Bill Belknap, American musician, producer and sound engineer, worked with Stewart Copeland in the making of 'Rumblefish', the soundtrack commissioned by Francis Ford Coppola. Bill's tales and anecdotes give and in-depth view on how they worked together one of the most acclaimed works in Stewart Copeland's career as film composer.
By Giovanni Pollastri / StewartCopeland.net
Tell us something about your job in the music business as producer and engineer. When and how did you start?
Thanks, Gio for the opportunity to remember this.
When I was about 10, my father bought me a small battery operated tape recorder. It was a tiny reel-to-reel job that slowed down when the batteries were dying, so the voices recorded got deeper. Lots of fun for a kid. Then, in 1967, dad brought home one of the first Philips cassette recorders for me to play with. I recorded everything. We were living in London at the time and pop music was the rage. I loved recording songs off the radio from Radio London and Radio Caroline, the pirate stations that operated off the coast of England. I loved The Beatles and the Stones and the Who and…
At 14, my parents bought me my first set of drums.
My sister, Barbara, and I attended the American School of London, at the same time as Stewart Copeland. He was between our ages so we didn’t know him. This is a picture from the ASL Gateway year-book 1967. Stewart and I talked about ASL during the recording sessions and found out one of his best friends, Steve Donnell, a basketball buddy, was the older brother of one of my girlfriends, Sally.
Fast forward to 1975 at the University of Tulsa. I was a Film major working at the campus radio station.
One day, in August 1975, the phone rang, and on the other end was Bob Lauer, a recording engineer, looking for a student to help out at Irving Productions in Tulsa, a production studio. Luckily I answered the phone and got the job.
I learned almost everything about recording and editing from the owner Dick Schmitz.
In 1978 I took the job as assistant engineer at Tulsa Studios, a big multi-track studio with lots of big time equipment.
In 1982 my partner, Walt Banfield, and I started Long Branch Studios, when the owner of Tulsa Studios got fed up with the film department’s petty bickering.
We went on to run Long Branch Studios for 25 years. I recorded, engineered and produced hundreds of records and CDs. As a drummer I toured with 20/20 and recorded two albums with them in the 1990’s. Because of Stewart’s influence and Ed Robinson, my writing partner, I learned how to write music for short films and commercials. I still perform in Tulsa with a great band called The Doctors of Replay.
Now back to Stewart.
How did you get involved in working with Stewart Copeland?
My wife, at the time, Sue Montgomery, was plugged in to the Tulsa film production scene, and worked as a set designer assistant on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders early in the summer of ’82. After Zoetrope finished The Outsiders, the grand plan was for Francis to go straight into the production of Rumblefish. Both films are based on books set in Tulsa and written by S. E. Hinton, the amazing Tulsa born author. Francis wanted to film them in Tulsa.
At some point, Mr. Coppola decided he wanted a rock drummer to score Rumblefish. He asked his son, Roman, ”Who is the coolest rock drummer?”
Roman said “ Stewart Copeland.”
Good choice. Stewart was flown to Tulsa, from England.
Long Branch was the largest studio in the American southwest. We were doing some of the ADR for The Outsiders with Matt Dillon and C. Thomas Howell at the time. Matt just wanted to play my drums in the studio, but he’s left-handed. It sounded awful. Sorry, Matt. I still owe C. Thomas $10 for OU losing to USC in football that year.
Oh, right, Stewart is left-handed too. Two of my favorite drummers are left handed, but play right-handed. Stewart and Jamie Oldaker, a Tulsa native. We lost Jamie in the summer of 2020.
So, late July ’82, Stewart came to town.
Francis had already video taped part of the script of Rumblefish with the actors. He shot it against green screen so he could fly in the background. That was pretty high tech at the time.
The production team rented a set of drums for Stewart. They set the drums up in a High School gymnasium and projected the video on a screen for him to watch and perform to. Just like that? WTF. Are you kidding me? Watch this, Stewart, and play some cool drums to it. I hope they rented a rug for the drums too.
I guess he passed the audition.
The next thing I know, Zoetrope booked the week at Long Branch for Stewart. That was Late July, early August 1982.
Knowing who Stewart Copeland was at the time, at the peak of his career, were you ‘sort of’ worried about working with such a star?
I was scared to death.
I wasn’t a rookie. I had worked with Steve Ripley, Gene Simmons, Roy Clarke and tons of local artists. So, it wasn’t my first rodeo.
But I was freakin’.
I wasn’t all that familiar with The Police at the time. Heard their hits but not much more. I literally had 24 hours to prepare. Ran to the record store and bought all of their records and listened all night and day before he came in. Instantly became a huge fan. The thing that struck me about his drumming was the way he shifted the back beat to the 3 beat and his amazing speed.
While we were recording if he leaned out of the groove of the loop, he trusted me to stop the performance, roll back a few bars and punch in to keep the groove in tact. We had some funny conversations about studio terms and technique differences between the US and Britton. In America when the engineer is going to start recoding on an individual track by pushing a button after backing up a few bars, it’s called PUNCHING IN. “I’ll punch you in on the next downbeat.” In England it’s called DROP IN. “I’ll Drop you in…” I guess it’s a friendlier term. Don’t punch me.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was confident in my skills and charm. Had all the equipment to do anything. But still…STEWART COPELAND!!
In studio, how did it all start? Did he bring the demos of the songs he wanted to record for Rumblefish?
No. But first, I have to say we met. He’s Stewart, I’m Bill. That was that. He was a little intense. But I had no idea what he had been through to audition. Looking back, he was probably as frightened as I was, a little demanding, but focused. He had a plan that was pretty cutting edge at the time. He began to pace at the front of the control room like a tiger in a cage. He wore a plain t-shirt and funny little ‘80’s gym shorts. But all business. Wow, gonna take me a while to convince him I know what I’m doing.
He had sound effect recordings. Before he played a note, Stewart explained to me that he wanted to create grooves that included sound effects as part of the rhythm. The studio had a little TR 303 drum machine. It was very early tech and long before sequencers. Stewart said he wanted to create a groove on the drum machine, add sound effects in rhythm to the groove and then cut it into a tape loop. I had just learned how to make 2 inch tape loops from my mentor Steve Ripley in May.
So, we laid down the TR 303 groove on one track of the 2 inch 16 track.
Then from a ¼ inch tape machine we rolled in his sound effects to match the groove on certain beats. The best example is in Brothers on Wheels. I love the car horn sound that keeps coming around. No easy task. That’s how almost every song started from then on.
Once we got the sound effects in sync with the groove he wanted, we cut the loop. A “loop” is a 1, 2 or 4 bar sequence of music literally cut into a 2 inch tape loop. So the downbeat of bar one is edited to the downbeat of bar 4. It is literally a circle of tape that rolls against the playback heads of the 16 track transferring the groove and sound effects to the 24 track for as long as Stewart wanted. We had to trick the tape machine into thinking it was business as usual, and use microphone stands and chairs to hold the tape loop up as it circled around the control room.
Steve Ripley's photo shows when he teaches me how to make a tape loop. You can see the mic stand holding up the tape so it will continue to roll over the playback heads of the 16 track tape recorder. This was a one bar loop.
In the case with Stewart and the Rumblefish tape loops, we did loops that were as many as 8 bars. So the tape ran all over the control room, held up by 6 or 7 microphone stands and in some cases an assistant. Unfortunately we don’t have pictures of that.
On Tulsa Tango, the cool sound at the beginning is a Chinese Bell Tree that he set on its side and put masking tape on the bells so they didn’t ring so long. What? Put a mic on it and shut up, Bill. Here it comes. He called that song Peter Bum while we were recording it.
Then came the day he asked me if we had a typewriter. Come on. It was 1982. Of course we had a typewriter. We created the TR 303 groove on the 16-track. I brought him a typewriter. I put a Neumann U 87 microphone right above it. He began to play the typewriter like a secretary. But no. Let’s do another track. An overdub. He plays it again like a different person including the backup page sound. Then we recorded another typewriter overdub. Great. That didn’t take long. But we’re not done, Bill. The drums were ready and he sits down and plays the incredibly fast drum part to the typewriter loop.
Hostile Bridge to Benny’s. Now, we’re having fun, he said.
Rumors say he was kind of happy to have some time off from the recording sessions with The Police. Did you notice anything concerning his feeling at the moment?
We were having so much fun creating music for Francis Ford Coppola that I had no idea about The Police. He did say something about Sting and him being very competitive, about Polo and basketball. I think after two days he began to trust me. We only had a few moments of really talking to each other as people. He gave me great advice about owning a studio and playing drums. Produce some local talent and get them a record deal. I’m proud to be a part of helping him start a film-scoring career.
In 1983 The Police were performing their Synchronicity tour and came to Oklahoma City. Stewart sent me tickets with a backstage pass. I was wondering around back stage and opened a door where I saw Stewart. Two enormous body guards rushed toward me, that I didn’t even notice, when Stewart said, “Bill?”. They backed off and we got to talk for a while. He said he couldn’t remember which songs we had worked together on Rumblefish and apologized for the album credits. Andy was on an inversion table behind Stewart. I asked if he was excited about the show. He said something like “trying to be.” He let me sit behind him during the show on road cases. It was awesome. It’s one of my favorite memories of all time.
Rumblefish is a recording that many Police fans still love and collect. How do you feel about it more than 30 years from its release?
Bill: It was so much fun and challenging to work with Stewart. We actually recorded a few pieces that weren’t used in the film. I’m proud to be a part of Rumblefish and Stewart Copeland. It was his first film score. It was for Francis Ford Coppola. But Stewart is so talented and creative, this opened new doors for his abilities, and career. He played a lot of guitars and keyboards creating the music, which kind of surprised me, and inspired me, being a drummer myself. Here’s a great drummer that plays other instruments?
At the end of each day of recording, Stewart would only allow us to do 2 passes to do rough mixes of what we had recorded that day. Then we made cassettes for him to take to the movie set the next day and play for the actors, the crew and Francis. The most important thing I remember is the third day he came in and asked me “where do we start”? That’s when I knew I had his confidence. I told him to do his thing. The Reggae Ska beat. That’s when he wrote Brothers on Wheels. He gave me the ice bell he used.
The next day when he came into the control room, he said, “We have a HIT.” Imagine Stewart Copeland telling you, “WE have a hit.” Stewart is very driven and so creative, but very humble and joyful. He shares in his accomplishments.
Are you still in touch with Stewart? Did you follow his career after The Police as a solo artist? Have you seen him performing live some of the songs included in Rumblefish?
We’ve kind of lost touch. I’m so proud of him. All of his comments about scoring film are so compelling. He motivates me to create music. I keep track of his performances as a fan. I think his drum solo on David Letterman’s Drum Solo week is the most amazing crazy performance ever by him. To think he wrote all of the other instrument’s parts is blinding.
We saw each other after The Police show at the MGM in Las Vegas in 2007. He gave us backstage passes. How nice is he? I made fun of his wardrobe. He said he pays people a lot of money to tell him what to wear. Elizabeth, my wife, asked if he had kids. He said he had six. She asked “The same mother?” He said, “ No, I wouldn’t do that to one woman.”
Oh, wait. Something nobody seems to know about the Rumblefish music, is the Sunday session at the end of my week with Stewart. I know we started on a Wednesday and worked about 14 hours a day through Saturday. We created about two songs per day for four days. At the beginning of Saturday Stewart told me Francis had hired a bunch of New York musicians to fly in to Tulsa on Sunday for a big recording session. He had a meeting with Gary Chang, an amazing composer, that night, Saturday, after we finish recording today.
So anyway, Francis hired a master violinist, a cellist, a trombone player, a keyboard player, a guitar player and Gary Chang, composer, to come to Long Branch from New York City on that Sunday. The studio was pretty unique at the time. The control room was upstairs from the studio. So we put microphones on all of the instruments and they kind of jammed around some of Stewart’s musical ideas. I guess Stewart had a few hours with Gary to explain what he had in mind musically for some of the pieces he had created.
Stewart seemed kind of nervous Saturday night and then on Sunday. As I recall it was kind of a circus. Francis and his entourage were there. His film producers were there. The New York musicians were there. I remember Mr. Coppola standing in the control room saying he liked working with musicians rather than actors.
I think Stewart and I had our best connection that day. It was like us against them. He had created this music and what were they going to contribute?
There are several recordings from that day no one has heard.
And that was that.
Stewart went on to California to finish scoring Rumblefish.
One final story. I promise.
Three years after Rumblefish, one of the artists I was producing, Dave Barber, got a gig in Dallas, for a fundraiser at a Polo festival. Of all people, Stewart Copeland was one of the big contributors to the charity. He was willing to sit in with the band to help raise money. So Dave Barber and the Rocket Rangers rehearsed a show. That included me on drums and Ed Robinson on keys. Dave and the rest of the band went down from Tulsa to Dallas the day before the gig and got to hang out with Stewart and played hockey with him. Stewart is very competitive. He was there to play polo, of course.
I was very excited to see Stewart again. And perform with him.
So the day of the gig Ed and I loaded up my station wagon with our instruments and headed for Dallas. It started raining and half way there we stopped for gas. So I filled up my tank at the nearest gas station. Hopped in the car and tried to start it up.
I realized my gas tank was full of water.
The rain had seeped into the underground petrol tank at the station and sunk below the gasoline and pumped water into my car.
I ran into the station complaining to the owners who denied everything. Their chunky son chased me out of the store back to the parking lot. It was the first time in my life, as an adult, that I thought I was going to be in a fist fight. It’s go time?
He backed off.
I told the people behind us that had filled up their car, to call me. I gave them my card.
Ed and I were screwed. The Rocket Rangers were screwed. Somehow we got the local “mechanic” to tow the station wagon to his garage. Seems fishy? Pull the gas tank off the wagon.
Empty out the water. Put the gas tank back on the station wagon. Not in time to make it to Dallas for the gig.
Somehow back in those days, we let Dave know we weren’t going to make the gig. They wrangled a set of drums.
The good news is, Stewart Copeland played drums for the Rocket Rangers that night at the polo charity in Dallas.
As for me, I moved my studio to my home in 2001 and changed the name to Loudoun Road Studio. Loudounroadstudio.com website. Loudoun Road is the street we lived on in London. I snuck out with a buddy one night, before we moved back to the States and stole a street sign. It is one block away from Abbey Road running parallel. They moved the American School in London to Loudoun Road right after we moved. A few years ago I finally released my first solo album. It’s called Bill Belknap/Magic Pocket. It was just a digital release, but I think it’s still on Spotify. Check out “Standing In The Middle”, you’ll hear The Police influence.
Thank you so much Bill, and thanks again for such a wonderful recording that will remain one of the points of reference for every Stewart Copeland fan.