Feature When the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards were deployed to Basra, they took their bagpipes along with them. We talk to the music producers who recorded the 'world's most dangerous' album in Iraq.
Tom Lewis and Jon Cohen were facing a challenging battle. They were in the middle of recording a follow-up to last year's British hit album Spirit of the Glen when the musicians, who serve in Britain's Royal Scots Dragoon Guards regiment, were deployed to Basra for six months. Lewis, who is the A&R manager for Universal Music in Britain, and Cohen, an award-winning music producer, did what very few others would have done - they followed them out to Iraq. It was Universal's first album ever recorded on the front line and the new CD Spirit of the Glen: Journey, which was released on Dec 1, is being dubbed the world's "most dangerous" album. Sales have been good so far; the album reached close to the top on the British classical music charts and number 29 in the album charts the second week after its release. The music on this latest venture is stirring - songs include classics such as Auld Lang Syne and Greensleeves and pop favourites such as Take My Breath Away and Unchained Melody - but what is most intriguing is the effort and commitment made by the soldiers and record company executives to get this album produced.
Musical success is nothing new to the pipes and drums band of this cavalry regiment. In 1972 the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards had No 1 hit singles in Britain, Ireland, Australia and South Africa with Amazing Grace. They have toured the world with their compelling music and Lewis, whose father worked with the regiment, had long been impressed with their sound. After working with the band on the record Highland Cathedral, Lewis and a member of the regiment came up with the idea to record an album of their stirring sound. "We thought it was a long time since anyone had tried to make a popular record of pipe music and that we should have a go," says Lewis. "It is an extremely evocative and emotional sound and we felt there were a lot of people out there who would absolutely love it." To their surprise and excitement, their first album was a great success. Spirit of the Glen was No 1 on the British classical music charts for 14 weeks; it reached the top 20 on the pop album charts and outsold acts such as Bon Jovi, Elton John and 50 Cent, who also released albums during that period. "We thought we should follow up on that success and that is where we ran into problems because they were going to be serving in a military operation," says Lewis.
Though a lot of the preparatory work for the record was done beforehand (other instruments including flutes, strings and guitars are used to fill out and complement the pipes and drums), there was early acknowledgement that Lewis and Cohen might have to head to Basra if they wanted to get the album done and ready for release in time for the Christmas season. It was initially a logistical minefield. "When I told my boss that I had to head to Iraq to finish the record, he virtually threw me out of his office saying, 'Don't be ridiculous, the company will never insure you'," Lewis says. "It was not like going into a recording studio in London where you have cappuccinos and sushi - you are going to a place where people want to kill you."
Cohen, who has produced for numerous classical artists, including Vanessa Mae and Operababes, would have to be insured for millions of pounds. Plus, the Ministry of Defence, who though helpful in terms of allowing access for the record executives in Basra, were keen to reinforce that the Dragoon Guards day job was as serving soldiers in a war zone and that was to remain their priority. "It's important for them not to forget that they are not a band," Lt Col Felix Gedney, the regiment's commanding officer, has said. "They're my tank gunner, my lorry driver, my signals operator and I see them very much as soldiers first."
After much research, Lewis and Cohen were able to find a specialist insurer who was willing to underwrite the men and their equipment. But now that the trip was possible, did they really want to go into a war zone? "It was always understood that if Tom or I did not want to do this, neither of us was under pressure or coercion," says Cohen. "But we were both keen in a weird way because it was such an adventure." So, arming themselves with a small mobile recording unit - "with technology these days there is more processing power in your digital watch than they used to have with Nasa", jokes Cohen - a photographer to document the experience and, possibly most important of all, body armour, the men set off on their musical deployment. "Once we got to the American airbase in Iraq and we boarded a Hercules plane, I suddenly thought, 'This is not what I am paid to do'," Lewis says. "And then that last half-hour, the lights go off and everyone silently puts their body armour and helmets on - a lot of these guys had done it before and they were calm about it - but for me it was a long 30 minutes lost in my own thoughts." The first thing to strike both men was how hot the base was; they arrived in August and temperatures often climbed to 55° degrees Celsius. Not only did that make for uncomfortable working conditions - one piper suffered heat stroke - but also it meant that their equipment, which had never been under such conditions, was suffering. "The laptop I was using was almost too hot to touch and that was without it even being on," Cohen says. One of the reasons why the equipment got overheated was that while recording in the officers' mess tent, they had to turn off the generators that powered the air conditioning because it was too loud. With almost 20 men in the tent, the air conditioning off and equipment humming, the conditions were almost unbearable. Cohen came up with a makeshift solution so that the computer did not overheat: he put the laptop on top of tea cups so that there was air underneath it and then had a fan gently blowing air onto the computer as well. "Any recording situation is hard work because you are concentrating all the time. You are responsible for attention to detail and to maintain quality control coupled with the added stress that the equipment was going to fail and melt at any time," Cohen recollects. "It was a highlight for me when I realised we had recorded everything. It was backed up and I thought, 'Now the computer can die, I have everything'." The heat also was difficult on the musicians. Bagpipes are not forgiving instruments and when they get overheated, the pitch tends to go sharp. That meant that the musicians were constantly retuning the pipes during the recording sessions. Both men say that at times it felt like there were forces conspiring against them. "Bagpipes are quite a physically demanding instrument to play and you are squeezing and blowing and in that kind of heat there was sweat dripping off their faces, which then made it hard for them to maintain the right mouth position," says Cohen. The bonus video on the DVD shows the soldiers practicing and recording the album in the sweltering tent; the tension, the stress but also the fun is evident throughout the five minute footage. Anyone who has ever spent time on a military embed knows that trying to plan and schedule anything is often an exercise in futility. Because of the obvious issues of working in a combat zone, plans are often quickly scrapped due to events of the day. But both men say that because there was much work to be done with a variety of the musicians, they were able to coordinate things successfully with the commanding officers. "They would tell us, 'OK, these four guys are going on patrol between these hours and then they will be back'," Cohen says. "It was not impossible to create a workable plan around the guys and their commitments." One of the most memorable recording experiences was when they took the pipe major Ross Munro, in full Highland dress, out to the edge of the runway to record his solo piping for Flowers of the Forest. The runway, far away from the rest of the base, was one of the quieter locales - away from the whirr of generators, air conditioners, Humvees and people. When the sun was setting, Munro began playing and, by all accounts, it was a moving atmospheric moment for record executives and soldiers alike. In the background, careful listeners can hear the slight murmur of a distant helicopter. The music on Spirit of the Glen: Journey is emotive; the crescendos are striking, the harmonies beautiful and at times jarring. One of the most compelling pieces on the album is the first song, Celtic Melody. Opening with a flute and strings, the bagpipes begin more than a minute into the song, with the first note enough to send shivers down the spine. The pipes and drums, traditionally used to motivate troops in battle, elicit an intensity to which few other instruments can compare and the more traditional tracks have an obvious, if hard to define, power. "There is something very primal about the sound of bagpipes and we just seemed to strike a chord," says Lewis when asked why the Dragoon Guards music has been so successful with bagpipe and mainstream fans alike. The Dragoon Guards, now safely back from their Iraqi deployment, have been happy with the results and the success so far; all proceeds from the album are being donated to army charities. Cohen and Lewis say they both have cemented strong friendships with many of the musicians they worked with. And despite the dangers, the heat and the hard work, they say they would most definitely do it all over again.