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New album on IMOUT Records – Tales From The Wild Cat Place – celebrates legendary 80s Inverness band Hard Times

By Margaret Chrystall

There is a lovely line in the new biography of 80s Inverness rock band Hard Times that says their newly-released album represents three things, one being that “music is the thread that binds us to our younger selves”.

Hard Times playing in Inverness in the late 1980s. From left – Wayne Mackenzie, John Shaw, James Harvie and Mike Bell.
Hard Times playing in Inverness in the late 1980s. From left – Wayne Mackenzie, John Shaw, James Harvie and Mike Bell.

Some reminiscing conversations, delving back into the past with two of the band members, drummer James Harvie and guitarist Mike Bell, revealed a lot of the band’s story before attempting to bring it up to date with the release of Tales From The Wild Cat Place

It also highlighted many of the inevitable contrasts between being in a band then and now, and the opportunities musicians had and have now.

But dreams, aspirations and ambitions don’t seem to have changed much.

In many ways, the vital force behind the project has been Iain McLaughlin of IMOUT Records, who recorded and produced the tracks over three years, Covid making its presence felt on the timeline.

For Iain, a generation younger, Hard Times was a band he never saw. They had finished before he remembers, but Mike Bell was “the sound guy” in the Ironworks when he came back to Inverness in his 20s and was playing in a band himself.

“In the Ironworks, once you had done a few gigs there, you found out that Mike had been in a band and then you went ‘Well what was that band?’ and people talked about it and the more you dug into it, the more it felt like the Marvel origins story of rock n roll in Inverness.”

Iain McLaughlin of IMOUT Records, who recorded and produced the Hard Times album.
Iain McLaughlin of IMOUT Records, who recorded and produced the Hard Times album.

Iain is right: Alan Mackinnon – Dinner – their soundman, went on to become a respected sound engineer who works with Julie Fowlis and Blazin’ Fiddles among many and was voted Scots Trad Awards’ live soundman of the year in 20; guitarist Mike Bell returned to Inverness to work as front of house soundman at the Ironworks for some years after many years away working in London and on tour for West End productions; the band’s bassist Wayne Mackenzie who left Inverness to study bass at college in America before returning to join Wolfstone, was later instrumental in the existence of music venue the Ironworks, helping ensure it was custom-built the way a musician would want their dream venue; and the unique Hard Times asset for their era, a PA, once the band split, was bought by Craig Duncan who started what has become one of the area’s busiest sound and light production companies Limelights.

It took Iain time to discover all that.

“We got to know about one-time Hard Times drummer James Harvie, though we had borrowed James’s snare drum before I’d ever met him!” he laughed.

“Dinner was still working at the Ironworks and you found out that Dinner had cut his teeth with them – they were the first band he ever mixed. He developed through this band as an engineer.

“They had all played in the building that is now the pizza restaurant place in Falcon Square.”

It was while Iain was making an album with Inverness musician and lynchpin of many Inverness band line-ups, bassist Robin Abbot, that he actually met James Harvie who had played drums on that album.

James says he likes the way Iain works in the studio, and that was how Iain became involved in working on Tales From The Wild Cat Place which came out last Friday as a limited edition CD and digital download via the IMOUT Records Bandcamp.

James Harvie outlines some of the facts behind the band and its history.

“It was probably 1982 or ‘83 we started,” he said. “Stevie Watt or Stevie ’Stick’ was with us by then.

“Me and Mike and Wayne were rehearsing together for about a year with no singer. We were trying to learn Rush songs and we couldn’t have picked a more difficult band!”

Stevie Stick was soon replaced by singer John Shaw from Evanton.

“John was probably the most familiar singer to you,” James said, referring to myself first seeing the band live after arriving to work as a trainee reporter at the Highland News in 1987.

“We were doing Cult covers and Def Leppard covers and maybe a couple of originals, maybe only one in the set.

“Dinner had played bass with a band Stevie Stick had been in before, but we got Dinner to do sound for us. We chipped together and got a sound desk and basically all the rest. Then Dinner learned how to use it, and he did all our early recordings on a four-track – through the mixing desk with a four-track tape.”

It was Dinner who wrote the short biography of the band that comes with thep[ress release accompanying the new album on CD, his dry sense of humour is present in almost every sentence, such as: ‘I could write about what happened at those gigs but you wouldn’t believe most of it’.”

James laughs when I read it out.

“That’s Dinner. Very tongue in cheek, he was a major part of the band. It was him, Mike, John, Wayne, and Gripper – Alasdair Macleod – he came in later.

“Originally it started out as Stevie Stick, Wayne, me and Mike – Stevie baled after three or four years, but we did the live thing.

“There was Live Aid in the Caley Hotel in 1985 with Scooty And The Skyhooks, Stevie was reminding us. Tich McCooey was the DJ, of course,” James said of Moray Firth Radio’s legendary presence. “And we did a few other gigs, but Stevie baled in, I think, ‘87.

“Then we got John Shaw in to sing and we did a lot more gigs with John. We used to play at the Hayloft in Inverness all the time and go over to Stornoway.”

James recalled how the Stornoway connection had been made.

“I think there was a guy called 'Shaunie', I can’t remember his second name, who owned the Tryst in Inverness and another pub in Inverness, The Courtyard?

“We got into Stornoway with him because he had two pubs over there, one in Stornoway called 'Zebos' and the Cross Inn in Ness.

“We used to go over on the Thursday, play Zebos and then go up to the Cross Inn on Friday, then come back to Stornoway and get the ferry back on the Saturday morning because there was no ferry on the Sunday.

“We met another band up there called Bad Reputation, Bugsy, the singer, was in them,” James said, talking about the former singer with Stornoway band The Broken Ravens, before he went solo.

“We met them in Stornoway and we became really good friends when we were doing a lot of gigs there and took them over to Inverness to play the Hayloft with us one night.

“But they took off and ended up getting signed or nearly getting signed, they went down to London, anyway and I went down there to meet them and go to one of their rehearsals.

“I think they were invited to a gig where Aerosmith played and ended up hanging out with Aerosmith, as far as I know.

“But we had a lot of shenanigans over in Stornoway with them,” James chuckled. “That was all with John Shaw singing.

“When John left, we got Steve Eaglesham in singing for a while, then Wayne went off to join Wolfstone. We had Steve Donaldson playing bass for a while and later he was in another band with us, Wasn’t Me Constable with Fraser Wright, that was all Fraser’s stuff we were playing and by then it was Fraser, Mike, Steve and myself.”

Hard Times ended somewhere after Wayne and John leaving, Mike heading for London.

The cover of the new album, Tales From The Wild Cat Place, designed by Mike Bell.
The cover of the new album, Tales From The Wild Cat Place, designed by Mike Bell.

Talking to Mike Bell, he explains how it feels now – for the first time – to have a collection of Hard Times’ recorded songs captured and celebrated on Tales From The Wild Cat Place.

“The idea of doing an album doesn’t really filter through until you have actually got an album to do. It’s not like I sat in front of a blank piece of paper and thought ‘I’m going to do an album’. It was a compilation of stuff we were messing around with over the years. It wasn’t a plan, but James came to me a couple of years back and said he had been talking to Iain McLaughlin about it and he was suggesting we finally put it to bed.

“I was quite excited by the idea, but I was worried whether we would have enough stuff. Even when we started recording, we didn’t know if we were going to get 10 songs, and we did, but we rejected one, so it’s nine tracks.

“Within a two-month period we had done three songs and more stuff was coming from the attic and we found ourselves in a place we could put something out that was reasonably substantial.”

Mike remembers the genesis of the songs.

“They must have been written over a span of 15 years. There were four that were definitely from back in the day, that is chronologically where they came from. Four of them were written and played as you hear them now in the mid to late 80s – and two or three of them are not long after that.

“So we have basically scraped together everything we had managed to do to say ‘This is us!’ That’s our tuppence-worth!’.”

It might seem strange they and had not put out an album way back, but times were different, recording was expensive.

Mike said: “It wasn’t as economically viable as it is now.

“I knew Iain from various bits and bobs in music over the years – and James had gone in to see Iain’s set up and liked it and suggested the idea to me.”

Originally,when they first got together, the band liked rehearsing and jamming songs by their favourite bands.

Mike said: “We rehearsed a lot because we really enjoyed doing it and it wasn’t to make any political statements, there wasn’t any urgency to get it out there and release it to the masses or anything.

“We all liked music and we got a kick out of playing the music we liked.

“We weren’t bothered about originality or anything like that, we just liked making the noise that our favourite bands made – with our own take on it.”

Rush was one of those bands.

“We used to play Rush songs – you can probably tell from listening to the album, our influences are not exactly hidden!

“The Rush thing was interesting after the 70s rock thing happened and then it morphed into the proggier side of things.

“We sort of went that way and we were impressed with the way the guys played.

“So what we did – you would put the record on, lifting the needle putting it back, playing that bit again – old school – learning and learning the part.

“We’d get together and play in a jam situation and I’d be playing the riff and it would be changing into something slightly different and that’s how your own stuff would come.

“To move any further, we needed someone who could sing and Stevie when he came along gave us a real lift ‘cos he could actually sing that stuff.

“And that added an extra layer for us and gave us more possibilities – it was more fun.

“Instead of playing for half an hour of music with no vocal – which could be quite dull – when Stevie came along it opened up more doors.”

Though original plans had included having Stevie come and sing on the album, it didn’t happen. And attempts were made to get Wayne on it, but he doesn’t feature on the album either, Mike plays the bass and guitar parts.

But Mike says they did try to persuade Wayne: “Wayne was a great member of the band, he was the engine room, full of beans.”

Tales From The Wild Cat Place with credits.
Tales From The Wild Cat Place with credits.

Iain: “It’s quite gratifying to be involved in making something with people like James and Mike.

“I always felt and always have felt that I identify myself as someone from the Highlands and I identify my music as something that comes from the Highlands. I don’t think I’d be writing like I do if I came from anywhere else. So it’s just about that as well.

“I think they were probably the original people that felt like that.

“There is that attitude, ‘It’s good for local guys’ which is not great – because it is either good or bad.

“I like living here and I’m proud to live here and to be from here. I just think it is important to me, that kind of record, because it shows that there has been stuff like that happening here for the past 30 years.

“I feel like I belong, I feel I become a link to the past. Does that make any sense? I think there is a through line and the through line is important. I like feeling connected to that.

“I went to Cauldeen School too, Mike and James were among the first-ever pupils at the new Cauldeen. I grew up in Johnston Place and Mike was Morvich Way – they have 20 years on me, but similar stories. The Mess Hut, the same people, the playing fields and Johnston Farm was still there when I was very little.

“We are just three boys from Hilton making a record.

“I’ve done my best to tell the story and I don’t mean the story back then, I mean to connect the dots between then and now. That’s what I set out to do, that’s what I wanted to do when I set out with James to make the record.

“For me it’s about connecting the dots and the heritage of rock n roll music where I live. That’s what it is for me and the fact that it is current – and it never stopped and I guess that’s the thing in uncertain times, It’s good to know that this sort of mentality never goes away.

“Dinner sums it up really well at the end of his bio of the band where he says that bit about music being the ties to our younger selves, and I think that’s so true.”

Just one mystery remained after all the delving back to find out more about the band – where did the album name come from?

Mike said: “It’s a secret place near Cauldeen School and on the spine of the CD it gives you the grid reference. If you ever want to find the wild cat place, it's a bit of waste ground full of wild cats where we would be digging tunnels and playing.”

The past doesn’t usually come with its own map …

Tales From The Wild Cat Place is out now on IMOUT Records on Bandcamp. Thanks to Hard Times band members James Harvie and Mike Bell and IMOUT Records producer Iain McLaughlin for their time in putting this article together.

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