Oct 262012

All Things Must Pass, wrote George Harrison, and they do.

Sometimes, though, the death of someone who you don’t really know, but who has affected you in some way, can hurt.  That’s the case with Michael Marra, songwriter, performer, actor and artist who was defiantly and proudly Dundonian who died on Tuesday. Voice’s David Innes writes.

His refusal to drop the overt Caledonian influences and references in his writing when employed as a professional songwriter in London in the early 1980s saw him return home to Dundee and hone his talent to razor-sharpness without ever losing his desire to tell life stories, very often set in Dundee and seen through his own off-centre prism.

That was London’s loss.

His songs were supremely-crafted vignettes whatever the subject matter.  Whether a view on the state of humanity like Here Come The Weak, an observation of women at the berries dissing each other’s housing schemes in Baps and Paste, or a message to his great uncle who was disowned by his family as contained in The Lonesome Death of Francis Clarke.  

Equally as entertaining were his introductions to the songs where his clever, self-effacing humour would have audience members in convulsions of laughter.

When he playfully insulted Aberdeen in If Dundee Was Africa and got a laugh for it (even in the Lampie and the Lemon Tree) he would insist that he paid the city a tribute by having the Dons held up as heroes for redeeming the human race in the eyes of the fox in Reynard in Paradise.

His live shows were wondrous to behold.  Always nervous offstage, once he sat behind a piano he became a changed man.  Often, the instrument was his own electronic keyboard, or as he described it once when rippling arpeggios on the Jazz Club grand piano in the Blue Lamp:

 “a piece of plastic on an ironing board”.

He was an inveterate collaborator too.

There have been, and are, musical geniuses in his home city and Michael worked with them all – The Woollen Mill, Skeets Boliver, the Clarks, his own brother the supremely-talented Christopher etc.  These people inspired and were inspired by him and throughout his repertoire there were references to Gus Foy (Hamish the Goalie), Peter McGlone (Peter), Dougie MacLean (Niel Gow’s Apprentice) and Dougie Martin (Julius).

Michael was also an actor.

He appeared in Hamish Macbeth and The Big Man and delivered a well-received performance as Jim, the pyromaniac, in Chris Rattray’s acclaimed The Mill Lavvies for which he also wrote the songs.

He was characteristically self-effacing about his painting and drawing skills but he had talent in this area too.

For a man who cliché demanded had to be termed ‘Scotland’s best kept secret’, he was held in high respect and great affection by significant figures in Scottish artistic circles, yet he was a man who would rather discuss Dundee’s League-winning team of 1962, or The Beach Boys, than talk about his own talent and finely-crafted songs.

Michael was a private man, happy to chat with fans, but never keen on the limelight.  Often keen to play piano at the side of a stage helping out others.

The many touching tributes which have been paid by household names in the arts world are proof that this little grey-haired Dundonian with an easy grin, twinkling eye and black beret was regarded as an outstanding talent and, more importantly, one of life’s genuine and generous good guys.

Michael Marra 1952-2012.  Sleep easy, Michael.

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Dec 092011

By David Innes.

I’m as inclusive as the next man, and am delighted at the cultural diversity of the UK and the city in which I make my living.

Although I may occasionally wince at the Gingerbread Cottage-type Anglicisations of traditional place-names in the North East, this is ameliorated when I see dwellings bearing names such as An Teallach, Glas Maol and Glenfarclas on my regular working excursions into the English Midlands and beyond.

The man-made is all very well. Owners come and go, and taste and preference will move with the times and the custodians. Messing with natural physical and topographical features, though, is another matter.

Were there a move to rename Bennachie Strawberry Mountain or Lochnagar Byron Peak, there would be an outcry, and quite right too. Why there was none when A Certain Plutocrat decided to rename – because he owns them and he can – Menie Sands “The Great Dunes of Scotland” I do not know.

This cultural imperialism, however, did set me thinking. Scotland is great in other ways, and every time I hear the temporary new name for Menie Sands, I will think of these…

The Great Doin’s of Scotland

Wembley 1961. 9-3. Nine bloody three! Thank you Haffey, Shearer, Caldow, MacKay, McNeill, McCann, McLeod, Law, St John, Quinn and Wilson.

Flodden 1513. Scots manager James IV’s selection proved to be his downfall. Eschewing the tried and tested 4-4-2 formation, he elected to field the heavy guns and eighteen foot pikes on a heavy pitch. Not for the first or last time, a strategic military balls-up saw us lose a generation of young men. Silver lining? We got The Floo’ers o’ the Forest, that haunting lament that is among the Great Tunes of Scotland.

Wembley 1975. 5-1 Five bloody one! Stewart Kennedy in goal had a nightmare, leading to the accusation that John F Kennedy stopped more shots in Dallas in 1963 than his goalpost-clutching namesake did twelve years later.

The Great Junes of Scotland

June Imray. The Torry Quine. The Quine Fa Did The Strip At Inverurie. An icon.

June 1976. Sun for weeks and weeks and weeks. Only spoiled by Elton bleedin John and Kiki flippin Dee monopolising the airwaves with ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’. It did, every time I heard it.

June Gordon. Lady Aberdeen 1913-2009. Professional pianist and conductor who founded the Haddo House Choral and Operatic Society, helping bring that culture thing to the NE.

The Great Tunes of Scotland

The Bonny Lass o’ Bon Accord. A Scott Skinner 1910 chart smash, memorable for Pete Murray’s introduction on that year’s Top of the Pops Christmas Show, where he urged the audience to “sing along with the words, they’re lovely”. The gype.

Hallelujah Freedom by Junior Campbell, formerly of Marmalade. 1972 was a vintage year for Top of the Pops, with Alice Cooper, Blackfoot Sue, Slade, T Rex and Hawkwind all  threatening the Wood Lane studio foundations. Yet few songs that year were better than this tasty titbit of joyous pop soul from Shettleston’s own Sedaka.

The Black Bear. Formation marching forgotten as drouthy regiments headed back to the barracks and the mess to this rousing pipe melody. Guffaw during The Longest Day as Lord Lovat orders his piper to play Blue Bonnets Over The Border and The Black Bear fills the speakers. Grimace at Andy Stewart’s use of the tune for his Tunes Of Glory.

Hermless, Scotland’s alternative national anthem, according to its writer, Mr Michael Marra, of Dundee. Gets right inside the true Scottish psyche. Learn it now, you may be lustily joining in with it at the Commonwealth Games in 2014. “…I ging to the lebry, I tak oot a book and then I go hame for ma tea”.

Thanks, The Donald min. They’ll still be “thon great heaps o’ sand atween Balmedie and Newburgh” as far as many natives and inaboot-comers are concerned, who didn’t realise their official title until you plonked your glorified pitch and putt course there. But I’ll never walk along that beach again without humming Hallelujah Freedom , the Scotland The Brave-based Grampian TV signature motif preceding a June Imray link, and musing on what might have been had Bobby Clark been selected for Scotland in May 1975.

Dec 012011

Tayside troubadour Michael Marra performed at The Lemon Tree Cafe Bar on 24 November. Mike Gibb, local playwright and friend of Voice, was there, and here’s what he made of it.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Michael Marra was described as ‘Scotland’s best kept secret’.

Fortunately, that’s no longer the case as a packed Lemon Tree clearly displayed. It was obvious that the audience included a fair sprinkling of aficionados keen to listen, once again, to Marra’s unbeatable blend of music and humour.

You may know most of the stories but he delivers them with such warm, natural charm that you simply can’t help laughing along.

It was clear though, from the number who had to ‘rehearse’ the communal singing of Baps n Paste and Hermless, that there were many new faces there too. And after witnessing Marra’s masterful performance, they’ll be back next time Dundee’s finest export ventures north – even forgiving him for his jibes at Aiberdeen in I Don’t Like Methil and If Dundee Was Africa.

The two sets featured many of the finest moments from Michael’s vast and varied repertoire. Yet he began with an inspired rendition of Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s depression-era anthem Brother Can You Spare A Dime, very relevant given today’s economic turmoil. There followed a masterclass in songwriting – brilliant lyrics married to fascinating tunes, perfectly performed on piano and guitar with hilarious introductions populated by characters from Michael’s past, including The Bothy Cat, The Angry Cat, The Man With No Nickname and The Singing Moth.

Devotees’ favourites abounded. The wonderful unaccompanied tribute to Dundee drunks, Muggie Sha’, the imaginative linking of Mexican artist Frieda Kahlo with a less-salubrious Dundee drinking establishment in Freda Kahlo’s Visit To The Tay Bridge Bar and his tribute to a castrated and wayward cat, Pious Porteous.

Then he treated us to Farlow, The Lonesome Death of Francis Clarke, Bob Dylan’s Visit to Embra, Big Wide World Beyond The Seedlies, a hilarious testament to the perils of lonely hearts columns in He Said, She Said, and a new song, the ravishing Heaven’s Hound, inspired by the Mississippi travels of long-time Marra friends from Kintore.

Michael left the stage to a tumultuous, well-deserved and heartfelt ovation. His encore paid tribute to his own songwriter heroes Gerry Rafferty, in Mary Skeffington, and a poignant treatment of Hoagy Carmichael’s Rocking Chair, before he finally departed with the Marra anthem Hermless, to my mind the saddest comedy song I’ve heard in many a long day.

The audience could have stayed all night, so haste you back Michael. When he does return I’m sure all who attended will be there once again bringing friends with them.

Michael Marra is no longer Scotland’s best kept secret. He is one of Scotland’s greatest treasures.