Early Gigs and the Elaine Simmons Band
After leaving university I spent much of the next year trying to break into sound engineering. I should probably have applied for a trainee position with the BBC but as ever I wanted to do it my own way and get into a more music oriented position. There were very few studios in Scotland in those days and most had long term engineers so live music was the only route. To get into that you either had to know the musicians or be in the right place at the right time. While I did plenty of work with friends such as John Sampson and Gordon Dougal, and various one-off gigs with hire rigs and touring bands, it didn't pay much if at all so it was a relief when I was interviewed for a job with Elaine Simmons and her band. Elaine had her own TV series with STV in the early evening and sang in a sort of mainstream / country-rock vein. Her band were a combination of old hands and youngsters but all good solid professional musicians. I'd prepared by getting hold of a copy of her only album and studying the arrangements and sound balance. I knew life would be interesting when I asked her husband/manager how closely he wanted the live sound to match the album and the reply was that they didn't like the album and wanted it completely different!
However my first gigs with them were something of a culture shock as they were in Northern Ireland during the worst of the "troubles". The first three gigs were in the Crumlin Star Club in the republican Ardoyne area and there was a definite point on the way to the venue where we crossed out of British army control into republican control. Since it was not long after an Irish showband had been killed we were understandably very nervous. Happily the hospitality of the Irish people shone through and we were always treated superbly whichever area we were in. Mind you there were more shocks in store as the final venue on that trip was in receipt of a bomb threat to do with the country-wide strike that had been called and a (thankfully dummy) bomb was left outside the venue one afternoon while I was in working on the electrics. Never moved so fast in my life! The day after we got home we heard it had been burned down.
We had some good gigs with the band and a more relaxed tour of the Irish Republic later but it was eventually broken up partly because of complications to a broken leg that Elaine had suffered in a skiing accident. Looking back I was very naive about handling relationships in such a close knit group and with management and I learned a lot on those tours.
Folk Music and the birth of a lifelong passion
My next pro gigs were in folk music during the Edinburgh Festival. It was here that I first came across the brilliant brothers Cunningham - Phil and Johnnie - and became a lifelong fan of their band Silly Wizard. There were some very well known performers at that gig, Cathal O'Connel, Roy Bailey, Leon Rosselson, Cilla and Artie Trezize, and a host of others who passed through during the three weeks, and it was great fun to do. It gave me a far greater understanding and love of folk music which has continued to this day.
The next period of solid work saw me heading down to Leamington Spa near Coventry where I worked with a superb band called Screeens (yes 3 e's). Very original mix of music styles and some fabulous lyrics. They'd won the Vitavox Live Sound award and were a good bet for a record deal. We gigged regularly for the next 6 months and they were some of the best nights I've had in the industry. However we never seemed to quite get the attention from the A&R people that we should have and the tensions within the band that helped make it so good eventually began to have a destructive effect. I was also running out of money and after a great gig in the Marquee in London I decided I couldn't continue. I later heard that they signed a basic deal with Decca but almost immediately broke up. It was a great shame as they could have changed the direction of the new wave that was sweeping through British music. I wish I had a recording of them though I can hear some of their stuff in my head yet.
Not long after I got home I hooked up with a band called Bilbo (formerly Bilbo Baggins), who had previously been in the same management stable as the Bay City Rollers. They were rather more mainstream pop than I was used to but they could rock pretty hard when it suited them and their singer, Colin Chisholm, had a voice so powerful that we had probelms finding a mic that he didn't overload! We toured a series of Mecca venues mainly and usually went down very well. They suited those gigs with a lot of flashy pyrotechnics and dry ice - not to mention the revolving stages ;-) I was running an 8kw rig with them and for perhaps the first time was able to work without problems of clipping and bandwidth. I was probably the fittest I'd ever been too - that rig was pretty big and for some of the gigs there were only two of us to unload and set up. We did pretty well for a while - the Mecca tour finished in the Hammersmith Palais with the largest dance floor in Europe - but the old curse of finances and management wasn't far behind me and after the release of a single was messed up things started to unravel and the bass player decided it was time to call it a day a find a more secure job.
I next met up with a band from Paisley called Snapshots who had a very fine songwriter called Stevie on lead vocals and rhythm guitar. Stevie produced some of the best songs I'd heard and had a good ear for arrangements and I enjoyed working with them immensely. At one point it looked as if we had cracked it when we went down to Rockfield Studios in Wales to record an album financed by Bill Martin. The album sounded great but it was later written off as a tax loss and with very little cash coming in they couldn't afford to keep me on. I later came across them in London at a gig attended by Joe Jackson who admired their music, but after that I lost track of them and I assume they broke up. Thankfully I got a copy of the album and it still sounds good today.
For a while I was forced to take a job driving lemonade lorries to make ends meet; a company called Alpine down at Seafield who delivered door-to-door. I stuck it for a few months but it was pretty boring and the bending over was aggravating a back injury that I'd picked up while gigging so I packed it in.
A chance came up to interview for a job with a band in London called Romance. I went down to do an interview and a trial gig in a Kent village in an old hall. Things looked hopeful, the manager ran a Jaguar garage and seemed pretty ambitious for the band. They also had plenty of gear and it seemed they could aquire anything else they needed. We gigged around the South East area for a while and I stayed with the manager's family in London and helped out at the garage when there was a gap in the playing. At one point the guitarist was sacked and his replacement was John Parr, who later went to the US and wrote the music for the film St. Elmo's Fire as well as playing with Meat Loaf. Unfortunately the band was playing a style of music - progressive rock in the line of Yes, Genesis, etc. - that was going out of fashion and the record companies weren't willing to put the sort of money into it that would have been required. As tensions came to a head the manager and I had a short argument that left me with a couple of broken ribs and on the train to Edinburgh. It was a month before I was due to get married.