Follow by Email

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Vinyl Diary, part 3: Against Nature

As a tragically obsessive consumer of music, I am used to the idea of expectation out-performing reality. It has too often been the case that the act of imagining the tantalising possibilities of an eagerly-anticipated album has provided rather more fun than the experience of actually listening to it. Having learned to live with that kind of disappointment, it was always a particular treat when something managed to match my hopes and expectations.    

In the mid-80s, I had been a fan of the cult (i.e. chart-avoiding) band Microdisney. The talents of composer Sean O’Hagan and singer /lyricist Cathal Coughlan were finely balanced, with an ever-present tension between their sophisticated music and the somewhat caustic lyrics. O’Hagan’s love of the Beach Boys and Steely Dan was obvious, while Coughlan’s default mode of righteously-vented spleen helped give the songs something of an edge.  
Such was the talent of these two men that, when Microdisney disbanded in 1989, it seemed obvious to their small-but-dedicated fan base that something else, something special, would emerge. For what seemed like months, I scoured the music press in the hope of some news until, at the fag end of the decade, the splendidly eclectic Snub TV featured a video of Cathal Coughlan and The Fatima Mansions performing a song called ‘Only losers take the bus’. Filmed in a deconsecrated synagogue, it featured Coughlan, besuited and bound at the pulpit, staring down the camera to perform a rip-snorting track based on a tough electro-rhythm, some kick-ass rockabilly guitar and a typically spiky lyric, seemingly focused on a self-made millionaire with unhinged views. I particularly loved the crazed injunction in the instrumental breakdown to “Get these dead bodies off my race track!”   
When the mini-album ‘Against Nature’ appeared on Kitchenware Records, it lived up to my fanboy dreams. I had no problem with the fact that it didn’t sound like a coherent band project, because I was charmed by what appeared to be a sonic snapshot of where a talented singer-songwriter’s head was at; indeed, the absence of focus felt more like the presence of possibility, a promise of future riches to be forged through Coughlan’s idiosyncratic eclecticism. The collection contained nods to Microdisney on ‘The Day I Lost Everything’ (featuring a splendid monologue referencing both Jimmy Tarbuck and Santa Claus) and ‘You Won’t Get Me Home’, wherein the writer wallowed in his fascination with losers and grotesques:  

"The Prince of Caledonia, he drives a diesel van
and he peddles skag in Hamilton. He's the reality man, reality man."


'Bishop of Babel’ was, to all intents and purposes, a power ballad, while ‘13th Century Boy’ represented a jolly, if slightly skewed, take on Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s chart-dominating disco formula; it may have been intended as a pastiche, but it worked pretty well as a pop tune.  
Freed from the pressures of working for a major label and writing for a band, Coughlan essayed his love for Scott Walker through a couple of particularly haunting tunes. The lush synths of ‘Big Madness’ set a disconcertingly mellow backdrop for a chilling lyric, which opened with a killer boasting of his exploits with a “weeping spinster” before going on to explore the territory between romance and dangerous obsession. ‘Wilderness on Time’, featuring just voice and harpsichord, was raw and full of longing, set off by a wonderfully unhinged opening line:

"When my taxi arrives
Say that I'm dead, having swallowed my leg"

Hearing Coughlan on this kind of vocal form, you can’t help but wonder why he didn’t become the voice of his generation; his singing is beautiful, expressive and just dripping with gravitas. In Microdisney, his grouchy misanthropy (at times, outright nihilism) had been ameliorated by O’Hagan’s deft tuneage, but once Cathal got the keys to the car, the listener had to endure an altogether bumpier ride. He went on to make more thematically coherent albums with The Fatima Mansions, although there were times when the band’s dreary muscularity bludgeoned the tunes into a bloody pulp and it was frustrating to hear a man with a golden set of pipes opting for the kind of testosterone barking favoured by vocalists with a fraction of his talent.

On stage, Coughlan and the Mansions could be electrifying. I remember one gig at Glasgow University when he deliberately whacked himself in the forehead with the microphone and drew blood. I had actually driven past him and the band in town earlier that day and –for a fraction of a second- had been tempted to roll down my car window and shout “Only losers take the bus!” Thankfully, I thought better of it. If a guy could deliberately whack himself on the head with a microphone, who knows what he might have done to an idiot fan pathetically trying to ingratiate himself by half-wittedly demonstrating his knowledge of an obscure band’s oeuvre?

His solo work since the demise of the Mansions has been articulate, sophisticated and sprinkled with occasional gems, but contains way more shade than light and is, to my ears, somewhat thin on melody; the fact that beautiful melodies do occasionally break out makes one suspect that, in shying away from pop music, Coughlan is cutting off his nose to spite his face.

In that sense, ‘Against Nature’ might be viewed as the template for a brilliantly off-kilter pop career that never quite happened.

Here's a link to that first TV appearance:

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Vinyl diary, part 2: The Birthday Party

For a nerdish young music-obsessed Glaswegian in the late 70s and early 80s, the 'Lost Chord’ record shop had an almost mythical status. It was located in the bohemian West End, the part of town where poets, intellectuals, posh kids and people who played in bands hung out. If -like me- you lived on the dull south side, getting there required not only dedication, but an ability to decipher bus timetables which openly mocked the restrictive notions of linear time. Once inside that little shop, I’d spend hours fingering through rows of obscure or rare vinyl: rare imports, Japanese picture discs, bands I’d only read about in reviews and bizarre compilations of bands I’d never heard of; ‘Lost Chord’ had everything that the tragic obsessive might dream of. 

On one such visit, armed with all I had saved up from my shelf-packing job in a supermarket, I almost fainted when a flick-through one of the sections revealed a copy of ‘The Birthday Party’ by The Idle Race, an album I had been dreaming about for months. Having become a massive ELO fan, I was working my acquisitive way backwards through Jeff Lynne’s recorded catalogue. A previous visit to the shop had unearthed an American compilation of songs by The Move and, these being the days before the internet, I knew of Lynne’s first band, The Idle Race, only in mythical terms; their albums might have existed somewhere in the same way that Bigfoot might have existed somewhere.

I can't remember what I paid for it, but if the bored assistant with the long hair (they always had long hair) had asked for one of my kidneys, I would probably have considered it a bit of a bargain. But when I got the album home, it was not -to paraphrase PG Wodehouse- that I was underwhelmed by it, but I wasn’t exactly whelmed either. The issue was not so much that the songs were unlike either ELO or The Move, because there were times when you could clearly trace the musical lineage. It was more that they committed the sin of excessive frivolity. When you’re young and serious and you pay attention to what is said by the high priests of taste in the music press, there is perhaps nothing more heinous than music lacking in that quality beloved of immature males: heaviosity. And The Idle Race clearly lacked heaviosity. According to the New Wave Taliban, jolly-sounding tunes were OK, but only if (for example in the case of Talking Heads or XTC) there was perceived to be an ironic or subversive edge to the sound. The way that XTC, for instance, sang ‘Bap-ba-oo’ on ‘Radios in Motion’ with tongues firmly in cheek, was nothing like the way that, say, David Essex might have sang ‘Bap-ba-oo’. 

It bugged me somewhat that ‘The Birthday Party’ featured sound effects and vaudeville clips, as if it was some kind of novelty record. And as for the lyrics … who the hell writes songs about a man working as a skeleton on the ghost train, or a man in his thirties playing with children’s toys? Or how about a song about someone sitting in a tree? Consider, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, these lyrics as exhibit A:  

I often sit alone up in a tree
Waving to the ones that wave at me
I think well just how stupid can they be
Waving to a man up in a tree?

What they don't know is I am counting them
I even count the ladies and the men
I put the numbers in my little book
And only me can ever have a look


What the hell was Jeff on about? Having been introduced to his work through the wondrously lush and tuneful album ‘A New World Record’, I struggled to connect this weird Jeff Lynne – that young bloke on the cover without a beard- with the one I knew and loved, the master orchestrator and symphonic tunemeister, the bearded musical genius behind ELO. 

But had I listened without prejudice, I would have noticed that some of the motifs that would make him famous years later were evident here in nascent form; lush strings, layered harmonies, beautiful melodies and deft chord changes. It took me a while to get over myself and appreciate that the songs were just fine; in fact, some of them were much better than fine. Despite the gimmickry and the music-hall jokes, it was obvious that even this beardless and callow young Jeff knew where the melody monkey lived.

There is a muscularity and vigour in the playing and production (courtesy of Eddie Offord and Gerald Chevin) which prevents even the most whimsical material from sounding effete. As you might expect, there is a strong Beatles influence, but there are also one or two nods to The Kinks (particularly on ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘Mrs. Ward’). ‘The lady who said she could fly’ is beautiful and melancholic, while ‘Morning Sunshine’ is a lovely psychedelic pop ballad which would anticipate some of Lynne’s future triumphs. ‘End of the Road’ is so unremittingly jolly and English that it sounds almost parodic; in fact, it is simply a song that comes from the age before irony, from the days before pop music became aware of itself. The great thing about material like this is that it is exactly what it appears to be.

Although they were well thought of by the music press in the late 60s, The Idle Race failed to make a significant commercial breakthrough, a factor which would surely have influenced Lynne’s decision to join The Move in 1970. Although this album is of its time, there are moments when ‘The Birthday Party’ manages to transcend the gloriously sunny and naïve era from which it emerged; as ever with Jeff Lynne’s music, it’s all about the tunes.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Vinyl diary, part 1: K-Scope

I recently bought my son a turntable for his birthday and, since he owned no vinyl, I spent a couple of weekends scouring various second hand and charity shops in the hope of assembling an interesting little ‘starter’ collection for him. In the modern parlance, I was able to put together a decent selection of ‘vinyls’ for his nascent collection, including records by Bootsy Collins, Robert Palmer, Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Funkadelic, Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder. Yes, you’re right; that is a ‘tragic dad’ kind of selection, but I’ve learned to embrace the tragedy, so don’t judge me. As well as the stuff I was able to pick up in the second-hand shops, I donated a few items from my own collection. As the saying goes: ‘Greater love hath no man than this: that he is willing to give away his vinyl copy of ‘The Isley Brothers Greatest Hits’.  

Those shopping trips took me back to the days when my Saturday afternoons would be spent browsing, buying and generally hanging around record shops. Over the years, I bought some really mediocre stuff, but also discovered some artists that I treasure to this day. Such was my devotion /addiction that, at one point in my (admittedly rather sad) life, the cultural highlight of the year would have been HMV's January sale. For someone whose disposable income went mostly on music, that seasonal temptation to gorge on the discounted goodies was impossible to resist.

My son's taste in music is much more eclectic than mine’s would have been at his age. One of the reasons for that, I think, is that I had to physically go out to find and buy music, whereas he merely has to browse and download (and let’s not get into the subject of whether or not downloading music for free is stealing, because I’m right and you’re wrong). The act of investing energy, money and time in acquiring something gives you a greater emotional stake in an artefact. My son’s musical taste may be wider and, in that sense, more culturally sophisticated than mine’s ever was, but I’d argue that my deep connection with certain records is based not only on the physicality of the artefacts, but on what it cost me to get familiar with them; having committed to buying an album, I had little choice but to stick with it and give it a chance to lodge itself in my consciousness. My boredom threshold, out of necessity, was located several miles down the road; had I had the ability to click a mouse and browse through a million digital files, I wouldn’t have developed the relationships I have with certain pieces of music.             

Since acquiring his groovy new turntable, my son has confessed that he has started to spend his spare cash on vinyl, mostly obscure groove-based foreign stuff. Part of me feels like I have helped open up a whole new world for him, but another part feels like I may have administered his first dose of heroin.

The examination of my own dust-gathering vinyl collection allowed me to re-connect with some music I had forgotten about. One gem I had (almost) forgotten is ‘K-Scope’ by Phil Manzanera. It was released in 1978, but I reckon I picked it up in one of those HMV sales sometime in the early 80s.                     

Manzanera was the guitarist with Roxy Music and, although ‘K-Scope’ is billed as a solo project, he was smart enough to surround himself with some really talented people, including Mel Collins, Eddie Rayner, Tim and Neil Finn, Simon Phillips, John Wetton, Bill and Ian McCormick, Andy Mackay, Paul Thompson, Kevin Godley and Lol Crème. That’s quite a cast list and the quality of musicianship is evident throughout, something which might not necessarily have impressed any young Turks who’d still have been fighting the punk wars when this album was released.   

The lead vocals are handled by various folk, but Manzanera’s finely honed art-pop sensibilities give the album compositional consistency. ‘Remote Control’ is a brief and sparky slice of prog-punk, while ‘Slow Motion TV’ sounds like a cross between The Stranglers and 10CC (in a good way). ‘Hot Spot’ is probably as close as the album gets to sounding like Roxy Music (albeit with their disco shoes on) and there is much to love about the languid Latin-reggae groove of ‘Cuban Crisis’, the tale of a loser musician (‘just a dime-a-day tunesmith’) pining for his departed girlfriend.  

Manzanera’s guitar work is distinctive without being flashy; the beautiful colours and textures he creates on ‘Gone Flying’ might have sounded more like Eno’s ambient work were it not for the rhythm section of Philips and McCormick cooking up a quiet storm. The highlight of the album, I think, is ‘Walking Through Heaven's Door’, which appears to delineate a drug-fueled adventure in an unnamed foreign city. It starts out sounding like an 80s take on ‘Surf’s Up’-era Beach Boys, before John Wetton’s gut-churning bass pulls it into the kind of menacing groove territory once occupied by Magazine or early Simple Minds, before an extended end section, replete with hypnotic mantra, lulls us towards anthemic oblivion. 

When I bought ‘K-Scope’ I considered it quirky and charming, but maybe just a little bit too ‘prog’ around the edges; now, several decades on, it sounds witty, fresh and sparkling. Check this out:

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

28 years of 'business as usual'

In February 1989, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence -or fatwa- against the British author Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s crime was to have written a book -The Satanic Verses- that was perceived to have been overly critical of Islam. As a result, he had to be given round-the-clock police protection and was forced to go into hiding. He currently lives in North America, but the fatwa has been re-affirmed several times and, as recently as 2016, more money was added to the bounty on offer for killing him. 
At the height of the book burnings and riots, some commentators felt that a vigorous response from the western authorities would have been not just appropriate, but necessary. Instead of apologising for this author’s ‘blasphemy’ and waiting for the heat to die down, I thought that we should have printed thousands of copies of The Satanic Verses (a rather dreary book, it has to be said) and distributed them free in schools, libraries and health centre waiting rooms. We should have filled huge skips with the offending books and left them in every town centre, just to make a point. We should, at the very least, have been confident and assertive enough to have made it clear that intellectual freedom was the bedrock of our civilisation. We should, at the very least, have given this message to the medievalists: Feel free to practise whichever religion you want, believe whichever ancient fairy stories you like, but do it in peace; do not seek to impose your rules on people who do not share your beliefs. If we’d made our position clear at the time, we might have saved ourselves a whole heap of trouble.

The fact that our political and cultural leaders have continually shirked from their responsibilities to protect ideals we’re supposed to hold dear is not the fault of crazy fundamentalists like the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi. Contrary to what some people appear to believe, crazy fundamentalists have been around for centuries; Islamists were at it long before there was any such thing as British and American foreign policy to be outraged by, long before there was any such thing as the United States of America. In a world in which history books are readily available, it is, therefore, puzzling to explain the desire to interpret the actions of murderous Islamists as anything other than what they are. Some folk will use anything -literally anything- as a stick with which to beat the capitalist world; others may be in denial about their fear, preferring to disguise it as social conscience. There is too, somewhere in this unholy mix, a generous dollop of good old-fashioned condescension of the kind that denies agency to the terrorists. To claim that we don’t know why they do such things is to ignore the fact that they always tell us exactly why they do such things. Instead of imagining and ascribing a range of politically palatable motives, we should perhaps accept the obvious ones: That they want to kill us because they hate us and our way of life; that they want to kill us because they are members of a barbaric medieval death cult.  

But for all their shortcomings, crazy fundamentalists do tend to notice when people cave in to pressure and they will have noticed that, since 1989, we have been doing quite a lot of caving in. In the post-‘Satanic Verses’ landscape, who knows how many authors and journalists have excised characters, themes or lines from their stories and articles because they feared reprisals from Islamists? You might argue that it is impossible to quantify things that only might have existed, but we have clear evidence that our cultural landscape has been altered to accommodate certain cultural ‘sensitivities’. In the world that existed on the day before the fatwa was issued against Rushdie, it would not have been considered controversial or dangerous for a British citizen to have, say, published an image of the prophet Mohammed. But in 2017, how many mainstream newspapers or TV stations would publish or broadcast a cartoon of the prophet? That’s not a difficult question to answer, because it was revealed to us two years ago, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, when nobody had the guts to publish some cartoons and say: ’This is what all the fuss is about’. Of course, lots of folk composed eloquent editorials declaring their abhorrence of intimidation and violence and their ‘unshakeable belief’ in our rights to freedom of speech, but -for the sake of not offending sensibilities- they decided against publishing the cartoons. David Dimbleby revealed that it was official BBC policy that: “the prophet Mohammed should not be represented in any shape or form” and even a right-leaning newspaper like The Telegraph only printed a pixelated image of one cartoon in order to avoid causing offence. 

Consider, therefore, the enormity of the cultural shift that has taken place since 1989: In the 21st century, western atheists now choose to adhere to rules previously only imposed upon folk who, through an accident of birth, are guided by the revelations of a man who (according to legend) was visited by an angel in his cave in the desert some 1400 years ago. If western atheists can’t bring themselves to blaspheme, what hope is there for those in the Muslim community who believe that Islam’s reformation is long overdue? Wouldn’t just a modicum of bravery on our part light a torch for those who hope to reform that religion from within? 

But instead of showing bravery, we’ve been busy drawing and re-drawing our lines in the sand. Having first got ourselves acclimatised to the idea that a British author might have to go into hiding because of the ‘actions’ of one of his fictional characters, we then got acclimatised to the reality that a secular European film maker (Theo van Gogh) could be murdered for making a film critical of the treatment of women within Islam. But don’t worry, we were told. The terrorists won’t win; we’ll get on with business as usual. And when some French journalists got slaughtered, we got acclimatised to the notion that we shouldn’t publish ‘offensive’ cartoons. But don’t worry, we were told. The terrorists won’t win; we’ll get on with business as usual. Now we’re acclimatising to the idea (recently articulated by the Mayor of London) that terrorist attacks are just a part of modern life. But don’t worry. The terrorists won’t win; we’ll get on with business as usual. 

Then, sooner or later, we’ll hear the initial reports of ‘an incident’ and we’ll know in our gut exactly what is going on and who will be responsible. Details will be sketchy and the official news sources won’t want us jumping to conclusions, but –gradually- the bloody details will begin to emerge. Until the moment of awful confirmation, we’ll pray that the body count won’t be that high. Then, once it has become impossible to deny that it is what we knew it would be, the all-too-familiar dance will begin. We’ll pretend once more to speculate about the motives. Did the assailant act alone? Did he have links to any known terrorist groups?  Was he part of a bigger network? What could have driven him to this? And before they have even finished scraping up the body parts, some commentators will issue warnings about how this ‘might provoke a backlash’, fantasising about imagined nastiness as opposed to absorbing the actual reality of murder. The ‘might provoke a backlash’ commentators will believe, contrary to the available evidence, that we are pitchfork-wielding savages, ready to burn stuff down and string people up at the drop of a hat; in these circumstances, we are told, we shouldn’t get angry, because that’s what the terrorists want. Yes, how terribly unsophisticated we must be to get angry about, for example, a bunch of silly teenagers getting blown up at a pop concert. 

Then we'll go to our candlelit vigils, we’ll have our observed silences, we’ll change our avatars and hashtags and we’ll do a bit of community singing (and maybe that guy with the blue piano will be there to play ‘Imagine’). And while all of this is going on, some people will get more worked up about a professional polemicist like Katie Hopkins than they will about bodies being scraped off a pavement.

And our leaders will say: Don’t worry. We’ll get on with business as usual. The terrorists won’t win. 

But to people like Salman Abedi, what exactly is there to be won? And what does winning look like? 

That's easy: it looks like business as usual.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Scottish Cup Round 5: Performance Art

In his classic dystopian novel '1984', George Orwell famously had the party apparatchik O’Brien make the following assertion: "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever.” 
 Watching Scottish Premier League football can be a bit like that. It was bad enough when the Old Firm routinely carved things up between them, but since Rangers had their liquidation event in 2012, watching Celtic demolish the opposition has become about as much fun as watching a big rich kid beating up a bunch of poor little kids. The Scottish Cup, at least, has managed to provide some welcome relief from that, with Hibernian, St Johnstone, Hearts and Inverness all winning the trophy in recent years. And this season, once again, the only game that matters is the tie at which one of the so-called provincial clubs will (hopefully) thwart Celtic’s pursuit of the domestic treble.

Although I was not exactly hopeful that Dunfermline Athletic or Hamilton Academical would be capable of stopping that big rich kid from getting what he wanted, their fifth round tie at East End Park appealed to me for a variety of reasons. Within my lifetime, Dunfermline have won the Scottish Cup, finished in third place in the league, come within an ace of reaching a European final and also flirted with extinction. Founded in 1885, the club reached peak achievement in the 1960s under three different managers, with Jock Stein rightly credited for kick-starting the glory years by leading them to a Scottish Cup triumph in 1961. His replacement, Willie Cunningham, took the club to another Scottish Cup Final (which they lost to Stein’s resurgent Celtic), the quarter finals of the European Fairs Cup and, remarkably, finished just one point behind the champions, Kilmarnock. That 1964-65 league table is a thing of rare beauty, representing the only time in the history of the Scottish League that both Rangers (5th) and Celtic (8th) finished outside the top four. I checked with Ladbrokes and can confirm that the odds against that happening again are currently 83 million trillion gazillion to one. In 1968, under the stewardship of George Farm, Dunfermline once again won the Cup and, in the following season, reached the semi-final of the European Cup Winners Cup, losing narrowly to the eventual winners, Slovan Bratislava.
 
As part of my elaborate pre-match preparations, I had surfed the youtube (as the young folk say) looking for footage from the glory days. The most remarkable clip featured a Fairs Cup tie against Valencia, when, having lost the first leg 4-0 in Spain, Dunfermline hosted the return at East End Park the week before Christmas in 1962. The Spaniards, I’d imagine, might have been somewhat bemused by the referee’s insistence that the frozen pitch was playable; twenty minutes into the game and already three goals down, they most certainly would have been bewildered by the scale of the thrashing being administered by the eager and skilful young Scottish forwards. You can see from the body language that the Valencia players didn’t really want to be there; by half time, they were 5-1 down and the tie was squared on aggregate. I don’t know what the Spanish is for ‘What the actual fuck?’ but I’m guessing that someone might have used words to that effect in their dressing room at half time. The clip I watched featured an interview with the TV commentator Bob Crampsey, who revealed that, for the last ten minutes of the first half, he could not hear himself speak, such was the noise from the crowd. Dunfermline eventually won the match 6-2 but, these being the days before the away goals rule and penalty shoot-outs, they went on to lose in a play-off.   

In 2013, facing a huge bill for unpaid tax, the club went into administration and made several high-earning players and their assistant manager redundant. They endured a 15-point deduction, a Scottish Cup ban and suffered eventual relegation. Allan Johnston was appointed as manager in May 2015 and, on the face of it, has appeared to turn the club around, restoring it to the second tier of the Scottish League on a modest budget. This is all a very long way from the late eighties, when Dunfermline bought the Hungarian international Istvan Kozma from Bordeaux for £540,000. I suspect that if I popped into Ladbrokes (other bookmakers are available) and asked for the odds on a Scottish provincial club signing an international player from the French first division for half a million big ones, I would be politely directed towards the ‘Elvis is still alive’ counter.

Hamilton Academical, established in 1874, is the only professional club in British football to have originated from a school team and was admitted to the Scottish League in 1897, after the resignation of the one-time world champions Renton. You may ask how Renton could legitimately be described as ‘World Champions’; the answer is that, as Scottish Cup holders, they played a challenge match in May 1888 against the FA Cup holders, West Bromwich Albion, to claim the coveted title. The word ‘insular’ doesn’t quite cover it, does it? The Accies have twice finished runners up in the Scottish Cup, the last occasion being in 1934/35. Readers of a certain vintage may recall the publicity they generated in the mid-seventies when they were taken over by Jan Stepek, a first-generation Polish immigrant who had built a considerable local business empire. Speculation was rife in the football world about just how many Polish internationals would soon be signing up and, no doubt, helping the Accies rocket  their way through the divisions. It seemed then like the most exotic and exciting idea imaginable, but how times have changed: in the run-up to this cup tie, nobody batted an eyelid when it was announced that Giannis Skondras, a former PAOK Salonica right-back, would be making his Hamilton debut. 

A banner on their website states that Hamilton is ‘More than a football club’, but strangely, the site features no information at all about their history. The club has, rightfully, earned a reputation for developing young talent. James McCarthy and James McArthur both came through the Hamilton ranks and earned moves to the English Premiership before forging international careers; their manager Alex Neil was also poached by Norwich in 2014. While some clubs will sign players and train them to sit on the bench, Hamilton have demonstrated a willingness to gamble on young talent by giving it game time. I understand why it must be tempting for a talented young player to sign for one of the big clubs, but there is, surely, more chance of getting games at a club like Hamilton? I’m no expert, but I do know that you can’t get better at playing the piano by not playing the piano.

The weather was pretty foul and I was thankful that East End Park -like all proper football grounds- was located within easy walking distance of the town centre.
It has a capacity of just under 11,500, with the vocal faction of the home support largely congregated in the Norrie McCathie stand at the town end. Although they are currently a division below Hamilton, Dunfermline had the weight of history on their side and there was a sense among the crowd that a cup upset was on the cards. It was almost possible to forget about the cold as the teams emerged to the rousing strains of ‘Into the Valley’ by local heroes, The Skids (although it was sobering for me to consider that that song is now 38 years old). I wondered if, somewhere else in the football world, another club’s PA might have been blasting out the b-side of ‘Into the Valley’ as its team took to the pitch. I was a bit of a fan back in the day and that b-side -‘TV Stars’- was often a highlight of the Skids live set, a ready-made football chant featuring the immortal, rousing, anyone-can-shout-along-with-this-one chorus of: “ALBERT TATLOCK!”  



The home team looked keen in the early stages and it was no surprise when they took the lead on the half hour. The Accies defence was dozing as Higginbotham sent a neat through ball to McMullan, who ran straight down the middle and finished with some aplomb. The Dunfermline Ultras, while not exactly in full voice, made encouraging noises as their team continued to press for the remainder of the half. They were well worth their one goal lead at the interval and I quite fancied their chances of progressing. By contrast, once I saw the size of the queue for hot food, I didn’t fancy my chances of acquiring either a life-restoring pie or (to take the local recommendation) a steak bridie. I was right to be pessimistic because, by the time the game had re-started, I had been forced to settle for a measly cup of Bovril to help ward off incipient frostbite.   

Dunfermline carried their energy into the early part of the second half and created another couple of good chances. McMullan, on the break, shot wide when he looked certain to score, then Moffat fired straight at the goalkeeper when he would have been better advised to find an unmarked colleague. Higginbotham then broke down the right and, torn between crossing and shooting, he saved the Hamilton goalie some work by opting to do both things, badly. The optimists in the home support might have been dreaming of another glorious cup run, but this wizened (and freezing) old observer began to suspect that Dunfermline would live to regret those missed chances. 

Hamilton started to look like a team from a higher division and were now tapping into greater resources of skill, composure and team work. They were finding unmarked men in wide positions, which may have been down to fatigue on the part of the home side, or it may just have been that Premier League players are better at seeing, finding and exploiting space. After a period of flirting with the home goal, Hamilton moved to the 'heavy petting' stage and only goalkeeper Murdoch’s awareness and athleticism preserved Dunfermline’s fragile dignity; Brophy looped in a good-looking effort which the goalie did well to get his fingertips to and, when Talbot was forced to head against his own crossbar, there was a growing sense that the equaliser was imminent. Redmond was whipping in some vicious corners and, when the ball wasn't cleared from one of these, he found himself in space before cutting inside on his left foot and curling a beauty past Murdoch in the home goal. Only two questions remained to be answered: one, could Dunfermline hang on for the draw and two, could my fingers avoid frostbite? Deep into stoppage time, a MacKinnon shot was heading for the net before Murdoch, diving to his right, tipped it around the post. The Hamilton Ultras behind the goal, having risen in anticipation of a last-gasp winner, had barely returned bums to seats when the final whistle blew.

During the match, I got chatting to Steve, a Dunfermline fan attending with his boys. When he asked why I had journeyed from darkest Weegieland to the Kingdom of Fife, I explained that I was trying to catch a game in each round of the cup and writing about the experience as I went along. We exchanged notes on the idiosyncratic charms of various lower league grounds and Steve briefed me on the strengths and weaknesses of the current Dunfermline squad; he was a lovely bloke and he spoke with passion about his club and about what it meant to the local community. When I mentioned that I had watched that Valencia clip before coming to the game, his eyes lit up; he then told me about an event that had taken place in September 2010, when -at half-time in a game against Cowdenbeath- the eight goals from that remarkable European tie had been re-enacted as part of a community initiative called ‘Celebrating Fife’. Young players took the roles of both teams (and the match officials), with their choreographed performance based upon footage of the original game. Dunfermline’s community coaches trained the youngsters to re-stage the original moves as faithfully as possible and some new match commentary for the piece was written by the local playwright, Gregory Burke.

What a brilliant illustration of football as living theatre, football as history, football as a vibrant expression of cultural pride. Visiting East End Park, you really get the sense of a club in touch with its roots, a club that knows it belongs in the town, belongs in the heart of its community. That sense of history pervades everything from their website to the match programme to the atmosphere within the ground, wherein the folklore reminds us that it is possible for a club –and a town- to punch above its weight. The players who pull on the black and white jerseys in 2017 may be actors working to a different script, but all of them will have dreamed that someday they will take part in something that grandparents will want to tell grandchildren about, something so astonishing that someone, somewhere, decades from now, will teach a group of kids to re-enact it, pass by pass, move by move, goal by goal.

But the inspiration for that particular piece of performance art will have to wait for at least another year: Hamilton won the replay on penalties.