writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: June 2016

The £150 laptop 2: software vs wetware

The story so far: in a change from my usual practice of buying something mid range, I’ve gone for the cheapest laptop in the shop. Will it stand up to my gentle ministrations? Is the guarantee (which, together with the price of Microsoft Office, costs more than the laptop itself) worth the money?

Time was when you bought a computer, it was more or less plug and play. It was a brief and, in retrospect, heady period between you having to basically being your own computer programmer with an intimate knowledge of MS-DOS and today’s ‘everything stripped out so you get the hardware dirt cheap’ epoch, when you went into the shop and bought the whole thing preloaded with the software you actually needed to make it go. Then the Lizard People who rule us all realised this wasn’t optimising their way of keeping the masses down. It coincided, possibly not coincidentally, with that brief, equally heady time when people could publish stuff on the Web their on own and it wasn’t all monetised to death.

Whatever. We are where we are, which in the case of folks of average IT literacy like me is a tense stand off between the software you now have to download to make it go, and you, the wetware. I kind of imagine this as a conversation, like this:

Laptop: Hey, welcome! This is Windows 10, the software you tried on your desktop PC when we tempted you with a free download and it mucked the existing software up so much you had to spend half an hour uninstalling it and fixing lots of problems you hadn’t had before. But this is different. It’s got all sorts of stuff on it, like Trip Advisor – see the wee button there? Amazon, Dropbox…

Me: I’ve already got access to these things. I want to install Firefox, because my brother told me about it about ten years ago as being safer than Internet Explorer, and I’ve stuck doggedly with it ever since.

Laptop: Really? I’ve got OneDrive, which can even make you a cup of tea while you’re browsing all these commercial sites and spending lots of money by ordering stuff online you didn’t even know you needed.

Me: Really. Firefox, please.

Laptop: (shrugging) Ok. There you go. That was easy, wasn’t it? Anything else, you daringly hipster indie type?

Me: No need for sarcasm. AVG free edition, please. It’s kept me virus free for years.

AVG: So, you want the full commercial version?

Me: No, the free version.

AVG: So, you want the full commerical version?

Me (somewhat tersely) No, just the free edition, thank you.

Laptop: There it is downloaded. You want me to install it?

Me: No, I just want it sitting there in Firefox’s downloads folder, a glittering software jewel hanging there unused and untouched like the Koh-I-Noor of anti-virus software.

Laptop: Now who’s being sarky? There you go. Oops, no, it wouldn’t install itself.

Me: What? Why?

Laptop: Dunno. Just didn’t fancy it. You could go to the AVG website and spend a fruitless hour trying to work out why…

Me: No, just leave it. Ok, now –

Laptop: Hey, you know what you need?

Me: What?

Laptop: Adobe Flash Player. You know, that’s that thing that makes websites run and such, and if you don’t have it, the site takes the huff and won’t work properly?

Me: Oh, yeah. I suppose so.

Laptop: Great. Oh, and while I’m at it I’ve installed McAfee anti-virus free trial. And something else you’ll fleetingly see installing itself and never see again. Knew you’d want that, yeah?

Me: NOOOOO!!! I told you, I don’t want McAfee. You put a link to it on the desktop already and I’ve been studiously ignoring it ever since. Couldn’t you take a hint?

Laptop (with a hint of hurt pride): I was only trying to help.

McAfee: computer needs to restart to update McAfee.

McAfee: computer needs to restart to update McAfee.

Me: Go away, McAfee.

McAfee: computer needs to restart to update McAfee.

Me: $£%$%£&^%$!

Laptop: There’s no need to swear.

I haven’t even installed the Microsoft Office I bought yet. I haven’t the mental strength.

HP Stream 11-r050sa 11.6" Laptop - Blue








Any ads below here were put there by WordPress. They’re probably for bloody McAfee.


Songs in a Scottish Accent 2: the thing with demo versions

Here’s the thing with demo versions: you sometimes batter one out, first take of everything, because you’re so taken with the song that you want to share it with someone. When you share it with another musician, you usually preface it with remarks like, ‘it’s a bit rough, but…’ which is code for ‘I know this is less than perfect, so don’t be telling me I come in late on the second verse, or the guitar could be lower in the mix, because you know I know that already, right?’

This demo’s a case in point. I woke up one morning with the (very simple) melody going through my head. At the breakfast table, I started writing some lyrics; and unlike some of my songs, they came out in a single string. I mean, I couldn’t get them down fast enough. I don’t think I’ve changed more than one or two words since that first draft. They’re not the most literary lyrics I’ll ever do, and they’re not even autobiographical, apart from the last verse, but they get the job done. They’re heartfelt, and while they could be about some place on the Rust Belt Springsteen drove through once, but actually, they’re about my native land of south Fife, in the Scottish Lowlands.

The demo itself is probably my favourite of all time so far, since an earlier version of it’s what got me into the Isaac Brutal band, and I’ve performed the song live with them a couple of times now. It was still one that I filed mentally under ‘needs a bit of work before it’s really useable,’ for some time. I had problems in particular with the drums – Mixcraft’s library is set up primarily for techno and hip hop type stuff, and the gated Eighties style track I’d put on here just to have something to play along to wasn’t to my usual taste. Although probably appropriate for such a Springsteen-influenced number.

However, I went back to it the other day, and decided it had a bit of raw intensity. I particularly liked the organ solo I’d improvised: not quite Al Kooper lucking out on Like a Rolling Stone, but not far away from as good as I can do.

So here it is, pending a final version for the album. It’s a bit rough, mind!

POSTSCRIPT: Sorry, I’m too tight to go for the pro version of Soundcloud and host every single version I’ve ever recorded of stuff – as if anyone would want to listen to them all! Here’s the final version I settled on.








Adverts below here were put there by WordPress. They’re probably pretty smooth.

Glenrothes: the case for the defence

A few months ago my sister sent me an article about Glenrothes that had annoyed her, so it could annoy me, too. Written by a Marianne Taylor, its central theme – that the Thatcherite policy of Right to Buy for council houses had had unintended consequences, and mainly bad ones – was actually not anything I could disagree with. Without being too political, Right to Buy released a huge amount of capital out of the public sector into private hands – many of those hands being ordinary, working class people – leaving councils unable (and, frankly, unwilling) to build more houses, and creating the social sector housing shortage we have today.

The annoying bit was the reference (twice) to ‘brutalist’ architecture, and the photos that accompanied the article. The article writer grew up in Macedonia, the precinct that was built in the mid-Sixties, which therefore suffered from that heady time’s architectural mad period when houses were built with flat roofs, as if the average Scottish winter – rain, snow, hail, moderate storm force winds, and then maybe a bit more rain – could cope with flat roofs. The photos consisted of one of Marianne outside her former family home today, a childhood photo of her in the garden, and the main feature photo – a postcard of Glenrothes from 1967, taken from the edge of the Auchmuty area, and showing the town centre in all its boxy glory, with the central image of two massive skyscrapers.

To be fair, I suspect this image wasn’t Marianne’s idea, but rather something the Herald people dug out of the archives because they couldn’t be bothered sending a photographer the forty miles to take a picture of the town as it is today: although if they had taken it of the town centre today, again to be fair, it wouldn’t be any bonnier. The two ‘skyscrapers,’ incidentally, are office blocks, one of which is now demolished. Glenrothes only ever had one multi-storey block of flats, Raeburn Heights. You’ll see it in a minute.

Now, my family have a lot of history with this place, and I could go on about that. I could equally go on at length about the history of the new town itself, the various missed steps and bits of political interference that have crippled the original vision for the place; not to mention the slings and arrows of outrageous economics that it, like the rest of Scotland, has suffered over the years.

Instead, I’ll just tell you one story my Dad (who worked at the Development Corporation, and published three books about the town) told me, and then let you judge for yourself. Like many places in Scotland, Glenrothes had a number of deck-access maisonette flats built – this time in the next precinct up from Macedonia, Tanshall. The reason they were built, my Dad said, was that the Scottish Office at the time was keen to attract a factory that made concrete panels for them to Scotland. So every new town corporation, and every town council, that wanted to borrow money that year to build housing, was told: fine, but you’ll build these maisonettes out of these concrete panels. They were a massive mistake, but again, there was a reason behind them: jobs, although in this case not even in the town itself.

I’ve already gone on longer that I mean to. It’s just that, although I have a complicated relationship with the town I grew up in, I am passionate about it and its future. So, to counteract the misleading impression the photos may have given of Glenrothes, here are some the Redoubtable Mrs F took for me last month. Note the cheeky seagull photobomb in one of the pics of Raeburn Heights!





Pitteuchar precinct

Pitteuchar: view up the main road

retirement housing in Pitteuchar

Looking towards Auchmuty

Closer view of the roundabout near Raeburn Heights

Raeburn Heights. Note the cheeky seagull photo bomb

Raeburn Heights

Other side of Glenrothes town centre. Fife House in the distance: across the roundabout, St Columba's church

Looking up into Rimbleton precinct


South Parks















Everything below this is advertising by WordPress. And probably not even about Glenrothes.

Harum Scarum Court Cases: A Whiter Shade of Baroness Hale

I made what many people would think was a strange purchase in a charity shop in Aberdeen at the weekend: the sheet music for ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale,’ the Procol Harum classic. Here it is, suitably styled for photo by the redoubtable Mrs F:


First reason I bought it was it caught my eye. Nowadays, if you want to work out the chords for a song, you either do it by ear or go online, where there are any number of slightly dodgy sites that will give you the lyrics and chords to songs, and a couple of viruses to boot if you’re not careful. This, on the other hand, is quite pretty to look at: the girl with the hair on the cover, and the music inside, all on a parchment-like piece of paper which, far from being whiter than white is, well, a paler shade of beige!

The second reason was the story behind this particular copy. The copyright attribution suggests it dates from 1974, a whole seven years after the song first appeared as a smash hit that the Beatles and the Stones sat up and listened to in their Rolls Royces. On the front cover, hidden by daisies here for data protection purposes, is a name and address: Ken Sturgeon, of Esslemont Avenue (presumably the Aberdonian street of that name).


More intriguingly, on the inside in the same distinctive hand, the name of two hymns: ‘King of love my shepherd is,’ and ‘Now thank we all our god’ (Ken’s capitalisations). ‘Whiter Shade…’ was a popular piece of wedding music; the Redoubtable Mrs F had to remind me that the first of the hymns featured at our own nuptials. Was this, then, the wedding music for Ken and the soon to be Mrs Sturgeon? Or was he a church organist, familiar with the hymns but needing the sheet music for this weird hippy thing the happy couple had asked for? Any number of stories could start here. Why did Ken, after all these years, give it away? A man goes into a charity shop, buys a piece of music, and becomes obsessed with tracking down its original owner…

The third thing that tickled me about buying it was that, in doing so, I was buying a bit of contraband. The 1974 attribution is ‘Words and Music by KEITH REID & GARY BROOKER.’ That, of course, is not now legally correct, because in 2009, the House of Lords ruled that Matthew Fisher, the organ player who came up with the distinctive part, should be given a co-writing credit – and a share of the royalties from then on.

It’s nice to think that, given the passage of time, the judges weren’t the stereotypical old farts who had no idea who this popular beat combo were. In fact, Baroness Hale of Richmond was keen to subvert the stereotype, saying in her judgement: ‘As one of those people who do remember the sixties, I am glad that the author of that memorable organ part has at last achieved the recognition he deserves.’ Of course, if she does remember the sixties, she wasn’t really there, man.

Actually, Her Ladyship might have been a square in the Sixties, going to Richmond Ladies’ College, then Cambridge, and being called to the Bar (as we lawyers call it, for some unexplained reason) in 1969. All the same, as one of the Flower Power generation, she’s not done badly in terms of that old glass ceiling, being Britain’s most senior female judge. She’s spoken out frequently on the lack of gender balance in the upper echelons of the legal profession, earning the nickname ‘Ms Diversity,’ from her (probably male) detractors. She also seems to be charmingly self-deprecating about her fear of ‘being found out,’ as an article in the Torygraph outlines.

So respect is due to this square cat, dig?

I’m less sure how I feel about the final judgements in the case (Brooker et al won the earlier round: the House of Lords was then the final court of appeal). Baroness Hale was the only one of the Law Lords to point out that Matthew Fisher was only 20 years old when, in April 1967, he walked into Olympic Studios in London, sat at the Hammond M-102, and came up with the organ part that defines the song (Brenda Hale would, herself, have been 22 then). Previous to that Gary Brooker had composed the basic melody on piano to lyrics that the band’s manager/songwriter, Keith Reid, had come up with after hearing the title phrase at a party.

Fisher was newly in the band. The song, with its descending bassline, had the basis of the melody already. The lyrics – and I’m not even going to go there in terms of what they might mean, but you can if you want: the possibilities appear to involve sex and death – had been written. You could totally do the song without the organ.

But could you? Here’s one of my favourite versions of the song. It’s from 2006, when the lawsuit was already under way. At a music festival in Denmark, Brooker throws everything but the kitchen sink at the song, starting with the Danish National Concert Orchestra doing minor-key variations on the organ part. It’s almost as if he’s saying, ‘sound familiar? A bit like Bach, maybe?’ (Fisher’s contribution, it’s fair to say, sounds quite a bit like Air on a G String).

Then Brooker comes in on piano with the first verse. The orchestra swells behind him. Still no Hammond organ. First chorus. Still no organ. And then, finally …

I was four and a half when the song first came out, and very probably more interested in Captain Scarlett than any old music. The sheet music did trigger other memories though: my sister had the British single – pretty sure the B side was ‘A Salty Dog,’ and the sleeve was in similar shades of beige and cream as the sheet music. It was one of the first ‘pop’ songs I did come to like. And it was the organ part that really made it for me, starting a life long love of Hammond organ sounds.

Who cares who gets the songwriting credits, really? What matters is that, in April, 1967, some musicians got in a room and magic happened. And you can still hear that magic, captured in a bottle that day. Even in the House of Lords.











Anything below this is WordPress-initiated advertising. And is part of my contractual commitment to them. As Baroness Hale would tell you herself.