Gordon Jones : The Original Wizard

by Laurie Devine 
Dirty Linen, DL 46, February 1993

In the beginning, Silly Wizard, yet unnamed, may have been the brainchild of its most unlikely member, Gordon Jones. The guys make jokes about Gordie, as they call him. They allege that he was born an old man, and on the surface he is the most reclusive Wizard. One friend noddingly said, "Gordon, ah what a nice bloke. People have never understood him. But canyou image what it was like for him, being the introvert in a band with four extroverts?"

As Andy Stewart said once, "No one could possibly know what happened among the five of us. They wouldn't believe it. Hell, they probably wouldn't want to know."

Silly Wizard, the musical family of five passionate souls, experienced nearly 17 years of this. Amidst the raucous and definitively humorous stage demeanor of this band, and even during the gruelling travelling bits, these boys probed at each other's minds with torrential mental prods.

Jones also started it all with a handicap. He was English and his original arrival on the Edinburgh folk scene was sometimes perceived as confusing. His involvement with a Scottish folk band has been questioned.

From Welsh heritage and from a Merseyside childhood, the very youthful Jones had arrived in Edinburgh allegedly to attend art college. This he actually did, in some form, for about a year, before devoting him to his real passion, which was the music. He had expected the scene in Edinburgh to be heavily laden with traditional Scottish sound, a contrast to the R & B he had experienced at home.

Along the course of this, in a meager effort to survive, a number of bands were assembled. Basically, available for that night only, the band would assume any form, R & B, rock, folk(ish), whatever was convenient that night. The name would be changed daily, and so would the members.

Whoever happened to be around 69 Broughton Street that night could join and share in the work and the proceeds. 69 Broughton actually serves as a story of its own, having literally served as the nest for Silly Wizard, without their knowledge.

The squalid flat, situated a top a fairly basic working class structure in Edinburgh, probably closely resembled an American hippie commune. At various times most of the original Wizard members lived there.

The flat featured no shower, so the band and allied individuals were forced to trek off to the local public baths, regardless of the time of year.

No pictures remain of this period, but it is worth noting that in 1992 the building was still undergoing renovations, leading to the conclusion that perhaps it had been a bit ravaged. During one of the booking calls to the flat, with details lost in now fuzzy memories, it appears that Johnny Cunningham designed that night's rental band "Silly Wizard," pursuant to an earlier conversation or book title. The name caught on. People outside of the band thought it catchy and it started to appear on signsand publicity posters. Pubs would call to book Silly Wizard and they were forced to actually create some sort of lineup.

The original members of the band were Jones, Bob Thomas, Johnny Cunningham and Madeline Taylor, a traditional singer from Perthshire. Allegedly a recording was made of the band at this time, but it has never been found.

Jones in many ways was the heart of this creation. It was he who actively sought traditional music and sound and encouraged others (who were altogether quite willing) to try different things with that sound.

"When I got to Edinburgh, hardly anyone played tunes, there were a few accordions. I kept thinking this would be really good if we could bring it into the songs. I thought there would be a lot of people playing tunes, because it was Scotland. But there weren't. I got involved in a folk club which brought Aly Bain in for a night. I was really surprised because he was the only Scottish fiddler I had heard there.

At about that time Planxty was beginning to put songs and tunes together, and out of Merseyside Jones had seen beats being applied to enhance the original recordings. The trick, as Jones saw it, would be to make Scottish music equally interesting.

"Taking the music, still being respectful for it, and making it accessible to our generation: The wholepoint being that you play in the tradition. I don't think you want to mess around with it too much. You want to play it for now, make it relevant, but not change it."

Not everyone accepted the idea. If Silly Wizard was a band on the cutting edge, they also had what many saw as peculiar ideas. Perversely, most of these traditionalists were on the home scene.

"The only place where we had resistance was in Edinburgh. It's funny. They didn't like us because we played too fast. They would book English groups, but we didn't find many people around who would present us."

"That thing about playing too fast is a bit silly really. I remember...everyone was saying that about Johnny. A friend say, 'Well, he plays pretty quick, but he gets all the notes in, so I don't see a problem.'

"A lot of that criticism comes from dancers, from ceilidhs, and sometimes you play it very fast and it's measured. Sometimes you've had a few drinks and you play very fast. That intereaction of the people from the band is one of the best parts of the music. That's what you hope to do. I suppose one of the innovations that we did was to put a proper PA on the road, which no one was doing. We made a very conscious decision to always talk to people, and always do things where they could sing, and to treat the music the way it could have been acoustic. It doesn't get through to people if you slap the sound together."

Eventually, though, the Wizard was accepted, and they began to be called the leader, the initiator of the Scottish Folk Revival. They despise and resist that title.

"I'd hope that we could have a place in history...I don't see it. The reaction was good at the time, but will that last? I don't know...I'd like to think that we did sort of make it more obvious that the music was something very relevant, but that should be true for whatever kind of music that you do...It's hard to say that anyone is the first to do anything. If we made a contribution, it may be that we were the first to write a lot of the tunes and songs that 'sounded' traditional without actually being traditional--to incorporate those elements. We did manage to hold it with a feel for the tradition. People have done it since then, but we may have made it obvious that you could do that."

That belief formed the soul of the band, and drove it through a long, and very challenging career, which finally had to burn out on its own. When that time came, at the conclusion of the 1988 tour, Jones took the chance to assess a direction for his life.

"As the band wound down, I didn't want to go off and start again. And you start thinking about bands, and what bands would play with people from Silly Wizard??" Jones jokes, "And they all played too slowly anyway..."

"Seriously, I'd just spent 17 years on the road working with something that seemed to be very successful. We'd made a lot of records, produced quite a lot of them, and put good PA's on the road for the first time. We spent a lot of time learning recording qualities. We made very sure that companies which put out our recordings actaully made something that could be put on a rack, not the ones that had to go in the 'folk' rack because they looked a bit cheap. Bob (Thomas) and I now try to use this experience, so that people starting out now don't have to spend 12 years doing this in order to make a living. I still have to tell them it's a struggle, but we can start making something of it. If they do it properly, it should work."

What Jones chose to do was to create, in partnership with ex-Silly Wizard bandmate Bob Thomas, Harbourtown Records.

"We started with Pete Morton. There's Roger Wilson, Janet Russell, the Wilson Family, Frankie Armstrong...I'm tempted to stick with people who are developing, who haven't gotten support that they should. What is really good about this is that over the past several years people have looked at us in terms of coming to us to establish things, and staying as they become established...We're looking toward a three record program." The first, as he went on to explain would be an icebreak. The second, would be solid and well-publicized. The last, based upon the first two, would be the outrageous seller. Morton has recently released his third, Mad World Blues, representing the first Harbourtown artist to go the cycle.

How does Jones go about selecting artists for the label?

"There are some people out there who might not be the 'most brilliant' musicians, but there's something about their playing that communicates to an audience. Usually when that's there, when they're involved, there's a commitment. I've got to see that commitment, a long term thing,. I see Morton as someone who, no matter what, would go out and play. That's what he does. We want people like that. I might not be playing much anymore, but if I wasn't involved in the music somehow, I don't know what I would do.

"For three months a while back I had to put the guitar in storage while we lived in a caravan. I was actually going like stir-crazy, because I couldn't get hold of anything to play. I did some production work but it wasn't the same. I don't know if I would have actually played it, but because it wasn't in the corner..."

There may still be a tether to that Silly Wizard Soul.

Jones may, in many ways, be the band's most misunderstood member. Audiences at the concerts may have seen him at the side, sometimes somber. Before and after the gig, he often carted recordings back and forth, while the extroverts talked to the audiences.

But he is not its serious member. Silly Wizard never had one. For the quiet, self-effacing Englishman has perhaps the band's driest sense of humor. He's totally free with his laughter, and it is matched by his observations and acceptance of life.

He also may be among its most emotional, in a side which doesn't readily appear. People would think of that with Andy's sentimental ballads, but it is Jones who has hoarded the band's pictures and whose eyes really light with the memories.

Was there ever a time, on tour, that the tension really relaxed?

"Well, no. Touring is like that. We would end up at the same table in a bar, even when we didn't plan it. We would come back from a long tour, and it surprised us. We'd all say, 'Right, see you,' thinking that we wouldn't. And within a few days we'd all turn up at the same pub, playing the same sessions. Glad to see you. Glad to leave you. You'd have this feeling you'd never want to see them until the next time.”

Back to the Silly Wizard Index Page

© Harbourtown Records 1987-2017