Willie and the Poor Boys

The late August rains are lashing the streets of Phnom Penh with daily downpours, the deluge ensuring that the streets still flood with almost reassuring regularity as the jagged teeth of the concrete skyline continue to push ever upwards, Gold Tower 42 now almost scraping the low grey clouds that scud across the precipitating skies. There are times it almost feels like I am back in (an admittedly much warmer) UK. More specifically in the dreich northern parts from whence I sprang more than fifty four summers ago…

That was pretty poetic, wasn’t it? Yes, it was a tad Sunday Post-ish, but no bad, eh? I’ve been thinking a great deal about my place of birth recently. I returned there in July, and it was still there, Thurso in all its glory, nestling under slate-coloured skies, drizzled with intermittent squalls of rain interspersed with sudden bursts of watery sunshine. In a word, summer! I had travelled north from Edinburgh on the early Sunday morning bus, briefly attempting to while the hours away by doing some work without reckoning on the cramped conditions and the parlous state of the battery on my Macbook rendering this ambition almost completely useless. I briefly felt one of those passing tingles of ‘Scottishness’ I experience from time to time as I mused that it was very appropriate to be using a Macbook here in Scotland, home of the ‘Mac(intosh – useful for rain (see ‘Scotland’))’. I pondered would it ever achieve and hold the same cultural significance as say a ‘See you Jimmy’ tam ‘o’ shanter and fiery red wig do in delineating outwardly that elusive quality that defines the Scot. Hmmm. I took another large bite out of my Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer and a swig of Irn Bru and thought, maybe not. Giant leaps of intellectual cogitation over, the remainder of the journey to Inverness was spent in a semi-conscious reverie gazing at the scenery whizzing past the coach and marvelling at the number of pictures of hills, braes, hillocks, scree and occasionally sheep that the couple seated in front of me were taking. This reverie was only interrupted by falling asleep and completely missing Aviemore. Damn. Since watching Aviemore hosting ‘It’s a Knockout’ in glorious monochrome on my Nana’s tiny TV set back in the heady early 70’s (I think…or may have been late 60’s??) the place has always held an allure to me comparable to say, oh I don’t know, let’s say Las Vegas. Or maybe Blackpool. But this time I missed it completely, waking just as we entered Inverness. I do like Inverness. Technically I suppose I still actually live there. But I literally had only two minutes on this occasion to elbow my way through a gaggle of American cruisers (that is, from a cruise ship, not predatory nighthawks in search of illicit thrills… although a few did look 1970’s type big moustache and baseball jacket threatening…) and catch the bus north, to the land beyond the split stane, to the craggy cliffs of Dunnet Head, scorries wheeling in a big sky over peat bog and ancient cairn, to the enchanted realm of Top Joe’s and the Commercial Hotel….

What I really did not anticipate on the trip north were the waves of nostalgia I experienced as we passed through my old stomping ground from my days as a semi-pro musician, and even further back to recall trips undertaken with my dad and mum, sisters and brother… incidents, memories, events from the past sprang unbidden into my mind, forgotten friends suddenly remembered, hours of travel in various forms of transport and in varying states of comfort suddenly remembered, fond thoughts of places and people flooding through me and suffusing me with a warm glow… a bit like Scott’s Porridge Oats actually…

The truth is that I actually enjoyed the trip very much, smiling like a mad chiel at all the memories pouring out, most joyous, some tinged with sadness, but all part and parcel of my experience of life. These places, the Golspie’s, Brora’s, Dunbeath’s, Helmsdale’s, they were all part of me…goodness, even Portgower, where I swear I have never ever seen a living soul during five decades of travelling through it… HP Lovecraft would have absolutely adored it. I even felt some minor feelings of something (possibly sympathy?) when I passed through Wick. Please don’t tell anyone that. This general feeling of warmth and well-being continued when I eventually got to Thurso… walking to my eldest son’s house that night I stopped in my tracks in the small alleyway beside a somewhat nondescript harled bungalow and its detached garage lurking on the cusp of the forebodingly stonily-monikered Granville Crescent. In the annals of my personal history this seemingly undistinguished abode was of a similar stature to the KaiserKellar in Hamburg, or the Wardour Street Marquee in London…. for this was Michael Houston’s old house, and in that very garage I had taken some of the first faltering steps in my life long obsession with punishing the human race through the power of song. I entered Michael’s garage as a 15 year-old speccy geek, and emerged from its nurturing chrysalis mere weeks afterward as a 15 year-old speccy geek who thought he was a hybrid of all the best bits of Marc Bolan, John Fogerty and Ray Davies…

As I stood there on that warm(ish) July evening, the years fell away, and I remembered a myriad of things that I hadn’t thought of in many, many moons…. The ‘Eagle’ DIY kit amplifiers from a mail order catalogue that powered our first forays into electrified rock, the sheer size and gut rumbling power of Steven Beaton’s bass rig (a 15 watt WEM…wow!), Michaels mum’s impressive shortwave radio doubling as our first PA system and their standard lamp as an impromptu microphone stand, Perce’s groovy poster adorning his bass drum skin (Stonehenge, I think…? We were Spinal Tap before they were Spinal Tap!)… the songbooks that provided our first repertoire (Best of The Kinks was one…probably worth a small fortune now on e-bay, my Marc Bolan book with the amazing George Underwood illustrations and all the impossible dots and boxes and swirls crawling across the pages that would translate into mystical music, if only I knew the code)… initial rehearsals in the front room in the house, and then as it dawned on Norma and Sinclair (Michael’s parents) that perhaps this wasn’t simply a passing fad, promotion to the rock ‘n’ roll nirvana of the garage.

My memory is not brilliant, so I can’t exactly verify the sequence of events following – perhaps some kind chap (Michael?) with less frazzled brain cells can provide a more accurate picture of events, but as I recall the core of the ‘band’ initially was myself on vocals (as no one else wanted the job), Michael on guitar and Steven on bass. Once he had established that we were indeed serious, one of our other friends, James Simpson, joined as second guitarist, spending his paper round money on a red Stratocaster copy and performing the extremely impressive feat of proving that Bert Weedon’s ‘Play in A Day’ guitar tutor did actually work… in fact, James proved it could be done in an evening…. oldest member (by a couple of years) Perce and his drum kit toddled along slightly later, but his influence on the band was infinitely greater than his rudimentary drumming – he introduced us to the wonders of John C Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival. CCR stuff was insanely catchy, pretty cool and, crucially, mostly fairly easy to play, in our estimation. The bulk of the first set we worked up were mainly ‘three chord wonders’, CCR, Kinks, T.Rex and I believe Black Sabbath and Chuck Berry were in there also. Michael also owned a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I seem to recall some early rehearsals being taped, and also vaguely recall hearing them some years later and wincing at how awful I actually sounded… in my head I may have been Bolan, Fogerty and Davies, but Larry the Lamb crossed with a strangulated Bryan Ferry better described the diminutive bleat that was my trademark at that time. At this juncture I have to point out the very real dangers inherent in being a T.Rex fan in Thurso at that time. Young heterosexual men in small town Scotland in the early 70’s were mostly cheerfully misogynist, racist and homophobic, truly ignorant of the importance of addressing these issues in forging tolerance and understanding for all. You can imagine then the reaction to a diminutive cross-dressing corkscrew haired pouting and glitter-enhanced pop star.



Neil Barclay’s parents house bore witness to this upsurge of anger the night after Bolan and T.Rex performed ‘Hot Love’ on Top of the Pops, the bopping elf cementing his androgynous appearance with glitter smeared on his cheeks and under his eyes by his managers wife, Chelita Secunda, seconds before they rocked into millions of homes in the UK. Next night, Neil’s parents were away, so cue teenage party mayhem in the Barclay household. A certain local musician got so angry during a discussion on the merits of glam rock, and in particular on Mr Bolan’s make-up, that he punched a hole clean through the stairwell wall… I didn’t say much for the remainder of that night, I was rather keen on keeping all my teeth and my face intact…

So, let us pause at this point, dear reader, so you can catch your breath. Memories from those who were there in those heady times are more than welcome, real or imagined… part two, in which our heroes venture forth from the garage, blinking and wide-eyed into the cruel world of entertainment, will be along shortly…

Thought for the day

“… the kind of garage band who should be returned to the garage immediately, preferably with the engine running”

(Charles Shaar Murray, writing of The Clash live experience, 1977)


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