Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

How it happened

3. Don't Stop Me Now

Preparation, Arranging and a boost from Dr May.

Whether the project was financially viable was still a major concern. I would need to fly Carlos, Gary and myself to Venezuela and pay for us to eat and sleep for two weeks during the recording of the album. I discussed this with Carlos and he assured me that the cost of such things in Venezuela was extremely cheap, and in any case we would probably stay at his house in Carora. Like so many things, this went wrong, but more about that later!

Appeased by this, I needed to talk to Gary about the cost of arranging the music for the orchestra. I drove back round to Hertford again and we sat in Café Uno discussing costs and dates over breakfast. We agreed on a figure both as an up front fee for arranging and a royalty for producing. I didn’t know what we would be getting into in Venezuela so I wanted Gary to travel with us to produce the album. I could now factor these costs into the bigger picture along with CD duplication etc. It was already becoming clear that the cost of the album would be at least four or five times the cost of the Classical Guitar Performance DVD. This wasn’t necessarily a problem, as I assumed that the album would appeal to a more mainstream market.

The next thing I had to do was introduce Carlos to Gary. The three of us could discuss technical requirements and draw on Carlos’ extensive knowledge of the country and of some of the people that we would be working with.

When we finally sat down together, again at Gary’s place, we chatted through issues such as how many sessions we thought we could have with the orchestra, mapping out a rehearsal, recording and mixing schedule in Venezuela and generally creating an action plan. At this stage I still hadn’t committed to going, and by the same token, Marco Tulio hadn’t absolutely confirmed that his offer would get past the orchestra board.

Another major concern was timing. Could the three of us travel to Venezuela at a time convenient to the orchestra? Realistically we had to go in the summer. There were several reasons for this. The Simon Bolivar youth orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel was booked to perform at the Proms in London in August. We really wanted to go before this happened. Once the orchestra had been seen in London, with their brilliant conductor and charismatic performances where they dance as they play, dressed in Venezuelan tracksuits, there would surely be an international clamour for Venezuelan orchestras, and the offer of a free one to us could be withdrawn.

In addition to this concern, Carlos had many engagements all round the world in the latter part of the year especially. Gary was also heavily committed after the summer.

We were now into March and I still hadn’t given Gary the go ahead to start arranging. As soon as he put pen to paper I would have to start paying him, rightly so.

There was also a sense of “striking while the iron was hot”. In a couple of weeks we’d gone from considering colouring a guitar album with strings, to being on the cusp of recording the album with an orchestra, so a sense of momentum had definitely built up.

I had major concerns surrounding the recording facilities in Venezuela. With the political culture, it’s very hard to get a direct answer from somebody who knows the answer to the question you’re posing. All communication was between Carlos on our side, and Marco Tulio in Venezuela, and always in Spanish for that matter. Neither Carlos nor Marco Tulio were sound engineers and I needed to be satisfied that the recording facilities were up to snuff.

Gary and I both contacted people we knew in the UK who had extensive experience of recording orchestras and classical guitar. Between us we began to get a picture of the equipment required, but there were conflicting opinions between some of the people that we contacted. Some felt that an orchestra could be recorded well with only a couple of mics, others insisted on the importance of putting mics on each section of the orchestra and others insisted on the need to mic each desk within each section.

I asked Carlos to discuss these technical concerns with Marco Tulio, but we would always get vague replies from him. We would be told that many good recordings had been made before. I would ask for a copy of one of these recordings but none would ever show up. Finally, Marco Tulio confirmed that the orchestra board had sanctioned the project. The only available time from their point of view was from Monday June 25th for two weeks. I gave Gary the go-ahead and confirmed that we were coming.

At the original meeting between me, Carlos and Gary, I had raised my concern over Queen giving permission to record their songs. A slightly curious procedure applies to recording other people’s material. Queen’s co-publisher is EMI music. I contacted them detailing my plan and asking for clearance. I was informed that in cases such as this, we would only be given provisional permission. This means that final permission will probably be given, but this will only be confirmed once the recording is completed. This protects the composer, as of course lyrics could be changed against his wishes, or the music may be recorded in a way the composer feels is detrimental to the original. This does make it a bit nerve racking though when you have to pay for the entire project, and then seek final permission from Queen and EMI!

I felt very strongly that I didn’t want to do anything that Queen were unhappy with, so I had sent a letter to Brian May and Jim Beach explaining what we intended to do. I hoped that they had no objection in principle. I also explained that with the calibre of musicians involved in the project, I was confident we could do the material justice.

I got out of bed on a Tuesday morning in March and switched on my PC. Checking my inbox I saw that I had an e-mail from Brian May! “Lisa! Lisa!” I shouted to my half asleep girlfriend sitting in the bath, “I’ve had an e-mail from Brian May!!” Brian was responding to my letter from a few weeks previously and thanked me for the offer of working with Carlos. He was very busy but thought the Venezuelan project was wonderful and would “watch and cheer”. He also felt sure that the recordings would be approved and permission would be granted!

This was an inspirational moment and gave the extra impetus required to plough ahead. (By sheer co-incidence I spotted Brian at the Journey concert at the Hammersmith Apollo the following day)

With permission effectively granted and with the re-assurance that Brian and Jim Beach were aware of the project and supportive, I pressed for a list of recording equipment from Venezuela. Eventually this came through and although typically sketchy, basically confirmed that they did have the required pro-tools recording set up as well as the appropriate mics. The two main studios in Barquisimeto would pool their resources to do as good a job as possible.

I travelled round the M25 and up the A1M to Gary’s each Monday where we would discuss how each piece could be arranged in terms of instrumentation. Gary would then arrange the track during the week and make his own midi arrangement so I could hear it the following Monday. Every piece he arranged seemed to outdo whatever he’d done before. He asked if I knew if there was a choir in Barquisimeto as perhaps we could utilise this on some tracks. As luck would have it they had a multi prize-winning youth choir affiliated to the university which we were welcome to use.

Communication was always difficult but although very slow to reply, the Venezuelans were clearly doing everything possible to help make this a success. I told Gary the good news and in our next arranging meeting, we agreed that he would arrange choir parts for three songs: Barcelona, Teo Torriate and Save Me. Musically, the album was coming together beautifully.

Although I now had a strong sense of the cultural differences between us, nothing could have prepared us for the rollercoaster ride which awaited us in South America and how close we came to returning empty handed!

Flights were booked. Carlos, Gary, Lisa and I would fly to Caracas on June 22nd.

Chapter 1. Dreamers Ball

Carlos Bonell, classical guitar and Queen

Chapter 2. The Miracle

Orchestral Queen and the thought of Venezuela.

Chapter 4. Spread Your Wings

Planes, strains and automobiles.

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