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)

Keep on Running

Do you recall Worzel Gummidge? He was a scarecrow, a walking, talking, living, breathing scarecrow, portrayed with admirable joie-de-vivre on Sunday afternoon children’s TV during the late 70s and early 80s in a metaphysical and sartorial about-turn by the former Dr. Who, the late Jon Pertwee. Worzel had the unique facility of being able to switch his heads around to suit his requirements, so, for example, he could change his usual ‘mischievous’ head for his ‘thinking’ head as and when the occasion demanded. As he grows older and wiser in the ways of this world, little O also seems to be developing that facility, albeit with slightly more variance than dear old Worzel managed.

Saturday last he had his ‘Roger Bannister’ head firmly in place. The International School of Phnom Penh were holding their annual sponsored Landmines Fun Run (sounds ever so slightly wrong, doesn’t it?), to raise awareness of the continuing blight caused to this country by unexploded ordnance (UXO) and landmines, and to raise funds to support the Cambodian volleyball team whose members include many survivors of these deadly legacies of conflict. We had put little O’s name down for the elementary fun run, assuming that he could be escorted by yours truly at a sedate pace around the dusty pebble-strewn track for the duration of one quarter kilometer lap. The big day dawned, and with it a gnawing sense of unease churning in the stomachs of all participants. Not caused by the worry of impending physical exercise, or indeed a dodgy roadside snack from the night before, but the real foreboding generated by the revelation, for the first time in public in Cambodia outwith a swimming pool, of your humble correspondents stick-like, white and hairy lower appendages… yes, I too had dressed for the occasion, baggy t-shirt, shorts and trendy black converse hi-tops in place…well, brothers, sisters, we don’t need this fasttrack groove thang…, oh no. Once the murmurs of distaste and ripples of barely suppressed laughter had subsided, all were called to order and lined up at the start line. A barely noticed countdown and we were off, in clouds of billowing dust, jogging along to the strains of Alice Cooper ‘School’s Out’ (Mostly ‘good’ music all morning, I have to say. Congrats to the compiler!). Little O, who was the youngest participant, waved to all around him and seemed really into this idea of trotting around trying to keep up with the big kids. The cheering and encouraging announcements must have spurred him on, for as eventually the end of lap one loomed with mummy cheerfully and excitedly waving him into the pits, the O decided that he wasn’t going to stop. ‘One more’ he said, and carried on trotting…
This was repeated FIVE times, until we put a stop to it after six laps and dragged him protesting into the sidelines, along with yours truly who was by now completely hot, dust-covered, sweaty and exhausted from keeping up with the little chap…

The mischievous head was firmly in place at a colleagues wedding this week. We had endured almost an hour stuck in a tuk-tuk in horrendous traffic to get to the venue, arriving there to marvel once more at the feats of cosmetic engineering conducted upon hapless Khmer brides by the beauticians of this fair country. I have sat beside my colleague for nearly two years now, but I completely failed to recognise her when we entered the reception, wondering to myself who was this glittering vision, who looked like a tiny alabaster version of one of the Roman Goddesses, hair piled in Medusan coils and eyes framed by the darkest thickest lashes, mascara’ed beyond even the wildest imaginings of Dusty Springfield. She seems to know me… who is it? Then realization dawned, this was indeed her, trapped like a frightened bird under the layers of the beauticians craft. It does look wonderful in the photoshopped marvels that pass for wedding albums round these parts, though…

My other female colleagues from work had also gone into unrecognizably glamorous overload, and from the make-up, hair and clothes you would have thought that we were actually attending an Oscar ceremony from the 1960s where all females present had entered into an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike contest. Comfortingly, the men mostly resembled extras from a black and white 1960s British kitchen sink drama, Cambodian Tom Courtenay’s all, looking as if they had just come in from the allotment, wiped their faces on their sleeves, splashed themselves very briefly with ‘The Great Smell of Brut ©’, then got stuck straight into the minced pig entrails and greasy scrawny chicken on offer with considerable gusto accompanied by copious amounts of liquid lubrication (‘Cold Guinness… Number One!’ as our waiter rather enthusiastically informed me). I felt very much the barang exception in my white Ambre suit and black shirt, but I imagined that most of the Khmer guests thought I was a very important foreign gangster, so nobody really commented for fear of going for a concrete-booted paddle in the Mekong.

O was the very modicum of stoic calmness during the first hour that we waited for our table to fill up and food to be served, he even ventured with me on a couple of occasions to view the band, who boasted a completely electronic drum kit, a jazz-thrash noodling lead guitarist, a PA system adequate for a small stadium and a baffling number of lead vocalists, including one man who was absolutely from the oh-so-smooth Andy Williams white loafer school which fitted in wonderfully with the whole Elizabeth Taylor imagined scenario going on in my brain…

Although the arrival of other guests (including some foreign women who were clearly and scarily misinformed that this was a Tammy Wynette look-alike event – thank the lord for A and her beautiful, simple little polka dot dress!) en masse to our table meant that the food had also arrived, O was by now well bored, and despite the tasty distractions of whole deep fried fish, mischievous head kicked in. He smashed some cutlery and stole the chopsticks off the woman sitting next to him, so we decanted him hastily from the premises, pausing briefly so he could have his picture snapped on the red carpet with my colleagues three year old cousin (who had obviously done this sort of thing before – she posed furiously for all she was worth as O remained clutched in her grasp with an expression of abject terror etched on his face) and then back into the tuk-tuk for a considerably faster trundle home. Once home, little O put his (and our) favourite head on, that of the wonderful, funny, sweet little chap that he is, and went off to bed with the story of The Gruffalo’s Child lulling him into the land of Nod from his stereo…

… and along with The Gruffalo’s Child, Robert Fripp now enters the picture. Not such a leap of the imagination as it may at first seem (what’s he talking about now? Robert Fripp? Isn’t he that Dorset guy who plays guitar, made a weird record with Eno and married Toyah? Yes, that’s the one.). I’ve recently been recording bedtime stories for the little chap using Garageband software on our Macbook, which has been enormous fun for yours truly and, it seems to date, enormously enjoyed by our little O. Whilst searching for suitable snippets of soundtrack music, I have rediscovered King Crimson. This has been a real joy to me, as regular readers will know that in addition to my love of rock, jazz, indie, punk, soul, latin, pyschedelia, country, folk, ambient, electronica, Hawaiian slack-key guitar, blah, blah, blah, I have an abiding and unwholesome fondness for Progressive Rock, or ‘Prog’ as it now seems to be known to the subterranean denizens of the vast and bewildering world of music. I think I’ve mentioned in these blogs before of balmy and not-so-balmy evenings spent appreciating each others record collections in the homes of Eric Law, Colin Morrison, Steven Beaton, Michael Houston, John Farquhar, Donald McIntosh and many others from that particular hall of infamy. Thurso High School record club and the redoubtable Leon ‘do you think I look like Ian Anderson? Great!’ Volwerk must also figure hugely in these formative years of my musical appreciation. Mr. Volwerk, Eric and Colin were big on Prog, as indeed I was, and one of my all-time favourites from that era when dinosaurs still roamed the earth with impunity was (and still is) ‘Lizard’ by King Crimson. It’s funny that listening to it now with the benefit of hindsight (or should that be hindhearing?) it’s actually pretty much jazz-rock fusion with a soupcon of classical influences thrown in. There’s even a guest vocal from helium lunged Accrington born astral elf Jon Anderson of Yes and the atonal piano dribbling of Keith Tippett burbling all over the place. It is however, in the grand tradition of all things Prog, majestic, moving, bafflingly dexterous in both scope and execution and, of course, supremely, wonderfully silly. It’s also full of Mellotron, that amazing Heath Robinson-esque instrument that added the mystery to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and the menace to ‘We Love You’… ah, the Beatles and the Stones, they sucked the marrow out of bones…(’House of Love’… remember them?). Mellotron gives a gloriously wonky orchestral feel to many of the tracks, and adds to the slightly creepy sensibility which pervades the album. The Beatles link continues with the track ‘Happy Families’ where Pete Sinfield’s occasionally obscure lyrics on the album clarify into a surreal discursion on the breakup of the Fab Four (‘Nasty Jonah grew a wife, Judas drew his pruning knife…’).

Colin Morrison used to particularly despair of my attitude towards much of the music he enjoyed, but as I recall ‘Lizard’ seemed to be a common ground between us. Colin and I used to get into some fairly heated arguments, particularly about jazz-rock, and sometimes his taste seemed to me to be bafflingly obtuse – sorry to bring this up again Colin, but Jukka Tolonen…? – but I really miss the overall over-intellectualised and frequently smarmy silliness that used to pass between us during our ‘appreciation’ evenings… these might, for example, include lengthy discussions about the stunning left-handed bass technique of another Colin, Mr. Hodgkinson of Back Door. I’ve mentioned them before in a blog, but just to recap they were an early 70s Yorkshire bred jazz-rock trio of sax, bass and drums with a punk attitude and by ‘eck bloomin’ good they were, too. I bet you really wish now that you had been part of those music appreciation evenings, don’t you, eh? I hope that you’re still out there in the land of the musical avant-garde, Colin (Morrison that is – Mr. H is still a very active musician and has recently put together a new combo based on the Back Door sound), baffling your neighbours with Jukka and the rest. If you should happen to stumble upon this, please do get in touch… the same goes for you, Robert Fripp… I’m sure your well developed sense of the absurd will be tickled by the thought that snippets of your meisterwork ‘Lizard’ are now adorning my renditions of ‘The Selfish Crocodile’ and ‘The Gruffalo’s Child’.

I wonder too if my dear little tousle-haired O will grow up to mumble incoherently from behind a curtain of shoulder length hair, wear an ex-Navy greatcoat, 26-inch loon pants and desert boots and waste many evenings of his teenage years earnestly debating with his long-suffering friends something earth-shattering such as the nuances of style that differentiate Steve Howe’s picking technique from that of Robert Fripp …

… or perhaps maybe, just maybe, unlike his father, he will actually get a life!