Album of the Year at The Classical BRIT Awards last week went to The Royal Scots Dragoon Guard’s for ‘Spirit of the Glen- Journey’.
t5m gets an exclusive blog from the album’s producer Jon Cohen on his dramatic experience of travelling to Iraq to record the album while the guards were on duty…
Thursday’s Classical BRIT awards were an amazing evening for me. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better after seeing Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang play together, the classical album of the year was awarded to The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards for the album Spirit Of The Glen-Journey.
I was fortunate enough to produce the album last year and what a journey it was. Expectations had been high as the first Scots DG album (released in 2007) had been a huge success, spending fourteen weeks at the top of the classical charts and selling over three hundred thousand copies. We planned to record the follow up over the summer and arrangements were made for members of the regiment (who are based in Germany) to stay in Edinburgh for the recording. Unfortunately though, not all the men were available as the guards had been posted to Basra, Iraq. We did some recording in Scotland but eventually the decision was made to take the mountain to Mohammed (so to speak) and to complete the recording in Iraq.
I clearly remember the first discussion I had about this with Tom Lewis at Universal Classics and Jazz (now Decca). We agreed that if the trip happened, we would both go out (subject to permission from the MOD and necessary red tape), but that either one of us could change his mind and back out of the trip with no recrimination at any time. I felt a curious mix of excitement and fear. We had been reassured that things were much quieter in Basra and that rocket attacks on the base were less regular than they had previously been.
I was aware that this was an opportunity to have an experience so outside of my normal sphere and one that very few people would ever get. But I was also aware that there were very real dangers involved. Incidentally, there really were quite a few administrative hurdles to overcome before we got the green light to go. At each stage, Tom would say to me, “The chances are that we won’t go.” But as the obstacles were removed one by one (sourcing appropriate life insurance for the trip, corporate approval for the risk and military approval for our presence) eventually the reality dawned that the trip was on. There were no more reasons to hide behind for not going. We were off to the war zone…
The journey out was a grueling start to the experience. Departing from Brize Norton airbase on a 6am flight to Basra via Hamburg and Qatar, we arrived at our destination 18 hours later. The final leg of the trip involved two and half hot, uncomfortable hours crammed into a Hercules troop transporter with the final descent into Basra in total darkness wearing body armour and helmets.
Early the next morning work began, with our first task being to find a suitable location on the base to set up the mobile recording studio. We eventually settled on the officers’ mess tent. This was far enough away from most of the noisy generators to offer relative quiet but only once we’d turned off the tent’s own air conditioner.
During August in Basra, temperatures can reach 50 degrees C by lunchtime and by the time we had completed setting up the computer, microphones, headphone amp and other equipment, it was a total oven in the tent. I’ve never experienced heat like it. It was relentless and unbearable. I had to put tea cups under each corner of my laptop computer with a small fan blowing directly onto it to stop it overheating. Even after a lunch break during which I switched all the equipment off, the metal casing was almost too hot to touch just from the temperature in the room!. (As a side note, when we returned from Iraq after a successful trip, I contacted Apple to see if they wanted to run a story about how reliable their laptop was when it counted for a recording in such extremes. I thought it would make a very sexy story for them. They apparently did not as they weren’t at all interested!)
Recordings in the tent (we called it Studio 2) took place when the soldiers were available, subject to their operational commitments.
We literally had guys coming in from patrols, putting their rifles down and picking the pipes up. One of the titles required a quieter environment than the tent for a solo pipe rendition of Flowers of The Forest and for this we went to the quietest place on the whole base; the end of the airport runway. There, as well as playing the piece beautifully, Pipe Major Ross Munro wore full regimental dress for photos against the backdrop of the setting sun. It was evening but still over 40 degrees. I think Ross lost about half a stone in weight that day.
We worked hard and it was a great feeling on the final day, knowing that we had captured some really good performances. For me, the worst thing (other than the heat) was lying in bed at night (under steel plates and sandbags) knowing the siren could sound at any time to warn of incoming rockets. We were told to sleep with our helmets and armour within reach so that we could put them on quickly in the event of an attack (which almost always come at night). Thankfully, there were no attacks during our time there but we were told on our final day that intelligence reports suggested a high likelihood of a large rocket attack imminently. Fortunately we got away before this happened and I gather there were no further injuries on the base.
This record was made in a rather unusual way in that the pipes were recorded first and the arrangements built around them. That’s like recording the lead vocal on a song first and putting the band on afterwards! Once I returned from Iraq, it was a matter of combining the Edinburgh and Basra recordings into one body of material and then arranging all the music to accompany the pipes. We recorded the orchestra in Prague and then mixed the record in London with my good friend Phil Da Costa engineering the mix.
I feel so glad that this album has been recognized with an award. The people involved are brave, professionals who make huge sacrifices and who take enormous pride in their music. It really was a journey for me, one that I found moving and inspiring and which left me feeling very grateful for the safe and relatively easy life that I (and most people I know) take for granted.