I wrote this in 1997 when it was still fresh in my mind!
I was there at the start. Well, not quite the first session, but back
in 1993 in the Gallery Bar (now the Car Wash) at the top of the Mound
– near enough to count as an elder of the ESS. I’d seen an ad somewhere
for Workers In Song – Songwriters welcome to perform
original material only, open stage. This was a revelation. Apart
from the title – a Leonard Cohen reference with suitable Scottish Socialist
overtones – it was the idea that someone actually wanted you to play your
For years I’d played folk clubs where original material was at best tolerated,
at worst dismissed as self-indulgent or pretentious. The warmest applause
was always for a well-known tune, be it traditional or a cover version,
turned out well. You could get round it by being a) famous or b) an excellent
guitarist, neither of which I was. Outside the folk clubs my small experience
of band life was that pubs wanted bands playing what people knew; original
material had to be sneaked in between crowd-pleasers.
I thought ‘This sounds too good to be true – you probably have to have
written something Scottish and political on a par with Dick Gaughan. I’ll
die.’ But you hadn’t and I didn’t. I went along and gave of my best to
a small but warm audience. I met Tom McEwan (T G McEwan he was then) and
realised I’d seen him before. This was the six-string terrorist who had
assaulted the otherwise polite and traditional Folk Club Songwriters Competition
with an anti-Scottish Nationalist diatribe called Ethnic Cleansing, a
belt of harmonicas like ammunition round his waist.
Soon afterwards Tom took over the club from his co-host Niall McDevitt
and in October 93 moved it to the Tron, under the less elevated but more
descriptive title of Edinburgh Songwriters Showcase. At this point it
began to flourish. A core of regulars – Tom, Damien, Dominic, Kors (see
the end for the full Roll of Honour) – would perform a 15-minute set each
week but more important, they actively welcomed and listened to a range
of wannabes (yours truly included) who were – and here’s the point – not
always that good! This was an audience who would tolerate forgotten words,
fluffed intros, off-mike vocals, stolen chord sequences and floor-aimed
mumbling, because we knew we’d all been there and how else were singers
to get the experience?
Not that it was always rapt attention – some performers held us more
than others, but everyone got a round of applause, somewhere on a scale
between encouragement and downright astonishment, and an invitation to
return. The only sin was doing a cover version.
It’s been scientifically proven (Lamont, Spriggot & McMarkham, 1997)
that six weeks regular appearances at the ESS, with a receptive audience,
lights and a sympatico soundman would give a new songwriter the equivalent
of 65.5 months singing into a cassette machine in a bedroom. The sociological
benefit has been unquestionable.
Some brought other musicians to the stage; some brought backing tapes.
Some recited poetry over tapes or MIDI files; some took their clothes
off; some brought sing-along words onto the stage on huge posters.
After a few years there was even a one-off covers night. Tom leapt on
the furniture to do ‘Born to Run’, Woodstock Taylor did a note-perfect
‘Life on Mars’ on piano, and I got to do the ‘I’m crying’ backing vocal
to Scott Fraser’s ‘I Am the Walrus’ – at last a reason to live.
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Tom backed out in 95 and a succession of dedicated souls made it continue
to happen until 1998. Two CDs were produced, and Woodstock Taylor and Polly Phillips
introduced the Showcase to the Edinburgh Festival each year with a showcase
linked to London clubs and songwriting competitions.
In its final years I was a much less frequent visitor to the Showcase,
and a much less frequent performer. Having long gaps between my visits
has brought home to me rather strikingly the hothouse effect of the ESS
on new performers. There have been times, friends, when it has been painful.
I’ve watched performers who I thought would be better advised to take
up employment as pillarboxes or party balloons.
And yet… and yet … I’ve come back months later and found these same
people turning out songs I’d love to have written, and putting together
from their range of influences a style of their own, with confidence and
originality I would never have predicted from first seeing them. The difference,
as they say, is striking.
And while it’s great to see the ‘graduates’ of the ESS – Dominic Waxing
Lyrical, Khaya, Polly Phillips and more – make a name for themselves outside,
the value and lasting contribution of the ESS was to give many more singers
and writers 15 minutes to be themselves, week after week, until they reach
the point where they know – and their audience knows – they’ve got it
At the time of writing, the ESS exists only in the history books (exaggeration), but it lives on in everything but name in the open mic spots run by Acoustic Underground, in several venues across Edinburgh and in the excellent Out of the Bedroom at the Waverly.
Roll of honour from the early years of ESS (with thanks to Tom McEwan
- Damien Sullivan (sorry I can’t do the Gaelic spelling!)
- Dominic Harris (the brilliant Dominic Waxing Lyrical)
- Todd Elliott
- Nikki Sbaffoni from the USA
- Stewart Hanratty
- Sophie Bancroft
- Julianne McCambridge(?)
- David’s Baby
- Ewan Burke
- Gordon McDonald
- Alan Ness
- Polly Phillips
- Jason Pillay (now Nobody Jones)
- Alex the Poet
- John Hicks
- Martin Morrey
- Scott Fraser (Scott and Pod)
- Christina and Alan
- William George
- my own band, Hungry Ghosts
also too famous to claim but regulars for a while:
- Christine Kydd
- Lorraine Jordan
© Norman Lamont 1997