Dick Laxdale-King of the Turf Guitar

5 04 2019

Dick Laxdale – King of the Turf Guitar RIP

Fans of surf music are mourning the passing of Dick Dale, the influential “King of the Surf Guitar” whose career was revived in recent years when his early 60s hits were used in the films of Quentin Tarantino.

But old SYs of a certain age – especially those who lived their misspent youth in the post-Elvis but pre-moptop era of the late 50s/early 60s – were much sadder to hear of the demise the same day of Dale’s less successful Leodhasach cousin, Dick Laxdale.

Dick Laxdale was born Richard Mùnsewer in Guershader in 1937, to Labostese parents. When he was still very young the family moved West to Bridge Cottages, and the young Dick grew up on the edge of the Barvas moor, surrounded by peat banks, midgies, caorans and so on. A fan of Country ‘n’ Westren music (the Leodhasach version of Country ‘n’ Western), his early musical career consisted mostly of playing “Wuyld Suyde of Luyfe” over and over at dances in the Laxdale Hall, as 3rd guitarist in the mid-50s line-up of K*ntrast.

At the same time, Dick was influenced by the exotic Eastern music that his parents had taken from their homeland, and began to experiment with playing precenting scales, waulking songs and D*ncan ‘M*jor’ M*rrison piano riffs on his guitar.

The turning point in Laxdale’s career came one day 1959, when the coal boat that used to deliver to Stornoway broke down. Duncan Maciver’s and all the other coal merchants in town immediately put their prices up, which sparked a revival of peat-cutting among the Townies of Stornoway. It wasn’t chust midgies that the moor was swarming with that year, as hordes of Townies poured forth across the cattle grids, brandishing their spades and tairsgears.

In order to get the youth of the town to help out instead of indulging in the standard teen pastimes of the 50s (smoking in the Luydo, greasing their DAs with ola nan ucais, slashing the seats in the Playhouse, running high-speed “dragtor” races on the Braighe Road, staging huge and violent gang “rumbles” round the back of the Gut Factory – and that was chust the blones), Stornoway Town Council’s psychological warfare department initiated a secret campaign to make the kids think that going to the peats was “cool”.

Before long a whole “Turfing” subculture had sprung up among the teens, with its own turf slang (‘wipe out’- cleaning the tarasgeir; ‘Hang Hen’- getting dinner ready out on the moor; ‘Charlie-gnarly’; ‘Shooting the curls’- getting a quick haircut from Johnny Geeper using his shotgun method) and so on.

The turfing scene also had its own distinctive fashions (Hawaiian boiler suits, bobban bikinis) and, of course, its unforgettable turf music.

Oh yus – Stornoway’s “musicians” of the day were keen to jump on any bandwagon that was going. Many groups appeared out of the woodwork to cash in on the turf music craze – most of whom had never been over the cattle grid or near a peat bank in their lives. These included instrumental groups such as the Chant-ers (“Pipe-cleaner”), The Trash(geir)men (Turfin’ Bàrd) and of course the Turf-àiridhs, whose big hit “Wipe Out”, with its blood-curdling shriek at the start, was inspired by the limited sanitary facilities available at their sheiling on the Pentland Road (in particular, it is said, the heather “toilet paper”).

Vocal groups included Chan and Christine (“Turf City”) and, most famously, the SouthBeach Boys, featuring troubled musical genius Brian Wilson (until he dropped out of the band after recording “Peat Sounds”” and went off to Skye to start the Free Press).

Dick Laxdale was as quick to cash in on the turf music trend as everyone else, dropping his Country ‘n’ Westren sound like a hot caoran and forming a new band. It wasn’t long before “Dick Laxdale And His Dell-tones” secured a residency at Stornoway’s popular Rendezvous Cafe, and became hugely popular with the turf-obsessed youth of the town.

At a gig in the Rendezvous, a chance meeting with Liòbag Fender, chief guitar designer and head of ship’s chandlery at Charles Morrison & Sons, saw Laxdale go into partnership with the firm to help develop their technology. The result was the Fender Siomanthearlaich, a famously robust amplifier made out of rope and old tyres. The Fender Siomanthearlaich made Laxdale’s Rendezvous shows much louder than those of his rivals, enabling him to drown out the roar of passing Mitchell’s buses and the wheeze  of Tommy Darkie’s accordion from the nearby Royal. Even better, when not in use for musical purposes, the Fender Siomanthearlaich could be hung over the side of a boat to protect against collisions with the pier. Co dhiù, Laxdale’s high volume concerts in the Rendezvous became legendary, and his first album “Turfer’s Choice” was recorded live there in 1962.

“Turfer’s Choice” and its follow-up “King of the Turf Guitar” were big hits, yielding singles such as “Turf Peat”, “Miserylewis” and Let’s Go Lifting” which topped the Radio Ranol charts regularly.

Laxdale was soon in big demand, appearing on the Ed Suilven show and in a variety of hastily cobbled together turf exploitation flicks like “Cruach Building Party”, “Getting Eaten By the Midgies While Waiting for the Tractor Party” and “Doing Your Back in Throwing Fleekeen Big Wet Fàds Out of the Bank Party” (all starring turf movie stalwarts Fankie Ath-rùdhan and Caorannette Fàdicello)

But success for Laxdale was short lived, as the turf craze was soon to be eclipsed by the next big thing – the wave of mawptop beat combos from the West Side that soon became known as the Brue-tish Invasion. First it was the Peatles, then (from Callanish) the Standing Stones, then a horde of other bands – the Arnolmals, the Ceardbirds, the Dave Clachantruiseal 5, the Holies, Herman’s Herring, the Minks (You Really Caught Me), The Co? (My Sustentation, I Can Sheep For Miles) etc etc.     

 It was only in the 1990s that Laxdale’s career was revived, when cult Hearach director Quentin Taransaytino used “Miserylewis” for the opening of his violent movie about gangsters fighting over the rights to a highly prized peat bank on the Grimshader road –  “Poll Friction”.

Dick Laxdale’s massive influence on popular music is evident from the tributes that have poured in since his death, from fellow guitarists of all genres – from Hank Marvig, the late Jimi Henshed and Stevie Rayburnstove, to Peat Township, Ritchie Backmoor, Jeff Beag (Frogaidh Beag’s great uncle), Brian Mayburygardens, Ry Cuiream and Johnny Marrag.

The Gaelic psalms at Dick Laxdale’s funeral were going to be precented by his pal, enigmatic Hearach singer/songwriter Sir E Scott Waulker from the Waulker Brothers (“The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine in Cromore” and “Make it seasick on yourself”). But unfortunately Waulker  went and popped his clogs the other day as well.


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