What links Michael Jackson's Thriller to a musical barn near Hull

Dev Douglas, although signed to Parlophone, the same label as the Beatles, never made it to the charts. He was, however, responsible for a little footnote in music history. It was one day during a summer season in Withernsea, way back in 1962, that Douglas provided local musician Keith Herd with the spark that four years later would see the opening of Fairview Recording Studio in Willerby, on the outskirts of Hull.

Keith Herd and John Spence in the Fairview Recording Studio at Willerby near Hull. Picture: Scott Merrylees

In the last 50 years, the likes of Paul Heaton, Robert Palmer, Def Leppard, Beautiful South, the Housemartins, Mick Ronson and Rod Temperton, who wrote Michael Jackson’s Thriller, have ventured down the driveway that leads to what Keith refers to as the barn.

“Dev, whose name at the time was Dave Tenney, had wanted to record a song and so there I was in the kitchen with wires going through to the mics and a four-channel mixer plugged into a Grundig tape machine,” says Keith, recalling that first recording in his Withernsea home. “I got the recording bug right then in our bungalow where my wife Vicky and I lived. We took the tape down to Dick James Music in London and they signed Dave but not my group. The adrenaline rush of that first recording session never left me.”

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Keith moved to Fairview in Willerby in the summer of 1965. The property had two front rooms and he started using one as a studio. Those early days are captured in a double CD, Front Room Masters – Fairview Studios 1966-1973, including a recording of Robert Palmer with a band called the Mandrakes; and Mick Ronson with popular Hull band of the time the Rats.

“I was working in Cornell’s music shop in Hull, with my band on an evening, recording all sorts of wonderful acts and Vicky and I had two young daughters. I didn’t have any money, so I recorded in the corner of the room using earphones to monitor and a Tandberg stereo tape machine bought on hire purchase. I made this horrible little lean-to out of asbestos one afternoon. It was the ugliest thing you’d ever see, but it acted as a control room for eight years and took me out of the corner.

“It was because of Mick Ronson that I moved the studio. His playing was so loud I couldn’t get the mic far enough away not to overload it. That’s when I realised I needed something better. Vicky got an inheritance from her late father and she kindly gave me enough money to fit the barn out as a studio.”

Partnering up with Peter Green, a fellow musician who had also started his own studio in Ferriby, the two initially merged their recording machines before quickly realising it wasn’t a good idea. Instead they visited 60s superstars the Kinks.

“We were bouncing tracks from the three-track on to the four-track, but it wasn’t working. We secured a loan to buy the Kinks’ Ampex eight-track A44 and Ray Davies helped us load it into our van. All we needed then was a good quality reverb unit and we splashed out £1,400 on something that by today’s prices would be £10,000. It sounded beautiful and set us apart from other studios.”

While the partnership with Peter lasted for only a short while, two other names were to become synonymous with the studio and the bands who played there – Roy Neave and John Spence. “Roy came in as studio engineer in 1976. He was a great guitarist and had been signed to Island Records but things hadn’t worked out. By now we had household names like Ronnie Hilton, Jimmy James and Emile Ford coming to us and a classy studio band led by Danny Wood. They were great session musicians. It was a time when we were recording top clubland acts who would have 500 albums pressed.”

Rock giants Def Leppard came early in their career, from South Yorkshire to record all three tracks for their first EP – Ride into the Sun; Getcha Rocks Off; and The Overture in November 1978. “Sheffield didn’t have any studios and there was hardly anyone else in the north of England, just us and Strawberry Studios in Manchester. Roy was doing really well with heavy metal acts so they came here. They had to borrow a drummer as theirs had left.”

John joined Keith in 1982. He had recorded at Fairview’s Front Room studio when he was 13. “That was my light bulb moment,” says John. “When Keith played back the first recording we made and he had double tracked the vocals into this big, lush sound I was hooked right there.”

Having played in a number of bands and followed the dream of giving up jobs and moving to London in a bid to break through with his band the Duplicates, John returned to the East Riding before finding work as a live music sound engineer with the yet to be discovered Roland Gift, who was with his band the Akrylyk Vyktymz, Bad Manners and the Blues Band. His move to the studio where he had discovered his passion was next.

“I heard that Keith was looking for a trainee engineer. I came, gave it a go and have been here ever since. One of the highlights for me has always been the relationship you build with musicians. Mostly Autumn come from York and I’ve made 17 albums with them. They have become really good friends. Bill Nelson the same. He’s brought some great acts from abroad including a Russian band called Nautilus Pompelious. Amongst the hundreds of bands and solo artists I’ve recorded have been the Housemartins and the Beautiful South. The Housemartins were four very serious young men who didn’t seem to have a sense of humour between them, but when I got to work with Paul [Heaton] on his first solo album, much of which was recorded here, I got to know him much better. He’s a very funny man with very dry wit. He just doesn’t choose to talk all the time. I would never have said the Housemartins would have had the success they had, but then I’ve never been able to spot a winner.

“Neil Drinkwater, who plays keyboards in Van Morrison’s band, came over along with other fantastic musicians. We did some levels and someone said I’d better record it as they played it through first time, which I do anyway as some excellent musicians can get red light fever later. The take was superb, in one go.

“Bryan Josh of Mostly Autumn says you can feel the history coming out of the walls and that the studio provides a brilliant relaxed atmosphere. We want musicians to do their very best and we will capture it. Technology has changed but the principle of making a good recording is the same whether recording into a computer or on a reel.”

The other name associated with Fairview is Andy Newlove. He has been involved since 2001 and is currently working as a guitar tech with the Libertines. Hull-based music historian Andy Richardson worked on the Front Room Masters compilation and is assisting on the follow-up covering the years 1973-1990.

“It will have a previously unreleased Beautiful South track and a demo of Always and Forever with Heatwave and Rod Temperton. At the time they were called Johnny Wilder and the Chicago Heatwave. Hull and the East Riding had some fabulous bands in that era – Red Guitars, International Rescue, the Odds, Pink Noise, Moscow and Three Action. They’re all there.”

John is also inviting clients past and present back into Fairview to record tracks for a 50th anniversary album.