It was 1973 and I was thirteen years old when I teamed up with Michael Robertson. We were in the same class at Portobello Comprehensive, Edinburgh. Until then I had only annoyed my brother with music. Michael and I began writing songs immediately. We projected vast fantasies about the lifestyle we would shortly lead, mostly centred on women and money – my brother anticipated compensation in the form of a Spanish villa, with swimming pool and Jacuzzi. He’s still waiting.
I purchased my first guitar at Woolworths. Aesthetically, the guitar had all the expected parts but it didn’t really work as a guitar. ‘Woolies’ was always good for sweeties. I recall the scenario when I took the sad affair to a music shop to buy my second:
Guitar salesman: ‘If you want meat, buy it from a butcher, son.’ Good advice. Should have followed it really, but youth had its own agenda.
Michael, with better taste and more money, got hold of a Yamaha 12 string. It was a lovely guitar. We spent endless hours constructing songs on it about harlequins, mocking queens, frozen oceans, deathless warriors, painted ladies, starship captains traversing eternity, broken philosophers – all with an Em9 chord in them somewhere.
Michael rashly compounded our errors. He bought a microphone and stand. It’s bizarre how the presence of technical equipment transcends native intelligence. In no time at all we had booked our first gig at a miner’s social club near Bilston Glen, later to become the scene of much sorrow in the miners strike; now the scene for a merely minor tragedy.
This was the plan: We win the competition, buy more equipment with the prize money and then, when record companies rush to sign us up, we go for the big time.
We were called ‘Ninth Legion’, after the ill-fated Roman soldiers who disappeared without trace somewhere in Caledonia. Perhaps we should have hired someone to read eagles in the sky. The omens might have been equally prophetic.
It’s amazing how the mind heals after time. I still remember the sweat from the dressing room, the white-suited, peroxide blonde, slightly dumpy; her voice outside on stage rendering a merely passable ‘Country Roads’. The John Denver look-alike, guitar/amp, jeans, checked shirt, utter indifference, singing ‘Them Old Cotton Fields’.
Perhaps this should have given us a clue. The dining room of public taste only had a tiny table reserved for songs about the ghosts of lost Roman legions clashing on dream beaches. It also had a doorman to eject arrogant, inexperienced youths.
We couldn’t have been said to have come ‘last’. There are categories beyond this reserved for those who invite their parents to watch their first gig. My mother and stepfather were there. You have to remember my mother had been married to one of Edinburgh’s top musicians. I am sure she expected some sparkle of inborn talent – perhaps mixed with a little naivety – but doubtless she anticipated a competent and entertaining performance. Deathly silence, stunned indifference, overwhelming shame and humiliation were probably not even lurking in her mind.
Gruff miners in rustic speech made diffident remarks about our performance in language that still remains unfamiliar to my mother. Like Peter she denied me three times. She never talked about it much but I noticed she didn’t come to another gig for thirty-three years.
Undaunted we sought solace in numbers.
Nicky Arkless lived by Portobello beach, once the Mecca for Glaswegian tourists, now a deserted wasteland populated mainly by used condoms and sewage. There was a small carnival there. Ray Bradbury might have based a story or two on it. If he did, it would be amongst Nicky’s Horror comics, doubtless the source of his gallows humour. Nicky had long hair and a small set of drums; drums which later proliferated like a virus to consume entire ballrooms. If Nicky’s drums had been capable of spontaneous procreation, the future world would not be ruled by ants, but tiny high hats and cymbals.
As well as denim jackets, we shared a taste for Michael Giles, the drummer from King Crimson. Nicky was
undoubtedly a talented and imaginative drummer. He loved Heavy Metal and he seemed to share our enthusiasm for doomed starships and frozen oceans. Suddenly, we sounded like a band. But a band that required a Bass player. With the confidence of youth, I persuaded the others to take on my best friend, Kenny Dalgleish. He had never played the Bass and didn’t own one: Small potatoes to young enthusiasts.
We changed the band name to Lazy Daze, built a practice room in Nicky’s cellar and began a campaign of church halls. We had discovered reverb early on and supplemented this with a copycat echo machine. Later we bought silver suits, stroboscopic lights, spots, a whole PA system and enough smoke bombs to start a minor insurrection. This with Orange amps – how Michael loved that colour!
The copycat looked like a mix of a Dr Who tape machine and a radio and sounded utterly fantastic. It’s still astounding that a wee bit of tape circulating around a box can make a band sound like they have emerged from a half price Martian space shuttle.
Orange … Orange too
The orange amps looked somewhat like this only oranger. (If that’s not a word, it should be). I think we might have had two of these lovely things. Andy Warhol would have put them up on his mantelpiece if he’d only known.
Much later, we were reviewed in a fanzine as ‘David Bowie meets ‘Yes’, a happy mix of my Bowie influence (Metal with lipstick) and the more technical heavy stuff from Michael and Nicky. For the moment, we launched into recording some demos. We still discussed time warriors, frozen seas and lost starships. Demis Rouses’ keyboard player was our engineer. Okay, his dad was the engineer but he heard the stuff. He thought we were very good, and later, helped with some neat recordings, which, in our inimitable overconfidence in stardom by osmosis, never saw a home outside of our bedrooms.
Unfortunately, like Orsen Welles, our career appeared to operate backwards. We never sent the recordings to anyone. We lived on the belief that we would be spotted by a big company. We didn’t realise that we lacked cultural capital, street credibility and none of us attended art college; fatal errors in the music business. Even so, I was offered a recording contract as a songwriter. I turned it down for two reasons – firstly, they didn’t want the band, and secondly, even as a naive youth, I sensed that a deal that involved no money or commitment on the part of the company might be unhappily flawed.
By chance, two friends, Davie Campbell and Bruce Livingstone, thrust me into a talent competition. They will verify that, out of a spirit of genuine camaraderie, they put my name into sing on a vicious Saturday night in an Edinburgh club, which had the same attitude to prisoners as Blucher’s Prussians at Waterloo. Despite being drunk, and having put the clubs behind me as a bad bet at the age of thirteen, my ego drove me to the tiny stage. It was Harvey’s club on Lothian Road, home of tough doormen, young thugs (those were only the ladies) and soul fans. Once, it is rumoured, Bruce Springsteen nipped into the club after a gig, but he wasn’t helping me at the moment. I lost to the worst Elvis impersonator in Scotland, but the manager liked my youthful gyrations. He took the band on and suddenly we were playing everywhere. Well, we were playing as Moondust at the infamous West End Club and a few pubs.
which later hosted a decent session to compare in numbers, if not in historicity, with Sandy Bell’s. We stormed it. Looking back, I think we might have actually been good. We gained an instant following of large bikers with long hair – doubtless attracted like moths to Nicky’s drum kit and similar coiffure. Unfortunately, someone was jacking up heroin in the toilet. We were blamed even though we still thought a needle was used by your mum to repair holes in Jeans. The manager threw us out.
But that was long ago. Now we were over sixteen and playing with the big boys. Or at least the big doormen were rearranging our lives at The West End Club.
I got the West End Club gig through my brother’s friend’s hairdresser – essentially, we were cheap and loud. We suffered somewhat from only playing four cover versions: ‘Jumping Jack Flash’, Stones, ‘Man of the World’, Fleetwood Mac, ‘Hang on to Yourself’, David Bowie and I am telling no one about the fourth. This was a disadvantage in a club, which had over a hundred assault charges in one year to its name, where the sailors fought the soldiers, and often lost narrowly to the doormen. Where a competent knowledge of the current top forty hits would suffice to save you from a beating; a vast repertoire of soul sounds and twelve Roxy music classics might get a clap from someone unseasonably drunk. (But you were more likely to get clap from the toilets).
There were concrete steps out the back with blood on them. Three simple anecdotes should suffice.
We start playing; the dance floor clears. The manager walks up within three seconds of us playing -’Get them dancing or get off the f***ing stage’. I leap off stage in wild circles posturing like a desperate acrobat. Out of pity they dance.
Nicky normally wears surgical gloves to protect the chrome on his drum kit. Like many drummers, he is obsessive about them. They cost him all his money. No one else is allowed to move them, sniff them or touch them without written permission. Verbal warnings are delivered to anyone who looks like they might be offering to help. ‘Want a hand,’ says a doorman. He picks up a tom tom and throws it on to the stage. It bounces three times. Nicky says nothing.
Some weeks later in the middle of the second set, the amplifiers go off. There is no volume. A doorman walks over. He is so big he is level with me although I am onstage.
‘I did that,’ he says.
‘Very good,’ says I. ‘Could you do us a favour and undo it?’ An hour later, a knock is heard on the dressing room door. (At this point, I must remark that we didn’t use the toilets for fear of crabs or, indeed, go out of the dressing room cupboard during breaks through abject terror.)
In the tiny frame of the door the doorman stands. He is so large we are plunged in darkness. ‘You.’ He points a big finger at me. ‘Were you being funny earlier on’? I am reminded of the tale that he had told earlier about hospitalising an innocent drunk. In a voice reminiscent of Mickey Mouse, I find the strength to squeak a desperate ‘no’. I’m still slightly apprehensive that, years on, that immense man might read this and pay me a visit.
After a record series of assaults, the West End Club was finally closed down. It became the infamous gay disco, Fire Island. Why is that ironic; something to do with Yin and Yang?
We needed a practice hall. Later we were to build one in Nicky’s cellar. For the moment, we ventured into a form of limbo just below the bridges and not far from the Yellow Carvel pub.
The advent of Punk rock spawned hundreds of bands. Most of them crammed into this damp infested, rat infested, punk musician infested hall of purgatory. There was a disco called ‘Everybody’s’ that was renamed ‘Nobodies’ by some perspicuous musician. There were great bands there. The Freeze, the Flowers, I think the Cheetahs might have been there. There were at least sixty bands. This was the heyday of Punk Rock. 1978 (it took two years to reach Scotland). Some of these bands would probably have made it if they had not died of hypothermia, rat bites and disease.
I recall a band meeting. It seemed with this novel punk rock thing we had to make a decision.
The star ship captains must desert the sinking ship of experimental Heavy Metal. Those Harlequins had to stop searching for the Grande Meulne’s party and get Mohican hairstyles. What to do? The vote was split evenly. Kenny and I wanted that bandwagon. Michael and Nicky wanted to remain Heavy Metal.
‘But if we do that,’ I said, ‘we’ll end up like these no hopers upstairs, Marillion, or whatever there name is’. The rest of the boys should have considered the names I had come up with for the band, and then a simple calculation of judgment and taste might have tipped them over to see sense. Michael and Nicky capitulated.
The Androids were born. Perhaps I should say made, because an android is an organic robot as every good science fiction fan knows. It’s usually incapable of love and that was a key problem with our songs. Android Attack, Robot Riot, Strangers from Venus, Communication Breakdown, Metropolis. Great titles, but somewhat lacking in feminine appeal. But we went for it with a vengeance. Blue hair, leather suits, silver suits, suits of any colour as long as they looked glamorous or nasty. There were badges, posters, stroboscopic lights, spotlights, smoke bombs, a huge PA. Now we were playing the universities and colleges. I attended mime classes to improve my stage presence. Nicky was surrounded in drums. Michael had pre-guessed Darth Vader’s outfitter. I shopped in the girls’ section at Wallis and wore outlandish wrestling boots (thank God, there are no pictures). The mime company had introduced me to the Edinburgh gay scene. One of two heterosexuals in a silent theatre company of sixteen happy folk, I thought I might be the new Lindsay Kemp. I came to realise later I was simply in demand as something to look at in a silver jock strap. (The Scottish Kirk banned our mime show: Querelle of Brest was a little too controversial)
Now I knew guys who’d had fashion exhibitions in New York, who’d worked with David Bowie. Michael was attending parties with people who would be famous, notorious, infamous and influential. Kenny was talking to cool musicians and weaving through the tiny pool of publicity that was the Edinburgh New Wave scene. Nicky’s drums had spawned a Chinese gong. At some point, a large record company was going to step in and seal the deal.
There were incidents on the way. Perils might be a better word. An unscrupulous manager wrecked our sound at Dundee University after the Squibs had stormed it. We emptied Edinburgh University by setting off an airport smoke signal. (I can still see them fleeing for the door). My guitar fell on the floor at the opening moment in our biggest gig. I could have pretended I meant it but then we couldn’t play on. We lost all our money, the van and our dignity at Moray House College when the DJ did a runner. The Exploited were supporting us at Harvey’s but we backed out when the promoters reneged on a PA. (Note the Exploited are a successful band to this day. Unfortunately, we had principles or, in this case, foolish pride).
But there were great moments: Kenny had become an innovative bass player, capable of both hypnotic driving bass riffs and strong melodic lines. More importantly, he was open and friendly. He, persuaded Bruce Findlay, manager of “Simple Minds” to attend a practice through which the band were offered gigs with the cult bands “The Fall”, “Doll by Doll”. “Madness” and “Robert Fripp”. He was instrumental in achieving interviews and airplay on Radio Forth and critical reviews in various papers. We released a single. (For the young this is like a flat black plate with a hole in it. It came after wax impressions and the flapper craze.) It was double A side recorded at Ca Va in Glasgow.
At this stage, we had managed to find that unique gem, a keyboard player. (We had another one, a lovely hippy guy who could dance too but he retired after a few gigs). David Connelly was, by his own admission not a great keyboard player, but he was tall, good looking and had a keyboard. It was starting to sound and look like science fiction on stage
Promoters got interested. We did the old Bay City Roller circuit. This involved travelling to the outskirts of Edinburgh and meeting young people who still wore tartan trousers and starred Jumpers.
There was a certain inevitability about these village hall gigs. After we got a little attention from their girlfriends, the youths tended to attack en masse.
Once we witnessed a girl lying unconscious over the burning disco as the police tried vainly to quell the riot. Another time we were attacked on stage. How that guy leapt to head butt me in one single motion remains one of the mysteries of drunken ribaldry. I was saved by Iain Brown our soundman who banged the lout’s head off the stage. Unfortunately, this was something of a public message that we were not pals with his pals. The band survived by holing out in a cupboard for four hours after a running fight through the venue.
There was another occasion in Glasgow where there were three brawls on the way to the van and a drunk hanging on the doors who apparently wanted a lift home. When the van broke down – shortly after removing the drunk – in Glasgow City Centre, we had to draw straws to go the chippy. A native American Indian would feel less foreign in a Glasgow chip shop than too boys from Edinburgh. ‘Try to talk like Billy Connelly,’ I said on the way in. ‘Just point.’ said Kenny. He was always wiser.
The songs were getting better. The band composed a song called ‘Stranger in Strange Land’. I could listen to it today and still think it was a fantastic song. Usually, I initiated the songs but this was one of the first true band collaborations. (Other members wrote songs or their parts but this felt like our baby) My role was reduced to lyrics and a few screams. Nicky finally was allowed to introduce a 5/4 percussion section. Looking back it was the best song we did, probably because we had, at last, become a band. Sad to say it happened to late.
The PA was too big, Kenny and Nicky refused to lift it anymore. We blamed David for playing too loud. He left the band under a cloud. We soldiered on for a bit, not realising that David was a scapegoat for our sense of defeat. We had been at school together, rehearsed endlessly, played hundreds of gigs, had a few good chances. Like a million other dreamers, it was not quite enough.
It ended in a café in deserted Portobello. Nicky and Michael wanted to do pieces of music. They’d had enough of New Wave. Kenny and I were overjoyed. It was like a divorce: Strange, sad, exciting. But most of all we felt like we had escaped from Alcatraz. Nicky and Michael probably felt the same. None of us realised then that your first band is like your first love. She remains to haunt your memories, never to be replaced, idealised and somewhere in the dark of your imagination, still loved.
Nicky Arkless: Percussion
Joined Holocaust and recorded at least one LP. He still drums today. Last I heard he was in a ceilidh band.
Michael Robertson: Lead Guitar/Vocals
Went on to write his own material at the Edinburgh Songwriters Club. He recorded a highly polished CD before doing an equally polished job producing other songwriters.
Kenny Dalgleish: Bass/Vocals
Formed his own band but died not long after at the age of twenty-three. Sadly missed.
David Connelly: Keyboards
As far as I know, played cabaret and later joined Tactyx, a band in the mould of Camel and Focus.
Craig Herbertson: Lead Vocal/Rhythm Guitar
These are my views and memories. I’m notoriously absent-minded and vague, and may have got bits wrong. If I have, I apologise. Please launch in and correct me. If anyone can add or detract from this please let me know.