….at least for those of us who grew up in the Seventies and Eighties.
Tired of the stuffy, suit-and-tie, 9 to 5 business-like studio culture left over as a legacy from previous eras in the recording industry, The Rolling Stones wanted to have more control over the environment in which they recorded. Their goal was to make the ideal atmosphere to generate music – without time pressure or intrusions that interrupt the creative process – with no judgement of their work methods, drug use, friends, ability to work around the clock, or other aspects of their work ethic. Really it was created so that they could work where they wanted to, when they wanted to, how they wanted to, and allow the creative juices to flow in an artistic bubble that they controlled as best they could.
A little aside about the Stones’ methods prior to creating the RSM is instructive to understand how they came to the idea of the Mobile Studio. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ was one of the last recordings made by the Stones in a major studio before they decided to build the RSM. It is a great example of how small changes to an artwork can make the mediocre a masterpiece. The process of its creation was captured by Jean-Luc Goddard, with the Stones, who filmed the recording of Sympathy for the Devil at Olympic Studios between June 4-10, 1968, just around the time the RSM was being conceived. The song just wasn’t working at all – captured on video below, and it took a long while to find the now famous samba rhythm by Charlie Watts which finally gave the song a strong spine.
By accident, Brian Jones/Keith Richards’ girlfriend Anita Pallenberg heard recording producer Jimmy Miller say “who who” trying to goad Mick Jagger -“who are you singing about?” while recording vocals. This eventually became “woo-woo”, and subsequently included in the latter days recordings for the mix – evolving over those six days from a confused but promising work to the Stones classic we know today. Also, sadly, you’ll note that in the middle of the recording – on June 6 – Robert Kennedy was killed, so the line “I shouted out ’Who killed Kennedy?’” heard in the early part of this filming was changed in the last days of recording to “Who killed the Kennedys?”
Watching the Goddard video of Olympic Studios, one can see how the sterile corporate environment – a very successful studio nonetheless – affected the Stones’ comfort as they are working, and it is more easily understood why they sought a less awkward atmosphere in which to create music.
The idea of putting a control room into a van was conceived by the band with their road manager, early band member, and contributing pianist Ian Stewart. Together, they consulted with a number of technical experts – such as Glyn Johns – to put the mobile studio together. The idea was that the van containing the studio board was placed outside of the place where recordings were to take place – home, concert hall, cathedral, etc. – and line feeds (wires) would be run to the various microphones, set up wherever they wanted, for recording, and spliced into the public address speaker system, if recording at a concert.
The original acoustical work was done by Sandy Brown, and the interior is 8’x22’ and 9’ tall, with the whole vehicle covered on the outside in ‘authentic US Army flat camouflage paint’. It was fully air conditioned and all built around the core of a Helios panel board – state of the art for the day – and originally it had a maximum of 20 inputs and had an eight-track recording format, which later was increased to 16-track, and then 24-track, and finally to 32 channels and 24 mix groups.
Initially it was for their own use, to record in the comfort and freedom at Mick’s Stargroves country estate mansion.
However, they realized that other rock musicians would also greatly benefit from the creative freedom the mobile studio provided, so soon they established a business of renting out the vehicle, with engineers, initially for £1000 a week. The first recordings by others were at Stargroves, but some artists worked a deal to reduce the rental price by recording elsewhere with the RSM.
Its schedule was quite full, engendering incredible creative freedom of the artists who then recorded some of the most potent rock anthems of the early 1970’s. “Stairway to Heaven”. “Tumbling Dice”. “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. “No Woman No Cry” live. “Smoke on the Water”.
The story surrounding “Smoke on the Water” is a rather famous legacy tied to the RSM, and it specifically mentions the RSM in the lyrics. Deep Purple was waiting their turn to use the mobile studio after a Frank Zappa concert in the Montreux casino adjacent to Lake Geneva.
As the story is told, during the recording of the Zappa concert on Dec 4th, 1971, an audience member set off a particular pyrotechnics device, setting fire to the casino’s rattan covered ceiling which subsequently burned the entire building to the ground.
While the building was burning down, audience members and casino patrons are said to have escaped without much panic. However, RSM staff members urgently rushed to disconnect the Mobile Studio from its location tight to the building – Imagine the scramble trying to find the keys! Finally, a bunch of people apparently helped to push the RSM away from the building before it too was engulfed in the flames.
As immortalized in the song:
We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn’t have much time
Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground….
In the end, Deep Purple soon set up the RSM at a local hall called ‘The Pavilion’ before the noise annoyed the neighbors and the police forced them to move to the Grand Hotel on the outskirts of Montreux. But by that point, Smoke on the Water was cut – the neighbor’s ‘noise’ was Deep Purple’s greatest hit. For the later recording at the Grand Hotel, Richie Blackmore, Deep Purple’s guitarist at the time, described the set-up this way:
“We had the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording unit sitting outside in the snow, but to get there we had to run cable through two doors in the corridor into a room, through a bathroom and into another room, from which it went across a bed and out the veranda window, then ran along the balcony for about 100 feet and came back in through another bedroom window. It then went through that room’s bathroom and into another corridor, then all the way down a marble staircase to the foyer reception area of the hotel, out the front door, across the courtyard and up the steps into the back of the mobile unit. I think that setup led to capturing some spontaneity, because once we got to the truck for a playback, even if we didn’t think it was a perfect take, we’d go, ‘Yeah, that’s good enough.’ Because we just couldn’t stand going back again.”- Richie Blackmore in GuitarWorld, 10/21/08.
The RSM was used for a lot of live recordings. ‘Live at Leeds’ was recorded by The Who on Valentines Day, 1970. There were also recordings made at Hull the following day by The Who that were supposed to be incorporated into the album, but John Entwistle’s bass guitar did not get recorded for some of the tracks. Because of this screwup with the RSM, the album was cut entirely from recordings at Leeds, which gave the album its name.
The Who also recorded “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and initial recordings for ‘Who’s Next’ at Stargroves using the RSM, – mixed together with bits previously recorded at the Record Plant in New York and overdubbed with the rest of the album completed later in London at Olympic Studios.
(Different version, live video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WX_96uKZ7yQ
The Faces used the RSM to record the tracks “Bad in Ruin” and “Tell Everyone” on their 1970 album ‘Long Player’. Ronnie Lane of The Faces must have liked the arrangement, because soon he created his own competing mobile studio, Lane Mobile Studio (LMS) out of an Airstream trailer in 1971.
Led Zeppelin used the RSM to record ‘Led Zeppelin III’ and ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ and portions of other albums at Headley Grange, an English Manor House. They loved the experience with the RSM so much that they came back to record ‘Houses of the Holy’, and portions of ‘Physical Graffiti’ at Headley Grange and Stargroves, renting Ronnie Lane’s Mobile Studio (LMS) at Headley Grange as well. The image of Robert Plant below with the RSM appears to come from the ‘Houses of the Holy’ sessions recorded at Stargroves, where he said “A recording studio is an immediate imposition as compared to sitting around a fire strumming”.
“We needed the sort of facilities where we could have a cup of tea and wander round the garden and then go in and do what we had to do,” guitarist Jimmy Page said. He continued:
“The reason we went there [Headley Grange] in the first place was to have a live-in situation where you’re writing and really living the music. We’d never really had that experience before as a group, apart from when Robert [Plant] and I had gone to Bron-Yr-Aur. But that was just me and Robert going down there and hanging out in the bosom of Wales and enjoying it. This was different. It was all of us really concentrating in a concentrated environment and the essence of what happened there manifested itself across three albums (‘IV’, ‘Houses of the Holy’, ‘Physical Graffiti’)” – Jimmy Page
(Live version: “Stairway to Heaven”) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbhCPt6PZIU
The Stones took it with them when they left England to avoid the 93% taxes they railed against, and recorded ‘Exile on Main Street’ at Keith’s rented villa, Nellcôte, on the French Riviera.
It then travelled the continent. Neil Young recorded portions of ‘Harvest’ with it. Fleetwood Mac recorded two early albums with the RSM.
(Fleetwood Mac: “Hypnotized” recorded 1973 with the RSM) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDzXbdxeeHI
That incredibly strong live version of “No Woman No Cry” with Bob Marley and the Wailers, with all the audience participation recorded for posterity? Yep, recorded at the Lyceum theatre in London using the RSM on July 17, 1975.
(Different version [recorded 6/4/77], better video, but also shows how special that Lyceum concert was)
These were the days of stringent border controls across Europe, so each time the RSM travelled from one country to another, all paperwork accounting for every item contained in the RSM had to be in complete order. There were two ways they could travel – one was by/like a container [TIR Carnet] – seal it up (typically at an English port) and open it in the destination country, or alternately they had to declare a list “of bits and pieces” [88 Carnet] to the customs in the country from which they were leaving. They paid a percentage as a bond of the value of the items on that list.
They had a Carnet [protected list] of the whole truck which they reproduced for each trip because they “pretty much took the same stuff” for each trip. Occasionally, they had to deal with random travel problems, like ferries not running or sudden embargos arising between the European countries which existed in the pre-European Union times.
In 1974, the interior was “rebuilt with the help of Dolby Studios, Altec, & Eddie Veale”, according to an ad they placed in an industry rag. Soon the prices were raised to £1500 a week, competitive with mobile studios from the large recording companies.
Its use was not just limited to the initial inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Russian Ballet. Aram Khachaturian and the Latvian Ballet. The Chieftains. Miles Davis. Willie Nelson. Abba. Whitesnake. Those listed above. All made use of the RSM. Originally built on the BMC Laird chassis shown above, after 160,000 miles of travel across Europe, the entire chassis – frame, motor, drivetrain, cab – was replaced by a DAF 1600 turbo “with Air-Ride suspension to protect the equipment” in the early Eighties. It too was painted with flat camouflage paint, with a faint line-art version of the Stones’ logo on the wind deflector above the cab. Later a synchronizing computer was added, and the ability to tie video and audio.
‘Alchemy: Dire Straits Live’ was subsequently recorded by the upgraded RSM at the Hammersmith Odeon in London July 22-23, 1983, including video of Mark Knopfler wearing that o-so-eighties headband.
(Actual video and audio recorded by the RSM) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Pa9x9fZBtY
This was a business enterprise and profit center for the Stones…it could be booked from the Stones’ London office, and came with up to three employees/engineers. Ian Stewart managed the enterprise, with Tapani Talo who was hired as an assistant sound engineer in the spring of 1973, and Mick McKenna who became the main caretaker of the RSM from later that year onward. He maintained it outside of London in Shepperton for those weeks where it wasn’t in demand, with tasks such as stuffing the roof with mineral wool to clean up the “somewhat messy bass end when monitoring”. (Studio Sound, May 1983) He gave an interview for Home Recording Studio mag about the RSM, where he quickly gets into the technicalities of recording (link below for those who are interested in getting into the weeds regarding splitting leads and setting up cross-patches), but where he also gives a more general flavor to the experience of setting up the RSM at a gig….
“There are several things about running a mobile that are different to being in the studio. Firstly, you’ve got to get the equipment talked into being willing to travel. The thing has to be put together in such a way that it will travel. For instance, where you’ve got a mixer with lots of rigid PC boards tied to the frame – possibly an in-line mixer – you’ve got to be very careful that you don’t get structural twists in the desk that will put everything completely out of line. You’ve got to make sure that everything is tied down very well.”
“We have all our microphones and cables, that sort of thing, in flight cases so that when you get to a gig you can just take everything out of the truck very easily and make it a very efficient situation. [In a studio setting] If you’re setting up a session, you just take the mics and the stands into the studio, place them round the musicians and that’s that. In our situation you’ve got much more setting up to do…..”
“….Actually doing gigs, the routine from one gig to another is actually very similar. There is usually a 4 o’clock soundcheck. It’s usually late, and we amble up in the afternoon. You find the place to park the truck. If the artics are in there then you sort out the drivers – all very amicable — move the trucks and get everything into position. We go and check out the PA guys, get the snakes (multicore cables) in, get the audience mics up as soon as we can. I’ve got a tendency of tying my audience mics to lighting trusses so sometimes that’s one of the first things that gets done (along with sorting out power). If you can catch a lighting truss while it’s on the ground it saves a lot of severe vertigo!” – Mick McKenna
In the mid-Eighties, home recording equipment came way down in price, and it was reasonable for bands to buy a whole studio set up and put it together wherever they wanted, rather than rent the Stone’s expensive control room. Eventually the band, who owned the studio business collectively, sold it to Bill Wyman, their bass guitarist, who created a non-profit to assist British bands starting out:
“When the band decided to give up collective ownership of our mobile studio, active since 1968, I took it over. I then launched AIMS – Ambition, Ideas, Motivation, Success – and together with sponsorship from Pernot we were able to give free recording facilities to 50 bands, out of 1,200 applicants in England. My purpose was to encourage young live bands in an age when producers were taking over.” – Bill Wyman
The RSM was eventually sold at auction by Bonhams in 1996 and bought by Loho Studios and brought to the United States, where it was used to record acts – including Patti Smith and the Ramones – and events in and around New York City.
Now it rests on display at the National Music Centre Museum in Alberta, where it still can be rented out by bands and/or organizations who can then be a continued part of the vehicle’s legacy. You can also have a “legendary rock’n’roll experience” by renting the RSM for a two hour catered listening party for $1000.
Its current resting place in Calgary, with interpretive signage.
Studio Sound – May 1983
Home Studio Recording Magazine – Aug 1984