About Silly Wizard

by Alistair Clark, The Scotsman

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Was there ever a better band to come out of Scotland? I think not!

אּAnd I write as someone who heard them all. I had the pleasant task of being, in Hamish Henderson’s much-cherished words, the chronicler of the revival in my capacity, over some 30 years, as folk-music columnist on The Scotsman newspaper and broadcaster for BBC Scotland. In all that time, I never came across a Scottish group to beat Silly Wizard.
There were many pretenders, many disciples. Silly Wizard’s huge success spawned a host of imitators, but none could match their combination of vocal and instrumental brilliance (they boasted not only one of Scotland’s finest singer-songwriters but also two virtuosos in the shape of the Cunningham brothers), their sense of adventure, their waspish devilry, their passion, their acute understanding of light and shade, their ability to whip a big, random bunch of people into a unified fervour almost at the drop of a hat like the athlete who knows precisely when to turn on the surge of power, and does it to devastating effect. But that wasn’t all: at a time when traditional music was beginning to take itself terribly, terribly seriously, darling, they showed how it was possible to play great music and, at the same time, share a whole load of fun with their audience.
You only have to listen to this album to catch the greatness of it all. But for those who may be coming new to the Silly Wizard experience, let me give you a wee measure of their stature. In the early Eighties, some crazy guy tried to do a bootleg on our pals. He had tape-recorded a well-oiled session one New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh, and brought it out on vinyl, under the title Silly Wizard Live in Edinburgh. Now, in those days, you had to be a musical megastar, a Rolling Stone or a Dylan, in order to be paid the criminal compliment of a bootleg album. But here was a bootleg Silly Wizard, and the band were not amused. There was a court case in Edinburgh, and I was called in to give testimony that this was not a recording that Silly Wizard would ever have sanctioned. I had solemnly to inform the judge that, on the album that I’d heard, apart from anything else, a member of the audience could be heard shouting out “Johnny (Cunningham), you’re a f****** wanker!”, and this was language that the band would never have allowed to appear. (Fortunately, no smart-arse defence lawyer popped up to press the point about Johnny). The bootleg album, in the first case of its kind ever in Scotland, was banned.
They made history in so many other ways. They played the fastest. They also played the slowest. They played with a spirit and energy that had never been heard before. They wrote much of their own material, eschewing the easy option of pumping out the good old standards of the traditional-music repertoire. From Andy M Stewart came wonderful ballads, oozing over the brim with his passionate love of Scotland, his ain countrie. From the Cunninghams, vibrant new jigs and reels and soulful slower pieces. And, unlike many of their rivals, Silly Wizard were ever ready to improvise, rather than stick to the pre-ordained notes. This was free-range folk rather than the battery-farm version.
But above all, they gave Scottish music a buzz and a sense of purpose that it had never had before. Until Silly Wizard came along, the folk clubs in Scotland had been largely dominated by English, American and Irish music. The great Shetland fiddler, Aly Bain, did much to change the folk-club mindset and the international audience’s understanding of Scottish music, but Silly Wizard’s contribution should never be forgotten, because they were able to persuade the doubting generation of their youthful peers that Scotland had a musical richness that was nothing to be ashamed of indeed, that should be celebrated and wildly enjoyed, that was meaningful, was sexy, that had soul and was music to swing to.
And, of course, it all started, as these things just occasionally do, with an Englishman. Gordon Jones, guitarist, ex-rocker, ex-exponent of bluegrass and English ballads, had come up from Liverpool to Edinburgh, where a lot of things were happening on the folk scene. One day in a park, he came across a concert featuring a remarkable pair of young musicians from Edinburgh’s Portobello area: Johnny Cunningham (aged 14) and his brother, Phil (aged 12). He was, as they say, gobsmacked, and vowed there and then to have the Cunninghams in a band sometime. Ultimately, he did just that. Gordon Jones, a canny man who took care of all the Silly Wizard silliness over the years, is very much the unsung hero of Silly Wizard.
All of the key dates and specific times of individual nose-picking can be found on the internet, who joined when and who left when, and who went where. But the salient facts are these:
Silly Wizard, named after a crazy guy who lived in their flat in Edinburgh and long pre-dated another Edinburgh inspiration, Harry Potter, were formed in 1972, when Gordon Jones got together with Bob Thomas. They tended to play what Billy Connolly, I am sure, would call guitary things. But later that year, they were joined by schoolboy Johnny Cunningham. I remember hosting a live lunchtime radio programme when I couldn’t mention the name of the 15-year-old fiddler in the band because Johnny was playing truant. I know the band had severe logistic problems at this time: they would do a gig in the Highlands of Scotland, a far cry from Edinburgh, and drive overnight to deliver Johnny to the school gates the next morning.
Ultimately, into the mix came Johnny’s younger brother, Phil, a 16-year-old whizz-kid on the much-denigrated accordion, the singing songwriter Andy M Stewart (who had had to add the M to distinguish himself from the popular Scottish performer of the same name) and a swinging powerhouse on bass guitar, Martin (Mame) Hadden.
This was the making of the great era of Silly Wizard. Stewart’s passionate songs were the Scottish answer to Planxty’s Andy Irvine. Combining that with the superb musicianship of Johnny and Phil Cunningham (listen to how the brothers dovetail so scintillatingly beautifully in the Humours of Tulla set, and how Johnny’s velvet-toned fiddle obbligato and Phil’s sweet whistle set up such a wonderful platform for the singer in The Valley of Strathmore) created a sound that had never been heard before in Scotland.
Or, perhaps more importantly, in America. Because after their phenomenal first appearance in the States, at the Philadelphia folk festival in 1979 - where they flew over to be given the spot from hell in front of a crowd of thousands: opening, 20 minutes, and then you’re off, and won a standing ovation they discovered a whole new audience and a whole new bunch of agents fighting for their signatures. “After Philadelphia, we saw horizons that we’d never seen before”, said Phil. The band had earlier established a big following not only in the United Kingdom but also throughout Europe. Now, however, America was calling, and the heyday years began. From the early days of playing to a handful of people in the old Triangle Club in Edinburgh, Silly Wizard found themselves filling all 3,000+ seats in the city’s Playhouse Theatre. One month in 1980 they played main stage sets at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Vancouver Folk Festival, Nyon Folk Festival in Switzerland and the Cambridge Folk Festival in England.
And it’s good that this album comes from the States, because that’s where Silly Wizard really proved their worth. Enjoy, as this American audience so clearly did, Stewart’s superb telling of the uproarious Parish of Dunkeld story, or his own rousing Ramblin’ Rover or, for something completely different, the Scarce of Tatties track, where Silly Wizard demonstrate how effortlessly they could, in the good old Scottish expression, gie it laldie.
The band finally called it a day in 1988, leaving a gap that many other groups tried to fill, but never with the same aplomb and success. What strikes me as I listen again to their recorded output is that Silly Wizard, for all the hype about their being speed merchants, flashy performers and so on, were a thinking band whose arrangements were well planned and finely executed. When their first album, Silly Wizard, came out in 1976, a lot of the critics, expecting nothing but barnstorming instrumental pyrotechnics, were taken by surprise because the emphasis here was on skilful weaving of tones and textures, a quality that remained with the band through subsequent big-selling albums such as Caledonia’s Hardy Sons and the final studio album, A Glint of Silver in 1986. It’s true that some of the reels and jigs did tend to quicken as the musical temperature rose, but that merely served to heighten the appeal, and Stewart’s superb balladry was always there to restore a sense of order.
They used to call him the fastest fiddler in the West and of course he was when he chose to be - but Johnny Cunningham in his later years became a consummate exponent of slow Scottish airs. Very sadly, this hugely gifted musician died in New York in December 2003. I’m pretty sure he would be proud of what is here. I know that I am.