Monday, 31 December 2007

Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar

Well, here we are then. The kids are in bed, and I'm sitting here on my ownsome attached to the good old internet, just waiting for the worldwide outbreak of New Year festivities to reach this particular locale. This (here come the excuses, yet again. I'm so cursedly predictable), was supposed to see the long-overdue death-rattle of "Andy's inaccurate guide to a microscopic slice of the America that the rest of America studiously avoids" (think sub-sub-sub-Bill Bryson, but with added guitars), but isn't. If, and it's one hell of a big "if", that's disappointed anyone, then all I can do is once again say "sorry". (My "Word Of The Year", I reckon). Two main reasons for this failure to make good on earlier promises:

1. (The crap excuse) I've managed to acquire a bizarre 4mm cut across the tip of one of my fingers, which is making typing marginally painful and slow (because of sore finger-substitution...man, I'm so soft these days. Can you believe I ever played contact sports in horrendous weather? Or did competitive Olympic-style weightlifting? Sheeshhhh!! )
2. (The almost reasonable excuse) The piece I was intending to write would probably have stretched to nearly 2,000 words, (partially because I over-qualify, digress, deviate, and over-use adjectives in a ludicrous manner, I confess), involving far more typing than I felt like doing (see "crap excuse" above), and requiring a plethora of carefully-researched (hey, stop laughing! I know it sounds funnier than the planned "gags", but I'm renowned/derided/avoided in social situations for my "anality" when it comes to fact-checking) links, so would have taken about 3 hours to churn out. And since I'm feeling relatively old, tired, and spectacularly useless tonight, that could only ever have ended in a mess of tangled verbiage and harsh recriminations.

You'll be relieved to hear I'm not going to replace the scheduled content with the hoary old staple "A Personal Review of 2007", because such a piece would probably constitute several severe breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights, and lead to an arrest warrant for contravening little-known local by-laws against inflicting turgidity on minors without sufficient proir display of prominent warnings and disclaimers (Local Government in Scotland Act 2003, part 3, "Power To Advance Well-Being").

All I'll say is this - to anyone who, like me, has had a pretty crap 2007, here's hoping that 2008 sees an improvement in all our fortunes. And, as our parents used to remind us with annoying regularity, there are plenty of folk out there worse off than ourselves.

As for the other obvious "hoary old staple", the list of "New Year's Resolutions", well, I've got two. Firstly, I'll try to remember the person I used to be, but have slowly been burying over the last few years, (and maybe exhume the body if it turns out not to be completely dead and gone. Or transplant some of the bits in a psychological-Frankenstein manner. Could be fun! ). Apart from that, I'll follow the advice of the title of this post more often.

Might try to be more pleasant, too.

Oh, now that makes three. Might be pushing it a bit.

Well, we'll see, eh?

Happy New Year from this wee corner of Fife.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree...

...but not the "Hannah Montana" version. Oh no. If christmas wishes came true, then this pop-pap fount of perfectly-betoothed, saccharine-and-aspartame-laden wholesomeness will suddenly be found to have disappeared into a hitherto-unknown crevasse directly under the main studio set. Along with the entire cast, (and all known DVD copies), of "High School Musical", naturally. Otherwise it would be a bit of a waste of a perfectly good christmas wish crevasse. And that would be a terrible thing. I mean, just think of the carbon footprint that generating the energy required for the sudden, violent upheaval and fissure in the surface of the earth's crust would involve...

But leaving pleasing fantasies aside for a while, I know that I promised the third, and final - for the moment, anyway - instalment of my highly-biased and horrendously-jaded American music-shop-travelogues. That should, all things being equally unequal as they are at this moment, appear next week. Today, however, I've succumbed to the cliched lure of the (almost inevitable) christmas song list. Well, it'll take less time both for me to type, and you to scan through in a futile search for a decent gag, so it's a win-win situation, right?

So, for the sake of posteriority, (yes, that was deliberate - a heavy-handed linguistic conglomeration of 'posterity' and 'buttocks'. I did say the gag search would be futile, now didn't I? ), here's my personal, all-time "Christmas Rock"* Top 5:

5. Greg Lake - "I Believe In Father Christmas"
Forget all the standing-on-a-posh-rug silliness with ELP, forget the fact that the song only ever, as the Val Doonican album put it, "Rocks - but gently", this is the guy who came up with the main "Daa-da-da-da-da-DAAAH" riff for King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man", and taught Robert Fripp (according to that unique guitar genius himself) the ancient (and desperately elusive - for me, anyway, over the years! ) art of chatting-up women. Plus it's got a dash of Prokofiev in it - oh, and certain, irony-free, dogmatic types have issues with the lyrics. Brilliant.

4. Jethro Tull - "Another Christmas Song"
Sentimental nostalgia would have had me picking the more obvious "Ring Out, Solstice Bells" from the "Songs From The Wood" album, (which is still an all-too-brief interlude of joy to hear when it crops up on shopping centres' christmas compilation 'muzak'), but I prefer this ("handclap"-free, thankfully, unlike "ROSB") bit of seasonal philosophising from the oft-maligned-by-'purists' (always be wary of the 'purists'! ) "Rock Island", instead. Still, if you don't agree, they've done a whole bleedin' album of christmas songs, so there's bound to be something there to please everyone (well, almost - some folk are just impossible when it comes to christmas ).

3. Slade - "Merry Xmas Everybody!!"
Slade rocked. In spite of the public image generated by multiple "Top Of The Pops" appearances, and much "hit parade" success, when Slade played live they were a damn fine rock band (or so I reckon thanks to the wonders of modern technology - I'm not quite old enough to have witnessed their 1970s rock awesomeness first-hand ). And as for anyone who doesn't get a small physical thrill when Noddy Holder screams (melodically) "It's Chriiiiiiiist-muss!!", well, you're dead inside, that's all I can say...

2. The Darkness - "Christmas Time (Don't Let The Bells End)"
Fashion, trendiness and "cool" be damned! This shameless slice of christmas-themed rock has great twin-lead-guitar harmony twiddly bits, autobiographically poignant (and really quite clever) lyrics - with splendidly juvenile double entendres, a children's choir - and that's before we even begin to consider the excellent accompanying video - what more could anyone possibly want from a christmas rock song?? Perhaps only...

1. Spinal Tap - "Christmas With The Devil"
From the "Break Like The Wind" album, this is the perfect marriage of a portentous neo-classical keyboard intro, hilariously over-the-top cod-satanic lyrics, ("The elves are dressed in leather, and the angels are in chains"), and a seriously big ol' heavy rock guitar riff. Inevitably, there have been some poor, sadly afflicted, groups and individuals (such as NBC, would you believe? ) who have failed utterly to perceive that the Tap are, ummm, a 'spoof' metal band, and that their songs happen to be hilariously-accurate parodies of existing tracks and styles, but for a naughty heretical skeptic like meself, that's pretty much just the icing on the cake. Knowing that someone is proclaiming their "outrage" and demanding their right to be "offended" by something they've entirely missed the point of is always good for a giggle.

And there you have it. That's my list - what's yours?

Merry Solstice / Saturnalia / Yule / Noel / Christmas / Hanukkah / Extremely Belated Eid / indeterminate festival of freezing-yer-arse-off-&-having-the-sniffles of your own choosing!


*using this tendentious categorisation has the wonderful benefit of allowing me to clear my mind utterly of all bland festively-themed pop drivel (e.g. George Michael's "Last Christmas", whichever one of Simon Cowell's air-brushed gimps won "X-factor-Idol" almost-singing something or other, the annual musical nightmare release by Cliff Richard, etc,etc) at a single stroke.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Lost In America pt.2 - "Achy Breaky Heart"

Last week I spent a disproportionate volume of verbiage trashing the relative cultural desert that is Florence, Northern Kentucky (apart from the wonderful oasis that is Willis Music, of course!). Today I propose we embark on a little road trip - heading about 140 miles eastwards on the old "AA" highway. A brief stop-off at Maysville for a bite to eat, (just across the Ohio river from "Aberdeen", itself only a wee bit along Ohio Route 52 from "Manchester" - so no prizes for guessing who settled those areas), then the road gets more interesting, rising up into the foothills of the 'Kentucky Highlands', providing entirely juvenile, map-based entertainment possibilities, since most of the local hill names end in the word "knob" - "Potato Knob" being my personal favourite. (This, however, pales in comparison with what is surely Kentucky's finest puerile place name, "Knob Lick", situated on the fantastically-titled "Knob Lick Wisdom Road" - look it up if you don't believe me! - over in Metcalfe County, but I do digress a little..) I swear at one point we drove past a "Beaver Lick Creek" sign, but without a map reference to confirm the siting, my filthy mind could simply have its double-entendre locations badly muddled-up.

Anyway, eventually you'll arrive at Ashland, a town of some 22,000 people nestling against the river, and a place I've liked from the moment I first got there. You see, in many ways, Ashland is the "Anti-Florence", which is definitely a cause for celebration. For a start, it's built around the (imaginatively-named) Central Park, which has many fine trees & open grassy areas in its 47-acres, as well as lots of great kids' play equipment - I know, not such a compelling feature if you don't happen to possess any offspring, but for those of us that do, it's a huge plus, so who cares about what you non-breeders think, huh? . Then there's the fact that people in Ashland have been known actually to walk to work - an activity that's almost considered "un-American" in some States, and came as a pleasant surprise after my earlier, muscle-atrophying, vehicle-bound experience of suburban life further west.

The town also has age on its side. Many of the buildings are of "classic" American brick design, and a few of the side roads have retained their original brick paving, too, which adds a certain character. Contrary to some of the (modern) myths of Kentucky being a "Southern" State, Ashland was the regional centre for pro-Union sentiment/recruitment during the Civil War, (which might not commend it to some folk, I suppose - no accounting for taste! ), and voters there are currently a pretty fair reflection of the country, splitting roughly equally in the last two presidential elections.What else can I use to promote it? Well, great food at C.J. Maggie's, (my no.1 choice), local regional history at the Kentucky Highlands Museum, and a 1400-seater gig venue, the Paramount Arts Center slap in the middle of the place. You've also got the biggest and shiniest medical facilities for..um...a very long way in any direction courtesy of King's Daughters Medical Center which has slowly spread out to occupy what seems to be most of the aforementioned "downtown" Ashland. Every time we've gone back there, more and more hospital-related buildings have been either taken-over, or built afresh on brownfield sites.

When you throw into the mix the nearby outdoor joys of Carter Caves and Greenbo Lake, and realise that you're only a scant two-and-a-half hours' drive away from the incredible white water rafting experience (and much more) that awaits in West Virginia's beautiful, (and very exciting!), New River Gorge, hey, what more could you possibly want?

Well, to be brutally honest, Ashland is the "Anti-Florence" in negative ways, too. Florence is a boomtown, its population growing fast, but unemployment remaining very low...whereas Ashland is, at best, stagnant. Historically economically-underpinned by petrochemicals (Ashland Oil), mining and steel milling (Armco) - and we all know what condition those industries are in - the only thing that has saved it from the kind of neglect and deterioration sadly visible in nearby Ohio towns like Ironton, Coal Grove (names being a bit of a giveaway), and South Point has been the expansion of the King's Daughters hospital- which has, in its turn, made its money primarily from conditions linked to the well-above-USA-average, higher-than 1 in 4 regional obesity rate. So, tri-county residents, show your patriotism, and stuff your faces to save your city! You know it makes sense!

The Paramount also has the dubious honour of having been the venue for the video shoot for Billy Ray Cyrus's (no link to this artist provided because of the threat to musical health and taste ) song, "Achy Breaky Heart". Which isn't good, but it was all a long time ago now, so maybe we should just try to move on, and forget about such past unpleasantnesses. And mullets. Oooooh, that was a baaad mullet...(shudder).

Right, fine, enough of that particular source of shame, on to a more positive musical theme - Chris's Guitar Shop (cue trumpet fanfare, timpani, etc,etc, massive crescendo then abrupt discordant ending as I realise I haven't said anything about them to merit the fanfare. Yet.).

This has been another of my personal havens from the delights of "going to the Mall" - "Just drop me off at the guitar shop, honey, and I'll catch up with you later, when you're finished doing...whatever it is you women do when confronted with a cornucopia of shoes, clothes & 'accessories' [not that I have a clue what the latter entails, truth be told]." must be one of the finest sentences a bloke can utter...

Chris's guitars has moved around a bit, and had its share of ups and downs (at one point it was being managed by a guy who wasn't competent to sign his own name on a document attesting to his own competence, but, well...let's not get into details), but it's always been a true pleasure to step through the door, and have a browse through the stock in search of something interesting with which to annoy anyone within earshot. The staff have been supremely tolerant of my tedious, medium-paced, (you didn't seriously expect me to be fast, did you ?! ), prog-jazz-rock noodlings over the years, especially when you consider that I've never purchased anything more substantial than a plectrum or two. Oh, I've wanted to buy all kinds of gear - last time we were over they had some highly lust-worthy mandolins, for instance, and a couple of really nice valve amps at cool prices, but alas, the budget has always been constrained by the fact that the plane tickets and car hire were already making the visa card creak, and going any more over the UK national average for personal debt wouldn't merely have been foolish, but akin to hurling myself off the (267 metre/876 feet-high) New River Gorge Bridge, with only a gentleman's fine cotton handkerchief for a parachute.

There are a couple of other guitar shops in the town, and a pawn shop for odd second-hand stuff (where, for the first time in my life, I saw a triple-neck guitar...it's a bit sad to confess that to be my most exciting and memorable moment from a major family holiday, but I'm nothing if not honest...! ), but Chris's has always been the first port of call for me.

So, if you ever travel through south-eastern Ohio, north-western West Virginia, or perhaps north-eastern Kentucky, take the time to visit Ashland - and if you pop into Chris's Guitar Shop, you might even be lucky enough to catch head honcho & impressive jazz dude Chris Kitchen putting an instrument through its paces. At least you'll know that I won't be there - be grateful for small mercies!

Next Week on "Lost In America" - our miniseries concludes with a time-warp town in Indiana, and the "twisted" guitars of Leo Burrell...

p.s. One slightly useful thing I learned in Chris's Guitar Shop earlier this year, was that the current range of Roland 'Cube' bass amps aren't up to much. 45 minutes of button-pushing/parameter changing and bass-abuse revealed that the "Ampeg" setting was ok, but the rest were pretty dreadful, some to the point of being offensively unpleasant to listen to. Which is a shame, given that they're usefully portable little amps, and a lot of work has clearly gone into the digital technology...but to steal shamelessly from the peerlessWallace & Gromit - "It's the wrong amp simulations - and they've gone wrong!"

Monday, 10 December 2007

Lost In America

Over the last 8 years I've been fortunate enough to have visited the USA five times, (most recently experiencing the delights of transatlantic air travel with two kids, one of them a 6-month old bundle of irregularly-sleeping, painfully-teething, "why can't I crawl over there and grab that???" energy. Still, as long as you try to be seen to be doing something about your children's obvious [ie. highly vocal] dislike of being cooped-up in a somewhat cramped, occasionally too bouncy, recycled-atmosphered flying metallic tube, then no-one'll hate you too much. And anyway, you're almost certain never to see any of your fellow passengers again, so who cares? ), spending a total of about 4 months in parts of the country that most Americans would never consider visiting, let alone your genuine international tourists (we were always doing the "go see the extended family" thing, so don't count).

Anyway, what with my current domestic situation meaning I'll quite probably not be making that particular trip again, I thought I'd do a bit of free advertising for some of the great music shops that gave me some brief respite and refuge from the worst tedious banalities of the middle-American suburban lifestyle - not to mention the incredible personal stress suffered when staying with my Mother-in-Law (oops, looks like I did just mention it after all...nae mind, eh? ).

This week, I have to offer up many heartfelt thanks to the kind people at Willis Music in Florence, Northern Kentucky. So let's begin with a quick public information broadcast for anyone who might not be entirely sure of where, what, or indeed, why, Florence, KY is...

Sitting south of the Ohio river, about 15 miles from downtown Cincinnati, Florence is a magnificent example of modern America's commonly-appalling town planning (or lack thereof?). A low-rise, sprawling, concrete nightmare that could, in places, double as a film set for that original "how to mess up a nice location" city, Los Angeles. The far nicer, older, centre has become completely swamped by seemingly-random large-scale developments, at least half of which are the worryingly-low-price, get-what-you-pay-for, homogenised franchise-chain diners that Americans seem inordinately fond of, and whose graceless plastic signs-on-stilts jockey for position along the sides of every road in the place. And there are lots of roads, all of them seeming to bear hordes of SUV's, desperately heading somewhere else - anywhere else - rather than Florence...unless you're on Mall Road, that is, but that's pretty much self explanatory. Every time we've gone back, Florence has pushed further and further out into the surrounding area, erecting subdivisions ("housing estates" in the UK) with names like "Oakbrook", and "The Glens", suggesting a pleasing local natural environment - lots of fresh air and space for the kids, but tearing-down acres of woodland and replacing them with (for the most part), expensive, large, "family" (i.e. big double-garage and plenty of driveway to park on besides) houses in the process. Then people complain when they find snakes and raccoons in their back yards...

The only buildings that appear to be able to compete with the diners are the plethora of churches of every conceivable denomination (and a few more who are opposed to any "conceiving", whatever form it might take ). There is, I have been reliably informed, no shortage of money available for religious institutions in the area when it comes to purchasing sites, and erecting their almost entirely architecturally-uninspired "houses of the holy" - alongside, naturally, the inevitable car parks required to service the automotive needs of the righteous. Indeed, the Sunday rituals of worship in Florence occur in two distinct phases - firstly, the good folk drive forth to the chapel / temple / "Church of God" / "First Church of God" (they're just along the street from each other, which might be a touch confusing) / "Church of Christ" (slightly younger and 'hipper' than "God" ?) / "Christian Church" (as opposed to the, er, other sort) / etc,etc, then, after completing their devotions, return to their cars, and travel on to the aforementioned diners, where they proceed to revere their bellies.

Some have even been known, when esconsed in the inner sanctum of a "Red Lobster", to forget the lessons of their absolutistic (it's a real word, honest) Pastors, and stuff their faces with the abomination otherwise known as crabcakes. (I find "cherry-picking" creationists - "we only apply the rules we want to, and only when it suits us" - are tremendous fun - can you tell? )

Of course, I am being a tiny bit unfair to the area - I don't drive, which makes me a 'deviant freak weirdo' in the Mid-West (sorry guys, but yes, you are in the Mid-West. Eastern fringe, I'll grant you, but still...), and I have no truck with the kind of people who loudly proclaim their "moral authority" to tell other people how to live, while resolutely ignoring any/all evidence that might undermine that claim to some degree. (As I said, 'deviant freak weirdo' ). Quick last point - in terms of population, the city is officially 92.4% "white" (similar to where I grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, interestingly), which is 17% above the US national average - but much of suburban Florence would be practically 100%, which I must confess I find a little too "Stepford" for my liking. Not that I'm implying anything, but who'd a thunk the county would have voted 3 to 1 in favour of Bush/Cheney in '04, huh ?

Right, enough of that. There are many wonderful things in Northern Kentucky, and one of them is most definitely Willis Music. Located in a medium-sized building at the end of a "strip mall" (sadly not as exciting as it sounds), the shop (part of a local 'mini-chain'), may appear distinctly unprepossessing at first glance for the serious "gear-head". For a start, they stock a wide range of orchestral instruments, and pianos, which is usually a bad sign - less room for the Marshall stacks, man! - but fear not! Walk past these to the rear of the shop and a wealth of delights will reveal themselves! Seriously, they have an excellent range, from beginners' guitars up to custom-shop $7,000 Les Pauls - which tend to be bought by lawyers and dentists, apparently. Not that there's anything wrong with that, since every time a musically-inept-but-considerably-wealthy customer snaps up one of those babies at full price, the shop gets a little more profit-margin-leeway with which they can offer the average punter a cool deal on their more modest, but practical, instrument. And I can personally attest to this, having bought a truly fine, plain mahogany Les Paul Junior Special (before they suspended production for a while, so, in other words, a really good one!) at half the US retail price. Well, they are stuck in an area where the vast majority of their customers are either nu-metal-angsty teenagers, or country-and-western twang merchants, so no-one wanted the perfect "heavy blues" guitar, until I came along, and took advantage of our (inflated) exchange rate.

Thanks to the excellent staff (who have a surprising number of prog rock fans in their midst), I've accumulated several hours' worth of vital relaxation in the company of assorted guitars (especially one Godin that had been there for 4 years last time I checked - same story as the Les Paul Junior. If I'd had the cash spare, it could have been mine for $300 [£147] !), basses, and amps - including some of the more recent Kustom models, which were a revelation - they sounded much better than a twice-the-price, all-valve, Fender equivalent, which I found a bit surprising. Of course, if I'd had my brain engaged, I could have taken a short trip up the road to Kustom's HQ at Hebron, KY, but that would have required actual conscious thought, which I'm finding myself less and less capable of as the years of childcare accumulate.

So, if you ever find yourself stuck in Florence, Northern Kentucky, do yourself a favour - head over to Willis Music, check out the gear, and indulge in a convivial chat about "Discipline"-era King Crimson, then stop off for a bite to eat at Bob Evans (or try the local Cincinnati speciality Skyline Chili - chili that doesn't have any, er, chilis in it. Tastes great, though!), before getting the hell out of the place.

There are enough roads to choose from, almost any one of 'em will do! Personally, I'd suggest the "Double-A" highway heading east towards Ashland...but I'll leave that for the next instalment.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Love On The Rocks (With No Ice)

No "funny" low-rent-music nostalgia this week, I'm afraid. I've been waiting for my domestic world to resolve itself one way or another, and now it has, although I still fail to properly understand the reasons why - which may, in fact, be one of them. So not exactly in a "ho-ho-ho" sort of mood right now. Staying positive, however, at least I feel that I'm under no obligation to communicate with my passive-aggressive-nightmare Mother-in-Law ever again. (Not that she was talking to me after our last visit to the USA, but still....it's the principle of the thing.)

Anyway, there's a bit of an inevitable personal retreat inwards going-on, so apologies to anyone I haven't been in touch with as I should.

Once upon a time (ok, 8 years ago), I was a guy with a flat in Edinburgh (recently voted best place to live in the UK in a tremendously scientific study...er...) , who had a permanent contract day job, played in two 'official' bands (plus numerous dep gigs), and was a splendidly mediocre competitive weightlifter (olympic style).

Now....not so much.

Nobody's fault but mine...

Monday, 26 November 2007

Ten Years Gone

On Thursday afternoon I sadly bid farewell to an old friend of mine, and wished them luck on their journey to pastures new. After much prevarication, I'd finally sold my faithful little Gallien-Krueger 200MB bass combo on Ebay. Which was quite a wrench, I must say, given that it had performed admirably for me at hundreds of gigs, coped with falling pints (& punters, on a few occasions) in smoke-choked pubs, and survived the shoddy shock absorbers and shifting p.a. cabinets in the murky depths of many a hired van in the course of our decade-long relationship. All with hardly a murmur of protest, and only cosmetic scrapes and scratches to show for the indignities I put it through. Unfortunately, a condensation-related problem incurred when it was sitting in storage for a year had done for the speaker, and buying an entirely new amp with the insurance payout had proved cheaper than ordering the correct replacement from G-K, so with money relatively scarce, I could hardly justify owning two small bass combos.

Still, at least it went to a good home, with a great new owner who's going to give it a whole fresh lease of life making 6-string fretless noises through his array of home-made cabinets. (Plus he only lives 5 miles away, saving me all the hassle of packaging - what a nice man! ).

Seeing the wee beastie go did set me off on yet another nostalgia trip, though...considering all the guitars, basses, amps, and other multifarious musical gewgaws that have passed-through my hands, and wondering if there was anything I still genuinely regretted having divested myself of in my quest for personal instrumental perfection.

In the end, the list was very short. No basses - I've always been pretty good at "recycling" these. My first ever bass was a red Aria ProII SLB, bought in 1990 when I was at university, and still pretending to be a guitarist of some description. Lovely neck, perfectly sound instrument, it was eventually de-fretted when my Hohner JackV came along 3 years later - which was itself subject to a de-fret job when I bought a TobyPro 6 last year. Wonder what might just happen to that if I ever get offered a 6-string, headless version of one of these for free?? There's something I particularly like about de-fretted basses. Most likely the resultant position markers, which I find enormously helpful, being both far too lazy to bother to learn fretless properly, and extremely short of time to practice (thanks to the kids, naturally. Nothing to do with writing this nonsense. This hardly takes any time at all...errrr... ).

I was tempted to include my last guitar multi-fx unit, a Boss ME-8, whose qualities I only truly appreciated after I'd parted with it - but since it went to another excellent home, (my very good mate Martin), and I haven't played a gig on electric guitar since 1995 (or thereabouts), then I'm not going to complain about that one having got away.

In the end, the only 2 items of musical gear I wish I'd never part-exchanged, or sold in the desperate bid to finance the purchase of something more shiny, were my first decent guitar - a British-made Shergold "Custom Masquerader" , and the wonderful little Marshall "Lead 12" amp I bought with it. The Shergold was actually my 2nd electric, but the first one (a nameless East German Strat copy) was so bad, (and utterly resistant to being set-up properly - a lesson in applied Communism! ), that all I can recall of it was that it was black, in homage to Ritchie Blackmore, and that it was far more of a cheese-slicer than a guitar, to which the ends of my fingers constantly bore witness.

I spent £125 on the Shergold way back in 1986, and I loved it to bits. The neck and balance just felt "right", and with a bewildering array of switching possibilities on board, it was capable of producing at least 4 usable sounds - which is 1 more than a PRS! The pick-ups weren't what you'd call powerful, so it was never going to be first choice for your average shred-monster, but it could certainly hold its own in any heavy blues / jazz-rock / disappear-into-your-own-bellybutton-prog setting, which was perfect for me. I even, briefly, owned a matching 12-string model, but couldn't handle the tediousness involved in tuning the damned thing - remember, this was in the "olden days", the late Medieval/early Rennaissance era, when digital tuners couldn't be found easily for under £10. (I believe I also mentioned earlier my inherent laziness, too? I did? Just checking).

Relative poverty, however, meant that when I surrendered to the overwhelming seductive charms of a Patrick Eggle New York six years later, selling the Shergold was the hard, but necessary, part of the bargain. I've looked for another one in the last couple of years, but they appear to be "highly collectable" now, so I reckon I've got about as much chance of replacing my ugly-yet-beautiful "cherry" (although it always looked more "burgundy" to me) Shergold, complete with an old London bus ticket acting as a shim under the neck joint, as I have of finding a vellum manuscript of the Vinland Sagas in a local charity shop.

Marshall 12's, on the other hand, do still turn up in fair numbers, although the asking price for reasonable-condition examples has finally started to reflect their true quality. I had the basic, no-reverb version, and knew virtually nothing about amps, so when the opportunity arose to trade it in for something slightly more powerful that had a reverb unit in it, I stupidly, stupidly, STUPIDLY took it.

Seriously, a Lead 12 is one of the finest pieces of equipment Marshall ever built! Don't take my word for it -

"Lead 12: The Little Screamer
Greater distortion at low volumes was also the goal of one of the most interesting amps Marshall released in the early '80s – the model 5005 Lead 12.
A 12-watt transistor practice amp with a 10" Celestion, it retailed for under $200 and for many came surprisingly close to capturing the great, warm sound of the distorted Marshall amps of years gone by. It was a favorite of many working musicians, including luminaries like Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top."

(from "Marshall Amplifiers: A History", by Edward B Discroll, Jr. - well worth a quick Google! )

It was the baby of a whole range of solid state Marshalls, which are all well worth a look if you're after that tone, just without the corresponding hernia. And again, if I could spare the money for another one, I'd snap it up in an instant. They've got everything you could want for the price - a Lead 12 sounds great, looks cool, and it's so small you might lose it down the back of the sofa. Assuming your sofa is quite big, of course. And that you're somewhat careless with your musical equipment.

Anyway, to return to the original subject, selling my Gallien-Krueger has presented a common ethical problem balancing the wants and needs of the individual with those of the family/social group. I was intending to "ring-fence" the proceeds, (which were more than I was expecting ), with a view to buying a small digital recorder, so that, in addition to my semi-literate and almost-amusing blog postings, I could infect the internet with my musical ramblings, too. There is, however, the small matter of two ever-growing mini-blokes to be clothed, fed & housed in relative non-squalor, and limited funds currently available with which to do so. As any parent reading this will know, in the real-life game of "Tolerably-Coping Families" ("Happy" is a deeply contentious concept ), "kids" are always trumps, so I'll most likely content myself with the familiar, comforting lie that goes: "Well, I'll not spend that money now, but in a few weeks/months/years/lifetimes [if you believe in all that 'reincarnation' business - what an opportunity for long-term stock investment! ], when we can properly afford it, then I'll buy that [insert personal object of desire here] I've always wanted."

Except, of course, that's never quite how it works out. When we finally arrive at the designated future purchasing point, there's always been a fresh need/domestic maintenance issue/minor crisis that has cropped-up in the meantime, ensuring that our expenditures continually rise to meet our available budgets. A while back I sold an electric mandolin, supposedly for exactly the same purpose as the Gallien, and it ended-up paying the Council Tax bill for September...

Ah, well.

Never mind.

Anyone know the going rate for a kidney, hmmm?

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Dazed And Confused

All I seem to do these days is apologise for not keeping up with my good intentions with this blogging concept, and today is no exception. To be brief, there's stuff going on domestically which I'm not going to elaborate on, (since I never intended this to be the readily-available-almost-everywhere-online, tedious solipsistic wafflings about my innermost feelings regarding my daily family life, etc), but isn't exactly conducive to flexing the old 'comedy muscle'. I thought that trying to write some vaguely music-related nonsense would be a useful therapeutic contrast, but it looks like I was wrong - which is becoming something of a recurring theme these days.

Everything's in a state of flux. And I'm too close to the tip of the soldering iron for comfort.

'Normal' service may be resumed quite soon. Maybe.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Breathe...

...is something I haven't been able to do for the last fortnight - through my nose, that is. Turns out my "bit-of-a-cold" that I'd had while up in Inversness has mutated gloriously into full-blown sinusitis, which is the main reason it's been two weeks since I last inflicted my ramblings on the world. Having finally got the kids in bed, I sat down at the computer last Sunday evening, fully intending to regurgitate further choice anecdotal witticisms regarding music shops I have known and loved (i.e. where the long-suffering staff tolerated me on a regular basis), but after several abortive attempts at an opening sentence, I succumbed pathetically to the lure of a comfy Ikea chair (one of those slightly odd, 'bouncy' ones) and thought-process-free television. (Oh, the privations I suffer for my art! ).

Trying to understand this interruption of my usual logorrheic flow, I originally came up with a (deeply uninformed) theory that the incredible pressure in my sinus cavities was somehow pressing on the brain itself, causing an impingement in the areas most closely associated with creativity, language, and drivel-related hormone levels. A whole five minutes' worth of careful research, however, demonstrated that this hypothesis was, in technical terms, "total bollocks". More likely it was just the amygdala, (due to intense irritability), lashing out and giving Broca's & Wernicke's areas (speech/language) a bit of abuse, resulting in it being served with an ASBO (for the non-British out there, that's the generally-ineffectual "Anti-social Behaviour Order", widely regarded as a 'badge of honour' amongst the Neds they're mostly handed out to. For those unfamiliar with the term "Neds", it is acceptable to substitute "Shuggies", or "Jaikies", instead, as in the common expression, "They Weegie Jaikies is aw monged oan ra Buckie, man!". Not, it must be stressed, to be confused with, "Gadgie", as in "Yon gadgie's a barrie radge, man!". That would just be silly), by my orbito-frontal cortex (inhibiting socially-unacceptable behaviour) acting as a cranial police officer. Or possibly not.

Anyway, as any singer will tell you - well, any singer who has half a notion of what they're doing, and roughly how to control the process (which is a frighteningly small proportion of all the "vocalists" out there)- sinusitis is a right bugger, since it completely screws up your resonance and pitching (quite apart from your face hurting - a bit like trying to play a 38+1/2"-scale, no-dot-markers-fretless, plastic bass that gave your fingers a small electric shock every time they touched the strings). Not that I'm doing any proper singing these days, I just felt like whinging a bit more . If I were still involved in recital stuff, by now I'd almost certainly have fallen-back on the old favourite cure-all, gin-and-lemsip...which works, but you really do have to concentrate a little harder....

Aside from the obvious (sore, tired, irritable, nose doing Niagara impressions - and thanks to the joys of hayfever, I've done gigs where I knew my nasal excretions were streaming steadily down onto my instrument, but couldn't stop playing to do anything about it - always nice at a wedding ), the biggest problems I've had are losing the senses of smell & taste (which makes cooking for the kids slightly tricky - just how many chilis did I put in this stuff, hmmm? Reckon it could do with some more...). On the other hand, no.2 son's nappies have been far more pleasant to deal with (how come we never seem to fully acclimatise to that particular odour?), and I can afford to indulge the "I-feel-ill-so I want-ice-cream" cravings with the really cheap stuff that would otherwise taste like petrochemical run-off. See? There's always a bright side!

Mind you, the more I researched sinusitis and its possible causes, the more I wished I'd left well alone - reading about all the tiny things that can go wrong with your mucociliary system, (the mucus that lines/humidifies/protects your respiratory bits, and the movement & drainage thereof - do blogs get more exciting than this? I mean, do they? ), is enough to turn anyone into a raging hypochondriac - I'm currently convinced I've got nasal polyps. Or non-functioning sinus cilia. Or both!

Seriously, though, the weirdest thing I found out was the huge economic impact of nasal/sinus conditions - I could only get stats for the USA (i.e. I had a brief look elsewhere, but rapidly lost interest when it became obvious that effort might be required), but I think (hope) you might find them as interesting as I do (N.B. I have no life/friends):

* Sinusitis affects c. 14% of the US population annually.
* It accounts for c. 28.2 million visits to the doctor per year.
* Almost $6 billion (!) p.a. is spent on sinusitis, of which c. $2.2 billion goes on medication.

Which just goes to prove the old saying - "Where there's mucus, there's brass!"

Finally, before anyone starts thinking I'm as obsessed with my nasal passages, (and what comes out of them in a multi-coloured form first thing in the morning - aren't you glad I shared?), as that old quackmeister Sigmund Fraud - definitely not about to try his cure-of-choice, cocaine - I'm going to lurch unpredictably off in a completely different direction. Now, anyone who knows me at all is aware that I don't dance. It may be slightly ironic that I spent 8 years in ceilidh bands persuading semi-drunk strangers to cast off their inhibitions and fling each other around by whatever came to hand, but I was never one of those callers who jumps onto the dance floor at the merest sniff of an opportunity to show off their twinkling footwork - giving instructions (and talking a load of old shite into the bargain ) was the full extent of my involvement in the enterprise. Nor, it must be said, have I ever had any great interest in, or experience of, "Latin American" music, except for what cropped-up in the odd bit of Jaco Pastorius / Weather Report.

Which is why discovering the incredible gorgeousness of Lidia Borda's voice and music took me completely by surprise. No disrespect to all the other vastly talented, original, brilliant, amazing, etc,etc (will that sycophancy suffice?) artists on my "friends" list - you're all fabulous, too, but you work within genres that I'm at least reasonably familiar with, styles that feel pleasantly comfortable, like a good pair of well-worn-in Marks & Spencer boxer shorts. Ms. Borda and her sultry tango songs (drown your ears in the vocal equivalent of molten 72%-cocoa-solids chocolate!) are an utterly new experience to me, and one which I cannot recomend highly enough to anyone reading this. Not that I understand a word of what she's singing, of course, but when it's so beautifully expressed, who cares? And the four tracks on her site are all available to download - for free! This could, might I suggest, even be the ultimate music for, er, "impressing the ladies", shall we say, chaps? Try slipping one of her cd's on in between the (more traditionally blokey) speed metal, obscure prog, and free jazz, and see what happens...

Not that I'd know anything about the noble arts of romance & seduction - just ask my wife!

Monday, 29 October 2007

More Songs About Buildings And Food

"It's very nice to go trav'ling, but it's oh so nice to come home", as Frank Sinatra smoothly intoned, and he certainly wasn't wrong when it meant being cut-off from all things internet for a fortnight. Exactly how pathetic is that? My reliance on the web for staying in touch with widely-dispersed friends, news, music, etc has become depressingly complete. Maybe if I sit down and type out a 1500-word "why-oh-why-oh-why" Daily Torygraph-style moan about the lack of human contact in everyday life in the 21st century, that'll make it all better. Or not. So I'll chunter on about Inverness (since that's where we were) instead.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that Inversneckie is in any way a technologically backward hick town, stuck in a northern rural hinterland, blasted with driving rain, sleet and snow (on alternate days, September to May inclusive), and governed by inbred ultra-socially-conservative Free Kirk fanatics. No, really, I don't, because it isn't. Ok, maybe certain parts of it are still just a little bit from time to time, but it's getting much better, honest. It's changed out of all recognition since my first visit back in 1995-ish (as moderately-amusingly chronicled in August's "Who Are You" post), and has become a genuinely hip and groovy place to be. Well, at the very least, it's gone a long way towards achieving that status over the intervening years.

For a start, my absence-of-net-access issue was caused only partially by the apparent dearth of any "traditional" internet caf├ęs - you know, some sofas, a bunch of computers [with or without hidden key-loggers, who knows? ], transient-backpacker staff who spend all their time yakking with their mates rather than serve you what passes for coffee. Rather, it was my comparative poverty (for a tech-literate citizen of a what passes for a highly-prosperous western nation ), and therefore non-possession of a laptop or "dangleberry" media-gimp-style-victim-type device with which to exploit the numerous free wi-fi spots advertised around the town. (I refuse even to consider "internet phones" - my fingers can wrap themselves round a 6-string bass, thus are not exactly ideally shaped for poking away at keys the size of very small ants. Also, having my eyesight deteriorate even further through trying to work using a screen that's about a quarter of the resolution of my monitor doesn't appeal. Not that I could afford such a beast, anyway! ). So not the city's fault, more mine for not finding the time to get down to the central library and signing-up for some free computer access there. Ho hum.

I sense that one or two folk out there may be less than convinced by my protestations - and that a fair few others have no idea where Inverness even is, but no matter - I shall set your hearts ablaze with the desire to visit Scotland's most northerly city by the end of this piece. Maybe. It might be that some people's hearts are more flammable than others, depending perhaps on how much fatty tissue surrounds the organ, and the quantity of nail polish remover the person is in the habit of imbibing on a nightly basis. Now there's an experiment I'll bet you wish you'd got to do at school!

Consider, then, that apart from a host of places to eat, drink, and/or hear a wide variety of live bands, they possess the finest Thai-restaurant-come-traditional-and-more music venue I've ever visited. Ok, it also happens to be the only one I've set foot in, but Hootananny's has truly fantastic - and great value! - food, a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere, and a first-rate in-house p.a. set-up to ease a poor muso's osteopath bills. Bliss. Then there's Scotland's largest second-hand bookshop, Leakey's, which is the ideal place to while away a pleasant afternoon or several (assuming you have no small children to appease/amuse/desperately attempt to keep under some semblance of control). Lastly, (but by all means not least-ly), there are two decent musical instrument shops within 100 metres of each other - just down the road from Leakey's, conveniently enough. And round the corner from "Hoots", come to think about it. Food, drink, guitars and books, all within easy ambling distance - "most bonus", indeed!

For those of us with young families, I don't think I can stress sufficiently the importance of music shops as a place of temporary refuge from the constant demands (and incredibly wearing absence-of-internal-dialogue-stream-of-babble) of children that non-parents cannot fully comprehend. Even if you borrow some kids for a day. It's just not the same. I got the chance to hide in one for half-an-hour, and was extremely surprised to discover that the Vietnamese are making perfectly acceptable budget basses. The deeply unattractively-named Peavey 'Grind' turned out to be great fun for the money, and I completely failed to resist the urge to "rip it up" shamelessly. In my defence, there was a small gaggle of early-teenage metalheads in the corner, trying-out their latest identikit magazine-learned high-fuzz tapping patterns, a trio of the store staff being "cool" with some of their mates, and I'd caught a couple of ignorant disparaging comments about the instrument I was holding (and anyone who thought it worth a glance) float across the shop (I have surprisingly good hearing, despite all the gigs standing next to a drummer ), so what else was a scruffy-looking guy who was clearly waaaay too old to "rock n' roll" supposed to do?

20 minutes' worth of pointlessly technical speed-poncing, with occasional splodges of jazz chords thrown in just for laughs, later, and I was convinced that the 'Grind' (seriously, who was responsible for that name? and why?) was a genuinely decent bass for the money. It could have done with a bit more wood in the body, but the strings-through-body design did help the tone, and lightness can be a virtue in a 6-string! Throw in a couple of Status pick-ups (£125 including delivery), say, and you'd have something really nice. Much better, for instance, than the more expensive, Bartolini-equipped, yet seemingly too light and tone-free Ibanez SR506, which I also tried out while hiding (this time from the displeasure of my mother-in-law ) in a music shop in Kentucky earlier this year.

Interestingly, (to me), both places tried the same trick - inviting me to plug into a big, fat, high-quality stack, just to help me along on the purchasing front. Experience, however, teaches us to "Just say no!", and opt for a medium-size combo instead, which, with a cruelly flattened eq, will truly expose the nature of an instrument - unless, of course, you have both a) a great deal of cash, and b) roadies, in which case, be my guest and turn that huge Ampeg up loud, baby! Just don't blame me if you find you've bought a crap bass.

I learned this lesson the hard way, you see, when I was an impressionable youth of 19, and seeking a new guitar amp. Rather than spending my cash on something sensible, like a second-hand Sessionette 75, I was foolishly determined to purchase a shiny new amplifier to inflict on my neighbours. The guy in the shop must have smelled me coming, because when I asked to try out the *cough* Dean Markley K65 *cough* I liked the look of, he handed me an old Les Paul. Plainly (for I wasn't completely clueless) a very old, very good Les Paul. In fact, it was too good for a mediocre guitarist like me. The action was cigarette-paper low, and my clumsy touch could barely keep up with this beautiful guitar, which sounded amazing. As I was handing it back (very carefully, may I add), I asked him exactly how old it was. "A '56", he said, and watched in horror as I almost dropped it in sheer nervous terror and excitement (I clocked the serial number and checked it later - he wasn't lying). Understandably, I was blown away by the whole experience, and decided on the spot to buy the amp - which turned out to be under-powered and largely unsuited for what I wanted to do.

Still, at least I got to play an incredibly cool guitar. And see Inverness? That's not half bad, either. It's never going to be as cool as a 1956 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top, of course - but then, what is?