Michael Marra (1952-2012)

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Michael MarraI’m guessing that most of you, unless you’re Scottish or you’ve spent some time in Scotland, won’t even have heard of Michael Marra who died on Tuesday in his hometown of Dundee.  Michael was a true free spirit, an original and innovative songwriter who had an uncanny knack of tapping in to the Scottish psyche and who inspired, and was in turn worshipped by, generations of Scottish performers including Pat and Greg Kane, Eddi Reader and Ricky Ross.  His songs reflected life in Scotland from the 60s onwards and covered all of the subjects we talk about in the pub; football, politics and religion and all the rest.

I first saw Michael (or Mick as he was known then) playing with the band Skeets Boliver at Dundee University Students’ Association in my first year at university.  Skeets were a great live act and played constantly on the Dundee scene in the late 70s.  They even secured a record deal with Thunderbird Records, releasing two singles which went unnoticed outside Scotland as punk erupted and swept subtlety aside.  When the inevitable Skeets break-up came, Michael secured a two-album deal with Polydor, went to London and recorded the album “The Midas Touch”.  Despite critical acclaim, the relationship wasn’t made in heaven.  The second album didn’t happen and Michael moved back to Dundee; London’s loss.

The move left Michael free to write songs about subjects he was interested in and to write and sing in a Scottish idiom and accent; just using “wee” instead of “small” can make a huge difference to the way someone hears the song.  It was from this point that he found his true voice (I once described Southside Johnny’s voice as “honey poured over gravel”; Michael’s was broken glass poured over gravel, and totally authentic) and wrote his greatest songs.  After returning to Dundee, Michael’s reputation as a songwriter grew almost daily as he produced songs which reflected life in contemporary Scotland over a period of nearly thirty years.  You can find plenty of examples of Michael’s work on YouTube and I really recommend that you check some of them out.  If you want a bit of help, try these: “If Dundee was Africa”, “Chain Up the Swings” and “Mother Glasgow” (Hue and Cry).

Michael had a wicked sense of humour as well, probably developed by dealing with Dundee hecklers over the years.  I’ve got a Skeets Boliver live bootleg which features some Marra patter between songs and I loved his routine about the lack of promotion from Thunderbird for the second Skeets single, “Moonlight in Jeopardy”.  It went something like:  “They put up posters outside all the Tube stations in Dunfermline; and you know how many tubes there are in Dunfermline”.

My thoughts are with Michael’s family; their loss is so much greater than ours.  RIP Michael Marra; fans of real songwriting everywhere will miss you.