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Musical Advent Calendar Day 5: Ashes to Ashes – or, Grousebeating to Bowie

Image result for red grouse

I always had a somewhat complicated relationship with David Bowie, and I blame my childhood best mate Nick Clarke, who was such a fan he put me off him. I suspect I did the same for him with Dylan.

However, it wasn’t all Nick’s fault: I’ve always at heart been a bit of a meat n’ potatoes rock bloke, although I do like a meaningful lyric, as you may have noticed. Bowie was always a bit too arty for my taste, a bit too experimental. However, I’ve chosen this track partly to honour the Thin White Duke, and partly to recall a memory it triggers.

August, 1980. I was about to turn 18, and go into first year at Uni. First, though, there was a late summer job to be had grousebeating in Aberdeenshire. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, let me outline the task in hand.

Red Grouse, or to get the species right, Lagopus lagopus scoticus, are a game bird popular amongst the huntin’ and shootin’ fraternity in the Highlands. The big estates manage populations of them to provide ‘sport’ for the toffs who like to pop at them from gun butts on remote Highland hillsides. The grouse live amongst the heather on the hill, and if left to themselves would probably scuttle about in there eating their mainly vegetarian diet as happy as Larry. They’re dumpy wee things that aren’t the best at flying, to say the least.

Which is where the beaters come in. I and my fellow students performed that function, at least back then. You were furnished with a big stick with a fertiliser sack on it, and directed to walk in a line, waving your stick in such a way that the stiff plastic snapped and scared up the grouse who, gamely, attempted to fly away from the strange noises and scruffy students in the direction of the gun butts.

It’s fair to say that, radical republican firebrand that I was, the concept of yomping through three-foot high heather up a hill just so that a bunch of posh English twats could blast some defenceless creatures out of the sky did give me some ethical dilemmas (as did the spelling of that word, by the way). It’s probably just as well Braveheart hadn’t come out by then, as I might have been tempted to inspire my fellow students into a short re-enactment of the battle of Bannockburn. Given that we were always downhill from the toffs, they were the ones with the guns, and we were armed only with fertiliser sacks tied to sticks, it would have been a pretty short and inaccurate re-enactment.

Whatever, the pay was good, there was a great camaraderie amongst us casual labour, and the gamekeeper’s wife cooked us hare stew – you even got, with your evening meal, a can of McEwan’s Export! Some of the guys couldn’t hack the physicality of the job and left, but most of us stayed just about the full four weeks, until, three days before the end, we were told by the gamekeeper we were going back out in the pissing rain for an afternoon shift when he’d told us earlier we wouldn’t have to.

‘Right then, we’re on strike,’ we said.

‘Right then, you’re fired,’ said the gamekeeper. An early experience of unsuccessful labour relations. Needless to say, grousebeaters weren’t unionised. We were taken off the hill and put on the next train south: to be fair, they were very civilised about it all.

What has all this got to do with Ashes to Ashes? Just that it had been released as a single that August, and was an immediate hit – Bowie, emerging from his Berlin period, had decided to write a more commercial record. Part of its success was the video, ground-breaking for the time: but that odd guitar synth figure that runs through it stood out just as much for me. I never knew it was guitar synth until I looked up Wikipedia just now, by the way.

That and the lyrics, of course.

If you’ve got some to spare this month, you might want to spare it on the Red Cross Myanmar Appeal.





























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Musical Advent Calendar Day 2: Filthy Tongues

Image result for filthy tongue band

It’s not all going to be Dylan and Springsteen, this advent calendar! Not even Cave and Cohen, though they’ll no doubt put in an appearance. Today, I thought I might as well mention the band I’m going to see tonight: the Filthy Tongues, playing at Edinburgh’s Liquid Rooms.

I’m going with my guide and mentor in all things indie music-related, Mr Manic Pop Thrills, and I first saw the FTs and one of Mike’s gigs in Dundee. If you like the music, you can read a lot more about them in his interview with their front man, Martin Metcalfe, who has some interesting things to say about life with his current band compared with his days with Goodbye Mr Mackenzie. Better still, I’ll see you at the gig tonight!

If this leaves you feeling charitable, you might want to think about donating to the Red Cross appeal for the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.















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A Musical Advent Calendar – Day One

Image result for liberty advent calendar 2017

Liberty’s beauty one prompted people to queue for hours back in October. RRP was £175, but you can still get it on Ebay if you shell £450 or so. The Fortnum and Mason £125 wooden one with chocolates seems almost a snip in comparison; Edinburgh Gin has one with 25 miniatures (£100); Debenhams has a pork scratchings one, apparently. Hell, you can get one which gradually assembles a screwdriver set, or if you prefer, gives you a sex toys a day.

What on earth am I talking about? Advent calendars, of course, which have come a long, long way from my childhood, when we had the same cardboard effort come out of the loft every year, with the increasingly ajar doors revealing pictures of nativity type things like angels. Or shepherds. Or, on Christmas Eve, the Nativity, with our Redeemer in a manger surrounded by adoring adults and farm animals. Our Redeemer, mind. Not a sausage roll in a manger, Gregg’s the bakers! Bad Greggs.

Anyhoo. Here’s an advent calendar you don’t have to pay a thing for: in the lead up to Christmas, I’m going to put up a link to a song I like every day, and, if I have time, some sort of story about either its making or why it means something to me. Or both. They won’t all be the type of music you expect, and they sure as hell won’t be Christmas-related. Unless you count ‘Hallelujah’ (it’ll be the Cohen version, before you ask). And Springsteen’s cover of ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ will be the Christmas Eve one, I’m telling you right now. I might even take requests!

To kick things off, here’s a well known track – predictable, perhaps, but still ranked by some polls as the greatest rock song ever. It reminds me, somewhat counterintuitively, of Birmingham, a place I’ve visited three times: once to see England beat the Aussies at Edgbaston; once for a science fiction convention (back when I was masquerading as an sf writer) but, the first time, to see Dylan.

1987, his so-called ‘Temples in Flames’ tour, when he was backed by the late, great, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Roger McGuinn came on first and did a so-so solo set; then Petty and the others emerged from the shadows and assisted him on a transcendent ‘Mr Tambourine Man.’ Then, after their own set, they provided a perfect foil to the wee man from Minnesota.

Dylan was still coming out of his Born Again phase, so we had a few Christian numbers to put up with. This version of Like A Rolling Stone made it all worthwhile though. I’ve seen Dylan three times, but I’ve never seen him better. This is from the Australian leg of the same tour.

Just before I go, here comes the money bit – instead of the Liberty calendar, you might want to think about giving some of your hard-earned to the Red Cross Myanmar appeal. I’m sure the politics of it is more complicated than the media’s portrayed, but bottom line is around 600,000 people are living in camps as winter closes in because of political, ethnic and/or religious differences. These guys are suffering, and could do with your help.

(Feel free to post your own thoughts and reflections on the song, His Bobness, or anything else you fancy)


















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