writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: March 2019

Albums of 1979: March

Less Than 100 Days To Go Until The General Election - Post ...March was month of strange portents. In the north-east of England, the middle of the month saw unprecedented blizzard conditions, with 50cm of snow falling on Newcastle.

Politically, however, the United Kingdom’s history was turned on its head by the outcome of a referendum, and a motion of no confidence in the Government forcing an election.

The referendum, on 1st March, 1979, was for Scottish devolution. The Scottish people voted by a majority of 77,437 for the proposals for a Scottish Parliament: however, the legislation provided for devolution only if 40% of all Scottish voters were in favour. With a turnout of 64%, only 32.9% were in favour, and Scotland would wait another 20 years for any form of meaningful self-government.

Suitably enraged, the SNP joined with the Liberals and the Conservatives in a motion of no confidence against James Callaghan’s Labour Government. The subsequent election in May brought Margaret Thatcher to power.

Crisis? What Crisis? (Callaghan apparently never really said that, but like all such political stories, it seemed believable enough to enough people for that not to matter).

So, with all that going on, what music was being released this month 40 years ago?

Supertramp - Breakfast in America.jpgMy first selection from the month’s releases didn’t reference any of that, or indeed the previous year’s so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ in the UK. This may be because Supertramp had decamped to the sunnier climes of California in 1977. ‘Breakfast in America,’ whilst not the outright satire of US culture that some supposed, dealt with American themes, and included four US Billboard hit singles.

Whilst I remember ‘Goodbye Stranger,’ the one that really stuck in my head – and got a lot of airplay amongst some of my friends – was ‘The Logical Song,’ which was annoyingly hooky. I’m pleased to learn from Wikipedia that it did, at least, win the Ivor Novello Award, both for lyrics and music, apparently.



Next up, a band I always liked whenever I heard a track of theirs, but never actually bought an album of (there’s a few of these).

Squeezing out sparks cover.jpg

Graham Parker and the Rumour released Squeezing Out Sparks this month: according to many critics, one of his best. You’d describe it as new wave, I guess: interestingly, while the Clash were looking to expand their sound, Parker was looking for a tougher, leaner sound on this album, with the outcome that Parker’s rhythm and blues session musicians all went to record on London Calling.

Standout tracks include ‘Discovering Japan,’ and ‘Protection,’ and, for me, ‘You Can’t Be Too Strong,’ even with its controversial subject matter.


Also this month in music: Elvis Costello gets in a fight with one of Stephen Stills’ touring entourage in a Holiday Inn in Columbus, Ohio. Costello’s disparaging remarks about America are rewarded with a punch. Kate Bush starts what will be her only tour for 35 years; Rod Stewart marries Alana Hamilton (was that number 2, or 3? Who knows); James Brown performs at the Grand Ole Opry; Ozzy Osbourne is fired by Black Sabbath.

Live at the Witch Trials.jpgMy final album selection is another band I should have listened to much more than I have: the Fall’s debut album, Live at the Witch Trials, was recorded in a day and mixed the day after. Undoubtedly influential on a thousand bedroom solace-seeking outsiders who would go on to form their own shoegaze bands, the album has been described as ‘an album of staggeringly rich, mature music, inner questioning hand in hand with rock and roll at its fiercest, its finest, its most honest, rock and roll at its naked, most stimulating prime.’

So there.






Under the Covers: What to do with Dylan and Isbell

When I started off playing guitar, all I did was cover versions. Then I started writing my own songs, and thought I didn’t want to do anyone else’s.

Both daft positions, of course: why would you not want to cover a song that means something to you? On the other hand, why would you think you could do better than the original?

There’s the thing, though. You can love a song, and its creator, to bits. You can think the instrumentation on it, the production values, everything about it are perfect the way they are. But if you fancy yourself as a bit of a musician, or even if you don’t (step forward, all you denizens of karaoke bars) your desire to produce your own version of it is directly related to how much you like the original!

Isaac Brutal. A collaborator

But how to cover it? Well, of course there are the physical and other limitations that most of us labour under – it’s not like most of us can call up the E Street Band, or the Tom Pettyless Heartbreakers, to give us a bit of a leg up in the studio. You can only work with what you’ve got. But limitations are only a funnel for creativity, after all – so what floats your boat? A reggae version of ‘War Pig’? ‘Ace of Spades’ reimagined as a piano ballad?

As part of my musical experimentation, I’ve been trying out a couple of covers recently. The first of them, Jason Isbell’s ‘Speed Trap Town,’ has been sitting about for a bit: I’d intended for one of my collaborators to put a bit of electric slide on it, but in the end he thought it wouldn’t add anything. Actually, since I last put this track up on Soundcloud, I’ve subtracted, mainly, rather than adding (apart from a bit of cello at one part) by taking out some of the atmospheric radio chatter. It’s such a great lyric, I wanted to be sure whatever I did was to serve the song.

This is by far the more ‘conventional’ cover: I even went on YouTube to check out what chords Isbell was using, and discovered a new way to play a G! But that lyric, though. If you did as spoken word, it would be a piece of flash fiction, and I intend to use it as an example in a wee chat on storytelling in songwriting I’m doing in a couple of months: starting with what Robert McKee would call ‘the inciting incident,’ the woman in the car park handing the narrator flowers, it goes on to tell the story of the narrator and his father, now lying in a hospital bed in a coma. Not all is as it seems, as a plot twist reveals towards the end of the song. It’s quite simply brilliant.

‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,’ on the other hand, needed different treatment. A classic song from Highway 61 Revisited, it is, in its original form, a very simple structure musically: basically a three chord trick. It’s probably one of the first songs I learned to play on the guitar, being from what’s probably my favourite Dylan album of all.

That being the case, I approached a cover of it with some trepidation. You could do it a number of ways, and I still think Isaac Brutal should do a country version: however, doing it largely on my own (although Mr Brutal himself contributed some guitar) I decided to ramp up the Gothic.

One of the reasons I rank this as one of Dylan’s best is that, in the throes of his drug-fuelled surrealist period, here’s a song that actually perfectly conveys a single story, that of a stranger in a strange land, prey to drugs, hungry women, official corruption, and worse. The opening line, according to some, was thrown out by Dylan’s friend Bobby Neuwirth as a challenge: ‘write a song with that!’ To which Dylan reportedly replied: ‘Sure. Hold my beer…’

Whether that’s true or not, it’s again, a great scene-setting opening line: When you’re lost in the rain, in Juarez, and it’s Easter time too… who among us hasn’t been there, figuratively, at least?

Anyhoo. When I got under the bonnet of the song, I more or less thought, what would Nick Cave do? Well, throw a couple of minor chords in, for a start…

Feel free to comment, and let me know what you think!


30 Years A Lawyer

To the Assembly Rooms, an historic pile on Edinburgh’s George Street, for the Law Society of Scotland Annual Dinner a couple of Fridays ago. If it sounds like I do this all the time, don’t be fooled: in the 32 years since I was admitted (a verb which almost seems to beg for the adverb grudgingly) to the Roll of Scottish Solicitors, this is the first time I’ve had an invite to this annual free feed.

I still don’t quite know why I got this time – maybe getting to the second edition of Common Good Law has persuaded someone I have persistence, if nothing else – but I’m in distinguished company: from Lady Hale, the top judge in the whole of the UK, Senators of the College of Justice, Government Ministers and celebrity lawyers like Aamer Anwar, down to just plain senior partners of the biggest firms and sector leaders in their field.

But this post isn’t all about me, or my place in the glittering firmament of the profession that’s been my working life all that time. Except to say, despite a lifetime of wanting to be something cooler, like, the next Robert Louis Hemingway or Bruce Dylansteen, in the past few years I’ve come to appreciate being a Scots lawyer, at least as a day job. It’s a good profession, full of sound, sensible types who quietly underpin some of the biggest things that happen in our society, without ever getting the credit for any of it (but generally getting the blame when it all goes a bit Pete Tong).

This being on International Women’s Day, the focus was, rightly, on the distaff side of the profession, and our President, Alison Atack, mentioned one stat which stuck in my mind: in 1988, when I had been a fully fledged lawyer for a year, out of 8,023 solicitors in Scotland, 26% were female. Last year, that number had risen to 11,699, and the percentage had also risen, to 53%.

That’s a remarkable turnaround. More so when you consider this: I was at university from 1980 till 1985, and, so far as I can remember, the gender balance in the class was roughly 50/50. However, I was speaking to a colleague at another legal event last week who had started her studies in 1975, and her recollection was that, at that time, only a third of the students were female.

She, like me, went to Edinburgh, by the way, and her memory of the bulk of those male contemporaries was that they came from Edinburgh, lived at home, and expected their Mum to wash their socks. It’s probably also fair to say that many of them had attended Edinburgh’s merchant schools of Heriot’s, Stewart’s Melville, etc.

Whether or not there was also a move in the socio-economic backgrounds of students at that time, the changing gender proportions tend to indicate that my generation of female lawyers were the first to start the ball rolling towards equality of numbers. That’s not the whole story, of course: there are still gaps in terms of pay, and senior positions in firms, between men and women.

Still. 53%.

Does it matter that women now outnumber men in the profession, 53/47? Is that difference statistically significant, or does it reflect a greater number of female lawyers working part time, balancing primary carer duties with their professional responsibilities? I suspect so. But it’s still a remarkable turnaround in my lifetime of lawyering.

If I am permitted to enter one plea for my gender, guilty as it may be of many things, it would be this. Of all the parents of my age that I know, it’s the ones with boys that seemed to have the worries about academic achievement. The ones with girls almost never had to encourage their daughters to work hard, study long, and aim for those A grades.

The consequence is that the law classes – and the other ‘hard’ subjects like medicine – are filling up with more females than males. On the basis that neither gender has the monopoly on brains, perhaps the time is coming when it’s the boys that need a helping hand at a certain point in the maturing process.

And speaking of maturing, here’s a pic of me at the Dinner with two of my best buddies, Al and Alan. Back in the Nineties we all lawyered in one place: and in amongst all the mischief we got up to, there was some pretty damn fine lawyering went on, if I may say so.

But there was a lot of mischief!

Image may contain: 4 people, including Alastair Mckie and Andrew C Ferguson, people smiling, indoor



I’m reading, I’m listening, I’m watching… more random reviews of stuff

I’m reading…

Well, I’ve read already – Bad Science, by the splendidly grumpy Ben Goldacre. A doctor who, at some point quite early in his career (he’s still only a relatively young 44, going by his Wikipedia bio) decided that he was going to take on the entire nutrition, diet, pharmaceutical and media industries himself, to uncover just how much bullshit is pumped out in the name of a headline or a quick buck, this is his first book (first published 2008).

It starts with easy targets, like the ‘detox foot spa,’ and then, in a brilliant progression, brings you quite effortlessly up to speed with the principle of proper evidence based research. And I say this as one of those arts and humanities types he rails against, my greatest ‘proper’ science achievement being Higher Biology in, er, 1979. Mind you, I did get an A in it. Just saying.




I’m listening…

Two recent acquisitions have broadened my musical horizons a tad –

Neko Case’s latest album, Hell-On, is a little hard to describe. It’s kind of singer-songwriting, but far more sophisticated than your average strummer. I’m not absolutely sure how much I like it yet, but it’s one of those albums that I think will repay quite a lot of listening.





Wave Pictures have been around for a bit too, without troubling my sound production devices up to now. However, a glowing review in Uncut led me to have a few listens to their latest album, Look Inside Your Heart, which the band themselves describe as including ‘a love song intended for the young Elvis Presley to cover in an alternate universe, a love song in the laid back style of early 70s Grateful Dead, a beatnik prose poem, Exile on Main Street era Rolling Stones with Tom Verlaine on Lead Vocals, Highway 61 Revisited era Bob Dylan with Nigel Blackwell from Half Man Half Biscuit on lead vocals, and Astral Weeks era Van Morrision as re-recorded by Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers.’

Musically literate, then, with the Dylan dial turned well up, they seem from their previous releases to be a quixotic bunch who one day will produce something of such brilliance the whole world tunes in. This isn’t quite it, but it’s pretty good.

I’m watching…

Mar de plástico - Serie 2015 - SensaCine.comMar de Plastico (Sea of Plastic). The fictional southern Spanish town of Campoamargo (literally ‘Bitterfield’) is surrounded by a plastic sea, being the greenhouses that support the large scale production of year-round fruit and veg, part of the region’s so-called ‘agricultural miracle.’

Some miracles come at a price however, and the cuenta for this one include deep-lying environmental issues, Morrocan and North African workers forced to live in shanty towns, and, as a hot summer unfolds, a powder keg of tensions between swastika-tattooed locals, the immigrant workers, a gypsy community and the Guardia Civil, the most feared division of the Spanish cops.

Enter the appropriately-named Héctor, an veteran of the Afghanistan war (Guardia Civil having close links to the military) as the new sheriff in town. Unfortunately for him, before he’s even got time to pin his tin star on the mayoress’s daughter is murdered, exsanguinated, and her blood used to irrigate the greenhouses. Everything points to Juan Rueda, the local farmer made good. But everything is not as it seems…

As the summer heat begins to take hold, suspects multiply like flies round a rotting corpse. Could it be Agneska, Rueda’s Russian trophy wife? Kaled, the victim’s secret lover? Lucas, her official lover? Amancio, the town drunk and tapas bar owner? Pilar, the leading female neo-nazi? We’re at Episode 11 and still none the wiser.

Meantime, the heat builds and men and women smoulder. Héctor smoulders. Marta, his dead best friend’s widow he swore to protect, smoulders. Lola, the gitana-turned-Guardia Civil smoulders, especially when Héctor’s around, smouldering. Everyone swears like a trooper, even (or especially) the non-troopers. Crikey! Is it something in the water?

Really, if you’ve got Netflix, you should watch this.

…and finally…

Some Youtube links for you to follow up the aforementioned Neko Case and Wave Pictures, as well as Hannah Aldridge, another recent find, who’s playing Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms next month.