Tony Cummings undertook a marathon interview with Sammy Horner, the frontman of Celtic rock pioneers THE ELECTRICS
The Oran Mor is a renowned venue in the centre of Glasgow where, down the years, hundreds of well known acts have peddled their musical wares. Tonight, on a mild November evening, it's the venue for a gig celebrating a little bit of British Christian music history. The Electrics, those fondly remembered exponents of raucous, rock'n'reel, are playing a 21st anniversary gig and have seemingly gathered together every musician who's gigged under the Electrics moniker. The omnipresent in all those Electrics lineups is, of course, singer, songwriter and bass player Sammy Horner, a pioneering muso forever associated with the phrase "Celtic praise" though one who's travelled far and wide beyond the confines of the CCM subculture. Thanks to Sammy's efforts the band's original line up are here and blazing on all cylinders. The years fall away as Horner (vocals, bass), Paul Baird (guitar), Allan Hewitt (keyboards, accordion) and Davey McArthur (drums) pound out fast and rocking Celtic cowpunk laced with a dash of Cajun and by the time they reach "Irish Rover" the audience is baying itself hoarse. Kenny McNichol joins the lineup and first his joyful fiddle then his whistle add texture to the songs, all of which seem familiar to the throng. "Disciples Of Disaster", a much loved oldie from their 1991 'Visions And Dreams' album, gets a special roar of appreciation as do the appearances on stage of band members Jim Devlin on guitar and mandolin and Heather Negus on piano. By the time they call for this veteran journo to join them on the now crowded stage to join in on the Horner classic "The Blessing" it has long become an evening where music, bonhomie, ministry and nostalgia have fused into a joyful night of celebration.
The next morning Sammy meets with me at a friend's house to talk about his and the Electrics' long and fascinating history. For Sammy his musical roots go back to Belfast where he watched his father play lap steel guitar. Remembers Sammy, "He didn't play very well, he was just a working man, but he liked to put the lap steel on his knee and sing Hank Williams songs. He raised me listening to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. We used to have an old record player. My sisters were all into Cliff Richard and Elvis but I really liked the country stuff. I liked what my Dad played and when we'd have parties in the house, not that they were that often, more like family gatherings, at some point in the night people would sing. It was almost like a folk session. Certain people would sing. My sisters would sing old country songs; it was mainly country, right enough. I grew up in Northern Ireland and didn't know anything about Irish music or Ireland, if it came to it. We didn't get taught Irish history in school or anything. When I was about almost 16 I could pick out the bass notes in the country music which, let's face it, isn't that difficult. There are only three notes normally! I could always sit and hum along with the bass but I always wanted to play it."
Sammy began to save the little cash he had until reaching the grand total of £29 he journeyed into Belfast city centre in search of a bass guitar. "I didn't know what had happened but I went in to Belfast city and the IRA had blown up the guitar shop. I got there and the fire brigade had got there and put the fire out. It had happened that morning and the windows were out. I literally walked through the window and the guy who owned the shop was standing there. There was smoke and water dripping and this poor guy was just standing there bewildered. I said to him, 'Have you got a bass guitar?' He took one off the wall and gave it to me and I said, 'I needed a lead,' and he gave me a lead and a strap. I said, 'I've only got £29,' and he took it and never said a word. I walked back out the window with my bass guitar and walked back home with it. I had no idea how to tune it, play it, anything. One of my friends knew this guy,( I don't know the guy's name to this day), who played bass and he pointed him out to me in the street, saying, 'He plays bass.' So I said to this guy, 'Can you show me how to play?' He came back to my parent's home and he showed me how to tune it and how to play about three licks, which are the same three I still play. . . And then I put on my Dad's records and started playing along in the bedroom. I joined a country gospel band called Crystal River when I was 16 and played round Ireland for about five years, which was great because being a teenager in Belfast in those days was really difficult. After nine o'clock there was no public transport, life was dangerous - you could literally die, be shot or beaten up. So we got to play in gospel halls and there was loads of youth work happening, there were coffee bars and youth events that we got to play at and it may well have been something that kept me sane, kept me alive."
In 1980 Sammy relocated to Glasgow. He recalls, "Within a couple of months I was in a band called Infra Penny. We were together about five years and we played 30 gigs. We recorded a cassette, we recorded it ourselves. Bruce Springsteen had just brought out 'Born In The USA' and there was that picture of him in his Levis with his bandanna hanging out of his pocket and we got my friend's son to dress up like that; I can't remember why. We recorded the album in Strathaven. I can remember the studio and I can remember doing handclaps by slapping my knees. There was no digital edit and I remember it was out of time quite a lot. We'd no clue. Paul Baird was in Infra Penny with me and when they were about to end I had started to write some of my own songs. I'd never written songs before. The Salvation Army in High Blantyre had an eight track studio and when the guy wasn't recording brass bands he'd let us go in. So we'd go in at 10 o'clock at night and work till five in the morning with the old drum machines 'cos it was just Paul and me. And we put together this little six-track EP called 'The Electrics' which had songs on there like '2000 Years'."
When not gigging Sammy was studying theology. He chuckles as he says, "I did a diploma in theology and studied in the very building where we did the gig last night. Oran Mor used to house a Bible college - it's now a bar! I was there from '80 to '82 and I was there again from '92 to '95 doing an Honours degree in theology. I was there to do youth work and a sabbatical in about '89. Then I went to Strathclyde University and did a post grad teaching thing so I could teach Religious Education in school if I wanted to. And while I was teaching the kids in the residential school I did a Masters degree in Education and Celtic Studies."
Sammy continues his account of his rock'n'roll early days. "That six-track EP opened doors. We played at the Impact Festival in Scotland and then, maybe because of the timing or the sound of what we were playing, but within weeks we were playing at universities, student's union balls and Christmas events. Allan Hewitt joined us at that point and Davie McArthur on drums. He'd been out with a thing called Scotrock. There was an ex-army guy called Steven Anderson who had a real heart for young people and he wanted to do something in schools with kids. Do you remember they used to do these YTS schemes? He got money from the government to set up Scotrock and took a rock band and a theatre group into schools. Davie went with him for a year. They were doing three or four gigs a day every day. Davie had just finished and was looking for something and I knew him. I think Allan was 16. I was 29. Davy would have been about 24 or 25. We wanted a band. These days you can do stuff with loops and all those things but we'd no clue of that stuff. So there was four of us and we started playing these universities, Christmas gigs - it was bizarre."
There was, Sammy admits, a strong evangelistic thrust in the early The Electrics songs. He says, "I think it was there because I was working for a church in Dumbarton as a minister and I found very quickly that it really wasn't my gig. I wasn't very good at that. A lot of times with churches you need to bring people on a very slow step at a time if you want them to come with you. I have always been an all guns blazing kind of guy and that's really not the way to do it. I had a contract with the church for two years and then I said this is not for me. But the Electrics came out of that. Originally The Electrics was going to be kind of like Scotrock. It was going to be part of the whole thing with the theatre group, a rock band, a worship band and we were just going to do mission work because we'd no idea that anything was going to come of it. We thought that would be enough if we could do the mission thing, that was the plan; to sort of make it work through the church and see what happened."
In 1989 The Electrics recorded another independent cassette, the album 'Views And Blues'. Like its predecessor it was recorded at Blantyre. Sammy laughs as he says, "We were on the cutting edge of technology because we had a Simmons drum kit so we could record on eight track and go stereo with drums. Which was great because drums took at least eight tracks to record. But that seemed brilliant. The thing about The Electrics, and it's consistently been the thing, is whoever is in the band has brought something to it. So Paul was the blues/rock guy. Allan really liked a lot of jazz and funk and Davie was into Iron Maiden and metal. It took us a while to beat that out of him. We got him down to five drums eventually. He had too many drums. It was blues guitar here and jazz piano there and country bass here and it was a little bit of muddling around. But the one thing that we all knew was the roots stuff because we're all Scots and Irish. Initially songs like '2000 Years' sounded like a drive by shooting (because of old drum machine sounds), more than Celtic stadium rock but it was getting there, I think."
In 1991 I became personally involved with The Electrics. Having started Cross Rhythms magazine I'd become only too aware how little support grassroots ministry bands received from the Christian record labels. With a partner, Paul Bennett, I'd started a production company, Full Circle, to stand in the gap making masters and placing them with record companies. Sammy and I found a cheap 16 track studio above the Horseshoe Bar in Glasgow and working day and night I produced a master with the band which I believed would be good enough to interest Word Records. It was, though before 'Visions And Dreams' was released there were major problems to overcome, both financial and technical. The financial hiccup was that the promised financial backing to pay the modest 'Visions And Dreams' studio bill never materialised. Alongside that the technical glitch was that the master mix of one song, "Stems And Thorns", was discovered to have a mysterious high pitch whistle and Sammy had to journey to Walsall where with engineer/producer Kevin Edwards a new track was quickly put together.
Remembers Sammy, "Kevin Edwards was a great guy to work with. He had been around and he knew how to use that stuff really well. Word took the record and put it out. They stuck to their part of the deal in terms of distribution but behind the scenes it was a sad story: David's father had died and his mother got some insurance money when his father died and gave us the money to pay for the studio 'cos we had no money. Then we went on the road for three months. We did three months, four nights a week to pay her back. Then that was cleared and then we could relax a bit, but the big benefit of 'Visions And Dreams' was the fact that it got distribution and we were getting phone calls from Germany and France and eventually we played Christmas Rock Night in Ennepetal in Germany. As I was saying earlier, to my surprise we would start singing songs and people knew them. I had no idea that people were buying our records. From that festival other organisers contacted us."
In 1992 Sammy released two albums which were to be pivotal in establishing a solo ministry - the first Celtic Praise album 'With Every Blessing' through Kingsway Music and the first of three children's albums with The Wonderkids, 'Obey The Maker's Instructions' through ICC. In between times The Electrics continued to gig furiously. Sammy continues, "After 'Visions And Dreams' and having to work so hard to pay it back we were starting to get a bit nervous about record companies. Germany's Pila Music had made us an offer and we weren't sure if we were going to do it. But we still had a bunch of concerts, we were really booked a lot. We went into Ca Va studio which was one of the main studios in the city at the time... people like Runrig, Deacon Blue were all recording at Ca Va. It was a really great studio, great engineers but you're watching the clock by the minute in there. We thought we'd do a little acoustic thing so that we had something new because it'd been a while since 'Visions And Dreams'. We did four tracks with Kevin Key who had been producing the likes of Deacon Blue at the time. It was lovely to work with Kevin but it was really just a little stopgap thing. We released it in 1993 as the cassette 'Unplug'. It never got a CD release. Some of the songs we re-recorded for the next album."
Sammy speaks about how a Scottish band with an Irish frontman came to sign with a German record company. "'Visions And Dreams' got us this festival in Germany and Pila Music were there. Germany was very good to The Electrics. We probably played every festival in Germany. Split Level had just signed with Pila and they were really good friends of ours. I think Pila saw a really good double bill tour right there with The Electrics and Split Level 'cos Split Level were a very energetic band as well. It took us awhile to sign but when we did they were cool. We had some of the same problems that we've had with other record companies but by and large it was a good experience with them. We recorded 'Big Silent World' for them. The song on there that everybody liked best was 'Here's To You'. We started on 'Visions And Dreams' we had songs on there like 'Disciples Of Disaster' with a lot of social comment and a lot of critique about what's been bad and wrong about Christianity, as well as hopefully stuff that's uplifting. In 'Big Silent World' I think we went further into that. The opening track was 'It's Not The End Of The World' which was about pestilence, famine, wars, rumours of wars. It's not the end of the world but it sounds pretty like it. We went more into looking at social issues. Critically it did okay. I think it was much more a cognitive album. The album after that defined our sound a lot better."
By the time The Electrics began work on 1995's 'The Whole Shebang!' the band had become a five piece with Kris McEwan on fiddle and mandolin and Heather Negus on accordion and keyboards replacing Allan Hewitt. Sammy remembers 'The Whole Shebang!' with particular fondness. "'The Whole Shebang!' is still my favourite album. We had been at Greenbelt the year before and a couple turned up who were on just before The Electrics who I'd never heard of, called Buddy and Julie Miller. At that point Julie Miller was CCM's sweetheart. She's a very lovely lady but had a horrendous history of abuse; this is all on record. She wrote these amazingly delicate songs. Buddy's guitar got lost by the airlines and they didn't know who we were but anyway he needed a guitar so he asked if he could borrow one of ours and we said sure. He borrowed the guitar, I didn't go to hear them play but he stayed behind after their gig to hear The Electrics and loved it. They were going to do a big tour in Holland and they were headlining Greenbelt the next year and he called me and said we can't do these festivals with just two of us. He thought that headlining Greenbelt's main stage with an acoustic guitar was a bit much so he asked us if The Electrics would be their band. So we joined them on this European tour in Holland and then we did Greenbelt with them, became great friends and I found out Buddy had a studio and did some producing.
"Nobody knew who Buddy Miller was but it's a different story these days. We were going to bring him here and use Ca Va again but we did the sums and thought actually, we could fly the whole band out to Nashville, use Buddy's studio and still pay Buddy the same money and do it in Nashville. So I thought, does the Pope wear a funny hat? So off we went, flew the whole band out and now that the record's done and dusted I can tell you the horrible truth. We flew the whole band out to Nashville, we made the record and while Buddy was mixing we went to Florida for a week and hired a big condo with its own swimming pool and had a holiday and then we went to Memphis and saw BB King. That's the only time I can ever say I got something out of the record company. It was great and it was a lovely experience. It taught me a few things about recording. One of the things it taught me was, 'I can do this'. Not that I'm Buddy Miller, but Buddy kept saying look, it's in my living room. To this day Buddy records in his living room and he's recording with Emmy Lou Harris and Elvis Costello - amazing! So I thought we could do this. He's the loveliest man and even to this day I think one of the genuinely humble greats. Since then he's worked with Robert Plant, Alison Kraus, he was Emmy Lou's player for years. He did Solomon Burke's album in Nashville, Shaun Colvin, and he's just played on John Foggarty's new album. He's now one of the Blue Ridge Rangers. But in those days he was just the bloke who played with Julie. We wanted someone who really knew acoustic roots music and Buddy loved Irish music and of course he's a great country player and he nailed it more than anybody I think. 'The Whole Shebang!' album was huge for us; it was probably our finest album. But also just a great experience and a lovely recording environment and very generous, nice man."
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