Ghostly echoes as U2 studio is revived
After several years of obscurity, Dublin’s Windmill Lane studios are under new ownership – but can they return to the glory days when they produced a host of classic albums, asks SINÉAD GLEESON.
IN THE SUMMER of 1996, an American friend rolled into Dublin for a visit. Gigs and Irish pubs were high on her itinerary and as Dublin has more attractions than you can shake a shillelagh at, I asked what was top of her touristy list. Without missing a beat she replied “that U2 studio”, proof that Windmill Lane’s reputation doesn’t stop with Dubliners, or even musicians.
No other studio in the capital has such a connection to U2, and its global reputation today is a long way from the anonymity of its beginnings as a humble studio on Dublin’s docks. Over the years it became a place of pilgrimage for the band’s fans, daubed with graffiti tributes which no one has had the heart to scrub off.
Now, after a fallow period, there are big plans afoot for the studio under a new owner, Pulse Recording. Since 2006, Windmill Lane has been largely inactive, off the radar. While its new owner is reluctant to say who held the keys, it was widely reported that Van Morrison had acquired it for personal use.
Wandering down to the studio, you can’t miss the distinctive building in Ringsend, Dublin 4, where it has been located for over 15 years. (The old site in Windmill Lane, where the fan-scribbled walls are, is now home to various post-production companies.)
The Ringsend building has a vague history, though it is known that it was by turns a Bovril factory and a plush snooker hall. Pulse Recording is in the process of finding out about its full history, but one of the new owners tells me an eerie story about the building. It was apparently constructed the wrong way round, with the main door opening out on to the river. Legend has it that when the architect discovered the mistake, he hanged himself inside. Some staff members have reported seeing a ghost, others say they have heard strange noises (though this could be attributed to an off-form singer trying to lay down vocal tracks rather than anything supernatural).
Undeterred by any potential spookiness, Pulse plans to resurrect the studio’s international reputation. Naomi Moore, one of the three owners, is looking forward to the challenge.
“Windmill has been dormant for such a long time that we think it’ll rejuvenate the industry to have it up and running again,” she says. “When we first came in, you could actually feel the cold and the lack of love in the building, and it’s a matter of getting Windmill back to its 1980s heyday. There’s a feel of stepping back into that iconic time of music here in the 1980s, when there was also a recession.”
The R-word. When every other industry seems to be engaged in acts of financial kamikaze, it seems a huge risk to take on a project such as this, but then the economic slump of 1980s Ireland also gave birth to U2, so perhaps there’s a cyclical argument in there somewhere.
The jewel in the crown of Pulse’s soon-to-be-revealed plans is its recording college’s new BA degree in Music Technology, the first of its kind in the country. It is hoped, too, that the studio will provide “incubation units” for graduating students, allowing them access to Windmill to develop their own business ideas before moving on. As well as technical nous, Naomi Moore insists that Pulse graduates will have other qualifications too.
“There’s no point in just teaching people how to record,” she says. “They need lots of other skills. In the past, you were either a live engineer or a studio engineer. Now you need to have several disciplines, so we also teach audio for film and gaming.”
The improvements in technology in the last decade have seen the rise of the bedroom producer. Where once musicians relied on dusty four-track recorders, many have now invested in a decent microphone and a Pro Tools set-up. Does Pulse have anything to fear from artists choosing a DIY approach over a large-budget studio?
“Taking over this studio during a recession is, of course, risky, but the timing just felt right,” Moore says. “There’s only so much you can do musically or technically at home. To mix things properly, you need to do it in a good studio.”
AND THAT’S THE clincher. Windmill Lane is a very good studio, and not just because of its eye-watering Neve 72-channel mixing desk or its vintage microphone collection. A look back at the international acts that came calling here over the years proves its worth. David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Simple Minds, REM and Tom Jones have all recorded there. Perhaps because of U2’s association, Windmill Lane is often seen purely in terms of commercial popular music, but a raft of film scores were also recorded here, including those for A Room With a View, The Remains of the Day, The Mask and The Tailor of Panama.
Composer Elmer Bernstein was a regular fixture and recorded scores for The Grifters, My Left Foot and A River Runs Through It in Studio One, one of the largest live rooms in the country. Outside of RTÉ, it is the only room in Ireland that can facilitate the recording of an 80-piece orchestra. Sitting proudly in the corner of this vast, lovely room is a Steinway grand piano, whose ivories have been tinkled by the likes of Brian Eno and Michael Nyman.
Big-name producers regularly decamped to Windmill, including Morrissey’s long-time collaborator, Stephen Street, and Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, who worked at the studio on Elvis Costello’s album, Spike. Steve Lillywhite recorded Boy and War with U2, while Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois collaborated on the band’s Joshua Tree album. The production A-list goes on, including Nellee Hooper, Trevor Horn, Flood and Don Was.
If Studio Two was often overshadowed by the orchestra capacity of Studio One, it’s “a more illustrious studio”, according to co-owner Tony Perrey. “It’s produced more number-one albums, from acts like The Spice Girls, Gabrielle and Kylie Minogue.”
Engineer Tim Martin worked with many of the stars passing through the Windmill’s doors over the years. For him, many things have changed about the industry, not least the recording process.
“Years ago, it took a lot longer to record, and with the old tape set-up, if you wanted to drop in a vocal, the moment you hit ‘record’ the old one was wiped forever. You had to be careful,” he says. “Decisions had to be made instantly, which now, with Pro Tools, doesn’t happen. You can always go back and make changes.”
Martin has memories of the era of the 24-hour recording session, but sadly won’t be drawn on details of the hedonism (“a lot of it went on”) at a time when bands ran up huge bills for record companies. The Rolling Stones once dug themselves in for six months, something that’s unheard-of these days in studio schedules.
“People come for the history of Windmill. There’s an atmosphere about the place,” says Tony Perrey. “You can plan a studio on paper with an acoustic architect and say ‘this is going to be fantastic’, but it might not be. There’s always an element of luck as to how it turns out. Some places have it, others don’t, but Windmill definitely has.
“It’s just one of those special places.”
Windmill whirl: studio highs
U2 – Where to start?The heavyweights, whose involvement in the studio has so much to do with its reputation, recorded October, War, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Zooropa, Popand All That You Can’t Leave Behindthere.
Elvis Costello/ Spike – Most of this classic album (produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick) was laid down in Windmill Lane.
The Waterboys/ Fisherman’s Blues –The most acclaimed album by Mike “I’m Irish, honest” Scott and co was made at Windmill Lane.
Kate Bush/ The Hounds of Love – Long before The Futureheads resurrected the title track, Bush’s best-known album was partly recorded at Windmill Lane, as was her James Joyce-influenced album, The Sensual World.