About: The Story of Dinosaur Planet
The story of 'Dinosaur Planet' begins, like a lot of my stories, in the West End of Leicester at the end of 1989. I shared a student house with Doctor Neil and together we drank a lot of tea, started a band called Voon, and sat around in the kitchen taking the piss out of each other. Doctor Neil was reading a lot of charity shop science fiction paperbacks at the time, and rather than waste time learning the titles we called them all 'Dinosaur Planet' as a generic silly name.
In 2003 I moved to London and found myself sharing a city with all three of my brothers, so for a couple of years James, Paul, Thomas and I would meet in the pub every Thursday night to get drunk and talk a load of old nonsense. This included ideas for an action packed science fiction film which we came to call 'Dinosaur Planet', and so when, in November 2005, Mr Stuart Evers came up to me after a gig in Stoke Newington and asked if I'd ever thought about writing a book, the title 'Dinosaur Planet' immediately sprang to mind. It turned out that he was an editor at a publishing house, so we arranged a meeting two weeks hence to discuss ideas.
Over the next fortnight I worked up an indie version of a massive science fiction blockbuster. The Lara Croft-esque heroine had become an archaeologist in direct contrast to her astronomer grandfather, who'd destroyed his own career with deranged theories about space-faring dinosaurs escaping the Earth. To her horror she would discover not only that he was right, but that the dinosaurs were coming back! While the Earth waged war she would have to forge a relationship with Britain's new prime minister, a young civil servant who had assumed the role when everybody above him in government had been wiped out in the ensuing mayhem. They would, of course, fall in love!
Wikipedia told me that dinosaurs had disappeared roughly 65 million years ago, when a massive meteorite struck the Earth (most likely forming the Chicxulub crater in Mexico), throwing huge amounts of dust into the air and creating a sort of nuclear winter. We know this from a thick layer of iridium dust (found almost exclusively in meteorites) which appears at this point in the geological record.
I read on to find that the margin of error for this estimation is longer than the amount of time it had taken human beings to evolve from apes, and also that iridium could theoretically be used to power ion drives (the current hot prospect for powering spaceship engines). All of a sudden Grandad's theories started to make sense - what if the crater and iridium at Chicxulub had been caused not by a meteor impact but by the launch of a massive spaceship?
I took all these ideas and more to the meeting and was told, very gently, that I might want to keep them to myself for the time being. Stuart suggested instead that I write an antidote to the conventional rock star autobiography, using my years of experience to tell the story of what life in bands is really like when you're not an international celebrity. I have a lot of these stories, so diligently worked out a structure featuring the funniest ones, wrote a sample chapter, and handed it over for him to show to his boss.
I later learned that he had been sacked that very day for 'bringing in stupid ideas for books'.
The autobiography was not to be, but my efforts did not go to waste. After a drunken night discussing disastrous student Edinburgh Fringe experiences my friend Mr Steven Hewitt and I agreed to go back as grown-ups and do it properly. Steve suggested I mix the stories with my best songs and this became 'My Exciting Life In ROCK!', which I performed for a week at the 2008 Fringe. Every day Steve would man the door, I'd perform the show, and then we'd go out and drink too much beer, eat too much curry, and see lots and lots of shows. It was wonderful!
One show I got really excited about seeing was a one-man version of Jeff Wayne's 'War Of The Worlds'. I'd hoped it would be a jolly singalong romp through the songs we'd all loved in childhood with the occasional jokey slice of the album's dialogue. I was hugely disappointed when it turned out to be a very serious actor solemnly intoning huge chunks of the book interspersed with mere snippets of the songs, all sung to a backing tape in a light opera style.
I realised that the only way to get the one-man science fiction rock opera I'd craved was to do it myself, and as I'd been talking about my doomed book proposals every day during the show I once again thought of 'Dinosaur Planet'. On our last night I put the idea forward to Steve, who said 'You only want to do that so you can force me to walk up and down the Royal Mile in a dinosaur costume!' Now I definitely wanted to do it!
By Christmas 2008 I'd used up all the material from the 'Dinosaur Planet' book outline and found that it only lasted 30 minutes. Edinburgh Fringe shows are generally about an hour long so I had to sit down and write a whole second half, which I did by asking myself 'What could possibly make an invasion of space dinosaurs even more exciting?' The answer came to me immediately - 'Giant Robots!'
Over the next few months I tried out the new songs in my live shows and, after a couple of London previews, had an hour long one-man show version of 'Dinosaur Planet' ready to take to the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe. Once again I performed while Steve did most of the hard work, doing eight shows this time, and once again we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We would go on to do a few tour dates, finishing with two final performances of the one-man show at the Leicester Comedy Festival in February 2010, but in the meantime 'Dinosaur Planet' continued to evolve.
When not dashing around being theatrical I play with a marvellous band of people called The Validators. After we'd reunited for a couple of festival performances of 'My Exciting Life In ROCK!' they'd asked whether we'd be recording the new 'Dinosaur Planet' material together. I really liked the idea of doing this, but wanted to make sure we did it justice - I'm almost always disappointed by 'concept albums' that are just a few vaguely linked or similar songs, so was determined that we would make our concept album as close to 'War Of The Worlds' in terms of quality and coherence as we possibly could. I suggested to The Validators that we go the whole hog and record it as a full-cast rock opera, with guest stars and dialogue sections, and they readily agreed. All I needed to do now was work out how to do it!
I began with the dialogue that was already in the one-man version, wrote new scenes where there'd previously been just narrative, and wherever possible put in some new jokes. Most of the characters were already there but they all needed fleshing out, and this led to some interesting new plot points. For instance, 'Strangely Attractive' and the whole General Truelove/Captain Keith story came about because Validators' bass player Mr Francis A Machine had complained about the lack of any love interest. Other changes including dropping a song called 'It Isn't Nice To Eat Your Friends', which had never really worked live, for a new one called 'Please Don't Eat Us', and nearly every song had changes here and there to the lyrics. We even had a read through in my kitchen to see what did and didn't work and, after several more re-drafts, we were ready to enter the studio.
Most of the work on the album would be done at The Snug Recording Company in Derby, under the watchful eyes of Mr Richard Collins and Mr Robin Newman. On our previous album, 'Regardez, Ecoutez Et Repetez', they'd patiently listened to all the daft ideas we'd thrown at them and not only made them happen but also suggested some of their own, so we knew they would be the right men for this job.
The first step with any album is usually to record the drums, but our drummer, Mr Tim Pattison, was about to move to Mauritius for a year for his work, along with his wife (and The Validators' other vocalist) Mrs Emma Pattison. We decided to try and get all the drums recorded before they left the country, so that the rest of us could finish everything else off while they were gone, leaving Emma to do her parts when they returned. This led to two very busy, very fruitful, sessions in late 2009 during which we managed to record all of the drum tracks, and we said 'au revoir' to the Pattisons confident that we'd have everything else done by the time they came home.
Dialogue sessions began in April 2010, when Mr Keith Top Of The Pops very kindly offered us a free day in London's Dean Street Studios. I gathered together a host of friends for another very busy day's work, during which we recorded most of the non-Validators dialogue. At one point former children's TV presenter Mr Gaz Top popped in to collect something. I completely bottled out of asking him to record a cameo for us - something which I expect to regret forever!
We took these recordings back up to Derby and added them to the home recordings done by other cast members, then spent the following months overdubbing guitars, violins, keyboards, more vocals and various sound effects. Validators' violinist Mr Tom 'The Tiger' McClure was in the producer's chair this time around. On a 'normal' album the producer's main job is to maintain control of the recording sessions, which is difficult enough at the best of times. He has to remember what's been recorded, what still needs doing and how the mixes are going whilst also negotiating the outside commitments of band members with full-time jobs, families, and homes in different cities, as well as coming up with fresh ideas for the songs themselves. A concept album is even more work - adding dialogue sections means that there's suddenly twice as many tracks to deal with, with a whole different range of edits, mixes, and especially sound effects (we spent ages on footsteps, kettles and all manner of background noises) and the whole album has to flow together seamlessly, with timings and effects matching across the entire duration.
Luckily for all concerned Tom proved himself to be a master of The Spreadsheet Of ROCK, a system we have developed over many years whereby you write down what needs doing on every track and then (a vital innovation) actually do it when you get to the studio. This involved a lot of email debate but was invaluable, even on the occasions when we decided to change our minds in the studio and slap on another explosion instead. If we hadn't had those spreadsheets we would probably be stuck in the studio trying to match reverb on different kinds of footsteps for the rest of our lives.
By the summer of 2010 we were still a long way from finishing, even with all the organisation and management skills we'd brought to bear, but we knew that we were creating something worth taking our time over. Various life events had slowed us down, like Tim and Emma extending their stay in Mauritius and Mr and Mrs Frankie Machine having a baby, but we still found time to get together for probably the best gig we've ever done. This was the Indietracks Festival, where we debuted 'Please Don't Eat Us' and 'We Are The Giant Robots' (which also appeared on the festival CD, in a very early mix featuring my demo vocals). We played to a proper big festival crowd who, it turned out, knew the words to loads of our songs. The sound of several hundred people doing the 'Music Of The Future' bit in 'Do The Indie Kid' will stay with me forever!
A week after that I was back in Edinburgh doing 'Dinosaur Planet' again, using a lightly adapted version of the album script to turn it into a two-man show. Steve was now on stage with me, which made it a whole lot more fun to perform. I was delighted to find that the story seemed to actually work this way, and especially pleased by the amount of people asking when a recorded version might be available. 'Soon', I would say, 'soon!'
We were also joined on stage by Mr Squishable, a gigantic cuddly toy dinosaur. Everyone loved him, and because he was such a perfect fit for the part of the Dinosaur Planet people naturally assumed that we'd written the show around him, but Steve had actually spotted him online a few weeks into rehearsals. He cost a vast amount of money to import from America but was worth every cent - even the shows where the three of us outnumbered the audience were made all right by having Squish available for a hug on the way home.
We toured this version of the show for the rest of the year and into 2011 while Tom kept busy finishing overdubs and starting mixing. The Pattisons were busy in Mauritius too, not only performing 'Please Don't Eat Us' with their Southern Hemisphere band Santosha but also gathering together and recording half of that song's choir of children. We recorded the rest of the children back in England when the Pattisons came home for Christmas - over the holiday period we had several lovely sessions during which all of The Validators came in to do overdubs, culminating in our traditional Validators Christmas Curry.
Since the very beginning of the album sessions I'd been worrying about the cover. If we were serious about making the songs, sound effects and script the equal of Jeff Wayne's 'War Of The Worlds' then we'd have to make sure that the cover illustrations were just as magnificent. I wanted something that would capture the playful spirit of our story, rather than being some sort of homage, and so in January 2011 I contacted Mr John Allison to ask if he would be able to draw it for us. I've loved his online comics for years, from 'Bobbins' through 'Scarygoround' and on to 'Bad Machinery' today, and about half of my t-shirts feature his designs. The only difficulty was plucking up the courage to ask him. What if he didn't like the album or, even worse, what if he turned out to be horrible?
To my intense relief he turned out to be lovely, a great person to collaborate with who sat down and listened to the rough mixes I'd sent him and then came up with ideas far beyond anything I could dare to hope for. His initial designs were so exciting that they inspired us to block book a whole bunch of recording sessions so that we could finish it sooner and start showing off the artwork!
Tom and I had listened to the songs so many times by this stage that we were in danger of getting Studio Fatigue, so we called in help from the other side of the planet. Tim had sat in the production chair for the last album and when he was back in the country for a couple of weeks we dragged him into the studio to give everything a right good going over. We then went through two or three further versions of the album - each version more tweaked, more checked, and with the segues gradually taking shape - until on 10 September 2011 Tom, Tim and I met back at Snug with Robbie for the final mastering session.
The day went well but, as usual, took longer than I'd expected - I thought we'd be done by four o'clock, but it was gone seven when we all went outside to sit in Tom's car for the final listening session. I hope that the album will be the soundtrack for many long car journeys over the coming years so it felt important to check it this way, but goodness only knows what a neutral observer would have thought if they'd seen the four of us emerging nearly an hour later, sweat dappled and shaking, our eyes glassy with fear and our hearts beginning to realise that we might have actually finished. It had been a tense 50 minutes listening carefully for errors, desperately hoping not to hear any so that we could say it was all over and get to the curry house in time to meet Emma and Frankie for a celebration meal.
A couple of songs needed tiny tweaks to the volume, but otherwise all was well, and so we were able to bring the long Dinosaur Planet recording sessions to a formal end with more beer and more curry. We sat around the table happy to be together, relieved it was all over, and intrigued to see what other people thought about this ridiculous thing we had done. It had taken over 20 years to get from a kitchen in Leicester to a curry house in Derby, with a heck of a lot of diversions and adventures along the way, but somehow it felt like the story of 'Dinosaur Planet' was only just about to begin.
MJ Hibbett, London, 25 September 2011