Michael Marra the singer-songwriter and gentle musical genius who died this week at the tender age of 60 was largely unsung outside of Scotland and Ireland. Which is a pity. The rest of the world lost out on that. As a chronicler of our times, ordinary peoples’ times he was up there with the best. He ‘coulda’ bin a contender’. Perhaps if he’d been born in New Orleans instead of Lochee, the Irish quarter of the industrial Scots’ city of Dundee, he might have really made the big time. Perhaps he never wanted to.
Michael Marra came from a prominent Roman Catholic and Labour family in Dundee, a family full of schoolteachers and educationalists, music, culture and grace. Which is how he came to be, maybe the most musical, cultured and graceful Dundonian of them all. I first saw him play in Laings Hotel in Dundee’s Roseangle back in the mid 1970s. The hotel wasn’t really a hotel, more a dive for students from the university across the road, and the city’s prestigious Art school just a hundred yards up the road.
His band – Skeets Boliver – were really something and hoped, with some expectation, to be another far from Average White Band which originated largely from Jute City like Mick Marra, and indeed myself. They were a loud explosive rock formation as I recall – does anyone have any footage of them I wonder? Or audio? But they were capable – under the influence of Mick – of dropping way down low, quiet like, reflective. Just like him. They were totally original, performing their own material at a time at least in venues like these where the pay must have been peanuts, or more likely in liquid form and i don’t mean “readies”. Most of that material, and virtually all of the arrangements were the first craft of this master-craftsman, Michael Marra.
If Skeets weren’t original enough for you – they had an alter-ego: Mort Wriggle and the Panthers! You could book the band in either ego, or even both with the guys changing gear and playlist at half-time. The Panthers were a pure rock and roll show, mainly covers, early Elvis, Chuck Berry, all leather bikers jackets and Brylcreamed quiffs and DA’s. I must tell you that in both of these guises, they were really amazing, and I remember those performances 35 years on.
The lead singer Stuart Ivens was a real star, and the sax player Peter McGlone who was at school with and played in the same orchestra as me – though no friend, he once doorstepped my mother on behalf of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper – was a terrific and terrifically cool saxophonist. I apologise to the rest of the guys whose names I’ve now forgotten, but I’ve never forgotten Michael Marra who was truly the heart and soul of both incarnations.
In fact just a few weeks ago I was teaching my half-Dundonian son Zein to sing his peaen to another of the city’s proud products – the Bridie. A kind of pastie, unique not just to the city but to one bakery in the city – Wallace’s Pie Shop – it can be enjoyed plain, or with an onion in it. Or in my native language, to enjoy both you’d just ask, like in the Michael Marra song, for a “plen ane en an inging ane an a’ ” Only Mick could make magical music out of a Dundee pie.
Ditto his hymn to “Hamish the Goalie”, the evervescent hero of the Tannadice goal mouth, Dundee United’s evergreen keeper Hamish Macalpine. Everybody loved Hamish, a sometimes crazy often-times brilliant goalkeeper who seemed to have kept the United goal for the best part of twenty years – and their best years at that. Everybody loved Hamish, but not everybody could save him for ever in a song. But Michael Marra did.
He wrote musicals, experimental stuff in foreign genre, and played the smallest of places, even bars! The sort of thing you don’t do if you’re in it for fame and fortune. Fortunately or unfortunately, Michael Marra wasn’t in it for either. If he had been, far more of you would have known who I was talking about. I’m hoping now, you’re going to try and find out why. Take a walk down ‘Pity Street’, the only album of his I still have, somewhere, for starters.
May God have mercy on you, Lochee Mick. Though come to think about it, you’re probably playing the piano and crooning at His right hand already.
[George Galloway MP]