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The McCalmans - by Dave Dewar Issue 27 June/July '98




The McCalmans
I came for an hour's interview and stayed four. I suppose that it was too presumptuous to expect that 34 years as a folk group could be recounted that quickly.

Editor Pete Heywood asked me to try and capture the magic of the Macs. "There's something about them that's special", he said. It sounded patronising but it wasn't.

I jointly run the Symington Folk Club in South-west Scotland and the McCalmans were our recent guests. It was a wonderful evening. I marvelled at the professionalism of a band who knew what they were about - own PA erected in record time; spotlights attached to their speakers; no pretentious lengthy sound check for these boys.

The Macs are easy to deal with. The excellent photos (one of Ian's hobbies), informative band biography and lots of posters were all sent to me well in advance of their folk club performance. Why is it that so many folk artists fall down so badly on these important publicity items? Is it too much to expect a decent photograph for the local newspaper? Shortly after I'd booked the group, my phone never stopped ringing from eager fans clamouring for tickets. A week before the event, there were only a few left and three days before we were sold out. Great shame though for the last minute fans who were disappointed.

Why does the band continue to thrive? I asked Ian. "We always inject fresh material into our act. If you saw us two years from now, seventy per cent of the material would be different. And we try to entertain." Entertain they do. A unique experience. It is hard to know what is coming next. A hilarious intro to an even funnier song ... an a cappella treatment ... a rousing nationalistic song of tales of castles and swords and battles ... a poignant and mellow rendering from fellow Mac Nick Keir. Go along and see them the following night and the content will have changed.

And so in the beginning ... 5th October 1964, Edinburgh. Three fresh faced (no beards then) teenagers. Day one of student life. Ian recalls it vividly.

"We were all enrolled at the Edinburgh School of Architecture, the three of us formed a folk group within two days of meeting and we had a gig within two weeks." I express surprise at the rapid decision to form a group. "It's actually untrue. We really formed it on the first day but nobody believed that! I was sitting next to Hamish Bayne, and Derek Moffat was two along the other way. Derek was whistling a tune. So we talked at the break. Hamish said he played whistle and Derek said he'd sung at the Elbow Room, Kirkcaldy and I said that I had a Levin guitar - the same guitar that the Corries used in the old days."

So a group was formed and Architecture it seemed had no chance. "I think after an hour of architecture we all knew it wasn't for us. All this straight line business. A bit daunting!" So strategy was developed. Like so many such plans it quickly became unstuck. "Our plan of campaign was to rehearse for about half a year and then release our talents. A week later, the three of us went out for the night to get to know each other, got pissed and ended up in the Waverley Bar. A folk group was on so we asked to sing a song which was agreed. The manager heard us and booked us for the next Tuesday ... but for a two hour spot. We only knew that one song but he didn't know that!"

The song that the lads sung that night 'The 23rd of June' still appears in the group's repertoire from time to time. I asked Ian how they managed to fill two hours. "By having lots of intervals! Anyway in these days we were guttered when we arrived so we didn't worry!". The night is still remembered by those who saw the Macs' paid debut.

I wondered if architectural college and the aspiring musicians severed ties on that first day, but Ian explained that it didn't quite happen that way. Much more sensible to continue receiving a student grant to supplement the musical income, not however, to regularly attend the classes! "We were touring folk clubs in England. Lecturers in the college couldn't remember seeing us let alone our work. Other students were signing us in on the attendance sheet."

In 1968 the band turned professional which simply meant that they were relying solely on their musical income. The college had finally run out of patience with their non-attendance, so no more student grant income. For many musicians, the decision to go full time is often an agonising one. Not so for the McCalmans. "We had to because of all the work we had - loads of gigs - and we knew we could survive. Not for a lifetime. Not for any more than say a year or two years. We never ever thought of the next year. We've always had work for a year ahead ever since."

Ian gives sound advice to the many musicians he meets who ponder over turning professional. "Here's a very simple answer to the question. If you are a musician and you think of turning professional because you think it will get better if you do, then don't turn professional. When to turn professional is when you have to. We had to because we had so much work."

I was surprised at the amount of gigs that were seemingly available in these earlier days. "The scene was much easier then. For a start, you could get a floor spot at any club and be spotted. Nowadays you have to be spotted to get a floor spot. There were so many folk clubs in those days. And they were really going well." Today there are only approximately fifty folk clubs in Scotland. For up and coming musicians it's so much harder. "A lot of musicians are getting their work in 'free' pubs. They have to play music for the masses and it makes for very fast instrumental music coming out all the time."

However Ian does level some criticism at a few of the clubs themselves. "They've become too insular and they tend to look back at the good old days. The audience now has become much more sophisticated." The Macs have always been known as a touring band and from the band's inception, travelling was a way of life. First England and then eventually abroad. Denmark however was an exception. The group made their first visit there as early as 1966 and Denmark remains the band's favourite country to perform in, outside of Scotland. Ian explained why. "It was because of the way we were treated then when we were unknown. We just busked in restaurants and we used to send Hamish in because he was a smoothie. He'd say ... 'I wonder if you'd mind a couple of my friends and me doing a small Scottish folk song for your customers'. And that's the last sober words he would say! He would then come out and get these drunks from outside. We'd go in and sing three loud raucous songs and go around with a hat. There was none of this singing in the streets. Upmarket busking. Great days!" Ian chuckled.

For the record I asked Ian how many countries the group had performed in. The list was huge - France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Holland, Denmark, Cyprus, Malta, Faroe Islands, Falkland Islands, Oman, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, U.S., Kenya and Belize in Central America.

While artists frequently complain about touring, Ian highlights the enriching experiences. "Musicians get taken to places where tourists don't. We get into the very heart of society. In the Gulf of Oman we visited small settlements of about twenty persons who'd been banished to the desert for offending the head guy. Their shelter was a collection of oil drums. A lot's said about the British services abroad but in that case they used to take these people water. In Belize there was contour helicopter - flying down Amazon-type rivers and last year's trip to Kenya allowed us a safari."

The McCalmans like many other U.K. musicians used to entertain overseas British squaddies as part of C.S.E. gigs (Combined Services Entertainment). Ian smiled wryly at some of these military experiences. "Let's say they were our most dramatic gigs." Today the advent of forces T.V. has all but destroyed much of the live entertainment.

Ian admits to a fierce love of Scotland and always enjoys coming home - "Really we tour abroad to buy time at home." With a recording studio in his house, Ian is kept busy. The McCalmans can practise new material in the studio while Ian can produce albums or demo tapes for other musicians. He loves the technological side of the business. Band member Nick Keir also has a studio.

Pet hates? "Critics and lack of public funding. It's very difficult to get a good crit now because it's hard to say anything new about us and a lot of the critics are trying to make a name for themselves. Are they going to make a name for saying that the McCalmans' latest album is good or for saying it's the usual lot of old rubbish - which it's not? There's more kudos for the latter. Whereas, they'll say that the Tibetan nose flute players doing their jazz interpretation of Hamish Henderson's 'Freedom Come all ye' was a sensation. It's one of these things that we're stuck with, but we want people to know that it's resented. Always remember that people put a lot of work into albums and performances and though, of course, we're not above criticism, it can be harmful."

The McCalmans' annual Highland tour is legendary. "No money but we love it. It's great fun. Playing in small village halls to locals and tourists, allows the group to concentrate on home ground. It's completely financed and organised by the group.

"It's a loss leader. We've had no direct help from any organisation at any time ... although we've asked. Hi Arts, the Arts Council ... you name it. I'm really totally annoyed at that. When we do a tour sheet we send it out to various European countries and even some parts of America. Some people come from there just for our tour so we're doing something for the tourist industry - yet there's no help for the costs of publicity or hiring halls. Calmac (the ferry company) won't help us with ferry charges so we can't afford to do the islands now."

No one denies the right of funding bodies to make difficult decisions on financial support. What bothers musicians and others is the apparent inconsistencies.

"In Dervaig on Mull we were charging 5 a ticket. Ten miles away in Tobermory, the Hungarian band Macvirag - good friends of ours - were only charging 3. Why? Their tour was subsidised by Hi Arts. We can't compete with that."

What, I asked, are his views on the current folk scene? "Oh, I didn't know there was one," he replied mischievously! Techno-folk-funk? "Great. If I was younger I'd be doing it" Ceilidh dancing? "Tremendously healthy." Ian favours anything that allows people to become involved in music. "I regret however the demise of the folk song. Too much competition from the instrumentalists."

Finally I asked Ian if the McCalmans had any unfulfilled ambitions left. "Yeh, we've never played in Japan or India. I'd like that. Apart from that we're quite happy. We have our niche."

And that is? "Full frontal singing. The Full Monty with clothes on!"

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