly built, dark-haired chap. Finally show-time was over and I headed south down the M5. Some time much later Kevin Matta of Saffron Records in St Austell had lent me an album by a band called The Movies with the suggestion that it was ‘right up my street’ musically. As it happened it was with the rhythm section and especially the bass playing catching my ear. On the back there was a photo of the band with Dave Quinn listed as bass player. It was the same guy that I had seen some years earlier with The Diversions when collecting the Wurlitzer from The Wide Boys! “
Alan tracked him down, called him up with the offer of some work, and Dave came down to Cornwall.
The Movies . From the back of the 1st LP
The three piece of Hodge, Quinn & Eden would become the house band that Sawmills needed. As well as playing as a session group they also needed to perform outside the studio environment and began playing as a covers band around Devon & Cornwall billed as The Al Hodge Band.
The band were now providing back up for many artists, in particular they played on many sessions (Two LP’s for RCA Records) by Bunk Dogger (real name Tim Phillips) who was an old friend of Tony’s and steeped in 50s rock’n’roll and doo-wop. They would also regularly back up Obie Clayton (real name Michael Cox) who would release a DJM album and numerous in-house produced singles.
Mid-70s. Obie Clayton (aka Michael Cox), Tony Cox & John Atkinson
In the mid-70s Rod Buckle was living in Cornwall. Rod ran the UK distribution of Sonet Records, which was a Swedish label that released many UK artists. Sonet expressed an interest in releasing artists coming through Sawmills and many releases came out on ‘Sawmills Singles by Sonet’ later appearing on the Sawmills Records label but with Sonet catalogue numbers.
Promotional LP for Sawmills artists, including The Mechanics
At one point the studio had a contract to provide a monthly 20 track album of UK chart hits in three mix formats (with lead vocal, backing vocal only and instrumental). 45’s were borrowed from Saffron Records, recorded and returned the following day when the band set about recording their own versions. This was not an artistically rewarding venture but it paid reasonably well and provided crucial cashflow. Vocals were provided by the likes of Kris Gayle, Lesley Duncan, Eddie Baird and Big Al. Viv Rodd (ex Musical Drector, Talk of the West) played keyboards on many numbers.
By the end of the 70’s word was getting around about the Sawmills and it started to gain popularity. Many major artists were booking themselves in, such as XTC, Paul Kossoff, Fairport Convention and Roxy Music. Many French and Scandinavians made the trip over, assisted by a favourable exchange rate, including Alan Stivell who recorded tracks with an entire Breton Pipe and Drum Band, all of which had to be shipped over from France via the Roscoff ferry (complete with wives’ and children) and then bussed in from Plymouth.
Mick Taylor of The Rolling Stones booked three months solid which caused some problems as nobody else could make proper use of the studio although Mick would fail to show up for days on end.
It was now proving difficult for the in-house production team to have access to their own kit and often they had to book time in other studios to fulfil sessions. “I remember booking time in a studio in London and then having to hire the amps & drums and book a hotel which somehow defeated the ethos of starting Sawmills in the first place” said Alan
By now Hodge, Quinn and Eden were to be known as The Mechanics. “We were searching for a name and as we were still at that point a studio house band somebody suggested ‘The Music Mechanics’ as we literally built songs from the ground up and sometimes dismantled them too! We liked the idea and adopted The Mechanics!”
Numerous singles featuring Al’s vocals and guitar had been released on a variety of labels and under several names, Al Hodge, The G Men, The Pistons, The Golant Pistons, etc but now it was time for the first Mechanics record. “In 1980 we released one of Dave’s songs “I Don't Wanna See Your Picture” on the studios’ Riviera Records label” said Alan. Punk was just dying down and the less aggressive new wave started to take hold, which fitted the band’s sound well. The single got some good publicity and write ups in the music press, found it’s way onto the Nations playlists including John Peel’s influential BBC radio show and, more importantly, pushed the trio out of the studio and onto the road.
Winter show at the Cornwall Coliseum, where the band performed an unplugged set sat on the edge of the stage
It all looked set to take off when the studio received a letter from Jake Riveria (Elvis Costello’s manager) threatening to sue over the use of the name Riviera! “Our lawyers pointed out that we lived on the Cornish Riviera and no plagiarism was intended but the were adamant that they would sue. We had discussions about whether to fight the case and how good the ensuing publicity may be, but in the end decided not to fight it”
With Riviera Records now renamed Big Fish, The Mechanics released the follow up to ‘Picture’, another Dave Quinn song ‘Talking to the Wall‘ which helped consolidate the band to broadcasters, agents and the wider music industry.
They were now starting to gain national recognition and made inroads into the London scene, playing in the capitol a few times a month at venues such as The Marquee and Rock Garden. We bought a truck and hired the brilliant Colin Hannah to be our sound man and provide his PA rig. Colin had previously played guitar with The Good Times and Safron and would go on to tour with the likes of U2, Riverdance and Tom Jones.
In 1981 our publisher introduced us to Gerry Bron, owner of Bronze Records. Gerry had heard the buzz around the band and decided to check them out at a gig in Newton Abbott. Gerry and a small entourage flew from London into Exeter airport and arrived at the gig in a Rolls Royce only to stay for barely a couple of songs before heading back home. A few weeks later a contract appeared and the band signed to Bronze joining their roster alongside the likes of Motorhead, Manfred Mann’s Earthband, Uriah Heap, etc.
They would soon be touring around the lucrative college circuit, playing many headlining gigs. They also frequently appeared on TV and Radio and got a fair amount of good press. Bronze would put out a number of singles by the band giving them quite a push and they were starting to make a name for themselves, being championed by numerous daytime Radio One jocks plus the evening ‘serious’ shows like Johnny Walker and Radio One In Concert.
BBC TV special 'Keepin' the show on the road'
Meanwhile pianist/arranger John Mealing was working at Sawmills. Highly experience and well connected, John had been MD to many leading cabaret artists as well as composing TV themes including Bob’s Full House. He had recently been engaged by Leo Sayer to put together the nucleus of a new road band for an up-coming 8 week UK tour. Leo’s ‘Living in a Fantasy’ LP had broken big with ‘More than I can say’ the first single taken from the album going to number 2 in both UK and USA charts. John Mealing liked the idea that The Mechanics came as a package, a feature endorsed by Leo who duly invited the three to meet him in London before asking them to form part of the band.
“We were delighted as it was quality work, good money and a chance to capitalise on Leo’s exposure for our own project” said Alan. But this decision didn’t go over well with Bronze. The label had just lined them up with a high profile support slot on an upcoming 10cc tour across England and Europe. The Leo commitment suddenly became a sticking point at Bronze who were less than happy about their signings performing as anonymous sidemen when they had been signed as a performing and recording group in their own right.
Alan and Al at Niagra Falls on the Leo tour 1981, in front of the tour bus (side painting of semi nude Amazonian female warriors not visable!)
“To be fair we thought we could run The Mechanics and the Leo work side-by-side, but Bronze rightly pointed out that we had built up some considerable momentum and needed to be available to make the most of that” Alan said.
With no sign of getting their group back anytime soon Bronze decided enough was enough, but not before one last swansong. The label released a version of the already recorded track ‘Love and Understanding’. However it had been considerably remixed with an added brass section and girlie backing vocals, so much so that that band barely recognised it!
The record was released while the band were in the US but soon afterwards arrived ‘Down Under’ for a tour of New Zealand, Tasmania & Australia where they had some down time while Leo was undertaking his press duties. The single had been released on Festival Records in Australia and was doing quite well. They took the opportunity to make the most of their spare time and went about promoting the record and playing some gigs, using the gear and crew from the Leo tour. Despite this new found small amount of success they were unable to capitalise on it as they were soon on the road again and unable to return to the studio. Leo’s success with ‘Fantasy’ grew and grew with the original 8 weeks extended into a major 9 month World tour. This effectively killed off the deal with Bronze and although they released a number of singles on the label they never had the opportunity to put out a full length LP.
Various emotions and issues came into play at this point as the original Sawmills connection had been eroded as the Leo gig had dominated all & sundry.
“We played Sun City and a few other gigs in South Africa and then had some time off. I had made the decision to leave Cornwall as Sawmills had reached a crossroads for me and I felt somewhat ‘on the outside’. Some Leo dates were scheduled for the Spring in the Arab Emirates and I didn’t make that tour, investing my time into opening a specialist drum shop in Bristol” Al and Dave stayed put but the original Mechanics trio folded.
Post Leo, Al and Dave continued to play together, at times as a four piece with Steve Jackson and Jo Partridge. Al was also playing solo gigs, often billed as plain ‘Big Al’. He had management in the form of John Miles, best known for managing Carol Vorderman, Noel Edmunds, Tony Blackburn and the like. Al continued working as a session musician and also scored some success in co-writing “Rock n Roll Mercenaries” for Meatloaf as well as having songs covered by Rick Astley and Elkie Brooks.
We must now spool on almost 15 years to 1997. Alan got a call completely out of the blue from Al, no introduction but just “What are you doing on (such & such a date)?”. “I looked in my diary, said the date was free and Al said “Good, TV show in Bristol, be in touch” and hung up!”
John Miles had booked Al to perform on an HTV chat show. The backing track was to be mimed but with live vocals. Al said he needed a band to make it look authentic and thought it would be a good opportunity to get the Mechanics back together. He thought they could play some of the old material before the show to warm up the crowd. Al’s live material was mid-tempo euro pop but the band played their old rock and soul material during the warm up. Although it had been nearly 15 years since the band had played together it was like they had never been apart and they all had a fantastic time. “We were asked for an encore at the warm up”
This impromptu get together would lead to the band playing a handful of gigs each month and they soon once again became a popular live draw, having great fun whilst doing so. One of the final gigs they would play was at Fairport Convention’s annual Cropredy Festival in 2003, playing as a five piece with Jo Partridge’s sublime slide guitar and Andrew Murray on piano. “We went down so well, we were buoyed by the event.
Our record company ‘New Day Records’ arranged to film the show for a live CD release and inclusion into a career-retrospective DVD but as things turned out this project didn’t materialise” said Alan
Hall for Cornwall, Truro. 2003
Sadly things would take a turn for the worse in 2005 when Al collapsed one day walking down the path to his house. Initially thought to be a stroke it turned out to be a brain tumour. Alan and Al were planning to put on a gig at the Princess Pavilions, Falmouth to mark 40 years of Al turning professional. “We talked about bringing in as many of the musicians as we could track down from Al’s past to celebrate his musical path”. Sadly Al didn’t make it and despite a valiant battle he sadly passed away on 6th of July 2006. With his passing Cornwall lost one it’s favourite sons and certainly it’s most talented and underrated guitarist.
When speaking of Al many echo the same sentiments as Alan, in that he didn’t realise how good he really was. He had a natural talent and while many had to sweat blood it came to him with ease. As well as his excellent abilities on guitar his Onyx band members remember well his amazing ability to arrange five part harmonies and his uncanny ability to arrange songs, while at the same time never being overbearing. Al instinctively knew just what each instrument and voice should be doing. Although he didn’t listen to much music beyond that from his younger days he always had his guitar slung over his back, even when making a cup of tea.
Despite his success, writing successful songs and playing in several bands that nearly made it his career is littered with bad decisions, mistakes, errors and poor judgement. With better breaks and firm management he could have been famous on an international level but he lived in something of a ‘Bodmin vacuum’ and dearly loved his Family and Cornwall He is missed by many in Cornwall and beyond who were touched by both his musical ability and natural warmth and magnetism. Al’s life is remembered by the annual Alstock event - www.alstock.org.uk -held in Bodmin.
CD's of Live and Studio Recordings of the band can be purchasedhere