writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

In Another Life – the Effortless Album

Some of the greatest, most effortless-sounding albums were a weary long trauchle (to use a Scots word) to make. To take one example, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours took over a year, and yet sounds to this day as if the whole thing happened spontaneously over a sunny LA weekend. Apparently they took three days just to agree over the tuning of a piano; only Christine McVie’s classic song ‘Songbird’ was done and dusted in the course of a night, and that took a truckload of champagne to get it over the line, so the story goes.

Of course, the French Prosecco was kind of the least The Mac were doing in the course of the Rumours sessions; and then there was the small matter of them all breaking up with each other at the same time. In comparison, and with all due respect to their rock n’ rollness, I can’t really imagine Norman Lamont and the Heaven Sent using much more than a strong brew of Tetley’s during the making of In Another Life.

According to the man himself, the original intention was simple – create an album using a small multi-track recorder in a living room, with the whole band playing live, and minimal overdubs. That, however, was in late 2015, and over two and a half years later, at least three different recording spaces, a producer, a cover designer, and a pro master wizard later, the album is finally, officially out. And yet it sounds effortless!

Norman has described the overall style as ‘pop,’ and I guess, in some ways, it may serve as the gateway drug to some of his darker material, such as ‘Fingerpuppet,’ or ‘The Last Man to Touch You,’ on the album before this, All The Time in Heaven. Nevertheless, bright and breezy folk-rock like In Another Life’s opener, ‘End of Tears,’ is hard to make sound as effortless as this. Similarly, the way Norman leans into ‘Well, I’m the type of guy…’ on the next track, ‘Green Lights All The Way,’ sounds as easy as the narrator’s lucky life, but, as I can personally testify, it takes talent – and time – to sound that easy.

Throughout, Norman’s intention to get things as good they can be shines through. ‘The Ballad of Bob Dylan’ is probably the song Norman’s known best for: but here it gets a radical treatment that keeps the core shaggy dog story front and centre whilst mixing up pace and instrumentation all around it. A modern classic!

Whilst the overall sound is what I’d describe as folk rock, or maybe acoustic rock, there are a couple of departures: the jaunty spirit of ‘In Another Life,’ is such an earworm that I can forgive him for reggae, one of my least favourite genres; and ‘Damn Grey’ and ‘Goodbye Song’ both exhibit jazz influences.

The other highlight, unsurprisingly to long-term Norman-watchers, is his facility with words. The music may sound easier than it is, but the lyrics are at all times smartly turned out, and on occasion have a hidden bite. ‘You Made Me Do It,’ with its refrain of ‘You made me this way,’ leaves the listener in no doubt who the narrator holds responsible. In another context, ‘Damn Grey’ deals with the weighty topic of depressive illness.

Favourites? Surprisingly perhaps for a fellow devotee of the Cohen/Cave dark axis, I’m really drawn to the upbeat stuff! Those sly vocals in ‘Green Lights All the Way,’ with its earworm of a tune, for example. ‘End of Tears,’ is another stand out.

Incidentally, if you go through Norman’s website to sign up for this, you get an incredibly generous package of stories behind the songs, videos, and bonus tracks. Strongly recommended, it emphasises the care, love, and sheer blood sweat and tears went into the making of the album.

It’s just that it sounds so effortless.

P.S. You can also get a deal on the launch gig, which is next Thursday, 22nd March, at the Voodoo Rooms.




















Adverts be below here. Not Norman.


A Tale of Two Guitars

So, when I was reviewing the two amplifiers I use recently, I mentioned I was planning to review my two main guitars, to compare and contrast, and I’m a man, at least in this regard, of my word.

I suppose before I start I should confess these are not my only guitars. The others that I own (I had a gorgeous Danelectro 12 string on loan from Mr Brutal for a while, but he’s borrowed it back at the moment) are: a Kiso-Suzuki copy of the Gibson J200, which I think I may have mentioned before, with a bridge so cracked it would cost more to repair than it’s worth; a Freshman Acoustic 12-string which these days is tuned to Open D and used exclusively for slide guitar; and a blues box guitar, picked up in a Black Friday sale at the Works bookshop, of all places, a couple of years ago.

Which leaves me with my two main guitars: A Lâg Tramontane T100 ACE; and an Epiphone EJ200CE.

Prices first of all, just to see we’re comparing like with like. I bought the Lâg a few years ago, but it currently retails at around £350 – £360 (although I found it quite tricky to track down in this country now; a lot of the sites were American). The Epiphone is currently on at £360, so, in other words, they’re pretty much both firmly in the mid-price range for acoustic guitars, not being the cheapest by any means, but certainly not up there in the stratospheric levels you can shell for a bit of wood and six strings.

Looks? Well, here they are together.  Both, to my mind, beautiful in their own way: the Lâg, at least so far as I know, not trying to copy any other maker’s guitar, and with that distinctive headstock and the wee Knights Templar stylee cross at the soundhole.

The Epiphone, of course, very definitely is trying to copy another guitar, namely the Gibson J200, a fabled model that’s been used by Elvis, Dylan, Lennon, Harrison, Jimmy Page, Emmylou Harris, etc, etc. Like the Lâg, it’s available in a range of finishes, and I was very tempted by the sunburst version before plumping for the all black model: a mean looking machine, indeed. (Gibson have 20 more facts about the original J200 if your curiosity isn’t sated).

As an aside, I’ve never quite understood how, or why, guitar makers put up with others making copies of their models: in any other context, you’d think the original makers would be suing the copyists’ asses just as quickly as they could make it to the patent office. However, every other guitar you see is a copy, often of famous models by either Fender or Gibson (Stratocaster, Telecaster, Les Paul, Hummingbird, etc etc). Time was, back in the 70s and 80s, when most of the copies were made in Japan (for example my Kiso-Suzuki); then, Korea became the cheapest place; these days it’s more likely to be China.

In the case of the Epiphone, it was originally a company in its own right. Originating in Turkey with a Greek owner, in 1903 owners and company relocated to the US where, by the 50s, it was a main rival to Gibson for archtop guitars, at which point it was taken over by Gibson’s parent company. However, far from being bought up to be closed down, the two companies were run separately. Epiphone guitars continued to have their own name and reputation – the Beatles used them, before inevitably, trading up to the bigger cachet of the Gibson name.

And there’s the thing for me. Every guitar band you see on the telly these days are either toting Gibsons or Fenders and, contrary chap that I am, that just makes me all the more determined to play something different. Plus, of course, the Gibson equivalent of my guitar costs £5,000. Yes, that’s £5,000. Could it sound nearly 14 times better than my Epiphone? No, I really don’t think so either.

Because the Epiphone is a beauty in every sense. As you can see from the photo, it’s a big beast of a thing (the J, dear reader, stands for Jumbo) so it wouldn’t be for everyone (interestingly, Emmylou has her own smaller equivalent made by Gibson, the L200. Do hope the L doesn’t stand for ‘lady’). Played acoustically, it’s surprisingly quiet, with an even, pleasant, but unremarkable tone. Indeed, in the shop it nearly lost out to the Epiphone Hummingbird. And then I plugged it in.

Where the EJC200 really wins out is in the quality of its electronics. With an under-saddle and under-bridge pick up, and nanoflex technology (no, I don’t really know what it means either) it sounds just fantastic when amplified. The Lâg, in contrast, sounds great played acoustically, but its electronics are, well, a bit french. So much so, that when I’m recording with it these days, I mike it up rather than using pickups. That’s not so easy live, and the best I can get from it is using the Vox amp, as described in the review of the amps.

Bottom line? I’m really pleased to have both of these. For finger picking and the generally quieter stuff I do with Tribute to Venus Carmichael, the Lâg is a superb instrument. For playing in the house, again it’s a pleasure. Its tone is gorgeous.

Which is not to say the Epiphone doesn’t get played in the house too. Although the Lâg isn’t hard to play, the bigger guitar is particularly easy: someone said it plays like an electric, and it actually is as easy as that to knock out chords on. Plug it in, though, even with a loud electric band, and it comes into its own.

Here’s a wee instrumental I’ve put up on Freesound, the excellent sound sample site. It’s basically a song that didn’t make the cut for my next album lyrics-wse, but I’ve put a bit of both the Epiphone in strum mode, and the Lâg in finger-pick mode. I’ve not done anything clever effects-wise in the production process, deliberately: just a bit of light reverb to take some of the dryness out. On other tracks, though, I’ve used the Epiphone much more extensively because, with its dual inputs and better electronics, it produces a very handy, malleable signal for tweaking.

If I had to have only one of these guitars, I’d have the Epiphone. But I don’t, and for my purposes at least, they’re a near-perfect complement to each other.

Finally, should you wish to hear more from these guitars, a Youtube review of each:

The Epiphone review’s long, but I love Topdazzle’s no nonsense approach.











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Robert Burns and the Black Keys: or, The Clerk’s Revenge

Scottish Icons: Robert BurnsWarning: if you’re a big fan of Robert Burns, look away now

I’ve never really quite got Burns the way I think I should, as a Scotsman. It’s a bit like me and whisky (the two, of course, often go hand in hand): I understand the attraction in theory, and I’m really happy about the contribution to the Scottish export industry they make, but still. I don’t know.

I have tried to like Robert Burns  – and whisky for that matter. When I was in fourth year at secondary school I won a Latin speaking competition (I know! Rock and Roll!) and used my prize, a book token, to buy my own copy of  his Poems and Songs. I still have it: it’s a nice edition, in a kind of faux-leather binding.

Anyhoo, for the non-Scots and/or non-Burns fans amongst you, Rabbie (as he’s often called by his adherents) lived from 1759 – 1796, and packed a lot of stuff into those 36 and a bit years. He was, variously, labourer, farmer, father of several illegitimate children, exciseman (a kind of tax collector) Freemason, proto-socialist, proto-nationalist, and darling of Edinburgh society. He also found time to scribble down a few poems and songs. Ok, ok, a lot of them, some of which are classics. His birthday on 25th January is celebrated worldwide by Scots, Scots expats, and others (the Russians, in particular, are fans) by eating lots of haggis, drinking lots of whisky, and doing lots of speechifying about him.

No, I do like Burns. Honestly. Some of his stuff, anyway, like the long narrative poem ‘Tam O’ Shanter,’ which, when recited by the right performer, is simply stunning. I’ve always wanted to do a punk version of ‘Parcel of Rogues.’ Some of the rest of his work, frankly, I find over-sentimental, personally. I suppose the date I got Poems and Songs – 1978 – is significant: if you had to choose a year when the best of Old Rock was still around, locked in hand to hand combat with Punk and New Wave, it might well be that one. Burns’s poetry and music, by comparison, seemed to be the stuff of old men crying into their pint in the pub I wasn’t – technically at least – old enough to get into then.

All that said, there was one of his tunes – variously called ‘Ye Banks and Braes’ and ‘Banks o’ Doon’ that I always thought was just a great melody. Burns’s words,  a woman’s lament for a false lover set in agreeable scenery, not so much. Recently, though, the tune resurfaced in my subconscious, broke the surface of my conscious, and I wrote some alternative words to it, of which more presently. But then, doing a bit of research for this article, I came across something of a revelation. Robert Burns didn’t write the melody!

I suppose I’d always wondered whether the tune was a Burns original. Not unusually for the time, Rabbie used traditional ‘Scotch’ airs to set his words to; indeed, some of his songs’ lyrics are ‘trad, arr. Burns,’ as he took old sets of words, often cleaning them up for polite society in the same way that a lot of old blues songs had the sexual element toned down for wider publication. Nothing wrong with that. Looking at the text in my copy of Poems and Songs, I see that it says, ‘Tune: Caledonian Hunt’s Delight,‘ which probably gave me the idea that it was a traditional tune, perhaps hummed by be-kilted warriors to their tiny warrior children in the shieling as Edward I’s forces marched past to certain defeat at Bannockburn just down the road.

The truth, as so often, is a bit more complicated. The melody first came to general notice when it featured in Niel Gow’s collection of Reels. Gow, a contemporary of Burns (1727 – 1807) was  – and still is – considered one of the greatest folk music violinists, or fiddlers, of all time. But Gow didn’t write it either. In his collection, it’s attributed to ‘Mr Miller of Edinburgh.’ So who was he, then?

According to, he was James Miller, a ‘writer’ (in this historical context a lawyer specialising in property law) who was clerk in the Teind (obscure Scots property thing – don’t ask for more detail) Office in Edinburgh. Not a be-kilted warrior, or even a Mrs be-kilted warrior. Except maybe on the weekends.

Here’s where Burns steps in. History may be written by the victors, but musical history is, often, written by the celebs. Here’s Burns in a letter to his publisher, Thomson, as quoted on tunearch:

Do you know the history of the air—It is curious enough.—A good many yeas ago a Mr. Jas. Miller,… was in company with our friend, [the organist Stephen] Clarke; & talking of Scots music, Miller expressed an ardent ambition to be able to compose a Scots air.-Mr. Clarke, partly by way of joke, told him, to keep to the black keys of the harpsichord, & preserve some kind of rhythm; & he would infallibly compose a Scots air.-Certain it is, that in a few days, Mr. Miller produced the rudiments of a air, which Mr. Clarke, with some touches and corrections, fashioned into the tune in question… [quoted in The Life and Works of Robert Burns, 1896, by Robert Burns].

Now, maybe it’s just my being a fellow property lawyer – and clerk, for that matter, although we did away with teinds, finally, a few years ago. But I smell snobbery here: the inverse snobbery of the rock and roll lifestyler for the humble plodder; and, worse still, musical snobbery. The sub-text seems to be: ‘here was this bozo, wanting to write a Scots tune, so my old mucker Clarkey tells him to use the black keys of the harpsichord! What a joker! Wouldn’t you know, kind of monkeys-with-typewriters thing happens, and this poor booby comes up with something half decent? Of course, the Clarkester needs to do quite a bit of tidying up, and there we go…’

Is it just me? Probably. But it’s significant that, from Miller getting sole authorship credits in Gow’s musical collection, a modern day site like tunearch credits the tune to ‘James Miller and Stephen Clarke.’

Well, I say, sod that. Miller’s my kind of bloke, and I reckon he should get the credit he deserves. Black keys, indeed! If it’s as I think it is, the black keys on the harpsichord correspond to those on the piano, and the only tune you could get out of them is the one for the Flake advert (try it out on a keyboard near you, if you don’t believe me). Jimmy Miller did it all by himself, and Burns and his organ-playing monkey can go and get raffled.

Which brings me to my lyrics, which, frankly, owe far more in inspiration to Mr L. Cohen, of Montreal, than Mr R. Burns, of Alloway. It may upset some traditionallists, so if I’m found, my innards carved up like a haggis, bearing the bruises of a blunt instrument like a faux-leather volume of poems, you know where to start looking.

But even if you don’t like the words, you can at least appreciate the violin playing of Ms J Kerr, of Kirkcaldy, my colleague, friend, and contemporary. Niel Gow, at least, would be pleased.
















Adverts down here. Bet Burnsy didn’t have to put up with that on his blog.

That Difficult Second Album (again)

So, regular readers of this blog (who must number, oh, I don’t know, single figures, but are clearly very discerning) will know that I’m in the process of finishing off my second solo album, to follow up my soaraway success debut, Songs in a Scottish Accent. (1)

Things are actually, finally, starting to coalesce. It’s not that I’m suffering from shortage of material – in fact, I’ve probably got enough between the finished stuff and the half-written to fill a double album – but I’m trying to put together something that’s coherent in some sort of way: certainly not a concept, and I’d be lying if I said the songs were all one style, but still. They seem to hang together in my head, at least.

The song I’ve just got to next-to-final draft is maybe out on the edge thematically. The country punk band I’m in, Isaac Brutal, has many qualities, one of which is the level of inter-band banter on the Facebook group message. In one of these, the phrase ‘It’s all gravy,’ came up, and I just kind of picked it up and ran with it. I describe it as Kafkaesque country.

More releases to come up soon – I’m particularly looking forward to one called ‘Due Ceremony,’ which borrows a tune fellow Scots may recognise…

(1) Actually, I have now given away almost all copies of my first album, so if you’ve missed out so far, let me know. Remember, it’s free in return for a contribution to a refugee charity, which I just trust you to make, so no complicated filling in of online forms or such. I don’t even ask for your email addy.

Alternatively, you can download the tracks from the Soundcloud site – but be warned, all but a few of them will be disappearing soon to make room for the new album…









Below here be adverts. Nothing to do with me squire. Just saying.

Shelf by Shelf: A Bookcase View

We recently laid new carpets and vinyl through most of the ground floor of our house. Not the most exciting opening to a blog entry, I grant you, but work with me on this! One of the great things about the kind of upheaval this entails is the opportunity to de-clutter: and, in the case of my bookcase, to reorganise.

I once knew a woman who had her book collection sorted in what, to me, seemed the most counter-intuitive way: by the colour of the spines. She shared a great big old high-ceilinged flat near London Road with her partner of the time, and there was a huge bookcase along one wall of the living room, with the books as a sort of art exhibit, mutating through blue, red, purple and the rest. Whatever colour the book’s spine was, that was where you’d find it. She was, needless to say, as well as being a very talented writer, also a visual artist.

Well, I’m not that clever, or counter-intuitive. I still think in terms of bookshop classifications, normally, when putting things together (apologies, librarians). However, I also went through some sort of long dark tea time of the soul a few years ago about what a bookcase was for. Is it to show what a clever clogs you are and display all the literary classics you’ve ploughed through, sometimes with gritted teeth? Or is it to hold on to books you’ll never read again because you have a connection to them? I sometimes think that, ideally, it should be a bookcase full of books you’ve not read yet, but I don’t suppose that’s going to happen. And yet…

And yet considerations of space also come into consideration. With a burgeoning guitar habit to support, the living room and diner doesn’t have limitless wall area. So, a few years ago, Thomas Hardy was brutally murdered and his remains disposed of to a charity book shop. Ditto one hell of a lot of poetry anthologies I was never really going to look at again.

This time round, I realised there still were quite a few classics I’d been holding onto in case Daughter and Heiress needed them for some sort of class essay or whatever. Given she’s now beyond the school stage and studying the fact-based world of journalism, that doesn’t still need to happen. Said classics are now in a box next to me here in the study, awaiting transportation to Oxfam in Edinburgh (yes, the drugs n’ hookers revelations haven’t put me off my default charity. And I’m sure none of it went on in their Morningside branch anyway).

So what survived? Well, shelf by shelf:

I guess this is what you might call the ‘place-based’ section: on the left, a group of books about Spain which might yet form the backbone of that travel book I’ve been threatening for a while. On the right, books about Fife, Edinburgh (including Charles Smith’s fantastic book about the south of the city) and some related ‘Scottish interest’ books on things like Burke and Hare, witchcraft, and so on.

That’s the top shelf, apart from the glass head with the corks in it. Oh, and a wee replica of Rodin’s Thinker, just out of shot. Together they must mean something, I suppose.


Second top, my Iain Banks (and Iain M Banks) collection, which I can’t bear to part with, having fleetingly known the great man. Then, in the middle, a very limited collection of classics I can’t – or won’t – give up: Dracula, Frankenstein, Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, The Shining. Oh, and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which isn’t really fiction, or at least so he says.

To the right of that, a group of books by people I’m proud to call my friends – fellow travellers from Writers’ Bloc, and others. Pride of place has to go to the anthology with my mate Gavin Inglis in it, entitled ‘Grunt and Groan: the New Fiction Anthology of Work and Sex.’

Next up, the Fergusons. Lots of anthologies of short stories with one of mine in – some of them even paid! – a couple with my brother’s; and my late Dad’s books on Glenrothes, his contribution to the Stair Memorial Encyclopedia of Scots Law, and his book on my grandfather, ‘A Huntly Loon,’ still available from the family for a very reasonable price.

To the right of the elephant book end are books I’ve bought but not read right through yet. My intention is to work on these steadily, and meantime not buy any others, given that the shelf is full: an intention only stymied by the pile of similar size by my bedside I’m working through, too. You may recognise the problem.

The shelf below that is a bit more eclectic. Some random non-fiction stuff, including a book on UK accents, and an excellent wee treasure my Dad’s cousin gave me years ago, ‘How to Lie with Statistics,’ by Darrell Huff.

Poetry, including Dylan’s lyric book (now there’s a debate…) and then, extending to the far end, my ever-increasing stock of Robert Louis Stevenson. I  have at least three different versions of ‘Kidnapped,’ but I can’t bear to get rid of any of them. RLS has, like Iain Banks, been such a powerful influence on my writing, that he’s going to stick around, no matter how Stalinist my subsequent bookshelf cleansings become.


Next to last is the Outsize Shelf – books that are, frankly, too big to go on any of the other ones. Roughly divided into language dictionaries (plus a CD on Finnish I really must get back to Hannu Rajaniemi some time); song lyrics; cookery books that need sorted through to see if we’ll really ever cook with them again (but I bet Delia Smith will survive the next purge) and gardening books.

Below that, apart from a couple of Bibles retained for sentimental family reasons, an empty shelf, which is really too small to fit much into upright.


Does it show me as a well-read, cultured creature? Probably not so much. Has sentiment played as much a part as anything else in what stays? You betcha. These are, in the end, the guys that I want to keep close: because, for me, books have more meaning than all the words in them put together.

Does that even make sense?

















Below here be weasel words that sell you things. Read a book instead. Or, indeed, a bookshelf.


A Tale of Two Amplifiers

Ok, let’s talk amplification, people. I’m talking about the means by which guitars – and in my case, almost exclusively acoustic ones – are made louder than they naturally are.

Three reasons why I decided to do this. First, Vox have just brought out a new range of acoustic amps and, being Scottish, I thought it was a good time for you to look again at the previous lot as they’re likely to be on sale in a guitar shop near you soon. Secondly, since the original post I did about my first acoustic amp, the Vox AGA 30, I have splashed some cash on the Marshall AS50D and I thought, after a good year or so of use, it was time to compare and contrast the two.

The third reason is pretty shameless, really. Week in, week out, month in, month out, year in, year out, that Vox amp review gets hits. It just keeps on trucking as the most visited post I’ve ever done. Honestly. I might have written the most brilliant literary works of fiction, the most penetrating gig reviews, the most acerbic Dorothy Parkeresque jeu d’esprits, and none of them would have done as well as that amp review, according to the WordPress stats.

Any of you who’ve read the original review of the Vox will know it was pretty positive. So why buy a second amp? To explain, I have to tell you a little about my musical life, so any of you that know this already, you can scan on. I play with two bands: my own acoustic duo, Tribute to Venus Carmichael, and my mate Mark Allan’s country punk outfit, Isaac Brutal. As far as Venus was concerned, my motivation was to make us self-sufficient for small pub back rooms, having the additional option of more inputs should there be a bit of backing vocal needed, or even just another place to jack in another guitar.

And as for Isaac Brutal, well. The current line up consists of  drums, bass, two electric guitars, singer and me. Frankly, the little Vox wasn’t quite up to being heard above the racket. So I had me a little tour of Amazon’s warehouse deals section, and found myself a good bargain of a Marshall AS50D in a very natty racing green.

Image result for Marshall AS50D

And on the first – and arguably least important – point of comparison, looks, the Marshall wins hands down. Just look at it! It’s like a vintage Aston Martin that’s been compressed into a rectangular box. Utterly gorgeous. And, while it shouldn’t matter, when you’re setting up for a gig and people see that legendary Marshall signature across the grill, it does look – well, a bit like you know what you’re doing.







The Vox? They’ve tried their best with a tan leather effect for the box, a vaguely tweedy cover for the speaker, and vintage-stylee ivory-coloured knobs, but it pales in comparison, frankly.

So, half a point maybe for the Marshall. On the other hand, I would give a full point to the Vox for relative weights – it’s light as a feather, whilst the Marshall, er, isn’t. Frankly it’s a big clunky bugger to lug around.

Yes, yes, you say. That’s all very well, but how do they operate in gig conditions, and how do they sound?

The first thing I’m going to say may sound unimportant, but if you frequent the kind of murky venues I do, and/or have less than perfect vision like mine, it’s kind of worth half a point to the Vox. Its knobs are on top, and a bit easier to twiddle as you go along as a consequence. Even if you have the Marshall on a chair, you’re going to have to squat down and peer at the controls in a way that’s frankly not terribly rock and roll.

On the other hand, as I found at an outdoor festival a couple of years ago, the fact the Marshall’s electrical inputs are tucked away under an overhang on the front elevation can be an advantage if it starts to rain. At that time, I only had the Vox, and it was buzzing in a way that didn’t give me a lot of confidence as to my future well being. I mean, literally dying on stage may be rock and roll, but I’m hoping to keep it to the metaphorical kind for a few years yet.

Controls-wise, they’re initially similar: both have two inputs, each with bass and treble controls, anti-feedback, and chorus and reverb options. The Marshall has a separate, more sophisticated two-knob chorus effect, whilst the Vox has a single knob that gives you reverb, chorus, or reverb and chorus. Since it’s mainly reverb I’m looking for, the difference doesn’t put me up or down, really. The Marshall also has greater sophistication regarding loop options and a DI socket, but, again, I’ve not investigated any of these options yet – either I’m using the amp as the sound source, or I’m DI’ing direct into the PA with the sound guy mixing for me. The Vox has a line out facility which was used to great effect at one early gig (see previous review). Both have a footswitch socket – which, interestingly, the new acoustic guitar Vox, the VX50AG, doesn’t seem to have, according to a recent review in Acoustic.

Sound-wise, there are differences. My main acoustic guitars are, firstly, a Lag ACE100 that I’d recently got at the time of the first review. Outstanding sound acoustically: unfortunately, the pickups are a bit rubbish. I need to get one of those LR Baggs ones some time for it! And secondly, my latest baby, which you can see me wielding in the picture above: an Epiphone EJ200CE, an absolute beast of a thing based on the original Gibson Jumbo model. I may do a comparison review between the two guitars at some stage, as they’re similar in price point, but perform a very different purpose for me: the Epiphone is actually quite quiet to play acoustically, but amped up, it sounds plenty sweet – and loud. (If you want a decent review of the latter in the meantime by a gigging musician, check out this one).

Here’s the thing. Up until Wednesday night’s gig, I would’ve said, (and indeed was saying in an earlier draft of this) if  I’m playing a small, intimate gig, as I almost always am (the stadium tour will have to wait another year or two, or maybe another lifetime) the Vox is the thing I want to plug into – especially the input which doubles as a vocal channel. It gives the Lag a lovely, honeyed sound, and the Epiphone, too – although she’s never quite going to match her older sister for tone. If the Lag were a Rioja, she’d be a Gran Reserva for all those gorgeous woody notes.

Image may contain: 3 people, people on stage and people playing musical instrumentsFull throttle Brutality. Pic: Kenny Mackay


On the other hand, I’d said, if I’m gigging with the Brutal boys (and girl) and I need to be heard higher up  in the mix (on those rare occasions where I’m playing the riff, for example) then the Marshall’s the thing I lug into the venue. Much more resistant to feedback, its 50 watts can be used to good effect for the Epiphone or – and here’s why I said almost always acoustic at the top of the review – the Danelectro 12 string that I have on semi-permanent loan from Mr Brutal himself. That Marshall crunch is there when you need it, but equally, its tone for the quieter acoustic stuff is there too.

So what changed the other night? Bear in mind a lot depends on the acoustics of the venue, the mikes you’re using for the vocals, etcetera. But last night, for whatever reason, Kelly’s vocals were sounding a bit muffled on the Vox, so I switched them over to the Marshall. I’ve never heard her sound better. And, while the Vox did its usual good job with the Lag (and my occasional backing vocals) the Epiphone, out of the other Marshall input, was sounding fantastic.

So there you are. It’s horses for courses, frankly. If you’re in a folk-rock band, or indeed country punk, the Marshall is a thoroughly good amp, with a sweet sound and plenty of oomph when you need it. I’m not going to be retiring my little Vox any time soon, neither.

Tomorrow night’s a Brutal gig. The Vox is tucked up at home, safe and sound. The Marshall, though. The Marshall’s ready to get down and dirty in Henry’s Cellar Bar. And I know it’s got my back.
















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Oscar López Rivera


This is the fruit of many hours of homework! It’s a translation of an original Guardian article about the Puerto Rican independence activist/terrorist/freedom fighter (depending on your point of view) Oscar López Rivera. The article was written during the closing days of the Obama administration, as López Rivera waited to see if the outgoing President would grant him a pardon.

You can read how that turned out in the Guardian’s follow up article in January 2017. He remains a controversial figure, as this Newsweek article from June last year demonstrates. An equally controversial referendum in Puerto Rico that month produced a 23% turnout of whom 97% voted, not for independence, but for full statehood within the US.

Many, many thanks to my Spanish teacher, Ana, for all her patience and corrections of my many errors. Any remaining are all my own work, obviously.

A mural dedicated to Oscar López Rivera in Puerto Rico.

Original pic of mural: the Guardian

 ‘No Soy Una Amenaza’

Oscar López Rivera ha servido 35 años en una cárcel estadounidense pero nunca ha sido condenado de un crimen de violencia. Habla con Ed Pilkington sobre sus oportunidades de un perdón presidencial, siendo el Nelson Mandela de Puerto Rico, y su fascinación con la mariposa Monarca.

Monarch butterfly tours Mexico

Original pic:

En cualquier momento, las mariposas monarcas empezaran su migración épica de Canadá hasta Méjico. Es una de las maravillas del mundo: insectos cuyas alas de color naranjas y negras, las cuales apenas se extienden hasta cuatro pulgadas van volando sobre corrientes hasta 3,000 millas en busca de un cálido rincón para pasar el invierno.

El fenómeno le ha encantado a Oscar López Rivera desde los días de su juventud en los campos de Puerto Rico. Si tengo suerte, dice, una de sus grandes ambiciones es rastrear la ruta de los monarcas, por todo el camino desde la frontera de Canadá, tras las grandes llanuras de Estados Unidos hasta el norte de Méjico. ‘Es algo fascinante para mí, las monarcas,’ añade. “El largo de su viaje, y lo que hacen para sobrevivir: ¿cómo puede un insecto tan pequeño ir así de lejos?”

Es una pregunta poderosamente dolorosa cuando consideras quien está haciéndola. Durante los 35 años pasados, López Rivera ha sido incapaz de volar, sus alas han sido cortadas. Ha sido detenido en instituciones federales, por 12 de estos años totalmente solo dentro de un cajón de 6 por 9 pies de concreto donde no podía ver el cielo. La última vez que vio una mariposa viva, sin mencionar una monarca, fue en 1981.

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Terre Haute Penitentiary, Indiana. Imagen: Clark Construction

López Rivera ha cumplido uno de los más largo tiempos como preso en el Estados Unidos, así mismo el mundo. Edad de 73, ha pasado más de una mitad de su vida detrás de las rejas. Es condenado de matar a nadie, de hacer daño a nadie. Su crimen fue ‘conspiración sediciosa’- tramando contra el estado estadounidense en el fomento de la independencia puertorriqueña. Todavía cree en lo que llama ‘causa noble:’ soberanía completa para su lugar de nacimiento, el caribe, clasificado como ‘terreno’ de estados unidos.

Pero sus opiniones sobre como alcanzar esta meta han cambiado. Hace dos décadas él, y sus compañeros de lucha para la independencia puertorriqueña renunciaron a la violencia y embrazaron la reforma política pacífica. El último año cuando el grupo militante del que es miembro ha cometido un acto violento fue en 1983. Aún allí está sentado en su cárcel, leyendo y pintando, el ultimo de su género encarcelado, tan venerable que sus presos compañeros lo llaman ‘El Viejo.’

Es como estar encerrado en una capsula de tiempo, atrapado para siempre en los aferrados setentas, un setentero de pelo blanco forzado a vestirse en una camisa floral, pantalones anchos y tacones, bailando a Chic. El mundo, como López Rivera, ha avanzado, pero el gobierno estadounidense lo ve todavía entre el prisma de una edad pasada.

A menos que alguien intervenga para que lo liberen, se quedara en cautiverio hasta el 26 de junio 2023, cinco meses después de cumplir los ochenta. Afortunadamente para López Rivera, hay una persona que tiene el poder de la clemencia: Barack Obama. Como el presidente se prepara para salir de la Casa Blanca, está redactando su lista final de perdón, dando al preso una pequeña esperanza mínima.

Muchos aficionados prominentes están presionando para el perdón. Ellos forman parte de una lista impresionante: El Arzobispo Desmond Tutu; El Gobernador de Puerto Rico García Padilla; el Comité Hispano del Congreso Estadounidense; el pasado presidente Jimmy Carter; Bernie Sanders (el candidato en segundo para la presidencia); y el creador del musical de Broadway galardonado Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, quien se ha enfrentado cara a cara durante una reciente visita a la Casa Blanca con Obama sobre López Rivera.

Protesters call for the release of Oscar Lopez Rivera in October outside of the White House. Imagen: Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press 

El Domingo, 9 de octubre, miles de aficionados se reunieron afuera de la Casa Blanca llevando pancartas del preso y pidiendo a Obama para que lo libere, sus voces se proyectaban desde el jardín del Sur de la mansión, esperando que el presidente trabajando en su Despacho Oval pueda oírlos y actuar, por consiguiente.

¿Con amigos como estos, seguro que López Rivera es un favorito para ser liberado? Según el mismo, no, quien se queda filósofo sobre su suerte. ‘Yo no practico ilusiones en vanas,’ lo dice en ingles perfecto, con un fuerte acento puertorriqueño. ‘Es muy difícil para mí leer al Presidente Obama. La manera que ha sido tratado, los obstáculos a que lo se ha enfrentado en la Casa Blanca, lo hace un poco asustadizo sobre decisiones.’

Que comentario cuidadosamente balanceado sobre algo tan profundo como su libertad. En el transcurso de una conversación de dos horas por teléfono (la cárcel federal en Terre Haute, Indiana habiendo negado al Guardian para visitarle en persona) llega a ser claro que este no es un artificio: el tono profesoral es verdadero para este hombre.

López Rivera dice que tiene un poco de esperanza de las expresiones frecuente de admiración que Obama hace por Nelson Mandela. ‘Abrazaba a Mandela como un gran hombre, vio que lo que hizo Mandela fue importante para todo el mundo.’

Provocar una comparación con Mandela puede parecer descabellado para un hombre que no es bien conocido en los estados unidos, pero en su país López Rivera es dado el papel de ‘Mandela de Puerto Rico’ frecuentemente. Mandela ha servido 27 años en cárceles sudafricanas por ser líder de una lucha de liberación contra colonialismo, utilizando la violencia como herramienta política; López Rivera ya ha servido ocho años más, argumentativamente por hacer lo mismo. Mandela negó renunciar a la violencia desde su celda, López Rivera lo ha hecho, hace 20 años.

López Rivera nació en 1943 en San Sebastián, en el noroeste de Puerto Rico. Pasó su juventud viviendo en el limbo de la constitución que ha definido la isla desde 1898, cuando fue cedido hasta los Estados Unidos por España. Ni un estado soberano ni el estado cincuenta primero de la Unión, Puerto Rico está atrapado entre los dos. Su gente son ciudadanos estadounidenses, tienen pasaportes estadounidenses, y pueden servir en el ejercito militar de los Estados Unidos, como López Rivera pronto lo descubriría. Pero cuando se trata de votar para el presidente de los Estados Unidos o un diputado en el Congreso estadounidense, un puertorriqueño es persona non grata. Bastante rico, podía pensar, viendo de una nación como los Estados Unidos, fundado sobre los principios de no impuestos sin representación.

‘Para lo único que valemos es ser carne de cañón,’ añade López Rivera, en una manifestación extraña de desacuerdo.

No que tuviera una idea sobre esto creciendo en San Sebastián y Chicago, donde su familia se ha mudado cuando tenía 14 años. Él era un muchacho para quien los conceptos de autodeterminación, o llevando la yunta de los Yanquis fue como extraño como la física nuclear. ‘Antes que sirviera, era despreocupado puertorriqueño. Disfrutaba la vida. No prestaba atención a nada más que a sí mismo.’

Y entonces, Vietnam. ‘Llegué creyendo que estábamos llevando la libertad a los vietnamitas, pero el momento que pisé el suelo entendí que esto no pasaba. Hicimos operaciones que duraban 30 días, poniendo a los aldeanos fuera de sus hogares, trasladándoles de los arroceros, registrándoles de pies a cabeza.’

Image result for bronze starUna Estrella de Bronce

Cuando volvió a Chicago un año después, llevando una Estrella de Bronce por los méritos obtenidos, dice que ha logrado concluir una transformación. ‘Sentí una obligación de cambiar mi punto de vista hacia la vida. Ahora podía ver lo que hizo el colonialismo a la gente.’

Se puso a trabajar con la comunidad de puertorriqueños de Chicago. Lo cual se puso en contacto con las familias de nacionalistas encarceladas y, sin sospechas que, un día, se uniría con sus filas fue anclado en el movimiento y, al final, se convirtió en un miembro de la clandestina Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional.

Como el nombre lo sugiere, el FALN creía que la fuerza armada sea justificada como un final. Entre su fundación en 1974 y su fallecimiento efectivo en 1983, como resultad de detenciones masivas, se dijo por los perseguidores, el FALN ha hecho más o menos 140 bombarderos sobre bases militares, oficinas del gobierno y edificios financieros a través de los estados unidos, especialmente en Chicago y Nueva York. Los blancos fueron elegidos siendo símbolos del ‘imperialismo yanqui,’ como compañías petroleras con plantas en aguas puertorriqueñas.

López Rivera insiste que el blanco fue siempre las propiedades, no la gente. ‘Para mí, la vida humana es sagrada. Nos llamamos ‘propaganda armada’ usando blancos para llamar atención a nuestra lucha.’

Podía ser la verdad, pero los resultados fueron, diplomáticamente, inconsistentes. En 1975, el grupo reclamó responsabilidad por un bombardero al histórico Fraunces Tavern en Manhattan Bajo, la base central de George Washington durante la revolución americana. El ataque mató cuatro personas e hirió más de 50. Dos años después, un empleo al edificio Móvil en Nueva York fue asesinado por otro artefacto del FALN.

López Rivera ha negado estar involucrado con estos ataques fatales. Pero cuando lo pregunté si alguna vez ha cometido actos de fuerza armada como instalando una bomba, respondió: ‘No puedo comentar sobre esto.’ Interesantemente, todavía reclama la justificación para la violencia bajo la ley internacional, usando el presente: ‘Creo que estábamos observando la ley internacional que dice que el colonialismo es un crimen contra la humanidad y que la gente colonial tiene el derecho de tomar la auto-determinación bajo cualquier medida, incluso la fuerza.’

Pero también es firme que la decisión de renunciar la fuerza fue verdadero y permanente. Hasta 1990, el movimiento estaba cambiando con los tiempos. ‘Nos dimos cuenta de que otras estrategias podía ser más efectivas, trasladando la gente entre campañas pacificadoras. Moralmente, también, venimos a ver que debemos dar ejemplo, que si abogamos para un mundo mejor hay cosas que no puede hacerse. No puede hacer un mundo mejor siendo injusto yo mismo.’

Cuando le pregunte si él podría ser una amenaza al público, si Obama lo liberase, responde; ‘no creo que pueda ser una amenaza. Hemos transcendido la violencia – es importante que la gente entienda, no abogamos nada que puede ser una amenaza a nadie.’

Fue detenido en 1981 en un control rutinario en Chicago y acusado de conspiración sediciosa – un cargo muy raro de conspiración contra los Estados Unidos que fue usado por primera vez después de la guerra civil contra sudistas denegados, y después aplicado a los anarquistas y socialistas antes de ser usado contra los independistas puertorriqueños como a él.

Al juicio, los fiscales no han ofrecido alguna evidencia vinculándolo a cualquier muerto o herido, o así mismos ataques específicos. Por su parte, él y sus compañeros han negado reconocer el proceso judicial, nombrándose un prisionero de guerra, decidiendo no tener defensa ni asistencia al juicio. Todavía describe la conspiración sediciosa como ‘un crimen imposible.’ Me ha dicho: ¿Como puede un puertorriqueño ser sedicioso al estado estadounidense cuando nunca tomamos parte en elegir al gobierno estadounidense?’

Su sentencia fue 55 años. Por el contrario, como su abogado, Jan Susler, ha señalado, la sentencia media para un asesino en 1981 fue 10.3 años. Mas tarde, su sentencia fue extendida a 70 años, cuando, insiste, que fue engañado por agentes, al implicarle en un caso de intento de fuga.

En una persona menos disciplinada, tanto tratamiento duro podría engendrar una amargura desesperanza. Para López Rivera, no. Recuenta su tiempo en la cárcel con brío al borde de entusiasmo. Si, ha enfrentado a ‘tiempos terribles,’ siendo calificado como terrorista por los guardias, llamado un ‘spic’ y peor. Pero siempre ha hecho buen uso su vida de encarcelación, dice.

‘Cuando llegué al principio a la cárcel, me hice una promesa: pueden encarcelarme, pero el tiempo que paso en la cárcel es mi tiempo. Lo uso para mi propia ventaja, mis propias metas. Del momento que despierto hasta el momento que voy a mi cama, mantengo activo.

Significa levantándose a las 4 de la mañana a un régimen de ejercicios de 40 minutos, estiramiento, ejercicios abdominales, rutinas para el cuerpo superior. Lee mucho. De momento, está leyendo ‘Orientalism,’ por Edward Said, y antes de eso devoraba el libro de la escritora de Nueva York Jane Mayer sobre billonarios donadores derechistas, ‘Dark Money.’

Enseña a los otros presos a leer, escribir y hablar español. Le gusta también pintar como una manera de salir de la prisión hasta el mundo de afuera. Usa como su modelo fotos de paisajes o vistas del mar que desgarra de las revistas, compensando su falta de acceso al mundo natural.

Empezó a pintar después de la implicación de intento de fuga, cuando se pasó en el aislamiento en dos de las cárceles más duras ‘supermax’ en los estados unidos: Marion, Illinois y Florence, Colorado. Pasaría todo salvo dos horas cada semana en su celda concreta sin vista del cielo. ‘Poco a poco, todo comienza descolorarse. Sus ojos empiezan a cambiar como ve las cosas. Ve menos de color: todo enturbia hasta el amarillo-gris de las paredes de la celda.

Entonces volvió a pintar para traer los colores a su vida de nuevo. Esto es cuando redescubrió su pasión por la mariposa monarca, reproduciendo dibujos de los insectos como reflexión sobre su migración. Tengo que ser fuerte. Siempre creí que ellos no iban destruirme, que este no va a ocurrir.’

Aunque esta fuera de solitario todavía debe tratar con la deprivación social. A su sima, era uno de dos docenas de independistas en cárceles federales: ahora, es el último. Al paso de los años, ha visto a sus compañeros caminando libres, sus filas agoladas, hasta en 2010 se convirtió en el único. Esta sanguínea sobre esto también. ‘Nunca me he sentido abandonado o solitario. No hay sentimiento en mi corazón.’

Pensar en no tener arrepentimiento sobre su situación es lo más extraordinario que el haber podido ser liberado en 2009. En agosto 1999, Bill Clinton hizo lo que los seguidores de López Rivera están insistiendo a Obama hacer: usó sus últimos días en oficio para dar un indulto presidencial a once miembros independistas puertorriqueños. A López Rivera le ofrecieron un acuerdo menor en el que podría ser liberado después de una década, pero lo rechazó, porque dice que no tenía fe en el gobierno estadounidense manteniendo de lado el trato, y estaba decepcionado que un par de sus compañeros de lucha no tuvieron ninguna oferta de indulto.  ‘Cuando estaba en Vietnam nunca deje a nadie. No es mi estilo. No podía hacerlo,’ dice.

¿Seguramente habría tenido momentos de duda durante los últimos siete años cuando había negado el trato que podría haberlo liberado? ‘Nunca. Creo en principios. Para mí, la decisión fue la que debía haber tomado.’

¿Ahora cuál es la probabilidad que Obama finalmente va a dejar las puertas abiertas de la celda? Una cosa en el cálculo de Obama puede ser que la ronda de indultos de Clinton provoco una bola de fuego de oposición en el Congreso y la prensa. Los Clinton terrorismo perdones’ son todavía una pesadilla hasta hoy, aunque la acusación pasa por alto un hecho irregular sobre las liberaciones: que no hay un solo acto criminal cometido por los militantes FALN durante los 16 años de su liberación.

La reacción a Clinton pudo quizás explicar la aparente equivocación de Obama. Es reportado que ha señalado a Lin Manuel Miranda que la petición de clemencia para López Rivera estaba ‘sobre su escritorio.’ Pero el miembro del Congreso Luis Gutiérrez, que es de descendencia puertorriqueña y ha sido un aficionado principal de un perdón, ha dicho que cuando preguntó a Obama sobre esta cuestión, el presidente lo ha disputado firmemente y ha dado una afirmación anodina que ‘procesos deben ser seguidos.’

Esto parece menos prometedor para el Mandela de Puerto Rico. Pero López Rivera responde a los mensajes mixtos provenientes de la Casa Blanca con una compostura personal. ‘No tengo elección que ser optimista,’ dice, como los guardianes de Terre Haute llaman el punto final sobre nuestro diálogo. La esperanza, es lo único que nunca podemos perder.’

Image result for monarch butterflyOriginal image:

Posdata: Martes el 17 enero 2017 López Rivera recibió el perdón de Obama con 208 otros encarcelados – un número récord.

Discovering your inner Plant, and other musical journeys

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Meredith Belbin. Bit of a rocker, apparently.

Anyone who, like me, has a day job featuring the pleasures of middle management, or even just belongs to an organisation that had cash to splash on an away day in the last thirty years, will have probably heard of the Belbin Team Roles. Invented by the eponymous management theorist, the general sketch is that we all fit into one (or more usually) of nine moulds in terms of our role within a teamwork environment.

This isn’t the same as a set of personality types: instead, it focuses on what our approach to team work is. Grossly oversimplifying, the best type of team contains a spread of people with different attributes: having a whole bunch of, for example, Monitor Evaluators and nothing else in your team, would generally be a Bad Thing.

The nine roles are set out here, if you’re interested. However, the only reason I’ve brought it up is that the Redoubtable Mrs F was asked to complete a Belbin questionnaire recently; it made me look up the old stuff out of curiosity again; and it reminded me that, to my great disappointment, when I did the test about ten years ago, I wasn’t a Plant.

To be honest, I can’t remember what I was; a mixture of things, I think, with a vague tint of vegetation; but what self-styled writer and musician doesn’t want to fit into the definition of a Plant? ‘Tends to be highly creative and good at solving problems in unconventional ways.’ Nope. Not me. Not in a work context, anyways, it seems.

Well, when working on the latest of the tracks – or reworking it, I should say – for my next solo effort, I’d like to think I was a bit bit more of a Plant than, say, a Co-ordinator (‘Needed to focus on the team’s objectives, draw out team members and delegate work appropriately.’)

In fact, a bit more of a Robert Plant.

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Robert Plant. Not big on management theory, apparently.

Now, this is in no way to compare my vocal talents to the Golden-Maned One, currently drawing plaudits for his new album, Carry Fire. I’m no more him than I’m Jimmy Page on guitar. However, having completed the stripped down version of the track in question back in the autumn, as previously blogged about, I had put it aside to see how it developed. And then, quite recently, as I woke up one weekend morning, a melody came to me that fitted not just over the verse, but the chorus as well.

I tried really hard not to make it a flute part. Honestly. It just seemed too … well, too Led Zeppelin-era, really, what with all the lyrics about the Ninth Legion, an acoustic guitar in double-drop D, all that reverb on the singy bits… but try as I might with other synth voicings, I couldn’t make it work any other way.

So I decided to embrace my inner Plant, and hope you can too.  Imagine you can time travel, and transport yourself back to, oh, let’s say, 1973. In Glenrothes, Fife, the 11 year old me is reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth. In Fife, it’s probably raining. Meanwhile, in a sunny late summer field in Sussex, a hirsute young rock god is tuning down both E strings, while a willowy girl in a paisley pattern dress is mucking about on a wind instrument. The bearded one finishes his tuning, cocks an ear, and starts to improvise. Overhead, thunder begins to build a static charge around them, like a psychic crucible.

(The other track I’ve put up with it isn’t quite so epic in scale, but I’m reasonably pleased with it. It just happened to reach the same stage of completion around the same time. Usual rules apply – free to download if you like it, but think of giving something to a refugee charity if you do).























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Mother-in-law jokes and other bus-based beach-bound banter in Valencia


Your man on the bus seemed unpromising at first. In his seventies, and swaddled in one of those indeterminately brown coats favoured by pensioners the world over, he was complaining about the heat to start with. He stood up to open a window, and that got us talking.

I’d said I wouldn’t complain about it being 20 degrees at the end of December, like, ever. He asked me, in Spanish, ‘Are you French?’

To be fair, I often seem to be mistaken for a Frenchman in Spain. Given that they’re no more known than the Spanish for producing over six foot specimens with pale skin, blue eyes and a ginger beard, I can only assume it’s my accent: I explained that, no, I’d learned it at school, but as soon as I learned Spanish, all the French had gone. Desaparecido. Disparu, for that matter.

He confided in me that he spoke five languages: ‘Español, Valenciano, Frances, Claro, y Directo.’ Then, as the bus rattled on, he was full of banter: recommendations for the restaurant to go to when we got to the beach; notes and queries on the English sense of humour; and a story about his Edinburgh-based nephew’s medical career in Edinburgh when I assured him I was no more English than I was French.

He really was the best kind of random bus companion you could encounter: interested, interesting, an inquiring mind full of wisdom and humour. Although I didn’t try out my French on him – as I may have said already, it takes a left turn south of the Pyrenees these days before the end of the first sentence – he was obviously serious about his study of that tongue. And Clear and Direct, for that matter.

In language, he opined, there are often layers of meaning that are hard to appreciate as a non-native speaker. For example, he said, he had asked his French teacher what the difference was in that idiom between horrible and terrible. The Frenchman thought for a moment, and then gave the example of taking your mother in law to the beach with your family.

If your mother-in-law went swimming and was swept out to sea, he said, that would be horrible. On the other hand, if the tide brought her back in again, that would be terrible.

He got off well before the beach, having given me directions to the restaurant, and a recommendation that I try a dish of baby eels there as an aperitivo. He was going to eat, he said, at his wife’s house. Which was also his house. He was gone before he could explain that one more fully.

So, every guide book will tell you one of the places to visit when you’re in Valencia is the beach. And they’re right: I can imagine on a summer’s day the place is rammed with locals, tourists and beach bums alike, each of these tribes vying for supremacy, or at least first dibs on looking cool with a glass of something in hand.

On the other hand, we went on 30th of December, but even then it was pretty busy. So, to add in the boring travel book bit, the bus you get is a 32, and the area you’re heading for is variously called las Arenas, Playa Malvarrosa, or after the fishing village a bit inland, El Cabañal. We followed our new friend’s advice and got off at the first stop as the bus swings left along the sea front. From there, you head onto the front and turn right for a boardwalk cluttered with shops and restaurants, with a massive flagpole along at the far end.

To be honest, we didn’t follow your man’s recommendation of La Pepica – which I’d already read in a guide book was the one to go for. It had obviously benefitted from quite a few recommendations along the way; it was the swankiest of several restaurants who were aspiring to be swanky, and the prices were of commensurate swankiness. This isn’t like the beach front places I mentioned in Malaga: it’s been discovered long ago, so there are menus in English and meeters and greeters trying to grab you in – something that always makes me want to walk on.

That said, the inevitable paella we had in the place we went to was first class – we shared a vegetable one and an arroz a banda, similar to paella with shrimp and squid, preceded by a first course of calamares and salad. Not cheap. However, they have a bit of a captive audience: I set off in the direction of El Cabañal to see if there was something more authentic and inexpensive, but there seemed to just be block after block of flats before you got to anything approaching a village centre. Maybe worth a further explore if you’re feeling adventurous and you’re up for a decent walk.

Despite that, the beach is well worth a visit when you’re in Valencia. The locals still go there too, and it fairly buzzes with life. Even if you don’t get the best mother in law jokes on the way there.

Musical Milestones and the Theory of Everything

Love Me Do.jpg

4th September, 1962 was a busy day for Western pop culture. As day broke and my mother recovered from giving birth to her third child, the Beatles were preparing to fly down from Liverpool to record ‘Love Me Do,’ at Abbey Road studios, that afternoon. It was to be their first single release.

In the interests of precision, this wasn’t the first time they’d recorded this song at Abbey Road, and it wasn’t to be the last: they’d had a go at it in June of that year, with Pete Best on drums. By September, Best was gone and Ringo Starr was in:  but George Martin was dissatisfied with Ringo’s efforts and, a week later, the band reconvened to have another shot with session drummer, Andy White, with Ringo relegated to tambourine. However, the version recorded on my birthday was the one that became the single – at least for the first pressings of it: the story gets complicated after that.

Anyhoo, the point being, things have come a long way for all of us in the last 55+ years. For me, personally, obviously. For the music business and recording methods, almost as much. The Beatles’ first album (which, for completists, featured the Andy White version of ‘Love Me Do’) was recorded, aside from the first two singles and their B sides, in a single day – 11th February 1963.

Capitalising on the success of ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘Please Please Me,’ their second single, the Fab Four went into Abbey Road at 10.00 a.m. and came out at 10.45 p.m., having essentially recorded their live Cavern Club set in the intervening dozen or so hours. As anyone’s who’s tried to record anything in a studio knows, ten tracks in a day is pretty special: as Beatles writer Mark Lewisohn later wrote: “There can scarcely have been 585 more productive minutes in the history of recorded music.”

The point being, with digital editing software now available, any idiot can record music, and any idiot can can take their time. Indeed, you don’t even have to play a single note yourself to do it any more, with the advent of MIDI. I know one very talented musician who does just that.

I don’t use MIDI, and I do try to record all the instruments onto a track in a single take, even if it’s the third or fourth: I kind of feel it keeps me honest. The drums, of course, are digital. And I have to admit the kantele (pictured) on this is stitched together from a couple of goes. (You can read the story of how I built this Finnish folk instrument here).

But, overall, this has taken months and months to record. I’ve put it to one side, come back to it, decided on another instrument, tweaked it, added something else, then decided what to take away – the crucial bit. I hope you like the result.

The lyrics? I guess they’re about the knowledge and wisdom I’m supposed to have acquired since September 1962, and the difference between the two. Or something like that. I don’t know. I just write the stuff.


























Advertising has also come a long way since the days of the real Mad Men in the 1960s. There may be examples below here.