Bedraggled Part I
by Marco Rossi
An acutely subjective history of the Kevin McDermott Orchestra, straight from the horse’s arse
I joined the Kevin McDermott Orchestra in December 1988. My predecessor was an eight-foot Rasta called Chris Brambell, best remembered for once wandering on stage at the Glasgow Pavilion 20 minutes into the band’s set, eating an apple and freezing with genuine astonishment in mid-bite when he noticed that there was an audience in the building. (I finally got to meet Chris some years later, and he was delightful. For my part, I felt properly star-struck.)
Clearly, Chris’s smouldering shoes were going to be difficult ones to fill, but fill them I did for several years – and this is the story of those years. It’s a salutary parable of four young men who weathered a perfect storm of disillusionment after having their souls chewed up in the rapacious gears of the music industry, emerging from the experience older, wiser, wider and poorer, but still smelling sweetly of Stolichnaya.
In the summer of 1988 I was miserably working as a deckchair attendant, in an existential holding pattern to forestall the catastrophic day when I would have to abandon my hot fantasy of making a living from music, bite a bullet the size of the Gherkin and pursue a ‘proper job’. Deckchair builder, perhaps. Still, I figured I could indulge myself with just one last roll of the dice.
One of my mates was (and remains) the lovely and supernaturally talented Robbie McIntosh, at the time playing guitar with The Pretenders. Robbie mentioned that he’d just completed a session in Glasgow, recording an album with a spiky firebrand called Kevin McDermott. ‘He’s Scottish too: d’you know him?’ No, I didn’t, although it spookily later transpired that Kevin and I had a couple of mutual friends and had been within clod-slinging distance of each other at several ramshackle punk gigs in the Glasgow Apollo… but I’m getting ahead of (or rather, behind) myself here. Robbie mentioned that Kevin, his brother Jim – then an 18-year-old drum wunderkind – and Steph Greer, a doe-eyed, chain-smoking, heartthrob bassist, were auditioning for a guitarist. I took Kevin’s phone number, and subsequently rang him.
Now it can be told: Kevin’s was the first answering machine I had ever encountered. I dribbled some manner of loose-bowelled nonsense down the phone – I think I might even have told Kevin that my name was Kevin McDermott – and retired to contemplate the unlikelihood of my ever forging a career in telesales.
Several days later, a weary Kevin phoned back: auditions were proving a tad ‘problematic’. A number of prospective candidates apparently gave every impression of having wandered into the auditions en route to Bedlam. As I understand it, there were note-mashers galore: people whose nearest acquaintance with an electric guitar was having sat on a bus driving past McCormack’s music shop. The precious few proficient ‘axemen’, to coin a singularly repellent term, seemingly insisted on playing bilious rock classics, accompanied by an adoring retinue of cloth-eared referees (‘he’s pure GALDO him, by the way’). Against such eccentric competition, I was potentially in with a shout.
In my favour, I had two enormous amplifiers – Robbie had forewarned me as to the masonry-crumbling volume to expect – and, more importantly, I’d actually learnt the songs, something which it didn’t appear to have occurred to any of the other hopefuls to do. To my rock’n’roll detriment, however, I was an uncool, impoverished family man, married and with a brand new child, in a moldering, dysentery-yellow Volvo estate with a ‘baby on board’ thingy on the back window. The shop must have sold out of ‘please vent your road rage on the occupants of this car’ stickers.
The audition took place, as did all our early rehearsals, in an undernourished building on Yorkhill Quay with the external dimensions of a Tardis and the internal dimensions of a hatbox. Nicknamed (with admirable brevity and a poet’s eye) the Shithouse, it would become the site of many pleasant winter afternoons spent perforating each other’s eardrums at unavoidably point-blank range, peering puffy-eyed through crepuscular clouds of smoke from Steph’s tabs, and running through the bulk of the material which comprised the first Kevin McDermott Orchestra album, Mother Nature’s Kitchen (Island, 1989). Ah yes: I can exclusively reveal that I passed the audition.
The album was, of course, all done and dusted before I stumbled along: consequently, I spent my first year in KMO in abject terror of getting my arse felt as a guitarist. I felt certain that people drawn to the album’s sleek production and Robbie’s peerless slide guitar parts would be horrified by the hooligan raucousness of the band in a live setting: it took me an inordinate length of time to realise that the latter tendency imparted a certain frisson of its own.
Our first gig was in Dundee University on January 12 1989, by which time we were a team of sorts. In addition to Kevin, Jim, Steph and myself, the KMO floating collective at the time consisted of the following radicals.
Graham Cochrane, massive road manager: innately funnier than every stand-up comedian in the world lashed together, and blithely immune to social mores. Not averse, by way of grisly example, to handing out the band and crew’s PDs (per diem expenses) while having a crap and smoking a tab.
David Bowie, drum technician. We had a massive following in Germany for about 12 minutes when some fanciful journo assumed that our Davie was the FAMOUS David Bowie, as opposed to a sweet-natured 16-year-old from Paisley whose eager face was a familiar and encouraging sight at KMO gigs, somewhere behind Jim’s shins. David Bowie was controversially more handsome than anyone in the actual band.
Stephen Fleming, soundman, driver, all-round good egg and a figure of absolutely central importance to the band’s fragile well-being. Big Steph (as he was imaginatively titled to differentiate him from other Steph) was the very embodiment of stoicism, and I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that his unflappable nature was the one constant factor in five years characterised by more ups and downs than the stock exchange on a trampoline.
Lewis Rankine, wilfully curmudgeonly guitar technician and bassist-in-waiting. ‘Get tae fuck aff the stage,’ he would gleefully snarl if any of us expressed more than a merely routine desire to chivvy along the soundcheck process. Lewis later joined The Silencers, thereby ironically achieving a greater degree of fiscal success than any of us.
Andy, an unfailingly polite but vulpine-faced driver with ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ tattooed over each nipple. An unusually big hit with the ladies, Andy was last seen loping off between the traffic in the centre of London. While driving us to some theoretically important showcase gig somewhere or other, Andy got hopelessly lost: and on his fifth circuit of Marble Arch, accompanied by proportionate darkening of KMO brows in the back seat, he finally succumbed to the stress, pulled over, got out and literally vanished. That was a strange one.
We were co-managed at the time by Anal Giffnock and Duff Hummock: names have been changed to protect the guilty. Whenever I read about Mike Jeffries, Don Arden, Peter Grant and the other ‘heavy’ managers of the ’60s, my thoughts turn to Anal Giffnock, a man who enigmatically fostered the impression of being on first-name terms with members of the SAS – or was it the SS? – although no one could ever ascertain whether this was actually true or not.
Anal possessed a classic stone face, next to which Buster Keaton’s was as kinetic as a neon rendering of a flea circus. The only time I ever saw him appear remotely animated was one night when we were driving back to the Columbia Hotel in Bayswater after a gig, when Anal spotted some teenagers attempting with some difficulty to negotiate the railings around Hyde Park. ‘Hee, she’s got the spike up her arse,’ he spluttered, lapsing immediately thereafter into his habitual Easter Island impassivity.
Duff Hummock was an old pro, a music biz veteran who’d had more hot dinners than most of us have had hot dinners. Duff, bless him, was a Zen master of inadvertent comic timing: on one occasion, while walking down a street in Orono, Maine in minus 20° conditions, Duff pointed out some black ice, knowledgeably informed me ‘watch this stuff: it’s slippy,’ and in the exact same moment went on his arse in debate-ending fashion.
To be continued by Marco and no doubt contradicted by Kevin, Steph and Jim.