andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

The Undiscovered Self: A Profile of Norman Lamont, Singer-Songwriter

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A shorter, more tightly edited version of this profile appears on Norman’s own site here.

Does the creative spark flare brightest in early adulthood for all of us? Or for some, does the onset of, say, middle age create new impetus, new muses either spiritual or temporal?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and especially since reading Norman Lamont’s comment on his website that he’s been writing songs for 45 years, but he didn’t start writing good ones till his 40s.

Of course, this is in many ways typical Lamontian self-deprecation – I’m sure his twenty- and thirty-something output contains fine material – but my own appreciation of Norman’s work is inevitably coloured by the fact that I first got to know him in early 2011, when putting together a tribute night to His Bobness called Dylan Uncovered. The format was for each artist to do two covers of the great man, plus something else inspired by his work. In Norman’s case this was, inevitably, ‘the Ballad of Bob Dylan,’ one of his best known songs – and written, by my reckoning, long before his forties. I’ll let Norman himself tell you the story of that one, but, for me, his whole performance was one of the highlights of the evening.

Partly I just wanted to steal him and his bandmates to be my own backing band! Although they’ve since mutated from the Invisible Helpers to The Heaven Sent, Norman’s fellow instrumentalists in both switch between that folk-rock mix of acoustic and electric bandwidths that, in my head, I mostly hear when I have an idea for songs. Norman’s output is eclectic to say the least, ranging from the folk and rock genres through jazz influences to ambient electronica, but at its core is a body of work that follows that golden thread of songwriting craft from Dylan, Leonard Cohen, through others such as Nick Cave (Norman and his band also played at my next curated night, Cry of the Cave People, and made the Grand Lord of Goth’s songs his own too).

Of course, many know Norman for his long held affection for Cohen’s work, and I was delighted to play a small part in his Third Tip of the Hat to Leonard Cohen in November 2015. This was one of a series of tribute nights to the now sadly departed Canadian singer-songwriter, and Norman’s recent post about his loss is not just a fitting tribute, but telling in small details on how much Cohen’s approach has influenced his own style. Cohen’s ‘humble’ performance in front of a sell out crowd, for example, ‘stuck with [him] as the right way to approach an audience.’

In the same post, Norman mentions where he was living at the time of various Cohen album releases, including Rotterdam, London, Manchester, Staffordshire, and latterly, thankfully for us east coast Scots, South Queensferry. He’s been a fixture on the Edinburgh singer-songwriter scene since 1990. I’ve now seen him perform several times, and been lucky enough to share a bill with him on a couple of those occasions. In person and on stage, what shines through, apart from superb musicianship and songcraft, is the charm, self-deprecation and wit. Characteristically, after the Dylan Uncovered night turned out to be a logistical nightmare for which I, as an inexperienced gig promoter, was totally unprepared, he took the trouble to write and thank me for asking him to play. It was much more than most of the rest of the bill did!

A typical Lamont song – if such a thing even exists – will often use storytelling skills to drive the lyric on, whether of the shaggy dog variety as in ‘Ballad of Bob Dylan’ or a tauter form, as in  ‘The Last Man to Touch You,’ where the telling detail of the sexual rival’s journey to meet the narrator’s lover ‘he checks his watch, he mouths a song’ unwraps the fierce emotions underneath. One of my favourites from his last album is ‘Not About to Fly,’ recounting an Ayrshire childhood, from the sound of it, well spent. How many other songs begin with a line like, ‘When I was a spy I stuffed some wires in a jam jar/ left it buried by the river bank where it’s transmitting still…’? Musically, the opening mandolin motif leads into some superb violin playing before the rhythm section of (acoustic) guitar and bass underpin the whole; but the song’s flexible enough that the band could perform it equally well with Norman toting his Stratocaster.

My perennial question for Norman when I meet him these days – apart from, ‘when’s the next album coming out?’ is ‘why in hell aren’t you far better known than you are?’ It’s a dumb question to ask any artist, but dumb questions can still be valid ones. Perhaps he doesn’t push himself forward as brazenly as it takes. Maybe it is that age thing – after all, if anyone’s going to grab attention in today’s overcrowded Youtube/Soundcloud/Bandcamp melee it’s probably not going to be a fifty-plus singer-songwriter who relies on strong melody and intelligent lyrics, and doesn’t generally pause in the middle to rap over a Limp Bizkit sample.

Well, if this blog persuades one more initiate into the cult of Norman Lamont, it’ll have been worthwhile. Let the world go to hell in a handcart – standing at the top of 2017, it certainly looks headed that way – if we’ve got Mr Lamont to help it explain it all, the journey there will seem that much less bumpy. And the good news for all of us is, the well’s showing no sign of going dry. ‘I’ve got so many to finish and so many unrecorded,’ he tells me.

Amen, amen, amen to that.

Footnote: when putting this profile together, I asked Norman a couple of questions – basically just to get a couple of quotes from the man himself in somewhere. Typically, his responses were so well written and witty they’re far too good to fillet, so they’re printed in full below.

When you’re recording an album, do you have a sound (whether it’s Dylan’s wild, thin, mercury sound or otherwise) in mind for the songs?

– On a song by song basis, yes I can pretty much hear it all in my head, a full arrangement. That’s about 60% of the songs. Not for an album, which is why my albums are such a patchwork of inconsistent styles. I just hear and create songs then try to shoehorn them into a collection.  That’s my pattern and I actively try to disrupt it now in a few ways:

  • taking a half-finished song or idea to the band and seeing how it ends up
  • starting a song on the computer from a drum track or a few chords, then trying to match some random lyrics from my notebook to it
  • in the case of the band album, using the same people and roughly the same intrumentation for every track.

I have to say none of these have been as successful, I don’t think, as the songs that are fully ‘heard’ in my head like I Started A Fire and The Last Man To Touch You. Often when I make them up I’m driving so they have to be quite catchy songs for me to remember them till I get home. By that time I’ve pretty much arranged them in my head. But I’m trying to persevere with the ‘disruptive’ methods. An example of that would be Song of Wandering Aengus from the last album where I had the backing track I’d made for a cover version of someone else’s song, but replaced the melody with a new one and Yeats’ lyrics.

Do you release groups of songs as albums as they come chronologically, as it were, or are there a lot of songs that you hold back till they find a right fit?

I have the recordings in half-finished states for years, dipping in and out until suddenly one night I’ll get a glimpse of what this or that one needs to make it good. I don’t really think about albums other than ‘have I got enough for one?’  I think those days may be in the past and I’ll just put them out as I finish them. I’ve got so many to finish and so many unrecorded.

Name something you enjoy about the recording process, and something you don’t enjoy so much.

I love arranging, throwing instrument after instrument on then taking them off again leaving maybe only a bar or two of this and and a trace of that. I hate the software. At first I thought it was Cubase that was playing jokes at my expense but now I realise it’s any software I use. They conspire among themselves to trip me up. They tune into my level of eagerness to get started and plan their malfunctions in proportion to my sense of urgency.  An alternative explanation is incompetence, but I don’t buy that.

You can also read my interview with Norman which formed part of my ‘songwriters on songwriting’ series right here.

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The Cottar House, Alburne Park- should it be demolished?

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This isn’t the usual type of post I put up on this blog. However, as this is a local Glenrothes issue which virtually no one seems to know about, I’ve decided to publicise it.

Glenrothes Art Club moved into its existing building, known as The Cottar House, some time in the late 1950s. The Art Club’s website tells us that this property was part of a set of farm buildings known as Woolmill Farm, which were scheduled for demolition. With the help of the two local authorities at the time, Glenrothes Development Corporation and Glenrothes District Council, the Cottar House, and an attached outbuilding known as the Coach House, were saved from demolition along with the rest of the farm, and the Art Club’s been in occupation ever since.

The Club took full ownership of the property from the Corporation when the latter was wound up in 1995/6 (incidentally, my memory of how that came about is slightly different from the Club’s version, which implies that it was all the Club’s doing, rather than part of an overall plan on the part of the Corporation to pass its community assets where possible into community hands, subject to appropriate claw back provisions, of which more later).

In any event, the Club now propose to sell the site and have lodged an application for planning permission for ‘up to three’ dwellinghouses on the current site of the Cottar House and its grounds, with the report to Fife Council’s Central Planning Committee making it clear that the intention is to demolish the existing building. In this blog piece, I want to set out the pros and cons of the proposals as fairly as possible, and then let others decide if they want to take things further.

I do, however, intend to write to Historic Environment Scotland to ask if they want to inspect the building with a view to it being listed under the relevant legislation.

The Art Club and the need for funds

Again from its website, the Art Club make it clear that maintaining the building over the years has been a struggle – and that much of their own funds and efforts have gone towards that. At one point, around 1998, they say they did apply for Lottery funding to upgrade the building but were unsuccessful.

It’s clear that the application to have the site cleared and redeveloped with three modern dwellings is designed to maximise a capital receipt for the Club. This is, I understand, to allow them to move to more suitable premises elsewhere in the town.

All of that sounds absolutely fair enough. And yet, and yet…

I should make clear my interest here. I grew up in Orchard Drive, just across the road from the Art Club. My late father, Keith Ferguson, was worked for the Corporation at the time, and could probably lay claim to being the town’s historian, having written three books about the place (other books on Glenrothes by other writers are also available). The whole Alburne Park area was a great little community, with a lot of Corporation officials living there – including Mr Coghill, one of the Art Club’s founder members, whose family we knew well.

The Art Club itself I remember as a thriving place – I have vague memories of us neighbourhood kids putting on some sort of play in it at one point. Alburne Park still has a special character: a lot of the officials bought plots of land off the Corporation – my Dad included – and built their own houses on them. They’d probably never be allowed to do that these days, of course, but the whole point was that the senior officials were obliged as part of their employment to actually live in the town, and get involved in forming clubs and societies such as the Art Club, building that sense of community. And yes, they did pay the market rate for the land.

The legacy of all of that is, if you want to see some good examples of Sixties architecture, drive round Alburne Park, Alburne Crescent and Orchard Drive. There’s even a house on stilts!

More than that, though, the Corporation was keen to preserve some of the character of the area from previous times. The road that runs through it was, historically, the main road to Cupar; although Thomas Alburne’s house, the 17th century Alburne Knowe, was demolished, the Corporation preserved some cottages thought to date from the same period and converted them into ‘Beechgrove,’ a very attractive property on the left hand side of the road going down. Across the road from it, and just down from the Art Club building, is the former Paper Mill manager’s house, ‘Levenbank,’ which is a B Listed building.

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‘Levenbank,’ and, in the second picture, ‘Beechgrove.’ Particularly unsympathetic signage for the gym.

In other words, that whole corner of the road is a collection of some of the few pre-1948 buildings left in Glenrothes. The Cottar House, like ‘Beechgrove,’ was deliberately retained when the rest of the area was cleared for redevelopment (there are also some older buildings housing Balbirnie gym etc. down the Woolmill Brae, but I wouldn’t pretend they’re of much architectural merit). I totally understand if the Art Club feels the premises are no longer fit for purpose and want to move elsewhere. But I can’t help a feeling that something’s not right about the proposed demolition of the Cottar House.

Apart from anything else, the building has benefited from public money over the years to keep it maintained. I’ve no doubt the Club have done their best to keep it going, and it may be it’s beyond repair. But has that really been fully explored? And if it’s a building worth keeping, are there not other ways of its useful life being extended?

I mentioned above that the current proposal to demolish, clear the site and build three modern houses will maximise the capital receipt for the Club. However, that’s not the only option. There is room at the back for a modern house to be built, in a sympathetic design, without demolishing the Cottar House. It’s quite common in other areas for money from modern housing to be ploughed back into bringing older buildings back into habitable states: it’s called an ‘enabling development.’ That could, conceivably, allow conversion of the building back to a dwellinghouse. The whole package would be less lucrative than the wholesale demolition and new build option, of course.

However, the whole idea of the Art Club getting the property at a nominal sum back in 1996 (and renting it for next to nothing before then) was that it would be used for a community purpose. There’s a claw back option in the title deeds which, I think, provides that, in the event of the Art Club no longer using it, it’s to be offered back to the Corporation’s successors (now Fife Council). If the titles don’t say that, they will at least provide for the Council to share in the proceeds of sale.

In either event, is it fair that the building, which has been kept afloat for sixty years with public money, can now simply be used as a bargaining chip for a private club? That’s one way of looking at it, I think.

The Planning Application

Turning to the planning application itself, this can be viewed along with the objections and other correspondence on Fife’s excellent planning portal here. The report by Fife’s planning department (which can be viewed here) is due for consideration by Fife Council’s Central Area Planning Committee on Wednesday, 11th January in Fife House at 2.00 p.m. It’s a public meeting, although members of the public aren’t allowed to speak at it.

In line with the legal requirements, the immediate neighbours – including the clubs down the Woolmill Brae – have been notified, a total of 10 notifications. 7 out of 10 have objected, which is why what’s called a ‘local development’ such as this has to be taken to committee, rather than being decided by planning officers.

Again, I have to declare an interest here – my day job involves managing the Council’s committees. As soon as I realised what was proposed here, and that I had conflicted – to say the least – feelings about it, I decided to arrange cover for my part of the committee clerking role so that there could be no suggestion that I had used my position to influence any decision on the application. However, should others wish to do so, the members of the Committee are set out here, and can be contacted via that link.

My planning colleague’s professional recommendation is for approval. I am not a planner, and I respect that a recommendation has to be made one way or another. However, any planning report will summarise the issues, and some of these issues are often a judgement call – in other words, others may properly take a different view from the professional recommendation. Points of interest may include:

Policies E2 and E4 of the Adopted Local Plan (para 2.4 of the report)

These policies state, amongst other things, that proposals should be ‘compatible with their surrounds in terms of land-use and relationships to existing dwellings.’ The professional recommendation is that the proposals would be compatible.

It’s notable that the photos that form part of the applicant’s agent’s supporting statement show either the Cottar House itself, or the 50s/60s housing on Alburne Crescent. There’s no photo that shows how the Cottar House forms part of a group of older buildings at the head of the Brae. Indeed, the supporting statement only goes as far as saying (at 4.9) that the development can go ahead ‘without compromising the amenity enjoyed by existing houses in Alburne Crescent.’ Maybe that’s true. But what about Beechgrove, and Levenbank?

Policy T1 – Road Safety (para 2.6 of the report)

There is evidence that the development will increase peak time traffic trips – the Club at the moment mainly uses the property during off peak times. This has led the Council’s Transportation Development Management Team to express concerns. Mitigation measures proposed consist of clearing away shrubs that are on Fife Council land. The planner’s report says at 2.6.4 that the Council’s Estates team have confirmed they’re willing to discuss the sale of the land. Does this not mean, however, that as things stand, the applicant doesn’t have sufficient control of the land needed to implement the development?

Policy B2 – Protecting Existing Employment/Tourism/Local Community Facilities (para 2.2.5 of the report)

This policy (and its replacement policy 3 under FifePlan, awaiting final confirmation) presume against the loss of facilities that serve a valuable employment, tourism, and/or local community purpose. Evidence has to be shown that

a) the existing business is not viable;

b) the existing building cannot be reused for its existing purpose or redeveloped for a similar community or tourism purpose; and

c) that equivalent alternative facilities exist for this site elsewhere in the local community.

Policy 3, the replacement policy, also requires evidence of marketing for at least 18 months.

The supporting statement, submitted by the applicant’s agent, is, I feel, somewhat light on the details as regards that evidence. Specifically, I don’t see any evidence that the Club couldn’t raise funds to repair the building, although it’s admittedly clear from their last accounts that they don’t have a huge war chest of their own money to carry out renovations. Part of the reason for that is that, quite admirably, they’ve kept their subs low historically so that people on a lower income can join.

However, they do have (or did in February last year) some £11,500 in their balances. Could some at least of that not be used to match fund repairs and renovations?

Similarly, there’s no detail on what repairs are needed. A new roof? More than that?

There’s nothing to indicate if evidence of any marketing, or of any attempt to establish if another community body would want to take the property over, has been produced.

Conclusions

I write all of this with genuine conflict in my heart about whether to get involved here. I’ve tried to set out, as honestly as possible, my motivations. Just for the sake of full disclosure, my parents in law still live at the far end of Alburne Crescent, but I don’t think for an instant a new development like the one proposed would have an effect on property values in the area.

I fully understand the Art Club’s desire to move on and get better premises. I just don’t think, in all the circumstances, they should be allowed to oversee the demolition of one of the few remaining buildings of any type of historic character in Glenrothes. I sincerely hope that a solution can be reached which allows the Art Club – in itself one of the oldest, if not the oldest, community clubs in the town – to realise its ambitions; and for the Cottar House to continue on, either as a community facility or as a private dwellinghouse.

Please feel free to comment on this, and/or share with others who have an interest in Glenrothes.

 

Falling Backwards for Christmas: a Kaleidoscopic Crescendo of Kula Shakerism

It wasn’t so much that your man couldn’t stay upright: it was more that he’d acquired a backward slant. So, no matter how hard he tried to jump up and down in the same spot with his larrikin mates, he always ended up falling backwards towards those in the audience stood behind him. Which, for a substantial part of the first half of the gig, meant me.

I mean, it wasn’t as if I hadn’t tried to cover this eventuality. Having taken up position before the support act front and centre, but a sensible modicum of distance back from the stage, I had covertly scanned those around me and satisfied myself that my immediate neighbours, like the vast majority of those there for Kula Shaker’s twentieth anniversary celebration of their debut album, K, had grown up with the band and were therefore now at a stage in life where staying reasonably sober and just nodding along to the music seemed like a decent plan on a school night.

However, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s actually me: because in the same way that those most anxious to find a surrogate mental health professional/drug counsellor amongst their fellow passengers on the bus seem to make a beeline in my direction, here were these guys, suddenly, right in front of us in the crowd and, in the case of your man, in my face in a very real sense.

To be  fair, 2016 has been such a shite year all round I couldn’t really blame him for wanting to escape the strict confines of reality for a bit. Continuing state and terrorist sponsored bloodbaths around the world, especially Syria; the refugee crisis; Trump, the impact of Brexit, however you voted (I’m obliged for legal reasons to say); the loss of Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen to name but three; on a personal basis, a lot of close family illness, some ongoing job discombobulation, and the technical problems around the Venus Carmichael album launch have all, in their varying degrees of significance, have made this year one of the easiest to leave behind ever.

In fact, one of the few bright spots had been conversion to the cult of Shakerism when the Kulas played Glasgow’s O2 ABC, back in February, at the start of their tour. So the prospect of ending it in the company of Mr Mills and his bandmates on the tour’s last night at the same venue was too good a prospect for us to miss.

And indeed, the signs and portents were encouraging: a damned fine blues-rocky support band called Rudy Warman and the Heavy Weather, then, amidst the interminable setting up process for the main act, the strategic placement of joss sticks at the front of the stage. Mind you, that was maybe just to distract any law enforcement present from the thick fug of exhaled cannabinoids coming from the crowd, and I’m not even just talking about the guy in front of us. All the while, a constantly evolving kaleidoscope of images featuring Ghandi, JFK and, bizarrely, Kevin Spacey, played on the backdrop.

If there was a criticism of what followed, it was mainly an inevitable consequence of the gig’s dedication to that twenty year anniversary of K: whilst a fine, fine, album, the band’s debut does have its weaker tracks. I mean, even Tapestry’s got ‘Smackwater Jack,’ right? Comparisons with February’s gig, which was essentially a greatest hits package comprising about 40% each of K and Peasants, Pigs and Astronauts, with the remaining 20% the best from the rest of their output, were somewhat invidious.

But I cavil, merely. Once both sides of K were – all but – done, the boys obliged with some choice material, of which more later. And again, if the gig seemed to dip in the middle, that may only be my perception because, despite having moved some thirty feet back and left in the now thickly-packed crowd, I was gobsmacked to see my friend with the backward slant headed in my direction, like some bizarre drunk heat-seeking missile. Honestly! Oblivious to the tuttings and head-shakings all around him, and the rather more forceful prods of the thickset guy in the puffa jacket and baseball cap in front of me, somehow, somehow, your man was back, falling backwards for Christmas into my unwelcoming arms.

‘You need to try leaning forward more, you see, that’s your mistake,’ I offered in his ear.

‘Shnngggurglnn,’ he replied, nodding and smiling in a sleepy-eyed fashion. He had obviously ventured far beyond language.

And then – a Christmas miracle! – back up on stage, Crispian Mills hit a power chord, your man and his mates leapt for joy, beer went everywhere, and in a thunderclap of a song’s ending, they disappeared! I shit you not! One minute they were there, scattering eau de Tennents’ everywhere (but thankfully mostly forwards) and the next they were gone, leaving a three-man-drunk hole in front of us. If I had doubted the Power of Shakerism before, truly I came to believe at that moment.

More, they had ascended into the Rapture (or, just possibly, gone to the bar) at a perfect time, because Kula Shaker had finished with K and its associated B sides and were closing their set with the obligatory storming cover of Joe South’s ‘Hush.’ Cue massed singing of na-nana-na etc, handwaving, foot stamping, and general commotion amongst even the most douce sections of the crowd. Then a tumultuous encore: ’33 Crows’ and ‘Infinite Sun’ from K2.0, followed by my all time favourite, ‘Great Hosannah,’ with a tremendous, roaring segue into ‘Govinda,’ the track they’d held back from the original album. The second encore, listed on Setlist FM as ‘I’d Like to teach the World to Sing/Shakermaker medley,’ sent us home smiling.

It would have taken a man less emotional than me to feel unmoved, in the face of aforesaid shite year, by the lyrics of ‘Great Hosannah:’

If we stand here together
And we see the world as one
We may think there’s no future
But it’s the same for everyone
It’s like the world has lost its head
And it’s like all the prophets said
But will we arise to a new world…

But my transcendental experiences were not quite at an end for the night. As we faithful all shuffled to the exit, another drunk guy drew near (it’s not quite the animal magnetism I’d dreamed of as a teenager, I may say).

‘Flug log illegal,’ he said to me, nodding conspiratorially. I must have looked confused, so he tried again.

Flaak laak ineagle,’ he said. ‘FLAG LARK IN BEAGLE.’

‘Ah,’ I said, because suddenly, a blinding flash of illumination had hit me (it may have been the last of the stage lights popping). He was, of course, quoting from the Second Epistle of St Crispian to the Glaswegians (K2.0, track 1, verse 1). And in that moment of enlightenment, a strange transfiguration came upon me. For were we not all pilgrims travelling on the same route? And who was I to judge my fellow converts? Indeed, but two nights ago, with the administration of some office-lunch peer-group pressure-inspired sambuca shots, had I not been pretty much in the same state, if not of grace, of talking in tongues?

Yea, brother, I had been. Big style. Drunk as a monkey. So now I laid a hand on my fellow pilgrim’s shoulder, and together we intoned the Holy Word of Crispian:

‘We are one with the Infinite Sun,

Fly like an eagle…’

At least, that’s what I was singing. He was still chuntering on about logging being illegal. But the Spirit of Shakerism was moving within him, I could tell.

Footnote: If you’ve read this far down, well done, and thanks for reading – and listening – to my various creative outpourings over the year. If you have. Have a great festive period, whatever your belief or none, and a safe and prosperous 2017. It can only improve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Andy’s Seasonal Solstice Sluggers!

The weather’s turning colder and darker here: so, despite the nominal tipping point of the shortest day having been reached, it’s not likely to turn into white wine weather any time soon…

So red it is! Here, drawn from Jane MacQuitty’s 50 top reds in the Times at the end of November, or, in the case of the winners, from other recommendations of hers, are the ones we’ve tracked down so far, and what we think of them:

2012 Cepa Lebrel Rioja Reserva, Spain, Lidl £5.49:

7/10. Damn fine Rioja. If you like it oaky, this one’s ok (see what I did there?)

2016 Taste the Difference Fairtrade Shiraz, South Africa, Sainsbury’s £6 till January 1:

5/10. Couldn’t taste the difference.

2016 Finca Las Moras Art Series Malbec, Argentina Sainsbury’s  £7:

6/10. Not that artful.

2015 Extra Special Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, Australia, Asda, £6.98:

6/10. Not that extra special.

2015 Estevez Pinot Noir Reserva, Chile Aldi £4.79

No score yet ‘cos we’ve not tried it yet. We’ve a lot to get through! But MacQuitty’s star wine of the cheapos, so well worth a try.

Vignobles Roussellet Pinot Noir, Aldi, £4.49

9/10. I’ve recommended this before (as has MacQuitty) and I’m going to recommend it again. I’d pay twice the price for it. Honestly. but coming up on the rails:

Wine Atlas Corbieres 2014, Asda, £5.98

8/10. Terrible label for the traditionalists, great glug. Actually not that far away from the Aldi Pinot Noir geographically, as it’s also a Vin de Pays d’Oc, where the good news for non-traditionalists is that the French have relaxed their fussy wine regulations to allow winemakers to stick oak chips in their stainless steel vats. That goes against the romantic ideal of the wine laying down in hand-crafted, artisanal barrels of the stuff, but for a cheap glugger it does the same sort of job. Fill your boots with this easy-drinking, moreish, hefty yet sensitive red. It’s kind of the red wine equivalent of Bruce Springsteen.

Wine Atlas Corbieres

Enjoy! More solstician blogging in a couple of days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Everybody must get Stones: Keith Richards and me

One of my favourite fellow bloggers, Yeahanotherblogger, recently posted about his experiences as a youngster with the Rolling Stones. In Stoned Again and Again, Neil (shock news: yeahanotherblogger’s a nom de plume) gives an amusing account of his lifelong ‘obsession’ (he seems far too well-balanced to be really obsessive) with Mick, Keef and those other cats. Whilst not uncritical of their present lack of output, he clearly retains an affection for them – and the depth of knowledge to link to a couple of lesser known tracks from the Stones’ first imperial period, in the mid-to-late Sixties, the latter of which, Dandelion, I’d never heard..

And it all got me thinking. As the music press goes radge bongo for their first album in years and years (of which more later) what do I think of them myself? Do they still hold any relevance today? Should I be steering Daughter and Heiress towards them (as if she’ll listen, and/or as if she’ll not have made her mind up via Youtube already) as an ineluctable part of her rock n’ roll heritage?

Some context here. I was 5 in 1967, so Pinky and Perky were more my musical bag, man. Later on, I did become aware of the Stones at a relatively young age via the magic of my older brother and sister’s record collection. I still remember being especially impressed at the cover of Sticky Fingers (1971) with its picture of a pair of well-filled jeans, and an actual zip! Come to think of it, I think Toe Blister’s still got that album – might even be worth something now.

By the time I had got through my Pinky and Perky phase, the Stones were mainly absent from such crucial sources of music we had in the UK like ‘Top of the Pops.’ Actually, in the mid to late Seventies, ToTP was pretty much the only source of new music on the TV in the UK: but by then, the Stones were rich and famous enough to be tax exiles, and didn’t deign to appear on the show. Come to think of it, given the number of TOTP presenters who’ve since had their collars felt by the constabulary for alleged – and in some cases – proven misdemeanours of the morally turpitudinous type, that was a pretty smart move.

So the Stones were gone from the current music scene, and viewed by some as part of the old guard that had to be swept away by the cleansing wave of snot that was Punk, circa 76/77. Not that it was obvious from your average disco DJ’s set of the time: as a bit of relief from Rose Royce, Gloria Gaynor, and the like, a few ‘classic’ Stones numbers were generally thrown into the set: but then, Paint It Black, Ruby Tuesday, Brown Sugar are the like are pretty damn danceable, after all. I was always intrigued by the opening bars of ‘Black,’ especially: that sitar!

So the Stones were great to party on to. But in terms of still being relevant? I remember hearing ‘Start Me Up,’ the single off ‘Tattoo You’ in 1981, by which time I was a 19-year-old serious-minded student of Rock (that wasn’t my actual degree, but it might as well have been – see earlier post on my ill-judged attempts to become the next Bruce Dylansteen). I was pretty underwhelmed. Still am, in fact – I always felt that was the beginning of the end for the fabled Jagger-Richards songwriting partnership.

Then, a long period passed – in fact, most of the Eighties and Nineties – when, for me at least, the Stones were more about the myth than the music. Specifically, the Glimmer Twins legend. It was almost as if the two of them had realised the game was up with a clever tune and a lyric and decided to construct a whole new mythology instead. Mick became cast as the stereotypical Lead Singer: vain, self-obsessed, good with the media; Keith, on the other hand, was the cool one, the moody Guitarist with the tortured-artist addictions and the piratical dress sense.

Other parts of the Stones’ actual history were grist to the mill of the myth: tragic, mysterious early death of founder member; bad acid and stabbing at Altamont as the band played on with ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ drugs busts, Redlands, Marianne Faithfull and that Mars Bar. The Establishment was trying to take them down, man. Even exile in France wasn’t so much as prudent tax avoidance as sticking it to the Man.

Along the way, certain inconvenient truths were buried, particularly around Brian Jones’s part in the early years. It was interesting to read, last year, Keef’s autobiography, Life, and more or less straight afterwards  Paul Trynka’s biography of Jones. The latter gives a possibly slightly overstated version of Jones’s significance, but it does show how it was his band originally, how Mick and Keef marginalised him, and eventually left him with no place at all. Jones was far from blameless in all of this – he doesn’t seem to have been a particularly nice person, and he clearly ‘had issues’ – but it’s the way he’s been written out of the band’s history that’s striking.

Back to the Sage of Dartford though. Don’t get me wrong: respect is due from any guitar player for how, following Jones’s departure, Keef was largely responsible for refining the Stones’ sound around a riffing, country-blues vibe that played to the band’s strengths, along the way collaborating with Mick Taylor and then Ronnie Wood in a way that stepped away from the lead/rhythm guitarist paradigm and, instead, paved the way for a more egalitarian twin-guitar approach. And don’t be put off by my comments about his autobiography: it is highly entertaining, especially about the drugs busts, and well written. There’s even a section on tunings which will help you to work out how to play his stuff more accurately.

Look, I see myself as a guitarist rather than a lead singer, so like why wouldn’t I want to be a bit more Keith Richards? Indeed, I often feel the answer to many of my life’s dilemmas might well be, ‘what would Keith Richards do?’ And ‘Gimme Shelter,’ which very definitely has Keef’s fingerprints all over it, is my favourite Stones song ever.

It’s just, well, I dunno. He kind of takes the credit away from everyone else, somehow?

So, in his bio, he claims the only reason they recruited Bill Wyman was he had a big old bass amp. That famous meeting of Jagger and him on the railway platform at Dartford? He only got talking to the cat because of his record collection. In a recent interview with Uncut to push the new album, ‘Blue and Lonesome,’ he uses the same reason for hooking up with Brian Jones: ‘Brian was the first person I knew that had a Robert Johnson record … Very rare. That’s when I captured him. “I’ll take you, and the record!”‘

See what I mean? Even Mick Jagger’s apparent upturn in harmonica playing on the new album, according to the same interview, is down to him, via Ronnie Wood: as the interview puts it, ‘the two men worked discreetly, good-naturedly stoking Jagger’s enthusiasm for the harmonica.’ You can’t – or at least I can’t – help feeling a tad sorry for Brenda, as Keef calls him: forever guilty of acts of lead singerism, dependent on his guitarists to jolt him into harp-playing reanimation, the eternally uncool straight man.

Will I be buying ‘Blue and Lonesome?’ Nah. Partly because that pure, unadulterated blues isn’t really my thing, but also because, well, if I want to listen to the blues, there’s an excellent local band called Lights Out By Nine I could go and see in a small venue. I’d rather give them the money, same way I’d rather go see my good friend Norman Lamont recently (and contribute to Edinburgh Foodbanks in the process) perform his ‘Ballad of Bob Dylan’ live than go and see the non-Nobel Prize Ceremony attending old curmudgeon himself when he reaches Glasgow on 7th May (plus I’m working that night, come to think of it).

Still, Keith. We’ll always have Gimme Shelter…and to be fair, even the story of its recording is the stuff of legend.

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New Album Frenzy at Casa Ardross

Some reviews in for Songs in a Scottish Accent:

‘Everyone should listen to Andrew C Ferguson’s new album. Awesome down to earth Scots tunes. Well worth your time guys.’ Charlotte Halton

‘I can see the Springsteen and Dylan influences in the arrangements but that made it all the more enjoyable for me and the lyrics are real-life and insightful. I particularly liked ‘Never Forget’ which is far bolder than anything I would do.’ Norman Lamont

‘Poetic’ Kelly Brooks

‘Production is excellent… everything crystal clear. Musicianship top notch as well.’ Mark Allan

Ok, ok, so these aren’t ‘official’ like reviews, they’re nice things my mates have said about it. However, they are all talented musicians, so I must be getting something right!

Remember, I will send – or hand – you this album absolutely free, and all you have to do is donate something to a refugee charity (or have it on your conscience). There are suggestions on the album page, or there’s always good old Oxfam.

And, in case one album featuring me isn’t enough for you, another two are due along shortly!

First of all, as Venus Carmichael watchers will know, the first full Venus album is currently in post-production, and we’re racing to get it ready for our album launch on 14th December. The track listing will be:

Icarus Wings

All I Can Think Of Is You

Heartlands

Highway Tonight

Coming Around Again

Katerin

Old School

Spider Arpeggio

Running Song

Rose Tattoo

What’s more, it features the beautiful singing voice of Kelly Brooks on it, rather than mine!

But that’s not all. While recording has started on its sequel, the Isaac Brutal album ‘Dawn of the Trailer Trash,’ featuring my, ahem, multi-instrumental skills, has been ready for some time now, and just needs the cover art nailed down. I can’t wait for this one either, as it features some really strong material in the classic Brutal mould.

Keep the dial here for more news…

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Yesterday’s Kids at PJ Molloy’s: or, Post Punk Suit Shopping with added Shock and Awe

My Saturday afternoon visit to the City of Dunfermline kind of symbolised the yin and yang of my life these days. On the one hand, the ostensible reason for my visit was to buy a new suit for a  job interview I have coming up this week. On the other, the first thing that made me think of going there was word of one of my favourite bands, Shock and Awe, playing as part of a ‘Punked at PJ’s’ event that very afternoon.

Now, I should have started with the properly journalistically ethical disclaimer that I play in another band with, currently, 60% of the Shock and Awe line up. So my chances of giving an unbiased review are about as great as, oh, I don’t know, my wanting to never get a pint bought for me at an Isaac Brutal gig ever again.

But, to be fair, I have loved the uncomplicated approach Shock and Awe take to the business of producing rock n’ roll long before I was in a band with any of them –  ever since I booked them, sound unseen, for my Dylan tribute night a few years back. Then, acting on advice, I put them last on the bill, and they raised the roof. For other reasons my memory of that night is somewhat hazy, but I  do remember a barnstorming ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ in particular.

On Saturday, the boys (pictured below before the gig, lurking with intent near the toilet area) were reliant on their own material, and fine stuff it is too. Mainly written, I understand, by lead singer Murray Ramone, Shock and Awe specialise in the classic three minute punk song, except boiled down a bit. More like two and a half. Or two minutes flat. In fact Murray claimed one of them came in at 90 seconds, and he could be right.

In any event, the sound is very much that of a punk band playing it fast and loud: perhaps even more so on Saturday, since Graham’s saxophone had broken down the night before so it was three guitars, bass and drums all the way. The words on standards like ‘Yesterday’s Kids’ are simple and direct; this approach perhaps reaches its apogee on ‘Everyone is fucked,’ the lyrics of which (dedicated to the President-Elect on Saturday) consist of:

Everyone is fucked

No one fucking cares

Everyone is fucked

No one fucking cares

Everyone is fucked

And no one fucking cares…

Leonard Cohen it ain’t, but it was all pretty rousing, and the smallish crowd (which may have consisted of me, the next band on, and their followers) were very appreciative.

After that, the prospect of post punk suit shopping (by which I mean shopping after hearing some punk rock, rather than ‘post punk,’ since I have no real clue what the hell that means) seemed a bit of a come down. It was only after I got into the changing room to try something on that I realised I was still wearing the PJ Molloy’s gig wristband.

That kind of did it for me. I didn’t buy the suit.

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Brexit, Biscuits and Bigotry – who really won in June.

Daughter and Heiress’s latest thoughts on post-Brexit Britain

Heather Ferguson Scot Blog

Article 50 is yet to be triggered (if ever) but that doesn’t mean that June’s referendum has not already changed the country. We have already been told we will soon have to pay more for our KitKats and fish fingers but there have already been darker consequences. Hate crime rose in its wake with the National Police Chief’s Council indicating a fifty-seven percent rise in attacks in the days following the referendum. Immigrants who had lived comfortably here for years soon found themselves bearing the brunt of not only verbal abuse but physical in attacks in some cases. An anti-immigrant rhetoric soon showed its ugly head. The Britain that celebrated its multiculturalism and welcomed immigrants didn’t seem like the same place anymore.

Immigration was a major topic in the Brexit debate and the issue seemed to drive many ‘Leave’ voters to vote the way they did. However, following the referendum…

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Songs in a Scottish Accent 6: Never Forget Who We Are (Slight Return)

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And so, at long last, my solo album/vanity project, Songs in a Scottish Accent, is finished. The box of newly-printed CDs arrived yesterday, and test plays on the home and car audio confirmed that, yes, it’s me groaning out of the speakers.

Go to my page on the album now, and you’ll see that it’s free in return for a contribution to a refugee charity. Not that I’m going to check up on you, of course: stop me and get one next time you see me at a gig or wherever, or write to me and I’ll post it to you; after that, it’s on your head which charity you give to, and how much.

On the page itself, I go into why it’s Songs in a Scottish Accent. Why a refugee charity though?

That explanation’s bound up with the creation of the track I’m putting up below, ‘Never Forget.’ I’d been aware, as most people must be by now, of the spiralling refugee crisis in North Africa and Southern Europe for some time now. However, as I said in a previous post about this track, the trigger for me writing the poem was the sight of English football fans rampaging through a French town, attacking locals and being generally racist and unpleasant.

The poem’s not meant to be just about that, however – nor is it meant to express a view on the post-Brexit domestic political questions we’re wrestling with in the good ol’ U of K: to be clear, the line about living in the early days of a better nation isn’t meant to express a view for or against an outcome of a second Scottish independence referendum, if we get to that. The ‘we’ of the title, and constant refrain of the poem, can be taken to mean any part of, or the whole of, what generally gets called ‘the West.’

In other words, the poem was meant to reflect my feelings about the whole way in which the West has responded, post 9/11, to Islamic fundamentalism by means which, to me, cut away any supposed moral high ground we might lay claim to. Things like the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay; the ‘special rendition’ missions to render terrorist suspects, not to the law’s due process, but to illegal torture methods; more recently, the frankly incredible way Muslim women wearing burkinis were treated this summer on French beaches.

Those might be described as state-sanctioned: but let’s not kid ourselves. The rise in hate crimes since the Brexit result, to give just one example, shows how people – ordinary people, who could live just down the road – give the lie to any complacency that we in the West are in some way more ‘civilised’ than the terrorist nutters who seek to attack us. Tied in with that now seems to be a general climate of fear of ‘the other,’ whether it be our peace-loving neighbours of a different faith than ours, immigrant workers, or even the refugees currently overwhelming aid agencies in southern Europe.

So what did I do? I wrote a poem. Well, that’ll show them!

Perhaps more constructively, I would like to see the fruits of my artistic labours go towards something positive. I’m very, very, fortunate to live in a rich country, with a well-paid, secure job, with family and friends safe and well. Just a few hours in a plane away, on the other side of the continent I still call mine, hundreds of thousands of people – ordinary people, who could live just down the road, but were unlucky enough to live instead in countries ravaged by war – are risking their lives crossing the sea to the dubious safety of ill-prepared refugee camps, relying on the kindness of strangers.

So, if you lay your hands on my CD, enjoy the words and music, but in return, drop some money into a tin either in reality or online, and help these guys out.

 

(Incidentally, in the previous post I had set the words to a Mogwai track. Someone commented on Facebook that I should do my own music to accompany it, and I have. Thanks, Janet!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Songs in a Scottish Accent 5: A Hidden Advantage of Analog

Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album, Nebraska, still divides opinion amongst his fans. Burned out by the long creative and recording process it took to produce his masterpiece, The River, and its accompanying tour schedule, Springsteen headed home with what was then a modern bit of tech in the form of a 4-track portastudio (1). He recorded most of the tracks that became Nebraska in a single all nighter: conceived of as a demo tape for the E Street Band, he then caught up on some sleep and went fishing.

Here’s where myth and fact start to merge. The master tape from those original sessions, in cassette form, then sat in Springsteen’s denim jacket pocket for some months, and, at some stage, may or may not have dropped in the river when he went out fishing with his boom box and it tipped out of the boat. Either way, it eventually found its way back to civilisation and Sprngsteen, after trying and failing to recapture the original spirit of the recording with the E Street Band, issued the album from a much rejigged and enhanced version of the original pondweed-encrusted cassette.

Or so the story goes. My own story, about the track below, is a bit more prosaic.

I released the original ‘Scotland as an XBox Game’ on Soundcloud some time ago, but it wasn’t till I performed it one night live to a backing track with harmonica, that my friend and long time creative collaborator Gavin Inglis came up with the idea of an 8 bit remix of it. (2) I sent him the original tracks: he did an outstanding remix, but, being Gav, just wanted to tweak it one last time. Eventually, I arranged a time to go over to his flat and stand over him while he perfected it to his own exacting standards. Then he exported it to an mp3, copied it to a memory stick I’d brought for the very purpose, and I headed off into the night, happy as Larry.

Here comes the really prosaic bit. A short time later, before I’d copied the mp3 anywhere else, I realised I needed a memory stick for a work presentation I was preparing at home. That was the one nearest to hand: I knew it had my only copy of the mp3 on it, but I wouldn’t, I reasoned, be so irredeemably stupid as to lose it.

I wasn’t that irredeemably stupid. What I did do was tuck the memory stick into my shirt pocket at the end of the working day and set off for home, reasoning I wouldn’t be so irredeemably stupid as to forget about it and put the shirt in the wash without taking the memory stick out first.

Yup. As some of you will have seen from Facebook or Twitter, I was that irredeemably stupid. Cue more demands on the Gavster’s precious time, one more tweak from him, and, at long last, voila! Scotland as an XBox Game (8 bit remix).

As a story, it lacks the romance of the Springsteen one: no fishing trip, just two trips through the fast coloureds wash was all it took to kill the memory stick and its precious cargo. The key thing to note here, really, is this hidden advantage of analog, although to be fair I wouldn’t have fancied submitting the Boss’s precious master tape to the tender mercies of the Tricity Bendix 1000 spin cycle either.

Anyway, here it is. I love it because it’s nothing like anything I would have come up with myself. With or without a fishing trip.

(1) He also took his engineer home with him, which is less romantic than the idea of him doing it all by himself, but then, he was a major recording star by that stage. Wouldn’t you?

(2) I had no idea either. Gav sold it to me on the basis that it would be ‘lots of bleeping noises.’ I trusted him implicitly, and so should you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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