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.

Yes.

Exactly.

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)

Hey Porter!

So, Porter Waggoner has died. He is credited (mostly by himself, it has to be said) as being the man who brought Dolly Parton to prominence. Prominence and Dolly Parton… what thoughts pass fleetingly through the mind, dear reader… send them away, they have little place in this particular missive. His rhinestone-encrusted besuited frame topped by the strange inverted triangle of his head and his extremely large ears (hang on… isn’t it strange that many male country singers – and Bryan Ferry – have larger than average ears…) are etched in my memory through the courtesy of RCA Camden and their range of budget LP’s, as sold in Woolies and as bought in large quantities by my Mum and Dad. We had several of their duet LP’s, and the material on those was pretty much your average (!) tearjerking country balladry, songs of orphans freezing to death in the snow, life’s great tragedies and of decent god-fearin’ folks snatched from the warm bosom of life way before their time. Classic stuff. Hallmark was another great label for country vinyl. Patsy Cline was a favourite in our house. My sister Pam can do an uncanny Patsy Cline impression. I really, really liked Patsy (and the Hank’s – Williams, Snow and Locklin. I found Red Sovine just a little too much to take, Jim Reeves – mmm, good singer but too much of a smoothie, although Bimbo’s a great tune… mind you, so is ‘This world is not my home’… time for a re-appraisal, I think…). I loved Marty Robbins, particularly ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’, home to the wondrous ‘El Paso’ and ‘Big Iron’, and anything by Johnny Cash (both CBS orange label – a tad more expensive!) and though I would never admit this to my Dad, I really liked his other main man, United Artist’s very own Slim Whitman. I think it was the fact that so many of his recordings sounded really spooky to me, like spirit messages filtered through a medium locked in an echo chamber with a steel guitar, and he looked amazing, really plastic and always soft focus, like an early version of Max Headroom. Boy, did I have an active imagination as a kid.

My introduction to country music came courtesy of my parents, when as a young child (maybe four or five years old) I received a red vinyl 78 of Roy Rogers singing ‘Red River Valley’, backed with ‘The Old Chisum Trail’ (my middle name is Chisholm, and my dear Nana’s family were Chisholm’s who had many émigrés in their history, so this set off fanciful flights of imagining about their role in the Wild West which I have recently found are much more accurate than I could have ever dreamed.). It was encased in an incredible picture sleeve, with Roy mounted on Trigger, his trusty steed (many years before he would literally mount Trigger – titter ye not, I mean upon a wooden plinth, stuffed and on display at his ranch) on the front. If Otis is the whitest baby in the world, then there is no doubt that Trigger was the whitest horse in the world. Even whiter than the White Horse whiskey horse, or the White Horses from the eponymous 1960’s children’s TV serial. Sorry, I’m diverging and digressing again. Lets get back on track… Roy Rogers… I really liked both songs, and at that time my heroes were pretty much either cowboys or spacemen, or my Dad, who I kind of imagined was Michael Rennie playing the role of a cowboy spaceman… which I suppose he did in ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ … now there’s an obscure reference to something coming up in this blog very shortly…

TV was full of cowboys, and my favourite was Ty Hardin from Wells Fargo. Ty didn’t go much for shootin’, oh no, he favoured pistol-whipping the bad guys, and usually being pistol-whipped in return. This was very unfortunate for my younger sister Vanda, who found herself the recipient of a particularly vicious pistol-whipping from her beloved big brother, copying old Ty. I don’t recall the exact details, but my mother remembers my disbelief that poor Vanda didn’t just get up right away, rub her head and clamber back into the saddle and ride off into the sunset, as Ty was wont to do, but had to suffer mild concussion courtesy of the Milky Bar Kid (me).

All this reminiscing is getting me misty-eyed with nostalgia, so while we’re on a roll, let’s carry on. Dan Dare, Yuri Gagarin (I far preferred the Russian cosmonauts to their American counterparts – Gagarin seemed such a cheeky and likeable chappie – and Russian spacecraft were way more interesting, almost Heath-Robinson-ish in appearance. Remember Lunakhod, the Russian Moon-rover? I swear that was a bathtub with wheels on it…), Quickdraw McGraw, Robert McGregor from across the road and his huge collection of glossy music magazines, so many, many formative influences… but let us fast forward to the point where my burgeoning obsession with rock music collided with the realization that country music was a very real part of the whole kaleidoscopic jigsaw… step up and take a bow Mr. Alan J ‘Perce’ McPherson, the man who introduced me to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Perce was a little older than my friends and I, and he had a record collection full of many strange and wondrous things, but none more wondrous than his Creedence albums. He also became the drummer in our first band, Paranoya.

We started as a ‘front-room’ band in my friend Michael’s house, before graduating to ‘garage band’ when we began to get a little too loud. I suppose we were a very early example of art-rock as we used found or everyday objects as part of our equipment. Michael’s mum’s big radio was our PA system; his front room lamp stand became the microphone stand. Guitar amplifiers were built from mail-order electronic kits (Kids! Why grow giant mushrooms in your basement when you can build your very own ‘Eagle’ crackling high voltage electric shock dispenser that also functions as a signal amplifier for only £8-3/4d!!), speakers resembling inverted Kleenex dispensers were constructed from Planika. Our bass player’s mum and dad obviously had more faith in him as they bought him a guitar, amplifier (15 watts! Yay!) and a strap, bag and cable (ironically he went on to be the bassist in a real country band…) I didn’t have a guitar at that point, or indeed a purpose to my life, so I drew the short straw of vocalist, which was a bit strange as I was at that time chronically shy. (Which is not to say that I am not still chronically shy, because I am, albeit in a slightly more extrovert way.) One of our original two guitarists who had previously shown little interest in music didn’t like the idea of being left out of this latest digression so he toddled off down to the Music Shop, bought a guitar and a copy of Bert Weedon’s legendary ‘Play In A Day’ and stayed up all night, effectively learning to play in half-a-day, returning the next day to stun us with his new-found expertise. As I recall, the first song we practiced (nobody ‘rehearsed’ in those far-off days) was a song by the Kinks called ‘Took my baby home’, which I believe none of us had actually heard at that time, we learned it straight from a songbook. Some years later I did get round to hearing the original, and our version was pretty close.

Well, reasonably close…

I wish I could find a set list, as my memory of those days is pretty hazy now, but I’m pretty sure we did more than a few Creedence numbers – ‘Don’t look now’ for certain, maybe ‘Effigy’… ‘Travelin’ Band’, ‘Lodi’, perhaps ‘Bad Moon Rising’ (also known as Bare Moon Horizon… does that mean anything to anyone out there reading this??). I think Michael may have made some reel-to-reel recordings of the garage sessions, but he may well be sitting on these (if they still exist) in the unlikely event of any of that little group of people becoming famous for whatever reason… (News just in – Thurso man blown up in Cambodian minefield – Legendary Garage Sessions tape to be released!) .
Jebus, I’ve been rambling a bit, haven’t I? I’ve completely lost track, so let me finish with a recommendation. Buy ‘Revival’.

Must admit, first time I heard the single (well, actually saw the video for it– I do hope John is being ironic, though I would kill for the painted western acoustic one of the kids is playing… ), I wasn’t sure… Now I am. Absolutely. The real John C Fogerty is back with a vengeance. It’s simple and direct, maudlin in parts (like the best country music), and it rocks like an unhinged mountain man high on moonshine driving his truck at 110 the wrong way down the interstate highway in others… and dammit, yes, it really sounds like Creedence. The last time Mr. Fogerty released anything this consistently great was around the time my Dad died, so the memories that flood through me when I listen to this incredible album are tinged with a little bit of that ole country sadness. Like we all do with the people who matter and who have gone from our lives, I really wish my Dad was still around. I would love to tell him honestly how much I really secretly liked his music, and the incredible effect it would go on to have on my life, but I do have some amazing memories.

We once went to see Carl Perkins and Bo Diddley play… I’ll never forget looking around during Bo’s set to see my Dad grinning from ear to ear and almost bopping around with the sheer joy of the music. Music is all about moments, and in that moment on the stage it was country meeting it’s best buddy, rock and roll, and up in the stalls my dad and I realizing that we weren’t really as different as we thought we were after all…

…so this one’s for you, Dad

Keep on chooglin’…