Martin Hannett, His Equipment and Strawberry Studios

January 11, 2017


Strawberry was a studios like no other. Situated in an unglamorous quarter of deadening Stockport and instigated at the moment when local heroes, The Mindbenders were morphing through the bizarre interlude of pre-10cc Hotlegs, it offered northern musicians of note a simple solution. It was an alternative to the infernal trip to the Smoke in order to tangle with recording equipment deemed essential to producing hit-quality material. It also served to keep musicians and managers aloof from overt record company interference.

This would later echo down the years before settling on the formation of Factory Records and, in particular, Joy Division manager Rob Gretton who persuaded his charges to remain in Manchester so they, in Rob’s words, “…didn’t have to deal with cunts.”

And so they didn’t, (although thy did go to Britannia Row to record ‘Closer’, but we will gloss over that).All of which might place the opening of Strawberry as the hinge event in the history of Manchester music. For it would successfully stride pre and post punk,  building on 10cc, Neil Sedaka, Paul McCartney with Joy Division, Stone Roses, Smiths, Sisters of Mercy, Happy Mondays and many others. (All of which will be celebrated in the Strawberry Studios 50th anniversary exhibition at Stockport Museum. Opening on January 28, 2017).

There really was a magic to Strawberry,too. In a purely non-technical sense, it seemed to offer a door carrying you from Stockport’s prevailing greyness into the intoxicating glamour of the music business. The red-themed interior – very sixties as well as very Strawberry – welcomed you to its warm heart. The receptionist seemed equally welcoming, as did the familiar angled studio console. It didn’t come as a surprise to discover that 10cc’s ground-breaking ‘I’m Not In Love’ had been recorded in this space, with the assistance of band members engineers and manager Ric Dixon standing around the room holding vertical screwdrivers around which ran the recording tape. Moments of legend are built from such instances. And that, I am afraid to acknowledge, is where my own technical expertise begins to rapidly fade. How wonderful, therefore, to see Chris Hewitt’s A4 size compendium, pick up the technical angle from this point, guiding us through the equipment in and around Strawberry and mostly used to legendary effect by ‘genius’ producer, Martin Hannett.

Now Chris Hewitt, by his own admission, would not claim to be ‘a writer’. He is, however, arguably the major north west music archivist of the past fifty years. Just a visit to his house where, depending on the time, you might be clambering over amps, guitars, books, posters and stacks of photographs and magazines. It is a lifetime’s work, augmented by his staging of, it seems, thousands of events including the six Deeply Vale Festivals – see ‘Deeply Dippy’ feature, on these pages).

‘Martin Hannett; his Equipment and Strawberry Studios’ is a most welcome upgrade from Hewitt’s previous tome, ‘Martin Hannett, Pleasures of the Unknown’. However, whereas that particular books had employed a more holistic take, this new outing funnels down to the use of vintage recording equipment, establishing a link between these chunky artifacts and the hot-wired brain of the producer himself.

As such we find a unique book that, in a sense, sees the Hewitt archive – or its relevant aspects – splurge gloriously across the pages. It is an extremely honest book in this respect as the author stands mostly away from opinion or description. This gives the text a curious existential quality. Any Joy Division fan wishing to unearth the sonic realities behind their recordings need look no further. In no other Joy Division book will you fund this level of technical depth.

Much of the text is derived from sound technician trade magazines of the seventies and, as such, are utterly impenetrable for anyone not schooled in this narrow area. However, even a Luddite such as I can’t help but glean a curious pleasure from paragraphs like this:

“The 5C was claimed to deliver an ‘audible response’ of 50 Hz to 15kHz, qualified by a rather more meaningful specification of 200Hz to 12.5kHz with slightly curious tolerance range of 3.5dB. The power rating was 30W RMS and 60W peak, with a nominal independence of 8Q and a sensitivity of 89dB/W/m.”

Oh absolutely. If nothing else, I am glad that is finally cleared up. I am being  unfair here but wanted to present the view from a non-technical (in the vintage sense) Hannett aficionado. In due course I shall pass the book over to our tech-wiz-head Paul Ripley to dissect within the pages of ‘Blowin’.

But there is still much to enjoy. The latter pages are filled with random snapshots of Rabid Records stalwarts Tosh Ryan, John Cooper Clarke, Chris Sievey, Lawrence Beedle and Hannett himself. This provides a unique peak into the chaotic regime of the ungainly Rabid crew, with Ryan perfecting the look of a down-at-heal Reliant Robin salesman from Tadcaster. But, in Manchester, if not elsewhere, these were the days of headstrong chancers and wayward off-kilter artisans. It now seems like a universe apart. Despite that, one is left wondering what would have happened to Manchester’s second golden age of music had the visionaries of Strawberry failed to deliver in terms of technical endeavor, artistic brilliance and, unlike Factory Records, steely business acumen.

This is a strangely beautiful book.

Martin Hannett, His equipment and Strawberry Studios written and compiled by Chris Hewitt is published by Dandelion Records, CDs and DVDs.