VISIT TO MIDDLE EAR.
A group of fans, members of BGFC-EUROPE, have been able to visit the Bee Gees’ studio with help of their fan club.
So in October 2002 they visited Middle Ear together with Terri Bridge of BGFC (President) and wrote down this story for us. Enjoy their report and the lovely photos!
The meeting with Maurice, mentioned in this report, (Farewell To Maurice) is published on the Tribute To Maurice pages of this GSI web site.
Marion: GSI / BGFC-EUROPE.
AN AFTERNOON WE’LL NEVER FORGET.
It hasn’t been easy for me to write this report. Although our visit to the studio was already in October 2002, I haven’t been able to write it any earlier than February 2003 due to personal circumstances, so about a month after the death of Maurice. Some parts of the interview therefore may sound a little unpleasant but I didn’t want to leave them out. Two days after the visit to the studio we also personally met Maurice and so it happened that the studio visit in fact became less important than meeting Maurice however it was supposed to become the highlight of our visit to Miami. I think I speak of all six of us when I say I’m so very happy and proud having had the opportunity in October 2002 to have met Maurice still glowing with health. This meeting with Maurice, being so kind and full of humour, has made our trip unforgettable.
The studio visitors from Holland sitting behind the console. Standing: Terri Bridge
Each Bee Gees fan knows the video recordings on the Keppel Road video. Barry, Robin and Maurice working in their own studio: the birth of ‘Just In Case’. On Wednesday October 9th. 2002 our dream came through. Together with my friends Rosalien and Piet, Monique and Adrie, Mark and myself we were invited to pay a visit to the studio of The Bee Gees. Precisely at 12 o’clock we arrive at the Middle Ear Studio in Miami Beach where John Merchant, the Bee Gees’ sound engineer welcomes us and invites us in. While we enter John tells us that this is one of the largest studios in Florida and that The Bee Gees are using it since 1980 when Barbra Streisands album ‘Guilty’ was recorded here being the first album made here. Our tour starts in the control room and John Merchant tells all about the digital console that they have been using for 5 years now. Next he gives us a technical explanation of which I only understand a part but anyway the console has 200 channels and sometimes John uses about 30% of it. Through a wall of glass we see the studio floor. Just like we’ve seen that on the Keppel Road video. Eagerly we follow John into the other room. Here we can sit down everywhere we like and touch everything and most important: take photos as much as possible. One by one we take a seat behind the keyboard, the drums or we just take a guitar in our hands. It almost feels like sacrilege. John Merchant is watching us and just smiling. He answers all our questions and sometimes he says: ‘that I can’t tell you, you should ask this to themselves’! Here’s a number of the questions we’ve asked John:
John takes all the time to explain everything
where ever you watch there are countless nice photos on the walls.
We: How is it to work with the Bee Gees?
John Merchant: Great synergy of talent. It’s really a challenge to make them all three satisfied. With three you’ve always get someone who’s going to look at you with a different perspective and say ‘no it can be better’. Three people attacking one goal. If you can get it to the point when all three of those guys are happy, the end result is always a great song.
It seems not always to go that easy. Like John tells us about the composing of one of the songs of the Still Waters album:
JM: They’d been busy for hours and it didn’t seem to work. They’d just decided to quit for the day and Robin and Barry were walking out of the door when Maurice just played some last musical notes. Suddenly they stopped, turned around and were very excided and asked Maurice to repeat these last notes. They again sat down and three minutes later they’d finished: “I Could Not Love You More”
We: Do you have any influence on the music the Bee Gees record?
JM: Not really. One thing I will, sad to say, never forget. That day I had for personal reasons not a good day. Barry came in the studio and he had made a song he was really excited about it. He played it and asked me ‘what do you think?’. I said ‘oh it’s oké’. I just couldn’t bring up any enthusiasm. It was a very good song. But he didn’t pursue the song because he thought I didn’t like it.
WE: Do you feel guilty?
JM: Well, I’m telling you this story four years later, so you tell me!
WE: What’s you’re favorite song of the Bee Gees?
JM: I love ‘I will’ from the Still Waters album. Great simple track, I really love this song. Maybe it is because this was my first chance to work with Arif Mardin. A fantastic man to work with.
WE: Do you express it if you don’t like a song?
M: It’s not my job to influence them or tell them if a song is a good one. If I like a song, I won’t hide it. I will tell them ‘this is fantastic’. If I don’t like a song I will never voice that. One of my very first records was ‘high civilization’. There was this one track they were making I just wasn’t sure of. But then after a couple of days they were working more on it. Adding more drum, changed a couple of things, and I thought ‘that’s cool’. So I told them ‘I’m from Virginia, who the hell am I to know if a song is great’. I’m more than willing to admit when I’m wrong.
John Merchant asks us if we want to see the rest of the building. Of course !!!! Once upstairs we were speechless with amazement. Everywhere on the walls there were framed photos. The walls were covered with photos from top to bottom. John shows us the different rooms. Then we come to the office of Dick Ashby.
JM: Dick works for them 24 hours a day whether it’s here or at home. He is always taking care of them. Each day he will come in a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the afternoon. He lives at Barry’s and is always busy for the Bee Gees. He’s just a busy guy.
The next room
JM: This is the meeting room. When they are busy on a project and have to speak about it or when they have visitors they will speak here with them. There are all kinds of documents on the walls, gold records and interesting framed posters. There’s a coffee table with a blue couch and some chairs. Against the walls are shelves with different keyboards piled up.
We again go to another room. There’s a dart board on the wall and a TV set. There’s a huge pool table and a pinball machine what has been given to Stevie in 1980 by the band Kiss. Then there’s a green couch and a diner table with four chairs. The room in ‘to relax’.
JM: Sometimes we work with several musicians. It’s great when you can send the others out to work with one of them for a while. You can say to the others ‘we call you when we need you’.
We cannot stop watching all the photos. There’s a complete series taken during the Saturday Night Fever period. The first album John worked on with The Bee Gees was ‘One’. Isn’t it a pity for John he wasn’t with them yet during the ‘Fever’ period?
JM: If I had a time machine I would go back to spend some time with them during that period. I’ve heard great stories. It must have been remarkable. I would have loved to be there.
The Dutch BGFC members together with right John Merchant.
We follow John to a small area next to this room. Here we see lots of boxes piled up very high with equipment and all sort of material to build a concert stage. Boxes full with instruments, and rows of guitars. On each guitar box there are the initials like BG or MG so you can easily see which one is Barry’s and which of Maurice. Some have really beautiful names like ‘blue songbird’. For some one like me, who had a musical instrument in my hands for the first time in my live today, Johns’ words become again a bit hard to follow. But anyway my probably silly question about the difference between an acoustic guitar and an electric one he answered with a lot of patience. He then opens two boxes and John plays them so we can hear the difference. We ask him how he knows which guitar he’ll need in what moment and he explains that some guitars are used very frequently and others are only favourite for a short period of time. Back to the control room. Rosalien, Monique and myself take a seat behind the console. It just looks like a cockpit of a plane!! And being a journalist I directly see the keyboard. Here you can simply type text. Smiling we look at the big red button in the middle: ‘delete master tape’, sorry fans but it’ll take some months longer than expected before there’ll be another album out!!
John is taking a seat behind the huge computer. On the screen he shows us how things work. Each instrument is on a separate track.
WE: Can you actually make a false note sound pure?
JM: I will look for an example for you. Here this is a great performance. The emotion is there. It’s only a little out of tune. It’s a little bit sharp. I can correct this with ‘auto tune’. I can’t add emotion, feeling or depth. All I can do is fix a note that’s a little off key. Barry hates this technology. He doesn’t let me use it on his voice. I only used it once and let’s say he was not happy. He was angry because his feeling was for one, he felt that I was making a value judgement about his performance and for two, he felt that, if I didn’t feel like the note was in tune I should have asked him to re-sing it. Which he would have done ‘just give me another shot at it’. He was really mad at me when he heard that I had changed the note. So I won’t do that again!!! With the other two, when I tell them after a record session , that a note needs a little help, they would say, all right do it, but I know that Barry rather sings an off-key note hundred times again and again.
He's happy with the gift he's just received.
During our stay in Miami Beach we also got a chance to see Barry.
WE: Do the three of them have a different kind of humour when they’re together or when they are separately.
JM: No It’s pretty much the same. They have the ability to entertain themselves endlessly. Which is such a skill. I think they probably have learned it for all these years being backstage waiting for things to happen. There is a tremendous amount of time just sitting around. For a stage performance, in the morning there are lots of technical things to do, at noon they have lunch, then they have to wait till four o ‘clock for the sound check, another two hours of sitting around and then they have to perform for sometimes only 15 minutes. A huge amount of time in between during which they have found ways to entertain each other. They understand each others humour better than anyone else. I’ve tried once to jump in there and say something but you’ve just got shot down. Now I just let them go and wait till it’s over and they are ready to work again. Actually it’s great.
WE: You’re working a very long time with them.
JM: In the music business it’s an eternity to work with an artist for that long. Usually you would just be hired for a single project. I don’t know how it got to be that long. Part of it is because I worked with them in different jobs. I started taking out the trash and making coffee. Then I went out on tour with them in ’89 for ‘One of all’. I worked as an assistant under Femi Jiya during ‘High Civilization’ and ‘Size Isn’t Everything’. Then I moved up to studio-engineer. It all happened in stages during 15 years. When I started here there were three guys, a chief engineer, an assistant engineer and a studio manager. I replaced all three of them alone.
WE: So actually you earn three salaries?
JM: That would be nice but I’m happy to just get one.
WE: You really like you’re job!
JM: I’ve got a great job. Think of it, every day I can come to this studio and nice people sing for me. Imagine that, yeah I’ve got a fantastic job, it’s the best job of this world.
We, Rosalien & Piet, Monique & Adrie as well as Mark & Yvonne, wish to thank everyone who has made this visit possible. And of course we’d like to thank John Merchant who showed us around the studio for over three hours and patiently answered all our questions.
These were hours never to forget!!!!
Story by: Yvonne Schuiveling
Photo credits: Piet Beks