Harley And The Hummingbirds Archive
Northwood Hall 2013-14

I moved back to London in 2013 to get a fresh start. I needed to grow up and ‘making it’ was looking less and less likely. Whilst in LA I’d become enamoured with two 70s British films ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and ‘Stardust’, and was taken with the way they portrayed a particular era of music and a certain way of living. It seems silly to make life decisions on the back of a fictional portrayal but seeing David Essex working these menial jobs, living in a bedsit and loving music made things a little more palatable. Perhaps it was okay to not strive for success and do music on the side, who knows, I might end up enjoying it more. It was with that attitude that I entered into the world of gainful employment. Through Tom (MMO) I had managed to secure a job at a keyboard shop on Denmark Street and within a week was asked by another employee, Tom Williams, if I would be interested in sharing a flat. We settled on Northwood Hall in Highgate. It was a 1930s Art Deco apartment building and was the first place I had ever rented. My bedroom was tiny and the landlord had filled it with a double bed which meant the door couldn’t open fully. A shelving unit was next to the bed and it just so happened that Tom and I were provided with the same model with each shelf in a varying state of disrepair. I was a bit resentful of him getting the larger room so one day whilst he was at work I chose his best shelves and switched them with my worst. I would often be awoken by the sound of him struggling to get to his socks and pants. I bought a new bed and with the extra space began to fashion the room into something approaching a 70s British film inspired home studio. I started off with an Akai 4000DS stereo tape machine I had bought a few years earlier and a Shure Unidyne microphone. It was a step-down from the Teac A-3440 I was using in LA but it seemed in line with the lifestyle I was seeking to emulate. I would record rough demos and ideas, mostly inspired by early Pop and Rock N Roll. I had written a great deal prior to this but doing things in this way, having to rely on the quality of the song and not the production, drove home just how little I really knew about the basics of songwriting. I continued with the Akai for a couple of months before deciding to move up to a better machine. I was still keen to keep it simple and so opted for another stereo recorder as opposed to a multitrack. I came across an advert for a high speed Revox B77 in outer London for £400, so on a day off I went to go get it which meant bringing it back on the train, then the tube and then the bus. For anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to carry one of these things through Victoria Station in rush hour, I can assure you this was no mean feat.
Cover Photo: Northwood Hall • Working at Wunjo Keys on Denmark Street • In my bedroom
Another reason for moving back was Rob and his new project Hot Teeth. Back in the MMO days I was particularly fond of his songs and now I’d be able to play a whole set of them. He didn’t disappoint, the theme of the band was ‘just riffs’ and while that may seem diametrically opposed to my thinking at the time I do love a big statement. The music was heavy and it had intent, completely reactionary and anti-everything we were all doing before. I joined initially as a flautist and Minimoog player but moved over to guitar when I got sick of carrying the synth to rehearsals. The band was largely made up of ex-MMO members (Rob, Charlotte & Danny) and guitar shop employees (Nico Volpino & me). Rob had secured a monthly spot at The Gladstone and with one or two exceptions that was the only place we played. Ambitions were low both in the band and at work. I’d romanticised this attitude somewhat but experiencing it in person started to grate on me. There may have been a class aspect (me being middle class in a working class environment) but seeing people coasting by in a job that led nowhere, living in debt and going to the pub afterwards to forget their troubles was not an optimum substitute for whatever I was doing before. Sometimes you need clarity on both extremes to remind you of what you should be doing. I did one recording session with Hot Teeth but my six months in the band were pretty uneventful. It set me straight though and got me focused again on my own musical endeavour.
Hot Teeth live at The Waiting Room
Nearly every day off work I would sit in my room and write songs. Occasionally I would go with Tom to the charity shops in Crouch End or Camden Market but for the most part it was a rather hermetic existence. I had set myself the challenge of writing and recording three songs per week as a means of gaining experience. They didn't have to be good but by the end of the week I would need three complete ideas. I’d record them with my one microphone positioned to pick up both the guitar and voice along with a bit of tape echo from the other channel. There are approximately 50 early songs recorded in this way, most of which have never been heard, written mainly for practice. I eventually started picking through them and re-recording the better ones in a less amateurish manner. In order to add some fullness to the sound I bought a Wem Custom 15 amplifier, Epiphone Flying V, Danelectro Longhorn Bass and a Philicorda organ. I should mention that by now my 60s bohemian songwriter pretensions were very much in the past. In early 2014 a music industry A&R man, Mick Clark, heard some of what I had been recording and reached out to me with the intention of kickstarting my career. I began meeting up with him to discuss my aspirations and any suggestions he might have. More than anything though I think he simply wanted to offer some support. We would always meet in chic cafes in Hyde Park or Kensington and though ultimately nothing came of these meetings, I was glad that someone was spurring me on and encouraging me to keep writing. In fact, it was Mick who pushed me to play my songs live for the first time, the result being an open mic night in Tufnell Park. This was a far cry from the glamour of your average Hollywood venue but it was an important moment in my musical life. Nico and another workmate, Julia (both of whom would go on to form Panama Red) were also playing but this did little to ease my nerves. I had brought my Suzuki Hummingbird copy and my best outfit, hoping to strike a Donovan-esque figure on stage but I'm sure that all the public saw was a nervous, entry level performer. To the best of my recollection I played four songs: Born To Lose, Main Line, Memphis and Change Your Mind. I recall hearing "booooring" coming from the audience as I went into the first number. It was an eye opening experience to say the least. In the summer of 2014 I moved out of Northwood Hall. The outside wall needed serious attention and I wasn't prepared to spend another winter with inadequate heating and a severe rain leak. My girlfriend at the time was also anxious to move in together so the timing seemed right to look for a studio flat elsewhere. Structural issues aside, that room played a defining part in Hummingbirds history and of all the places I've lived it was certainly the most soundproof, I didn't appreciate that at the time.
Northwood Hall Tapes 2014
These are early attempts at Pop songwriting and mark the very start of what would become the Hummingbirds. The vast majority of the music from this point all the way to Future Superstar in 2019 would be recorded on Revox tape recorders necessitating a 'ping-pong' or 'sound-on-sound' style of recording. Though I had used a Teac four track previously, the two track method gave the project a sense of immediacy and fitted with the general approach. The recordings are all rough with the majority of vocals and instruments being done in one take. These weren’t meant for public release, they were songwriting practice so any perfectionism would’ve been counter productive. Caroline is an innocuous little song, nothing spectacular but this was one of the first ones I wrote in the new style aka not trying to sing out of my range and ensuring that the melody was strong enough to carry the song rather than the production. Main Line began life on a slow day in the keyboard shop. Very often foot traffic would die off and to pass the time we’d play on the various keyboards and synthesisers. The intro was supposed to be played on a Wurlitzer a la Beck’s 'Where It’s At' but since I didn’t own one I had to approximate it on guitars. It hints at soul music I suppose but it ends up sounding more like a Stealers Wheel demo. Mary was a step in the right direction although still a way off from what I’d consider good Pop. I couldn’t quite sing the chorus properly but it’s uptempo and has a certain charm. On Jump For Joy I was being far too melodramatic for my own good, likely a result of listening to far too much Scott Walker. I was searching for a direction and songs like these offer an insight into the avenues I was considering. It’s a little embarrassing to listen to but it was one of my Mum’s favourites. Live Without is a song I’m still rather fond of, heavily inspired by early Simon And Garfunkel but still with enough novelty to hold my interest. I was especially pleased with the fuzz guitar sound and the harmonies. My One And Only is a generic late 50s/early 60s number, no doubt a product of me repeatedly watching That’ll Be The Day and wanting to replicate that lifestyle. Not the most successful attempt at that genre of songwriting but an attempt nonetheless. Mother, Mother was classic Cod Reggae, Paul Simon’s 'Mother And Child Reunion' being the obvious influence here. It took at most an hour to write, I remember just wanting to write anything so I’d have an opportunity to record with my new Philicorda. Change Your Mind is another Philicorda number and by this point you can start to hear an increase in sound quality. I was getting to grips with the two track recording method and the instrument balance was getting better with every song. It occupies a similar space as Main Line but there’s a little more confidence and I think you can hear it. Born To Lose was one of the last pieces from this era prior to settling on a musical direction. It’s a simple recording, just vocals, guitar and a bit of echo but that’s all it needed. The song isn’t impressive but like the others it’s an attempt at taking an existing song form and putting a spin on it. From that standpoint its very much a proto-Hummingbirds number.
Epiphone Flying V • Kiso-Susuki Hummingbird • Danelectro Longhorn Bass • Philicorda Organ • Percussion • Arbiter Fuzz Face • Wem Custom 15 • Revox B77 • Shure Unidyne
All songs recorded in Northwood Hall, Highgate, London.

Photo credits: Tom McLuckie • H Hill-Richmond • Unknown • Unknown