writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Songwriters on Songwriting: Mark Allan

Mark Allan, aka Isaac Brutal, has been releasing DIY recordings since 1984’s ‘I’m A Mutant Whore (But My Children Still Love Me)’ through to this year’s Trailer Trash Express release, Night of the Living Trailer Trash (see below).

These days, he says:

‘I aspire to be the reclusive old man in the ramshackle, reputedly haunted house with the overgrown garden that the neighbourhood kids are scared to enter to retrieve their ball. When I die I want my remains to be placed in a medieval cage on the lamppost outside my house (council permitting) for the crows to pick at my eyes as a cautionary tale to others.

‘In the interim I’ll settle for friends and strangers alike getting something from my songs and gigs (even if it’s only an uncomfortable ill at ease feeling in the pit of their stomach) or at the very least an excuse to get out the house to go to the pub.’

Music or words first? Or a bit of both?

It’s fair to say it’s evolved over the years due in the main to my inability to play an instrument back in the day, so it was all about the lyric scribbling. These days though it’s pretty much the tune that comes first although I generally have scraps of paper milling around with ‘amusing couplets’ waiting for a home.

Do you use a particular instrument to compose with, e.g. a favourite guitar; if you use piano/keyboard and guitar for different songs, do they produce different results?

I mainly use my Ibanez acoustic guitar as I do believe the age old adage that a song should work solo sans sonic embellishments. Having said that I do like to let my avant garde streak off its leash and have experimented with all sorts of sound sources including humpbacked whales, operatic samples and vacuum cleaners to name but three – so maybe I’m talking out my hole regarding the acoustic test. I also find a new instrument generally equates to at least one new song so my house is littered with all sorts (various guitars, pan pipes, keyboards, autoharp and as of last week a nice shiny electric 12 string. (ACF: I know. Can’t wait to get a loan of that…)

Some songwriters talk about the process as if it’s like catching something that was there already, out there in the ether – as if the song was just waiting to be pulled in. Does it ever feel like that to you, or is the process much more mechanical for you?

I imagine I’m no different to anyone else in this day and age in that you pick up all sorts of influences both consciously and unconsciously. You are the sum of your environment (or some such nonsense). I find the process of song writing quite difficult in so much as if I sit down to ‘try and write a song’ from scratch the results are rarely satisfying although as my guitar playing and vague grasp of musical theory improves I find the music side of things a bit easier although tunes are more likely to occur when I’m for want of a better phrase, fannying about. Lyrically I tend to wait for inspiration which can be anything from a snippet overheard, something read or alarmingly frequently a sick, yet amusing couplet will appear fully formed in my brain. Chance encounters can also be brilliantly productive. Such as the rambling drunk in the local hostelry (The Centurian) suddenly blurting out “Japanese Flyboy Says, Oomph The Monkey!” (which became an album title mainly based on the fact that it was better than his other memorable utterance “Crocodile,Crocodile, Up yer arse!”

Or the local Grassmarket vagrant who stops you in your tracks and points at the contents of the kiddies pram he’s pushing, a black and white stuffed panda bear and whispers conspiratorially “See that? That’s the last surviving member of the voodoo!” New song! That spawned a whole new career!

Personal circumstances can be fruitfully mined. My divorce spawned a new band, several albums and a fine set of bile filled vignettes – the nadir probably being ‘You Want Us To Remain Friends (I Want You To Die Of Cancer)’ – you can see why I generally go for ‘the amusing couplets’ these days. Like most/all country minded writers I can only mine the bad seams. Happy, chirpy songs are not in my remit. I have tried honestly. My most recent song started life as ‘You’re The One’. So far, so good but by the time I had reached the chorus it had transformed itself into ‘I Shoulda Killed You When I Had The Chance’ . Hell what you gonna do?

So aye in summary, erm a bit more mechanical these days as I don’t get out as much, but inspiration can drop by without appointment if it’s of a mind.

Name an influence on your songs that maybe wouldn’t be obvious to most of your fans.

The late lamented Florian Fricke of Popol Vuh. As well as shaping some piano recordings such as my soundtrack to Sunday afternoon TV religious epics ‘Jesus Wept’ he introduced me, a man brought up on two minute punk songs to the concept of never ending hypnotic melodies. Not saying what we do now is hypnotic but the guitar solos can be never ending.

I would say that my influences are pretty much there to be heard. Neil Young, Green On Red, Steve Earle, Hank Williams. The other members obviously bring to bear their own influences (or baggage as I like to call it – they get free rein within reason). The ghost of Television certainly rears its head in the guitar solos and I’ve no doubt there are some unsavoury jazz moments going on when my back is turned.

I did record a Philip Glass homage/pastiche on the computer years ago (it had to be the computer – I can’t play 32 notes a second!!). However as I called it People In Philip Glass Houses I don’t imagine that passes the ‘wouldn’t be obvious test.’

Do you always write with your own (or your lead singer’s) voice in mind, or have you ever written for someone else? How did it turn out?

I always write to my voice although in my head it’s in tune and melodious. I’m aware that I’m probably going to hand vocal duties over to a female voice but I still generally present the lyrics from a male stand point (often a male serial killer right enough)

Do you ever revise your songs after you’ve started performing them, or are they pretty much fixed?

The songs are revised up until the point they’re presented to the band and once we’ve worked through them a few times with the odd tweak then they’re pretty much set in stone. A depressingly large number get binned by me before they get that far (honestly I do have standards). Early revisions are often due to my inability to remember what I’d previously played or not being able to count to eight in my head.

Name three favourite songwriters of yours.

Nick Cave
Lou Reed
Steve Earle
Tomorrow it could be Chuck Prophet, Dan Stuart and Townes Van Zandt
Or Hank Williams or Johnny Cash oh hell you get the point

Isaac Brutal and the Trailer Trash Express’s next gig is probably the by invitation only Jefffest 2015. Their latest recorded offering is Night of the Living Trailer Trash, available on bandcamp.

For those of you who don’t know him, Andrew C Ferguson is one half of Tribute to Venus Carmichael, who are a whole lot more original than the name might suggest. Check them out over at the sister site to this one, and sign up to get a free download of one of the latest songs from the already-legendary #Tape 9….







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In my Shipyard of Songs

In my Shipyard of Songs at the moment, there are a whole order book of them at different stages of completion: some have only the most basic structures, the keel of melody and a few ribs of lyrics (I can see my lack of nautical knowledge getting me into trouble with this metaphor already); some well on the way to completion, with just one or two final touches needed: a trim to the sails, or a beefed-up outboard motor by way of extra guitar; some needing the barnacles scraped off and a new lick of paint before they’re seaworthy again.

Then there are one or two crafted, sitting around the edges of the Songyard, waiting for an owner. These are the ones that just don’t quite fit any of the collaborative projects for one reason or another, but which are, I think, seaworthy. What to do with them?

‘Somewhere You’re Out There’ is one of these. I still like the melody (so much so I worry I’ve subconsciously poached it from somewhere); and the lyrics – well, the lyrics mean something different to me now than when I first wrote them, let’s just say. You could apply them to different life situations, and I kind of like that.

However, the down side is there’s only me to sing these ones, so you have to put up with my less than perfect delivery. See what you think, and let me know. I’ll probably be doing a bit more of this in the coming months – I might even try to put something up once a month, whether it be original material, or a cover, and replace it the next month with something else.

Also coming up: some reflections on writing, music, and new business models; and I interview myself.

Diary of Festival Dad Aged 52 and 3/4: What Not to Wear (Again)

And so, for a second year, the Latitude tickets have been bought, the train tickets down booked, and the theoretical existence of a bus from Acle, Norfolk to Southwold, Suffolk having been proved in the sense that we know the Higgs-Boson does a circular of the Large Hadron Collider, except Weds. and Sun., when it terminates half way along.

Some things have changed. For a start, we’re coming straight from a week in a boat on the Norfolk Broads, hence the need for complex transportation arrangements. Second, ‘we,’ in the context of the Festival itself, will include the Redoubtable Mrs F on the Friday accompanying Daughter and Heiress and myself, although it’s been made clear that lengthy bouts of standing will not be tolerated, and a shady corner with a ready supply of chilled Sauvignon Blanc should at no times be more than twenty metres away. I suspect that such conditions might be insupportable at T in the Park: Latitude, not so much.

A brief glance at the line up confirms the usual mix of people I’ve seen on Jools once, people I know I should’ve heard of, and people I didn’t even know I should’ve heard of, but Daughter and Heiress should be able to raise awareness levels between now and then. As we’re going the Friday and Saturday only, we will eschew the pleasure of Noel Gallagher and his Angry Birds on the Sunday, but I am looking forward to King Creosote, Benjamin Booker, Laura Marling, and the Vaccines, in no particular order.

But now, friends, a confession, for I have sinned. I was down in Kirkcaldy by myself, Kirkcaldy being the only town close by that hosts that emporium of dubious sartorial delights, TK Maxx, and I coveted a Festival Shirt. And because I went there on my own, things went a bit further than coveting.

For those of you that don’t know the shop, TK Maxx sells soi-disant ‘designer’ clothing at so-called ‘discount’ prices. There was a tv ‘expose’ of their methods recently, which revealed that – shock horror! some of the original prices weren’t all that high in the first place, and some of their stuff isn’t even by proper designers, whatever that means: as if we didn’t all have the necessary savvy to work out that this particular expression of terminal-stages mercantile capitalism wasn’t essentially a game where you balance the true value of the clothing item on the fulcrum of how much you want it and how much it would really cost, and see which way it tips as, somewhere across the world, the poor bozo that made it gets the local currency equivalent of half a groat for his or her pains.

Anyhoo, the thing is, normally the distaff side are there to SUPERVISE me in TK Maxx, by which I mean they spend 30 seconds looking at the downstairs section (not a euphemism: that’s where the women’s clothes are) before materialising to hover over me while I try to sift through the odd assortment of menswear in the hope of finding something I fancy, TK Maxx adopting the random jumble sale from hell approach to displaying what’s on offer.

But this time, dear reader, they weren’t there. And I kind of went for it. Now even I think I’ve gone too far: but you know what it’s like. Can’t back down on these matters. Got to show them who’s boss, and all that. Haven’t you?


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More from the songwriters on songwriting series soon, I hope.





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Songwriters on Songwriting: Esperi

Esperi is Scottish multi-instrumentalist Chris James Marr. His music ranges from acoustic storytelling to colourful electronica looping and combining different sounds with his acoustic guitar. He uses a host of instruments from the conventional to the unusual including his signature rainbow-coloured bells, toys, tools, samples ( including his son Callums heartbeat which features in the song Somersaults which was released on the day he was born ) . Chris lives in East Coast Scotland and predominantly writes about his family, dogs, home and the great outdoors.

He has performed around the world in all sorts of venues and festivals, shared the stage with Andy Mckee, Jon Gomm, Gomez, Jeffrey Lewis, James Yorkston, Ólöf Arnolds, KT Tunstall, Noiserv and many more talented artists, collaborated with RM Hubbert and Alex Kopranos ( Franz Ferdinand ), Panda Su, Sonny Carntyne…

Chris is also producing/releasing music at FAll ON STUDIO/RECORDS including his own esperi music and other bands and artists.

Music or words first? Or a bit of both?

I usually write music first and work words around it, but I’ve always got a bunch of ideas musically and lyrically to call from. I generally work on music first though, at least a chord pattern/riff/melody because I can find a different way for the words to fit and say what I mean them to.

Do you use a particular instrument to compose with, e.g. a favourite guitar; if you use piano/keyboard and guitar for different songs, do they produce different results?

I usually write on acoustic guitar, it’s my favourite instrument and most accessible.

Some songwriters talk about the process as if it’s like catching something that was there already, out there in the ether – as if the song was just waiting to be pulled in. Does it ever feel like that to you, or is the process much more mechanical for you?

With the writing process, I just feel that I’m making something. Sometimes it comes together very quickly and naturally and sometimes it takes longer and I work away at it over time, sometimes I know where I’m going with it with a clear idea and sometimes I’m not sure where it’s going but if I like an idea I try and follow it through to the end.

Name an influence on your songs that maybe wouldn’t be obvious to most of your fans.

I suppose some influences for me like Brian Eno, Godspeed, Braid, Slint, Faraquet and stuff are there but I don’t recognise the similarities as much…

Do you always write with your own (or your lead singer’s) voice in mind, or have you ever written for someone else? How did it turn out?

I don’t purposefully write with anyone’s singing voice in my head, I just work with what my own voice is capable of, I don’t really think about it.

Do you ever revise your songs after you’ve started performing them, or are they pretty much fixed?

I usually have a live version of a song and a studio version, some little and some bigger differences. Sometimes they change a little or I just perform them differently to fit the atmosphere.

Name three favourite songwriters of yours.

I guess Sufjan Stevens, Mike Kinsella and Justin Vernon would be my top three songwriters, also Sam Beam, Jonsi Birgisson, Joanna Newsom and Mark Kozelek, that kind of thing.

Esperi’s follow up to his debut “In a moment emotion sentiment” entitled “Seasons” is out now. Including 11 new songs and it features the single “Somersaults” which was released on the day his son Callum was born including a sample of his heartbeat as the pulse behind the song. Check out his new album right there, or catch him on tour.

For those of you who don’t know him, Andrew C Ferguson is one half of Tribute to Venus Carmichael, who are a whole lot more original than the name might suggest. Check them out over at the sister site to this one, and sign up to get a free download of one of the latest songs from the already-legendary #Tape 9….








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Songwriters on Songwriting: Martin McGroarty

Second up in the series on songwriting is my friend and musical collaborator Martin McGroarty. I’d known Martin through work for about 25 years before I knew he was a singer-songwriter: and boy, can he write a ditty or two! Here’s how he describes himself:

I’ve dabbled with music and songwriting on and off (family commitments and life situation permitting!) over the last 30 years or so. It’s only in the last 6 months or so that I’ve really got in touch with playing gigs and thinking about music again properly – marriage break-ups are hard, but they give you so much time for music! Also coincided with my first ever successfully adhered to New Year’s Resolution – to grab 2015 by the nads and kick the shit out of it.

On with the questions:

Music or words first? Or a bit of both?

I have to admit that I find the whole process of songwriting tortuous. I am definitely not a natural. [ACF: Yes, you are. Get on with it.] I have added words to chord sequences I’ve come up with first, but it’s usually about what I want to say in a song first – so it usually starts with the words for me. And it’s usually words about some great drama in my life that I feel compelled to write about – my way of processing pain or telling someone how much I feel for them. I’m going to have to learn to write stuff when I’m not in the midst of some personal crisis or other….

Do you use a particular instrument to compose with, e.g. a favourite guitar; if you use piano/keyboard and guitar for different songs, do they produce different results?

My favourite songwriting tools are a pen and a bit of paper. As I said, it’s usually the words that come from how I’m feeling about something or someone that arrive in the old grey matter first. When I get round to thinking about the music part of it, I’ll be bashing about on the acoustic until I get something I like, then try and match the words to it. When I used to play in a band in my younger days however, I did write a few songs on the bass guitar (words and music) – principally because I couldn’t play acoustic guitar then and the bass was my job in the band.

Some songwriters talk about the process as if it’s like catching something that was there already, out there in the ether – as if the song was just waiting to be pulled in. Does it ever feel like that to you, or is the process much more mechanical for you?

As I said, I’m not a natural at this songwriting business. [I’ve warned you about that already. ACF]

I love the idea of my songs existing as wee gems of beautifully structured, musical, melodic, literary works of art floating about in the ether, just waiting to be captured and crystallised over a can of lager. But it’s just not the case unfortunately – the reality is much less romantic than that (Lager? Romantic?).

I’m a bit of a wordsmith – always have been and always enjoyed word play – but the musical part of it is work for me, often quite hard work, getting the two parts of the song, lyrics and music, to meld together. So my songs start off life in two completely separate places – the words side, the easy bit for me and which therefore gets all the attention and is spoiled rotten; and the music side, which is very much the poor relation and has to live in the attic until I need to reluctantly let it out and feed it.

I usually start with one line of a song that can appear in my head from nowhere. That then gets expanded into a storyline (I’ve always liked songs that tell a story – though the danger with that is that it can get very literal, so I try to be clever and obscure the message a bit). That’s the part of the process I enjoy the most. I suppose that where the ethereal part of it can kick in for me is when I finally try to put the words and the music together….the melody seems to come from absolutely nowhere and, if I overthink it, it just doesn’t work.

I think that some people are so good musically that they can write brilliant songs that have random words or phrases in them, rather than beautifully crafted story-telling lyrics. The strength of my songs, I think, is in the lyrical side and as long as I can get something musically competent enough to be the vehicle for that I’m happy with it.

Name an influence on your songs that maybe wouldn’t be obvious to most of your fans.

Kevin Taylor is a name that will not be familiar to many people. Kevin and I have been friends since we were toddlers (so that’s a shade over 21 years…..) and it was Kevin who gave me my first taste of music and playing in a band when we were at High School. I was utterly fascinated by the way that he could come up with all these brilliant ideas for songs and then we’d work out bass and lead parts for them, and he’d come up with a few lines of lyrics and a melody appeared, and there it was… a song.

Many of the chord shapes I play and the chord patterns I use to this day come from how Kevin played/plays guitar. He’s been a huge influence on me musically. And when I write now, I’m never happy until I know Kevin’s heard my song and hasn’t told me “it’s pish”.

Do you always write with your own (or your lead singer’s) voice in mind, or have you ever written for someone else? How did it turn out?

Now, I write for me and for what I know I can deal with vocally. When I played bass in the band however, I did write songs (lyrics) for Kevin and our lead singer, Paul Smith – often again from a single line that Kevin or Paul would have in their heads that magically re-appeared as a Pulitzer Prize winning novella after a McGroarty writing session. It worked a treat, because the music was already so strong that a decent story-line lyric added to the song, rather than “made” the song.

Do you ever revise your songs after you’ve started performing them, or are they pretty much fixed?

Yip. Usually when I can’t remember the words, or where I am in the song, so you can get a Club Mix, an album version or a 12” single mix of the song depending on what night I’m playing and how drunk I am…..

Name three favourite songwriters of yours.

Apart from the aforementioned Mr Taylor, among my favourite songwriters ( and it’s hard limiting to three, but I enjoy the intellectual challenge of it) are Neil Finn, James Grant and Neil Young.

Martin is playing at the Eagle Inn, Coatbridge, supporting Gerry Cinnamon, on Friday 24th April. Then, as winner of the Texas Scots Talent Competition 2015, he’s playing at the Texas Scottish Festival in Arlington, Texas on May 8th and 9th.

For those of you who don’t know him, Andrew C Ferguson is one half of Tribute to Venus Carmichael, who also play a gig on 24th April, at the White Horse, Canongate, Edinburgh







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Songwriters on Songwriting: Norman Lamont

For the first of a short series on songwriters in the Edinburgh area, here’s an interview with Norman Lamont. First up, here’s how he introduces himself:

Despite being described by friends on the Edinburgh scene as ‘a legend’ or ‘the king of Edinburgh songwriters’, Norman Lamont is growing comfortable with obscurity. He continues to gig with his band The Heaven Sent, and produce albums, the most recent being last year’s All The Time in Heaven.

And now for the questions:

Music or words first? Or a bit of both?

Almost always a bit of both, that is, a line or two complete with a melody and tempo. That suggests what the rest will be, which is work. The music is easier than the words. I’ve had melodies with a few lines hang round for twelve years waiting for me to knuckle down and write more words. Some are still waiting. (Gravestone ‘He never did finish that —-ing song’)

I do write words on their own, but never as embryo songs; they’re just scraps of stuff I keep for when I’m scrabbling around trying to finish something. When I write them I think they’re rubbish; years later when I find them I think they’re brilliant compared to the rubbish I’m writing now. My room is full of notebooks.

Do you use a particular instrument to compose with, e.g. a favourite guitar; if you use piano/keyboard and guitar for different songs, do they produce different results?

Usually I write in my head, and then work out the guitar chords afterwards from the completed stadium version I hear the E Street Band playing in my head.

Some songwriters talk about the process as if it’s like catching something that was there already, out there in the ether – as if the song was just waiting to be pulled in. Does it ever feel like that to you, or is the process much more mechanical for you?

I’ve had that experience a few times. Driving or walking along the street I just open my mouth and start singing a completely new song I haven’t planned. It certainly clears the pavement. When I examine it, it’s often linked to something I’ve been listening to earlier in the day so it’s not that magical, but it feels that way at the time. But that’s just the start – the rest is work and anticlimax.

Name an influence on your songs that maybe wouldn’t be obvious to most of your fans.

A semi-retired Edinburgh singer called Dave Christopher, not known by many. He let me join his band in Glasgow in the 70s and it was the first time I’d actually met someone whose songs astonished me. He has a McCartney-like gift for melody.

Do you always write with your own (or your lead singer’s) voice in mind, or have you ever written for someone else? How did it turn out?

I’ve never tried to write for someone else, as no-one has ever requested such a service. I often ‘hear’ a new song with someone else’s voice, but when I play it to people they don’t often recognise my mangled interpretation of that person, which avoids charges of plagiarism.

Do you ever revise your songs after you’ve started performing them, or are they pretty much fixed?

Structure stays the same, but every time I sing in front of an audience I find new ways to sing them, often with new melodies. Somehow there has to be an audience for that to happen.

Name three favourite songwriters of yours.

Rennie and Brett Sparks (The Handsome Family)
Paul Simon
Brian Eno
Leonard Cohen (you did say four favourite songwriters, didn’t you?)

Norman is doing one night at the Acoustic Music Centre @ St Brides on August 16th, by which time a new, more light-hearted album may be complete, probably to be called Gurus At The Bar. New songs appear with startling regularity on his site,

For those of you who don’t know, Andrew C Ferguson is one half of Tribute to Venus Carmichael, the only known tribute band of the legendary – some dare to say imaginary – singer-songwriter from the L.A Canyons via Arbroath. You can catch more of her story, in words and music, at the White Horse, Canongate, on Friday 24th April. Facebook event is here.








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Passion in the pasta aisle – or, why I love Fleetwood Mac – but won’t go to see them

Passion in the pasta aisle – or, why I love Fleetwood Mac – but won’t go to see them

What a strange place my local supermarket, Morrison’s, is. First there’s the Eighties rock-show style dry ice partially obscuring the living herbs in the fruit and veg section: I mean, whose idea was it to put that in? You half-expect Alice Cooper to loom out of the mist at you, offering a suggestively shaped courgette.
As you venture further amongst the greenery, the mists clear but things get weirder, as it becomes apparent that a disruption of the space/time continuum has led to tomatoes, for example, being available in January; in fact, so much of the fresh produce appears out of season that the whole concept of ‘season’ appears to have disappeared in this retail demi-monde you’ve stumbled into.
Okay, so I know the real reason for these little bags of unripe tomato-based water is they’ve been dragged out of the cold, unyielding Southern European earth with the aid of acres of plastic sheeting and some underpaid Morrocans made to sleep on a toxic agrichemical dump between twenty hour shifts, but let’s face it, if anyone had the commercial clout and corporate hubris to change the laws of physics, it would be the UK’s Big Four supermarkets.
Stumbling clear of the fruit and veg, dazed and confused, you might encounter further reality paradigm shifts amongst the alcohol, where any of the discounted wines are clearly sucked into a wormhole in space as soon as the shelves are stocked, that being the only reason that NONE OF THE WINES ON OFFER YOU WANT ARE EVER THERE.
But none of the above, for all its discombobulating effect on your general mental well-being, can compare with the music they play at you as you shuffle round, slack-jawed, filling your trolley with what you think you might want in three days’ time.
Ah, the music! I remember one time we shopped on Saturday evening instead, and they were playing showtunes. I mean, showtunes! I thought they played music to make you slow down and buy more stuff, gently calmed by reassuring melodies tickling the back of your medulla, didn’t they? Your actual showtunes. That stuff frankly just made me want to kill.
The Saturday morning selection, to be fair, is generally more palatable in a ‘best of MOR over the decades’ kind of a way. I’ve admitted before to having a high tolerance level for MOR (or is it AOR, I could never quite tell the difference?) that forever banishes me from the land of fully fledged, golden-eared musos. I mean, if you actually listen to it going round, as I do, there’s some unusual stuff mixed in there amongst the Dr Hook and the Sheryl Crow. Sometimes even the Stranglers sneak in.
I guess, to be honest, all this shows I’m overthinking it: it’s meant to be aural wallpaper; music for people that don’t really like music. But that doesn’t take account of the fact that even an MOR classic can inspire powerful emotions amongst customers; memories, dreams, fantastical imaginings that mean the family sized bag of fusilli pasta just gets missed that day.
A case in point. I can remember it as if it were yesterday: I was in the cooked meats section of the chiller cabinets when Fleetwood Mac’s classic, ‘Go Your Own Way,’ came on.
Morrison’s, what have you done: how on earth was I meant to find the sliced chorizo or, indeed, the Swedish meatballs, when the break up song that documented my every late teens to early twenties relationship crisis was blasting out above the hum of the refrigeration units? I mean, those heartfelt lyrics that man, you just knew almost by heart! That simple yet brilliant acoustic guitar riff scrubbing across the words! And, finally, that paint-blistering electric guitar solo at the end, telling the story – your story – better than the words themselves could (particularly as packing up, or indeed shacking up, wasn’t actually what any of my girlfriends of the time wanted to do, to be honest).
As I drifted, emotional flashbacks crowding me and my trolley, out of the chilled meats and onwards to the sandwich spreads and then, perchance, the cheeses, it was almost a relief for Buckingham’s guitar heroics to be interrupted by a colleague announcement inviting Donna to lend a hand at the checkouts. Almost. Still deeply annoying though. No offence, Donna.
Okay, so I’m overstating this for supposedly comic effect. Actually, it could just as well have been the dishwashing and detergents aisle: I’m fibbing when I say I can remember it as if it were yesterday, because it happens once every three months or so. My point, if I have one, is the music you grow up with, the music you first fall in love to, the music you chant at protest marches in your heady, idealistic youth, can still exert a strong emotional pull many years into your so-called adulthood.
And, in the interests of political balance, that for me goes also for ‘No More Heroes,’ ‘God Save the Queen,’ Roxanne,’ and most of Elvis Costello’s early stuff, before he started writing operettas and shit. Ditto Abba, as I have previously confessed without the need of waterboarding.
Anyways. My knowledge of Fleetwood Mac was, for many years, strictly limited to ‘Rumours,’ their classic 1977 album, and its not so classic follow ups, ‘Tusk,’ (of which more later) and ‘Tango in the Night’. However, my first conscious awareness of them came through an earlier single, ‘Rhiannon,’ which Wikipedia tells me was released in the UK in April 1976. I would have been a callow youth of 13 then (yes, I really am that old), an impressionable age to hear Stevie Nicks’s honey-voiced vocal, let me tell you.
It was only recently that I bought, through the all-encompassing might of Amazon, a CD of the album it came from, ‘Fleetwood Mac,’ the 1975 album which, I will argue, if not the equal of ‘Rumours,’ is certainly pretty damn worth a listen, having been eclipsed long ago by its successor.
(As an aside, when I talk about ‘Fleetwood Mac, the album,’ I do mean the second album Fleetwood Mac produced called ‘Fleetwood Mac.’ Not to be confused with the first album Fleetwood Mac produced called ‘Fleetwood Mac,’ in 1968. The second one, also known as their White Album, apparently. Not to be confused with the Beatles’ White Album… oh, you’ll get the picture in a minute).
So. For those of you not intimately aware of the band Fleetwood Mac and its history, by 1975 the original group, having scored early successes with hits like ‘Albatross,’ and having produced nine albums (including that first eponymous one) had been reduced personnel-wise to the gnarled blues-rock stump of Mick Fleetwood (drums) and John McVie (bass), with McVie’s wife Christine having now joined them on keyboards and vocals.
In need of a guitar player, they decamped to Los Angeles (as you do) and were introduced to Lindsey Buckingham, who could clearly play a bit, but insisted on bringing along his girlfriend of the time, Stevie Nicks, with whom he had just released an album, ‘Buckingham Nicks.’ And so, on New Year’s Eve, 1974, the classic ‘Rumours era’ Fleetwood Mac line up was forged, in a heady mix of Californian winter sunshine, emotional baggage and, I shouldn’t wonder, a couple of celebratory lager shandies.
The really unusual thing about this line up wasn’t the instruments they played, but rather the combination of three singer-songwriters in Christine McVie, Buckingham, and Nicks. All extremely talented, all very different in style, somehow different collaborations of them were to produce some of their best work, although, as we’ll see, a lot of the songs were actually solo efforts.
So, for example, ‘Fleetwood Mac’ (‘the album’) opens with ‘Monday morning,’ a medium-paced, country-tinged rocker that the likes of the Eagles could have churned out equally well. A sunny, upbeat start to the album, musically it bears a strong resemblance to the opening on ‘Rumours,’ ‘Second Hand News,’ being both Buckingham compositions, and both short and sweet at under three minutes. Even lyrically, there’s a similar feel to it: the difference, ,mainly, is the later song had more care and attention put into the guitar work.
Overall, as on Rumours, the solo credits outweigh the collaborations: Christine McVie contributes ‘Warm Ways,’ ‘Over my Head,’ ‘Say You Love Me,’ and ‘Sugar Daddy;’ Nicks gives us ‘Rhiannon,’ ‘Crystal,’ and ‘Landslide,’ whilst Buckingham’s other solo effort is ‘I’m So Afraid,’ a harder-rocking number to finish the album, with a wig-out guitar solo from your man the last thing you hear.
For me, Christine McVie shows a strong influence from Carole King on her songs. ‘Warm Ways’ is a very mid-Seventies, keyboard-led schmooze; ‘Over My Head’ is again full of electric keys and yearning lyrics about a new love; whilst ‘Say You Love Me’ is the pick of them, a soulful, country-tinged rocker featuring Buckingham on guitars and banjo on the single version. It was a hit at the time, and it’s easy to see why: sunny, upbeat, funky and with a great vocal.
It was the kind of vibe McVie was to repeat – with even more success – on ‘Rumours,’ with ‘Don’t Stop,’ and ‘You Make Lovin’ Fun.’ The difference was, on the latter album she also contributed ‘Songbird,’ a classic piano ballad, recorded on a Steinway in a concert hall to give it its haunting, echo-laden sound; and ‘’Oh Daddy,’ a chilly, beautiful song reportedly about Mick Fleetwood, the ‘father’ of the band.
And then there’s Stevie Nicks. For a long time, Stevie Nicks felt like a guilty pleasure to me, because she seemed to represent the worst of that West Coast, hippy-dippy, ever so slightly pretentious lyricism that was just waiting to be swept away by John Lydon and co. Never, indeed, mind the bollocks, here’s the Sex Pistols.
And yet. And yet. ‘Rhiannon’ might be about a Welsh witch, and feature sixth-form poetry like ‘she is like a cat in the dark/and then she is the darkness,’ but it features a real earworm of a guitar riff, which is also eminently playable (go to A minor and fiddle about on the chord, budding guitarists – you’ll work it out for yourself) and, of course, that voice of hers. ‘Landslide,’ a quieter, melodic number, is lifted by that same glorious instrument, and Buckingham’s sensitive acoustic guitar.
Buckingham has to take most of the credit for the arrangement, one presumes, for ‘Crystal,’ the last and greatest of Nicks’s contributions to the album. For a start, he sings it, not Nicks. Then there is the utterly gorgeous cascade of acoustic guitar, complemented perfectly by Christine McVie’s keyboards. When I bought the album recently, I recognised one or two of the songs, but this – this masterpiece, sounding as fresh as the day it was recorded? Not that I could remember.
‘Fleetwood Mac’ became an instant hit, far greater than anything the previous incarnations of the band had done album-wise. And so the pressure began to build on the band for the next album – effectively, for this line up, that legendarily difficult second album. And into the studio they went, for about a year, giving rise to rumours and, er, ‘Rumours.’
On that album, Christine McVie was to reprise her King-esque, keyboard led, soul-funk Seventies thing, and then top it with those two classics, ‘Songbird,’ and ‘Oh Daddy.’ Buckingham was to pen ‘Second Hand News,’ ramp up the guitar wizardry on ‘Never Going Back Again,’ and just generally raise the craft of sympathetic guitar sounds – electric and acoustic – to a whole new level. (For an example of this, the bonus edition of ‘Rumours’ I now have features an earlier cut of ‘Go Your Own Way,’ without that magic acoustic guitar scrub. Suddenly, it’s fine, but it’s just not … special?)
The band as a whole were to collaborate on ‘The Chain,’ two separate songs by Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks spliced together, with that iconic bass solo from John McVie, and, of course, lashings of electric guitar from Buckingham to close.
Nicks was to contribute ‘Dreams,’ ‘I Don’t Want to Know,’ and ‘Gold Dust Woman,’ the latter an astonishingly frank – for its time – account of the dark well of cocaine addiction she was headed down.
‘Fleetwood Mac’ doesn’t quite match up to that in its songs, even if it had had the same irresistible back story of everyone breaking up with each other whilst off their tits on just about everything. For about a year (legend has it they took a day and a half to agree on the tuning of a piano). But it’s like, the band climbed Kilimanjaro one year with ‘Fleetwood Mac,’ and then next year donned respirators and conquered Everest with ‘Rumours.’ There’s no denying Everest, but Kilimanjaro’s quite a thing, too. And they did it without respirators. Or the right boots.
After ‘Rumours,’ things didn’t go so well. They gave Buckingham his head production-wise on ‘Tusk,’ and he had them lying face down on a tiled floor singing their vocals, because he thought that would produce the sound he was looking for. Or so he said: he might’ve just been taking the piss. I suspect it might have been quite difficult to tell at that point.
To be fair, just as Springsteen has said about the making of ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ ‘Tusk’ was being made in the monstrous, lumpen shadow of punk. The sunny, emotionally open West Coast vibe had gone, replaced by something a bit more pared back, and Buckingham, like Springsteen, felt the wind of change at his back. New, harder-edged heroines like Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde emerged, and the only other way to go for female singer-songwriters seemed to be off-planet, like Kate Bush. For the blokes, wig-out guitar solos were only for the metal guys with poodle haircuts. It all got a bit tribal for a bit.
Two things happened in fairly short order to me recently: one was I bought, for the first time, ‘Never Mind the Bollocks…’ on CD. It was, like ‘Rumours,’ recorded in 1976, although not released till October the next year. Time hasn’t, for me, been so kind to it – although it’s hard to top the singles, particularly ‘God Save the Queen,’ and ‘Anarchy in the UK.’
The second thing is that I was reminded by someone that Fleetwood Mac, the complete, Rumours-era package, with added Christine McVie, were coming soon to an aircraft hangar near me, viz Glasgow’s SSE Hydro. The tickets are about eighty quid.
I won’t be going. For that money, I’ve seen Foals, Temples and Lucy Rose, three separate gigs with younger artists at the top of their game, with the added bonus of being in much smaller venues than the SSE. Much as I wish Fleetwood Mac well on their pension pot tour, I fear I would feel I was being marketed a reheated soufflé rather than something just out of the oven. Besides, I don’t think Daughter and Heiress would go with me, and the Redoubtable Mrs F doesn’t like standing at gigs.
1976 was such a long time ago. Blimey, next year it’ll be forty years! We live in such a changed world now. Fruit and veg with no seasons. Wine bottles disappearing into wormholes in space, and celeb culture oozing into every crevice in the collective unconscious. We change with it, or run the risk of becoming a heritage item.
But next time you see some middle-aged bozo pushing a trolley in Morrison’s, making strange guitar-like noises under his breath in the cold meats aisle, listen to whatever it is musically punctuating the customer announcements, and have a care.
If it’s ‘Go Your Own Way,’ that bozo could be me.






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The War on Drugs: Preview

And so, at the end of a challenging week, to see The War on Drugs (don’t forget the ‘The’) at the Usher Hall tonight (Saturday). The band first crossed my and Daughter and Heiress’s radar (as so often these days) with a slot on Jools Holland; since then, their latest album, Lost in the Dream, has come out to universal acclaim, gaining five stars in the Guardian and Uncut, amongst many other places. Any band that invites comparisons with Dylan and Springsteen will invite attention from yours truly: as well as a modicum of suspicion – are they too derivative?

In fact, on listening, the band’s sound is anything but. It’s a subtle wash of ambient guitars and brooding, throbbing synths. The lyrics – principally a meditation on front man Adam Granduciel’s downward spiral into paranoia and depression when he finished touring the last record – do take a bit of a left turn into Springsteen territory at times, particularly on the title track; and the opening song, Under the Pressure, could be renamed A Bit Like Dylan without losing the scan of the chorus line, and would provide a fair summation of Granduciel’s vocal stylings.

However, this is scant criticism coming from someone who, on waking up yesterday morning, scribbled down the lyrics to The Greatest Song Bruce Springsteen Never Wrote.

The portents are promising for tonight’s gig: by all accounts their recent appearance at the Brixton Academy was a success – see, amongst others, the Digital Spy review. For those of you without a ticket, here’s some recent footage taken by one of those annoying types who can’t live in the moment and insist on holding up their iSam. I haven’t watched it: that would feel a bit like skipping to the last page to find out whodunnit.

For what really happened tonight, Daughter and Heiress is writing a review for altmusicbox – her first for them – so stand by…





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Seeing it to the Finnish: How I Built the Kantele

Here in the UK, they used to have a TV programme called Changing Rooms, the basic premise of which was some bozos would turn over their house to the production team in all good faith and see their slightly dated pine furniture and half n’ half wallpaper living room transformed over a weekend into an Arab souk, or something similar. They always acted amazed and pleased.

Anyway, the presenters consisted of the aptly named Carol Smillie, a foppish designer fellow called Laurence Llewellyn Bowen, and the working-class bloke wot got all the work done whose nickname was Handy Andy. A joiner (I think) to trade, it was he who made Laurence’s wildest dreams a reality (no, not in that way – keep your minds out of the gutter) with the aid of nothing more complex than a band saw, a couple of screwdrivers and a lorry load of mdf.

Handy Andy. Wonder where he is now? No, me neither. Anyway, meet Handless Andy. Yes, dear reader, your blog may, like the Liam Neeson character in Taken, have a very particular set of skills, but DIY has never been one of them. Despite being a property owner for some 27-odd years now, the simplest tasks around the house beyond entry-level banging something in with a hammer have eluded me. Only the other day, I installed some splashback tiling in our bathroom more in hope than expectation, and its ability to stay on the wall for more than ten minutes after I stuck it there was virtually a cause for breaking out the cooking champagne on the part of the Redoubtable Mrs F. (It’s still there: two weeks and counting).

Despite my inherent lack of ability, I’ve always retained a particular fascination with wood, and the idea of working with its natural beauty to produce something of value. So recently this led me, finally, to, a US site which supplies all sorts of musical instrument kits, and, more in hope than expectation, I bought the means to construct a kantele, a Finnish folk instrument from the same stable as the zither, or dulcimer. I bought the kantele kit on the following grounds:

– it looked like a cheeseboard with strings, so worst case I’d have a cheeseboard;

– I’ve had a soft spot for things Finnish since spending some time there in 2006 with my friend Hannu, meeting his family and friends Esa and Saana, and being inducted into the mysteries of the Nordic sauna (and let me tell you, till you’ve stood outside a wooden hut in the woods, the sea washing quietly towards you and cold beer in hand  as your heart threatens to burst right out of your chest from the sheer intensity of the heat you’ve just experienced, stark bollock naked, you’ve not fully lived);

– a quick squizz round Youtube revealed the thing had a haunting, ethereal sound which I had stupid levels of confidence I could reproduce if I could only make it all stick together.

Fortunately, for the sticky-together bit I had my secret weapon. My father in law, as well as being a very eminent physician, now retired, is extremely good with his hands, and has a shed of proper old-school drills, vices and other instruments of torture Christian Grey would kill for. The Good Doctor built most of the family home’s storage space himself, for goodness’ sake. So, after a quick chat with him, I sent off for the kit.

The first thing to say is that the kit, though not cheap, has materials of excellent quality – the wood in this case being walnut and mahogany (African, so a sustainable source – I checked); the metal work being similarly robust, and everything machined to a good finish. The instruction manual which (as we’ll see) we had occasional reference to was clear, in plain English, and easy to follow.

The second thing to say is that the consignment was held up by those pirates at the HMRC, who ransomed it for an extra thirty quid import duty, so remember to factor that in, at least if you’re in the UK.

And so came the glorious day – actually, an evening – when we ventured out into the Shed of Wonders to start the first phase of construction. According to the manual, we were to stick the first long bit of walnut to the big bit of mahogany, clamp it, and wait an hour before sticking the next long bit to that; then, finally, the third bit. However, the Good Doctor had other ideas, and after about forty minutes all four bits were glued and clamped. I left my precious baby, clamps hanging from her like some sort of strange metal leeches, in the Doc’s care, and headed off into the night.

The next time I saw her, with clamps removed, was something of a relief:


although it looked a bit like four weird-shaped bits of wood stuck together, the key thing was they were stuck together the right way. The glue ooze wasn’t too bad, and I approached the next session with a little more confidence. Next steps consisted of gluing the tail piece and the ‘snail’ bit on; in another departure from the manual, I held off gluing in the fancy rosette till much later on, once I’d had a chance to sand the area underneath down and apply a coat of varnish, as I didn’t see how I could possibly do that with the rosette in.

The final, crucial stage that required the Good Doctor’s input was drilling the zither pin holes. This is, I reckon, the part which needs most care and precision, because if you don’t get the holes straight, you’ll end up with zither pins wonky as a row of British dental work, with associated tuning problems. Fortunately, the Shed of Wonders had not one, but two fixed drills, which allowed a much better job than any hand-held drill could have done.

Then came the sanding. Again, I approached this with low levels of confidence, and chickened out of using my electric hand sander (which I suspect had been a purchase of my own Dad’s from one of those Lidl promotions retirees queue  in the snow for on Thursday mornings) and took it on with nothing more than a sanding block and the two recommended grades of paper over a couple of sunny, if Baltic, winter afternoons out on the patio. Somewhat to my surprise, I didn’t manage to dislodge any of the glued together bits: even more to my surprise, edges which looked like they would never disappear melted beneath my frenzied assault. Really quite soon, it looked like this:

055057 058

Ok, so I know that doesn’t look so very different, but you weren’t really there, man! And yes, I did wear a plaid shirt whilst outside in the cold, sanding away at my bit of wood. Even metrosexuals get to be macho sometimes.

A week of applying clear varnish and letting it dry ensued – I got quite OCD about this, and put three coats on most of it, and four on the playing surface. Then, a Thursday night came when, after several weeks of fitting this into all the other stuff that goes on here, I tapped the zither pins in (lightly) with a hammer before finishing with the tuning tool, as directed by the manual, fitted on the strings (the online video was particularly helpful here) … and … it was done!

003 004 005

Isn’t she beautiful? Just like any stringed instrument, the tuning took a couple of days to settle. However, it now holds its tuning just as well as any of my guitars. And you can even listen to my first, stumbling attempts to play it…

I’d thoroughly recommend to anyone fancying a go at making a musical instrument from scratch. Just either be handier than Handless Andy here, or have your own version of the Good Doctor on speed dial.






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