The forgotten life: Part 3: Education, music, pop stars
“…via a circuitous route I found myself writing a song up a mountain in Italy with a chart topping singer from the town I grew up in.“
Glasgow Caledonian University
Unemployment and being part of a ‘government works scheme’ paints a very poor picture of who I was at this point in my life; financially poor, intellectually starved and a bit lost; in the sense of where my life was heading. I decided the solution was to go to university. For two reasons; first as I would get a grant – the money was an attraction – and second it seemed a better option than being unemployed or getting the type of job that would be open to me with my qualifications and experience. There were no deep thoughts about were it would lead to.
My time at Glasgow Caledonian University was similar in many ways to my time in school and my time at work up to this point, i.e. I didn’t work hard, spent too much time messing about and spent time in the library being bored.
I ‘managed’ my courses rather than became interested in the subject matter, i.e. did exactly what I thought I needed to do to get through each year. When I did occasionally spend some time on the subjects – late in the day – I discovered that they were interesting; I quite liked reading out about Plato, Socrates, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, David Hume and the rest – as part of the Ideologies course – as well as learning quite a lot about the foundations of Conservatism and the roots of Socialism in the UK. The divinely ordered ruling class heavily burdened looking after the poor workers standing on the other side of the gate. Oh – I felt sorry for the ruling elite; such responsibility – and only money and privilege in return.
At university I met up with fellow musician Graham MacIintosh. We spent a lot of time in the student bar where – as regulars – we had a key to the pool table; i.e we didn’t have to pay to play; so we spent a lot of time playing pool. I spent time in the library being bored which was fairly normal; Graham however, developed a Pavlovian type response to sitting in the library – he couldn’t be there without falling asleep, which he did as soon as he sat down at a table.
Other positive things that happened while I was at university. One was that I was forced to write a lot; written coursework was a large part of how the courses were designed at Glasgow Caledonian – which was a blessing – in retrospect – though not at the time. Second, I was shown the very first website set up by Tim Berners Lee by the lecturers David Donald and John Culbert; they knew I had been a computer programmer and were interested in computing themselves. This was in 1990 and the website was nothing more than white text on a black background but it was clear to us all that this new ‘web thing’ was significant. Years later (remarkably) I met Tim Berners-Lee at a conference.
In the early 1990s I got invited to conferences, as I was considered a pioneer in the area of accessible website design (another story, maybe not for another time). Tim Berners-Lee was the key speaker at a London conference I attended. The event was finished and people were leaving. I spotted Tim walking from the stage; when he was parallel with the row of seats I was in. I shouted on him, ‘hey Tim!’. He came over. I had no idea what to say to him; I was star struck. What I remembers is that he was an ubber-geek. He pulled his laptop computer from his bag to show me something related to a new ‘semantics’ based XML type language he was working on. It was beyond me. The person I had been chatting to took over his attention; just like someone jumping in at a party; my time with Tim was short, and it was over.
Receiving an award from the King of Sweden
After I graduated I was lucky enough to get the chance, through two of my lecturers David Donald and John Culbert, to work as a part-time lecturer – teaching computing and research methods and supporting students doing their degree in the evening. A few years later – I turned those connections into a full-time lecturers job at Glasgow Caledonian University; though I didn’t actually do much lecturing as I set up a self-funded accessible website design consultancy based at the university – called The Making Connections Unit.
I was the sole employee of this project; basically self-employed once again. This ran from about 1998 until 2003. I was officially employed as a lecturer but I was invisible to the management as I didn’t attend any of the departmental meetings and they turned a blind eye, due to the fact that the project brought in money that covered my salary. I did do some lecturing on the Research Methods course and I did the evening classes because I liked the students and I got on well with John Culbert who organised the course.
It was The Making Connections Unit – via joint work with Glasgow City Council – that led to the project being nominated for an award; The Global Bangemman Challenge. Myself, my wife Pat and staff from Glasgow City Council flew to Sweden; to accept it.
This trip was memorable for more than just the ceremony, for it being hosted by the King of Sweden and for the glass paper weight presented to me on a fancy pillow by a women dressed in traditional Swedish costume – which all happened at the City Halls in Stockholm and in the same room were they present the Nobel Peace prize evening meal (where we had the same menu).
The memorable bit, was when I was approached – minutes before the start of the ceremony – by a council employee to ask me, if Lord Provost of Glasgow could accept the award on behalf of the project – i.e. instead of me! A PR exercise for Glasgow City Council. Pat was – to put it mildly – was outraged. I wasn’t too happy myself so I turned down the request. This resulted in bad feelings on both sides, which probably didn’t help my project’s relationship with the Council.
Music related memories
Winning a Grolch Livewire songwriters award
I’ve no real idea when this was, but I suspect it was some time in the late 1980’s – when we went to London to attend a national songwriting competition event. Pat had entered a song of mine into a national competition for the creative arts; the song was called ‘Breath Easy’. It didn’t win but I was awarded a prize as one of the runner-ups so we were invited down to London to attend the ceremony.
It was quite a big deal; the winner in the fashion section was a Scottish designer called Pam Hogg. It think this was when we stayed with the then touring guitarist for the Strangler’s John Ellis and his partner Elaine, who was a stylist to the stars; or that could have been the time we went down to London to talk to a record company interested in releasing another one of my songs (the producer was going to be Ray Davies from the Kinks). Strangely enough the ‘scene’ reminded me of Clydebank in the early 80s – where for a time the cool group of people to hang out with consisted of the hairdressers, the punky fashionistas and musicians; there was a punk fashion vibe at the awards party – that was a perfect match with that earlier scene.
Returning briefly to the record company; I turned the offer down and argued against recording the song they wanted to record – because I’d gone off it; I was tired of that particular song which by that time was not new. Opportunity knocked but I didn’t answer the door.
The Kazoo Club, Giving Alex Kapranos his first gig
In the late 1980s’ along with Pat we started a live music club called The Kazoo club. This was in the basement of what became the 13th Note in Glassford Street in Glasgow city centre. We started it so that there would be a regular place to play for my band (the dying days of a band I had called, The Hemingways) – but after the very first gig Bruce our drummer said he was never going to play it again because it was too smoky and it wouldn’t be good for his health. (I was very upset about this at the time; as the club was part of my grand plan to make the band successful)
We had big ‘artistic’ ideas; mixing artists with musicians; the idea was to have live music and live painting on the walls. Sadly the artistic aspect only lasted about a month as the more middle class artist types didn’t mix well with the more working class musicians. The art aspect drifted away, leaving it as a live music venture.
The idea was that it would be a place for bands to play their first gig in a supportive environment. Drums, amps and a PA system were provided; so bands just had to turn up – ask to play and the would be given a slot; it seemed radical at the time as there were no places to play in Glasgow but looking back it just sounds like the ‘open stage’ events that are now common. It was a great success and quickly developed into a supportive community of musicians and a musical scene.
One of the bands we gave an opportunity to included a singer/guitarist called Alex Kapranos – later of the band Franz Ferdinand. (I knew Alex’s dad as he worked as a lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University).
Years later I bumped into Alex in the West End; and asked him if he was still playing music. This was a few days before Franz Ferdinand had won mercury music prize. I had no idea; and didn’t make the connection; until I mentioned my meeting to a friend at Glasgow Caledonian University who was a Franz Ferdinand fan.
I was a bit irritated when I read an online interview in which Alex claimed to have started the Kazoo club; in the intervening years it had become legendary as the club that had started many bands’ careers. I dug out the Kazoo Club launch press release (printed in the magazine, The List) and sent it to the website who published the interview. I also emailed Alex to remind him. I knew my uncool act was merely ‘pissing in the wind’; but I needed to put the record straight.
Writing songs with Marti Pellow and Carol Kidd, hanging out with pop stars
In 2008 I took part in a ‘by invitation only’ songwriting retreat – located in the mountains in the north of Italy; run by Chris Difford (of the band Squeeze) and signer songwriter Chris Sheehan. The event is described by the organisers as ‘a melting pot of legends and legends to be’. I guess I must have fitted in to the ‘legends to be’ category.
Apart from the beautiful setting, the other notable feature of the workshop was the mix of those attending; pop stars (e.g. Marti Pellow, Matt Deighton and of course Chris Difford) and up and coming new artists such as Chris Sheehan and Athena Andreadis). Each day you got paired off with someone different, wrote a song with them and then performed the song to the rest of the group in the evening.
The first person I wrote with was Marti Pellow (of Wet Wet Wet) – which was ironic – as we both come from Clydebank and he knew some of my younger brothers’ crowd. We are also connected through my mum’s sister’s husband. So via a circuitous route I found myself writing a song up a mountain in Italy with a chart topping singer from the town I grew up in.
For someone who had been so successful Marti didn’t come across as hugely confident about his songwriting abilities. He was, however, a quick worker (like myself) so we had a song – complete with verse, bridge and chorus within about an hour. It had a gospel influence; and was later recorded by Marti for one of his solo records; the song is called, ‘Lay with Me’ and was released in 2014 on the album, ‘Boulevard of Life’. Maybe one day it will be a big hit and I’ll be weighed down by the royalties – or maybe not.
The rest of the retreat was an overload of creative energy, fresh mountain air and every day songwriting with people coming from completely different musical backgrounds; within a few days everyone was coming out with at least a couple of songs a day.
From a confidence perspective it was great; here was me mixing with the best as a songwriter – and easily holding my own. At the time it felt like the start of a new musical chapter for me – from a music perspective and from a ‘networking with people in the industry’ perspective.
I was so confident with my songwriting abilities when I came back that within a few weeks I was writing songs with Scottish Jazz legend Carol Kidd (Carol famously supported Frank Sinatra at Ibrox). Carol wrote the words and I came up with the music. I recorded it myself on my second solo album – it is called ‘Down by the Wildwood’. As far as I know Carol never recorded it – so perhaps another missed opportunity. Update: I met Carol at her art exhibition in October 2014 and she told me it’s her daughters favourite song. She may have just said that to be nice – but I’ll take it and run with it anyway.
Sadly, none of the networks were maintained and none of the opportunities that I envisaged ever came to pass. However, I have continued to be very productive on the music front.
Music: the upside
Since 2008: I’ve released three solo CD’s and an EP with the Bearpit Brothers; had positive reviews in the national music press (Mojo, Uncut, Q), got played on the radio; had a CD chosen as ‘album of the week’ by Celtic Music Radio; played gigs in places I hadn’t expected to (including the famous Bitter End in New York and venues in France, Canada, England and Ireland) and with people I’d only known of from the music press; I supported Benny Gallagher and Hans Theessink and I got a song added to ‘Gods Jukebox’ on Radio 2 by Mark Lammar. I’ve been interviewed; signed autographs; had another band play one of my songs; played the main stage at festivals and had the pleasure of receiving royalty cheques. All of which – when written down – seems impressive.
The reality is that it amounts to a few memorable adventures and an occasional pat on the back. Luckily I’ve met and played music with a lot of great people along the way. And of course – writing songs and playing music is its own reward.
Proir to my solo career and apart from my own bands – my main claim to (musical) fame was a short stint as the guitarist in psychedelic rock band, The Primevals.
A famously bad memory
I am known for my bad memory – a few examples will suffice: forgetting to turn up for my own works ‘leaving do’; traveling to Italy a day early for the songwriting retreat; bungling jokes and forgetting song words during gigs (here’s a joke: ‘How did action man get that scar? Plastic surgery. Ho, ho, ho. The joke is not, ‘How did superman get that scar…… ‘ which was what I said); getting completely lost when traveling anywhere – in the pre Sat-nav era; being interested in Scottish Art and having done a course on it, but being unable to discuss it because I can’t remember the names of any painters; being unable to remember the word ‘pickle’ when wanting pickle on my toasty; having to keep checking the name of the person I will be talking to before going into meetings; having to search Google using vague expressions to find the word I want to write; having to get the assistance from the audience at gigs to fill in the gaps in the sentences as I construct them.
My memory problems (along with some other issues) led to a situation where at one point I was discussing with a brain surgeon whether, or not, he should drill a hole in my head to insert a pressure sensor. I had been in hospital overnight in preparation for this intervention – and this was the final hurdle in deciding whether it would go ahead or not. He made the mistake of saying it was entirely up to me. I decided not to; which was clearly a big disappointment to him; this brain surgeon loved his job. Within an hour of that meeting I was back home – contemplating this surreal episode.
Meeting Tom Waits after one of his Edinburgh gigs in the 1980’s and being asked if I knew any bars he could go for a drink – I didn’t and couldn’t hang about to help him find one – as I had to get the last bus back to Glasgow; setting up a worldwide organisation with 450 members called The Guide of Accessible Website Designers (GAWDS) and being the chief GAWD; getting abuse (of a libelous nature) online by a few individuals from Glasgow’s folk music scene (and finding out who they were, despite them hiding behind discussion forum pseudonyms); playing a gig at the Glasgow Garden Festival where the only audience consisted of the people who would go by every 15 minutes on a toy train and releasing an EP with Bearpit Brothers (the band included Larry Alexander and Robert Ruthven from one of my favourite bands The Creeping Charlies) that was mastered at Abbey Road by the same mastering engineer as the Beatles ‘Let it Be.. naked’.
And that’s it
Many more ‘mildly amusing anecdotes’ have been forgotten. And unfortunately, too much that is not amusing is well remembered.
P.s. for a limited period my critically acclaimed folk and country blues solo CD’s are only £4.95
In September 2014 the song I wrote with Marti Pellow appeared on his album, ‘Boulevard of Life’. The song is called ‘Lay with me’ – have a listen to it on iTunes.
Jim Byrne, May, 2014.
This section: Jim Byrne's forgotten life
Filed under: Jim Byrne's forgotten life
- The forgotten life: Part 3: Education, music, pop stars
- The forgotten life: Part 2: Working, not working, half working
- Jim Byrne: Part 1: The forgotten life – Childhood