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The convoluted path of the reluctant composer
"McCalman Singular" is an album of songs and tunes by Ian McCalman performed by artists such as Barbara Dickson, Dick Gaughan, Aly bain, Phil Cunningham, Isla St Clair, Jim Malcolm, Allan Taylor, Sheena Wellington and many others. How did it happen? Ian McCalman tries to explain.
Ian Green of Greentrax phoned me. He's a good lad but a trouble-maker and he knew what my answer would be to his question: "Would you be interested in recording a solo album for Greentrax?" Answer: "No!" Question "Why not?" Answer "I can't sing that well." Question "Well it never stopped you before, did it?" So it went on until I managed to convince Ian that I would rather bunjee jump nude from the Scott monument than record a solo album, but after 40 years in the business I know when I'm being "set up". Sure enough, Ian asked if I was aware that I had over 50 of my own compositions recorded and...."what about an album of your own songs?" I'll be honest and confess that I don't think I'm any great shakes as a song-writer but I write little poems for my own therapy about things I care about, mainly political, or observations that make me laugh. If they're OK I'll turn them into songs and if they get past the 'Fame Academy' jury of group-members, Stephen and Nick, then we sing them. The only negative bit is the fact that I don't like to tell anyone that the songs are mine and my defence is, if you write songs like I do, then stay anonymous. The conversation ended with our usual chat about world economy and the state of his flowering japonica, but round about that time I coincidentally received a mysterious tape in the post. It was only a cheap cassette so obviously I thought immediately of Allan Taylor. Doctor Allan has long been at the forefront of the movement to keep my songs in their proper place and if there isn't a rubbish bin handy, at the back of a drawer somewhere. In particular he has a notion about 'Wrecked Again' (an emphysemaless song ) and its lack of merit. I honestly hadn't a clue who had sent the tape and I put it on when I was having a couple of drinks with friends. I've never laughed so much! A slow pathetic monologue was followed by a slow, pathetic and very funny , 'Wrecked Again' and though his words were slanderous (court case pending) the message got through. After playing it a couple of times I realised that if a few singers put their own personality into the songs then Ian Green might be on to something.
I met Barbara Dickson in the mid-sixties and she has remained a great friend. Barbara, Oliver and their boys visit when they're up in Edinburgh and we have good times and frankly, a right laugh. It has been known for drink to be taken. Barbara and I were having a chat and I told her about the Ian Green idea and she immediately said that she would be "up for it" if the right song came along. I knew that Barbara was recording her album, "Full Circle" (brilliant) and it was being produced and arranged by Troy Donockley and so we reckoned that his studio in Yorkshire would be the best recording option. Barbara said nice things about the song, 'From Greenland' so Troy arranged it and Barbara went up and recorded the vocal and the result is spectacular.
Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham were the next unsuspecting targets. I had a couple of tunes that had been commissioned originally by Midlothian Council for an audio/visual display at Vogrie Country Park and I thought, in a perfect world, that Aly and Phil might play them. I've known both of them since I changed their nappies at 'Sandy Bells' but I realised how busy they were so I didn't hold out great hope. Aly's manager, George Brown, relayed the request to them and I got a message back to say they'd be delighted...all the changed nappies were not in vain... or was it pints? It was so long ago! We decided to record at my studio, "Kevock Digital", in Lasswade and I remember them saying that they hadn't had much time to rehearse it, but it was transparently obvious when they started playing that they knew the tunes better than I did. Just a small tip, when you phone Phil on his mobile and have a long chat, make sure you know where he is because we talked for ages before he told me he was in the States.
I had an idea of finding suitable songs from the "late greats", Derek Moffat and Davy Steele. They were two special friends and I refuse to get morbid about two guys who enjoyed life so much. The quest for a 'McComposition' from Derek was easy because he was a founder member of The McCalmans so there were quite a few options, but I thought I'd choose an old one, 'Seagull Cry' which was recorded in the Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline. I set about tracing the original stone-age 8-track analogue tapes and when I finally tracked them down (thank you web) they were in good condition which saved the complicated baking process sometimes necessary for old tapes - gas mark 5, 30 minutes per half kilo - honest! Davy Steele had sung with Drinkers Drouth and the title-song for one of their albums was my effort, 'Bound to Go' so we contacted The Drouth and they kindly gave us the go-ahead. Derek and Davy had both said they'd come back to haunt me - and so they have, God bless'em! I remember in the mid-sixties a mellow, fresh-faced youth talking to us in 'The White Horse Bar' in the High Street, Edinburgh. He asked us about what strings we used and what chords we were playing. We could never figure out whether he was thinking "these guys are good players" or "amazing, these guys are only using three chords".
Dick Gaughan became a friend and lived in the infamous 'madhouse', which was the flat above Sandy Bells Bar in Forest Row. Derek and Hamish (ex-McCalmans, honourable discharge) were the official tenants but half the folkies in the universe stayed there at one time or another. It was within lurching distance of 'Bells' so after the mighty singing sessions (at which Dick was a prominent member) we would all go to 'the Madhouse'. I would say "great days" but I can't remember any of them. I contacted Dick about a song I'd written called 'War Outside' and Dick said, "of course". He came to my studio and gave a "hairs standing on the back of the neck" performance of the song then - as always - we had a coffee in the sun and talked of old and new times. This album has been good for that. Incidentally he still says: "amazing, these guys are only using three chords".
At this stage Ian Green was getting quite excited and almost bought me a drink but he quickly regained his composure and asked about others that might join the project. By this time I had decided to keep the list to old friends and I thought I'd contact Isla St Clair with whom The Macs sung many times in the seventies. I hadn't seen her for years but we shared a concert in Lancaster last year and had a great old natter. Isla had a great voice when she was very young and she has retained that quality, plus an added authority that comes with the years. She knew my parents in the old days and I asked her to sing 'Shian Road' which is a song relating to my late father. Isla gave a great performance and then there was another sun-filled afternoon with my wife, Isla, Isla's son and me - where I did more listening than talking.
In the seventies, The Sidmouth Folk Festival was always the symbol, to me, of the type of folk institution to which The McCalmans would never be invited. I think it was just sour grapes that made me write 'Sidmouth Folk Festival Blues' about an ambitious blues singer who goes to a festival with high hopes and finds that he's not allowed to sing anywhere. Obviously Sidmouth has changed and I take it all back (most of it) but the song still exists and who better to sing it than the best bluesman in the business, Mike Whellans. I saw him at the Edinburgh Folk Club this year and I just can't understand why he's not a superstar. He shouldn't be talking to the likes of me, but he does. From the old days in Galashiels folk club where he used to sing 'Mr Tambourine Man' to the all-action, one-man-band that he is today, Mike is "the berries".
I've engineered and recorded the last two albums for Sangsters and I think they are Scotland's number one harmony group without a doubt. The McCalmans are currently 17th! I asked them to sing my song, 'Sickening Thank YouSong' which was a dreadful mistake. Basically it's a sarcastic 'goodnight song' and it's really more of an arrangement than a song which suits live performances but dies in the studio. Sangsters duly came along for the recording with a great arrangement but I didn't think the song was 5% as good as the group that was singing it. I opened my mouth to say how great it was and said, "I think... ", then Fiona in her usual "Fifer than Fife" accent said, "Guid, we'll dae anither yin then". That was it, they went away with a more suitable song, 'Scotland', then came back the next week with a complicated unaccompanied arrangement which they recorded in one take - real "pros".
The Macs recorded my song '8-3-0' for the 'Honest Poverty' album and I remembered that Sheena Wellington came to the "launch" and asked if she could "steal" the song for her own repertoire. I don't think she ever did, but I remembered the compliment when I was thinking of possible singers for this album. Sheena is not famous for singing 'A Man's a Man For a' That' at the opening of the Scottish Parliament. Sheena is famous because she did it so bloody well. She came to the studio via train and taxi from Dundee to sing the song and the next day she had to sing for the Dalai Lama in the Usher Hall. She said, with a trace of a smile, that if the recording over-ran into the next day, she would bring him along after the gig, but of course she was finished on the first afternoon. It's just as well because if his Holiness had come along, I didn't really have any songs that would have suited, it might have sold a few albums though.
One of the pairings I was most keen on when I started this project was, 1) a song I'd written, 'Wha's Like Us?' and 2) Jim Malcolm. Jim recorded his first album, 'Sconeward' at my studio and there were some energetic exchanges of recording philosophies on that one but what a great album! Jim is one of Scotland's best singer/songwriters who takes a wry look at our country from different angles and it's just as well he's good at words because 'Wha's Like Us?' has twenty per square inch. I was shocked... nay, astounded, when he came into the studio without a crib sheet. He had learned the whole thing which really impressed me. You're hearing this from a man who finds 'Happy Birthday' a bit of a challenge.
Janet McCalman, my niece, sings blues and jazz so I thought I'd "ring the changes" and ask her to sing my song of lost dreams, 'Highlands Tomorrow'. She lives in London and was worried that her singing would be closer to Eastenders than Chewing the Fat but I reckoned I could take anything apart from 'CSI Miami'. We arranged a recording session to find out if her style was too 'blues', but her years of being cruelly subjected to McCalmans' albums finally paid off... she was great. The song was written about a young English friend of mine who always talked about going up to the Highlands and I knew he would never do it. It's a fair reflection of my understanding of the human mind that when I sent him the CD it had to be redirected to his house in Torridon. You can't win them all!
I also managed to get Maartin Allcock and Stephen Quigg to help with the sessions by offering them untold wealth and (failing that) their choice of any McCalmans' album. The only condition Ian Green made about the album was that I had to sing a couple of songs myself so it's amazing he's done so well with Greentrax with that taste in music. I duly recorded two new songs as my solo effort and also added a track from 'Tangled Web' (The Macs) with the catchy title, 'WMD'. The quality and 'feel' of the album has exceeded all expectations and as Allan Taylor said when he heard the completed mixes..." it's all absolutely fantastic - you should do more albums that you're not on". Dear boy! I've never had so much fun with such a great bunch of musicians. They gave their services with tremendous willingness and enthusiasm and it turned into the ultimate 'feel good' album and I thank them for it. Not only that, if Bob Dylan hadn't been doing his hair on the night the studio was free, he would have done "The Sickening Thank You Song" and as for Kylie... ? " Well!
© Living Tradition 2005
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