Days 59-63: Sad Country Boy / Anthem / Enchanted Alright / Walking on a Dream / What Happens Now

I’m mostly a horrible snob when it comes to cover versions. They’re fun at weddings, but artistically if you’re not going to make something completely your own then why bother? And so I often tie myself in knots trying to justify it. I’m about to do it again with  Sad Country Boy. (If you’re more interested in the other cover versions I’ve done, you’ll need to scroll down for quite a while because I have quite a lot to say about Sad Country Boy.)

I love Peat and Diesel, and I particularly love Plateful of Sgadan, their cover of Brimful of Asha by Cornershop – which, to avoid confusion, is not the song I’ve covered. I did recently record a cover of a cover – my version of Camille O’Sullivan’s version of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem – for a theatre project I’ve been working on, but I wouldn’t dare do that with Plateful of Sgadan and would like to explain why. Bear with me here because it’s a bit of a tangent.

Some people might argue that Plateful of Sgadan isn’t a cover version at all. Musically it’s clearly Brimful of Asha but the lyrics are completely different. I’ve been told that a few younger Peat listeners have got very confused when they hear the original, perhaps assuming it’s some sort of weird tribute by Asian Peat and Diesel fans.

In some ways Plateful of Sgadan is a typical Peat and Diesel song, in that the band quite often cherrypick from other people’s music – usually it’s Scottish folk tunes, but the opening of Lovely Stornoway is clearly Summer of 69 by Bryan Adams and if the band were more famous they might have had a legal letter by now. What’s interesting to me about Plateful of Sgadan though is that, culturally, it does something very similar to the Cornershop song.

Brimful of Asha is full of very specific Indian references. It’s named after Asha Bhoslie, a ‘playback singer’ for Indian films, who sang thousands of songs that would then be lip synced by the films’ stars. The song refers to her as ‘sada rani’, which I’m told is Punjabi for ‘our queen’; the lyrics also mention Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi, two other playback singers. If you didn’t know all this, the song won’t make a huge amount of sense but, crucially, it doesn’t attempt to explain itself. It exists on its own terms, and if you don’t know what it’s about then you can go look it up.

Brimful of Asha was released in 1997, the year Tony Blair won his first general election victory, partly by piggybacking on Britpop, which by that time had evolved into a widespread, nostalgic and quite conservative celebration of British culture. When it comes to Britpop I’m generally with Tracey Thorn, who has pointed out how, in the eyes of politicians and the media, “the white boys with guitars were the Norm, and deviations from that were the Other, and certainly not the main story”. Ask most people to name a ‘Britpop’ musician and they’ll say Blur or Oasis, maybe Elastica or Pulp if they’re trying to impress you. But not many people would namecheck Tricky, Goldie, or Massive Attack, at least not if they’re white. So Brimful of Asha felt significant, especially after Norman Cook remixed it and made it a proper hit. It was guitar pop  that showcased a different, more inclusive kind of Britishness. Importantly, it’s as British as it is Asian, musically and lyrically. And it stood out because of the way it casually blended these dual identities together.

I would argue that Plateful of Sgadan does the same thing. It feels relevant here to mention that Britpop was also overwhelmingly English. Even Trainspotting, the 1996 film adaptation of a hugely significant Scottish book, had a soundtrack dominated by English musicians – Blur, Sleeper, Pulp, Elastica, Underworld etc – with room for only one Scottish band, Primal Scream. In the years since, though, something transformative happened in Scottish pop music, beginning in 1996 with Arab Strap’s The First Big Weekend. I still remember the first time I heard that song. Like a lot of people of my generation, I associated Scottish accents in pop with politics and the Proclaimers. This was something different, a song in which a young guy from Falkirk basically just blethered for a while about ordinary stuff – dancing, drinking with his pals, watching a football game and the Simpsons – and, just by doing it in a Scottish accent, with a throwaway reference to the Arches in Glasgow, made it feel exciting and subversive, especially in the midst of a big cultural moment that was being sold to us as British but was actually mostly English. What was striking, again, was the casualness of it. Why would you not talk about your life in this way, with your own distinct cultural references alongside ones from the ‘mainstream’, dominant culture? I heard the same quality in Cornershop a year later, and I hear it in Peat and Diesel now when they sing about herring and Big Macs.

These days, of course, it would be conspicuous if a Scottish band didn’t sing in their own accent. The bands that followed in Arab Strap’s wake – Frightened Rabbit, the Twilight Sad etc – have made it normal. And The Proclaimers, notably, are considered to be much cooler than they once were. I don’t think it’s insignificant that, when Trainspotting 2 finally came out, the most prominent band on the soundtrack were Young Fathers, who are from Edinburgh – and, in an interesting wee footnote to Tracey Thorn’s thoughts on the history of Britpop, are also two thirds black and have collaborated with Massive Attack.

In some ways, then, Peat and Diesel are nothing new. But they are doing for Scottish pop music what both Arab Strap and Cornershop once did for Britpop, in that, with their distinctly Hebridean references, they represent a different kind of Scottishness. Instead of Asha Bhoslie and Lata Mangeshkar, Plateful of Sgadan namechecks marag dhubh, the local minister, and “Shauny Beag from Carloway”. And the opening lines about Sunday dinner with Granny before church will have a particular resonance for anyone who grew up on Lewis. But like Brimful of Asha, Peat and Diesel songs don’t feel the need to explain themselves, they just are what they are. If you get the references, great. If you don’t, you can go look them up. It’s been lovely to see people all over the UK discovering and embracing Lewis culture through this band, and it’s gutting that the lockdown happened just as Peat and Diesel were on the point of properly breaking through; they already had gigs booked through to next year.

What, you might ask, has any of this got to do with me recording a Peat and Diesel song that isn’t even Plateful of Sgadan? The best answer I can come up with is that all this history was very much on my mind when I decided to cover Country Boy, the opening song on Peat and Diesel’s first album. The reason I wouldn’t cover Plateful of Sgadan, my favourite Peat and Diesel song, is that I couldn’t possibly cover it as cleverly as Peat and Diesel covered Cornershop. But I did feel like I could bring something new to Country Boy.

It was the lyrics that drew me to the song, especially this bit towards the end: “I know it isn’t normal and I know it isn’t right, any average man would get a fright. My head is in the clouds and my guts are on the deck, it’s seven hours to go until I lose the sweats.” I had many questions. Why seven hours specifically? At very least it suggests a long relationship with comedowns. What is he hiding from in his granny’s loft? What is he running away from with those magic mushrooms? Did something bad happen in the city that made him not like it? Is there a deep melancholy at the heart of Peat and Diesel that isn’t being talked about, and that someone who mostly writes sad songs could tease out?

I’m possibly reading far too much into this. Keith Morrison, Peat and Diesel’s producer, told me people are always asking him questions about details in the band’s lyrics and that the answer is quite often ‘because it rhymes’. But I thought it would be fun to find the sadness in the Peats, and so, while bored in the middle of lockdown, I posted a very sketchy version of the song online. Since Lewis is a small place it got noticed by the band quite quickly. One response from a Peat and Diesel fan stuck in my mind: “He sounds like he needs a whisky.” And they were right. It was too sad. Teasing out the melancholy in a Peat and Diesel song is one thing; making it depressing is another.

For the final recording, then, I added a rousing, anthemic second half with stamps, hand claps, and a completely different tune that I wrote myself. I like to think this is in the spirit of a band who take such cheeky liberties with other people’s music. I added a wee bit of Plateful of Sgadan at the end, a tribute to their tribute. I hope they like it. I also hope they don’t mind that I recorded it in the same studio, with the same producer, where they made their first two albums. I got a bit of a kick out of that, I admit, and couldn’t resist taking a wee selfie in front of their tour poster.

I’ve done a handful of other cover versions over the years. The oldest is Swimmer One’s cover of Cloudbusting by Kate Bush, which I’ve written about elsewhere. The second Seafieldroad album includes a version of Walking on a Dream by Empire of the Sun, because it was a song Laura and I used to dance about to in our living room and which ended up being the first dance at our wedding – the original version, not mine. I also did a version of What Happens Now by Kitchens of Distinction as a bonus track on the first Seafieldroad album. I have no elaborate excuse for this one. The Death of Cool is just one of my favourite albums of all time and I’ve sung along to it so many times that I know all the words by heart.

Most recently I recorded Enchanted / Alright, a medley of Some Enchanted Evening by Rodgers and Hammerstein and It’s Alright With Me by Cole Porter, two classic songs that meant a lot to my parents. I have a better excuse for this one. Some Enchanted Evening (from the musical South Pacific) is how my dad remembered the dance night when he met my mum. It’s Alright With Me is how my mum remembered the same evening.  It was a bit of a family joke that they had such different soundtracks to the same event. The story behind it is that he was falling in love for the first time, while she was recovering from the traumatic loss of an ex-boyfriend who had taken his own life shortly after breaking off their engagement.

To Dad, Mum was the beautiful stranger glimpsed across a crowded room, whose “laughter will sing in your dreams”. He took the advice in the song (“When you find your true love…. Fly to her side and make her your own”) very much to heart; he wrote to her every day the first Christmas they were apart, soon after they met. To Mum, by contrast, Dad was the wrong face, the wrong time, the wrong place, but he was so charming that my mum decided that, as the song concludes, “it’s alright with me”. The loss of her first fiancé haunted my mum for the rest of her life, but it was Dad’s love for her, in the end, that helped her get over it, and they were married for over 50 years.

The idea for Enchanted / Alright came to me shortly after my mum’s funeral. Partly it was a way of saying a last goodbye to them both. Partly I just liked the idea of juxtaposing two very different love songs, one naïve and idealistic, one coloured by experience of heartbreak.

The moral of this story is that songs can mean very different things depending on how you sing them, which is why I like the whole Brimful of Asha/Plateful of Sgadan saga so much, and why I wanted to add a wee nod to it at the end of my cover of Country Boy. For the record, I don’t think Sad Country Boy is anywhere near as good a cover version as Plateful of Sgadan is. It’s probably another example of my tendency to critique pop music – at some length, as you may have noticed – rather than fully embrace it. But I’m quite pleased with it, especially the stamping and the handclaps, a multi-tracked me, jumping up and down and feeling very happy.

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