March 22, 2017

Quelle reprise

The now double-homage to the anniversary of the 78th Fraser Highlanders “Live In Ireland” concert in Ballymena in 1987 is much deserved and, evidently, attractive to many people who wanted to live or relive the event.

That music was made famous 30 years ago. Three decades have passed. In normal life, that’s a long time. In pipe band music life, apparently, that was yesterday.

Since then, what has changed musically? The popularity of the pipe band “suite” as a concept appears to have waned, since “Journey To Skye” seemed to initiate interest in such a concept. Today’s bands are of course tonally and technically better than ever. But musically? There’s not a whole lot truly new going on in terms of structures and time signatures or taking our music in a different direction.

Considering that mainstream music since 1987 has seen the rise and fall of Post-Punk, Grunge, Alt-Country, K-Pop, Hip-Hop, Acid Jazz and whatever else, our musical genre is relatively stagnant. To be sure, this is not necessarily a bad thing for those who like tradition and repetition.

Certainly pipe bands have done some neat things in bits and pieces. But when I try to think of a similar one-time musical event to the 1987 concert that might be as deservedly replicated on stage 10, 20 or 30 years later, I’m at a loss.

Again, I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. I’m just saying.

The closest thing might be the Victoria Police’s “Masterblasters” concert. Or maybe Vale of Atholl’s “Live ‘n Well” show. But these, as good as they were, made nowhere near the mark of the 78th Frasers’ event, and probably would not attract the kinds of interest and paying customers we’ve seen in the last year with the Frasers Redux. (Maybe kids go around loving FMM’s “RE:CHARGED” or Inveraray & District’s “Ascension” concert recordings; I’m not sure.)

And consider, too, that much of the material that was considered so groundbreaking in 1987 was actually taken from non-pipe band sources. Alan Stivell, Horselips, Don Thompson. There were adaptations and derivations galore. So, a case can be made that, even in 1987, pipe bands weren’t innovating on their own, but innovating by adapting successful ideas from other musical domains – not quite on the poppy level of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, but still derived and adapted. It’s still innovation, but, like just about all new art, it’s not totally original.

In those pre-Internet analog days, pipe bands doing such things were a novelty, certainly in the UK. The 78th Frasers had by 1987 been playing most of that stuff for years, some carrying over from the City of Toronto Pipe Band in the 1970s. But listeners further afield than Ontario hadn’t heard it in any big way, and certainly not in a pipe band concert.

(Let’s not speak of the of the odd Scottish pipe-major who came to Ontario to judge, cassette recorder attached to his belt, returned to Scotland and introduced new musical ideas to his band, allegedly not giving them due credit. But I digress . . .)

Even the same 78th Fraser Highlanders couldn’t quite tune in to a similar zeitgeist with their own following concerts, these built from material they had actually invented almost entirely from scratch. Items like “The Megantic Outlaw” and “The Immigrants’ Suite” were received well, but I doubt many people still have those recordings on repeat, at least to the degree of “Live In Ireland.” Then again, I have never heard any other pipe band play “Journey To Skye.”

The Toronto Police’s adventurous avant-garde medleys of the aughts were interesting and courageous, but not terribly well received by judges or the pipe band world at large. No one that I know of has played them since or even tried anything as adventurous, mainly because they were proven to be generally and admittedly detrimental to winning. The relatively outrageous music distinguished the band for being, well, courageous, and attracted personnel to a band that wanted to do musical things differently. In that sense, the music met an important objective, especially considering the group at the time was on the brink of collapse due to small numbers.

Is something as impactful as “Live In Ireland” even possible today? The groundbreaking, fearless attitude of it seems to have vanished, as bands and businesses have so much money wrapped up in competition that they dare not try to over-accelerate glacial musical change. Every time they do, some dickhead judge puts them in their place, which, come to think of it, I think was one the big reasons that the 78th Fraser Highlanders lost its musical fearlessness by the 1990s.

Three decades later, is there only one concert and one recording that can be held up as musically door-opening, that actually took hold of people in a major way?

In truth, that musical door is still open only a crack.



  1. The game for the most part is based around a competitive model, thus the challenge lies in stepping beyond this engrained ‘fear mentality’ which results in a resistance to innovative, and being brave and bold once again…like the 78th did in ’87. It was iconic for it’s time. We can do more. We can do better.

    Whether you like it or not, bravo Toronto Police for taking a chance. 30 years is a long time…it’s a bit depressing to think we’ve only come this far.

  2. The game for the most part is based around a competitive model, thus the challenge lies in stepping beyond this engrained fear mentality which results in a resistance to innovative, and being brave and bold once again – much like the 78th did in ’87. It was iconic for it’s time.

    Whether you like it or not, bravo Toronto Police for taking a chance. 30 years is a long time…it’s a bit sad to think we’ve only come this far.

  3. In my opinion, the Live in Ireland concert was and is superb because of the musical quality it had. Yeah, it had some innovative stuff, but in the main, it was made up of traditional piping, done very well. It had some flair and panache, but it’s core value is not innovation – it was simply great pipe music, mostly trad save for a few tunes amongst the trad stuff, played really well, with great ensemble and a brilliant drum corps. So, you’re really missing the point – it wasn’t about innovation, it was about high quality pipe band music, with some new stuff in there but mainly trad stuff played really well. Look at what Bill’s solo was – lament for the Children, a rather trad piece I dare say. And trad stuff, played really well, is what piping is about. That’s not boring or repetitive – it’s a traditional art and it always will be…

  4. Nick’s right, I think. The 78th were not “trying” to “be innovative”; they authentically assembled and composed material they thought was cool, and that’s it. There were new twists, but even the newly-composed tunes had a traditional flavor (and the same can be said for the great “Megantic Outlaw” concert; lots of new tunes that sounded very much within the trad idiom).

    There was nothing contrived about them. Nowadays, “composers” have taken the rounded hornpipe and gone crazy with it. There’s an attempt to sound cool that just comes off contrived. And in general, when you “try” to innovate or to be avant-garde, it seems it just doesn’t work.

    Here’s an “innovation” I’d like to see: an album, recorded outdoors – not in the echo-chamber of a concert hall, which mushes a pipe-band’s sound horribly, and not in a studio with absurd, unnatural processing/filtration of the sound – with mostly traditional or traditional-sounding tunes (has the traditional catalog/repertoire truly been mined for musical gems?), very carefully assembled in a way that makes a coherent musical statement, along with some new compositions that sound like old compositions, with mostly pointed tunes (round ones being presented very sparingly) and MSR pieces that have been composed within the last 30 years.

    And bring the pitch down.

  5. The point of the blog was really to ask the question of whether there is another album or concert in the last 30 years that could attract such interest. I’m not sure. What I am sure about is that the 78th Fraser Highlanders music became a combined interest in innovating and winning. It was a delicate balance. It was a group that was quickly bored. “The Megantic Outlaw” was probably the most successfully innovative piece post-1987, but unfortunately it was one judge, Archie Cairns, at the Cambridge Games shortly before the World Championships who roasted the band for competing with it, putting two far inferior technical and musical performances ahead of it – simply to assert his “authority” as an arbiter of what is permissible. Rather than continuing on with the intention to compete with it at the World’s, the band made the decision to revert to some humdrum safe thing, and finished seventh or eighth anyway. The course of pipe bands could have been changed forever had the band played the thing. And I was one of those who thought we should play for the prize. I think differently today. Anyway, I assure you, that for the next 10 years the band “innovated” because that’s what it did, but that innovation on the field was always tempered by the desire for the prize, which is the whole problem. There’s always some judge out there who abuses power for the sake of preserving a tradition that he/she thinks is sacrosanct. The Toronto Police, years later, would play one of their innovative suite-medleys at Cowal, only to be pre-judged and slated with a famous “mumbo-jumbo” comment on the scoresheet, and that was that. But at least they had the moxy to do it, if not the technical superiority to merit a prize. A far more insightful analysis I’m sure will be in Bill Livingstone’s upcoming autobiography.

  6. Was said innovative suite-medley called “mumbo-jumbo” because it was different or because it wasn’t good? Let’s make that distinction. Why do we automatically assume that it was judged harshly because it was so avant-garde and different and not because it was of dubious musical merit? The composer is a preternaturally gifted genius with the celtic idiom obviously deep in his soul, one who has made more tunes – by far – that I love than anyone else alive, but these particular offerings by him were just not very good. (The “Megantic Outlaw” was brilliant and Cairns was out of bounds.)

  7. I agree with much that has been said. Did we come to love the pipes because of its innovation? I don’t think so. We came to love the pipes because of the sound, the pageantry and the nature of traditional-style melodies. Piping has improved over the last 30 or 40 years in tone and execution, but “improvements” in what can and is being played is, and probably should be, limited. With only nine notes, a limited ability to start and stop, limited possibilities of key changes unless they fall within a few modes, and no ability to change volume, innovation will, for the most part, will probably be faddish and very little will stand the test of time as well as our traditional-style melodies have. There is enough here to challenge and fascinate the best of us for a lifetime.

  8. Thanks all
    Andrew I think that a lot of the social stuff that supported live in ireland has gone now, primarily the album format. In common with the rest of the music industry, I think pipe bands will be moving to more live performances in the coming decade as recordings are largely relegated to memory aids. That said I think we could really do with a network of smaller scale venues for pipe bands so that we can generate new ways of presenting the instruments–a bit like the folk clubs where people get together regularly but not necessarily within one band. Great blog thanks




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