Jim Byrne playing live

Jim Byrne – My Journey Into Music & Songwriting

As a teenager my dream was to be a full time musician and to be on Top of the Pops. Considering I was a teenager in the 1970s it seems to be taking longer than I thought. Is it time to reconsider?

Thinking about this reminds me that a couple of years ago I was asked why I was still playing music even though I hadn’t been ‘discovered’ and hadn’t become a star. A very good question in as much as it reflects the idea that music is merely the vehicle to money and celebrity and not an end in itself.

If money and celebrity was the goal, then I’ve been a horrendous failure; and have wasted the largest part of my life playing music in a shallow and pointless persuit of popularity. If that was the case I’d be a broken man with shattered self-esteem, I’d be frustrated and resententful and right now I would probably be studying the latest hot talent’s every move with a view to replicating their success (try not to imagine a 58 year old man sporting plastic see-through outfit doing the splits while falling off of a piano).

But of course that isn’t the goal (not now anyway; there may have been some truth in it when I was a teenager); the goal is to be able to continue to write and play music – because it’s fulfilling in itself and and I enjoy the adventure and the people I get to play music with as a result.

The truth is (damn the truth) I”ve always loved music; first listening to it and singing other peoples songs and later playing it and writing my own songs. My earliest memory of being on stage is with my younger brother John singing Rolf Harris’s, ‘Two little boys’ in the ‘Q4’ club; a working man’s club in Clydebank. That would have been in 1969 – so I would have been 7 years of age at the time. Clearly I had very questionable taste in music at that point.

I took up the guitar – when I was 13 because my neighbour Derek got a guitar. I was a very competitive child; if he was learning guitar I wanted to learn guitar! The next few years where spent learning Beatles and Rolling stones songs, making up cassette compilations tapes and pretending to be radio DJ’s. Eventually we graduated to writing our own songs. I can’t remember how we split up the songwriting duties, but I suspect I made up the chords and Derek wrote the lyrics. That’s mere specularion on my part; because for many years when writing songs I was more comfortable with making up the music than the words.

When I was about 16 or 17 I formed my first band with my school mates – and played at the end of year school disco (1978?). This was in the midst of the punk explosion; I know for sure our set included a cover of Hong Kong Garden by Siouxsie And The Banshees – beyond that I can’t remember – maybe a Sex Pistols song. The band included John Honeyman on bass who later went on to play in the rock band The Primevals and on drums Iain Copeland who played in many successful Jazz and folk bands; including The Peatbog Faeries. I have a feeling the band lasted a couple of years; we were under the impression that all we needed to do was be good and that big success was inevitable. No success followed – the world didn’t know we existed. Even if the world had been compressed into my own street – even they didn’t know we existed.

By the end of the 70s I had put together a band called Dexter Slim and the Pickups; a mixture of rock and roll and punk country – who were a very good live band. We played gigs on the local circuit both in Clydebank and in Glasgow and had a small following.

Particular highlights from this time would be the gigs we played in the Halt bar in Glasgow; the best of which were energetic, fast paced rock and roll and country thrash-fests – played to an energetic drunk audience. Other highlights were the two tours of Ireland we played (both organised by my wife Pat) – including playing at the Letterkenny Music Festival. The first tour was notable because half the village of Old Kilpatrick went over to Ireland with us for the final gig.

Dexter Slim and the Pickups were a successful band in as much as it all seemed to gel together and produce a good noise that people liked. In any convention definition of success we didn’t ‘make it’, i.e. making and selling records – or getting played on the radio. I recall that we influenced a few other local bands at the time; in terms of our on-stage antics and energy if not necessarily our style of music. I remember attending a gig by a local band where the lead singer had copied some of my stage theatrics. It was annoying though at the same time that it was a compliment.

The music I was listening to at this point was wide ranging and included a lot of blues piano players, pre-war blues guitar pickers, Regga, (remember Linton Kwesi Johnson) the alt pop/rock bands of the time as well as the mainstream rock and Pop played on the radio and on Top of the Pops. Unfortunately I’ve always been cursed with catholic tastes; and that has influenced the songs I write and play; which tend to be scattered across different genres. This is unfortunate – as it makes marketing music almost impossible – in what is a genre driven business.

In terms of what was influencing the songs I was writing I can’t be sure (because I can’t remember) – but I do remember being influenced by a local band called The Creeping Charlies; who were a strange mix of Rockabilly, post-punk guitar pop and the Beatles. One of the main things I was impressed by was the sheer number of musical ideas they had in every song; more ideas in one song that most bands had spread across an album. Lots of time changes, jagged stops and starts, strange guitar chords and an approach that made me think of surreal art rather than music.

Over the next couple of decades I created and wore out a few more of my own bands including The Hemingways (released some very good guitar driven records) and Hyperstar – featuring Robert Ruthven and Steven from The Creeping Charlies as well as playing guitar in the successful (relative to my own bands) psychedelic rock band the Primevals.

Playing rock guitar in a band was my default mode of operation until 1998 when I chucked the band, changed direction and decided to go solo – and play acoustic guitar. I wasn’t sure what type of music I would play; it was just a case of waiting to see what songs I started to write.

In the event what I started to write was songs influenced by the blues and old-time country that I had been listening to in my younger years. Since then I have released four solo CDs. The second, “Every day is Sunshine’ to critical acclaim from UK national music press (Uncut, Q Magazine) and radio play on radio 2, Radio Clyde and Radio Scotland – as well as positive reviews from blues and folk magazines. One of the tracks was added to ‘Gods Jukebox’ on Radio 2; by my favourite DJ Mark Lamarr. Maybe if Top of the Pops was still on the TV I’d still be dreaming of appearing on it.

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