Book Review: Phill Brown, “Are We Still Rolling?”
If I had to pick one person involved in the record business to craft a compelling story spanning several decades, it would not have been Phill Brown. Nothing against Brown, mind you, but the most interesting music tell-alls are usually written by artists, managers, or maybe producers. Brown has spent the better part of his four-plus decades in music as an engineer – the man responsible for setting up microphones and moving instruments around the studio to get good sound.
And sure enough, Brown’s memoir, Are We Still Rolling? Studios, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll – One Man’s Journey Recording Classic Albums (dig that brief subtitle!) is chock full of details only the technically obsessed could appreciate – microphones, mixing techniques, tape specs, and more. So many, in fact, that Brown helpfully includes a glossary at the end of the book.
But more than that, Are We Still Rolling? is in fact a compelling account of Brown’s career in music, which began in 1967 as a tape operator for Olympic Studios in London, and continues today. With a typically British sense of detachment and dry wit, Brown recounts his days as an eager teenager working on albums for legends like Dusty Springfield, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones. Brown’s sense of wonder is evident, even decades after the fact, and comes across in his writing.
As Brown’s narrative progresses, he transforms from a naive ’60s kid to an experienced ’70s veteran, working along the way with artists such as Nigel Head, Steve Winwood, John Martyn, and Robert Palmer. And finally some bitterness set in during the ’80s and beyond, although Brown still managed to land some high-profile gigs with the likes of Talk Talk and Dido.
Brown has no interest in acting as an impartial scribe in Are We Rolling?, and his affection for artists like Head and Palmer (the latter of which he particularly adored) is evident. So too is his disappointment with the shenanigans of record execs and acts — for instance, Led Zeppelin makes a brief but unpleasant appearance in the early chapters, and we get to read about how Talk Talk got screwed over by record labels.
Sprinkled throughout the book are details fleshing out Brown’s life outside the studio — his marriage, children, rampant drug use, and subsequent medical problems. Brown seems like a decent guy, but I don’t think his book would be any worse off without these passages. Let’s face it, if you choose to read this book it’s because you want to read some good behind-the-scenes stories. Luckily, most of the book focuses on telling those.
In a way, Brown’s story is that of the record business in general. While record labels were always conscious of the bottom line from the beginning, by the end of the ’70s it seems that money became the only line (well that and cocaine). Art took a back seat to commerce, leaving “relics” like Brown and many others feeling left out in the cold. But despite having every reason in the world to pack it in and retire, Brown continues to work. I imagine that his love for his craft and music keeps him going. It’s also what permeates the pages of this book more than anything else, and it’s why I recommend you give it a read.
Are We Still Rolling? is available now on Amazon from Tape Op Books.
- Life in the recording studio with Led Zep, Bob Marley and many more (guardian.co.uk)
- Johnny Boy Would Love This: A Tribute to John Martyn, CD review (telegraph.co.uk)