MIMO - When Music is Your Fix

On a Downtown Train

I think no one would dispute the statement that Trevor Horn is one of the great record producers of the last thirty years. All his productions have become classics and stood the test of time, sounding as impressive as they did when first recorded in the days when technology didn’t lead the way and had to be manipulated by people with ears and, dare I say it, genius. I was lucky enough to work on a fair few of his hit records, but by far the most interesting and unusual was the version of Tom Waits’ Downtown Train which Trevor produced for Rod Stewart.

It’s no secret to say that Rod’s career had stalled somewhat and he’d hired Trevor to revive interest. I think the song was a long time favourite of Rod’s and once the key had been set (G) I met with Trevor to discuss the orchestration. He suggested that there should be a sort of otherworldly feel to the orchestration – with a sort of ‘psychedelic’ coda. I wrote for a conventional string section plus two cor anglais (English horns), one playing at the top of his range to give a slightly different texture from the oboe which would have been in the middle of his register. For the outro I wrote a swirling high string figure in ¾ to wash across the 4/4 metre of the song so that the bar lines displaced to create the desired otherworldly effect.

The recording session (in Angel Studios London) went very smoothly and I thought no more of the record as I moved on to the next assignments. The days were long gone when record labels sent you copies of records you’d worked on, so the next time I had any brush with Downtown Train was some six months later in the Virgin Megastore on Sunset Boulevard. In those days they had an in store DJ who would play an eclectic selection of tracks which one would occasionally take note of if they appealed to you. So when this introduction started I was only half listening, then when Rod started singing I realized that this was the finished record that I hadn’t yet heard with vocals in place. I started listening closely but then…. Wait a minute, there’s something up here! I located the DJ booth and asked him if he minded playing the record again as I was the arranger. He duly did so and it struck me – the song was in the wrong key! I had written in G but I was hearing Bb. And what caught my ear was the odd vibrato of the strings and English Horn. It was several months later, when the record had become a worldwide smash hit, that I learnt the full story.

Apparently Rod had heard the finished backing tracks with my strings and Jeff Beck’s guitar and realized the song had the potential to revive his career. He got into shape, went for voice lessons and when he got into the studio found that our key of G was too low for his newly reinvigorated vocal chords! Now this was the late 80s – no autotune, pitch bend, protools or logic to alter the key without speeding up the track! Somehow Trevor worked his magic and got the track to move up a minor third to accommodate Rod. The only thing he couldn’t do was prevent the string and woodwind vibratos from changing texture. And yet, bizarrely, I think it was this very effect that made the record so striking. It added to the otherworldliness of the arrangement. The English Horn and the strings, had they been playing in Bb, would never have sounded that way. More to the point, it would have completely altered the way I would have written the chart – I would have used an oboe (as the top F on the English Horn would have sounded hideous!) and changed the string inversions. Sometimes serendipity and the odd quirks of fate can be on your side!

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About the Author


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!

Posted in: Music History 101


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