We were somewhere on the outskirts of Inverness, on the edge of the mountains, when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “ I feel a bit heavy handed plagiarist: maybe you should drive”. And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge albatross, all screeching and swooping and diving around the van which was going at around forty miles an hour back to Edinburgh. And a voice was screaming, mine probably, “ Holy Jesus, aren’t these things bad luck?!!”
Nobody was paying attention because they were all passed out drunk. Just as well I thought. I looked over at Papa Joe, my number two in the driving stakes, and knew things weren’t looking good. All the speed and MDMA in the world wasn’t going to fix that omelette. No point in waking him up. He’ll be seeing these albatross soon enough. I knew that pretty soon I would be twisted beyond repair and that Edinburgh was around a hundred and fifty miles away. Our mission was to get back to Edinburgh after another night of spreading our gospel to the North, before I collapsed from exhaustion at the wheel, killing us all and possibly lots of innocent passers by. Possibly children.
I saw the hitchhiker long before anyone else did, because they were all passed out. “Lets give this boy a lift” I said, and before I could mount an argument with myself, I had pulled over and this young dude was running up to the van, shouting “Hot damn! I never rode in a meat wagon before!”
“Is that right?” I said. “Well I guess you’re about ready then”.
How long could I maintain, I wondered. How long before I started yammering and jabbering at this poor boy. Wasn’t this the same part of the world where the Sawney Bean family ran amok centuries before? Was that farther south? Will he make that same grim connection when Papa Joe starts screaming about albatross? If so… well, we’ll just have to cut his head off and bury him somewhere, because it goes without saying we can’t turn him loose. He’ll report us at once to some highland Nazi law enforcement agency, and they would hunt us down like dogs.
Our vibrations were getting nasty. But why? Was there no communication in this van. Maybe I should have a chat with this boy. Perhaps if I explain, he’ll rest easy. Of course. “Okay kid, there’s one thing you should probably know. Can you hear me? Good. I want you to have all the background. Because this is a very ominous assignment. With overtones of extreme personal danger”.
Eight weeks ago, Papa Joe and I were sitting in The Pear Tree, the beer garden of course, when I received a call regarding us playing at the Ironworks in Inverness in support of This R2 Tone yet again. There was money involved, we had to play some songs, the details weren’t important. “What do you think?” I asked. “Well, this one sounds like real trouble.” He put on his fluorescent yellow high visibility waistcoat and called for more drink. “You’re going to need plenty of bass playing before this is through. And the cocaine. And you’ll need a big white van, with plenty of seats. Leather pork pie hats. Get the hell out of Edinburgh for twenty four hours. This blows my weekend because, naturally, I’ll have to come with you. And we’ll have to arm ourselves. To the teeth”.
“I guess you‘re right”, I said. “ If this thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.”
Rounding up the Ska band was easy because we were in one. And the drugs. And the firearms. Getting a hold of hand made leather pork pie hats was a bit more problematic. But we were determined. After several phone calls, a high speed chase down the bypass, and a meeting with a mercury crazed milliner on The Meadows, we were set. Our trip was to be more than just another trip into the savage north to play music in front of some punters in a live situation, with amps, drums and brass, through a PA system. It was to be a voyage and an adventure. We were men on a mission, on a quest into the mountains. Indeed, we would be crazy not to do it. This was going to be a glorious affirmation of everything righteous and holy about Ska music. It was a Herculean test. But only for those with true grit. And we are chock full of that!
It wasn’t long before things started to go wrong. I was right to worry. At five o clock on Friday afternoon we were informed that there was some confusion between This R2 Tone and the venue. So now we were supposed to be on stage an hour earlier than planned. At nine fifteen. In Inverness. And we were in Edinburgh. And it’s Friday. Yes, I do like a challenge.
We had to pick Matt up at the airport but his plane was an hour late because someone threw up on an air hostess in Heathrow, and then there was mechanical trouble with the plane and they all had to wait for the RAC to turn up and fix the plane. We were running late, but our spirits were high. Until we hit the traffic at Gogarburn and then of course, interminable bridge repairs at rush hour on a Friday. After screwing the van up the A9 at maximum warp, we arrived, incredibly, only five minutes late, at nine twenty. We literally went on stage right away and started playing at nine thirty. Played for forty five minutes to a half full Ironworks. We were told that the sound engineers wouldn’t be adjusting any of the monitor settings for us, on stage, because, well, we hadn’t been there on time for a sound check, and, well, it was our own fault. It’s not as if that was their job description, to engineer the sound, to make the sound better, or to help the band, or anything. Instead they simply stood next to the mixing desk, refusing to make any adjustments for us. You would think that a venue in Inverness would be sympathetic to the difficulties of getting up to Inverness. Ehhh… No. Ladies and Gentlemen, I have lived a long time. A thousand years to be exact. And in that time I have known evil. I studied it under Descartes in the sixteenth century, and more latterly when I worked as a barman in the Wester Hailes bar. Descartes, you may recall was the philosopher who famously said ‘Cogito ergo sum’: ‘I’m pink therefore I’m spam’. I mention this only to highlight the fact we encountered true evil in Inverness at the Ironworks. A truly despicable place.
With that out the way, we got to enjoy This R2 Tone. They sounded great, and they now feature our very own beloved former front man Large Andrew Laidlaw. He got that nickname because of his delicate frame and penchant for bridies. Every time I see This R2 Tone they have learned yet another Specials song that I had forgotten existed. We then left at around 2AM. As we were leaving Inverness I got a call from Sam, who had left in his van fifteen minutes before us, saying that the A9 was closed, and he was being escorted by the cops back to Inverness. There had been a high speed car chase that ended with an 18 year old boy racer diddy, a Halford’s hero, being wrapped around a tree. No fatalities. I smelled a rat.
“Pretty convenient the only road back is closed indefinitely.” I told the guys, as we stood at the back door of the Ironworks. “Someone doesn’t want us to get back tonight. I think it’s the fucking monitor engineer and his little sound buddies. The bastard! He engineered this little ‘accident’ because they don’t want us leaving Inverness tonight.” “No way ”, said Murray, “you’re paranoid. It’s the drugs.” “Fuck you, you swine, you’re in on it! Those pigs are trying to set up some ambush. I say we take them down now, before they make their move.“ The guys tried to talk Andy and I out of kidnapping the engineers and dismembering them in the hills. We didn’t have a chainsaw, but we had hedge trimmers with spare batteries. Whatever move we made we agreed that we needed to rendezvous with the drummer.
We arranged to meet Sam at Tesco on the A96 in Inverness to plan an alternative. Sam is native to that part of the world, so he became our Sherpa Tensing, and would be guiding us through the forgotten trails over the mountains. He said the best way back was to head up to Nairn, then down through Grantown on Spey, through Aviemore and then we would be back onto the A9, just south of the crash. A detour of fifty miles through the mountains. It was going to be a late one for me and I knew coffee and donuts just weren‘t going to cut it. Not for a man of my qualities. It was at this point that I remembered that there was a bag of speed in the bottom of my guitar case that had been festering there for more than a year. I can’t remember where it came from and why I ended up with it, but there was loads of the stuff. I took it out. It was a suspicious yellow colour and smelled of pure evil. I hate to advocate drink, drugs, violence and insanity, usually, but they have worked so well for me over the years. Without allowing for any time to think it through, I put the whole lot of the stuff into a cigarette paper and swallowed it. No point in taking any chances. Being a man of action, I can’t afford to think. And off we went.
“And so here we are. What do you think, my man?“
Our hitchhiker’s face was a mask of pure fear and bewilderment. I could tell the truth was too much for this kid. Had he understood a word I said. I couldn’t be sure. But it hardly mattered now. We were on our way to Edinburgh. Suddenly Papa Joe woke up. “Where are we? Stop the van!” He shouted “What the hell are we doing out here in the mountains?!” I stopped the van with a screech. . “Dammit man!” I yelled. “We can’t stop here! This is albatross country!” and before anyone could stop him, the hitchhiker was running off, back up the road to Nairn, crying “Thanks guys, thanks a lot for the ride”. Off he went, into the mountains. I turned to Papa Joe. “I’m going to miss that guy”.
We arrived back in Edinburgh at around six in the morning. I got to sleep at around eight. Two days later. By then I was completely fried, with sparks flying out my mouth, but alive, and ready for another gig. Thanks again to This R2 Tone for inviting us up with them, thanks to everyone who came to see us and to everyone we met (see you next time at Mad Hatters), no thanks to the ‘Irony works’ for all their non assistance, and of course thanks to Dr Thompson, for spiritual guidance.