We have selected a number of Geoffrey Notkin's published articles from various sources, and made them available here as part of Geoff Notkin's online bibliography project.

The following story originally appeared in the East Village music zine Antimatters, in the February, 1998 issue and was written at the request of the Publisher Jon Berger. "Playing the Radio Game" chronicles the recording of Lach's Grammy-nominated CD Blang! which was produced by Richard Barone, and released in 1999.


1980     We were rarely bored during the Boston years, Lach and I.

After all, we had thousands of young college students to use as fodder, and our own strange and anarchic three piece band — The Aliens — for entertainment. Like most teenage rockers we were full of enthusiasm (read: arrogance) over our band which we, very sensibly, considered to be the best band in Boston and therefore, most likely, the best band in all of Massachusetts. On those rare evenings when we weren’t corrupting young female liberal arts students, or having parties broken up by the Boston Police Department we liked to sit in Lach’s tiny corner apartment on Buswell Street, drinking beer, smoking, and playing The Radio Game.

The Radio Game involved turning off the lights, burning some candles and incense and — no doubt somewhat intoxicated — slowly rolling the radio dial from one end of the broadcast band to the other. Each time we found a station, we’d leave the dial there for the duration of the song then playing. In a city like Boston, with its many independent and college radio stations, there was always a good chance of discovering some new and interesting band. And the mood of the room changed with the arrival of each new station. We might hear a cut by Boston’s own Robin Lane and The Chartbusters, or a jazz piece, a movement from a classical symphony, some punk rock, or some heavy metal.

Once, a fortunate turn of the dial took us to a place full of raunchy but melodic music, with a hypnotic and mysterious beat, complete with lyrics which mentioned Dr. Strange (and we were dedicated comics fans.)

“What the hell is this?” I asked Lach. “This is great.”

“I don’t know, but I wish I’d written it.”

It was The Bongos’ cover of Marc Bolan’s “Mambo Sun,” from their recently-released first album. From that day we were Bongos fans, and Drums Along The Hudson became part of the soundtrack of our time in Boston, along with Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy, and The Clash’s Sandinista!

1987   After years of living in New York, and years playing with Lach in Proper Id and other bands I moved to Hoboken — The Bongos’ home — which boasted a vigorous independent music scene that The Bongos had helped create. I was thrilled to meet Bongos guitarist James Maestro, who still lives in town, and to become part of the Hoboken scene that revolved around Maxwell’s and The Beat ’n’ Path.

1997   Lach and I continued to work in New York and New Jersey, playing in Hoboken as well as Manhattan, and we put in a couple of years as one third of Lach and The Sextet Offensive where, for the first time, acoustic guitars became an important part of the band. But, when Lach took us into Bisi Studios in Brooklyn we seemed unable to truly capture our unusual live sound.

The group disbanded and Lach — as he always does — continued to give me regular reports of his ever-expanding plans, ranging from solo tours to founding a record company (which he did.)

Lach phoned me one afternoon, early in 1997, at the publishing company where I was freelancing. Tired of looking for the right label deal, he had decided to go to a different studio and make a CD for his new label — Fortified. By chance he’d met former Bongos frontman Richard Barone at the Sidewalk Café, and given him a rough tape. Richard called a few days later to say that he was listening to the tape and was interested in working on a studio project. It was likely that former Television drummer Billy Ficca would be part of it, and Lach already had a short list of potential bassplayers which included veteran New York scenester and Washington Squares founder, Tom Goodkind, who had also produced our first CD, Contender.

“Do you think this is really going to happen?” I asked Lach. “I mean this is such a fantastic line-up with Billy Ficca and Richard Barone.”
But Lach was concerned that Tom was too busy to work on the project, and so he was also considering asking Bob Dylan’s current bassplayer. These guys were heavy hitters, and I was starting to feel maybe a little out of my league, but I knew I had to be a part of this record.

“Look, Lach,” I said. “I really want to do this record. After all the years we’ve spent working together, we’ve never come up with the definitive recording, and this could be it. I would love to work with Barone. In fact, I would be thrilled to work with Barone! I want you to know that I’m very, very interested in doing this.”

“But I thought you wouldn’t want to do it. You said you were tired of playing out,” he replied.

“I’m tired of playing small East Village bars, yes, but I’m always ready to go back into the studio with you.”

Days passed, and I started chewing my fingertips, horrified at the thought that Lach would be working with the leader of the Bongos and that I might not be a part of it. Eager to be involved, I exploited my position as band archivist by compiling demos and live cuts from our entire career together, and mailing them to Richard.

“Geoff grew up in London and has a real Clash/Jam bassplaying style,” Lach had told Richard. He liked the sound of that a lot, and on one glorious day Richard telephoned me personally to invite me to on board.

Our early meetings took place at Sidewalk, and also in a cozy Chelsea bar close to the rehearsal studios that we would use for pre-production. It was exciting and a little scary to be playing in a secluded studio with a drummer as famous as Billy; and Richard — one of our heroes — sitting against the wall with a file folder full of notes, watching everything we did with intense concentration, writing down comments and making suggestions.

A few years earlier, during the Contender sessions, Lach and I had indulged our passion for Star Wars by re-enacting scenes from the movies in between takes. This greatly amused our producer, Tom, who would leave the tape running without telling us. One segment (“I hope the old man got that tractor beam out of commission, or this is gonna be a real short trip. Okay hit it!”) even made it onto the disc, immediately before the raucous “Hard Times.”

Not much changes, and so as we moved into the recording phase of Blang! Lach and I spent down time in the studio doing C3-PO and Han Solo routines. And then Star Wars action figures started to appear in the studio, and they weren’t ours! It also happened that the re-released special edition of the Star Wars trilogy was in the cinemas at the time, and on numerous afternoons Richard would appear, beaming, after an early visit to the Ziegfeld to see Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi one more time. We’d somehow managed to get involved with one of the few people in the world who was an even bigger Star Wars fan than we were. An assemblage of action figures, which included Yoda and the Emperor, and those weird robots whose names I can never remember, populated the mixing console for the duration of the sessions, along with bubble gum cards and other paraphernalia which Richard would produce on a daily basis.

Geoff and Richard discussing Star Wars as usual
Mixing desk with notes
Lach reading in-between takes

It was tough for me to keep my mouth shut. I had an idea (or ten) for every song. I even had my own list of which songs should be on the album (and I did get my way with one of them — the beautiful “Gasoline Blue” a survivor from the old days, which became the only Proper Id-era song to make it onto Blang!). But I forced myself to be good, confident in the knowledge that Richard knew where he was taking us. I spent hours in the control room studying Richard’s book which documented the Beatles’ Abbey Road sessions. I’d never much liked The Beatles, but I found the book fascinating.

“Now I’ve seen everything,” Lach would tell anyone who came to visit. “Look! Geoff is reading a book about The Beatles!”

The Abbey Road book seemed to me particularly perfect material, because Richard was a multi-talented producer, with much of Beatles’ producer George Martin originality in him. He would point out to me how certain sounds represented particular moods and events in the songs. The shimmering cymbals in the chorus of “If You Break It,” for instance, change the feel of the song greatly and were intended to be “the dream of the girl,” Richard explained. He brought an encyclopedic technical knowledge to the project, together with experience in traditional recording methods that are rarely used today (listen to the whirring Echoplex in the middle of “Teenage Alcoholic”). He also told me that many modern recordings sound similar because the engineers are all using the same digital reverb units. And so Richard labored carefully, for hours, placing microphones around the room, and running complicated multiple lines (my bass tracks are a mix of two signals: one direct line to the board, and one from a microphone in front of heavily-padded bass cabinet tucked away in a sound proof booth.)

In The Bongos’ later days, Richard had sometimes used a waterphone on stage. An intriguing instrument, it looks like a steel water pipe surrounded by metal spines. The metallic bowl is partially filled with water and is played by dragging a cello bow across the spines. The eerie sound that results is used frequently as an effect on science fiction and horror movie soundtracks. Lach mentioned that he’d like to use a waterphone at the beginning of the (Neil Gaiman) Sandman-inspired “Dreamboat,” so Richard appeared at the next rehearsal with his own waterphone — a veteran of many Bongos shows. He unpacked it at one of the meetings in our Chelsea bar, and its appearance on the dinner table caused a lot of unwanted attention, as the bar staff clearly thought we were about to fire it up and smoke something illegal. It didn’t help when I took the thing into the bathroom and filled it with water and we tried to play it.

Lach didn’t have any desire to practice with the waterphone, but I did, and took it home that very night. I bought a new cello bow, and practiced with it often. One night my brother came home unexpectedly, while I was sitting in the dark with the strange instrument. The soft shrieking, tinkling sound crept and wavered through our apartment, and my brother — a little anxious — carefully stalked up to me with a Mag-Lite in his hand, wondering if aliens — or worse — had occupied the apartment.

Lach, Billy and I recorded all the basic tracks over three weekend nights, in a well-known Manhattan studio, the owner of which treated us so badly that we all agreed we wouldn’t give them any publicity by mentioning names. But, in compensation, we were lucky enough to have an excellent engineer who was patient, and was also amused by our antics: Richard placing boom mics against blank walls to catch faint natural reverb; setting a vintage Fender amp at the bottom of a stairwell and turning it up to maximum; all of us rummaging through bags of trash after I had accidentally thrown away Lach’s camera. Oh yes, and the Star Wars figures.

Candles lend ambience while recording "Jester"
Lach and Geoff still trying to figure it all out

The last scheduled song was “Jester,” and Lach created a mystical mood in the room, as he’s done so well since our old Radio Game days. He turned off the overhead lights, and surrounded us with candles. Billy and I sat on stools — he with a pair of congas, and me with a borrowed Fender Precision which we had acquired specially for that song. It remains my favorite memory of the sessions: smoke faintly curling up to the ceiling, and the flickering candles gently illuminating the pages on my music stand. “Jester” took numerous attempts to get right. “I Love Them” was the only song which required even more takes. When we finally succeeded in recording the perfect “Jester” version, it was late into the night. We were ready to pack up but Lach wanted to try something else.

We’d spent a long time in rehearsals trying to figure out how to arrange “If You Break It,” and it never worked. On impulse Lach suggested that we try it then — right at the very end of the sessions — and it worked perfectly. I think the second take was the keeper. And so Blang! became, almost accidentally, one song longer than planned.

Once the basic tracks were complete, I took off for three weeks on a long-planned expedition to Chile's Atacama Desert, leaving Lach and Richard to orchestrate the numerous horn and string parts, and to begin work on the vocals. I spent many hours hurtling along Chile’s Pan American Highway, with “Coffee Black” and “The Boy Who Never Went Outside” for company, and so became the first person ever to play Blang! in the southern hemisphere.

It had always been Lach’s intention to have me create the artwork for Blang!, but my mother died suddenly in the spring of 1998, and I returned to England for several months. I advised Lach to find another artist, but in the end he delayed the record so we could design it together. One afternoon we covered the floor of my art studio with scores of photos from our long history together, trying to decide which ones to use for the CD booklet. Whittling them down to a manageable number was a terribly difficult process. Design and layout of the booklet alone took more than fifty hours. And we also had to manufacture the action figure, create the backing card art (which we modeled on real action figure packaging), the disk art and so on. Finding a tiny acoustic guitar was one of the most difficult tasks, especially since we wanted it to be the same type of guitar that Lach plays. In the end I scanned a photo of a Taylor guitar from a catalog, backed it up with foamcore and pasted it inside the plastic bubble.

1999   Blang! finally emerged into record shops in 1999. It was by far the longest recording project I’d ever been involved with. Two full years had elapsed since we first began work. Blang! is not my record, it’s Lach’s and Richard's record, but I was a part of it from the beginning to the end. It’s very different from the record I imagined at the outset. But it is still something like the record I wanted to make. It’s something I’m proud of, and something that I’ll always look back upon as documentation of a unique part of my life — and I can say, “Look, we made this ourselves!”

Vin Scelsa began spinning a promo copy of “Blue Monk” (which just happens to be my favorite cut) before the CD hit the shops. There was a lot more radio play too, and I hope that somewhere — in some smokey room — an irreverent teenager played his own version of The Radio Game and, stopping the dial for a few minutes on one of our songs, found inspiration within it, as we found inspiration within “Mambo Sun” all those years ago.