Musician and Songwriter
. . . but first, a few words of wisdom from a very wise man:
"I was on the beach sunbathing and suddenly a poem popped into my head. It started out 'I am the proprietor of the Penguin Café, I will tell you things at random' and it went on about how the quality of randomness, spontaneity, surprise, unexpectedness and irrationality in our lives is a very precious thing. And if you suppress that to have a nice orderly life, you kill off what's most important." Simon Jeffes 1949-1997.
August, 2017. New album soon to be released by German lebel MIG. Mixed, mastered and ready to go so time for a bit of relaxation in the summer sun. Haven't painted anything for years so thought I'd hit amazon for some brushes, watercolours and paper and give it a go. A peaceful pastime, good for the soul and a chance to charge the batteries before I head south on the album promo trail to tell the world about my new record. Yep, yet another game on!
July, 2017. "Once upon a time in Winterland . . ."
A total blast from the distant past as an SBQ live show recording comes to light. Just heard from Willie that he's found a tape from way back in 1977 when we played the legendary 'Winterland' Ballroom, San Francisco. The recording is being mastered and hopefully we'll find a way of making it available to those who might have an interest in what the band was about back then. It's a decent enough recording, straight onto two track tape so we can't remix it or anything fancy like that, but that's OK, it is what it is, a souvenir of how a four piece rock n' roll band did its thing, once upon a time, in a land far away.
February, 2016. New album out and about and off on a quick round of press and radio stations. Down to Glasgow on the 17th for a recorded interview with Tom Russell for Rocksport Radio and then a live on-air chat with Iain Anderson at BBC Radio Scotland. A couple of nights at The Village Hotel, nice place and handy for the BBC and a quick look around the Science Museum. Spoke to the guys from the Daily Record about the album and a few pics on the banks of the Clyde. Then off down to merry old England, catch up with the folks and a few pals and a chat on Sunday night at Moorlands Radio. All good and a good cure for the winter blues.
July 2015. Wow! We just jumped forward a whole year. It's a while since I wrote on here, so here's a quick update on what's been going on in the last twelve months. I'm now settled in a new abode in the village of Gardenstown, known to all as Gamrie, after the local parish, a wee fishing village on the Moray Firth coast. I spent many happy days here as a child and on holidays in later life with my own young family. My grandmother originated from here and Iain and I used to come and visit a lot as kids to stay with aunts and uncles and enjoy the freedom of this beautiful part of Scotland. Don't know quite how it happened but it seems the wheel has turned full circle and I'm back to where it all started. We owe a lot to this place and our strong family ties with the sea as an inspiration for many of our songs. No need for titles, I'm sure you know what I mean. Getting up to date with the music I'm involved in, I've just finished a spell of working with my brother on his new solo album, his first for a long time. He recorded most of it at home but came up here to finish things off at Arc studio, near Mintlaw, the place I've been been working at for many years. A great place in a quiet peaceful setting, just the job for creating music and making records. I'm busy right now on my own new album, still sketching out ideas on my home recording gear but it's shaping up nicely and I've got plenty of new tunes to pick from. I tried a few out with my old pals, The Vice Bishops, when I went south for a few weeks recently to do a show with them at their Doveridge residency on the Staffordshire, Derbyshire border. Great players and a finer bunch of chaps you couldn't wish to meet. I also got up for a couple of tunes with my old mates 'The Barflys' at their gig at The Rigger in Stoke, while I was out on the town with some chums. Good to see the guys after many years time. Anything else? Oh, yeah, I've joined a local pub quiz team. We specialize in coming second, but I'm sure our day will come! Cheers.
July 2014: Another good-time trip to merry England. Leek Show with the unplugged Bishops as guests of Moorlands Radio, a quick Radio Stoke chat and a couple of tunes with Fred and Pod (Fred on harmonica for this one) and then another great night at Doveridge Club with the plugged-in Vice Bishops.
June 2014: Back home after a great trip south to see the folks, friends and play a bit of rock n' roll. A couple of rehearsals, a couple of radio shows and a gig at Leek Arts Festival. All good, and then a few days chilling out in a quiet little country hotel in the Peaks near Buxton. Feeling quite positive right now.
September, 2013: Been pretty hectic since we released the Tango album into the wild back in May. Radio and press chat, and three gigs, with three different bands. Hard work but really enjoyed playing my songs with what ever approach suited the line up. Good for body and soul. Three different gigs, all totally enjoyable in very different ways. The local art centre, laid back yet cooking, with lots of friends there. A gig on the wild side at The lost Café, with lots of music and good vibrations. And the third, at Doveridge, a total blast with lots of lovely musicians and some of my life-long friends. There was a warm buzz around all three gigs and, for me, it was just great to be there. Yeah, a total blast. Thanks guys!
June, 2013: Nice chat with Matt White on Radio Stoke, Monday afternoon, and the solo, acoustic rendition of 'Nobody Does It Like You' seemed to work out fine. Big thanks to my dear friend and confidante Gail Woods for doing the chauffeuse bit and making sure I got to the right place at the right time. Using a classic vintage Type A BBC microphone for the link up from BBC Aberdeen was the icing on the cake. I want one! Mentioned the gig I'm doing with some good old pals near Stoke-on-Trent in September and it sold out in no time at all. Awesome! Really looking forward to that one. A chance to rock n' roll with friends on Friday 13th was an offer I just couldn't refuse.
May Day News! I haven't written up any random notes for ages coz I've been so busy. Album just about ready for the pressing plant. Art work sorted with arty Dave and sleeve notes ready to go as soon as I've settled on the final running order. Oh, and I'm doing a gig at Macduff Arts Centre on 25th May for the Coast Festival (a weekend arts festival on the North East coast) with my pals Chris Sutton (guitar) Mikey Bruce (bass) Billy Rankin (percussion) and a wee touch of sax from Alastair Thomson. And I got a new suit. It's all go!
Hey, it's 2013! Lots of music pouring out of my head just now and listening to loads of stuff on Spotify. Tim Renwick and Willie Wilson both on a new song of mine destined for a new album. Playing lots of guitar and enjoying the fun of The Random Radio Show. Happy New Year everybody, everywhere. Love and peace.
ACHTUNG! Random Radio Show Alert! On 22nd November, at 8 p.m. GMT, my first ever radio show will be networked and streamed online from Deveron FM's HQ in Banff, Scotland. I'll be playing some of the hottest music on record, stuff that means a lot to me and I hope will mean something to you. Really looking forward to it, and already working on plans for 'The Random Radio Christmas Special.'
News, Oct 25th: Music, music, music! The album plot thickens as we put some horns on a couple of tracks. We've even got a tuba in the line up, for the first time ever on one of my tunes. The Swarbrick project is almost complete and will soon be publicly unveiled.
News, Oct 12th: Wonderful weekend in the Highlands. Loads of great music and lots of lovely people to hang with. Now time to get back into some work on my new LP. Got about eight tracks in various states of finishedness and a few rough sketches to mess around with. Got big bruv to do some backing vocals with me on a song, first time for a long time. Great to see him on the other side a big Neumann after all these years!
News, Sept 28th: Heading Way Out West! Tickets sorted, room booked, name in the hat for the grand prize draw. Looking way forward to hearing some cool chops n' hot licks over in Ullapool. Some killer players out there next week! "The Ullapool Guitar Festival" October 5th, 6th and 7th, 2012.
News, Sept 16th: GIG ALERT! Sailing uncharted waters as I improvised a few background guitar grooves while John Mackie recited his poems. The first at the launch of his new book, 'Pearl Diving By Moonlight', at Books n' Beans in Aberdeen, and another on Friday 14th at The Lost Cafe near New Pitsligo. Really enjoyed working with John. Love what he does and the way he does it. A lot of folk turned up and not enough room in the Cafe, so the show was moved next door to the Last Bus Depot, a truly magical place with a genuine sense of wonder. Big thanks to DJ Gail Woods for the photo.
Work continues on the Swarbrick project with Duncan Wood and Martin MacDonald has now joined the crew.
Aug 19th: "PLANK MAKES INTERNET DEBUT! READ ALL ABOUT IT!"
Aug 2nd: The Driftwood Plank project is up and running. Building a lap steel guitar with bits and pieces from a couple of old junk guitars. Phase 1, completed. Driftwood selected from Crovie shore, marked up and sawn to spec (cheers Allen the sawyer). Hardware identified and put in place ready for phase 2 mark-up and installation. The plot thickens.
July 9th: Working on some new stuff with my old pals Rachael Brown and Jimmy "The Postman" Hunter. Sounding good. Been looking for "the sound" for a long, long time. Will we ever find it? I don't know, but I think we're getting pretty close.
June 21st: Pulled a tendon in my left thumb. Lost my grip. Can't play my guitar. Not good. When I asked the Doc for advice he told me to get an accordion.
Everybody's a comedian these days.
June 17th: Finished production work on Eva's song today, with some mandolin and a neat litte string thing from Duncan Wood, The Banffshire Bowman.
June 4th: As the rest of the UK basks in Jubilee euphoria I'm working on a tune with Canadian songwriter Eva Tree. The Global Village Project is rolling along nicely.
May 8th: Just did an interview with the local evening paper for their "an evening with" series. Q: What do you do in the evenings? A: Nothing. Q: What are you doing this weekend? A: Nothing. Q: Do you have any hobbies or interests? A: No.
May 4th, 2012. New music on its way from Nancy K. D. and me. A bit of wabi-sabi from the Stompers, with Hitchcock appearances from Dave Swarbrick and Cathal McConnell, and now Steve Ransome, an old ivory tickling chum, has up and joined the crew with back-up vocals from Luiza Staniec and the McAndrews Sisters - Gail Goulding and Kate James. Having a good time making this record.
Strange but true. So, I'm working on a tune right now that I thought would sound good with a bit of accordion. Had a surf around for info and stumbled on an old chord organ, a "Shel Tone 226" Suitcase Organ, that works with a fan that blows air through reeds and sounds just like an accordion. Don't know why, but I decided I'd go and check the local charity shop and see if they might have something of that nature. I like to pop into "BEAT" from time to time. There's always something interesting to check out and they're a lovely bunch of folks, doing a lot of good things for a lot of good reasons. Anyway, it was a ridiculously long shot, but guess what! There it was, on the floor by the door, a "Shel Tone 226"! Ridiculous. Gave the lads 20 quid and I'm now back home with a vintage, fan driven organ. Full working order, as in tune as a reed organ can be and sounding wikid! How cool is that? Over the moon!
It's the end of February and the night sky is producing some incredible stuff. Venus and Jupiter are shining so bright and the crescent moon looks wonderful. Ross, my astronomer pal, keeps me right about what's going on out there.
Just rescued (with a little help from my friends) a couple of guitars from the recycle depot crusher. Last week, a 3/4 scale "Hannah Montana" and, a couple of days ago, a 1/2 scale "Burswood", one of those with the built-in, battery driven mimi-amp. The mighty HM has already featured on a new tune, the action was dodgy so I set it up for slide and bottleneck. Sounds great. The little fella works fine too. Great fun fixing up these thrown away instruments and putting them to some use. Could be my new hobby? Or maybe the start of a novelty guitar project?
A facebook friend in New York just pointed out to me that the Suth's first album was released in January 1972, forty years ago this month!
Hard to believe it was all those years ago. According to google that's a "Ruby", so, by way of tradition, let's celebrate with a big curry!
My latest adventure, with hot studio combo, 'The Deveron Delta Stompers' , is now up and running. Our first cut, 'Tweet n' Twitter' (a livley little number, with an irresistible back-beat) is very nearly done, just got to fine tune the mix when Jim's got a min.
I met Jean in the lane this morning and she reckons we're going to have an Indian Summer. I trust her with this sort of thing (she used to be a nurse) so I'm celebrating right now with a Bombay Bad Boy. Wow, that's bad!
Sorry to report I just heard that my old mate Mozzer the Mixer is no longer with us.
Rest in peace old boy, and thanks for the good times.
Intelligence from The Americas . . .
A pal just got back from a trip to the US with exceptional news. He was in the lobby of his Memphis hotel when an elevator door opened and out came a little old man in a wheelchair. Who was it? Only Richard Penniman, yes, the one and only Little Richard! Awesome! They spoke briefly of many things, including, of course, rock n' roll, before the world's hottest rocker rolled off into the sunset. A-wop-bop-aloo-bop, a-lap-bam-boom! And, as if that wasn't enough, the Mackay of that ilk made my day with a gift of a bottle of "Bayou Fireball", a delicious Cajun hot-pepper sauce all the way from New Orleans. Result? Yes, I think so!
ACHTUNG! NEW RECORD ALERT.
Investigating zoot suits and two-tone shoes in Cairo, the nocturnal jazz scene in Andorra la Vella, and how many people out there have trouble on their mind.
A bunch of new tunes soon to be rolled out across the universe in celebration of my life and times in the music bizz (mp3 links to a couple on the home page).
Tales of the Riverbank . . . .
Spent the last couple of days tramping the banks of the Deveron and the Ugie, chilling out, enjoying the autumn sunshine and taking photos. Big Steve will be using some of them in the vid he's doing for a country blues tune of mine called 'Down To The River.' He's also just done a cool little youtuber for 'Strange' (his favourite track) from The Deal album. What a splendid chap he is.
Left: A still from Steve's 'Strange' video. No prizes for guessing which bit of the tune this is from.
October, 2011 So, yet another year in the life is coming to a close, a year, of course, being the unit of time representing one complete orbit of the Earth around the Sun, i.e. 365.25 days. According to the clever people, we travel nearly 150,000,000 mind broadening miles between each birthday, at a staggering 67,000 miles per hour.
News: I put the Dano through its paces in the studio for the first time today. Result? Well, I can assure you, dear reader, that it exceeded all expectation. Wikid!
It's Friday night and the Master of Mount Pleasant is making the most of 'home alone' with a Global Village themed dinner featuring oriental spices, south sea fruits and local, organically grown vegetables, all washed down with a cheeky little merlot, all the way from New Zealand.
Could things get any cooler? Yes! Tonight's entertainment comes courtesy of Bechet, Grappelli, and the inimitable Django. Vive le jazz français, est bon appetit!
News: Just got myself a Danelectro De Dano Pro, first guitar I've bought for more than twenty years, and the very first thing I've ever paid for using those newfangled Euros. Really comfy action and the single-coil 'lipstick' pickups have a lively, vintage quality about them. Verdict: A totally playable 'Five Star' item.
When I read somewhere that the tops and backs of these guitars are made from 'masonite' I thought it was a type of resin or maybe some kind of metal compound, till I googled it and found out it's a trade name for hardboard! Whatever it is, it works!
Just picked up a fiendish little USB powered gadget called an iMic. With the help of a quarter inch jack to mini jack converter I can now plug a microphone or guitar straight into my lap top and record those ideas, quick n' easy, before they slip away. Just the job if, like me, the memory can let you down sometimes. Nothing worse than getting something good going in your head but by the time you've sorted out your recording gear the bright idea's faded into something ordinaire. Tons of fun for under twenty quid!
The iMic USB microphone and instrument plug in thing. A really handy bit of kit.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.
Episode One: Trial by Television . . .
My first pro band was "A New Generation", a four piece outfit based in and around Stoke-on-Trent. Before I joined them they were called The Mysteries, a school band who played the local village hall dances, weddings and all that. Great little band, playing tunes like, Walkin' the Dog, Hi Heeled Sneakers, Fortune Teller, Johnny B. Goode and all the other beat group classics of that time. Everybody was doing the same stuff in those days. I'd first heard those tunes played live during a holiday on the Isle of Man when Iain and I had the good fortune to witness a beat group competition on a warm summer's night in 1964. There were about half a dozen groups there, a couple were local and the rest were from Liverpool. The next night we went to see 'A Hard Day's Night' at the pictures in Douglas, and that was it. When the lads struck that big chord at the beginning of the title tune the place erupted, and that was it. I got 'the call' and from that moment on I knew I had no choice, I just had to be in a band.
A year or so later a careers bloke came to the school and asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I was going to be a professional musician. "Oh, right," he said, "Are you in the school orchestra?" "No" I said. "Oh, right, are you in the school choir?" "No" I said again. When I told him I played guitar he laughed and told me I would "grow out of it." Well here I am, forty odd years later, and still waiting to grow out of it.
Anyway, the bass player, Pete MacLennon, left New Gen soon after they turned pro and, because I knew all their tunes and they couldn't be bothered teaching all that stuff to a new bloke, they gave me the job. I left school one Friday afternoon in February, 1967 and was on Granada TV the following weekend. The tea-time TV slot was called "First Timers" and for me it was just that. Yes, perhaps I was a little nervous.
OK, we're diving straight into the music here . . .
So, what notes did George 'prang' at the start of 'A Hard Day's Night'? I was lucky to be shown how it all worked, before I'd even thought about it, by Chris Kemp, the only guy I ever met with perfect pitch. To quote from 'Baby You're a Rich Man' he was indeed one of the beautiful people, but in his case, tuned to a natural C, happy to be that way. You could get him to sing a 'G' or whatever note you like, out of the blue, with no reference at all, and if you checked it with a piano it would be bang on, not close, bang on. Loads of us can get close, and sometimes get lucky, but that perfect every time thing he can do is just weird! He played the big pipe organ at Sunday Service in the village church, and the best Chuck Berry chops this side of Memphis.
Try it. It's a thumb, first and third finger thing: Prang! . . 'It's been a . . .
So, what's this 'Mixing Behind the Wheel' thing all about?
Only the coolest thing to happen in the record biz since George Martin signed the Beatles! (OK, a ridiculous exaggeration, but hey, this is show-business). Laptop into car audio and away you go. Park down at the shore and fine tune your mix as the sun goes down and the waves roll in. This just has to be the way forward. Driving around with Jimmy The Mixer - maybe a wee bit less bass guitar, a bit more piano, a touch less reverb on the vocal. Hey, I'm really lovin' this!
"I hear horns . . . "
The new love in my life, the alto saxophone. Invented by the clearly insane Belgian clarinetist, Adolfe Sax, way back in the 1840s, the sax has always fascinated me. It started with a record my Dad had when I was a kid, a tune called Deep Purple by an American jazz tenor player called Earl Bostik. Brilliant. I want to thank my pal Fergus for helping me find a new area of music to investigate and generally over-indulge in. Not sure I'll ever make Ronnie Scott's but a few souled-up bop bops and bap baps will do just fine for now. I remember reading somewhere that James Brown (the king o' them all, y'all) told his horn players to make damn sure they all came down hard and heavy on the first beat of the bar. One, two, three, four, BANG! Oh yeah!! I'll certainly try to keep that in mind Mr Brown.
Just found an old set list that reminded me of this . . .
So, it was back in the mid 80s and I was looking for something to do. A pal of mine, Dave McGarry, was playing piano with a band or two in Stoke and we were talking about putting something together for fun on a "let's see what happens" basis. He knew Bill Middleton, a truly great bass player, and I wanted to bring in Tim Franks, a totally brilliant blues / swing drummer from Manchester who I'd heard a few times in a local club. We got together, with Tim's pal Lenni on sax, for a few days, just playing and having a good time, before we did a couple of gigs at the Bridge Street Arts Centre. After that we did a one off at the local Uni and then just disappeared. I was always blown away by the amount of music that flew around the room when we played together. Yes, we made a truly great noise when we hit some of those all-important moments. No records, no tapes, no nothing to help us remember that band. Maybe that's how it was s'posed to be.
. . . and what about the Red Sierras!
The more I got to know Terry, the more I realised he was me, but with a piano, a quality range of shirts, and a slightly more stable frame of mind.
I first heard him playing in a pub in Stoke-on-Trent in the early eighties. He obviously knew what he was doing. We had a chat and decided to do a couple of gigs together. So, we named the band after Terry's car and, with a new sound in mind, headed off to Derby where we'd been told there was a shop where we could get one of those little Indian harmoniums. (Apparently, the originals were made in England for travelling missionaries). Deep in conversation about his adventures as a teenage fairground hustler, we parked in the middle of town, miles from the shop. As we walked we talked of boogie and blues piano players like Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, and guys like Ry Cooder, Van Morrison, Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams - the lads. We eventually found the place and Terry treated the big Sikh and his little pal to some mini-harmonium boogie woogie. We had a good time. The shop guys loved it, in fact they loved it so much they knocked twenty quid off the deal.
Terry's a red-hot piano player with a fearsome left hand. Not only that, but he's a master of the in-car anecdote. I remember when we were on our way to a session down in Dog Kennel Wood he casually mentioned that his grandad was a 'rough-rider' with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. How cool is that! When he's not tending his vegetables down in the woods, you'll find him tickling the ivorys at one of the famous Living Room clubs in Birmingham, Manchester or Liverpool.
Witness the genius that is Terry Butters.
A pal was looking for memories of the Crystal Ballroom in Newcastle-Under-Lyme back in the 1960s, so I sent him this:
I played the Crystal quite a lot with "A New Generation" (I know, crap name). The first time we played there we set up our little Vox p.a. columns on chairs either side of the revolving stage, but, unfortunately, we hadn't thought it through properly. When the resident big band finished we started to play as the stage started to slowly roll around. I'd got my head down, trying to look cool and moody, when I heard a cry of "Shit!" come from behind the drums. I looked up to see the p.a. leads stretching ever tighter as they got tangled up in all the crap at the side of the stage and stood helpless as moments later, one by one, our precious Vox columns crashed to the floor. An absolute balls up, and it was now quite impossible to look cool, even though I was wearing my granny's fur coat with the sleeves ripped off! What a bloody mess. It was our first big break in the city and the crowd were pissing themselves before we even got started.
My rock n' roll career was up and running!
"Yeah, the joint was rockin', goin round n' round . . ."
Just for the record, another quick revolving stage story, this time at a theatre (can't remember exactly where) in the USA, with the Suths and Quiver. This stage actually revolved continuously while you played! The weirdest thing you could imagine, but the local punters seemed to be accustomed to it. The big, round room would have looked like a giant dart board from above, with the stage in the middle and a number of aisles running from the centre outwards between the blocks of seats, with one of them leading to the dressing room. (Just realised this is not that easy to explain!) Anyroad, we went on, rocked for an hour or so, went down well and walked off the stage - all very rock show, you know, hot and sweaty, towels round necks and all that, waving and giving peace signs to the crowd, usual stuff - and made our way up what we thought was the aisle back to the dressing room. Oh no! When we reached the end of the aisle we hit a solid wall! What we hadn't realised was that the stage had stopped in a different place to where it had started and we were, basically, lost! It was pretty humiliating having to walk back down through all the punters after such a dramatic exit. We were wondering around for bloody ages before we eventually found a way out! The punters, of course, found it all highly amusing. They'd obviously seen it all before - probably the highlight of the night for some of the regulars!
"Ska'd for life . . . ."
I was wading through the crap in my junk room the other night when I stumbled across a box of old vinyl. There were a few vintage gems in there, The Byrds "5D", Procol's "Salty Dog", The Band's "Cahoots," yes, hot stuff, but the one that took my eye and instantly fired me back to the early 70s, was a ska beat record on the Island / Trojan label. The story goes like this: The Sutherland Brothers Band were working in Island's Studio One in Basing Street one night while downstairs, in Studio Two, Chris Blackwell was putting the finishing touches to Toots and The Maytals' "Funky Kingston." Sue Glover and Sunny Leslie were on the case, the sensational singing sisters who had oo'd and ah'd their way into the charts on so many occasions, like when Lulu stormed the Euro-Pop scene with the unforgettable "Boom Bang-a-Bang" and Joe Cocker shook the world with his masterful rendition of that old Billy Shears favourite. Powerful stuff! Anyway, sometime mid-evening, one of the studio guys came in with a message for Iain and I. "Chris was wondering if you could come down and sing some back ups with Sue and Sunny? It won't take long, just a couple of lines." We of course said yes. A) Sue and Sunny were brilliant and the thought of singing with them on a big Toots record was pretty cool, and B) Chris owned the label. So, off we went downstairs, a quick run through then Sue explained how it was going to work. "When I put my hand up, we sing. When I put my hand down, we stop. OK?" "OK!" Hearing those two at close range was stunning. Singing with them was just awesome. The only time I'd seen Sue and Sunny before was on the tele, singing with Joe Cocker. This was a massive moment for me. A one mike, one take job (no messing around in those days) and it sounded just great.
All together now, "Na, Na Naaaaaaa . . . Funky Kingston-a!"
P.S. Just listened to 'Making Tracks' on Radio 4, about Island's Basing Street Studios back in the early 70s. Hearing Chris Blackwell and Tony Platt chatting about stuff reminded me of just how much I loved that place and the people whose company I shared at that time. Great days.
"Blasts from the past . . ."
A couple of days ago, as I sat in the garden contemplating "The Strange Story of Joe Meek," my thoughts drifted back to 1967 and a little house in Newcastle-under-Lyme. A guy called Mick McDonald lived there, the proud owner of a "Reflectograph" tape recorder, just like the one in the picture. It was in that house with my brother, drummer John Wright and keyboard player Chris Kemp that I was introduced to the wonderful world of recording. I'd messed about with my dad's tape recorder, a little "Elizabethan Band Box," but this was different, the mighty Reflectograph was at our disposal, a serious piece of kit! The band took over the whole house, Joe Meek style, with cables running everywhere. John was in the little front room, Iain was in the hallway and Chris in the living room. My bass amp was in the kitchen and I sat halfway up the stairs with Mick on the landing above me with the machine on a table outside his sister's bedroom. (June did her nut when she came home from work and saw what was going on). The same thing was happening in little houses all over the country at that time. It was either Abbey Road, or your mate's house. There was nothing worth talking about ouside London. I've no idea what it must have sounded like but hey, who cares, we were recording our music and having a ball!
The little "Band Box," by the way, accidently became my very first guitar amp when, at the age of ten or eleven, I discovered that if I put the machine into record with the volume right up I could use it to amplify my voice. Clearly, the next logical step was to sellotape the little plastic microphone onto my acoustic guitar. Hey presto, and there it was, the worst guitar sound you've ever heard!
"Tin Pan Alley . . ."
When I joined A New Generation, they were scraping a living out of playing the ballrooms and clubs around the north west, courtesy of a certain William Leyland, a failed entrepreneur, small-time agent and bullshitter extraordinaire. He was insane. He ran his imaginary show-bizz empire from a smelly little dive in Aspull called the "The Pink Elephant," a place he always described to people who hadn't seen it, as one of the north's hottest night spots. We played there a few times, usually when we were doing a double at The Nevada Ballroom in Bolton or what was soon to become the Mecca of Northern Soul, the notorious Wigan Casino. Much as we liked soul music we certainly weren't a soul band and we didn't go down that well with the hardcore soul fans who travelled from all over the north of England, on their super pimped Vespas and Lambrettas, for the infamous weekend sessions. We'd do our set and then hand over to "DJ Dave The Rave" for his late night Tamla party. I can still see those "Mod birds" now, short hair and baggie trousers, dancing in little circles around their handbags as the mirror-ball high above them sent beams of light spinning round the room. I used to sit up in the balcony, totally fascinated by it all. I was sixteen years old and fresh out of school, and while all this was going on my pals would have been hard at it, trying to make sense of calculus and all the other stuff I'd just suddenly left behind. From the balcony in the Wigan Casino that all seemed so far away. My life had changed so drastically in such a short time, it was like I'd fallen asleep and woken up on another planet. Not long after that, people started calling the weekend dances at Wigan Casino "Northern Soul Sessions." The rest is history.
Anyway, back to the plot. It was Leyland who got us our first record deal when we signed with Spark, a little record company owned by Southern Music Publishing in Denmark Street, London's one and only "Tin Pan Alley." Yes, things were starting to get serious.
It was a pretty formal set up with writers working more or less nine to five in little rooms around the building. John Carter and Ken Lewis were the main men at the time, the famous writng duo responcible for a whole bunch of pop hits using names like The Ivy League and The Flowerpot Men. Being able to work in Southern's recording studio was a blast, even if it was a pokey little room in the basement of their London HQ. Getting Chris's Hammond up and down those stairs was a bloody nightmare! The control room was not much bigger than a cupboard and there was no window through to the main room but that didn't matter. It was all about the big, magic machine in the corner, the Ampex 440 four track recorder.
Awesome! The dream of multi-track recording was now a reality. Record the instruments and put the vocals on after? Wow, whatever next! Paul Holland was the engineer there and Barry Kingston was the in-house producer. It was during a basement session that we were introduced to Wayne Bardell, one of Southern's "pluggers." Their job was to take new releases to the BBC and try to schmooze up some interest, get some air play or maybe even a TV spot. A year or so later, Wayne left Southern to work for the Beatles at Apple. We didn't know it then, but he was eventually going to manage The Sutherland Brothers and help us get a deal with Island Records. I still keep in touch with Wayne. One of life's good guys.
"Do Ye Ken John Peel?"
During our time with Spark we recorded quite a few sessions for the BBC at their massive studio complex in Maida Vale. The Musicians' Union had laid down some pretty strict rules about how much time during a show could be allotted to playing records, what they called "needle time," and the gaps had to be filled with music especially recorded for the show. That worked out really well for new bands like us, all mad keen to "get on the wireless". The John Peel Show was a personal favourite. Peelie was the coolest guy on the radio, and he had us on his show quite a few times. Cool! We never met John at the time but a couple of years later, when Iain and I first moved down to London, we enjoyed the pleasure of his company when he, quite unexpectedly, gave us a lift up the M1. We went home to Stoke from time to time to see the folks and getting around by hitch-hiking was quite acceptable in those days, especially if you were a skint musician. We were at Hendon Junction, arms out and thumbs in the air, waiting hopefully for someone with a heart to help us on our way up the road, when a brand new Land Rover pulled over and we jumped in. No Way! It was John Peel! Unbelievable! We spoke music and football for a couple of hours before we shook hands and parted company. Iain and I agreed, a strong contender for "Lift of the Month," maybe even "Lift of the Year." I never saw John again, but he did continue to play our music now and again. Great bloke. Rest in peace John, and thanks again for the lift.
The "Beeb", of course, paid a fee to musicians who played on their sessions, but we didn't know that. Our beloved management had told us that the prestige and promotion we got from being on the radio was more than enough reward. When we eventually found out that someone had opened a bank account in the band's name and was "collecting the fees on our behalf" we realised that this particular little party was over. It was time to move on.
". . . erf, erf, no erf, erf."
Just before we parted company with Southern Music, they treated us (an advance on our royalties, of course) to a brand new Ford Transit van and a whole bunch of stuff from Charlie Watkins' latest range of WEM gear. I remember driving down from Stoke to his factory in Lambeth to pick out what we wanted. OK, it's a cliche, but yes, it did feel like all our Christmas's and birthdays had come at once! Couldn't believe it when we walked into the office and there sat the man himself! Charlie Watkins! The genius who had designed and built our first proper amp, a Watkins Dominator, and my first, decent guitar, a cool, white "Rapier 44". I was speechless.
Charlie took us down to the factory floor to show us his new baby, the massive reflex bass cabinet. Oh yes, we'll have one of them Charlie! I still couldn't really believe it, Charlie Watkins, the legend, was talking to me about something he'd just invented. Unreal. We went on to order a couple of guitar amps and, what was then, a seriously powerful P.A. system. We followed him back up to the office where he began to explain how we should hook up the 100 watt "Master" P.A. amp to the three 100 watt "Slave" amps. This was all very new to us, but the concept was amazing. If you wanted to upgrade you could just buy another slave amp and a couple more columns. Brilliant! "You'll 'ave to be careful," he said with a voice that could only have come from south London, "which amps you erf, and which amps you don't erf!" "Lets see now," he said as he turned to a roughly sketched plan on his desk, "You could 'ave erf, erf, no erf, erf. Or, erf, no erf, erf, erf. Or, if you like, you could 'ave, erf, no erf, no erf, erf. No, 'ang on . . . . . ." Thinking about Charlie's "erf, no erf" permutations still brings a smile to my face. Bless him! Where would we all have been without Charlie and his mates?
Here's an interesting interview with Charlie Watkins, a must for the gear-geeks.
"So we followed the Yellow Brick Road . . . . ."
Just finished off a top of the range Chinese take-away from the one in Turriff. A ten mile drive but it's worth it. They know what they're doing down there. Now let's see what's on the tele. Switched on at random and there was a show about classic rock albums. This week's feature was Elton's Yellow Brick Road. A few minutes in and there's some footage of the Hollywood Bowl and Elton in a white feather number making his way down a white staircase, a la Shirley Bassey. Wow, I thought, hang on, I was there that night. That was when all those pigeons got stuck in the cardboard pianos! Yeah, we opened the show that night, part of the "grand tour" of North America we did with Elton and the gang in 1973. As I often do, I was quietly strumming on my guitar as I watched the tv. Strange thing was I was playing my Telecaster, the guitar I bought for 150 bucks at a music store on Sunset Boulevard on September 7th, 1973, the very day of the show I was watching, the show where I played that guitar for the very first time. Amazing!
The only downer that day was I had to trade in my much loved Fender Jaguar as part of the deal. Having two guitars back in those days was a luxury I couldn't afford.
The story went a little like this. The SBQs were in the studio at Island's Basing Street HQ when the phone rang and somebody wanted a word with our manager, Wayne "The Brain" Bardell. It was John Reid, Elton John's business guru, wanting to know if we could open for Elton on his upcoming tour of the States. Ten weeks of serious coast to coast stadium action with the biggest band around at that time. Wow! It would mean canceling a gig at Cromer Town Hall, but, hey, you have to make sacrifices sometimes if you want to get on in life. None of us had been "over there" before and it was something all young rock n' rollers dreamed about. The American Tour, oh yes! We knew Elton was big in the States but didn't realise just how big. The venues were huge, 50,000 some nights, even more on others. The whole music bizz was just massive and we got a chance to cover the whole of the USA in our first trip out there. Pretty amazing really and something we had a lot to be grateful for.
We went everywhere on that tour, from Madison Square to The Hollywood Bowl and all stops in between. We were having a ball. Miami, St Louis, New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, everywhere we went the tour was the talk of the town and our records were picking up air play on stations here, there and everywhere. It really was amazing. We were even treated to a week in Hawaii. We played a show at the University in Honolulu but our visit to the islands was more of a, much needed, mid tour break for everybody. By the time we got around to doing Seattle up in the north west corner, our single "You Got Me Anyway" was at number six in the local chart. Elton's was a couple of places below us, but we still had to go on first. That's showbizz!
Paulo Hooker Man, Stevie Wonder and The Three Legged Piano . .
We were in St. Louis, opening for Elton John at the St Louis Blues ice hockey stadium when Stevie Wonder turned up at the show. Elton, being a big fan, invited him to do a song or two with him, the first performance Stevie had made after a long time off the road. Stevie was up for it and, with a lone of our Wurlitzer piano, joined Elton near the end of his set to a massive, hysterical welcome from the crowd. He gets led across stage and sits down at the piano and bangs straight into Superstitious, to rapturous applause, when Paulo, one of our star road crew, from the side of the stage, notices one of the piano legs isn't screwed in properly and is starting to work its way loose. Oh shit! So he crawls across the stage and under the piano to hold the leg in place. Stevie, quite oblivious to Paulo's presence, starts to get right into it and starts kicking out time on what he thought was a stage monitor or something but was actually Paulo's back. He must have booted him about a hundred times but Paul, the hero of the moment, hung on in there till the tune was finished. After the show Paul walked into the dressing room, visibly shaken, with the classic line, "Getting a public kicking is pretty horrendous, but if it's from somebody like Stevie Wonder, well, you don't mind so much!"
A Rainy Night In Glasgow . . .
It was October 1st 1976 and the Suths and Quiver were in Glasgow, at the infamous Apollo. "Moon" were opening for us on that tour, great players and a fine bunch of chaps. Anyway, it was bucketing down rain so Bill, the driver, took his bus up the side alley and as close to the stage door as he could. I was the last one off and as I ran towards the stage door it slammed shut. Oh no! Bill had taken the bus away to park it, so there I was, on my own, pitch dark and getting soaked. I hammered on the big stage door till eventually somebody opened it, slightly, and peered out at me. "What d'ya want?" he snapped at me, with a voice that sounded not unlike an uptight Billy Connoly. "I need to get in, mate", I said, "I'm one of the band." "Aye, that'll be right enough pal," he said, "And I'm the Pope. Fuck off!" and with that, the door was slammed shut in my face. I splashed my way down through the puddles in the alley and made my way around to the main door. As I was explaining my dilemma to a security bloke, (who wasn't going to let me in without a ticket or a back stage pass, despite the fact that I bore an uncanny resemblance to one of the guys on the big poster on the wall behind him) one of the road crew luckily appeared and came to the rescue. When I eventually made it to the dressing room the lads were all buzzing on the news that we'd been awarded the much coveted "Apollo Trophy" for selling the place out (an Apollo tradition) and nobody had even noticed I was missing. I remember Willie turning around to me and saying "Where the 'ell have you been? You're soaking wet!"
P.S. We gave the trophy to our tour manager, Pete Smith, who later found his place in rock history as one of the main players in the Harvey Goldsmith Promotions team who put "Live Aid" together. I saw the movie about the build up to the event recently and it was a bit weird watching someone playing the part of one of my old chums. In the film, by the way, we see Big Bob discussing the gig with McCartney, but, just for the record, it was Pete who actually sorted that one out.
P.P.S. Just remembered, the guy who rescued me at the Apollo was George, one of the lights guys. We were lucky, all our road crew were stars in their own right. I'll never forget East End Glen, no longer with us I'm afraid, but an absolute hero. How could anyone forget the guy who, after she'd complained about us playing football in the hall before the gig, told the Lady Mayoress of Cromer to 'Fuck Off!' I can see her now, shaking with anger as her little entourage struggled to hold back the laughs. "I'LL SEE YOU NEVER WORK IN CROMER AGAIN!" she blasted at us as she left the building. And we didn't!
"Notes on Ballroom Musicians . . ."
I found this in Thomas Wilson's "Companion to the Ball Room," a collection of Scottish fiddle tunes published in 1816. It brought a smile to my face so I thought I would share it with you.
"The Author has availed himself of this opportunity of saying something respecting Ball Room Musicians, on the opinion in which they are held, and their general treatment by the public. That they are a useful class of persons will not be doubted; for whatever opinion there has been, there is no dancing without them for the Music must always guide the dancer. From the number of Public Balls and Assemblies at which the author has been present he has good and frequent opportunities of observing the contemptuous manner in which Musicians are in general treated by their Employers and by the Company. They are frequently treated worse than servants and never, or seldom, spoken to, but in an imperious haughty manner, generally addressing them as fiddlers and plying them with liquor in order to make them drunk, being with those persons a common opinion that nothing is so amusing as a drunken fiddler.
That these persons should occasionally drink is no wonder, from the dust arising from the room and great exertions in playing long dances; but more should not be forced on them than is needful.
Another thing that requires remark is that musicians are seldom paid for
their playing without their employers complaining of the high price of
their labour; yet these employers never think that the musicians cannot
find employment for more than five or six months of the year and that generally
in the winter season, when the weather is bad, and their employment being
principally at night, from leaving warm rooms and being exposed afterwards
to the bad effects of night air, and consequently severe colds, together
with want of rest, in a few years their constitutions are destroyed or
ruined and they are rendered totally unfit for business."
"Summertime, and the living is . . ."
. . . not quite as difficult as it was in the winter. Just watched a public vote TV show for "Best Ever Rock Band." Horrified to see the Stones didn't make the top three! The Zep won it, fair enough, then came the mighty Beatles with Queen in third place. Hang on! Queen? OK, they were a good enough band, sold tons of records and all that, but when you think who they beat in the poll it's ridiculous! I guess us Stones and Who fans just don't get involved in this sort of crap.
We've got a pair of seagulls nesting in the back garden. They've been coming here for years but they usually nest on the roof. This is the first time they've built their nest on the ground. Either their faith in mankind is growing or, just like us, the older they get the more stupid they get. Three eggs and two successfully hatched so far.
"Spring is in the air . . ."
Spring is in the air at last as I stretch and yawn my way out of hibernation. The sun is shining, the birds are singing and I feel a song or two coming on. Time to dust down my old cassette recorder sketch book and see if I can make any sense of all the little bits and pieces of tunes and grooves that danced around my brain during those long, dark winter months. The mighty Aiwa CSP-500 has sprung back to life and, cassette door agape, eagerly awaits the insertion of a blank C60, impatiently paused and ready to capture every rusty grunt and groan from its master's voice. Right, let's see. I think I'll do this one in D. Or maybe G? Or, how about C? Hang on, I think I'd better put the kettle on and have a think about this.
"Tis the season to be jolly . . ."
Sleigh-bells are ringing and choirs are singing as we merrily deck our halls and don our gay apparel. Ho, ho, ho, Santa's on his way, and I hope he brings you something very special. I got well lucky this year, and my present came a wee bit early. My grandson Jake was born on Thursday morning. Could I have been given a greater gift? No, I really don't think so! Now, may I take this opportunity to wish you all a really happy holiday and, as my old Brinsley chums used to say, "what's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding?" Let's all hope for loads and loads of it next year! Cheers!!
So there's a knock at the door . . .
The door swings open and in strolls my old friend Duncan "Have Fiddle, Will Travel" Wood with the aforementioned tucked under his arm. And who's this following at a lively pace? It's Cathal McConnell, "The Irish Rover", with a big smile and an even bigger bag of flutes and whistles. So, it's into the kitchen, kettle on, a quick catch-up and then through to the living room for an impromptu trad tune session with a couple of Cathal's originals thrown in for good measure. Great stuff. The boys are on fire! And what's this glass thing Cathal's brought along to show me? It's only the award he picked up a couple of weeks ago for being voted Irish Musician's Musician Of The Year! Nice one man. Brilliant!
He's planning an album with Duncan in the not too distant future and has asked me to produce it. Cool. I'm looking forward to that one.
Intelligence from The Antipodes . . .
Delighted to report that THE DEAL is going down rather well in all corners of the globe. BIG thanks to the kind people who have contacted me to let me know how much they are enjoying the music. May I congratulate you on your excellent taste! A chap in New Zealand told me he played it at his birthday bar-b-q a couple of days ago and it made the perfect compliment to an evening of good food and fine wine. So, if you are planning a bar-b-q or entertaining guests, or perhaps a fun night in on your own, might I suggest you arrange the procurement of a copy without delay! I hear it works equally well with curries, doner kebabs and beer.
So, where's the best place to listen to THE DEAL? Here are a few examples:
Charlie, in Auchterless, listened to it on his posh German headphones while he indulged in a little late-night facebookery.
Nancy listened to it in Seattle as the pine trees swayed and the sun fell into the sea.
Steve listened to it while he roller-skated along Blackpool Prom.
Béné plays it in her office in Paris.
Paul listens to it in his van as he drives home from work in North London.
The Spiv listened to it on an old ghetto-blaster as he set his stall up at Cleethorpes Market.
Mick listened to it down on the Banff shore while he scoffed a fish supper.
Andy played it to all his pals at a bonfire barbecue on Otaki Beach.
Sandra listened to it in the kitchen while she got Eric's tea ready.
Alastair listened to it on an oil rig in the middle of the North Sea.
Dave and Angie drank sangria as they listened to it on a patio somewhere in the south of Spain.
Helen listened to it as she flew over the Indian Ocean.
Jim listened to it as he ate a cheese and pickle sandwich in a pub car park near Ashby de la Zouch.
Clive listened to it as he took his evening constitutional by the Buffalo Bayou.
Frank listens to it on his Discman as he rides around Amsterdam on his Opafiets.
Sneddy listened to it three times, back to back, and back again, as he paced The Gadle Braes.
And Duncan got his kicks on the A96.
That'll do for now, but I'd love to know where YOU listened to it!
The Dark Arts Part III - Songwriting.
March Hare: "Why don't you start at the begining?"
Mad Hatter: "A very good idea. Now let me explain.
1.Maybe you have to be a bit selfish to be an "artist" of any worth at all? You certainly need some self belief, or at least an ability to keep the doubts under wraps, otherwise nothing gets done.
2. Creation? No, I don't think so. It's all there already. Observation is the key. I prefer "interpretation," yeah, that's a more accurate description of the writing process. We all see things differently. We live in tribes, groups and families but in lots of ways we are out on our own. That's what "My World" is about.
3. When you write a lyric don't get too concerned about detail. You don't have to explain everything. Better that it sounds right and scans well. Create an atmosphere, even if the atmosphere is a little uneasy.
4. The rhythm and feel of the song is all important. Imagine life without rhythm. No, that's not possible.
5. Writing a song requires full on thinking. Some of the spirit must roam free while some has to stay on track, you know, focussed, on the case. It's a knack that comes with time, experience, and a few beers.
6. Yes, and make sure that whatever you do is understandable. No point producing stuff people don't understand, no point at all, but don't get hung up about whether or not they "like" what you do. That's another thing. Another thing altogether! The main ingredient is sincerity, that's what really matters!
7. Be honest with yourself. Write from your own experience. Trying to see something from someone else's point of view never works for me. That would be like trying to paint a picture of something you've never seen. If you want to connect with others, share your personal thoughts and emotions with them. That's the best way to find some common ground.
8. Capture the moment, don't let your ideas slip away. Many a good tune has gone down the tubes because it wasn't written down or captured in some way or another.
9. It's a dream, let it roll and gather it's own pace. Treat it with respect, but don't get too precious about it.
10. Try not to get stuck in the same place for too long. Enjoy a moment, then move on to another, and then another. Before too long it will all start to take shape and you'll think "Oh, right. I know where I'm going now. That's what this one's about!"
Exciting Times !
Sean Torch is busy pressing The Deal CDs as I write this note and I just got word from a guy in Boston who wants to play it on his radio show. Man U are in the final of the European Championships and, against all odds, The Potters have survived their first season in The Premiership. Life is good.
Curry and Chips . . .
So, it's Saturday night and I've spent way too much time messing around with this website. Time for a curry. The food from the Indian take away is, as always, delicious and the wine from the wee shop down the road is just the job. A good quality rioja at half price? Like Ronnie said, with deals like this, the more you drink the more you save. A small time fun-fair hit town today and set up on a bit of waste ground across the river. It's total crap and clearly dangerous but the kids love it. I remember those days. When the fairground lights came on all the street lights went out for an hour. Meantime on TV, a zillionaire business tycoon (yes Jonathan, he does look like Sid James) is telling the world that "those who soar like eagles attract hunters". Confucius say? No, I don't think so, there has to be more to it than that, this dude seems to think we all want to be like him. Like Jimmy The Framer said, "Presume nothing, lad. Nothing at all!"