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It’s Oh So……….Silent?

When my big band assembled in Angel Studios one morning in the mid 90s, the only thing most of the musicians knew was that they were booked from 10am till 1pm, a standard 3 hour recording session to record one track. By our usual standards this was what would be known as a ‘doddle’, a walk in the park. All the musicians, including myself, were used to recording 3 or 4 tracks in the allotted 3 hour timeslot with a 20 minute break in the middle. I was prepared for a tough call – the track which we were recreating had many pauses, slowing down and speeding up as the lead vocalist drove the performance. And a huge dynamic range, from pianissimo to….well very very loud. I had heard the Betty Hutton 40s original of It’s Oh So Quiet, with the Pete Rugolo arrangement, and modified to suit our artist, Bjork. She had been sent the track by a fan who suggested it might fit her quirky style, loved it, and it was forwarded to me by her label. The only instruction – same key, same format. I had yet to meet the lady in question on the morning of the session, but I figured that an hour or so of rehearsals would iron out any gremlins, and then the remaining two hours we could spend laying down multiple takes and fine tuning the track to perfection.

We began at 10am, getting the sounds and running the chart for possible copying errors. By about 10.30 I was satisfied that the music was ready and popped into the control room to enquire as to the whereabouts of Bjork. “She’s at home looking for her shoes, and then she’ll be on her way” said producer Nellee Hooper. Time for a couple of dry runs sans vocals.

11am and everything sounding in tip top shape. Usually the procedure would be to record a take to a click track and the vocal would then be done at a later stage. However, this song was so ‘voice driven’ this would be impossible except as an academic exercise to fill up time. I asked for an update and was informed that Bjork was ‘en route’. As this is a fiendishly difficult chart to play, particularly for the trumpet section, I didn’t want to over exhaust the guys so suggested taking an early break so that when Bjork arrived we could plunge straight in.

The minutes ticked by, into hours. Midday came and went. My pacing up and down had incrementally increased with every minute lost and I now envisioned 3 or 4 takes as the maximum we could hope for.

At 12.30 I was told ‘nearly here!’ and reassembled the band. Another run through to make sure that no one had forgotten anything and then………nothing.

It's Oh So.....Silent?At 12.55 I had given up hope if truth be told. Suddenly the studio door opened and in skipped Bjork with a smile as wide and welcoming as is humanly possible. Wasting no time, in answer to her ‘is everything ok?’ I spelt out the situation. “We lose the band in 5 minutes or incur huge overtime costs.”

“Oh I thought they were here all day! Right we’d better get on with it then!”

She disappeared into the vocal booth, put on the headphones, gave me another big smile. I counted the track in, gave her a nod and 4 minutes later……… we had the finished record! Yes, you heard me correctly – no rehearsal, no retake. She sang, I conducted, only the rhythm section could hear her in their booths, the brass and saxes, following my conducting, could only hear the rhythm section, no one cracked a note or missed a cue. And do you know what – it really shows on the record – the thrill of a first take with everyone performing together, vocalist and band at the same time! It’s no coincidence that it was such a huge worldwide hit – I think all the audiences responded to that vibrancy and vitality and energy that was borne of a desperate need to get it right! SHHHHHHH


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About the Author

on MUSIC IS MY OXYGEN WEEKLY.

John Altman is a BAFTA and Emmy award winning composer, musician and conductor and was recently made Doctor of Music at the University of Sussex, School of Media, Film and Music. John has a long and distinguished career in music, including performing with Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Sting. His film credits include period music for Titanic and Shall We Dance. In addition, John has scored over 5,000 TV commercials and is cited as among the top composers in British advertising.

A brief look at who John Altman has shared the stage with or worked with since the 1950s:


  • the 50s - appeared with Judy Garland onstage at the London Palladium
  • the 60s - played with Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, Muddy Waters
  • the 70s - played with Bob Marley, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Elton John. Wrote for Monty Python and the Rutles
  • the 80s - wrote for Simple Minds, George Michael. Played with Slim Gaillard, Chet Baker. Sting, Phil Collins, Jeff Beck
  • the 90s - wrote for Bjork, Tina Turner, Barry White, Diana Ross, James Bond, Titanic. Played with Chaka Khan, Lionel Richie, Bill Wyman
  • the 00s - played with Prince, Amy Winehouse, Pharrell, Black Eye Peas, Jessie J, Joss Stone
  • the 10s - still standing!

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Posted in: Music History 101


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