Beautiful new railway bridge . . .

Published: July 31, 2007

I was reading about “Scotland’s worst poet,” William Topaz McGonagall (not sure if he’s a relation of Joe), who a Scottish organization is trying to promote, saying that there should be a national day for him, along the lines of Robert Burns’ Day. This is brilliant tongue-in-cheek stuff.

A few years ago when I was still running the print magazine, I set out to try to figure out what the worst tunes of all time are. Of course, there are tens of thousands of horrible tunes written by pipers from hack to Silver Star-winner, but, like the poet above, I wanted to poll established pipers for their opinions of what the worst played tunes are – the ones that for some reason gained at least reasonable popularity.

A tune that came up a lot was a reel that slipped in to a Strathclyde Police medley in the 1990s called “A Pigeon Called Neil.” I think it was written by the band’s pipe-major at the time, which may explain why it ever actually got out. This tune is so shockingly bad that it’s guaranteed to raise a smile.

But the winner by a good margin was “Itchy Fingers,” which actually started as not a bad little reel, first played in 1984 by Polkemmet Colliery, a band I was in. The tune is so easy that every single band on earth was playing it the next year, and the sing-song pattern of the reel after a few seasons started to grate.

So by the late 1980s and through the ’90s, every time you turned around there was some dismal piper playing “Itchy Fingers” at 490 at about 50 BPM. Eardrums would bleed.

It’s interesting that some tunes that made that list a few years ago seem to be making a comeback of sorts. I’ve heard a few bands playing “Cullen Bay” and “J.K. Cairns” this summer and, you know, they don’t sound half bad. If it weren’t for the fact that Grade 1 bands pressure themselves to produce new medley content, I think our popular tunes would, like the fashion and pop music industries, run in 20-year cycles, where stuff that was cool two decades ago is popular again, simply because it’s all new to today’s 20-year-olds.

In 1990, the RSPBA’s 60th anniversary year, the association required bands to play through driving rain some dreadful 6/8 march (that must have been conjured by an RSPBA insider) in a Jubilee competition on the Sunday after the World’s. The tune hasn’t been played since. Bands then had to march out in a strict formation playing to “Scotland The Brave.” It was all very retro and actually quite funny. Competitors were having a hard time not laughing.

Along those lines, it would be great to hold a band contest where each band would have to reprise an entire medley from 20 or 30 or 40 years earlier.

Beautiful new pipe band medley . . .


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