In 1971, when the reincarnated Egyptian pharaoh Ramases was ready to record an album, he knew exactly where to go: Strawberry Studios, No. 3 Waterloo Road, Stockport. In this respect, if no other, Ramases – formerly a heating engineer from Sheffield named Barrington Frost – was in accordance with many of his fellow artists including Paul McCartney, The Bay City Rollers, The Smiths, Joy Division, The Ramones and the Stone Roses. Strawberry was one of the great recording studios of its age.
It was established 50 years ago. To mark the occasion, a major new exhibition, I Am in Love, is being held at Stockport Museum. The driving force behind the show is Strawberry historian Peter Wadsworth. A son of Stockport himself, Wadsworth’s interest in the subject was piqued as a youth buying his first records in the 1970s. Speaking to Northern Soul, he explains: “I’d see on the back of the records it’d say, ‘Recorded at Strawberry Studios, Stockport’. My first thought was, ‘Is there another Stockport somewhere?’. But of course it was where I was living. So that was the spark, I think.”
Wadsworth was inspired to research an A-level project on Strawberry‘s history, complete with a visit to the studios themselves during the 80s, and then, many years later, a PhD on the subject. Recently, he put a proposal to Stockport Museum.
“I said, ‘in 2017 it’ll be 50 years since Strawberry was formed, you should really do something’, not really thinking that they would. But they said, ‘yes, let’s do something’. So this is the culmination, if you like, of all that research.”
Much of the original documentation from Strawberry has gone walkabout since operations were wound down during the early 90s, but Wadsworth will be presenting some of the fascinating fruits of his studies.
His passion is fuelled by the fact that Strawberry tends to get overlooked when the Manchester music story is told.
“I don’t think it has been given credit for what it did in the late 60s and early 70s. The popular view, when I started researching it, was that Manchester had a pop history until the mid 60s and then again from the late 70s when punk came along, but that in-between there wasn’t a musical history or scene. I always felt that was disparaging towards what Strawberry had done, so part of my reason for doing it was to reclaim that history.”
The story of Strawberry Studios is inextricably linked with that of 10cc, one of the most successful British bands of their era, and local lads all. In fact, the studio predates the band. One member, Eric Stewart, was the co-owner of Strawberry (along with former Dakotas road manager Peter Tattersall), and a successful musician in his own right. The other members joined him as Strawberry’s in-house band. That’s them backing everyone from Ramases on the 1971 album Space Hymns to Neil Sedaka on 1972’s Solitaire. When they began working together at 10cc, they relished the opportunity to push the studio to its limits. For instance, they spent many weeks holed up in Strawberry recording what would become their most celebrated song, I’m Not in Love, which inspired the name of this new exhibition.
All this marked a gear change from the days when British bands would be obliged to travel to London to make a record, and would be subject to assorted creative limitations when they got there.
“When Strawberry started, not only did you have to travel to London to record, but it was very much a nine to five thing,” Wadsworth says. “The lights would be turned off at 5 o’clock. If you were in the middle of recording a song, it was, ‘never mind, come back tomorrow and finish it’. Strawberry was more in tune with how things were changing. Bands wanted to record at night, they wanted to finish what they were doing rather than wait. And they wanted to use the kind of multi-tracking that was coming in to create weird and wonderful sounds.”
Multi-tracking is the process of adding recorded sounds on top of each other to create a whole, rather than recording everything at once. Famously, the four members of 10cc used it on I’m Not in Love to create a virtual choir of 48 voices.
At its peak, Strawberry Studios was in constant demand from all manner of recording artists. With some irony, 10cc would end up struggling to lay hands on as much studio time as they wanted. The all-time best recording studios – Abbey Road, Sun Studios, Studio One – tend to have their own unique sound. Strawberry, too, had its own identity.
“It’s hard to define, but certainly 10cc had a kind of tight, claustrophobic sound,” Wadsworth suggests. “With guitars, they would actually plug them into the desk directly, so you got a kind of tight guitar sound, and I know they did the same with the drums.”
One devotee of Strawberry’s sound was legendary Manchester producer Martin Hannett, who brought a whole host of local bands to record there.
“Martin Hannett thought there was something about the building itself that added to the sound. It was an industrial building, an old warehouse, and was supposedly built on some kind of concrete pillars.”
In fact, Strawberry’s legacy goes way beyond the music which was recorded there. Its independent Northern spirit proved to be an inspiration. In Tony Wilson’s ‘novelisation’ of the Factory Records film 24 Hour Party People, he hymns Strawberry as “a major world-class thirty-six track studio that was in Stockport – Stockport ladies and gentleman, Stockport, because 10cc were a Manchester band and they had taken the proceeds of the delicious I’m Not In Love and had reinvested in their home. Reinvested. Built a fuck-off studio. Respect.” It’s clearly an idea that chimed with Wilson when he chose to plough New Order’s profits into The Hacienda.
All told, it’s time that Strawberry is given its full due. As Wadsworth says: “I think this exhibition is the next step in the town recognising what Strawberry did for Stockport, but also a wider kind of regional recognition that Strawberry is part of Manchester music story.”
Strawberry Studios: I Am in Love is at Stockport Museum, January 27, 2017 – January 29, 2018. Entry is free. For more information, click here.