Band on the Run
This was written in 1996, for my own amusement, but later submitted to Scotland on Sunday’s features section. They didn’t use it but did send one of their staff up to write his own piece about the band. Predictably, when this appeared in the paper it made fun of the teuchters. We should have known better.
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Thursday night has just become Friday morning in the Hebridean Bar, Stornoway. The place reeks of smoke, beer and sweat. The crowd is shoulder-to-shoulder, although a few hardy souls are doing their best on the remaining six square feet of dance floor. We’re into the second verse of Pink Floyd’s classic Comfortably Numb when I look around the room and realise that half the people are bawling out the words and the other half are lost in the music. This is as good as it gets – this is why we carry on after the nights when the audience sits apathetically, nursing its beer; when the venue is half-empty; when we’re driving home at 2am after a Friday gig following a full day’s “real” work; when people keep asking for Oasis songs…
Going to Stornoway was a bold move. Exit, modestly billed as “The Highlands’ Hottest Rock Band”, has been together less than a year and is making a name for itself in the pubs and hotels of its native Ross-shire. But we’ve a hard-working manager who does nothing by halves (OK, it’s Tom’s dad) and he’d come up with five consecutive nights around the Highlands and islands. There wasn’t much chance of making a profit, but as a working holiday it beats anything else you can think of hands down.
The four of us, aged 24-38, have nothing in common except music: Tom, drummer and Simpsons fanatic, is something in computers at Highlands and Islands Enterprise; John, singer and Klingon-speaking Star Trekker, works for the employment service; Russell (that’s me) bassist and biker, is a journalist; and Gordie, axe hero and nothing else, works for Highland Council. He’s the one playing air guitar with his strimmer along the highways and byways of the north.
Our tour begins with the four of us and our gear crammed into a well-loaded hire van and heading north to Golspie where we’re the Gala Week’s Tuesday night attraction. John, who’s full of cold, is doing a passable impression of a zombie and in great rock and roll tradition is drugged up to the eyeballs, although Night Nurse, Vick and Strepsils played a negligible part in creating that legend. Our venue is a marquee the size of a village hall in the grounds of the high school. Once the gear is assembled and a half-decent sound balance coaxed out of our motley collection of PA equipment John begins to perk up. The public have not yet been allowed in, but one shambling youth who’s beaten the system wanders up to ask if we play Oasis. He wanders off again, disappointed.
Our two-song support band is the winner of the gala’s school band of the year contest. We hold our breath, wondering if we’re going to be blown off the stage by a bunch of teenagers. They open with Oasis, and we relax.
Showtime at last, and we get the party going with a couple of ZZ Top tracks. The dancers are up straight away and we never look back. For more than two hours we keep them moving with rock standards, a few ballads and more obscure tracks for contrast and some original songs in the hope that EMI’s A&R man is on holiday in Sutherland. An enthusiastic crowd keeps the adrenaline surging, and be the time we wind things down with Van Morrison’s Irish Heartbeat (you know, Billy Connolly used it on his TV series) we’re as high as kites. We don’t need sex or drugs to bring us back down, though – we’ve still got the gear to dismantle and the van to reload. By now we’re ready to return south and looking forward to the trip to Lewis. It’s about this time I realise I played the gig with my jeans unzipped. Fortunately the bass had things covered. We get to Maryburgh, where we’re dossing at Tom’s, for 3am.
After a leisurely morning we hit the road to Ullapool, Gordie demonstrating some Transit GT driving as we negotiate tourists and bends with equal joie de vivre. We dine at the Quay Plaice, where Tom and Gordie prepare for the ferry crossing with pie, chips and death by chocolate. An hour later, as Ullapool fades slowly in the distance and the swell begins to increase, both are fearful of being rapidly reacquainted with their pudding. John huddles deep inside a voluminous scarf, croaking occasionally, and makes medicinal cocktails from his travelling pharmacy. I enjoy a Bunnahabhain and smugly watch the world go by.
At 7pm we free fall from Caledonian MacBrayne’s eccentrically positioned gangplank and land on Stornoway tarmac. We say hello at our pre-booked B&B then head north up the Ness road in search of Borve House, which turns out to be a compact establishment where we have to move the pool table to make room to play. The crowd isn’t huge but it’s active and noisy, which keeps us satisfied, although it diminishes rapidly towards the end as people leave in twos and threes, eyes sparkling clutching carry-outs, bound for some wild all-night parties at Ness and Barvas. We return to the B&B the way we came, Tom outdoing Gordie with some fine two-wheel cornering which allows us to inspect the windscreen closely on several occasions. We creep indoors at 3am, the microwave king ribs Gordie and I unwisely bought already beginning to grumble.
Amazingly, we’re all down for breakfast at 9am, but the late nights are beginning to have an effect. It’s only later that I realise we’ve all got jet lag – suddenly our day has been extended by three hours and our bodies are still trying to catch up. So no-one’s too keen on the tourist bit, although we get as far as The Heb in Stornoway to prepare for the evening, and Gordie puts in some fine work with knife and fork in his ceaseless quest to rid the world of chips. After lunch he roams the streets of Stornoway while we return to the B&B for R&R and to ponder the eternal question of Lewis: just what does everyone do with all those derelict cars collected in every hamlet and village?
Evening, back at The Heb, sound check over, we listen to our footsteps echo around the pub, wonder where everyone is and whether they’ll bother to come. An hour later the potential audience has risen to six, including one Oasis fan (“No we don’t, go away”), plus a mad Belgian biker and a girlfriend who looks as though she regrets going abroad with him. He smokes suspicious roll-ups, draws pictures that only a psychotherapist could understand, and calls Gordie “the git-rist”. We don’t disagree.
At 10.30pm we can wait no longer and give our exclusive audience ZZ Top at full blast. The Lewis bush telegraph must be a finely tuned machine because within half an hour the place is packed and we’re having the time of our lives as a roomful of people do wonders for the brewing trade. A group of girls who saw us the night before at Borve also turn up to sit at the front and look sweetly at John. Tom, who’s crammed into a tight corner behind his drums, sees little of what’s going on, but gets a huge round of applause at the end of Caroline, Status Quo’s unfailing crowd-pleaser, which gets longer every time we play it because it invariably fills the dance floor. It’s a simple song that makes huge physical demands on the drummer who’s soon staring at us wild-eyed and ashen-faced, pleading for release.
Towards the end of the night, police can be seen milling around at the back, tending a punter who’s drunk himself into oblivion; several others are heading in the same direction. This is a Thursday night; Friday’s the really wild one, we’re told.
Afterwards, as the increasingly harassed bar staff try to clear the pub, Gordie gets friendly with a small girl with a large cleavage, while her friend attempts to get friendly with me. But work comes first. The van is reloaded yet again and we’re back at the B&B for 2.30am. An early night!
Midday, next day, and Gordie drives us through the barren countryside of Lewis en route for Tarbet and the ferry to Uig on Skye. It would be difficult to call the landscape beautiful, but it’s certainly impressive: jagged hills, the highest covered in filmy cloud; boulder-filled countryside, thinly covered with soil through which peat-coloured streams carve downhill paths to wide, clean lochs. The roads, apart from sections upgraded with EU cash, are mainly narrow and twisting, snaking up and down hills, passing few homes.
There are a couple of campers about, and Gordie manages to hit the only kerb between Stornoway and Tarbet while peering inside a tent at a woman’s legs. Much laughter. Sleep deprivation means we’ll laugh at anything: old jokes, TV adverts, odd comments which weren’t that funny to start with but become so through endless repetition. And there’s always Gordie’s extensive repertoire of bizarre noises. We’re still laughing when we arrive in Broadford after travelling almost the length of Skye – a much more beautiful island than Lewis, softened by trees and with houses that look as if they’re built for comfort, not shelter.
The Hebridean Hotel is the smallest venue we’ve played. By the time we’ve brought our gear into the bar it covers half the floor, and the other half is covered by the dropped jaws of the scattering of locals who had watched unbelievingly as we kept bringing in more. Jimmy Shand swings somewhere in the background. Once unpacked and assembled we cover a quarter of the room, at which point the landlord pulls back a partition which increases its size by half. It’s still tiny. Gordie swallows the lump in his throat and turns his amp down to 2 – a noteworthy sacrifice from the man who’s usually loud and proud. The inevitable youth wanders up and reels backwards, shocked: “No Oasis – call yourself a band!”
Expecting disaster, we get to work. The crowd is a surreal mixture of middle-class tourists, middle-aged regulars and a bunch of bikers and their molls who have escaped from the Skye Folk Festival up the road in Portree. One is soon in a coma, slumped against the shoulder of an Austrian girl whose boyfriend is already headbanging to ZZ Top. God bless their Texan beards. Gordie breaks a string on his Les Paul and at the end of the song, instead of stopping to change it, picks up the Rickenbacker he uses for some of our more mellow moments and goes straight into the next number, forgetting the replacement has two extra frets. His solo would have gladdened a modern jazzman’s heart as he discordantly searches for the elusive melody.
But we’re not worried. The place is jumping, full of noise, dancers, smoke, beer fumes and sweat – the smell of success. As we relax afterwards, the comatose biker, who’s slept through the whole evening, comes to life in time to pick a fight with the landlord who’s trying to hustle his girlfriend through the door with the last of the stragglers. Meanwhile, Gordie – filled with drink and lust – follows a group of young ladies to a party. The rest of us, older and wiser, watch him go and wonder if and when he’ll return.
To everyone’s surprise he finds his way back to the hotel for breakfast and a round of applause. He had a good time, he reports, but the lack of a secret smile suggests that’s all he had.
Tom drives to Armadale for the ferry to Mallaig, and from there along the road to Caol, near Fort William, and our last gig of the tour. The road is full of twists and turns, a challenge for a fully-laden Transit, and we’re happy for the ferry grand prix to roar away ahead of us and enjoy the scenery. Tom’s so impressed he almost drives into it a couple of times. A needed break is taken at Glenfinnan, which is full of Italian tourists and rain.
The Lochaber Bar is a big pub in the middle of Caol with plenty of room for dancing, potential for a good sound mix, and a wide catchment area from the surrounding scheme. So where is everyone? We venture into Fort William, are repelled by culture shock and crowds after the solitude of the islands, and return to find the place still as busy as Barra on a wet Wednesday in winter. The truth dawns slowly. It’s Saturday, the first one of the pre-season football friendlies – Celtic at home, Rangers at home… and bloody Oasis at Loch Lomond.
“They might be back,” we’re told. Whatever happens, it’s been a great week, so we celebrate by returning to Fort William and a posh nosh at the Alexandra Hotel. It doesn’t stop Gordie getting outside the chips, though. It’s a relaxing meal. After a week in each other’s pockets some group tension might have been expected, but we’re still the best of friends, which bodes well for the future.
Back at the Lochaber Bar, nothing has changed. We start playing at 10pm and finish around 12.30am, by which time the crowd has never risen above a dozen. “Quietest I’ve seen it in twenty-seven years,” the apologetic landlord tells us. After four nights as rock stars it’s back to reality. Thank you, Caol. We spend the night on the floor of the lounge because it’s Glen Nevis Race weekend and there are no beds to be had anywhere. It’s tough at the bottom.
Sunday night, just past midnight: the tour is over, the band members back in their respective homes and I’ve just realised why, despite being exhausted earlier in the day, I can’t get to sleep. Now’s the time we should be starting our second set. My fingers are itching and I’m desperate to be out there again, choked by smoke, sweat stinging my eyes. It’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it.
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Exit began life in December 1995 as a mainly rock covers band. At the end of 1996, when John left to do his own thing and was replaced by Richard, Exit evolved into an indie rock band playing covers and its own material. And even some Oasis songs. We split up in late 1997 when Richard left for university.