Friday, 31 August 2007

Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof

Booze & music. Music & booze. Inextricably linked since the Neolithic inhabitants of China first brewed "a consistently processed beverage made from rice, honey and a fruit" ( New Scientist ) 9,000 years ago, and proceeded to serenade their fellow villagers with the earliest known rendition of "The Wild Rover".

"DRINK!", as the wise Father Jack used to put it with such eloquence and fervour, has a long and noble history as a source of creative inspiration for composers, a refuge for under-appreciated musicians, and an often deeply-unfortunate inhibition-remover for audience members worldwide - but more on that topic later.

Are we obsessed with the stuff? Quite possibly - alcohol (in its many guises) rates third in popularity in a search of the BMI title index with over 3,000 entries. The only subjects that come ahead of it are religion ("Jesus" & "God" combined score 23,800 titles) and that hoary (sometimes downright whore-y) old favourite, lurrrrve (a whopping 41,734). There might well, of course, be some overlap between these categories - someone (most likely American), somewhere (oooh, I'd hazard a guess at: in America), has almost certainly penned a dire country offering with a title like "The only thing I love more'n whiskey is Jesus", so please feel free to treat these statistics with the justifiable derision they so richly deserve.

One thing I learned about drinking and gigging early on as a "working" musician - don't piss your wages straight back into the pub/hotel bank account. That's very, very silly, and also makes it far slower & harder to load all the gear back into the van at the end of the night - often a time when all you want to do is get as far away as possible from whichever "Plastic Paddy" green-tat-festooned nightmare you've been playing in that night, as fast as your van-packing skills will get you. I'm not saying don't touch the stuff at all, just be miserly with your own money! That way you drink only in moderation (better for waistline/liver and staying one step ahead of that persistent drunk punter who is determined to engage you in a conversation about the night Eric Clapton [substitute legendary figure appropriate to your locality & musical genre] turned up at the bar, but wouldn't let the guy have a go on his guitar...), and you might dissuade one or two of the worst audience requests (for me it has to be "American Pie" - apologies for fans of that particular epic of symbolism & allusion, but it ISN'T deep & meaningful, and it drones on for waaaaaay too long) if you suggest that the price of choosing is a pint. Never ask for a whisky, by the way, because you'll be stuck with a glass of Glenfiddich engine-degreaser, rather than the Springbank you were after.

I know that there's a long tradition in jazz, celtic folk & rock - well, in all forms of music (have you ever seen how much booze an entire orchestra can put away? Ouch!) of over-indulgence on a vast scale, but that's only sustainable if you're famous enough to be able to afford both the drink/drugs, and the medical aftercare. Not so great when you're doing micro-tours of the Highlands (2 pub gigs, a wedding, and a charity fundraiser) in a clapped-out Mercedes van that the guitarist has christened "Morrison" (I know), and which has an accelerator pedal linkage that's held together with an elasticated hairband (it stayed like that for over a year, I seem to recall).

The greatest problem with booze, however, definitely comes from the gig-factor over which you have least control - your audience. Quite apart from the occasional acts of senseless violence (and they were rare), whether it's been watching someone fall asleep on the dance floor at a ceilidh (while we were playing), throwing stocious eejits off the stage at "Johnny Foxes" in Inverness (a particularly dangerous place for your drunk-who-likes-a-boogie - the stage was about 3 inches high, and the pub was almost always heaving - the perfect recipe for someone to fall against a mic stand, ramming the mic into the singer's face...), or having to face the wrath of a hen party scorned (we couldn't/wouldn't play their favourite chart (s)hits), seeing the effects of alcohol on otherwise (mostly) normal people can really put you off the stuff...(that, and for me an Outdoors Emergency First Aid course I went on years ago - "What to do when you're halfway up a hill miles from anywhere, and come across someone who's impaled themselves on a handy fence", that sort of thing - apparently it happens to skiers surprisingly often. The instructor told us that when you're drunk, medically you're regarded as "technically unconscious". Then she started giving spectacularly graphic examples of stupid & grotesque ways people had died/lost limbs/etc while being "technically unconscious", which made lunch distinctly less palatable.)

For sheer numbers, nowhere was worse than Aberdeen. There used to be (haven't been there in a while - it might have changed, if they're lucky) the equivalent of Edinburgh's Rose Street, Lothian Road, and Leith Walk all crammed into a tiny area less than half-a-mile across (i.e. more pubs/nightclubs/drunks than could ever be considered strictly necessary or in any way desirable). We played regularly (several times a month at one point) in the city, chiefly in O'Donoghue's in Justice Mill Lane...

The gigs themselves were usually fine - O'Don's always meant great staff, lively crowd, and decent money (!), although there was one memorable occasion where a large, and completely pickled, ex-police dog-handler developed a sudden & strangely aggressive attraction to our fiddler, and demanded we played the above mentioned "Wild Rover" unceasingly until we finally gave in (the fiddler was getting scared). She then promptly forgot that it had happened, and started demanding it again, only louder (her, not us). (She hung around after the gig, too, trying to entice the fiddle-player into a night of passion round at her place. He did the decent thing and ran away & hid, the big feartie).

The real difficulties started afterwards. Loading the van usually went reasonably smoothly (once you've mastered the technique of holding a large p.a. speaker at arms' length above your head, people tend not to stand around blocking doorways, etc, so much - ah, the joys of applied weightlifting), but by the time you were done, the entire street would be filled with the legions of the rat-arsed, all seemingly completely unaware of our large, ugly, and potentially lethal motor vehicle. Or anything else, come to that. So you were stuck, occasionally having to repel boarders who thought, for reasons known only to themselves and the manufacturers of alcopops, that our big blue heap of rust and Radweld was a taxi.

Once, when we'd finally negotiated our way out of the screaming (why does booze make people temporarily deaf?), snogging, and puking (sometimes in that order) masses, and made it out onto Union Street, we met our ultimate Aberdonian Rubber Loon (ARL) walking down the middle of the road. Now, we've all seen cartoons where a tree, or something similar, is falling, and a less-than-genius-in-the-smarts-department character (for the sake of this example, Daffy Duck), is trying to avoid it. Instead of doing the obvious, and taking a small step to left or right, Daffy runs, panicking, in a completely straight line until the very end of the tree bounces off his noggin. Well, that's what the ARL did, with our van playing the part of the tree.

He stared at us in horror, turned, nearly fell over, then stumbled into a terrified, arms-flailing run as we drove along at less than 10 mph behind him. Time and again we tried to get him to change course, but every flash of our lights, every honk of the horn, wave or shout only spurred him on to greater efforts - while we were getting dog's abuse from drivers stuck behind us, who couldn't see what the ARL was up to. He just kept glancing wildly over his shoulder while frantically trying to escape from the snorting demon truck his poor sozzled brain took us for.

To our relief, he eventually collapsed sideways onto the pavement from sheer exhaustion, and we could finally escape the old "Granite City" (it's the greyest and dullest place in Scotland - especially on a wet Sunday in November ), but if he'd been any fitter (or drinking pitchers of Red Bull & vodka, perhaps?) we might have been following him till we got past Stonehaven.

Slainte Mhathe! (Mine's a Port Ellon, by the way - make it a double, I'm not driving)


Oh dear, oh dear. Some very slack research by me, I'm afraid. A nagging thought struck me earlier today, and I confirmed it with a quick search of the BMI just now for songs about "happy". Alas, I was right in my suspicions - 6292 titles popped out, which rises to just over 7,000 if you add "happiness" as a variation. And then a further search involving "sad" & "sadness" gave 3,455 results, which knocks alcohol down another notch.

All just goes to show I shouldn't write this stuff quite during late-night insomnia sessions.


Sunday, 26 August 2007

Games Without Frontiers-Jeux Sans Frontieres-Spiel ohne Grenzen

How far would you go, and what would you be prepared to do to increase the size of your audience? No, put it/them away, that's not what I meant, although yes, you're right, very impressive, yes, thank you that's plenty for now...what? do I want pictures?, I'm fine. Got a nice cup of tea here, that'll do me...ok. Some other time...yeah...cheers.

Seriously, though, this week I've been pondering the question of why so many of us don't appear to be interested in catering for speakers of other languages - I've even gone and done some research, so there might (or, of course, might not) possibly be some useful conclusions buried in amongst the usual tangle of asides, deviations, tangents and dead-ends. Now, by "us", I ought to be more specific, and say "English-speaking musicians"...or maybe, "British & American musicians", because in general we are by far the most grudgingly lazy when it comes to foreign languages, and I'm just as guilty of it as anyone else. I was in a serious relationship with a delightful Norwegian woman for two years, back in the mid-90's. So, what d'ya think was the sum total of my Nordic linguistic brilliance when, at a jazz/rock club in Skien, I ambled onstage with my Chapman Stick (upon which I never achieved more than a reasonably well-oiled mediocrity), to play an improvised duet with a really good local drummer?

"Hi, my name's Andy, I'm from Edinburgh in Scotland. Sorry, but I don't speak Norwegian."

Great. Ambassadorial material, for sure. Still, at least I was polite. And please, don't make the same mistake I did,of assuming that everyone in Scandinavia speaks English-as-a-scarily-competent-second-language simply because many of them do. You just try buying batteries for your camera in Bo (small town on the main Stavanger-Oslo train line), that's all. You just try. I was reduced to exaggerated facial expressions, low-grade mime, and lots of pointing. Not impressive. Especially when you compare it with the effort so many "foreigners" make to reach out to us - quick examples... Amberian Dawn, Derdian, and Melancholy - Finnish, Italian & Russian rock bands from my brief Myspace "friends" list alone. Kudos to them (and all the others doing likewise)!

Now, I know the internet is (inevitably) enormously Anglo-centric, and that it is claimed that over 2 billion people on the planet speak English (although this can easily be chopped-down to about 1.35bn - you only arrive at the original figure if you include the population of India, where English is, indeed, an official language, but spoken - and not necessarily fluently - by about 350 million people, roughly a third of all Indians), but when you start to look at the numbers, some interesting possibilities arise.

A lot of us would like to be able to play music full-time, and the internet certainly offers plenty of possibilities - cheap global marketing, mp3 downloads, etc. So why not make a little extra effort to maximise your potential audience? Now, (the great and kind) Peter Gabriel had a bit of fun in the 1980's with two German-language albums, which could now potentially reach c. 110 million native German speakers worldwide. But if he'd plumped for French instead, that number goes up to a conservatively-estimated 180 million. And when you take into account the law in France that means 40% of broadcast music on radio has to be sung in French...there could be a pretty little niche market all ripe for your picking.

Let's take it up a notch - but still sticking with European languages, since it's fair to say they're a bit easier to learn for most of us linguistically-challenged idlers than, oooh, Chinese or Arabic. If you put out a song in Portuguese, for instance, you're looking at 230 million native speakers - not bad going at all, but only just above half the total number you could flog yourself to if you opted for Spanish. More than 400 million people (!) speak Spanish as their first language - not including those in the USA, whether they be honest, decent, legal immigrants...or working for Mitt Romney (sorry, couldn't resist it). Put another way, if a mere 0.001% of the world's Spanish-speaking folk downloaded a copy of your latest album of anguished-yet-jaunty songs of failed luck, love and lycanthropy, that could be 4,000 sales in the bank.

Singing in several different languages has long been a basic requirement for classically-trained performers (even if you have to do it largely phonetically - my favourite material, back when I was being a basso profundo, was always German lied, especially Schubert...oh man, if you've never tried some, go and listen to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Der Doppelganger. Gives me the chills, every time), but is usually regarded as "uncool" in rock & pop. Maybe it's time for that to change...?

Oh, one last thing (it's the "Columbo" moment!), if you do decide to try this, get someone who knows what they're doing to translate your lyrics. I had a go with a few of the free online translators (of which WorldLingo seems the most highly rated), and they don't seem altogether trustworthy, if the following example is anything to go by: (usual game - translate into Spanish then check by translating back again)

"If you like to gamble, I tell you I'm your man,
You win some, lose some, it's all the same to me."

"Si usted tiene gusto de jugar, le digo que sea su hombre,
usted gane alguno, pierda alguno, él sea todo el igual a mí."

"If you have taste to play, I say that he is its man, you
to him you gain some, loses some, he is all the equal one to me."

Or maybe that's just the 'prog' version...

Thursday, 23 August 2007


Ok, here's the scenario - you've just finished your latest outpouring of aural magnificence, and it almost floats, sparkling, shining and in every way perfectly lovely, back at you from the speakers, when suddenly the moment fractures, great aeroplane-toilet-produced-icicles of music shattering on the floor as you realise the terrible truth - you haven't got a bleedin' clue what you're going to call it!

Now, if you're working in the genre best known to posteriority as "popular song", (often alternatively referred to as "facile crap mass-produced to part gullible 12-year olds from their parent's cash" by cynical musical snobs like, er, myself. Not that I wouldn't mind some of that parental cash, nor would I have any problems in selling-out in an instant if the price was right. Hypocrite? What hypocrite? Where?), the time-honoured simple solution of using the tag-line of the chorus (repeated ad-aforementioned-parents'-nauseam of course, so the sugar-and-caffeine-bloated little pop darlings have it imprinted deep in their brains, primed and ready for advertisers to exploit when they attach your ditty to their latest piece of disposable plastic junk/disposable plastic junk masquerading as food ) presents itself.

To be fair, this practice, along with that of extracting a particularly memorable word (as in Mr. Waits' excellent example I sullied by using as the title for the post), or phrase that succinctly conveys the essence of the song, is widespread across historical and genre boundaries. Who could ever forget such enduring titles as "Greensleeves", "Heartbreak Hotel", or South Park's cheery showtune, "Uncle F*ck*r" (that one pretty much embeds itself instantaneously, doesn't it) ?

But what do you do if you have no lyrics to plunder? There aren't really any easy guidelines for instrumental pieces, are there? You could try willful obscurantism or surrealism, which have long been ways of signalling to the audience that you have pretensions to intellectualism, that your mind and music occupy strata that only the brightest and best can hope to comprehend - or that it's going to be prog rock. So that may not be the ideal route to head down - and I have to plead guilty here, having been in two severely proggy bands back in the 1990's. The first one was a University of York outfit called "Mind The Gap", where I was one of the guitarists on tracks like "Lemon Aardvarks", "Extra Garlic", and "Schizophrenic Foot Fashion". To be fair, some of the actual songs had far more down-to-earth titles, such as "Paranoia", "The Order of the Dragon's Head" (!), and "Desperate Things (Said By Desperate Men)" - all, interestingly enough, written and sung by a bloke who is now a Liberal Democrat member of parliament...

(The less said about the other band, Citizen Cain's use (abuse!) of song titles, e.g. "To Dance the Enamel-faced Queen", the better! Although in my defence, I didn't come up with any of them.)*

But what if someone else has already taken your brilliant new title? There might be confusion - or even, at its most extreme, possible lawsuits! So what is a poor befuddled muso to do? Fortunately, help is at hand, courtesy of the good old internet. If you've not come across it before, spend some time getting acquainted with the wonderfully entertaining "repertoire search" at Broadcast Music Inc.

Now it doesn't pretend to be fully comprehensive, but they claim they've got more than 6,500,000 titles for your browsing pleasure, so it's not a bad place to start. Who would have thought there would only be one more title entry under "asparagus" than "artichoke"? (11-10, since you didn't ask). That there are a desperately unimaginative 186 tracks involving "motorcycle" (but only 24 for "motorbike")? Or that someone has registered a song called "Spatula Orgasm" ?

If they only had mp3 clips of all the tracks...I'm dying to know just what "Wombat Fever" (by Jonathon Burket) sounds like...?

*p.s. I don't want to give the impression that I have anything against prog rock. I love prog rock, but even the most diehard fan would have to admit that prog lyrics generally range from the slightly obtuse to the impressively silly.

p.p.s. A mate emailed to suggest the ASCAP database as another source of fun, but I have to warn you, it came up with significantly fewer wombats than the BMI.

Monday, 20 August 2007


I had hoped to use this post to announce to the poor, unsuspecting world that I'd finally recorded some new stuff and slapped it online to amuse/bemuse/appal anyone who accidentally stumbled upon it. Except I can't, because my computer doesn't want to have anything to do with the notion - I clearly didn't spend enough hard cash (that I now no longer have) on a decent sound card, etc. Ah, well. Probably for the best, anyway - I can spend more time practising while I save up for better equipment, (a couple of decades might do it), so that when I eventually do hit the little red button my playing might be, to quote the traditional Glaswegian post-gig compliment, "no tae bad". I could, perhaps, even make it to the giddy heights of "youse were awright, but" (When in Weegieland, you must never forget the "but" on the end of the sentence if you want to be accepted in the local culture. Travelling west from Scotland's glorious capital, Edinburgh, it starts to creep in roughly when you reach Whitburn, or thereabouts.).

It is certain, however, that I'll never reach the level of the Russian chap who's one of my all-time favourite musicians, equally ridiculously adept on bass guitar or upright, and whose tone is wider than the biggest "Golden Corral all-you-can-eat steak buffet" customer's backside - I give you, BORIS KOZLOV!! (cue sound f.x.: wild applause and cheering, interspersed with a couple's aggressively whispered conversation about precisely whose fault it is they decided to head for the toilets, thus missing 95% of one of the greatest encores in the history of jazz. Applause dies down, and whispering stops abruptly in embarrassment as they realise everyone in the room, including the band, just heard him compare her mother's bladder capacity to that of a bull walrus on growth hormones, and her retort that involved at least three highly-insanitary, but very creative, anatomically-improbable suggestions for him to perform solo with immediate effect).

Now, if anyone hasn't heard of Mr. K, giving him a swift "google" might help, (I'm legally obliged to write "oo-err, missus" at this point), but the root of my personal veneration of all things Boris started before he was "famous", back around 1994...yes, you've guessed it, it's flashback time again.

A jazz pianist friend, Julian Hensey, 'phoned me during the Edinburgh Festival, and insisted that I came along to hear a New York-based Russian quartet in the old Edinburgh University Staff Club building on Chambers Street that night...they turned out to be the Igor Butman (look him up) group, with his brother Oleg on drums, a guy with a moustache whose name has long gone but was the Miles Davis of the trombone (!), and Boris Kozlov on 6-string electric bass. We were, unsurprisingly, completely blown away - as were the other four members of the audience (no, I'm not kidding, the Edinburgh Festival is renowned for those sort of numbers). Boris, being the only polyphonic instrument, was providing all the harmony work, interspersing chords and lines with terrifying ease, and all without a hint of arrogance or being flash for the sake of it.

Well, after that we became a permanent fixture, coming back every night, chatting to B.K. after the gigs - I ended-up lending him my amp for the last 3 shows - how could we pass up on what was essentially a week-long masterclass?
We even dared to get up & play at the post-gig session on the second-last night (I had serious reservations about even taking my bass out of the bag - I mean, c'mon, follow THAT?? What could I hope to contribute?), and were just about controlling our jitters when Igor himself joined in...I have no recollection as to what we were playing (all my attention was fixed on not screwing up), except that Julian's hands were shaking so much he wisely decided to decline a solo, and we staggered to the end without suffering complete disaster, which is always the main thing in jazz...

Come the final gig, naturally, the word had at last got out, and the packed audience contained a fair few of the "great & the good" of Scottish jazz - on the whole seeking to gain lustre by association at the jam session, it transpired. A certain double bass player (naming no names), well known for not suffering from low self-esteem, was plucking away with a significant swagger until Boris (who was a completely modest & non-competitive about music) was eventually persuaded to sit in. He didn't change a single setting on the guy's amp, but as soon as he started playing, that bass sounded twice as loud, round and sweet as before...while its owner stood off to the side trying his best to look 'cool', but sporting the falsest clenched-jaw grin you could ever wish to see...

We corresponded for a short while after that (and he sent me one of his "New Hype Jazz" cd's) - he had a young family, was having to play in wedding bands to make ends meet, thought he might have to quit and go back to Russia - but he was moving apartments a fair bit, and then moving up in the musical world, and we inevitably lost touch along the way.

Still, here's to Boris Kozlov - nice bloke, supreme bass player, and unintentional pricker of grossly inflated egos. Now go & buy some of his stuff.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Toys in the Attic

I must confess, I have gas. Pretty bad gas, too - and it's definitely not good for me. Gear Acquisition Syndrome, that is. If I had the money, we'd probably have had to buy a second home to cope with all the musical technology my heart has ever desired - the forty-or-more different amps, the vast array of pedals and multi-fx, and let's not even dare to get started on actual instruments...mmm, yes! (to quote Kate Bush)...sorry, drifted off into my little fantasy world there. Whoops. I'll try not to let that happen again, but I'm one of those ( immeasurably tedious) musos who has an innate, burning desire to find out exactly what happens when you twist..umm..THAT knob (partial resonance selector), then press the 3rd button down (oooh - lights up in a different colour!), and...oh, ok, wasn't quite expecting that. Sorry neighbours. Right, 4th button down instead (multiple velocity increment filter)...oh yeah! Now THAT I cool...oh, hang on, what's that irate shouting and banging I can just hear over my new, sonically-shattering ,best-synth-patch-in-the-world-ever ? Ah...oh dear.

And I know I'm far from being alone. At least in my case I've convinced myself that the motivation is curiosity, a pure, almost scientific, need to comprehend the true magnificence (or otherwise) of the latest metal-and-plastic box of delights to hit your local 100%-minimum-mark-up (but that's how they can appear to offer such great "special offers", so we all win, don't we?) retailer's display cabinets. Too many of us are simply giving in to far baser urges. We've all had them, those "Damn! I'm never going to play like [insert musical guru of choice here - unless that choice happens to be Noel Gallagher. That is a false choice, and shall be punished], my life is over!" moments. When you think you'll never be worth spit, you'll sell all your gear,and so you pick up your guitar to stuff it sadly into it's thin, barely-padded gig bag for the last time...but "Wait", says the cunning GAS demon in your head, "surely that's the problem here. There's nothing wrong with your spathulate fingers, practice regime that consists of playing the riff to "Nevermind" for 15 minutes every other day (if you can be bothered), or inability to keep your guitar in tune even for those brief quarter hours. You just need the right tools, that's all. Let's pop into town with your credit card, shall we...?"

Thus begins a lifetime's fruitless addiction to studying album-cover equipment lists, poring over photos of your hero/ine playing live, standing in the front row of gigs squinting at the rack in the right-hand back corner of the stage...the GAS demon is indeed a pernicious master. Now, if you play in a serious tribute band, I'd be the first to agree that having the right gear can be vital - accurately recreating early Pink Floyd purely digitally, without Binson Echorec or Roland SpaceEcho boxes just wouldn't be right and proper - but if you haven't got the necessary technique to play the music in the first place, no new toy is ever going to satisfy your craving. Or help your marital relationship when the bank statement comes up for discussion.

The biggest problem with GAS though, is that we're almost always ultimately disappointed. Unless you're smart enough to be building tech for yourself (a skill I envy greatly!), or you're heavily involved with a product's development, it's never going to be exactly right. And much like a bicycle saddle that's not been sufficiently fine-adjusted for your person, if you spend enough time on it, it's going to chafe. Only a little at first, so we can apply some 'mental vaseline' and get going again, but maybe a few months down the line you'll find yourself gazing into the window of a music shop, having lustful yearnings at the sight of the newly released upgraded model.

I went through this process myself with looping/delay devices - only mostly without the purchasing element, 'cos I was largely skint at the time (still am - kids are bloody expensive), so instead I would troll round assorted music shops trying out all the latest gadgets and wearing out many people's' patience into the bargain. I did buy a Boss RC-20, but that didn't feel right for what I was trying to do (sub-Eberhard Weber, relatively short duration sort of thing), so I traded-it in for a Boss DD-20 Gigadelay. Which is nice. But of course, it's not quite right! So I sat down to design the specifications of my ultimate looping delay - "How hard can it be?", I thought, one easy-to-lug-about box, plenty of footswitches and real-time control, I'll be done in 5..10 minutes tops, leaving plenty of time for a nice cup of tea.

What I stopped in bewilderment at, (after the 17th revision or so), was:

(ahem) The Gilmour Loops-a-Lot (tm)

* 4 inputs for multiple instruments, (standard and/or stereo jack & XLR, naturally!), with discrete 3-band active tone controls (or graphic eq's if the customer so desired) for each one - it'd be a modular design - and footswitches for input select/mute

* 12(!) colour-coded expression pedals, all software assignable. These could be used as simple volume controls for the different loops/direct sound, altering delay feedback levels, panning controls, etc

* At least 12 hours of "CD-quality" sampling time available, to be split between the (up to) 12 loops available - you'll get 18 discrete loops on next year's Loops-a-Lot-Plus!(tm)

* Full footswitch control over each loop, with all your favourites - start/stop, tap tempo, synchronise, undo, redo, fix hairdo, and a brand-new feature unique to the Gilmour Loops-a-Lot(tm), "PANIC", which would immediately fade-out what had gone so horribly wrong, and replace it with an audience-soothing factory preset soundscape, computer-corrected for the pitch and tempo you were playing in. This soundscape would be a digitally-averaged blend of work by artists chosen by the customer when ordering their Loops-a-Lot(tm). Replacement soundscapes would be available over the internet (for a very reasonable fee)

* High-quality metal casing (made from recycled cans), with robust "clumsy-fat-dude's-boot proof"(tm) switches and pedals (with rubber coatings from entirely sustainable sources, with the mobile phone numbers of the Amazonian tribe we fairly-traded with printed on the underside, in case you wanted to check). Completely non-slip on any surface (but of course), and watertight to a depth of 30m for those high-energy, post-punk, booze-fuelled pub looping sessions

* Costs under £100 (roughly $750 for you Americans, just to reverse the current international situation in high-tech pricing)

* Has it's own micro-biomass power generator, so the Loops-a-Lot(tm) will run for several weeks continuously on one medium-sized potato

Unfortunately it would also most likely be over 2 metres long, and weigh more than a JBL pa speaker (there is currently no substance on earth heavier than a JBL). But hey, all I'd have to do is stick a pre-amp valve in it somewhere (Marshall Valvestate, anyone?), have shop staff point out the way it glowed prettily when you turned it on, and I just know people would flock to buy it. Until Roland came out with a 24-expression-pedal, 4 days' worth of sampling, and digital-playing-assistant (no actual musician necessary!) version, that is.... 

Who Are You?

I don't have any statistics to back this up, but I'm fairly convinced that most of us are probably reasonably well-at-ease with the notion of ourselves. Good (or bad...relax, nobody's judging you here. Well, not yet, anyway. But there'll be at least a little notice given before that starts up in earnest.Trust me...) old us. We know, for instance, with considerable precision, how tall we are, how many days we can go without showering before people start to complain, what we like for breakfast, whether that breakfast will sit well with the previous night's attempted-debauchery-that-sadly-ended-up-as-just-a-takeaway-and-slightly-too-much-cheap booze...all the stuff that matters on a daily basis.

Just occasionally though, when you least expect it, something can happen to upset all those humdrum personal certainties, and I can vouch personally for the fact that it's not a pleasant feeling. It all happened about 10 years ago, on a not-very-dark summer's night in the fair city of Inverness ( "Dolphinsludge", or "Queen of the Highland Fleshpots" as the Radio Scotland presenter Tom Morton used to call it. Both quite appropriate, depending on the weather and time of day)...

Once upon a time, there was a bar called "Sinners" in Castle Street. "Sinners" was a "fun pub" - you knew this because it had the words "Fun Pub" picked-out in small, tasteful (!) neon lights in the window. Through no particular fault of our own, except our willingness to do almost anything for cash, the WildGeese folky-rocky-whatever band found ourselves booked to play there during the Highland Festival. Well, "Sinners" turned out to be a most interesting place to play...the average age of the crowd was about 16 (I'm possibly being generous here), and the average state of inebriation was "vastly". We were playing on an unpleasantly small balcony area overlooking the main bar area, which also happened to be where the "cool kids" liked to dance. Of course, just about everyone in the place seemed to regard themselves as "cool", so vertiginous claustrophobia was the order of the day for the band. Joy unconfined!

Then the young blokes all started aggressively jostling each other for the chance to dance closest to the most-pished girlies, (if anyone needs to ask why they might be doing so, I suggest you type "Fraternity House Party" into Google and work your way through the first couple of pages of results...), a guy with a broken arm tried to start a fight - was thrown down the stairs for his troubles, and came back for a second go, the blokes who failed to "cop off" with any of the girlies (in whatever state of pishedness) got together and decided it was somebody's fault, and loudly determined to go round to his house and explain this to him (in a non-violent and rational manner) once the pub was shut, and somewhere amidst the always-enticing odour of cigs, spilt drinks, sweat and surplus testosterone we played...well, my mind has mercifully repressed the musical details, but I can't imagine we exactly set the shiny velour seating on fire with our technical wizardry (although some pished eejit with a lighter had a damn good try later on). Not that night, anyway.

Still, we got through the gig, and since there was no way to get our gear out through the thronging hordes in the pub, we opened up a fire exit that lead onto Raining's Stairs, and started humphing our stuff down to the van that way. And that's when it happened. I was coming back up when I was accosted by an evidently alcoholically-enhanced woman, who appeared to be accompanied by a large silverback gorilla (also alcoholically-enhanced)...and if he wasn't an actual gorilla, he was the final, clinching proof of our common primate ancestry. Our brief encounter went as follows:

Drunk Woman With Gorilla: "D'youse ken Roddy Mckenzie?"

Me: "No, um, sorry, no, I don't"

DWWG: (instantly) "Aye youse do!"

Me: (slightly off-balance) ", honestly, I really don't. I'm not from round here"

DWWG: (louder and even more definite) "Aye youse are!"

Me: (now starting to doubt myself in the face of her absolute certainty...surely she couldn't be right? ) "ummm...I'm afraid I don't live here, I'm from Edinburgh"

DWWG: (with all the self-assurance of a Young-Earth Creationist) "Naw youse arenae! Youse are fae Inverness!"

Now I'm starting to panic, because the gorilla is beginning to get a vague inkling that something is not-quite-right about the conversation. It's clearly a struggle for him, but he's starting to have the notion that someone is disagreeing with his 'burd'...and just for extra fun, our drummer & fiddler have decided it would be a great laugh to shut the fire exit door, thus locking me outside with these kind gentlefolk...

Me: (hammering on door while the guys just grin at me from inside, questioning large chunks of my personal reality, and unable to see any escape route that didn't involve severe physical pain) "I'm very, very sorry, but I've never met anyone called Roddy Mckenzie, uh, we were up doing a gig in there, errr, I don't live in Inverness, uh..."

At that moment, just as the gorilla's face registered an expression of "hang oan, that wee nyaff's sayin' ma burd's's CALLIN' MA BURD A LIAR!" and he started to move towards me, I fell through the fire door my mates had finally decided to open...which I closed and bolted as hard & fast as the stream of imprecations I was hurling in their shared direction would allow.

I'm sure my friends would say I don't suffer any issues with my sense of self these days, but the haunting memories of temporary doubt and confusion (not to mention mild terror at the thought of what the gorilla was going to do next to defend his "burd's" honour) are still perfectly vivid a decade later.

And I sometimes catch myself wondering who Roddy Mckenzie was, and exactly what befell him later that night..that not-dark-at-all summer's night in the Capital of the Highlands, all those years ago ? (insert your own "wooooooo" sound here)

p.s. apologies to anyone who was seeking a "good time" in Inverness based in any way on this post - "Sinners" is no more. It's now a 'trendy' (i.e. decorated in assorted shades of brown, "designer" sofas that are entirely impractical, and prices that are intended to keep out the unwealthy) coffee house/wine bar/restaurant sort of affair. Go to Leakey's bookshop instead - it's much nicer.

Selling England by the Pound

So. Your new favourite heavy rock band / infinitely dextrous personal musical guru / angst-ridden, introspective and earnestly thin troubador / bunch of miming, manufactured poptarts with implausibly perfect skin, hair, teeth and no apparent external genitalia are coming to town to perform for the huddled masses - a chance to update your fading T-shirt collection, or perhaps acquire a 'cool' new wallet, or a set of matching mugs. Even, if you're a Kiss fan - for which, apparently, you'll be relieved to know there is finally a cure - a particularly fetching tongues 'n' facepaint-themed coffin-cum-drinks cooler. Oh yes indeedy, Mr. Simmons will part you from your cash with great alacrity, given half a chance. Credit to him, he's never made any great claims to musical talent, but when it comes to financial acumen...!

But the Kiss Empire apart, why do the folks in the marketing department so often seem to run out of ideas so quickly? Now, AC/DC's cycling shirts, (with full-length zips for proper ventilation - one of these would make a serious quality present for the Metal-and-Tour-de-France-fan in your life. Plus the "Back in Black" one looks absolutely stunning!), are an excellent variation on the pretty jaded standard array of clothing, but it seems to me that in the (often ever-so-slightly-naughty-and-unpaid-for) download era, when revenues from cd sales are falling, too many groups just aren't maximising their merchandising earnings potential.

Where, oh where, oh where are the Alice Cooper officially licensed python draught excluders? Why can I not buy David Bowie contact lens cases? Are there not such things as Scissor Sisters scissors (apparently not - I did a reasonable trog round the net)?? Who will be the first band to stick their logo on a set of deluxe barbecue tongs, and rake in the cash at B&Q? [Apologies to anyone foreign not getting the reference - big British DIY / "home improvement" / garden stuff chainstores]

After the success of their "Darth Tater" & "SpiderSpud", surely the world is ready for a 'classic rock' range of "Mr. Potato Head" characters? Perfect for getting your band image across to the very young and impressionable! Of course, some of the accessories might not appeal to all parents - guitarist "Smash" or singer "Pentland Joplin" with their bottles of JD, say. "Motaterhead", "Atomic Roosters" and "Ginger Baker" coming complete with substances and paraphernalia of choice (please feel free to insert your own much better potato-related rock star names - I know these were all pretty bad), but then kids grow up so much faster these days, and sheltering them from the realities of the world can be just as bad (or far worse in the long run) so why not?

I mean, come on, how hard can it be? We've got the technology now to place almost any image we want on virtually any product. Admittedly, some people may not be too keen on throwing their spicy prawn stir-fry around an "Anthrax"-branded wok with a spatula marked "Poison", while wearing an apron emblazoned with the giant terrified face from the "In The Court of The Crimson King" album cover, but I'm sure it would have enormous appeal to many, many others (or regarding the apron, just me). Yet we are denied by the short-sightedness of hidebound sales and management teams!

Now the merchandisers would, of course, argue that they have overheads to cover, small production runs offer poor economies of scale, they only have space to cram a couple of boxes of t-shirts in the back of the van between the half-dozen crates of cheap beer and the mould-ridden bass bins...but these are poor, flimsy excuses in this glorious digital age! Organise! Use their band website forums, myspace page comments, stalk them across a variety of fan sites and message boards...demand that the next time they're in your town, you can buy that set of Nightwish nail clippers you've always desperately longed for. Just so long as they come in black, mind...

What a Difference a Day Made

As part of my pre-mid-life-nostalgia crisis I've been leafing-through some of the myriad of photos taken during the 8 years I trogged round Scotland (and much of the rest of the UK) as a member of WildGeese ceilidh / celtic rock / jazz / King Crimson & Yes covers band (!), and came across a curious wee juxtaposition... one of the worst gigs I've ever been involved in, and one of the best.

They happened on consecutive nights within a couple of miles of each other - the terrible one was playing covers in a hotel bar in Ullapool (NW Scotland, nestling beside Loch Broom, in case anyone didn't know), and the great one a wedding reception in a marquee about a mile-and-a-half up the road in Allt an t-Strathain (loosely translated from Gaelic as "The glen that's about a mile-and-a-half up the road from Ullapool". Possibly).

The first gig was already going fairly poorly - the pub was half-empty, the stage was cramped, one of the speakers was playing up intermittently, we were all tired and irritable from the long journey - the standard petty gripes and niggles of a working band, but nothing to mark it out from similar shows in Brechin, Aberdeen, Stirling, etc,etc. Nothing, that is, until a drunk & abusive weegie (sorry, Glaswegian) chef from the hotel, who'd been chucked-out of the bar earlier for being, well, drunk & abusive, came back in and casually stuck a brick into a young lassie's face. This, fairly inevitably, resulted in him being beaten unconscious by the rest of the customers, and dumped outside for the police to collect...while we, it was made pretty clear to us, just had to keep on playing. "Johnny B. Goode", as I recall (to be honest, I don't think I could forget it if I tried - I can still see the guy's arm coming up, almost in slow motion, and then realising - but only as he did it - exactly what he was intending...). Fortunately for the girl it turned out to be a relatively minor injury - just a few (!) stitches, and the hotel didn't give her the next morning off, naturally - but still...

One of those gigs you just wish would end, you wish you'd never bothered coming to, that wasn't worth five times the money. One that you'll never forget, though, for all the wrong reasons.

Anyway, next morning the sun shone, and my Cannondale road bike was hiding in the van, so while the guys snored (or in the case of my mate Martin, drank coffee and smoked) for Scotland, I tried to work off the previous night with a switchback ride to Stac Pollaidh, one of our most impressive and generally lovely-to-look-at mountains (a couple of hours of breathtaking scenery and vigorous hill climbs - what more could anyone want?). Exercise has always been my personal drug of choice - on a recent holiday I genuinely enjoyed lifting & shifting a pile of big rocks for the friends we were staying with - and with the calm, austere solitude of the road & the mountains to amplify the effect, equilibrium was definitely restored - plus I certainly saved myself a lot of money on expensively aged & pungent single malt (my fall-back drug of choice when exercise isn't available as an option).

And that night went better than we could have hoped - the equipment mysteriously sounded fine, a more-than-ever-so-slightly-enthusiatic crowd (including a half-trolleyed bride who just seemed to laugh harder every time she fell on her backside), multiple requests for self-indulgent-extended rock-jamming numbers - function band heaven! It was even warm! (a minor miracle in Scotland) If my memory isn't too befuddled, we were having such a good time that at the end of a 4-hour gig, we played an extra hour or so in return for a decent bottle of whisky.

Things did take a slightly bizarre turn when there was a knock on our hotel room door at about 2am, and we were confronted by a guy wearing a wetsuit and full scuba gear...but then we were a ceilidh band, and in that dark nether-world of reels, jigs, and dashing-white-military-willow-stripping, anything can happen...!

You get used to it after a while. Then you become sadly blasé, and take it for granted. Then you rather miss it when it's gone.

Metal Machine Music

Our microwave gave me a small surprise tonight. Fortunately it wasn't of the "your rice steamer has exploded - enjoy" variety, nor did it offer a trenchant critique of my fretless playing ("Compensating for Intonation through Vibrato", a study in medium-velocity fudging)...rather, it beeped-along pitch-perfectly with Queen's "Somebody to Love" that baby Matthew was bouncing up and down enthusiastically in front of the stereo to. So perfectly, in fact, that I failed to notice it wasn't part of the song for at least 20 seconds (musical faux pas of a serious nature alert)...which got me wondering...

Wouldn't it be great if someone tucked away in the vastness of the manufacturing process was deliberately tuning the sounds these machines make? And if all your appliances were the same brand, if you set them off simultaneously, maybe they'd produce a really interesting chord (Gmin sus4 -9, say?), or even a tune, which might be a coded message to the outside world? perhaps along the lines of "I really hate my dull job here in China, I can speak 6 languages and have a p.h.d. in biomechanics, please help!" in hemi-semi-demi-quavers? Who knows??

Anyway, calming down again for a moment, this then moved on to a subsidiary strand of suspect sonic speculation...we've been promised 'talking' appliances/devices in our homes for years (decades?) now. But if you aren't Bill Gates (and every night he thanks his lucky stars I'm not), these have singularly failed to appear in my local Comet store - and the few examples that were tried (e.g. talking cars) have simply been so bloody irritating that they were scrapped.

So why can't we have 'customisable' machine sounds instead? We can download umpteen thousand 'themes' and sound schemes onto our computers, so how about extending it to the rest of our stuff? Personally, I'd love to have a smoke alarm that belted out "Fire" by Arthur Brown at 130db rather than just screeching tunelessly at me whenever it's battery needs changed. And you could set up the entire kitchen with complimentary pieces/styles - the toaster plays that unforgettable 4-note melody from Beethoven's 5th ("your-toast-is-done, your-toast-is-done"), while the washing machine tells you its cycle's finished with the jaunty tones of Handel's "Water Music" (apologies - it was there!).

Ah, but then my mind returned from this delightful world of musical gadgetry with the crashing recollection that it HAS been done already, inescapably, to a vast proportion of the planet's population. And the result has been an aural horror without compare....

I give you....


Errrrrrrr...right. Ok. Probably best we just left well alone then, eh? 'Crazy Frog' oven timer, anyone? (sadly, someone probably would pay good money for just such a thing - hell, plenty of folk pay through the nose for Gwen Stefani concert tickets, so there's clearly never any accounting for taste!)

Still, I can't help feeling a little bit sorry for that poor oppressed hypothetical Chinese person. What might they have achieved with my microwave's beep, if only they'd had some King Crimson to listen to, hmm? Alas, we may never know...(tumble dryer starts up the theme from the "Twilight Zone")...or WILL we?

I Loved You Yesterday

A friend of mine was struck recently by the fact that he was now onto the fourth different format of some of his most-beloved music, (mind you, nobody exactly forced him to buy that top-of-the-range ipod, but still...), which lead onto a discussion about an unexpected side-benefit of all these technological changes. Well, after the usual boring-old-muso debate about cd vs vinyl for sound quality, but we won't go into that now - I have limited time before one of the kids wakes up (again!) & I'm back on daddy-duty.
Possibly the greatest benefit is the opportunity it allows to quietly "edit" your music collection in a way that's almost entirely invisible to the casual observer/incurable music-snob friend/woman you're pathetically trying to impress. Personal historical revisionism that comes at a cost only to your bank balance.

Now, I'll freely admit that the first single I ever bought (aged 10) was "Ok Fred" by Errol Dunkley (no.11 in 1979), which may even be moderately cool ?? - and the only reggae-related purchase I've ever made, oddly enough - but most of my friends are unaware that I used to own a couple of ...umm...Chris de Burgh albums, for which there can be NO excuse! (errr...John Giblin on fretless bass? high production values? ok, now I'm flailing...)

These strangely failed to be upgraded from cassette tape. Can't think why?

At one point I had a box of about 300 old tapes, containing doubtless many other musical horrors that my memory is thankfully repressing, but that went the way of all things during a spring clean a year or so back, so the damning evidence is no more. Which is a pity, because if you can't have a good laugh at the follies of youth (I wore a pair of light blue-grey slip-on plasticky shoes when I was 15. There. It's out now, and I feel so much better for it) from time-to-time, well...

For the record, though - I have never, EVER, owned anything by Wham!, Simply Red, or Tiffany. Honest. And I can prove it - you can check my cd collection if you like...? 

Friday, 17 August 2007


First off, apologies to anyone who's read this stuff already on my myspace music page, and is slightly miffed not to find anything remotely new or even cunningly edited (bar this intro post) to increase the humour value (no matter how low it was to start with)...sorry. Then again, think of the number of "Greatest Hits" albums you've bought with "New Bonus Tracks!!" stuck on the end, rushed home to listen to your musical heroes' (or heroines') latest creative offerings, only to realise these new studio efforts' only reason for existing is to demonstrate:
a) just how great their music
used to be, and
b) contrary to the title of the (unfathomably-popular) song by The Verve, the drugs really
do work, usually extremely effectively. Only they don't make you any better at playing the guitar, singing, being a coherent human being, etc, once you've been ingesting them on a scale only made possible by regular royalty-cheques, and for the number of years necessary for those royalties to start to dry up...hence the need for a new "Greatest Hits" collection, and the demands from the record company accountants for some fresh meat - no matter how antibiotic-ridden, pumped-full of water to give an illusion of mass, and wastefully over-packaged it might be. Ah, 'tis a messy business, being a rock superstar!

Mind you, never having seen a royalty cheque in my life, I have no idea what hedonistic excesses I might have indulged in if I'd had a few thousand of the buggers...actually, knowing me, probably painfully few. :-)

Well, anyway, I hope someone out there finds something they like in these posts, and I'll finish by stating that every claimed fact, every historical incident & detail, is as honest & true as I could possibly let them be. The odd town / gig venue / person's name might have had to be changed here and there in the best interests of my ongoing personal health, oh, sorry, I mean avoiding lawsuits, but unlike most of the media I'll make it obvious when I'm modifying events (aka lying my arse off).

And yes, I'm addicted to parentheses. I thought I could quit...



p.s. this is all my friend Martin's fault - it was his idea that I should try to inflict my ramblings further on the world, so you can blame him :-)