andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Category Archives: progress reports

Stamping out the Clutter

As part of my Loft – and Life – Decluttering Campaign I sold my stamp collection for minus five pounds the other week – and I was happy with the deal!

I’d made an appointment to see the eponymous Mr Murray of Robert Murray Stamp Shop, in Inverleith, Edinburgh. He turned out to be a charming gent who I trusted on instinct when he told me my rag-tag collection of stamps from the late 60s/early 70s wouldn’t fetch enough to cover his auction fee.

I had done almost no internet research: in fact, the only sketchy look I’d had the night before had been in relation to the Forth Road Bridge first day covers. I had three of them, but it appeared from that brief internet trawl that they were of virtually no value, despite now being over 50 years old. Sure enough, the only thing Mr Murray showed a flicker of interest in was the invite to the Bridge’s opening that was in one of the envelopes.

However, this was one of the few things I wanted to keep. It had been my Mum and Dad’s invite, through my Dad’s job and, as I may have mentioned before, I have a connection with the old Road Bridge as it was opened on my second birthday in 1964.

So I kept that, handed over most of the rest to be sold off for charity at the next auction, and ended up spending a fiver on the presentation pack Mr Murray had put together in 2014, on the Bridge’s 50th (and my 52nd, obvs, although it isn’t all about me) birthday. It’s a nice little thing to have (pics below) and I thought it book-ended my involvement with the Bridge nicely (I was also briefly involved with it through work, and went up it a couple of years ago as a result).

The more interesting bit is the story Mr Murray told me about the original first day covers – and one reason why they’re not worth anything now. Back then there was a guy ran a stamp shop as a hobby in a small West Lothian town near Edinburgh: with some interest growing in the opening of the new Bridge, and knowing the Post Office were bringing out a first day cover, he put a tiny, two-line advert in the Daily Express (back then still a widely read newspaper of some repute).

His offer was to buy the first day cover and the stamp, address it to the relevant customer, and send it on to them on opening day, 4th September – because everyone knew that, to have any value, first day covers had to have a postmark. All you needed to do was to send him your address and a postal order for an amount which gave him a small profit on the transaction.

A couple of days later the postie arrived at your man’s main business, a carpet shop, with a sackful of postal orders: in the end, he had to close it and focus on the first day cover venture, enlisting his family to do the licking, sticking and addressing by hand: 12,000 requests in all. It didn’t make him rich, but I bet it gave him a very sore tongue!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This isn’t an advert for anything. Except, I suppose, Robert Murray Stamp Shop – and I’ve not been paid for that; more adverts I haven’t been paid for below…

Advertisements

The Microphone that turned into a Guitar: or, ten years a slave to acoustic

I had a microphone that turned into a guitar the other day. No, it’s true I tell you! Selling a surplus to requirements Røde M2, the only offer I got was from my old mucker Jeff Sniper, the epnonymous organiser of Jeffest: he had a Telecaster, and did I fancy a swap?

Did I not just! The last electric guitar I’d owned was ten years back, and it was a CMI (anyone heard of them?) Stratocaster  copy that I disposed of shortly after Tribute to Venus Carmichael got going. There were three key reasons why I’d got rid:

1. It wasn’t very good. The whammy bar was long gone. Some of the pickup positions didn’t work at all: I’d bought it off a guy in Dundee in the 80s for £40, and occasional attempts to get its electrics repaired had foundered;

2. Most obviously, the whole Venus Carmichael schtick was going to be built around plangent acoustic sounds, not soaring Hendrix style fuzz-soaked soloing (even if I’d been good enough to do that);

3. Tony Blair.

This last one perhaps needs more explanation: around that time, Blair had made it known by the usual media that he’d bought himself a red Strat. Now, in the interests of political balance, I should stress it wouldn’t have mattered if it had been Blair, Alex Salmond, Paddy Ashdown or Iain Duncan Smith who’d made that announcement: it would still have pushed the poor old Strat out of any realms of cool it had once inhabited into the distinctly tepid. And yes, I know Blair had actually played in a band at Oxford, another fact he was somewhat desperately keen to play up. It was called Ugly Rumours, apparently. Yeah, I know.

To be fair, it wasn’t all about Blair. Although the Sainted Jimi had played one, other former guitar heroes who did had kind of gone down in my estimation in recent years: step forward Eric Clapton, who may have the status of deity to some, but whom I’d seen during his heroin years at Edinburgh’s Playhouse, and was sorely disappointed. Step forward, also, one Mark Knopfler, although I keep saying his reputation’s due a reappraisal. Then I listen to one of his solo albums.

(I should stress that some very fine guitar work has been, and continues to be, done, on Strats, including by Isaac Brutal’s lead guitarist, Graham Crawford. If you want a proper considered comparison between these two legends of Fender you could do worse than this one.)

The Telecaster, on the other hand, is espoused by Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen. And, on my trip to Nashville in 2011, if I was in any doubt about its prominence in country music, the massive Tele in front of the Grand Ole Opry’s radio HQ was a bit of a clue.

And then, of course, there’s Dylan. I knew he’d favoured Telecasters on that fateful 1966 tour when he went electric: I’d even been moved to poetry about it:

 

 

 

Pictures with Meaning: Bob Dylan with Liverpool kids, 14 May 1966

Tiny rock jockey

coming up on the rails

the zeitgeist

riding his coattails

cup final afternoon in Liverpool

parents watching

Everton come back in black and white

the kids drawn

to the big car

the man

in a floppy hat

Feinstein fusses: at last they settle

suddenly still

jammed in a doorway

 

Pic: Barry Feinstein

Dylan stares

dead centre

of this grubby maelstrom

the kids

one hiding his laugh

one serious, buttoned up

one snot-sweet girl, mostly smile

 

two streets along,

a brick falls

worked loose on a bombsite

 

in three days

Dylan will die

when the folkies crucify him

then rise again

new electric god

playing it fucking loud

while the kids, oblivious

use jumpers for goalposts.

 

What I didn’t know until recently was that the one the Bobster used was, instead of the classic cream, black with a white pickguard, at Robbie Robertson’s request. The same guitar was up for auction this year, apparently. Robertson ended up owning it and playing it till the paint fell off and he had it sanded down to the wood: it sold at the auction for $490,000. Probably Tony Bloody Blair bought it, come to think of it.

Anyway, my guitar isn’t a Fender, and it ain’t going up for auction any time soon. Here she is: isn’t she a beaut? She’s a Harley Benton copy, and she’s even got the previous owner’s iconic Sniper logo on it. I’m not taking that off: I really like that she’s already had a history with another player, and I’m not wanting to wipe that history out.

 

Pic: Jeff Sniper

And yep, purely by chance it’s black with a white pickguard.

Anyhoo. How much will I play her? Not as much as the acoustics, unless Mr Brutal decides the third guitarist in the band needs to go electric any time soon. Venus Carmichael will still be founded on plangent acoustic backing, so you can hold back those shouts of ‘Judas!’ But…

When Jeff handed her over, he mentioned that she was a good guitar to write songs on, and one advantage of owning her for me is kind of the opposite of what you’d expect. Because already, I’ve had reason to crawl out of bed before the rest of the household with a song idea (most of these critters come to me first thing in the morning, and if I don’t tie them down in some way they just keep on going) and play the chords through unamplified, on the Tele. Much quieter than the acoustic if you don’t plug her in!

2008, which is kind of the year that this whole journey of changing from a fiction and poetry writer to a songwriter began, seems a long time ago in many ways. I do believe that people – and guitars – come into your life sometimes for good reason. I’m never going to be the next Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, or Robbie Robertson for that matter. But I’m still going strongly in that musical direction I set off on in 2008 (or, to be more accurate, a journey I restarted then) and I reckon being tooled up with a Tele isn’t going to do any harm.

So thank you, Jeff, and may the Røde be with you, and serve you well. We’re both travelling the same road (see what I did there) so, for us and other dreamers who find stuff gets in the way of that dream, here’s an inspirational story from Mr Robertson about that 1966 tour, when a black and white Telecaster guitar was all that stood between them and the uncomprehending world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts down here, but don’t let them detain you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three weekends in May

This month has been quite a one. The sun has shone consistently, for a start, and is set to continue that way. But also, fitted in between an ever-increasing day-job workload, there have been three weekends of different adventures: last Friday and Saturday’s events at ReimagiNation, the Edinburgh Book Festival’s Glenrothes residency; and this afternoon, I head up to Bridge of Orchy for a weekend of songwriting with a bunch of musicians. No internet, patchy mobile coverage, basic ski-lodge accommodation: can’t wait!!!

I’ll have a tale to tell about this weekend, for sure, as I will about ReimagiNation. Before I go, though, here’s a few photos from the first weekend of the three, at Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Helensburgh masterpiece, Hill House. There’s much, much, more to come on that experience….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts down here. See how I made you scroll all that way?

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 tunearch.org, 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.

Discovering your inner Plant, and other musical journeys

Image result for meredith belbin

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.

Image result for robert plant

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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertising below here is put up by WordPress, not me. Stick it to The Man and ignore it…

 

New Collaborations

I written before about creative collaborations, and how, basically, I’m a bit of a slut when it comes to them. I’ve never really seen writing or making music as a solo activity – especially the latter; and some of the things I’m proudest of in my output have happened that way: for example, the poetry pamphlet I did with Jane McKie, Head to Head, back in 2008.

Now I’m pretty much set on a musical journey (apart, perhaps, from more novels and a travel book) collaboration comes more naturally. Playing in bands kind of means you have to work as part of a team, and I never weary of hearing any song – but especially one of my own – tried out for the first time, and, sometimes on the first, the second, or maybe the third run through, something clicks, you reach the end, and you look at each other with that look that says, we had something there!

Recording is a different process from rehearsing or playing live, of course. I’m really looking forward to finalising the tracks I’ve been working on with Mark for the Isaac Brutal acoustic EP, of which more soon. But when it comes to solo work, up to now the collaborations have been few and far between.

And then two come along at once. I’m very chuffed indeed to have been asked to play guitar on a track by a new friend, Audrey Russell – let’s hope my playing is up to it! No such anxieties, however, with Norman Lamont‘s abilities. He came over recently, brought his electric guitar and effects pedals, and within the space of a brief evening, had laid down a beautiful, haunting contribution to a track I’ve had on the blocks for quite some time.

Here’s the result. It’s definitely going into my next solo album, although by the time I get that finished I may have tweaked it. If I do, it certainly won’t be to take out Norman’s contribution!

In the meantime, as with all my solo work, it’s free to download, but if you do, please think about donating to a refugee charity.

[technical glitch – I’m waiting to upload an updated version of this. If you can’t wait, go to my Soundcloud site]

(Incidentally, if you haven’t heard Norman’s music before, you’re in for a treat – and he offers free stuff on his site)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anything below this is wordpress advertising. And almost definitely won’t feature Norman’s guitar playing.

The Wrong Box is Coming!

No, not the story of a logistics breakdown by Yodel, but news (for those of you who I haven’t reached yet by other social media) that my novel, The Wrong Box, is to be finally published on 20th April. Here’s a pic of me with a proof  copy:

Image may contain: 1 person, glasses

You can pre-order it on Kindle or as a paperback on Amazon. There’ll be a couple of events in April/May: best way of following progress would be to join up to the Facebook Group, or follow me on Twitter (@andrewcferguso4).

Incidentally, if you know of any book groups that are looking for this kind of thing, and would like the author to turn up and talk about it (either virtually or literally, depending on distance); or any other book festivals or the like I could promote this at, please let me know!

Here’s the blurb:

All I know is, I’m in exile in Scotland, and there’s a dead Scouser businessman in my bath. With his toe up the tap.

Meet Simon English, commercial property lawyer, heavy drinker and Scotophobe, banished from London after being caught misbehaving with one of the young associates on the corporate desk. As if that wasn’t bad enough, English finds himself acting for a spiralling money laundering racket that could put not just his career, but his life, on the line.

Enter Karen Clamp, an 18 stone, well-read wannabe couturier from the Auchendrossan sink estate, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Council misdeeds and 19th century Scottish fiction. With no one to trust but each other, this mismatched pair must work together to investigate a series of apparently unrelated frauds and discover how everything connects to the mysterious Wrong Box.

Manically funny, The Wrong Box is a chaotic story of lust, money, power and greed, and the importance of being able to sew a really good hem.

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

o43tfmw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everything below this is WordPress advertising. Never forget that either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everything below this is just WordPress making bleeping noises.

Songs in a Scottish Accent 4: the wrong kind of cricket

If you think of yourself as ‘alternative’ in any sort of way, there are sometimes moments when you realise just how far you’ve swum against the current and out of the mainstream. On such moment happened to me recently, when two art teachers, one of them wearing a maroon pork pie hat, called me ‘weird’ to my face. Here’s how it happened…

Some songs come to me with just the basic tune on acoustic guitar and keyboard. Others, usually late at night when I’m about to fall asleep and then forget them, are fully orchestrated – sometimes quite literally. Most are somewhere in the middle, and it’s a case of knowing what to put in and leave out instrumentally. Usually leave out, to be honest.

As soon as I had the basic riff and lyrical idea for ‘Prophets on Instagram,’ though, I knew the type of vibe I wanted on the track. And that included crickets. It was to be a bluesy, doomy kind of stomp, and the background noise of the Gryllidae family was part of that. Lanois used them on Dylan’s ‘Man in the Long Black Coat,’ on the album they did down in New Orleans (1), ‘Oh Mercy.’ Lucinda Williams, too, had them on some of the tracks on ‘Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.’ Probably partly through the movies, there’s a specific sound of crickets that conjures up a Southern Gothic night of humid, portent-filled dread for me. And I thought I had a means of getting it.

My go-to place for sound effects is Freesound, but I always prefer, if I can, to create noises of my own and load them up there for others to use. It’s a great sharing community, of the kind that the Net used to excel at. Whilst the Scottish Lowlands aren’t really natural habitat for crickets (or indeed cricket) I had, on recent visits to Pets At Home on our friendly neighbourhood retail park, heard them singing. We were there to restock the Redoubtable Mrs F’s aquarium (there’s a separate post to come some time on the tale of more-than-a-bit pregnant female guppy) but, on hearing the crickets, I conceived Plan A, which was to record them in situ.

Needless to say, next time I was there with my trusty Zoom H4n, not a chirrup was to be heard. While the RMF went to have her water tested (the aquarium’s that is, not hers) I went to look at the crickets. The crickets looked out at me, from their little plastic boxes containing little cardboard crenellations. I had come to understand on previous visits that nobody actually kept crickets as pets. Oh no: instead, people that keep reptiles as pets need them as a live feed for their little darlings. I was about to head up towards the fish again when I caught sight of the ‘reduced to clear’ section of cricket world, and wished I hadn’t.

It would appear that reptiles aren’t over fussy about just how live their food is: for a bargain price, the reptile lovers could take home a boxful of half dead, clinically dead, and dying crickets, grasshoppers, locusts and the like. Like all convenience foods, it seems, crickets and the rest have a shelf life. They waved their mandibles and antennae at me, pathetically, and I felt a twinge of sympathy for the wee critters. I mean, it’s not much of a choice, is it, getting snapped up by some bearded gecko or left to peg out under the unforgiving striplights of a retail shed?

Which partially explains why I ended up buying a full price box of brown crickets. ‘Oh,’ said the tall girl behind the till, ‘What is it you’ve got?’ Meaning of course, which reptile was awaiting a live dinner, its basilisk eyerevolving slowly in anticipation?

‘Err, nothing,’ I felt compelled to say, before launching into a probably over-detailed explanation of why I needed them. Just outside the store, we met two of the RMF’s work colleagues, the aforementioned art teachers. Again the explanation; this time, the reaction I described at the start. I considered a cheap rejoinder about the hat, but resisted.

Back home, the presence of a boxful of rustling insectoid life was considered less than welcome, really on any of our parts. The crickets went into the conservatory while I did a bit of reasearch. This revealed:

  1. Crickets can be fed on most vegetables, including parsley;
  2. They have an adult life span of a few weeks, so even without the intervention of the Lizard People, it wasn’t like they were a pet for life;
  3. Brown crickets are especially favoured amongst the keepers of reptiles, as they make virtually no sound.

Yup. Guess which kind I’d bought.

As an aside, it was amazing how much information on crickets in fact came from sites dedicated to reptile aficionados. Apparently, depending on how many scaly things you keep, you might need entire roomfuls of crickets just to maintain a food supply for them. Hence the desire for quiet ones. It seemed to me a bit ironic that the main sites I was consulting to keep my crickets alive, were in fact dedicated to seeing they were funnelled towards certain death. It gave me another twinge of fellow feeling for the little chaps.

However, after a day or so of watching mounds of home-grown parsley disappear in the box, and not a single sound beyond that infernal scrabbling, I decided enough was enough. It was time for my brown crickets to roam free across the Fife countryside, taking their chances in the local ecosystem – and, I hoped, not mucking it up in the process.

Walking nonchalantly out of the house and past the window of my ever-vigilant neighbours, I took the crickets to the closed off road at the side of our housing estate and had a quick glance left and right to ensure no dog walkers were about.

I looked down at the little fellers, crowded now at the front of their box. They stared back at me, mutely. I appreciated that I was probably sending them to certain death – Scotland in May is probably not within their recommended temperature range – and yet, somehow, I felt I was doing the best I could for them. In fact, I felt like some kind-hearted First World War general about to send his brave boys over the top, knowing that the German machine guns were, as likely as not, still operational.

As such, I felt some sort of pep talk was necessary. ‘Well, boys,’ I said, in a non-gender specific way, ‘I’ve done what I can for you. It’s down to you, now.’

Predictably, the crickets said nothing in reply as they scrambled into the undergrowth.

So there you are. Cricket, the sport: absolutely marvellous. Only game worth a tinker’s curse, imho. Crickets, the insect: best sampled via Freesound.

 

 

 

(1) I feel compelled to tell one of my favourite Dylan stories, which concerns that particular song.

Interviewer:’When you say in the lyric, “people don’t live or die, people just float,” what did you have in mind?’

Dylan: ‘I needed something to rhyme with “coat.”‘

silent-brown-crickets-pre-packed-tub-extra-large-832-pekm218x164ekm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anything below here is ads by WordPress. Which just isn’t cricket, don’t’cha know