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.

Product DetailsDid you hear the one about the radio presenter, the TV presenter, the actress and the music performance teacher? Or, alternatively, Ricky Ross, Dougie Vipond, Lorraine McIntosh and Jim Prime?  The members of Deacon Blue have taken time out from the day jobs to release a new album, 25 years after their first, “Raintown”, in 1987.  I first heard the band in that year; “When Will You (Make my Telephone Ring)?” was released as a single and I was hooked from the first listen.

The current band are two-thirds of the original line-up; bass player Ewen Vernal is now with Capercaillie (and guested with Love and Money” on their shows last year) and, sadly, guitarist Graeme Kelling died in 2004.  So, apart from the obvious 25th anniversary, why release an album in 2012?  Because they have a bunch of great new songs and they still love playing together, and that’s good enough for me.

If you bought “Raintown” in 1987 and managed to avoid listening to anything by Deacon Blue since then, “The Hipsters” would sound like the logical next step.  The songs are just as strong, probably even stronger, than those on the ground-breaking first album but the overall sound is more immediate and engaging than the very 80s production of “Raintown”.  There’s a reason for that, and I’ll come back to it later.

The album opens with “Here I Am in London Town” which harks back to “Raintown” in that the lead-off song on both albums has a stripped-back production, but there’s more to it than that.  The opening song on “The Hipsters” looks back to the period just before the release of the debut album when all of the members of the band were “waiting for the world to begin again”.  The title track, “The Hipsters” is one of the best singles I’ve heard this year and a great summer song; it’s just a shame that we didn’t have a summer to do it justice.  It’s also ironic because Deacon Blue were never hipsters and no amount of sales would make them hip; but that’s probably why we loved them so much.  Just in case we missed that particular bit of irony, the balance is redressed with “The Outsiders” which is the position they were most always most comfortable with: “this world seemed so much lighter, when we were the outsiders”.

It’s difficult to pick standout tracks from the album because the songs are all superbly crafted and the arrangements work perfectly to bring the songs to life, so all I can do is point you in the direction of some of my personal favourites.  “The Rest” is a feelgood barnstormer which sounds like the E Street Band at full throttle with great piano lines and sus4 guitar chords driving the chorus along, while “It’ll End in Tears” has a really bouncy feel but an ultimately downbeat message.  The final song “Is There No Back to You?” is a gorgeous lovelorn ballad which brings the album to a melancholy but fitting close.

The songs in this collection are the work of a mature and confident songwriter with nothing left to prove and a lifetime’s experience to draw on.  The material on “Raintown” was good by any standards but the relationship songs, apart from “When Will You (Make my Telephone Ring?)”, were always at a slight distance from the subject matter or in the third person.  It felt like you were hearing a snatch of a conversation from the flat next door or catching a glimpse of a scene through a restaurant window.  On “The Hipsters”, the narrative of the relationship songs is in the first person and we’re drawn into the heart of the situations, which gives the songs much more power.

The arrangements all work perfectly to enhance the songs and range from the sheer power of “The Rest” through the ‘60s pop feel of “That’s What We Can Do” to the minimal feel of “Here I Am in London Town” and “Is There No Way Back to You?”.  And it’s just possible that I’m over-interpreting, but is Ricky Ross paying tribute to some of his songwriting heroes here?  The production and/or vocals on three of the songs have a familiar feel; “Here I Am in London Town” is very Neil Young, “The Rest” is pure Springsteen (with a hint towards the end of Big Country) and “Is There No Way Back to You?” has a feel of “Jealous Guy” era John Lennon.  Despite the usual stories of star-crossed lovers (“Turn”, “She’ll Understand”, “Laura from Memory”, It’ll End in Tears” and “Is there No Way Back to You?”) the overall feel of the album is still uplifting because of the relationships in “Stars” and “The Rest” which, against all the odds, end happily, and the sheer exuberance of “The Hipsters” and “The Outsiders”.   This is a great collection of songs, great arrangements, great performances and a great production.

Going back to the immediate and engaging sound of the album; there’s a very good reason for it.  The songs were thoroughly rehearsed before the band went into the studio and recorded them live; that’s quite a brave and unusual move these days and it’s paid off because they’re good enough and confident enough to perform to that level.  Before The Beatles, that’s how everyone recorded and maybe there’s still a place for that immediacy now; it was good enough for Joe Meek.

This album is the best, most moving collection of songs I’ve heard this year and I’ll be listening to it for years to come.  What more can I say?

The single is released on September 23rd, followed by the album on the 24th.