Tuesday, 29 January 2008

It Was A Very Good Year

Well, actually it wasn't. Not when I was seventeen, anyway. 1986 will go down in history as one of the generally-less-successful orbits of the sun that the planet's had, especially if you're considering the period since we daft humans stopped having massive, ideologically-motivated wars on a global scale - opting for downsizing and using proxy dictators/states seemed like a much better bet at the time. The year started badly with Phil Lynnot's death, then millions of us watched the space shuttle 'Challenger' blow up (22 years ago today - it doesn't seem possible that it was so long ago). Things continued downhill when Sweden's prime minister, Olof Palme, was assassinated (still unsolved), then Libyan agents blew up a disco in Berlin...which was swiftly followed by American air strikes against Libya, facilitated by the (ever-radiant and delightful) Margaret Thatcher, of course - these followed their usual pattern of successfully hitting some military targets, while simultaneously blowing-up purely residential areas, (including, on this occasion, Western embassies in Tripoli). All this and it was still only April...

Violence was something of a recurring theme for the year, with aeroplanes being bombed by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, and hijacked by Palestinians in Karachi (the folk who chucked a hand grenade in amongst the terrified passengers, as I recall). South Africa's white-minority-rule apartheid regime launched military raids on foreign cities thought to be harbouring African National Congress 'bases', but the (charming, fragrant) Mrs. T yet again ruled-out sanctions against P.W. Botha's racist government. Another great follower of democratic principles, 'Dr.' (merely honorary, bestowed by that bastion of intellectual rigour, Bob Jones University, South Carolina - his "Reverend" status is equally flimsy) Ian Paisley called on Northern Ireland's protestants to prepare for "civil war", and to make a "show of force" on the streets, culminating in rioting in Portadown. The head of Renault, Georges Besse, was murdered by a couple of ultra-leftist terrorists (seemingly because he restored the company's fortunes by means of mass redundancies), but across in Chile, that evil old tyrant, General Pinochet, somehow managed to avoid any serious injury despite coming under sustained assault from a heavily-armed bunch of neo-Marxist guerillas.

As a small counter-balance to this litany of woe, however, we should remember that 1986 was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, as Mikhail Gorbachev's "perestroika" (restructuring) and "glasnost" (openness) started up in earnest, with the return of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Dr. Andrei Sakharov from internal exile being a major event. Plus there were high-profile ministerial resignations over leaks and back-stabbing surrounding the Westland Helicopters affair (Leon Brittan, Michael Heseltine), and who could possibly want to forget the start of Jeffrey ("liar, liar, pants on fire") Archer's woes, when he was photographed paying money to a prostitute, in a bid to keep her from going to the press. (For anyone who doesn't know what happened next - already fabulously wealthy by writing [well, coming up with some of the basic ideas, anyway - who did the actual writing is highly debatable] lowest-common-denominator-tripe novels, he sued for libel, won record damages, got a peerage from John Major for charitable fundraising - that later proved to be [like so much else in his life] grossly exaggerated and largely illusory, did some dodgy share dealing, and finally was nicked for perjury and perverting the course of justice relating to the original libel trial. Is now regarded as the finest public liar Britain has ever known [Tony Blair came close, but couldn't quite land the top spot], and a source of cheap laughs for lazy stand-ups throughout the land...oh, but not me of course. Perish the thought.)

We also found out just how crooked Ronald Reagan's chums could be, thanks to the "Iran-Contra / Ollie North-and-his-red-hot-shredder" scandal, the Guinness "false-accounting-conspiracy-and-mysteriously-self-healing-alzheimer's" inquiry commenced, and cunning (but dangerous) cult founder L. Ron Hubbard shuffled off this mortal coil (or did he?? Anyone got Tom Cruise's mobile number? I'm sure he'd be able to clear that one up in between the sporadic irrational rants...)

On the other hand, this was the year when George W. Bush turned 40, gave up drinking and had a 'spiritual awakening' - and just look how that has panned-out.

For me, personally, 1986 wasn't great, but then I was a hormonally-imbalanced, over-energetic, girlfriend-free-zone (desperation is never attractive), whose self-confidence was in inverse proportion to his (plentiful) acne (at least now I can grow a beard, which solves half the personal pulchritudity problems...only half, mind). Fortunately for me, there was a refuge, a wee sanctuary where I could hang around for hours (when I wasn't doing ridiculous amounts of sport), trying not to get in the way or clutter the place up too much.

This was the incredible shop-of-arcane-wonders known as "Live Music", situated on Candlemaker Row in Edinburgh (I think it was on the site of the "red shop on the right" in the picture, but could be completely wrong. It's happened before...it'll undoubtedly happen again. With increasing frequency, as the senses dull and the brain addles further...), owned and run with a quixoitic disregard for capitalistic, profit-based business models by a pair of very fine guitarists, Mike & Steve Park. They were a boon to the low-budget musician, giving overly-generous trade-in valuations, and accepting piles of oddly disparate junk in their desire to shift some of the stock. Trouble was, the shop was full (usually far too full - trying to take a guitar off the wall, or an amp from out of the window, sometimes seemed like a mountaineering enterprise worthy of Tenzing Norgay - who, incidentally, died in 1986) of great "classic" stuff (Marshall and Orange stacks, early 1970's Les Pauls, Colorsound Fuzz pedals, a different Sessionette 75 every week,etc,etc), mixed with weird-but-expensive bits of gear, like a John Birch custom model, a Bond Electraglide guitar, or even, for a while, an enormous upright bass banjo. (The sort of equipment, in other words, that everyone wants to fondle, but are highly unlikely to purchase). Alas, almost none of the customers ever had much in the way of spare cash, so the shop became virtually a charitable institution for the keen-but-impoverished local muso fraternity.

What it provided for me, though, was a musical learning environment of the highest order. Where else could I have had the opportunity to sit and listen to all the older (semi) pro's who'd wander in, pick up an interesting guitar and rip through a selection of styles, then stop and chat with whoever else was in while the next guy took a turn? This was where my abiding love of blues was truly born, where I discovered that the (original) Fender Esprit was the greatest Gibson guitar ever made, and where, one day, a large, bearded, and definitely pissed guy came in, with a leopard-print-clad middle-aged peroxide blonde in tow. He blethered away completely incoherently with/at Mike Park very happily for about half-an-hour, then declared his intention to return to the Greyfriars Bobby's bar, where he had been previously ensconced.

I thought nothing of this at the time, but a year or so later, freshly back from university, I was in the shop enthusing about John Martyn, whose music I'd recently been introduced to by a mate, when Mike said, "You know, you've met him, yeah?". Which stopped me in my tracks a bit, because I'd no idea what he was talking about. I probably said nothing more eloquent than "Eh?" in response to this, because I was truly befuddled. He then reminded me of the encounter many moons before with...ah, you're there ahead of me, aren't you? Fair enough. Yep, turned out the big drunk dude was the incredible Mr. Martyn himself. Ah well. As with so many things in life, if only I'd known earlier what I know now...I'd have used every last penny I had to buy up old Marshall valve combos, which were going horrifically out-of-fashion at the time (a decade of Peavey "giant-bee-in-a-tin-can" noises ahoy!), and made a bloody fortune when the guitar-playing world finally came to its senses a few years ago...

Live Music, inevitably, eventually went the way of all good things. The name remains, but it's under completely new ownership, over near the King's Theatre. It's a perfectly good wee shop, with friendly staff, and sometimes an interesting second-hand item or two, but it could never replace the dimly-lit, cramped (and slightly smelly) delight that was the old place, back in 1986.

Maybe it wasn't such a bad year, after all...?

p.s. Mike Park can still be seen and heard on stage, playing with Edinburgh blues legends Blues N' Trouble (if you scroll down, he's the guy with the green tele) - you can catch them at the Darlington Arts Centre, Friday 7th March, 8pm. £10 a ticket - bargain! Oh, and if you do go, say "Hi" to him from me - he'll not have a clue what you're on about, stare at you blankly, and think you're odd, but it's the thought that counts.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

White Wedding

Gentle reader, 'tis time to put aside your daily cares and woes, and take a step sidewards into the world of whimsy and conjecture once more. Which, for anyone who has stumbled upon this blog by accident, (best Google search to land here by mistake so far: "example of a bad ambition" ), is a very good thing, since I was otherwise intending to explain in great detail the reasons behind my boundless love of small, independent instrument shops - dredging out chunks of my far-from-exciting teenage years (& psyche) in the process, and ending with a bit of an onslaught against one particular branch of a national retail chain (in the UK). Oh, and I was going to rip the piss out of the terrible guitar & amp I happened upon while I was there, but I'll save it all until next week instead. Consider yourselves fortunate, indeed!

Instead, let's re-examine a subject I touched upon briefly in "What Do You Want From Me", back in September - gloriously inappropriate songs for bands to play at weddings. This was prompted by an evening spent with a couple of close friends, one of them recounting the tale of his band kicking off a wedding reception with a spirited rendition of "Bad Moon Rising", which, as the song went on, and the gist of the lyrics slowly sank in, earned them ever-filthier looks from the bride's parents.

So we started trying to compile a setlist of songs that really shouldn't make an appearance, although I must confess a significant proportion of the WildGeese repertoire undoubtedly fell into this category, and it certainly never stopped us - and when you consider that one of our most-requested songs at weddings was Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer", well...

Anyway, since this had amused us no end, (although I'm not sure how much their neighbours enjoyed some of our more alcoholically-enhanced-harmonies), I decided to share our comedic delusions with the wider world. But that raised a few problems - it was far too easy, for instance, to think of songs that would be simply gratuitously offensive to a "family" audience, so that meant losing some of our top selections from that night. Goodbye then, alas, to South Park's jaw-droppingly-obscene, yet perkily-brilliant 'Broadway showstopper', "Uncle F*cka" [Warning: Links to YouTube video, which isn't appropriate for small children, folk at work, the socially conservative, or indeed anyone who believes that a few anglo-saxon words being used in adult-orientated comedy are more dangerous to the well-being of the populace than the effects of poverty, violence or organised religion through the ages], Leather Nun's "Fist F*ckers Associated", whole inevitable swathes of "death metal", "black metal", "goregrind", and various strands of "gangsta" (c)rap, etc,etc, etc.)

Then we come to the little ditties that wouldn't work because of their genres' stylistic conventions - the entirety of "Supper's Ready" by Genesis, perhaps, or Jethro Tull's "Thick As A Brick"...or anything I've ever played on . (I know, there are weddings where half the crowd would be well up for "Tales From Topographic Oceans" in all it's pomp and majesty, or possibly even "21st Century Schizoid Man", but I'm afraid it's the middle of the distribution curve we're looking at here. Sorry. Plus they're just a bit bloody difficult to play! I mean, think of the poor, struggling musicians, please! ) This also knocks out a host of promising material from artists like Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, Leonard Cohen, Captain Beefheart and so forth. A huge shame, yes, because they have all made a number of potentially excellent wedding-reception-wrecking records (try saying that 5 times quickly when you've got a mouth full of asparagus), but still too easy.

Which, to give the appearance of fairness and consistency, must apply to the overtly fertile ground of Country (& maybe even Western), sad to say. Yep, that's right, no romantic ballads like "(Get Your Tongue Out Of My Mouth) I'm Kissing You Goodbye" (John Denver), Lyle Lovett's cheerily up-tempo "L.A. County" [even though it does have a wedding as the main subject matter...if you don't know the song, let's just say it doesn't end well for the 'happy couple'], or virtually half of Hank Williams Snr.'s deeply-personally-troubled output. (Have to give a quick honourable mention to "I've Been Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart" [Johnny Cash] as a song title of sheer apposite brilliance).

In the end, I decided upon a strict set of (entirely arbitrary) criteria:
1) The song must have been a "Top 40" hit in the UK (the higher the better)
2) It has to have some passing relevance to weddings/"mawwidge"/domestic bliss/everlasting love, etc,etc. You get the general idea...
3) It must be "playable" by a moderately-talented (!) wedding covers band.
4) It's not a "novelty"/"comedy" song. Which, fortunately, rules out Joe Dolce's "Shaddap You Face", the "Birdy Song" (don't you just wish you could erase the nightmare from your mind?) by The Tweets, and "Agadoo" (or "Do The Conga" - take yer pick, they're both execrable) by Black Lace.

This improved matters no end - now I had a challenge! Before I reveal my selections, I'd just like to point out that I didn't let my personal taste in music get in the way of a semi-decent gag (usually buried in the lyrics, but sometimes the title did the job) at any point, even though listing certain songs, bands, and individual artistes did necessitate the placement of a spittoon in close proximity to the computer. See if you can guess which ones caused me the greatest mental discomfort...

In no particular running order:

1) "Bad Moon Rising" (Creedence Clearwater Revival - #1, 1969)
2) "Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter" (Iron Maiden - #1, 1991)
3) "It's All Over Now" (Rolling Stones - #1, 1964)
4) "Don't Stand So Close To Me" (Police - #1, 1980)
5) "Like A Virgin" (Madonna - #3, 1984)
6) "I Want To Break Free" (Queen - #3, 1984)
7) "Tainted Love" (Soft Cell - #1, 1981)
8) "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" [insert obvious response here] (Culture Club - #1, 1982)
9) "Don't Leave Me This Way" (Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes - #5, 1975)
10) "Tragedy" (Bee Gees - #1, 1979)
11) "D.I.V.O.R.C.E." [you knew it had to be in there! ] (Tammy Wynette - #12, 1975)
12) "With Or Without You" (U2 - #4, 1987)
13) "Don't Marry Her (F*ck Me)" (The Beautiful South - #8, 1996)
14) "Shotgun Wedding" (Rod Stewart - #21, 1993)
15) "Wedding Bells" (Godley & Creme - #7, 1981)
16) "Caught Out There (I Hate You So Much Right Now)" (Kelis - #4, 2000)
17) "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free" (Sting - #26, 1985)
18) "White Wedding" (Billy Idol - #6, 1985)
19) "Here I Go Again (On My Own)" (Whitesnake - #9, 1987)
20) "(You Picked A Fine Time To Leave Me) Lucille" (Kenny Rogers - #1, 1977)
21) "Love Will tear Us Apart" (Joy Division - #13, 1980)
22) "Love Is Only A Feeling" (The Darkness - #5, 2004)
23) "You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart" (Eurythmics - #16, 1988)
24) "Kiss The Bride" (Elton John - #20, 1983)
25) "Poison" (Alice Cooper - #2, 1989)
26) "Evil Woman" (Electric Light Orchestra - #10, 1976)
27) "The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow)" (The Jam - #2, 1982)
28) "November Rain" (Guns N' Roses - #4, 1992)
29) "Send In The Clowns" (Judy Collins -# 6, 1975)
30) "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" (The Righteous Brothers - #1, 1965)

1) "Without You" (Harry Nilsson - #1, 1972)
2) "Haitian Divorce" (Steely Dan -#17, 1977)
3) "Paranoid" (Black Sabbath - #4, 1970)

There. Buckets of human suffering, misery, and anger - all packaged in a wide variety of song styles to ensure there's something for (nearly) everyone. And you can dance to most of them - what more could anyone possibly want?

Now, who knows someone who's getting married sometime soon? Might just have to get me a band together....

p.s. Big kudos to the incredible labour of love that is ChartStats for being a scarily comprehensive (and fascinating) data source.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Lost In America pt.3 - "Crossroads"

Bet y'all thought (hoped) I'd forgotten about my American bletherings. Well, no such luck. Blame the news - who could ignore such an impressive outbreak of credulousness (on both sides of the often-smoke-and-mirrors political 'divide') in New Hampshire? Especially since it followed the finest public show of artificial lachrymosity since bloated, hypocritical, bag o' piss and wind Jimmy Swaggart choked 'em back in order to "beg your forgiveness" in 1988. It almost makes our system look like perfectly representative democracy in action by comparison, even though, technically, both the UK & the US fail on the "representative" part. Still, you'll be relieved to hear that I'm not going to bore everyone senseless by banging-on about the inevitable failings of "first-past-the-post" electoral systems (I save that particular performance for parties, weddings, etc). Instead, I'll leave the last word on the American political process (for now) to the finest satirist ever to grace the world's second-largest 'democracy', Ambrose Bierce:

"Primary, n. A political pot, from which the fire of corruption has long since evaporated the good soup, leaving nothing but scum."

(from "The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary", edited by E.J.Hopkins, 1967)

Now, I'm aware that Bierce may be unknown to a few folk out there (the younger ones, perhaps?), and yes, Jon Stewart and his "Daily Show" cronies do have their moments of brilliance (but also an unfortunate tendency to fawn somewhat over certain guests), but no-one, (not even Lenny Bruce), has managed to match the sustained levels of pointed, skewering genius that is Ambrose Bierce in full flow. And when you take the volume and quality of his other writing into account, too…admittedly it has been a while since he died (well, disappeared, if we're being completely accurate, while heading to Mexico) in 1913, but he's still the greatest the USA has produced - in my (jaded? cynical? plain wrong?) opinion, anyway. To put it another way, Jaco Pastorius is still regarded by many musicians as the finest electric bass player of all time, 20 years after his death. Now, I'm willing to stake my entire collection of instruments on there having existed many more highly talented American electric bass players in the last two decades, than there have been even mediocre satirists during the 94 years since Bierce's demise. So if Jaco can still be king (and, let's face it, he really is), why not Ambrose Bierce, considering the relative lack of competition?

He also makes a pleasingly obscure link into my real topic (!), which is the wonderful little gem known as Madison, Indiana, (Bierce grew up in Indiana, and enlisted in the Ninth Indiana Infantry during the U.S. Civil War. Not that Indiana is a desperately exciting place, on the whole. When it came to designing their commemorative state quarter, for instance, they summed themselves up as the "Crossroads of America". Hmmm. So, when we think of Indiana, let's be confronted immediately by the mental image of a giant intersection, replete with an almost infinite number of flyovers, on/off-ramps, and drivers from Michigan sitting resolutely in the middle lane. Inspiring, no? Not that we're doing much better over here in Fife, where the council's logo is the Forth Bridge - in other words, the escape route to the joys of Edinburgh. Speaks volumes, doesn't it?).

This unassuming town (south on the I-71 from Cincinnati, take a right on 421, heads directly across to it - although taking the 42 through Warsaw, crossing at Markland, and following the 56 "Ohio River Scenic Byway" is definitely prettier. Slower, yes, but then it's not a race, now is it?), still retains the character and charm of that rare commodity, a traditional main street. In fact, the whole place has preserved its 19th-century origins very successfully - hell, it's easy to see why I like it - it's old, (by American standards), has enough museums for several rainy afternoons, and possesses that incredible rarity in the US - a cycling club!

It also happens to be located virtually next door to something far older and, if you're interested in the 'Great/Pretty Good/No' Tae Bad Outdoors', far prettier than a panoply of fine brickwork from 1844, Clifty Falls State Park. Here a pleasing blend of fine scenery and trail hiking awaits the intrepid visitor. After you've stopped-off to 'stuff your guts' at the Clifty Inn, (recommended!), you can take the opportunity to go fossil-spotting, assuming the river's low enough, of course - unless you're one of those bizarrely prepared-for-anything folk, and alongside the emergency rations, first aid kit (including inflatable splints and a portable, solar-charged defibrillator) and bivouac bag, you've brought full snorkelling gear, in which case, enjoy!

A small word of caution, however. Whatever you eventually decide to do with your now-bulging belly and elevated cholesterol, don't - and I can't stress this strongly enough, don't rely on the official map of the place to keep you on the right trail. Oh, it might look simple enough, and everything appears fine when you start out, but once you're down at the canyon bottom, it all changes...trail markers suddenly vanish, your sense of time starts to wander, you hear strange, keening noises that seem to emanate from deep fissures in the rock walls...until you realise it's just the 9-month-old in the baby carrier on your back, who's getting a little fed-up with the whole hiking-down-a-canyon, "oooh, look at the ammonites!" routine, and wants to be somewhere comfy, with an assortment of toys, and where he's the centre of as many adults' attention as possible.
Trying to get up and out of the canyon proved to be the tricky part - and it wasn't only us (he adds, quickly, in his defence). In our efforts to locate the official exit route, we came across three other groups of bewildered tourists, in various states of bedragglement, all of whom had been cruelly deceived by their trail maps. Eventually, I took a "Chief Navigator" (hey, I've done cloud-and-mist covered, zero-visibility hill-walks, using only a compass and the Ordnance Survey's finest as a guide, so there) executive decision, and we started to follow a dried-out streambed up the side of the canyon wall.

Now, I've long been of the opinion that a little bit of 'excitement' just adds to the 'fun' when you're on an 'adventure', but, judging by the looks my wife was giving me - the ones I caught, anyway, while I, lying as flat as I could against the rocks and bracing myself on a tree root, was supporting her foot with my free hand and trying to ignore the baby's repeated expressions of dissatisfaction with the whole situation - we'd overdone it a bit this time. Still, we all made it up to the road without any major mishaps, so no harm done, eh? We never did find out what happened to those other people, though there is a local rumour about some tourists who turned to cannibalism once their supply of "Mountain Dew" and "Peppermint Patties" ran out...
Anyway, getting back to Madison, and somewhere in the vicinity of the supposedly music-related theme of this blog, when we visited the town had a couple of excellent instrument shops, which were practically next door to each other, and well worth a good browse around. If it's 'vintage' kit you're after, then Crawdaddy Music is the place to head for. It had an impressive stock of pre-1950's guitars, alongside a host of other old gear. It was, to be honest, almost being run more like a museum than a shop, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It may, of course, have changed a bit since late 2003, and the other shop certainly has.

I have, uselessly, lost the guy's business card, but back then it was called "Scotty's" (? or "Scott's"? something like that), and we had a great time in there. While I was busily ogling a 5-string Parker Fly bass (nice!), the staff gave our tiny son a pair of sticks (the fools) with which to play around on the top-of-the-range, brand-new Roland digital drum kit at the back of the shop - now that's what I call customer service.(Not, I hasten to add, to be encouraged if you want your stock to retain its value, because whatever he may have lacked in drumming technique, accuracy and control, David certainly compensated for with abundant enthusiasm).

Alas, they now appear to have been taken over by a small regional chain (called Mom's Music), but it might well have the same/similar great people working there, and still be completely deserving of patronage. I just can't offer any guarantees that it hasn't turned into yet another run-of-the-mill, by-the-corporate-book, lowest-common-denominator establishment ("Guitar Center", perhaps?). If anyone out there can end my ignorance on this matter, please feel free to comment!

That's about it for Madison, Indiana, I'm afraid. The baby'll be awake far too soon, small bottom requiring cleansing, etc,etc. There are plenty of odds and ends left for another instalment of the "mid-West music shop travelogues" (sorry), but they'll have to wait for another time.
Happy Trails!

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Southbound Again

A week ago a rare and momentous thing occurred - I escaped! I did indeed, as Mr. Knopfler's song says, "roll across the rolling River Tyne", (well, the train I was sitting in very comfortably, having a fair stab - i.e. I solved more than 3 clues - at the cryptic crossword in that morning's edition of the Scotsman, did all the work), completely devoid of child-care responsibilities, for a 2-day visit to see friends in the fair city of York, (in England, to avoid confusion for any 'international' folks reading this), something I hadn't done for the best part of 8 years.

The first brief glimpse of the wonderfully-named river Ouse, ("ooze" is exactly what it does when it floods, depositing highly-sticky - and quite smelly - mud on the riverbank towpaths, perfect for catching unsuspecting cyclists unawares. Been there, fallen over, done the washing...), brought back swathes of memories of many early-morning hours spent in great pain and general exhaustion (enormous fun at the time, I seem to recall), occupying the bow seat of a four-man (in this instance "man" is perhaps defined best as: "almost-human masochistic loony") rowing crew from UYBC. (I get the feeling this is going to be a "link-heavy" post, not to mention tangential in the extreme - enjoy).

What feels like a very, very long time ago, I lived in York for almost four years, the first three of which were a whirlwind of competitive sport, playing music, acting (biggest laugh was appearing as a suspiciously broad-shouldered and hairy transvestite in 'Cabaret'), comedy, and in my spare time obtaining a (now practically worthless) degree. It was great to see my old mate from the prog-rock-jazz-what exactly ARE we doing?-fusion band "Mind The Gap" (as featured in October 1st's "Instant Karma"), Big Rich, and on the way over to his house from the town centre, another momentous thing sprang out and mugged me! Two in 24 hours! And I'll bet you think I'm about to tell you what it was...

...but I'm not. Not yet, anyway. A small service, again, for 'international' readers - gives them a useful insight into the uniquely British sense of "series-of-minor-disappointments-as-a-way-of-life". Instead, I'm going into travelogue-mode for a moment or two. If you read the next bit to yourself in the voice of "The Book" in "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy" (original radio series, naturally), it'll seem a lot funnier than it actually is.

York is a wholly remarkable town. Well, if you're at all interested in history, that is. Otherwise, it will seem over-crowded with gawking tourists, braying upper-middle-class "Yah" students from the south-east of England (these actually make up a small minority of the student body, but are by far the most audible, being incapable of speaking at less than 97.8db, regardless of the proximity of the person they are talking at. "Yah"s, it should be known, do not have 'conversations' with others per se. Instead, they communicate by imparting information as a series of disconnected statements, assuming the listener will realise just how dreadfully important everything the "Yah" says is, and will thus make the effort to understand them by hanging on their every word. This is not recommended practice for inexperienced non-"Yah"s, since the enormous duration required to make any sense of what is being said may cause the 'ordinary person' to be late for a pressing appointment, and instill a desire to inflict violence upon the orator, which could have unwanted legal consequences if acted upon.), and unbelievably large crowds of locals doing their shopping - no matter what time of day, or even day of the week, it happens to be. (This last phenomenon has been the subject of exhaustive study, over many years, by the university's highly-rated economics department. The only firm conclusion they could arrive at, however, is that you shouldn't go to "Betty's" for a cream tea, since it's a) permanently packed full of tourists who'll jostle your cake-rack and spill your tea, b) over-priced and not actually very good, and c) impossible, in fact, to study what the shoppers are up to while you're stuck in a tea-shop, slowly clotting your arteries and expanding your backside. If you've ever wondered what economists are actually for, well, now you know.)

If you are historically-minded, then York is fabulous. It's probably the finest weekend-break destination in Britain, to be honest. Loads of Roman, Saxon, Norse, Norman, and Mediaeval archaeology/buildings/stuff all piled-up inside 800-year-old city walls you can walk round easily in an afternoon (including stopping to see where they used to stick traitors' heads on spikes). Alternatively, if you're into steam trains, (or have small children, so can pretend you aren't while dragging them round the place), there's the National Railway Museum, although I'm reliably informed that it's low-budget-copy of the London Eye isn't worth the trouble.

And if it's musical instruments you're after, might I recommend MOR Music (although their website seems to be "down for maintenance") on Fossgate, for it is now time to reveal momentous thing no.2. On Rich's advice, I stepped inside for a brief perusal, and lo! (forget "Hitch-Hiker's", it's "bible epic" time now) Mine eyes did alight upon a guitar combo amplifier of exceeding fineness and rarity, which did bear the legendary name of "Marshall", designated "Artist", which is known unto the faithful by its number, and that number shall be spake unto thee, and it is 4203.

Now, I'd heard a lot about these beasts - made from 1986-1991, solid-state pre-amp, valve output-stage, Celestion G12 Vintage speaker, and that they were pretty much the dog's dangly-bits-which-are-often-snipped-off. So I asked if I could have a play, given that there was no customers in the shop to drive out with my racket. Foolishly, the most-obliging staff agreed to my request, leaving me to cast about for a likely guitar with which to damage their collective senses-of-musical-decorum-and-taste. Eschewing the obvious top-end beasts (which wouldn't properly test the amp), my eyes were drawn to a cheap-but-solid looking Hamer SATFP90 (yours for c.£200 cash). If the Artist could make that sound good, then it had to be a high-quality product.

Twenty minutes later, I was completely stunned, but not just by the Marshall. I couldn't believe how incredibly playable the Hamer was, and how good a job it's "P90"s did of sounding exactly like the four-times-the-price Gibson equivalent. I'd been footling around with some bluesy-jazzy (and quite cheesy) licks to warm up, but when I opened-up the Artist's "dirty" channel, I couldn't resist the urge to indulge in late-60's sub-King Crimson widdling. Twenty minutes later, I'd terrified a trio of young "indie" teenagers, (who had, to be fair to them, unfortunately walked in on a nondescript, fairly scruffy, decidedly-not-"rock"-looking, could-have-been-their-dad guy playing weird, angular rock-jazz mayhem that they were extremely unlikely to have been exposed to before, the poor dears), and was in a state of self-indulgent-muso ecstasy. Eighteen years ago, this town was where I'd played the finest guitar I have ever touched (an orginal '56 Les Paul), and now York had triumphed again. Without a shadow of a doubt, that 30w Marshall Artist was the greatest amp I'd ever plugged into.

Now I know that'll bring howls of protest from the all-valve "purists" out there, but consider, for a moment, a couple of points. Back in the 80's, Marshall were making absolutely brilliant solid state amps (eg. 5005 Marshall Lead 12, etc), so the Artist pre-amp sounds great, and the valves are where they're needed most, providing lots of lovely output "warmth". This makes it ideal, might I suggest, for improving the horrible sounds made by all those fizzy, identikit Line6/Pod addicts, or indeed, any digital multi-effects you might choose to shove in front of it. It's aesthetically-pleasingly, unassuming-yet-characterful, doesn't weigh a ton or take up much space, but has sufficient power and flexibility (unlike some 'boutique', c.5w, 'hand-wired' - they'll be calling them 'organic' next - over-priced, single-channel studio-wonder-amps I could mention) for a decent-sized pub gig, (I wouldn't have wanted to sit next to it with the master volume at '4' ), while still being able to give you creamy distorted tones at 'bedroom' levels. Try doing that with a 4x12 half-stack...

And the best thing of all - this particular example could be yours for only £360 (in their current sale). Which is less than they usually go for on Ebay (or even the Yorkshire version, "Ee-bay-gum"...sorry). Oh, price and availability accurate at time of writing, I hasten to add - and since their website isn't functional, MOR's phone number is: (UK) 01904 646 901, in case anyone was interested in buying the thing. If I'd had the money - or even thought I could have scraped together something approaching the money - then it definitely wouldn't still be for sale.

Which leaves us with an obvious question. Why, when their 1980's solid state combos were excellent, and the "Artist" was a thing of joy and wonder, are their current "MG" and 'Valvestate' (be they 'advanced' or not) offerings so bloody awful in comparison? Where did it all go wrong? Is it simply costs vs. build quality, or have they actually lost their original circuit diagrams down the back of the sofa? Are they cynically cashing-in on their brand name by banging-out cheap, low-grade boxes, knowing that kids who know no better will buy any old pish with a Marshall logo on it? Or have they been enslaved by an evil wizard who is determined that there shall be no re-issues of any amplifier that may be deemed in any way valve-less?

I looked in their website FAQ, but it wasn't terribly forthcoming, so one day, when I'm feeling brave (they might not appreciate the question, and send some of their larger stack-moving guys round to 'educate' me), and I've done all the child-rearing-related duties, I might just ask them.

p.s. Over the years we've all, I expect, seen news reports about some daft prisoners absconding during weekend home visits, despite their only having a short time left to serve on their sentences? "Eejits", I used to think. "How bloody stupid can you get, to jeopardise your release by running off with only a couple of months' jail time to go?". Tell you what though, after those two days away, I feel a lot more understanding towards them. I'd gone for a wee walk in Edinburgh before the train home to Dunfermline was due, and I'll admit I half-begrudged every step that lead me back to Waverley station, in spite of the comfortable, internet-access and chocolate-containing flat I was ultimately bound for. "Personal Freedom", eh? As apparently simple concepts go, it's a bit of a tricky bugger, that one...