February 05, 2015

Video killed the pipe band star

Making an album with a top-grade pipe band used to be a big deal. The vinyl LPs of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s by bands like the Edinburgh City Police, Shotts & Dykehead, Glasgow Police and Dysart & Dundonald were coveted objects around the emerging pipe band world, at least with this kid growing up in America’s heartland.

The cardboard jacket would list the tunes, the composers and, most importantly, the members of the band. There they’d be: the names of the superstars who were actually members of a great pipe band who were actually performing on the music spinning round and round the turntable. The pipers and drummers were stars; the pipe-major and leading-drummer were superstars.

It used to be a dream for many pipers and drummers to get into a Grade 1 band and cut an album, in a studio, to see your very own name on glorious cardboard.

But, then, a bunch of things happened.

In 1987 the 78th Fraser Highlanders made Live In Ireland. It’s still the greatest pipe band album of all time, according to the majority, and it was the first major commercial live pipe band recording. It captured energy and excitement from the band and audience, happily trading those massively positive intangibles for the occasional playing blooter or tuning blemish.

So, fairly quickly the pipe band world realized that, rather than anguish for days in an expensive recording studio trying to make a clinically perfect recording with a “pipe band” that might in reality be whittled down to five or six of the best pipers and a handful of drummers, a band can put on a concert and capture it all in one take – get that energy and be forgiven because it’s live.

And digital emerged at about the same. Vinyl gave way to CDs. Recording technology became far less expensive and a cottage industry of CD makers enabled just about any pipe band to make a CD. The “album” itself became a bit commonplace.

And now the pipe band album – live or studio – is on the brink of extinction. Every other pipe band enthusiast with a phone is posting video of every band at every competition on every video platform. There’s still a strong desire for high-quality audio/video, but the exclusivity of being on a commercial recording is lost in the throng of questionable “content” out there.

I suppose being on the World’s BBC streaming broadcast is as close as we come these days to recording stardom. Definitely hitting more people in more places with more pipe band music than ever, but it’s all so anonymous. With video reproductions, apart from the P-M and L-D, the individual band members are never highlighted.

They’re just nameless there in the circle huffing away. There’s hardly a kid in America’s heartland or anywhere else who knows or cares who these accomplished pipers and drummers are. In online video there are no names of musicians, no stories to read on the album cover, no details about the tunes and arrangements – no real glamour.

It’s more inclusive to have all that sketchy video (and even poorer quality audio) content out there for every band and every competition on earth, but it results in a lot of “So what?”

We have more, more, more, but we’ve also lost achievement that used to be exclusive and inspirational.


    1. Hi Matt:

      I recall that Lismor records sent over their top piping sound engineer (Bob McDowell?? foggy memory) and that the deal was they picked up all those costs, and we (the band) received some limited number of records, cassette tapes and CDs for zero dollars, and we sold those for funding the band. It was expensive to play in the Frasers in those days, we were (as now) self funded, lots of dollars spent on plane tickets, hotel rooms, gas etc. Worth every penny!

      Mike Baker

  1. As is the way with many modern technologies and mediums, they can actually work to make the past even more appealing to rediscover, and that can’t be such a bad thing. Vinyl and older recordings are delightful. New video mediums provide a visual experience that was never there before. That’s equally, if not more important for youthful learners in the art form. It’s great to be able embrace both.

  2. I don’t think it’s all that Anonymous. In this digital age, you can be streaming the band or catching it on replay in one window, and surfing the G1 band’s website in another. Some of them even have pictures and bios for their roster which takes it to another level entirely.

  3. Hi Andrew: Yes I do remember the old vinyls that I played to death as a youth be it Princess Street Parade or, heavens, Powell River (1952: a groundbreaker then), or Shotts or Invergordon Distillery. I played on at least three of the early Fraser’s studio albums plus the Live in Ireland CD as well as the Metro Toronto Police studio album, On The Beat, in circa ’95 (by the way, the arguably best solo at the Live in Ireland concert isn’t even on the CD – that of the maestro John Walsh at full boogie – as, for some reason, his bass drone stopped). Studio albums were very hard, tedious, sweaty, repetitive, frustrating work: imagine at 6:45 of a 7:00 minute medley at the end of the recording day with not much to show and then mistakes or bad blowing. Back to square one yet again. And they cost at lot of money to do in studio time. (In terms of ever being part of a studio album again, I’d rather stick needles in the eyes.) On the Metro album, from what I recall, we used at least 12 to 14 pipers and all the drums corps – there was no cheating of simply dubbing a mini band. Anyway, be that as it may, I’m still anonymous. 🙂 Be well. Cheers, Syd

  4. A few years go I started collecting the LPs that I played until warped when I was kid. I transferred them to CD and listen in the car. I still get that same feeling and can well remember how I used to turn the album cover over and over memorizing the names of the greats. Meeting many of them later in life and calling some friends has been a real highlight.

  5. Is it not interesting to get a comment from Matt?????????
    “Grey’s solo kills it” The Live in Ireland Recording.
    I wonder if Matt???????????????? could do better???????????? or does he simply hide behind Matt????????????
    Revealing myself as Reay Mackay

  6. Andrew
    A really good Blog
    Well do I remember, members of the 48th Highlanders Pipe Band and myself looking at the rear panel of the old recordings to see who was on the album.
    On Friday nights in the Old University Armouries we would play the albums until the diamond needle was worn out.
    Reay Mackay

  7. Reay, mayhaps this is the modern vernacular meaning he hit it out of the park? I don’t know. Anyway, hope you’re well my friend. Look forward to seeing you in the summer, God willing. Give my best to Glenna Cheers, Syd

    1. Syd, I hope that you are correct and it is the modern vernacular. I obviously didn’t read it this way. However, I dislike the armchair critic who comments under something other than his or her correct name.
      If you have something to say, at least have the power of your own convictions by stating who you are. I will say hello to Glenna.

        1. I guess I’m a Geeser as well.
          Never thought of “Kills it!” as positive.
          If this is the meaning I owe an apology. However, I still feel anonymity a problem.

          1. I never have. Too much spam from nutjobs early in my computer experience. I understand the desire to stand by your word, and taking potshots behind rocks and bushes is unseemly, but it’s not a bother if you don’t take it personally–good or bad.

  8. For my money “Princes Street Parade” might be just as influential in changing the band world as “Live In Ireland”. When that vinyl came out it just blew me away. Prior to this record it was marches, strathspeys, and reels. Suddenly hornpipes and jigs became exciting idioms to be pursued with relish. And what a sweet sound! Donald Ramsey became the center of my piping world. Even the older guys in the Stockyards band wanted more of this.

  9. Many people look at Princes Street Parade as a breakthrough recording for pipe bands, and I think it inspired other bands and record lables to get in on the action. The point about Live In Ireland is that that recording prompted bands to realize that a one-and-done concert recording can be a lot more effective and profitable than a gruelling and expensive studio album.
    Kevin Shand’s point about matching names with faces on the net is interesting, but does anyone really do that? Definitely there are many, many pros to ubiquitous video. The main premise is that we have lost something, and those who did not grow up with “albums” will never experience the exclusive thrill of being on an album with a top-grade band — on an album that a record label *wanted* to make because it was a profitable commercial product.
    And, Reay Mackay — Yo, ya bustin’ wit all dat dope talk, knowhatamsayin?

  10. Its interesting to think about ways in which the features of the album/cd format (a group of musical selections recorded about the same time by more or less the same group of people, etc.) will be re-made by bands for the digital world … for instance, a band (or soloist) could “release” a group of high quality videos over youtube with supporting material (list of band members, composers, intro text or video, etc.) that might stand in for what the album used to be. There would be little or no commercial viabilty doing it this way (perhaps there wasn’t much anyway?) but it might provide the historical marker (of musical choices, playing style, sound, composers and composition types) that I think the best albums/cds did. Would be interested in hearing about other approaches – since pipe bands are obviously not the only musical genre affected by the switch to on-line delivery of their art?

  11. Well, in 1982 or ’83, the first 78th Fraser’s vinyl album had all the faces of the players on the album cover, hence nicknamed, well, the Faces album. This is a bit off topic but dealing with player anonymity, there’s an excellent 1 1/2 hour documentary done about 2002 by the BBC (and available on Internet) on the unheralded studio players who backed all the Motown stars called Living in the Shadow of Motown. As the Funk Brothers, they had more hits than Elvis, the Beatles, and Stones put together. If, like me, you like soul, blues, rhythm and blues and funk, in addition to pipes, check it out. Most entertaining and highly recommended. Cheers, Syd

  12. I definitely think the quality of sound should be improving as time progresses. On the drumming side, drum resonance should be a prerequisite to a high quality recording. We can capture it now so demand it in your recreational listening, because it is a part of the modern, pipe band drum corps sound. Tuning to specific pitch, and the presence of a large amount of resonance is what separates us from the other drum marching arts. It also completes our pipe band choir with tenor, baritone, and bass voices.



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