writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Foals v Kula Shaker – the new battle of the bands!

Beatles v Stones. Oasis v Blur. Foals v Kula Shaker…

All right already: the last one exists probably solely in my head. There’s nothing, really, linking late 90’s thinking persons’ Britpop psychedelic sensations Kula Shaker with mid-Noughties indie rock sensations Foals. Except I like them both, and I’m seeing them both live in action within the next few days.

First up: Foals, tonight, at the SSE Hydro. Daughter and Heiress and I saw them back in 2014 at the 02 Academy, in the Gorbals, and they may well have delivered The Greatest Rock Gig Ever. So they’ve got a lot to live up to, although they have of course, since then, produced the mighty album ‘What Went Down,’ which I’ve already described as having an adverse impact on my driving behaviour.

I have a longer history with the Kulas, who first came to my notice, if I recall, when my mate Alan put one of their albums on a cassette for me (the other side, if I recall, was Oasis, so he doesn’t have perfect taste). Named after King Kulashekhara, who I thought came in at number four for Sri Lanka but was also a ninth century Indian emperor and holy man, the band is fronted by Crispian Mills, who, it’s fair to say, likes a bit of Indian influence in the musical mix. Wikipedia describe their sound thusly:

‘in addition, many of the band’s songs feature traditional Indian musical instruments, such as the sitar, tanpura, and tabla, juxtaposed with guitar-heavy, Western rock instrumentation.’ Yes indeedy, and a pleasing juxtaposition it is too! They’re on at the 02ABC in Glasgow on Monday.

Anyhoo, time is short, so I’ll leave you with, firstly, Daughter and Heiress’s favourite Foals track, and my favourite from the Kulas.









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On the (Virtual) Turntable Now…

There can only be one explanation for all of this. My real name is Andrew Van Winkle, and I’ve spent the last thirty or so years asleep in some form of catatonic trance in which I’ve somehow managed to sustain a legal career, father a child, and write some stuff, but nonetheless miss a whole lot of important music.

That can be the only explanation: for, dear reader, the Music I’ve Not Listened To Yet outweighs the Music I Definitely Have Listened To Before in the same way that a black hole outweighs the rest of the surrounding universe (apologies to any physicists amongst you). And that’s even taking in Music That, Yeah, I’m Sure I’ve Heard That Once.

It’s not like I haven’t tried, albeit sporadically. Back in my student days, like any serious young thing of that era I had a proper turntable, amp and speakers, studiously assembled from different manufacturers off my grant monies (1). The amp was an Aiwa, I think, but the speakers were definitely Wharfedale, and each about the overall size of a small light goods vehicle. Seriously. There was a family of Vietnamese Boat People living in one of them for a while. (2)

Still, though: even then, far too much turntable time was devoted to the lesser works of Robert Zimmerman, and the stuff that passed me by is shocking. Where, for example, was Patti Smith (of whom more later)? Even though every single advert in the music shops looking for a band member referenced the Velvet Underground as an influence, my actual hearing of them was limited to the more obvious tracks. I did tune in to the Sainted John Peel (Blessed Be His Eclecticism) but lacked the follow through, sadly, to purchase many of his recommendations.

It’s all very disappointing and, obviously, most of all I’ve let myself down. There have been sporadic attempts since my student days to stay current: my nephew, Dave, shared my enthusiasm for Kula Shaker (3) and dragged me over to Glasgow to see them last time they resurfaced; more importantly still, he not only got us tickets for Nick Cave at the Corn Exchange in Edinburgh a few years ago, but burned a whole load of his stuff onto CD for me to listen to in advance. Of course, this is the man who had The Ship Song as part of his wedding service…

Similarly, Daughter and Heiress is doing her best to drag me into the 21st century music-wise, and recent introductions have included Foals, (4) Courtney Barnett, and Ezra Furman. I’ve previously gone on about the gig a couple of years ago featuring the first of these and Cage the Elephant, (5) which probably still qualifies as The Greatest Rock Gig Ever.

My colleague, Manic Pop Thrills, is also doing  sterling work in bringing recent and/or still performing bands to my attention, such as Supermoon and De Rosa (see last review). The undermentioned Harky, too, is also striving to introduce me to such delights as Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat.

So I’m sorted, for the forseeable future, with current material.  Still though: what about all that stuff I’ve missed along the way? Where on earth to start? I mean, it’s not as if I have limitless time (as I imagine a proper music reviewer has) to sit back, have some lackey reverently lay a record on the turntable for me, cue the needle with the precision of molecular biologist, and then leave me to absorb fifty (or more) years’ worth of the best music ever. Apart from anything else, I don’t even have a turntable now, far less a lackey: my listening time is strictly limited to the bits in between all the other stuff I do, and like most people, has to be done at the same time as doing something else. In fact, my listening to music time, like Gaul, can be divided into three parts:

a) While washing the dishes, or cooking. This involves a CD player which has its own quirks, like switching itself on when it feels like it, and a kitchen with acoustics that, probably, aren’t ideal. Still better than the SECC right enough.

b) Driving in my car. This carries its own compromises if other family members are present; its own risks if the music’s just too damn good – Jimi Hendrix has been banned from the passenger seat for that reason and, as my recent review of the new Foals album indicates, it’s not just Mr James that makes me drive too fast. Another issue is the CD player in the car, which, if you play it too long, spits the CD out at temperatures so hot you could fry an egg on it.

c) Long bus journeys. Listening to mp3s on your phone via big Skullcandy headphones not only passes the time very agreeably: it also often guarantees you a double seat on the express bus, as people avoid you and then go and sit next to someone with earphones bleeding house music like tinnitus instead. Smiling at them and saying ‘Good Morning’ often works well too. Especially if it’s afternoon.

Which is all a very long winded way of getting to the music on my virtual turntable at the moment. Following the three means of listening described, then:

Music To Wash The Dishes By: currently getting the most play, partly by dint of lurking close to the CD player and not get properly tidied away yet, are two CDs I bought cheap at Fopp in Glasgow over the New Year: Guy Garvey’s ‘Courting the Squall,’ and Florence and the Machine’s ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.’

Turning to Garvey’s album first, the Elbow front man’s solo project will have been reviewed by every serious music journo by now, so I’ll limit myself to saying it’s great, really: kind of what you would expect from a solo project by the front man of Elbow. In other words, a bit like Elbow, but a bit more out there.

I first came upon their work, incidentally, by way of a documentary about them on a flight to Oz in about 2009, and I’ve loved them ever since then. I don’t think GG is likely to branch out on his own full time on the basis of this – it’s not like he’s gone and recorded Ballingristani nose flute music and turned his back on conventional rock influences, or anything. But it’s good, and one of these ones that’s a grower, I think, as I’ve liked it more every time I’ve played it.

Florence and the Machine, on the other hand, has kind of gone the other way. There’s a danger, of course, with a band as full-on successful as this, for muso types (however fractured their musical knowledge) to go all superior about someone like Flo. But I love her, I really do, thought she was knockout at Glasto last year, and all that. It’s just… that phrase, actually, full on? Plus a little formulaic – there’s the quiet bit, her singing low, significant lyrics, then it crashes into top gear and the horns start blaring and Flo gets a bit, well, shouty? Actually, my favourite, apart from ‘Ship to Wreck,’ was ‘St Jude,’ which stays low, with lots of woodwind. Although I also like the last track, ‘Mother,’ because the guitarist finally gets a proper wig-out solo at the end.

Music whilst driving: Top pick at the moment for the egg-frying car CD player is ‘Easter Rising,’ an incendiary live performance from Patti Smith. Many Smith fans would probably say this is the worst possible album for me to start my education with, and that I should instead listen to the classic studio canon of ‘Horses’ and ‘Easter.’ Well, they may be right, but I think this is one of the best live albums I’ve ever heard. Recorded for a radio station one rowdy night in Eugene, Oregon, it captures a rock gig in the raw, fluffed lines, banter with the audience, guitars running too hot, and all. Starting with a piece of performance poetry, The Salvation of Rock, Smith never gives the audience a moment to settle, bringing in the band with a roar, throwing unexpected covers at them, and, of course, delivering a blazing rendition of ‘Because the Night.’ Feisty.

Bus journeys, can on occasion, give the longest uninterrupted listening time – particularly if, as was the case on Friday, the Forth Road Bridge closes because of wind, and a scheduled one hour trip turns into a three and a half hour epic, more of a quest, really, to find the mythical destination of Dun Eidinn: I half expected we’d diverted through Mordor, but actually it was Kincardine.

In trying circumstances like these, a hardy perennial (bet no one’s used this pun before) is Wildflowers, whose debut album, ‘On the Inside,’ I’ve mentioned before. I was thinking when I listened to them on Friday that they’re about the first group since Del Amitri who can incorporate accordion into their overall sound without either sounding twee, or giving me flashbacks to my childhood mental scarring at the hands of Jimmy Shand And His Bloody Awful Accordion Band, playing what passed for ‘Scottish music,’ in those dark days.

Another album getting a lot of play at the moment is a free download of a Bruce Springsteen gig recorded in Tempe, AZ, in 1980. A lot more doucely engineered than Patti Smith’s gig, it nevertheless captures The Boss at an early peak: mainly songs from ‘The River,’ but also featuring the title track from ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ and ‘Racing in the Street.’ My favourites, though, are ‘Candy’s Room,’ and, especially, a blindingly brilliant version of ‘Point Blank,’ led by Roy Bittan’s stunning piano lines. If you like Springsteen, honestly, go and download this from his site – it’s billed as a giveaway for ‘the holidays,’ so might go down soon. (6)

Of course, back in the day, I had ‘Born to Run,’ ‘Darkness…’ ‘The River,’ (an illegal cassette of that, if I remember,) the early 75 – 85 live box set, and even ‘Born to Run,’ where he went all a bit shouty. So it’s not really homework, as such.

Still, though.




(1) Semi-mythical system of supporting students where the Government gave you a bunch of money at the start of term, and never asked you to pay it back. Really.

(2) Note for younger readers: previous refugee crisis. The country of origin changes, but the inability of the First World to cope with it in a humane manner, and tendency for some to froth at the mouth in a xenophobic frenzy, tends to stay the same.

(3) Weird synchronicity point: I started drafting this yesterday morning, and left off just before starting this paragraph, in which I mention Kula Shaker. Do I not get a PM on Facebook from my mate Harky just a few hours later, drawing my attention for the first time to the new album and tour? Tickets for 15th February at the O2 ABC Glasgow are now sooo booked!

(4) Tickets also purchased for Foals at the SSE Hydro on 12th February. We’ve agreed that I’ll do the preview, and D & H the review.

(5) She’s also going to Cage the Elephant on 16th February – three gigs in 5 days. The 17th might be a quiet day for her.

(6) Thanks to Ralph MacGillivray for the tip.


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Cool Cats and Super Moons: Gig Review

No disrespect or anything, but Beat Generator Live! (don’t forget the !) isn’t quite the image the name of the Cool Cat Club conjures up for me. There ain’t no jazz (thank goodness); the only smokiness came from a brief foray into dry ice production by second band Stoor; and if the barman had some bootleg moonshine tucked away somewhere the Feds wouldn’t find it, I wasn’t brave enough to ask for any.

However, as I wasn’t having to operate any automotive machinery for a good twelve hours, I was able to relax into Messrs Melville and Wood’s excellent musical entertainment with the assistance of some bottled beers, or they may even have been craft beers (what’s up with that now? Is that the same as real ale, or what? Is raffia work, some form of self-assembly jewellery, or throwing clay pots involved?)

Anyhoo, first up was Supermoon, in the person of Neil Pennycook, formerly the main guiding light behind Meursault. Musically a restless soul, Pennycook’s current incarnation on the night was a solo venture, with him alternating between Telecaster and keyboards, with added harmonica (ten extra points, obviously, for use of moothie in this reviewer’s marking scheme.) I loved the songs: melodic, clever lyrics, great performance too, even if not everything came off – a looper pedal (I’m guessing) was meant to do something in the case of a couple of songs, and steadfastly refused to do it; and a great performance idea of getting two people to phone each other on their mobiles, and then have your man sing into them when on speakerphone, didn’t come off. So everyone knows how to get their moby onto speakerphone, right?

No matter. This was great way to start the night, and if there had been a CD of the songs at the merch table, it definitely would’ve been snaffled. There is a limited amount out on cassette (of course) and digital – well worth a listen.


If Supermoon had suffered some technical problems, the gremlins were only getting warmed up for the next band, STOOR. Half way through a solid, well thought out set from this local four-piece, a string broke on the rhythm guitarist’s only guitar, forcing a frantic, and, ultimately, unsuccessful attempt to restring. Every fellow guitar player in the audience winced mentally for the guy as the bloody thing just wouldn’t tune up: fortunately, his bandmates followed the first rule of musical performance (known as the Titanic Principle, in deference to that band) – no matter what, just keep going.

Cruelly, a suitably spirited final number was further marred as the lead guitar, too, dropped out, but even then, the drummer and bass player/singer just kept going. They were very apologetic, but really, that never-say die approach gave their set a kind of heroic quality. It was a bit like that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the knight who refuses to give up, even when both legs and arms have been chopped off.


The gremlins had gone to bed, fortunately, by the time headline act De Rosa came on. Others more eloquent than me can tell you all about this band, and their new album Weem, so I’ll limit myself to saying they were a fine end to an enjoyable night. If I can cavil slightly (1) one minor criticism might be they could take a few lessons from Supermoon’s main man on engaging the audience.

But I only cavil slightly. You should totally check them out.



I hope to tip my trilby and lounge in a generally louche manner at the bar of the Cool Cat Club again sooner rather than later. Until then, next up is what I’m listening to right now.


Photos courtesy of ManicPopThrills – to see the entire set, go here



(1) do you cavil slightly? Sounds a bit like a rather effete character in a PG Wodehouse novel: ‘the Honorable Henrietta Walthorpe’s previous beau, Cavil Slightly, had been the food reviewer for the Times before an ill-judged lobster thermidor at the Savoy had cut his promising journalistic career short and he retreated, eating only raw vegetables and whimpering inaudibly, to his ancestral home in Sussex…’ anyway, I digress.


For those of you visiting the site for the first time, Andrew C Ferguson is a writer and musician who’s giving out free stuff at the moment. Go to About to get involved.

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I Want You (or at least, your email addy)

So I’ve been struggling for the last while with the concept of marketing via social media. Although many people claim to have the secret, that secret generally seems to involve carpet bombing everyone you have any contact with via whatever means with constant reminders about what you’re doing, how your contact can buy more stuff/get free stuff/watch a video of you/buy more stuff/become a special, valued member of an exclusive inner circle of your fan club yada yada. Frankly, it all seems a bit … exhausting.

I’ve been on the receiving end of this and, trust me, it leaves me cold. Maybe it works more with our Stateside cousins who are more, how to put this, generally positive about the world in general than dour, Presbyterian (in a strictly non-denominational sense) Scots like me. It’s just that the digital equivalent of shouting look at me! Look at Me! LOOK AT ME!!! doesn’t feel like the way to go.

On the other hand, in this frantically overcrowded world of self-publicists when any idiot (even this blog) can master the basic tenets of recording and publishing material on the Internet, simply putting something up there and waiting for the world to beat a path to your door doesn’t seem quite energetic enough. And I am, of course, like any creative type, irredeemably convinced of my own genius – or at least that a few more folk than at present would enjoy, for example, Kelly’s brilliant renditions of the latest Venus Carmichael material to, ahem, arrive mysteriously through the post.

I’ve also noted that the giving out of free stuff seems to be the accepted wisdom of how to go about it.

So here’s what I’m going to do. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been steadily working away on some of my own solo tracks, and I’m now going to give you them for free. The only thing I ask for in return is your email address, something which, according to that same accepted wisdom, is the best way of reaching an interested audience. Having said that, I appreciate how annoying it is to get unwanted emails, so I hereby undertake (I was going to use the word ‘vow,’ but that seems a rather over-used term these days):

  • I will not spam you. Firstly, as I say, I know how annoying it is. Secondly, I’m just not that organised. Seriously. If you get more than one email a month from me, I’ll be more surprised than you are.
  • I will only use the email group if I have something to announce – a new publication, launch of a new Venus Carmichael/Isaac Brutal CD, or, of course, a show.
  • I won’t send you repeat emails about the same thing. That gets old really quickly.
  • If you get fed up of hearing from me, just email me with ‘unsubscribe’ and I’ll do it.

So, with all of that out of the way, here’s what you get in return for messaging me with your email address by means of Facebook, Twitter (@venuscarmichael) or venus [dot] carmichael [at] gmail [dot] com:

FREE – An actual physical CD of all the tracks below, as my EP taster for a much bigger solo project, ‘Songs in a Scottish Accent;’ or,

FREE – Download codes to all of the above in mp3 format (the CD files are audio CD format); or, if you prefer,

Tribute to Venus Carmichael’s debut EP, ‘Taking Names,’ in either physical CD or download format, for the special price of £2.50!

Here are some details of the solo tracks:

Scotland as an XBox Game – one of the older tracks, featuring the wonderful Halsted M Bernard in a cameo role. When I listened back to it, I reckoned I couldn’t improve on it, so it’s as published some time ago.

Cavalcade – again, one that’s been on Soundcloud for a bit, and has been described as Nick Cave-esque, by at least two people, one of whom isn’t even related to me!

Ambulance – more recent, a poem set to music: I’ve added in a bit of cello to the original version.

Somewhere You’re Out There – redone vocals for this, although Norman Lamont’s superb version is also worth checking out:

Right Here With Me – this has been a work in progress for a while. This final version still has the kantele in, but also your man actually singing.

Hyde’s Last Words (Live at the White Horse) – the original version is still up there on Soundcloud for download as well, but in many ways I prefer this one with Kenny Mackay’s blistering guitar at the end. I intend to work on a new recorded version with bass and guitar in the coming months.

I hope to hear from you!








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For the love of Bruce!

Bruce Springsteen has been stalking me this week. Yes, he has. Ever since last Thursday’s Venus Carmichael/Norman Lamont gig, when the possibility of my organising a tribute night to the Boss along the lines of Dylan Uncovered, Cry of the Cave People etc came up again, in conversation with Messrs Mackay and Allan of Isaac Brutal fame, and Ralph MacGillivray, doyenne of Edinburgh musical radio.

I can only conclude Springsteen’s operatives must have been in attendance somewhere amongst the vast audience, because since then I’ve been bombarded by Bruce – love-bombed, even, from a lengthy spread about his ‘new’ album in Uncut (of which more later) to not one, but two programmes about him on BBC4.

His contacts even managed to get a play of his version of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ at the very moment I was getting changed after a swim at the Michael Woods Sports and Leisure Centre, Glenrothes, the only point at which I would have heard it on Forth FM: a piece of psychological manipulation only slightly spoiled by the pool’s advertising cutting in before the rousing final chorus to tell me about the benefits of getting a personal trainer, no matter what age I might be and physical ability I might have.

Couple that with the strange Facebook messages I’ve been getting from someone calling himself ‘Miami Steve’ offering guitar tuition if I’ll only put the gig on…

I’m kidding, of course. Only a complete mentalist would imagine an global rock superstar had a network of agents using fair means and foul to ensure a tribute night in his honour was put on somewhere in Edinburgh at some point next year. That’s crazy talk. The reason for the sudden upsurge in Boss-related media interest is, almost certainly, more to do with the recent release of The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, a 4-CD, 3-DVD package of Bruce’s 1980 masterpiece The River, with all the bits he left out at the time, down to the last cough into the microphone, I shouldn’t wonder.

Now, as I previously said in relation to a similar bumper Bob Dylan reissue recently, I’m not a particular fan of these endeavours, which have, to me, the feel of recycling instead of renewing. However, it did take me back to 1980, and my first year at University, when Bruce was, well, if not God, exactly, certainly placed pretty high up in the Pantheon, particularly as certain other New York singer-songwriters were off bothering gods of their own at the time. I don’t think I can ever quite forgive my Uni chums Scott Barrie and Andrew Dalgliesh going off and queueing for tickets for the Playhouse gig on the tour that promoted ‘The River,’ without telling me. It was the Best Gig Ever, apparently.

I can’t really hold that grudge against Springsteen himself, of course, and it’s good to see his stock rising again after it was tarnished for us true musos by the Born in the USA years of commercial megastardom. All the same, Bruce, if your Black Ops Division really are out there, tell them to call it off. I really don’t think I’ll have the time to organise something next year, what with continuing contributions to Isaac Brutal, a Venus Carmichael album (I hope), and a solo project of my own (of which more soon) to juggle, not to mention a little something at the Free Fringe I’m cooking up. And a novel to promote at some point.

Of course, IF SOMEONE ELSE WANTS TO ORGANISE IT, I’d be happy to turn up and play. Just saying.

But it’s Christmas, so let’s not be churlish. Instead, here’s Bruce in all his festive glory, with no interruptions to update you on the full range of leisure services available at the Michael Woods Centre and elsewhere throughout Fife.

In the most irreligious way possible, the compliments of the season to you and yours, and speak to you again after the whole turkey shoot is over.














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What I’ve Learned: about doing up a property

For non-frequent visitors to this blog, my spring and summer this year was taken up with a property renovation project. So, without claiming in any sense to be an expert, here’s what I think I’ve learned:

Sometimes, a seemingly simple job really can be rocket science.

Traditionally my DIY skills had been limited, I always felt, by a lack of ambition and the right tools to do the job. Armed only with a Phillips screwdriver, a claw hammer, and an almost fanatical determination to not be beaten by inanimate objects, results had been disappointing, to put it mildly.

Now that we were undertaking a Major Project, I was determined not to make a bodge job, and tooled up with the proper gear to get the job done. This did, actually, make a big difference, although The Redoubtable Mrs F and Daughter and Heiress came to dread the phrase, ‘How hard can it be?’

Be that as it may, the plywood work I put into the kitchen and bathroom before I put the tiling down is a masterpiece. Just a pity you can’t see it actually.

Fife tradesmen are the best.

Thank goodness it all got done before the Bridge got closed, eh! I can thoroughly recommend the following guys, who did their jobs with the minimum (for tradesmen) of fuss, and at a reasonable price:

JG Wishart, plumbers, Kirkcaldy

Kevin Cushnie – a prince among electricians

Jim Gibson, Joiner, Kirkcaldy

All those things the property development programmes tell you are basically true.

Yes, it does always go over budget – just have a realistic budget to start with. I reckon we did stay within the budget our property developer pals told us it would take, which was half as much again as the number I’d had in my head. If you exclude the legal fees for the purchase. And the Stamp Duty Land Tax. But everyone does exclude those, right?

Under the same heading, yes, it’s impossible to project manage it yourself and hold down a full time job. Fortunately, unlike most of those poor bozos in those programmes, we weren’t living in a leaky caravan on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors in winter while it got done. A key thing in getting everyone working together was engaging guys who knew, and had worked with, each other, before. That cost a little more but was well worth it.

But despite it being impossible, project management isn’t rocket science. I mean, how hard can it be?

Getting it down to Ground Zero is much worse than getting it up again.

We had bought a flat which, whilst of solid ex-local authority stock, basically needed modernised in every way – new kitchen; new bathroom; new central heating boiler; rewiring; redecoration and new floor coverings throughout. The first four were basically what the tradesmen were there for: the rest was down to us.


Firstly, there was the stripping of the walls: and what a hot, laborious, sticky job that was. After a little bit of replastering, there was the making good – a key example of where the proper stuff the plasterer left us being ten times better than the rubbish you get in B & Q – and then there was the removal of all the carpets, furniture left behind by the previous owner, random shit that turned up out of nowhere, yada yada. All of that turned what had been a perfectly habitable – if out of date – flat into a dusty shell that was unpleasant to live in – especially for the couple of weekends when there was no kitchen of any kind and we had to wash our dishes in the (newly installed) bathroom sink.

As soon as we started slapping paint on the walls, though, and the kitchen went in, motivation levels rose again. We might actually have spent about the same length of time on getting the flat back up from its Ground Zero, or possibly even a bit longer, but it sure felt more rewarding.

I never saw myself as a perfectionist, but actually I can be.

Not that interesting to anyone else, I appreciate. But I guess what I’m saying is, slaving your guts out on a project like this with your nearest and dearest for months on end teaches you a few things.

Once you’ve finished the project, it’s time to move on.

This particular project had two, slightly conflicting planned outcomes: rental property medium term, and possible student accommodation for Daughter and Heiress in a couple of years. We had to balance the need to keep everything bland, decoration-wise, against D & H’s tendency to scream every time we produced another pot of magnolia paint from the car. We’re pretty happy with the result: but it was strange how, once it was ready to hand over to the letting agents, it felt less like ‘our’ flat. I guess if we were proper property developers, we wouldn’t have got emotionally entangled with the fun of living there at weekends, and would have been already scoping out the next project.

As it was, our next project was really bringing our own house and garden back to some sort of order. The flat is now let to a family who, we hope, will feel it’s their home. Apart from student lets, I’ve always either lived in my parents’ house, or one I own. I’ve been very, very, lucky to have been able to do that, and I hope I’m not the last generation of non-rich people that can.

Living in Edinburgh is brilliant.

Yes, it has its frustrations, particularly if you’re trying to get anywhere in a car, and to park once you’ve got there. No one seems to like the Council. Much of the time, there’s a biting wind that gets you right in the kidneys. But the particular part of Edinburgh’s South Side where our flat is ticks just about all the boxes for me. It’s where I want to end up. Sooner rather than later.







What I’ve Learned … On Writing

A couple of months ago, I was asked to do a talk on songwriting (yeah, I know!) at Liberton High School. It made me think a bit about writing generally, and what guidelines (and I put them no higher than that – certainly not rules) might be useful for the young folks. So here’s a written up version of what I think might have learned so far:

Know the rules before you break them.

The world is full of writers – often, but not always, young – who tell you the reason their 13,000 word ‘thought provocation’ doesn’t have any discernible plot, characters, dialogue, or internal logic is because they want to be ‘transgressive.’ That’s fine, but if you don’t know why most conventional writing keeps to those conventions, you might find some difficulty getting anyone to publish it. Or indeed read it. James Joyce published Dubliners, a collection of some of the best conventional short stories ever, before he moved on to Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. Just saying.

A blank page is not a piece of writing – get something down. Anything.

Ah,  the tyranny of the blank page! You’ve got a great idea, but you just don’t know where to dive into it! Feel the fear and do it anyway, prepared to find that the first paragraph (or verse, or stanza) is a bit random. In fact, the second one might not be so good either. But once you’re off and running, things will start to flow.

Unless they don’t of course. In which case, don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead:

Find your own inspiration points.

You might find you operate best sat at the kitchen table with the dishwasher and washing machine on, the kids running round you yelling at each other, the telly blaring, and your eldest scraping away on her violin upstairs. That really might work for you. If it doesn’t, what does? Do you write best in peace and quiet? Are you a lark or a night owl, when it comes to getting things done? Do you need an hour or so to really get going, or do you work better in short bursts?

Remember, too, different times might work for different writing tasks. First thing in the morning or last thing at night, that screen door between your right hemisphere and the snake-infested jungle of your subconscious is likely to be most ajar. Words, ideas, scenes, music might come tumbling in. Later on, when the bossy, critical left hemisphere takes over, you might find editing easier.

My point is, it’ll be different for everyone, and you have to plan and make time for an effective writing schedule if you’re serious about this. Have a notebook by your bed. Lock the kids in the living room. If, like me, you find a lot of ideas come when you’re on holiday, explain to your ever-patient spouse why you’re scribbling away in a notebook instead of admiring the outstanding rugged beauty of the Peak District. Or whatever.

Nothing’s new under the sun, but at least try to make it look that way.

In 1965, in the sleeve notes of Bringing It All Back Home, Bob Dylan wrote: ‘the Great books’ve been written, The Great sayings have all been said…’ Leaving aside the one or two memorable lyrics your man himself has squeezed out since then, just consider how big a library you’d need just to encompass all the stuff written down since then.

So, chances are, a similar set of words might have been used in a similar combination before. Your plot might be a bit like another thing some guy wrote that time. You might even be consciously referencing some past great work, setting RLS’s Treasure Island down in a post-singularity future, to give a random example.

None of that gives you the excuse to be lazy. Telling description can bring a passage to life. ‘The sky was blue:’ boring. ‘The sky had the quality of an ugly bruise:’ possibly; maybe a bit too much? What quality do bruises have? ‘The sky was like a two day old bruise:’ maybe? I had no idea I was going to write that when I started the paragraph. I suspect it’s a darling I might otherwise murder (see below).

My point is, there are about a million other ways to describe a sky. Why not try to be original? Remember, the trick is to keep going. You can always come back to it later. Just try not to sound like everyone else. Moon has been rhymed with June so many times in songs, it’s become a cliche. Not so much baboon.

Know your vocabulary.

Writing in English, you’re using the ultimate mongrel tongue. Used initially by a few thousand Friesians (that’s the people, not the cows) Anglo-Saxon got lucky when some of them sailed to England, rubbed along with their Celtic and Norse neighbours, and then got stamped all over by their French-speaking Norman conquerors and Latin-literate priests. Later, it got exported around the world and had a promiscuous old time with just about every other language it met. If you’re interested in its origins, I thoroughly recommend Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English, which sets all of that out in much more lucid detail.

The key thing to bear in mind, for me though, is that English has, at the core of its DNA, twin strands of Latin and Anglo-Saxon. The Anglo-Saxons gave us ‘sheep,’ ‘cow,’ and ‘pig.’ The Normans, who sat in the castle and got to eat all of these, gave us ‘mutton,’ (mouton) ‘beef,’ (boeuf) and ‘pork’ (porc). More than that, the priests – who, remember, were also the first lawyers, through the canon court system – have left a legacy of Latin derived vocabulary as our language of power, authority and intellectual weight. In other words, our big words.

So ‘power,’ ‘authority,’ ‘intellectual’ – all Latin-derived. More basic concepts like ‘big,’ or even ‘words,’ Anglo-Saxon. If you want to sound all fancy and intellectual, you instinctively reach for the Latin DNA strand in your sentences – and the minute you do, something dies in terms of readability and emotional punch.

Bragg talks about Churchill’s famous speech to the House of Commons on 4th June, 1940. France was about to give up; the British Expeditionary Force had just escaped from Dunkirk; and Churchill, who had only taken over as Prime Minister on 10th May, had to ready the House (and the British public) for a long struggle against a strong enemy.

The peroration – a fancy Latin word for the end of the speech – is actually littered with Latin-based words. However, the money shot, as it were, was this passage:

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…’

Churchill, who was a writer before he was a politician, knew what he was doing. The only word that isn’t of Anglo-Saxon origin in the passage, is surrender. Which is French.

No matter what kind of writing you’re undertaking, always, always think about a shorter word to describe the same thing as the one you’ve just written. It’s usually be Anglo-Saxon in origin, and, importantly, it’ll usually be the word we learned first as a child. Ipso facto, as we non-canonical lawyers say, easier to understand, and speaking to us more directly.

Notice, by the way, how I Anglo-Saxonised the paragraph beginning ‘Bragg talks about…’? No? Ach, I’m wasted here.

Write with economy – tighten everything!

So, we all know the basics, don’t we? Show don’t tell. Use fewer adjectives than you think you need, and almost no adverbs. Thing is, in our enthusiasm to get to the end of the page, we often forget, no matter how experienced we are as writers. There’s always a tighter, more focused form of words, with less subclauses, pauses and repetitions than you had in there first time around. And second time around. Trust me. That goes for poetry too. Do you really need that ‘the’? Does the last line add anything? What about the first sentence? Necessary or throat clearing?

See also below: murdering darlings and spending time apart.

Murder your darlings. Really.

I’m still kind of infatuated with that phrase I came up earlier, about the sky being like a two day old bruise. It’s original, right? At least, I think so – it may be someone else has said something similar before! The very fact I like it, though, makes me suspicious. Sometimes you’ll get to the end of a piece of written work, and think it contains some of the best writing ever. And you might be right.

But really? The fact you’ve told yourself that it contains ‘some of’ your best work’ kind of suggests to me it’s maybe a teeny bit uneven? Or take that first line again. You had it in your head long before you wrote the rest of the song/poem/short story/13,000 word thought provocation. But now you’ve written the rest, is it actually the best first line for all the rest? The knife glitters in your hand. Do you have the strength to plunge it in?

There’s a pretty good article about how to despatch your darlings I found after about thirty seconds’ searching. I’m sure there are others, but this one makes some telling points.

Absence makes the eye more jaundiced. You and your work need time apart.

Remember the old advice about putting your masterwork away in a drawer for six months? Ever do it? Me neither. However, it’s amazing what faults you can find in what you thought was perfect. Wait till the morning, when the passion of the night before has faded (yes, I’m still talking about writing here). Better still, give it a couple of days. Your poem’s texted you a couple of times, wanting to meet up – do you still feel as keen?

You arrange a coffee with your poem. It’s still attractive, there are certainly some great lines in there, but … you’re just not so sure any more. It can change, it tells you. It can be anything you want it to be. Sure, it could do with losing some verbiage. It’ll be your perfect one (I’m going to stop this analogy now, before it gets any more creepy).

Just how much you can keep changing your work, of course, might depend on how quickly you get it published. There’s certainly a few stories of mine could do with a bit of tough love even now, despite being out there somewhere. Read the interviews I’ve done with songwriters, elsewhere on this blog – most of them keep editing their work with every other performance.

Of course, I’m going to break this rule now for this piece, because I’m wanting to put it up on the blog tonight. A successful fantasy novelist of my acquaintance told me once he had to do an all-nighter on one of his novels, finishing the last 10,000 words before the deadline in a single go, with no time to revise it. Terrifying, huh?

To be fair, WordPress tells me I’ve revised this piece seven times. I’ve built it up over a number of days. It’s also fair to say, though, that I’m blinder to the faults of the last section (from writing with economy onwards) than of the bit before that. Which is a way of saying, build in time for a trial separation before any make or break moment in your relationship.

And yes, I’m still talking about you and your writing. I don’t do a heartbreak column.

Great work rarely happens in a vacuum.

If you look back at almost any major artist, you’ll find he or she was part of a wider movement at the time. Not always, but almost always. Often the wider movement happened somewhere romantic like the Left Bank of the Seine. Or Shoreditch.

In music and songwriting, the community became a virtual community when radio technology advanced in the Fifties and musicians in the States, especially, started to hear what other parts of the country were producing. Dylan? Ever heard of Greenwich Village? Later, of course, he was able to hang out with other Sixties luminaries like the Beatles and the Byrds because jet travel became the norm.

Which is a long winded way of saying the starving artist in the garret usually knew a couple of guys two garrets down, and even if they weren’t doing the same thing exactly, it was close enough for jazz. If there’s a local writers’ group that works for you, join it. Join one online. Read books about writing till they come out your ears, but don’t ever pass up the chance to share ideas and collaborate with others. Editors don’t have a lot of time to edit these days. A critical friend can be invaluable. Even if you don’t agree with everything they say, listen to your gut when they’re saying it. Has the tiniest sliver of doubt crept in about your 13,000 word thought provocation? They could have a point, you know.








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Wine Recommendation No 535: some Spanish from Morrisons

Wherever you go in Spain, from Malaga in the south-east to La Coruna in the north-west, you’ll be offered Rioja as the house red. That’s not to say there’s not also more local stuff on the wine list, and, going by the detailed research we undertook during our October trip in Madrid, Merida and Seville, Ribera del Duero is coming up fast on the rails – and rightly so.

However, Rioja’s still the default option, and jolly good glug it is too, particularly if you like a bit of oak. Or, sometimes, quite a lot of it. The net effect though, is that the good folks of Logrono etc. have had to upscale their production over recent years, and most of their vineyards are pretty large, modern places with stainless steel tanks and such. Not so romantic, but pretty efficient in terms of delivering a reliable product.

However, the other regions – especially those in the north – have a lot to offer, so we were bearing this in mind when tasting off two of Morrisons’ Spanish reds, namely their own brand Navarra against a 2011 Rioja reserva. Both six quid at the minute. They look like this:

morrisons rioja navarra garnacha

Now, a proper wine writer would tell you I’m comparing apples with pears here, as the Navarra’s young whereas the Rioja’s kissed the oak for a pretty decent length of time. Whatever. We tested them first against the backdrop of my duck legs, chorizo, tomato and puy lentil recipe, which is fairly Spanish in character, and both did well. The Navarra is lighter, as you’d expect, and would tend to disappear more easily, I suspected, with a stronger flavoured dish.

With this in mind, we exercised iron self-control and held back half of each for the next night, and my chicken and spinach curry, which, although completely free of chilli, is stronger flavoured.

FINAL VERDICT: what a difference a day – and, just possibly, some curry spice, makes. The Rioja stayed a pleasant, oak-edged companion. On the other hand, the Navarra came out of its corner fighting, throwing big plummy left hooks of damson at us. Both of them good value; both of them worth another go. Not the greatest wines ever, but definitely drinkable. 7 out of 10, with the Navarra ahead on points in the final round.






Not an advert for Morrisons or anything, it’s just where we happen to shop. Below this line, people may try to sell you things. They’re not my people.

You’ll Be Hearing From Me (quite a bit, actually)

Sunday, 29th November 2015

Regular readers of this blog (if such creatures do exist) will know that it’s a bit, well, irregular. I could just use everyone else’s excuse that I’m incredibly busy, but actually, it’s also that I pretty much decided at the get go that I would only put something up when I felt I had something to say. And, as I gaze out on an increasingly soggy Fife landscape this morning (later: snowy), I reflect that I have quite a bit to say at the moment, actually.

The last five years have been a bit up and down for me on a personal basis: a brief tickle from the Grim Reaper (I had a melanoma successfully removed from my arm in 2011) and losing both my parents, my Mum in 2011 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s, and my Dad, much more unexpectedly, in January last year. At the same time, I’ve seen Daughter and Heiress grow up, and I thank my lucky stars I’ve been in a job that entails me being around most of the time to see her do it.

The latest D & H news, in case there’s anyone on the planet who doesn’t know, is that she’s had an unconditional acceptance for Napier University to do English – her second choice, but a strong one, I think. She seems to want to do journalism: the little blighter can write, certainly. No idea who she gets that from. Actually, I do – her grandfathers, both of whom have published books. And her uncle, for that matter.

As anyone who’s lost their parents will know, your world changes afterwards: celebrating big moments like Heather’s exam successes and her uni acceptance, as well as the excitement of buying and doing up a run down flat in Edinburgh (of which more in a separate blog) will always have the sepia edge of regret that you can’t share the news with the ones who’ve gone. I miss them more than I can put into words, as I do friends and colleagues like my buddy Stuart Crosbie, taken far too early by that modern epidemic (so it seems) of cancer.

What I hadn’t expected was the effect all of this would have on my creative life. Back in 2010, I would have called myself a writer, first and foremost: around this time that year, I had finished the first draft of my novel, Buddha Belly (which may now be published as The Wrong Box – you’ll be hearing from me on that presently, too) and Writers’ Bloc was still going full steam. If my memory serves me well, our Unbound appearance at the Book Festival that year had been one featuring words and music. Andrew J Wilson’s contribution featured one Kenny Mackay on guitar, and Charlotte Halton on sax, whilst my own had Mark Allan and myself on guitar, Charlotte on sax, and Kelly Brooks singing.

Looking back, that now feels like a turning point. Kelly and I had started working together on the Venus Carmichael material in 2008, but that feeling of being in a bigger band – however briefly for one night only – reminded me even more forcefully what a blast making music with others was.

How things have changed in those five years. As I explained recently, I’m now in two bands – Tribute to Venus Carmichael and Isaac Brutal and the Trailer Trash Express; my output this year has consisted exclusively of songwriting: my last gig had me impersonating Leonard Cohen, backed by the Brutal Acoustic Division, and my next one will be another musical one, Tribute to Venus Carmichael sharing a bill with Norman Lamont and the Heaven Sent!

It is strange how the loss of my parents seems to have coincided with this. After my Mum went, I stopped writing short stories almost completely, and turned to poetry – for the first time since I was a teenager, more or less. When my Dad died, all desire to write went altogether, for months. My traditional solace of trying to make sense of the world through writing things down just didn’t seem to work any more. What came back, gradually, was music.

I’ve been exceptionally lucky in acquiring, along the way, some really talented people to help and encourage me in a musical direction. Gavin Inglis has always been a close collaborator from the inception of Writers’ Bloc and before: but he was the one that introduced me to the idea that, with a couple of extra bits of kit and some software, you could become your own record producer. His introducing me to Kelly was critical to the existence of Venus Carmichael – a great singer who enunciates every word of my precious lyrics perfectly, she’s also a tough critic of the new material, which ensures you only get to hear the good stuff, once it’s shaped into transmissible form.

Similarly Craig Harkness, known almost universally as Harky, has helped me a huge deal with music production, sound engineering, and just about everything else as I’ve gone on this journey (to use the dreaded phrase). Mark and Kenny are always a pleasure to work with on musical projects involving Brutal and beyond, and now people like Graham Crawford, Norman Lamont, and Martin McGroarty fill out my musical family of fellow travellers, collaborators, and general good chaps with a good ear.

I’ve not given up on writing completely. Writing friends like Gav, Halsted Bernard, Bram Gieben, Jane Mckie, and Kirsti Wishart stay in touch. The aforementioned novel is due out next year. Besides, this blog  doesn’t write itself. Another post coming up arises out of a talk I did recently to some poor souls at Liberton High about songwriting: I did a slide which kind of sums up what I’ve learned about writing generally, and I thought I might work that up.

And so, as I clatter towards Christmas like a carthorse carrying a load of donkey jackets on an untreated surface, I have plans. Before the Venus gig on the 17th, more blog entries, and more solo-project music and spoken word. In the meantime, I suppose all of the above goes some way to explaining why the first of the new Soundcloud tracks below is pretty dark, and the other one a bit slushy and sentimental (well, as sentimental as I get these days). I have something else up my sleeve which might be ready in a week or so if I get the time. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these. As ever, any feedback gratefully received.

Deconstructing the Commander: or, the Isaac Brutal Way with a Cohen Cover

So I’ve been reading a bit about the latest Bob Dylan reissue juggernaut: previously-unreleased material from the vaults, covering Dylan’s astonishing mid-Sixties period when, in just fourteen months, he produced Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, three of his best (if not in fact his best, to many) albums, all in between touring, baiting journalists, and upsetting a lot of folkies. And they say amphetamine’s all bad. (It is, kids. Seriously. Drugs are bad. You shouldn’t do drugs).

For a mere $600, you can get one of a limited run of 5000 of the Collector’s  (they had the taste not to call it the Obsessive’s) Edition featuring 379 tracks across 18 CDs, which Uncut points out actually takes longer to listen to than Dylan spent recording the whole of Bringing It All Back Home.

Mid-range Dylan nut? Ask your long-suffering girlfriend for the £105, 6CD, Deluxe Edition, containing only 122 tracks, with lots of outtakes, ‘hilarious studio chat,’ and the like, for Christmas. It might be your last Christmas together.

Or, finally, you can shell fourteen quid for 2 CDs, The Best of the Cutting Edge.

Or, even more finally, I’ve got a better idea: spend the money on new bands, and tune in to Ralph’s Radio Show on Monday nights, as, on our recent trip to that esteemed source of fine music to promote the Cohen gig, I noted that he’d got The Best Of… so I’m trusting Ralph to sift through the 36 tracks to come up with any hitherto undiscovered Holy Grails of His Bobness.

Of course, I understand why Dylan fans (of whom I still consider myself a fellow traveller) might want to do it. Maybe not so much for the 20 takes of Like A Rolling Stone, when they eventually settled on Take 4: but when there’s the chance that there might be an undiscovered treasure like ‘Blind Willie McTell,’ you could put up with a lot of one-verse jams and polka-style takes of ‘Queen Jane Approximately.’ I just made that last one up, by the way, but thinking about it, it sounds pretty good.

(‘Blind Willie McTell,’ for the uninitiated, is one of Dylan’s finest moments, recorded in 1984 for the otherwise undistinguished Infidels and left off it inexplicably: a single take of Dylan on piano and Mark Knopfler on 12-string acoustic, utterly beautiful in its simplicity, and only released after the old curmudgeon got fed up of it being bootlegged relentlessly by fans who recognised its true worth.)

Anyway. I’ve been thinking about different versions of songs a lot recently, as we rehearse for A Third Tip of the Hat to Leonard Cohen, tomorrow night (Friday). I’m performing with the acoustic, provisional wing of Isaac Brutal and the Trailer Trash Express: me and Mr Brutal himself on guitar, Graham on mandolin, and Graham’s lad Calum on cajon.

When I first mooted our participation in the gig to Mark, he agreed, after a slight pause, but made it clear that I was leading on this one. I came to the realisation that this included not just singing lead, but choosing the songs – something I was semi-qualified to do, at best, given my ownership of only two Cohen albums. However, there had always been a couple of songs on those that I had mentally marked down as possible covers, in the (as I then thought) unlikely event I’d be doing Leonard Cohen covers any time soon. Then I got in tow with avowed Cohen-ite Norman Lamont, and the idea of the gig began to take shape (we did toy with a Bobster, Lenny and Paul Simon night, but decided something called Cohen Zimmerman Simon might be misinterpreted, and anyway, it sounded too much like a firm of New York attorneys for comfort).

To me, cover versions fall roughly into three categories. Firstly, the tribute band version, where the whole idea is to reproduce the original as faithfully as possible, often in exchange for largish amounts of cash in provincial halls up and down the country: not a genre to be sneered at completely, given the difficulty of pulling off that facsimile sound.

Secondly, there’s what I might call the faithful-as-possible version, where the cover sticks to the ethos of the original, but instead of having the Royal Philarmonic, a Welsh male voice choir and Sly and Robbie for a rhythm section, your man has a battered acoustic guitar and a mate who plays spoons to reproduce it.

Lastly, there’s the cover version that sets off in a new direction altogether, again sometimes for reasons of necessity.

Isaac Brutal’s contribution on Friday will probably be somewhere between two and three on that spectrum. Both songs, ‘Amen,’ and ‘Going Home,’ feature on Cohen’s second from latest album, Old Ideas. Both of them, it’s fair to say, appealed to me more for their clever, mordant wordplay than the music, as so much of Lenny’s work does: I mean, who can resist a lyric like ‘Tell me again when the angels are singing/and the laws of Remorse are restored’? Not me.

On the CD, though, the two songs lope along gently, some sort of electric piano providing the main backing to ‘Going Home,’ and a plonking banjo in the case of ‘Amen.’ Even if it were my way, it’s not the Isaac Brutal way to lope along, so it was clear something had to be done.

I arrived at our first rehearsal with fairly firm ideas of how to give ‘Amen’ a bit of pep. Underneath the plonking, the basic chord structure of the song had a Spanish feel – stuck into A minor, the verse resolved with an E – and, with the addition of extra guitar, mandolin and cajon, it began to take shape quite quickly. Once the basic rhthym was established, it was a case of deciding how many ‘amens’ we put in where, and in what manner. For some odd reason the four amen version Lenny uses didn’t work for me, but three did. Except where it’s six… you’ll get the gist tomorrow night if you’re coming.

‘Going Home’ was more problematic. For starters, it had obviously been composed on keyboard, so the chords looked, to say the least, unpromising for a guitar-based version (I used to faithfully listen to the record and work out the chords for myself, but I’ve got lazy over the last few years and relied on the internet, with its variable versions in terms of playability: A/C, anyone?)

Secondly, Leonard, consummate poet that he is, had thrown in two verses of different lengths, and counterintuitive chord changes. Our first rehearsal session spend a long time plodding through that, trying to make it sound something like acceptable. The pace was deadly though. Eventually, I struck up the opening chords at a jaunty angle, Calum came in right on top of it on the cajon, and it started to work for us. Still tricksy, though.

I’ll not lie: I’m slightly more keyed up about this gig than usual. It’s a long time since I fronted a band in this way, and singing and playing at the same time isn’t as easy as all these singy-and-playey types make it look. It’s the first time the four of us have played together as a unit. However, we’re going to give it a hell of a go. Even without the Divine Webb sisters. Or a Welsh male voice choir, for that matter.

With Mark and Graham backing me, who needs them?












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