I’ve been a bit lax in updating my Glasgow West End Characters on the site so I started making a list of possible candidates. Westender Allan Tall, with his fascinating career in music, theatre and television seemed to fit the bill. I caught up with him in Tinderbox on Byres Road for a natter. He's an exceptionally affable man and seemed to know just about everyone in the cafe´so we had a few interruptions and a lot of laughs. He’s also got an incredible memory and plenty of showbiz stories to share – equally happy to chat about filming with Mel Gibson or his recent gig at Partick Folk Club.
Allan picked up his first guitar when he was fifteen, the week his father died. For a short spell he played bass in an Easterhouse band then after listening to the likes of Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy and Hoyt Axton, he became attracted to the folk scene. Every Friday night he played at the Glasgow Folk Centre with John Martyn (at that time plain Ian McGeachie). He started hitching up and down to London – at one point staying in John Mayall’s Chelsea houseboat on Cheyne Walk, while he toured the US – 'i was pally with his roadie'. Eventually he moved to London, where he got involved in the blues scene, discovering Les Cousins and Bunjie’s and Jim Haynes’ Arts Lab in Drury Lane. He played whenever he could and briefly joined the experimental ensemble, Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra.
Back in Scotland, he was playing popular clubs like the Maryland and the Picasso but then moved into the world of theatre when Tom McGrath the poet and playwright invited him to join his performance art troupe 'The Other People'. McGrath formed this company with fellow poets Alan Spence and Tom Leonard – it included some of Scotland’s most gifted – and my own favourite writers – James Kelman, Liz Lochhead and Alasdair Gray.
It seems fair to say that through his varied career Allan hasn’t exactly had to chase work – he was asked by Irvine’s Borderline Theatre to play in William McIlvanney’s first play and at this point joined Equity, which “was not easy in those days.” He retained close links with Tom McGrath ‘creative maverick and visionary’, who had immense impact Glasgow’s world of art and music, bringing world acclaimed musicians to the city. Tom invited Allan to play with Allen Ginsberg amongst others and also to perform gigs at Third Eye Centre (now Centre for Contemporary Art), where McGrath was appointed director when it opened in 1973. I remember the excitement at the time – the coolest place in town.
Dave Anderson invited Allan to join the left wing theatre group 7.84 – established by John McGrath, his wife Elizabeth McLennan and her brother David McLennan. The aim of 7.84 was to relate to Scotland’s distinct historical, cultural and political traditions and take meaningful theatre to the people, playing in schools and village halls in estates and outlying areas.
Allan played sax and flute as well as guitar, and remembers this time back in the 70s with pleasure ‘although the touring was a hard slog.’ 7.84 evolved into Wildcat: ‘I worked with them for a few years, then went south to tour with Matthew Kelly and other Liverpool Everyman alumni in 7:84 England.’
In the 80s he toured with the musician Dick Gaughan and played sax on three of his albums. Apart from playing Allan taught guitar and also organised workshops with world class musicians including John Renbourn, Isaac Guillory, Stefan Grossman and Tim Hardin.’
He added acting to his curriculum vitae and found himself playing many diverse roles: Tonto in the TV Film, ‘Gunfight at the Joe Kay Corral’, Oberon in ‘Midsummers Night Dream,’ ‘half a dozen Taggarts’ Allan appears to have been in the envious position of accepting acting or musical roles that were of interest to him, this included: Cappella Nova, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Panto, Scottish Opera, film with Romy Schneider, Harvey Keitel, Mel Gibson, Bill Forsyth and Ray McAnally and TV with Richard Briers, Robbie Coltrane and Chic Murray.
'I played John the Baptist in Bill Bryden’s smashing TV play ‘The Holy City,’ with Richard Wilson and David Hayman (as Jesus). It was good! Then there was my role as God in Benjamin Britten’s ’Noye’s Fludde’ with Bill McCue and Frances McCafferty.'
Allan also worked with Mark Knopfler on the music for ‘Local Hero’. In the 80s he set up Roughcast, his own theatre company, producing eleven plays. The company premiered the plays of novelist James Kelman, touring from the Scottish Highlands to Bavaria.
In 2001 Allan was on the road again with Benchtours in their production of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard: ‘… Alan Tall, who also performs in the production, has composed the music which punctuates it perfectly. At its most powerful when it is performed live on stage, the music serves to give some of the more soulful and tragic elements an edge when they are needed, dramatically, in the proceedings. (The Scotsman)
More recently we've had the pleasure of seeing Allan perform at Cottiers' Theatre, with Terry Neason and at Partick Folk Club. At the moment he's engrossed in composing two songs – the verse he sang to me sounds pretty good. He appears to be perfectly comfortable in his present skin as singer/songwriter and in no big hurry to produce final versions of his songs. Like he says: ‘It took Randy Newman nine years to find the middle eight for Wedding in Cherokee County’. I’m taking his word for that.
When I asked Allan about the favourite moments in his career, he couldn’t answer but when he’d had time to think about it he emailed me:
“Favorite moments? On reflection, playing to c5,000 in the Sports Hall in the erstwhile East Berlin was unusual, to say the least; then doing a Wildcat show on Brecht's stage at his Theater am Schiffbauerdamm there and relaxing in his chair in the little smoking room felt a bit special! The Berliner Ensemble and I are the same age…" This acclaimed musician-actor has certainly got more fascinating memories than most of us, an awful lot of achievements to be proud of and, I suspect, much more to come.
“Outstanding!” (John Renbourn)
“Excellent - a treat!” (Duck Baker)
“Too beautiful!” Isaac Guillory
“Smashing!” (Danny Kyle)
“Allan Tall’s music is beautiful! One of the finest musician-actors on the Scottish stage.” (Joyce McMillan, The Scotsman)
“His playing was everything it should be and more. He somehow managed to fill in the bottom end with gutsy chords and produce twinkling other world embellishments at the same time. Or was is magic?” (The Living Tradition)
“Don’t miss this man!” (Rock ’n’ Reel)
“ …the legendary singer/guitarist …a hero to many on the folk scene for years.” (Partick Folk Club)”
Pat Byrne, August, 2017.