A Brief History of Cargo

In ‘76 I was working as a staff cameraman at Granada TV in Manchester, and more for fun than anything else I decided to build a mobile sound recording truck. I already had some sound mixing experience producing and engineering bands for John Peel’s Dandelion label some years before. I bought an ex ambulance fitted it out with a mixing desk and started recording bands at weekends around the Manchester area. As a cameraman at Granada I worked with Tony Wilson and in autumn 1977 he fronted a show on TV called “So it Goes” the second series of which included bands recorded live on stage. Tony knew of my mobile and Granada hired it to record the shows and I ended up recording bands such as Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, the Buzzcocks, the Jam, and the Tom Robinson Band. For various reasons I decided at the end of 1977 to leave Granada and with the money from the TV shows I built a sixteen track studio. That became Cargo Recording Studios which everyone abbreviated to Cargo Studios or just Cargo.

From the start I wanted Cargo to produce a different sound from any other studio. I wanted it to have a unique live sound to capture the energy that bands were used to getting on stage. I thought this would fit well with the uprising of New Wave, Punk and Heavy Metal against the disco sound that was prevalent at that time. The studio, a converted warehouse on Kenion Street, a back street in Rochdale, had a concrete floor, though it was carpeted, and brick walls with just a bare minimum of sound insulation. The mixing desk was a Soundcraft 24 into 16/8. The recorder was a Cadey 16 track with, unusually, valves on the record side which meant you could hammer the tape without getting distortion. This helped to contribute to the unique “Cargo” sound because of its clean, but very powerful sound. Monitor speakers were JBL’s s powered by Quad amps. and a Tascam 1/4” mastering machine.

In the first three months only a handful of local bands had been in and things were looking bleak, but then the Gang of Four came in from Leeds, and that was the turning point. They found in Cargo a studio that could handle their type of music capturing the energy as if they were playing live, conventional recording techniques went out the window. The Gang of Four released their Damaged Goods single and from then it just took off, it seemed like every indie band in the UK wanted to record at Cargo. Tony Wilson was at that time starting Factory records and one of the first bands he brought in was Joy Division to record “Digital” and “Glass”. Tony came to see me before bringing them in and asked if I would like paying on the day or to take a risk and go on future royalties cos Factory didn’t have a lot of readies. After listening to an earlier cassette of them I told Tony that I thought they were a half decent band but didn’t think they’d ever sell any records so I took the daily rate and of course missed out on the subsequent royalties for Joy Division/New Order. So much wiser in hindsight. Later they also recorded probably the best known track to come from the studio, the brilliant “Atmosphere” for many people an all time favourite track. However it did open my mind to accept any band with whatever different music they may have which is just as well as one of the next to come in was the Fall and Mark E Smith. Despite having heard stories of Mark being difficult to work with I got on with him really well, he was good to work with. The Fall used to record almost everything in one take, including vocals. They recorded several albums and singles at Cargo.

Factory producer Martin Hannett spent a great deal of time in Cargo recording Joy Division, OMD, Durutti Column, Section 25 & Nico amongst others. Bands were coming from Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, many from Scotland and Wales, Newcastle and Birmingham and the Midlands. Bands came up from London and even some from Germany and France.

Eventually there was just too much work coming in for me to cope with so I took on a second engineer Colin Richardson. Colin had come in originally as bass player with a band called Prowler and asked if there was ever a vacancy for an engineer to let him know, and then he kept pestering me until eventually I took him on. Colin turned into one of the UKs best recording engineers. Today he is one of the top Heavy Metal producers recording in the States and over here with bands like “Bullet for my Valentine”.

Ian Blackburn joined Cargo as third engineer. Ian originally came in with the Heavy Metal band Turbo, he was their lead guitarist. Despite his HM background Ian seemed to end up recording the acoustic and folk sessions.

Tim Stott was our brilliant maintenance engineer he certainly had his work cut out keeping the studio going particularly the very temperamental Cadey multitrack.

At its peak the studio was recording day & night for 3 months none stop. One band would be leaving as another was arriving. Organised chaos and a very smelly studio.

On his radio show John Peel used to play any track that said “Recorded at Cargo” on the sleeve, often without listening to it first, just simply on the studios reputation for good indie music.
He used to call it the “Legendary Cargo Studios”

Part of the philosophy behind the studio was to make it financially available to bands who were just starting out, but that meant that the rates were lower than maybe they should have been and unfortunately not having any financial backers the studio only just about paid its way. This meant there wasn’t the finance to upgrade to 24 tracks with all the extra cost of a new desk and 24 track recorder. After having success with their indie singles/albums from Cargo, bands would then sign to a major label and move on to 24 track London studios. Many major record companies believed you couldn’t possibly put a single or album out that had been recorded in a 16 track studio in Rochdale, but in taking the band to a more lavish studio often with some top notch producer much of the feel and energy was lost. Great sound but totally lifeless.

Colin decided to leave in 1983. It was a great loss to the studio. He was a great guy.

4 track & even 8 track recorders were by this time cheap and many bands were now recording backing tracks in their garage/ bedroom/ attic/front room, one or two were good most were appalling. Sampling was coming in and groups would turn up with everything on a synth just to overdub the vocals and I could see that I was fast becoming just a fader pusher. I carried on for another year but the by then the fun had gone out of it and I decided to call it a day.

The building that housed Cargo eventually become derelict. However in 2012 the building was taken over by the guys at VoltaLab who have invested a substantial amount to turn it back into a studio. Good for them.

Cargo Studios is still operational but today it is purely a digital mixing studio with just a couple of mics for overdubbing. No more lethal  Cadey 16 tracks or “pin you to wall” JBL monster speakers. I thought I’d miss the old analogue way but I don’t, there’s a lot to be said for computers…. when they’re working. I still record bands but use commercial studios for that bit and then mix back at my place where I can take as long as I want, no more clock watching.

I wouldn’t go back to running a commercial studio again. During the time 1978-1985 Cargo had become the main indie studio in the UK with such amazing and diverse music from some of the most talented musicians. Only in the last few years have I realised just what an effect the studio and the music that was produced there has had on the music scene. Many of the bands are still around much of the music is too. It was good to be part of it.

John Brierley  Sept. 2014