Stephen Gordon tells the tale of a rock ‘n’ roll band at the very height of their fame.
The marquee was flapping in the flans of wind that swept down through the harbour. The scaffolding skeleton held on to its skin, but the creaks and the infuriating sound of aluminium on aluminium rose above the band on stage. The band was no longer the window of the event but had become the curtains.
A rather reticent lead singer cleared his throat and deliberated into the microphone. “They say you play the end of the pier twice in your career: on the way up and on the way down. It’s good to be back!” There was a ripple of laughter through the audience. Turning to the other band members, Sandy Sound’s glance was returned with ambiguous looks from the Grottie Buckies.
Gigging in Britain’s most northern archipelago had been tough lately. Or was that the last 30 years? The concert at the Crippit Hall had not been an overriding success. In fact, overriding catastrophe would be a more apt description.
They were having so many comebacks that some might say they were overstaying their welcome. Bookings had been drying up; the “captive audience” was reaching saturation point. With today’s audiences insatiable appetite for something new, the R’n’B combo was struggling in a sea of indifference. It wasn’t quite a case of once seen instantly forgotten but that could be in the future.
The lead axe man’s outburst at the Merket Kriss, involving an altercation with a half-dressed salmon after consuming a bottle of Tequila and a large jar of beetroot, did little for the band’s reputation.
In this tight little community, not known for its outward-looking nature, rock ‘n’ roll had been making inroads, jazz was virtually a no-no with the population at large. Fiddle was still supreme, with a large smattering of accordion, and this wasn’t Parisian. This was both kinds: Scottish and dance – open white shirts, bonnie frocks. Ah but what birllin’ an’ skirllin’, heuchin’ an’ hoochin’. Who was the Dashing White Sergeant? Did the sheep no’ strip the willow? What was a skateesh? A Saint Bernard could feasibly dance with you up on hind legs. But what’s in a title? It’s the music that thrills the soul, n’est pas?
“This song is for all of you with a birthday next year.” That should cover about everyone. Sandy Sound thought the crowd was warming, like a long soothing bath. But how would they take this song, “How can you miss me when I won’t go away?”
The band began the intro – an introduction to what was to come or to what had been? Sandy’s eye was now aware of a large ominous cloud gathering over the north end of Bressay. The wind was freshening even more, its ert seemed to be tunnelling with even more gusto at the fragile temporary structure now clutching on to the end of the pier.
Lead axe man “Flat Fish” was now taking on the features of a grizzled walrus as he exploded into his “incredible solo” – well that was his words; the rest of the band agreed with him just to humour him, to feed morsels of encouragement to his gigantic ego.
What the #@+# was goin on? “Skins Drummond”, the drummer, felt movement alright, but it wasn’t the drum kit beat, it was something much greater, more monumentally scary. Bass man “Broody Billy”, who crouched over his instrument like a praying mantis, his long arms too big to fit comfortably on the instrument, now started to pace uncomfortably on stage, his angular form jerking, lost without a purpose, but still hammering out the bulbous deep resonance. But like a true top club act the show was still goin’ on.
Large swathes of white plastic were now leaving the skeleton scaffolding, heading Ness o’ Sound way. The audience was now visibly more subdued. They were realising that maybe this disintegration was not part of the show. “Wow wow wow!” Now that dreadful sound like a spoon scraping on a metal pan amplified a thousand times engulfed the surroundings. This was now scary biscuits!
White horses out in the bay were now developing into large, far from useless white elephants. That old river boat was bobbing about big style; the Bressay ferry was pitching and rolling like a mad thing, the flat bottomed vessel tossed around like a piece of wet cardboard in the middle of the sound, unrestrained, lost on the waves. Had they lost control of her? Not the band’s only concern at this precise moment.
Sandy was now aware of the master of ceremonies beside him – a small stocky man with a complexion of a mealy pudding, and a gut that unfortunately was held together by two braces. He rather roughly took the microphone from the singer, who was now quite content that someone was taking control of a “situation” that was, as they say on the news, rapidly deteriorating.
“There is no need to panic!” the squat little man announced. Now I don’t know about you but when someone says this my first reaction is to panic. He continued, “There seems to be some slight change in the weather”.
Master of ceremonies? Master of understatement more like. To say the audience was calm and collected is not altogether accurate; in fact it’s wide of the mark, short of the target and beyond any accurate picture.
“Shorty” on ceremony now started waving both hands in a slow and gradually pacifying manner. Once he started this the crowd squealed even more. There was a desperation in the sound now emanating from pier. The band was playing on, in great show business tradition, but above their noise a wailing, screeching and terrible moaning now could be heard. The crowd next surged and waved like the tumultuous harbour water opposite.
On the grey tongue that was the pier, spread out over a now increasingly frothy sea, touched with washout green, the pace of action was accelerating, gathering momentum, picking up speed in a “what in the devil’s name is going to happen next” kind of way.
The master of ceremonies gesturing now seemed futile. It was time for Sandy Sound, lead singer, to take the initiative – to bite the bullet of opportunity, seize the day, hold fast with his eternal dreams. It was time for . . . sitting this one out. Well, standing, arms out, hands resting on his love handles. How had he come to this decision? It was viewing the general situation, risk-assessing the likely events. The element of mystery from the future was fast disappearing. Ah but the music played on like a haunting swansong.
Sandy now attempted to rive the mike back from the downsized authoritarian, and after considerable toing and froing he succeeded in not exactly putting an increasingly desperate group of people at ease. Sandy began his final verse down the microphone . . .
“How can I miss you when you won’t go away? You watered my flowers and decided to stay. The dogs are barking, howlin’ at the moon. But you’re still sitting there whining that same old tune. They say I should lock that god damn door; Layout on that wooden floor.”
Now it was at this precise moment that Sandy Sound and the Grottie Buckies live career came to a tumultuous termination, and with rock and roll martyrdom guaranteed. The coastguard reported that the last sighting of the combo, marquee, and the disintegrating stage, was over the Wart o’ Bressay. But some would say they did thankfully leave their fan base behind. The crowd survived the BIG gust and remained tenuously on the end of the pier to witness perhaps the band’s greatest performance to date – exiting stage up! The ultimate publicity stunt! They had achieved eternal fame at last, but ironically they were not to enjoy it themselves.
Their legend lived on. They had left the stage, or more accurately with the stage, but were they really gone? Various sightings of band members began to be reported.
Sandy Sound was seen with Michael Jackson at the Boddam Hall, playing table tennis. Flat Fish was taking part in the merry tiller race at the Big Bannock. Skins Drummond was spotted on a Shetland Field studies trip to the Hams o’ Roe. And finally Broody Bill as a member of the
Uyeasound Up Helly A’ squad.
Conformation of the whereabouts of the members of Sandy Sound and the Grottie Buckies are welcome, and will be treated with the utmost confidentiality. Undeniably the band has had numerous comebacks, but, realistically speaking, if they succeed with another one it is almost entirely agreed they would be surpassing themselves.