Rab Noakes – making a classic with the Nashville cats

RAB Noakes is recalling the trip to the U.S. in 1973 that saw the Fife-born singer-songwriter recording in Nashville with a record producer, Elliot Mazer, who had just overseen one of the decade’s most popular albums, Neil Young’s Harvest, and a group of musicians whose previous experience included playing fiddle with Hank Williams and bass guitar with Aretha Franklin.

These were, agrees Noakes, heady times for a boy from Cupar. Even allowing for the fact that, by then, he had already been in and out of Stealers Wheel with his old friend Gerry Rafferty and had had his second album produced by Bob Johnson, whose client list included Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Simon & Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen, the making of Noakes’s third album, Red Pump Special was quite an experience.

“I was talking about this with someone the other day and there probably weren’t many – if any – Scottish musicians who had recorded in the United States at that time,” says Noakes down the line from a London hotel. “Red Pump was just ahead of the Average White Band’s great success in the US and Frankie Miller went on to work a bit later with Allen Toussaint in New Orleans and with Elliot Mazer too. So I suppose I might have been a bit of a pioneer in that respect.”

For Noakes, who has just managed to reissue Red Pump Special on his own Neon label after initially hoping that it would be re-released on its thirtieth anniversary, the pleasure in hearing the album again after all this time is that it sounds as good as he remembers. He’s not one for listening to his own work. Once an album’s been completed, he’s always moved on to the next batch of songs. But working on Red Pump’s reissue required him to listen carefully and took him back figuratively to Nashville and to California, where he was afforded time to adjust to American life by Mazer and got to hang out with Neil Young who, he discovered one day, had snuck into Mazer’s apartment, was listening as Noakes ran through his song Branch and applauded when he finished.

“It wouldn’t be right to trash the way all records are made these days but there can be a lot of machines involved whereas back then, there was a virtue in having everybody playing in the same room,” he says. “I’m pleased with the way the songs on Red Pump stand up but if you look beyond the songs, it sounds good from a production viewpoint too. Great attention was paid to the quality of equipment used, where microphones were placed and all the details that go into making a sound that stands the test of time, and the thing I remember about the guys who were on my record was that they were so welcoming. There was no big time behaviour or world weariness and nothing came off the shelf, as it were. They were eager to get to work and make it as good as it could be and they always involved me. I never felt like an outsider and hearing them strike up conversations on their instruments was fascinating.”

In the liner notes he’s written to accompany the album, Noakes refers more than once to the way record companies indulged artists in the 1970s. When he signed to Warner Bros, who released Red Pump and its successor, Never Too Late, he told them how much he liked the sound of Neil Young’s Harvest and fancied making an album in Nashville. More than a snap of the fingers was required but he was, to use his own word, accommodated.

In return, record companies expected, if not a single that would make their artist a star, then a radio turntable hit that would guide listeners to the parent album. Noakes came close with the aforementioned Branch but by his own admission he had moved on and was busy recording the follow-up album when he maybe should have been promoting Branch. As a result he was released from his contract, in a most eloquently phrased letter that he’s reproduced alongside his liner notes.

He subsequently signed with Ringo Starr’s label and MCA and between working in radio and television production and maintaining a presence as a performer and recording artist he’s emerged as someone who has ridden career highs and lows without any signs of the bitterness that can result from such experiences in the music business. In his diary for this year are solo voice and guitar shows and dates with his long-time friend and fellow Fifer, Barbara Dickson, with Noakes singing Don to Dickson’s Phil – in Everly Brothers parlance – on harmonies.

“We just recorded an EP together with six songs and it’s sounding good,” says Noakes. “The thing about Barbara is that we’ve known each other so long – since before Red Pump Special certainly – and we enjoy singing together, and I think when you enjoy what you’re doing, that comes across to other people. I hope so anyway. It’s a simple formula: two voices and two guitars and a load of songs we both like.”

Red Pump Special – the Fortieth Anniversary Edition is released on Neon Records.

by Rob Adams