Tuesday 19 June 2012

Revox, Xerox, Redux: Thomas Leer & Robert Rental

Punk was never a parasite gnawing at the inner fabric of society or even the music establishment, but it did lay some unexpected eggs on its welcoming host. The anti-establishment DIY ethos of making noncommercial music, and then pressing and distributing your own records clearly emerged with post-punk and electronic music...

After all, most punk bands were signed by majors, their commercial appeal to young people was obvious and blindly exploited by major labels. Its easy to overlook how swiftly punk came and went - all under a Labour government, well before Maggie Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister. Rather, it was a peculiarly British revolution from the lo-fi British electronic pioneers, Thomas Leer, Robert Rental, the Normal, who initiated this crucial DIY sea-change in UK (and world) music.

Daniel Miller (aka the Normal) went on to develop his label Mute into the important artist stable it remains today, starting with Depeche Mode. And his first single Warm Leatherette and TVOD are well-known. His JG Ballard Crash inspired Warm Leatherette has been covered by the likes of Grace Jones as well as Trent Razor, Geordie White and Pete Murphy

Although I knew Daniel Miller at that time, the evolution of Mute is well-documented. Rather I wanted to talk about two friends of mine at that time: Thomas Leer (born Wishart) and Robert Rental (born Donnachie). Thomas and Robert came from the same Scottish hometown of Port Glasgow and in the mid 70s they moved to London together, with their respective partners (and sisters) Liz and Hilary Farrow (I recall Robert and Hilary also had a least one, possibly two children then) .All of Tom's home-made experiments were 'tested' on the world by Liz, who worked at the original Virgin Records store in Oxford Street - where she regularly played cassettes of his prolific outputs to those perusing the singles-section in the shop basement.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

In 1978 Thomas Leer pressed 650 copies of his double A side Private Plane and International on his own Oblique records - possibly a nod to the Oblique Strategies of Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno - 100 worthwhile dilemmas - used by Eno in recording sessions to overcome artistic blocks or to seek inspiration - an online version is here - be inspired!
Robert Rental similarly pressed 650 of his double A side single ACC and Paralysis on his own alliteratively consistent Regular records. When they rapidly sold out, both singles were re-released by 'Company' in somewhat different sleeves (slightly less DIY)

Private Plane/International were recorded in Tom's small Finsbury Park flat in 3 days using a TEAC A3440 4-track recorder and an ALICE mixing board. "The only FX used were a Watkins Copicat tape echo unit, Electo Harmonix DrQ filter, an old Roland drum machine and a Stylophone 350S. The process was simply a case of laying the tracks down one at a time, applying FX as I went along, and then mixing them all down onto a REVOX A77 mastering machine" They then moved everything across the Thames to Robert's Battersea flat to record ACC/Paralysis.

The DIY nature is evident above in my original time-jaundiced copies of the 45s: the xeroxed covers, even some felt tip colouring on Robert's (by him), John Bull printing on the white labels, handwritten cut-out details, even Robert's home address (where their album 'the Bridge' was recorded - see below).


Tom's single made a big impact - being made NME single of the week by Tony Parsons (now social commentator and author of Man & Boy), which normally assured fame and fortune in those days. The two 45s have a special feel that I believe have stood the test of time partly ‘because’ of the way they were recorded – at home on 4-track, in the same room where Liz was sleeping (hence Tom's vocals are delivered so softly), guitar, rhythm from a cheap drum machine and a bubbling bass that sounds too fast (in the style of Neu on Fur Immer or Hallo Gallo) and finally, Rolf Harris stylophone lead melodies! Without doubt, this 45 would be on my desert Island disc selection. Robert's two songs, by contrast, were less immediately accessible and at the time, overshadowed by his friends release; however, to my ear, Robert's ACC/Paralysis have matured more with age - on ACC sounding like a 'tired and emotional' Barry White on acid or on Paralysis like a terribly sad Tim Buckley being played at 16 RPM.
I heard Private Plane by Thomas Leer which he did all by himself, all the playing and writing, everything. That was the big turning point for me because it introduced me to a whole new form of music...Leer had all these drum machines and loops and totally different instrumentation, and this whole new world opened up, listening to his experimentation with atmospheres. I realised then that I didn`t have to make songs that sounded like everybody else...People would buy a stylophone and a small tape player and put out a record they had made in their bedroom. That was really inspiring.- Matt Johnson,The The
I don`t have to go into a studio, the fact that Thomas Leer made his record at home with a Revox and on mostly hired equipment, I thought was marvellous and I like his record a lot. In fact it`s one of my favourite records at the moment.John Foxx, Ultravox

The Bridge: "I thought the idea of the song was dead"

Following their successful singles, Thomas and Robert produced 'The Bridge' for Industrial Records (Throbbing Gristle's label). One month after Margaret Thatcher was first elected as UK Prime Minister, and just as Joy Division released Unknown Pleasures, Tom and Rob spent two weeks (18 June to 2nd July 1979) recording the album using TG's 8-track recorder holed-up at Robert's high rise council flat (identified above). In the same vein as David Bowie's Low, released the previous year, the Bridge consists of two discreet sides - one with regular song structures, the other more fluid  instrumental pieces.

Thomas said "Robert wanted songs and I wanted to do a pure ambient album...the idea of the song was dead and the future belonged to instrumental music. Voices could be used, but not in a structured way" - which I suppose is what he had been doing even in his poppier songs - the lyrics are largely indecipherable and add a melodic line for the listener.

As an example of the structured minimal electro pop of side one, here is Day Breaks, Night Heals - a dirty, grungy Kraftwerk as filtered through a more apologetic British mentality. The distinctive sound is of the Wasp synthesizer made by the British Electronic Dream Plant with its monophonic touch-sensitive keyboard, dual oscillators, it could be run on batteries, had a built in speaker, and connected to other Wasps or its sister sequencer -the Spider. It was the first affordable synthesiser to use digital technology- I bought mine over 30 years ago and it still works!

Although repetition is a major force in music it was never used in this way before - Terry Riley
From side 2, here is Interferon , which is a paradigmatic example of a looping technique pioneered by Brian Eno on Discreet Music. Althoiugh it was used earlier by people like Terry Riley, who referred to it as the 'Time Lag Accumulator' -listen to his Ecstasy  from 1968; and then more explicitly by Eno's collaborator Robert Fripp (formerly of King Crimson), who referred to it as Frippertronics. Fripp introduced this to Eno on their album No Pussyfooting (listen to Heavenly Music Corporation).

Interferon uses a mixture of tape loops and synthesiser sounds played backward to develop a dense though dark orchestral sound - closer to the experimentation of Riley than the quietness of Eno. As noted on The Bridge sleeve (see below), you can actually hear interfering electrical items click (a fridge or other domestic device) echoing away infinitely during Interferon. At other points on side 2, you can hear their soft Scottish voices chatting in the background, coughing, attempting repeatedly to light cigarettes, excerpts of the TV - all encompassed in a womb of hypnotic loops - side 2 as a whole contains some of my favourite electronic insrumental pieces - music made in life - truly ambient!

This simple looping technique is described here (with Eno's Discreet Music in the background). It consists of two Revox tape machines linked together with one recording input and then the tape being fed and played through the second machine; the output of Revox 2 is then fed back via leads to Revox 1 and an infinite echo loop occurs with gradual decay. This technique could not be simpler or more analogue - as the length of the delay echo is purely dependent upon the distance between the two Revox machines.

The back cover of The Bridge shows the dominating presence of the tape-loop decks
Robert (left) and Thomas (right)

Robert Rental and the Normal live

Robert did play live a few times with Daniel Miller (as Robert Rental and the Normal) during a typically perverse Rough Trade tour in which they were support act for Stiff Little Fingers in 1979.
Fortunately one gig was recorded and released as a single-sided LP by Rough Trade: Live at the West Runton Pavilion - a smallish venue on the North Norfolk coast (which now no longer exists but did host everyone from Chuck Berry to T-Rex, Sex Pistols, the Clash and Joy Division). Some great footage of Robert and Daniel playing live to the somewhat bemused would-be-punk audience also exists (see below)

Before setting off on the tour Robert and Daniel played a single night at the Cryptic One Club under Trinity Church, Bishops Bridge Road, Paddington, along with Metabolist, Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. This was one of many great nights organised in unusual venues by the gig promoters 'Final Solution' - or Colin Faver (who worked in Small Wonder Records in Walthamstow, London) and Kevin Millins - who deserve credit for the role they played. Colin subsequently became a DJ on the rave scene. By the way Colin, if you ever read this, you still have my copy of the 1st Annual Report by Throbbing Gristle (on cassette) - 30 years is a long loan!

NME journalist, and now culture commentator, Paul Morley's description of the Cryptic Club evening resonates closely with my memories:
A youth club under a church. A cramped cellar, lots of arches. The "stage" is 15 feet deep and six feet wide. Twenty at most of the audience can see it. A few more can see part of it. In a corner lager is being sold for 50 pence a can. The writing on the wall doesn't say "a culture never falls to pieces, it just gives birth", but that's only 'cos I'd forgotten my chalk.It was hot, crowded, murky, NOISY now and then, silent but mostly decadent. Paul Morley
Also Cosey Fanni Tutti of Throbbing Gristle recalled that night:
"It was an electric night, very alive and thumping energy from  wall to wall and from roof to well below ground. A great shift and a great surge forward happened that night.... Suffice  it to say it was special in MANY many ways to all the people who attended" - Cosey 

Cryptic One Club 11th November 1978 (the remainder of my Ticket stub)


Robert produced a solo demo cassette of Wasp-based instrumentals 'Mental Detentions' in 1979 (with titles A1, A2 etc B1, B2...an example is loaded here), but only released one more musical offering - the propitious Double Heart for Mute Records, then retired from music to spend time with his family. Very sadly, Robert died of lung cancer in 2000 (aged just 48)

Thomas was always a musical chameleon and I vividly recall certain new albums making a strong impression on him (the forboding contents of PIL's Metal Box, Peter Hammil's A Black Box, Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures to name a few) and then these following through into his musical experiments. After The Bridge, he signed for Cherry Red and released a funky well-acclaimed album called Contradictions. He later signed for Arista, for whom he produced the Fairlight-heavy 'The Scale of Ten', which contains two wonderfully subversive Eastern-flavoured pop-tunes about heroin

International (a completely new song about the mundane life of an international heroin-trader)
Came in on flight 83, making a drop here for the company, seems to be travelling light, a secret compartment holds the Chinese white.
He lives his life on the move, making connections in cold hotel rooms, but in a far away place, poppies are harvested in the morning haze
...carrying across the world and selling it to boys and girls, delivered from the company, packaged by international

and Chasing the Dragon (about using Heroin for the first time)
lay your money down, a bigger price you have to pay for what you are about.. to try...clear a space, strike a light, I need to satisfy, watch the crystals come to life and feel your senses die...and fly

I had not mentioned Thomas' use of words until now - largely because his voice was often so subtle that the words were indecipherable (he once said to me that he didn't try to create linear stories usually, but used phrases for their sound and atmosphere more than anything else)

International (top) and Chasing the Dragon (bottom)

"You can hardly separate music from technology" Trevor Horn

Thomas went on to form ACT with Claudia Brücken (formerly of Propaganda who had produced hits in the mid 80s - here they oddly but nicely cover Throbbing Gristle's Discipline). ACT released a few singles and an album for the ZTT label with famed producer Trevor Horn, who co-owned ZTT - coincidentally with Paul Morley (quoted above). Here is ACT with Snobbery and Decay - in receipt of the full Trevor Horn 'wall-of-sound' production treatment (that many benefited from including ABC,  Frankie Goes to Hollywood,  and the Pet Shop Boys)

Following this, Thomas more or less retired from the music industry for many years until a few sporadic releases more recently on small labels - largely low budget productions inspired by modern offerings from bands such as Future Sound of London. Tom's latest offering From Sci Fi to Barfly is available only on the web as far as I can determine but here are a couple of beautiful tracks: Blood of a Poet and Paths of Least Resistance

I am still astonished that no major artist has covered the perfect pop songs that lurk behind the lo-fi production of Thomas Leer's Private Plane and International (or many of his later songs).

My strongest personal recollection of Thomas and Robert is how charming and inspiring they were and our rehearsing together in a short-lived attempt to form a band (provisionally called Acid)consisting of Robert, Thomas, Liz, Matt Johnson and myself ...but that's another story...


  1. Discovered your blog today, thoroughly enjoyable. My blog, should you care to take a look is Skreeworld. I shall follow you, skree

  2. On Behalf of Keith McIvor:

    I think this is the best piece about Robert Rental on the internet and it fills me with joy to read more about him in such an informative and insightful manner. I love the music of both Leer & Rental but Robert's music hold a particularly special place in my heart, possibly because he only released such a small amount of it and everything he did release continues to move me to this day. I bought his Double Heart single in the mid 80s and probably listen to it more nowadays than at any point previously. It is so timeless, so sublime, so enigmatic. I even named a project I am working on Doubleheart in tribute. The two 7"s, Live at West Runton Pavilion and The Bridge are records I shall forever cherish.

    Thanks so much for writing this entry and keeping Robert's bright flame alive

  3. Brought back more than a few great memories, thanx

  4. Another time - Another place - I was there - I think I was there? But fuck - I didn't know about this. I suppose during the arrogance of youth you didn't share such things. - Obviously, I knew all about Matt and you talked about Thomas Leer - You did say Thomas and Robert were real gentlemen. Previously history has been in the hands of the few. Today, such recollections give first account insights into people and subjects sadly ignored. Please write more my friend. Professor Wasp I'm looking forward to more..............

  5. very informative piece, thanks. Still have all the Thomas Leer stuff including the Private Plane single although sadly it's the Company reissue! ACC I ony had on the ZigZag Business Unusual Comp. Living in Suffolk I spent a lot of nights at West Runton Pavillion - unfortunately not the night that Robert Rental was there....