SKYE’S THE LIMIT by Craig McLean

By their own admission, Del Amitri make “fairly crass” music – not that the residents of Scotland’s most isolated outposts of civilisation are overly concerned…

“It’s raining today and I’ve been eaten alive by midges…” The man from Channel 4’s Travelog does not look happy as he recites his lines against a bleak and billowy backdrop. The camera pans over sheep and sea and hills. “There are 19 stone circles,” he continues hopefully. The line about the Gaelic-speaking locals being friendly is surely next.

Travelog has come to the Isle of Lewis, 30 miles off the north-west coast of the Scottish mainland, and they’re making heavy weather of it. No, there are not many trees and, no, you’re not allowed to do much on the Sabbath. But in Stornoway, the island’s main population centre, life goes on, stoically, good-naturedly, traditionally. It is the perfect embodiment of the Costa Del Amitri.

It’s Lewis’s Youth Week. “They get a bunch of old bastards up from Glasgow to play!” snorts Del Amitr frontman and old bastard Justin Currie. It is a grimly grey Friday night and we are in the An Lanntair Talla a Bhaile, Mol a Deas, Steornabhagh, Eilean Leodhals – the Town Hall on South Beach, Stornoway, Lewis. Above the stage frowns the reminder – warning? – that “God’s Providence Is Our Inheritance”. The hall is No Smoking and the gig is dry. Most folk, though, have smuggled in a hip-flask, a half-bottle or a six-pack. Or all three.

Fuzzy Duck, the support act, are received like conquering heroes due to their remarkably accurate covers set, including Stiltskin’s ‘Inside’, Soul Asylum’s ‘Runaway Train’ and Pearl Jam’s ‘Alive’. Only the singer’s Eddie Vedder impersonation fails. Some wit in the crowd roars for Del Amitri’s ‘Move Away Jimmy Blue’ – Fuzzy Duck probably know Del Amitri’s Classic Rock oeuvre back-to-front.

“Ach, good on them,” says guitarist Iain Harvie backstage. “The singer’ll probably be shagging for a year on the strength of this.” Then, ever-present bottle of fine malt whisky in hand, Harvie and band tumble on stage. “We come to rock,” says Currie. “But first there will be a lot of pop.”

Out comes much of the platinum-selling last album, 1992’s Change Everything, and a clutch of tracks from the new one, Twisted. Everyone knows all the words, even the ones they haven’t heard before.

Currie curries favour when he says “Good evening,” in Gaelic. But he pishes on his chips – as they say here – when he introduces ‘Start With Me’ with: “Here’s a song to pogo to. I imagine pogoing was big in Stornoway. That’ll be 1984.” You could hear a drunk drop. Currie can’t avoid patronising allusions to the backwardness of Scotland’s geographic extremities – two years ago, during a trip to the Orkneys, similar comments got him into trouble. The Orkney press had revived the furore two days earlier when Del Amitri returned to the island.

Del Amitri breezes on, Harvie doing his Viking riff-god bit and Currie throwing sweaty rock-star poses. By the time of their “really bad Elvis song”, ‘Burnin’ Love’, the Town Hall is rockin’ and reelin’ like a dipsomaniacs’ disco. Then, during the final, pertinent ‘Move Away Jimmy Blue’ (“…before your small small town turns around and swallows you…”), a Diamond White bottle rolls gently from the carousing throng. It’s almost poetic.

“Things like this shake you out of your lethargy,” says Currie one day later on the Isle of Skye, the penultimate stop on Del Amitri’s five-date Highlands and Islands tour. “These places are so terminally uncool,” he continues, “and people are coming in with their kids. You expect Sooty to come on before you. And that’s good, because you’ve got no pretensions – you just better sing the songs in tune, mate, and get on with it. Don’t get an attitude, cos this isn’t rock’n’roll, this is entertainment.”

This is the business Del Amitri find themselves in. Currie is more aware than anyone of how “uncool” his band are, who make “fairly crass”, radio-friendly records. He always assumes that “the audiences at our gigs don’t particularly like music – they maybe saw us on Going Live and thought we looked quite tuneful…” As for an image: “We look like shit.”

After touring Change Everything around the world in 1992, Del Amitri spent much of 1993 at Haremere House in East Sussex. “We were trying to rent the 1970s rock-star lifestyle for a couple of weeks – we can’t afford it all the time. The only things lacking were the naked people sprawled across the lawn and the Bentley in the pool. It was very Stardust.”

Haremere is a country house owned by a “maverick aristocrat” who rents out her gaff for receptions, barmitzvahs and bands seeking a good vibe. This time, Currie and Harvie – old schoolfriends and Del Amitri’s core since 1983 – would jam out tunes together; on both 1989’s Waking Hours and Change Everything, Currie had assumed most of the songwriting chores, “but I didn’t want to do that anymore. The stuff that I write on my own is always about the same thing; the stock-in-trade infidelity, self-pitying, bitter crap.”

And it’s raining. “Yeah, it’s always raining!”

Twisted, though, is still unmistakably Del Amitri, a further refinement of their rootsy, guitar-led, American-derived pop-rock. Of the glut of bands that flooded out of Glasgow and the Scottish west coast in the mid- to late-’80s, Del Amitri were one of the few genuine successes. This is the retrograde sound that gave the band their first hits, with the single ‘Nothing Ever Happens’ and its slow-train-coming parent album Waking Hours.

But whence this Scottish – or more precisely, west-coast-Scottish – obsession with America?

“I don’t know, it’s very strange. Some people would say there’s some great Scots/Irish connection with American folk music; there might be, I’m not a musicologist. But I think Postcard started it. The whole idea of America was incredibly unhip throughout punk. Then suddenly you had Orange Juice making these slightly Byrds-like, laidback, very west-coast-American noises. I believe it’s because of that, not because of any deep genetic connection.”

If there’s any hankering for good old, traditional folk-rock, the youth of Skye and Lewis don’t show it. They wear Blur and Rage Against The Machine T-shirts with pride. A few trooped over to Inverness to see a rare “proper gig” by Terrorvison a few months back, but to get to Glasgow takes 12 hours including a 5:30 AM ferry to the mainland.

Big Country and The Proclaimers came to Skye in 1994, but playing the Isles is a logistical and financial headache, P&O Ferries charged a discounted 450 pounds to transport band, crew and gear to Orkney, since Del Amitri were “bringing art to the islands”. Yet for the crossing to Lewis, Caledonian-MacBrayne insisted on 900 pounds, a third of the band’s fee.

The Town Hall in Stornoway has mini-raves every fortnight to compensate for the lack of gigs. Drugs are readily available, albeit more expensive than the mainland. And after a riotous Saturday night show in the Portree Gathering Hall on Skye, Currie is surprised that the audience wasn’t a lot weirder.

“We’d heard stories about the Gathering Hall, how they put the lights up after five fights, then turn them off when it’s calm, then count to five again and put them back on. And how people would arrive by tractor. But it’s just like playing in Bellshill, a wee town outside Glasgow. Stornoway is supposed to have that real repressed, Presbyterian Christian vibe. But I didn’t even get much of a sense of that. I feel really guilty now about making that stupid joke in Stornoway about pogoing. Punk rock reached Glasgow two years after London, and Inverness about 1982. But things are all instantaneous now. I’m sure they were all Suede fans here two years ago.”

Indeed. This might be the Outer Hebrides, but it’s not Outer Space. Submitted by David Sills

Vox Magazine: April 1995