Rock star insults




This blog entry starts with Kate Bush… but isn’t about Kate Bush.


The other day I read a news report about how Kate Bush’s 1985 song Running Up That Hill had just gone to number one in the United Kingdom, Australia, Belgium and Sweden and reached number five in the United States.  The renewed popularity of the song was due to it being featured in season four of the American sci-fi / horror TV series Stranger Things.  My curiosity was sufficiently piqued for me to go to YouTube and type ‘running up that hill’ into its search-bar, wondering if it would provide the clip from the TV show where the song was used.  That didn’t happen, however.  Instead, YouTube – presumably its algorithms had taken note of my past musical preferences at the site – sent me to a cover version of Running Up That Hill performed by the late 1990s / early 2000s band Placebo.  I have to say the cover version didn’t sound bad at all.  And incidentally, the comments below were full of Americans saying things like, “I’d always assumed this was an original Placebo song.  I hadn’t known some English chick had sung it first, back in the 1980s!”


Meanwhile, my reaction at that time was: Placebo?  Wow, I haven’t heard of them for years…


And then I thought: Hold on! They were responsible for the greatest rock ‘n’ roll insult I’ve ever heard live!


Let me explain.  In 1999, I attended T in the Park, then the biggest annual music festival held in Scotland.  Placebo was one of the bands performing on the main stage and I was near the front of the crowd at the start of their set.  Also appearing that day was the rock band Gay Dad, who’d recently scored hit singles with the songs To Earth with Love and Joy, although sceptics grumbled that the hype surrounding the band was nothing to do with quality and everything to do with the fact that its singer Cliff Jones had previously been a music journalist – his former colleagues in the media were promoting his outfit as a favour.  Placebo’s singer Brian Molko was obviously one of the sceptics.  Before they began playing, Molko apologised for the band being slightly late in coming onstage.


This, he said, was because: “I was getting a blowjob backstage from the singer of Gay Dad.”  He paused, then added with timing worthy of a master comedian: “Believe me, it’s not just their music that sucks!”


Anyway, that memory got me thinking about the following question.  What are the best rock star insults of all time?


There are a few famous ones that come immediately to mind.  I recall Robert Smith of the Cure saying of the self-consciously fey and militantly vegetarian frontman of the Smiths, “If Morrissey says not to eat meat, then I eat meat. That’s how much I hate Morrissey.”  Also memorable was Nick Cave’s comment on a well-known Californian funk-rock band: “I’m forever near a stereo saying, ‘What the f*ck is this garbage?’ And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”  Van Halen singer Dave Lee Roth was pretty brutal about a certain post-punk troubadour of the late 1970s and early 1980s: “Music journalists like Elvis Costello because music journalists look like Elvis Costello.”  Though for brutality, you can’t beat the Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards talking about Slowdive, one of the key bands of the shoegaze movement of the late 1980s: “We hate Slowdive more than we hate Hitler.”


George Melly, though strictly speaking not a rock star – he was a jazz / blues singer – deserves inclusion here for his response to Mick Jagger.  Melly had drawn attention to the deep grooves on the Rolling Stone’s face and Jagger had tried to dismiss them as ‘laughter-lines’.  “Nothing,” pronounced Melly, “is that funny.”  Meanwhile, I was never a fan of Boy George but I’ve always chuckled at his verdict on Elton John: “All that money and he’s still got hair like a f*cking dinner lady.”  And just to prove that the art of the rock-star insult remains alive and well in 2022, there was recently a spat between Joan Jett and gun-humping, Trump-worshipping rock-neanderthal Ted Nugent, which produced this Jett-gem: “Ted Nugent has to live with being Ted Nugent.  He has to be in that body, so that’s punishment enough.”


From / © Will Fresch


The world of rock contains certain individuals who can be relied upon to denigrate their contemporaries practically every time they open their mouths.  Two who spring to mind are siblings Liam and Noel Gallagher, late of Britpop mega-band Oasis.  Among those suffering the wrath of Liam Gallagher have been Keith Richards and George Harrison (“jealous and senile and not getting enough f*cking meat pies”), Bob Dylan (“a bit of a miserable c*nt”), Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day (“I don’t like his head”), Bono (“he looks like a fanny”) and Florence Welch from Florence and the Machine (“sounds like someone’s stood on her f*cking foot”).  For my money, though, his best insult was heard at a Q Magazine Awards ceremony, where he yelled at Coldplay’s Chris Martin, “You’re a plant pot!”


As the older and supposedly more cerebral Gallagher, Noel’s insults have been more elaborate, if a tad less savage.  Of the musical output of Justin Bieber, he once opined, “My cat sounds more rock ‘n’ roll than that.”   He likened the appearance of the White Stripes’ Jack White to “Zorro on doughnuts” and mused about skatey Canadian punk rockers Sum 41: “After I heard Sum 41, I thought, I’m actually alive to hear the shittiest band of all time.”  Needless to say, Oasis’s Britpop arch-enemies Blur came in for some stick too: “I wish Blur were dead, John Lennon was alive and the Beatles would reform.”  And inevitably he’s had some choice words for his wayward younger brother since they acrimoniously parted company in 2009.  That same year he famously described Liam to “a man with a fork in a world of soup.”  (For his part, the younger Gallagher has repeatedly referred to Noel as a ‘potato’ and called his post-Oasis band the High Flying Birds ‘the High Flying Smurfs’.)


© Weidenfeld & Nicolson


The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards has also had a famously barbed tongue, powered by his apparent disdain for any form of music that isn’t structured around a 12-bar blues progression.  He’s dissed Prince as “an overrated midget”, REM as “a whiny college rock band” and P Diddy as “bereft of imagination.  What a piece of crap.”  He dumped on the Grateful Dead for “Just poodling about for hours and hours.  Jerry Garcia, boring shit, man. ”  Of Metallica he speculated, “I don’t know where Metallica’s inspiration comes from, but if it’s from me, I f*cked up.”  Hilariously, he said of Elton John after the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and after John had reworked his 1973 ode to Marilyn Monroe, Candle in the Wind, as a tribute to the deceased princess: “His writing is limited to songs about dead blondes.”  (To which Elton John retorted that the venerable Stones guitarist resembled “a monkey with arthritis.”)


But surely the man who’s suffered the most ignominious put-down from Keith Richards is his long-term singer, writing partner and fellow Rolling Stone Mick Jagger.  Jagger’s image as a tireless lothario took a dent when Richards wrote about his manhood in his 2010 autobiography Life: “Marianne Faithful had no fun with his tiny todger.  I know he’s got an enormous pair of balls but it doesn’t quite fill the gap.”




However, when it comes to rock-star insults, one man is – or alas, was – the undisputed champion.  Mark E. Smith, for four decades until his death in 2018 the driving force behind the fascinatingly off-the-wall post-punk / alternative rock group the Fall, was never more entertaining in interviews than when he directed his guns at his peers and rivals in the music world.  Among those getting it in the neck from Smith over the years were Badly Drawn Boy (“fat git”), Echo and the Bunnymen (“old crocks”), Garbage (“like watching paint dry”), Bob Geldof (“a dickhead”), Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore (“should have his rock licence revoked”), Mumford and Sons (“We were playing a festival in Dublin…  There was this other group, like, warming up… and they were terrible.  I said, ‘Shut them c*nts up!’  And they were still warming up, so I threw a bottle at them…  I just thought they were a load of retarded Irish folk singers”), Pavement (“They haven’t got an original thought in their heads”), Ed Sheeran (like “a duff singer songwriter from the 70s you find in charity shops”) and Suede (“Never heard of them,” said Smith cruelly, just after off coming off a tour where Suede were the support band).


And in fact, not even a songstress as lauded as Kate Bush escaped Smith’s vitriol.  In 2014, when Bush’s Before the Dawn concerts – her first live performances since 1979 – triggered massive interest in her and her music again, Smith told the Manchester Evening News: “Who decided it was time to start liking her again?  I never even liked her the first time round.  It’s like all these radio DJs have been raiding their mam and dad’s record collections and decided that Kate Bush is cool again.  But I’m not having it!”


It’s a shame the wonderfully curmudgeonly Smith isn’t around today to witness Kate Bush’s latest return to prominence with Running Up That Hill.  I’m sure he’d have some entertaining pronouncements to make on the matter.



We’re left un-Mark-ed


From / © Steven Friederich


I’m not particularly superstitious, but I can’t help wondering if when Kurt Cobain picked up a shotgun in his Seattle home on April 5th, 1994, he set in train a curse that would strike down the singers of all the great grunge bands.  Following the Nirvana frontman’s suicide, Layne Staley of Alice in Chains died in 2002, Scott Weiland of the Stone Temple Pilots died in 2015 and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden died in 2017.  And now this grim list has been extended by the death last week of Mark Lanegan, vocalist with the Screaming Trees.  One can only hope that Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Mark Arm of Mudhoney get to see their sixties.


Mark Lanegan’s death came as a blow because both the band he fronted in the 1980s and 1990s, the Screaming Trees, and his own solo career, which began in the 1990s, seemed to go from strength to strength.  Unlike many rocks acts, they didn’t just peak after a couple of albums and then tail off in quality.  The Trees’ later albums, Sweet Oblivion (1992), their biggest commercial success, and Dust (1996), were great and bore a slew of classic singles, like Nearly Lost You, Dollar Bill, All I Know and Sworn and Broken.  For me, though, their finest moment was the first track on Sweet Oblivion, the urgent, pulsating Shadow of the Season, powered like all of Lanegan’s music by his husky, old-man’s-voice-in-a-young-man’s-throat vocals.  Lanegan had originally signed up with the Trees as a drummer but claimed he was so useless at drumming that his bandmembers ended up forcing him to sing…  Surely one of the most fortunate career-changes in modern music.


© Epic Records


Before the band broke up at the end of the 1990s due to the not-uncommon ‘differences among bandmembers’ – differences that were fuelled in part by Lanegan’s industrial-level booze and drug consumption – Lanegan had also contributed to the grunge ‘supergroup’ Mad Season, which as well as members of the Trees contained members of Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, and whose lone album Above (1995) I’ve always considered rather wonderful.  Later, he was associated with alternative / stoner rock band Queens of the Stone Age, whose founder Josh Homme had joined the Trees as a guitarist following the release of Dust.  He contributed to the Queens during the glory years of their albums Rated R (2000) and Songs for the Deaf (2002).  Plus, he was one half of the Gutter Twins (the other half being Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs), who recorded the 2008 album Saturnalia.


Meanwhile, his solo career, which had begun with The Winding Sheet in 1990 and had already won critical acclaim with Whiskey for the Holy Ghost in 1994, gathered a head of steam.  By the time of his death, he’d released a dozen solo albums, of which Bubblegum (2004) and Blues Funeral (2012) are my favourites.  Bleeding Muddy Water off Blues Funeral is the sort of song you’d consider having played at your funeral.  Inevitably, with Lanegan’s gruff, mournful voice, and with his worldview coloured by a long history of drug and alcohol abuse, his canon evokes a long and honourable tradition of world-weary American troubadours chronicling the seedy side of life: Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and countless old blues singers.  Indeed, the blues influence was never far away from Lanegan’s music.  He once worked with Kurt Cobain on a never-released album of cover versions of songs by the legendary bluesman (and several-times convict) Leadbelly.


Lanegan was a prolific collaborator, working with everyone from Moby to the Breeders, Melissa Auf der Maur to the Eagles of Death Metal, Tinariwen to Hey Colossus, Cult of Luna to the Manic Street Preachers…  Though because of my Scottish-Irish background, and because in my less violent musical moods I’m something of a folky, I have to say I like his work with Isobel Campbell, the Scottish chanteuse of Belle and Sebastian, most of all.  Lanegan and Campbell were responsible for three records, Time is Just the Same (2004), Ballad of the Broken Seas (2006) and Sunday at Devil Dirt (2008), and their combined sound is gorgeous in its understated way.  The Celtic beauty of Campbell’s singing meshes hauntingly with the grungy old American beast that is Lanegan’s voice.


© V2


I did not have much success when I first attempted to see the great man perform live.  During the Edinburgh Festival sometime in the ‘noughties’, he did a gig at Edinburgh’s Liquid Rooms, but I made the mistake of trying to cram too much into my Festival-going schedule that day.  I misread the start-time for Lanegan’s gig and also bought a ticket for comedian Reginald D. Hunter at the Pleasance, believing I had a few minutes after Hunter’s show ended and before Lanegan’s began to get myself from one venue to the other.  When I steamed into the Liquid Rooms, Lanegan was already on stage, singing Shadow of the SeasonWell, I thought, it’s nice of him to treat the audience to a classic Screaming Trees song so early in his set.  However, a few minutes later, he said, “Thank you and good night!” and left the stage, and I realised I’d actually arrived exceedingly late in his set.  I was so annoyed that when I walked out of the Liquid Rooms again, I almost crashed into a towering, tousle-haired figure who was being interviewed on the pavement by a small scrum of journalists – yes, it was Lanegan himself.  So at least he belongs to the Pantheon Of Famous People I’ve Been Within A Yard Of (alongside John Cleese, Irvine Welsh, Mark E. Smith and, er, John Otway).


But a couple of years after that, I managed to see a full Lanegan concert at, if memory serves me correctly, the now-defunct HMV Picture House on Edinburgh’s Lothian Road, and that was brilliant.


In the 2010s Lanegan became pals with globetrotting TV chef Anthony Bourdain.  Following Bourdain’s death in 2018, Lanegan penned a tribute in the Observer that described him as an “important voice for the positivity of exploring different cultures all over the world.  He’s someone we really need now, especially in a country where our shambles of a president wants to vilify people of colour and stoke the fires of the ignorant…  He made the world a better place.”  It was Bourdain who encouraged Lanegan to pen an autobiography, finally published in 2020, called Sing Backwards and Weep.  Hitherto, Lanegan had been reluctant about tackling such a project because, in his words, “The last thing I wanted to do was write some stupid f*cking rock bio.”


I haven’t read Sing Backwards and Weep, but a Scottish mate of mine who has tells me it’s great, if pretty intense – which isn’t surprising given some of the dark things that happened to Lanegan during the troughs of his addictions in the 1980s and 1990s.  These included a period of being homeless, which ended when Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain’s missus, rescued him and got him into rehab.  Sing Backwards and Weep also recounts the massive spat Lanegan had with leading Britpop gobshite Liam Gallagher when the Screaming Trees had the misfortune to support Oasis on their 1996 American tour.  Lanegan was not in a forgiving mood at the time and didn’t take kindly to Gallagher referring to his band as ‘the Howling Branches’.  Lanegan was still in a fighting mood a quarter-century later when the book was published: “I would still kick the f*cking shit out of that guy the first moment I got a hold of his hands because he’s a f*cking idiot.”  Quite right too.


The past year had been especially rough for Lanegan.  Having relocated to Ireland, he contracted Covid-19, which resulted in him having breathing difficulties, becoming deaf, losing the use of one leg, hallucinating, suffering from insomnia, falling down a flight of stairs and being put in a medically induced coma.  It was the impact of all that, presumably, which finally pushed Lanegan off this mortal coil.  Mind you, he wrote a second book called Devil in a Coma, published just in December last year, which described the ordeal he’d been going through with the virus.  An artist till the very end, Lanegan managed to extract a creative work from even the process of dying.


News of Lanegan’s death left me feeling frustrated as well as sad – frustrated because I felt the world had been cheated out of much more, excellent music that surely he would have produced had he been allowed to live another couple of decades.  The next day, I remarked on this to a friend, saying that Lanegan had been ‘on course to be a great renaissance man like Nick Cave’.  But as my friend pointed out, he’d been so phenomenally prolific that, by his death at 57 years old, his output was probably as large as, if not larger than Cave’s already.


Still, it’s tragic.  These days, 57 is no age.


© 4AD

Gun me kangaroo down, sport


© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists


We’re now in December and, as usual, people are talking about what Christmas movies they’ll be watching on and around December 25th.  So here’s a piece – originally posted on this blog back in 2017 – about my all-time favourite Christmas movie.  It definitely qualifies as a Christmas movie since its events take place during the festive season and against a background of Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  Though if you’re accustomed to the cosy festive cheer of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), you might not be ready for the squalor, drunkenness, brawling, vandalism, vomit, sweat-stains, flies, kangaroo-slaughter and Donald-Pleasence-going-bananas that constitute the Wake in Fright Christmas experience… 


It took a while for the 1971 Australian epic Wake in Fright to win some respect, but it finally got there in the end.  It flopped on its initial release, despite being nominated for the grand prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and for a long time afterwards it only existed in heavily cut and low-quality versions.  However, following restoration and remastering work during the noughties, a new version of Wake in Fright was shown at Cannes in 2009 and now, belatedly, the film is seen as an important precursor to the New Wave of Australian Cinema that produced the likes of The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Mad Max (1979), My Brilliant Career (1979) and Breaker Morant (1980).


Directed by Ted Kotcheff, Wake in Fright tells the story of John Grant (Gary Bond), a young Australian schoolteacher beset by frustration and a sense of injustice.  He dreams of moving to England, something that many young Australians were doing in real life at the time, most famously Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes.  There, he muses, he’ll become ‘a journalist’.  It has to be said that for someone wanting to write as a career, he spends suspiciously little of the film, none of it in fact, doing any writing.


For now, though, John’s stuck in a school in a tiny Outback settlement surrounded by vast expanses of nothingness.  Kotcheff highlights this at the film’s start with a 360-degree panning shot that still looks mightily impressive today.  John’s exile here shows no likelihood of ending soon, because to leave his job he needs to pay off a bond signed with the Australian government to cover the costs of his teacher-training.


© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists


Wake in Fright begins with John finishing his final lesson before the Christmas vacation and taking a train to a mining town called Bundanyabba, where he plans to catch a plane to Sydney for a few weeks in the company of his glamorous city-based girlfriend.  But his plans go askew when he arrives in Bundanyabba, ‘the Yabba’ as it’s known to its inhabitants, and he spends a night there before the plane flies.  In succession, John enters a drinking establishment that isn’t so much a pub as a pumping station, supplying the Yabba’s thirsty male citizens with industrial volumes of beer; befriends a hulking policeman called Jock Crawford (Chips Rafferty), who takes him to a late-night eatery; discovers a gambling den at the back of the eatery where money is bet, won and lost on the tossing of pairs of coins; gets involved in a game; impulsively bets everything he has in the hope of winning enough to pay off his bond; and loses everything.  Thus, the next day, John wakes up penniless, unable to pay for his flight and marooned in the Yabba.


By this time, he’s also met local eccentric ‘Doc’ Tydon, who’s played by none other than the great English actor Donald Pleasence.  When you see the crazed, drunken Pleasence tossing the pair of coins on which John’s fortunes depend, you know it’s going to end badly.


After losing all his money, John, who was initially disdainful of the macho, swaggering, hard-drinking, hard-gambling mindset that possesses most of the Yabba’s male inhabitants, gradually sinks to the point where the same mindset possesses him.  He’s befriended by a well-to-do man called Tim Hynes (Al Thomas) who brings him home and introduces him to his daughter Janette (Sylvia Kay).  Hynes, obviously seen as a soft touch by his Yabba neighbours, soon has a crowd in his living room drinking his beer and leering after Janette, including the ubiquitous Doc Tydon and a pair of young bogans called Joe (Peter Whittle) and Dick (future Australian movie star Jack Thompson).


© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists


After a severe all-night drinking session, John, now stained, grubby and worse-for-wear, comes to in Tydon’s shack.  This is a hellhole with kangaroo meat heaped in greasy pans and clusters of dead flies stuck to dangling flypaper strips.  We don’t get to see the outdoor toilet – the Donald Pleasence dunny – but from what we hear it’s even more hideous than the shack.  It transpires that John drunkenly arranged to go on a kangaroo shoot with Joe and Dick, who soon show up at the shack in a vehicle loaded with guns and booze.  All four head into the Outback to hunt ’roo and what follows is Wake in Fright’s most notorious sequence, wherein the quartet blast away a pack of kangaroos and wrestle with and stab to death the wounded ones.  Such is the carnage that even in 2009, during the film’s re-screening in Cannes, a dozen people walked out of it.


Now completely deranged, John included, they wreck an Outback pub on their way home.  The next day, after waking up in Tydon’s shack in an even worse condition, John manages to stagger off.  Appalled by his own degradation, he attempts to hitchhike out of the Yabba and the whole way to Sydney, but again things don’t go according to plan.  Finally, despairing and practically psychotic, John hits on another way of escaping from the Yabba, the most drastic way possible…


It’s easy to see why, when Wake in Fright was released in 1971, Australian audiences stayed away in droves.  With its scenes of heavy-duty and illicit drinking (“Close the door, mate,” someone shouts when John walks into a pub and finds the entire male population of the Yabba boozing inside, “we’re closed!”) and incessant gambling (men standing robotically at rows of bar ‘pokies’ or acting as a baying mob in a backroom den), and with its depictions of violence, sexism and general macho bullshit, it doesn’t portray Australian culture of the time in a flattering light.


One scene sure to bait 1970s Australian viewers takes place in a pub.  The boozers and gamblers suddenly fall silent, stand to attention and face an ANZAC memorial wall-mural while a radio announcer exhorts them to ‘remember the fallen’.  When the silence ends a moment later, they dive back to their beer and slot machines.


© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists


Then there’s the gruelling kangaroo shoot where bullets tear bloodily through what are clearly real animals.  That must have traumatised international audiences whose images of Australia in 1971 probably mostly came from the popular, cuddly kids’ TV show Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1968-70).   A statement in the film’s end-credits assures us that the kangaroos weren’t slaughtered for the film.  Rather, Kotcheff and his crew shadowed a group of professional ’roo hunters one night and filmed the shootings, which would have taken place whether Wake in Fright was made or not.  Then this documentary footage was spliced into the film.


What the filmmakers did isn’t above criticism, though.  It’s been pointed out that the powerful spotlight they used to film the hunt also enabled the hunters to blind and target their prey.  Kotcheff later described the experience as a ‘nightmare’ because, as the night continued, the hunters became drunk, their shooting grew less accurate and kangaroos ended up horribly maimed.  Things got so bad that the film crew pretended there’d been a power cut so that the spotlight no longer worked and the shooting had to stop.  Most of the footage proved to be so upsetting that Kotcheff decided he couldn’t use it, though what is shown is bad enough.


The footage was also shown to the Royal Australian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals.  They actually urged the filmmakers to include it in Wake in Fright, hoping it’d spark an outcry and help such madcap hunting to be banned.


Wake in Fright is a grim watch, then, but its cast is a pleasure.  Gary Bond, with his finely sculpted features, blond hair and sonorous, cultivated voice, achieves a perfect balance between arrogance and vulnerability.  He’s priggish but we still worry about him as his situation goes from bad to worse.  Also effective are Chips Rafferty as the lugubrious policeman Crawford, who partakes of the roughneck culture around him without overdoing it and views John’s gradual succumbing to it with mixed disdain and concern; Al Thomas as Hynes, good-hearted but, wandering around the Yabba in a costume of fedora, shirt and bowtie, baggy shorts and knee-length white socks, sadly pathetic too; and Sylvia Kay as Hynes’s daughter Janette, whom John discovers is less repressed than she first appears.


© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists


But the true star of Wake in Fright is Donald Pleasence.  As Doc Tydon, he explains himself thus: “I’m a doctor of medicine and a tramp by temperament.  I’m also an alcoholic.  My disease prevented me from practising in Sydney but out here it’s scarcely noticeable.  Certainly doesn’t stop people from coming to see me.”   I wondered how convincingly the man who played Ernst Stavros Blofeld in You Only Live Twice (1967) would appear in the milieu of Wake in Fright but Pleasence nails it.  He’s perfect whether he’s sober and observing icily how John flinched at the touch of Crawford’s ‘hairy hand’; or drinking beer whilst standing on his head to demonstrate how the oesophagus muscles are stronger than gravity; or slyly taunting John about the ‘open’ relationship he enjoys with Janette; or drunkenly raving on a pub-porch about ‘Socrates, affectability, progress’ being ‘vanities spawned by fear’ while Joe and Dick punch lumps out of each other behind him.


Wake in Fright could be dismissed as an expression of middle-class disdain for the lower-brow culture and less-mannered behaviour of the proletariat, but I feel that’s a misinterpretation.  When John complains to Tydon about “the aggressive hospitality” of the Yabba, and “the arrogance of stupid people who insist you should be as stupid as they are,” Tydon retorts: “It’s death to farm out here.  It’s worse than death in the mines.  You want them to sing opera as well?”  And when John slips down the slippery slope, a slope Tydon has already descended, it’s not because he’s had to become a brute to fight off other brutes around him (like in another 1971 movie, Straw Dogs).  In John’s case, he’s entered an environment so harsh and thankless it can turn anyone into a brute.


It’s worth noting too that some people whom John encounters on his dark odyssey, like Crawford and Hynes, exhibit more kindness than he does himself.  Even Tydon, who at times seems beyond all help, reveals some decency at the end.


Wake in Fright will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, but it’s a film that hasn’t acquired any middle-aged flab or stodginess.  It still seems as lean, mean, raw and unsettling as it did to audiences back in 1971.  And it’s fitting that Nick Cave, the Victoria-born singer-songwriter and God-like genius whose work has frequently shared Wake in Fright’s bleak, brutal worldview, calls it ‘the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence’.


© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

Favourite Scots words, A-C


From the Scottish National Portrait Gallery


Today, November 30th, is Saint Andrew’s Day, the national day of Scotland.  To mark it, I’d like to post something about a favourite topic of mine, the Scots language.  And yes, the way that non-Gaelic and non-posh Scots have spoken for centuries has been classified as a language, a separate one from ‘standard’ English, by organisations like the EU and linguistic resources like Ethnologue.


Sadly, I think that Scots is now living on borrowed time.  It’s not likely to expire due to the disapproval of educators who dismiss it as a debased dialect (or accent) of standard English and regard it as the ‘wrong’ way to speak, although their hostility certainly didn’t help its status in the past.  No, the fatal damage to Scots has probably been inflicted by television, exposing Scottish kids to a non-stop diet of southern-England programming and conditioning them to speak in Eastenders-style Mockney or, worse, in bland, soulless ‘Estuary English’.


Personally, I love listening to and reading Scots.  Here are my favourite Scots words starting with the letters ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ that I’d be sad to see slip into linguistic extinction.  Most of the definitions given come from my heavily used copy of the Collins Pocket Scots Dictionary.


Agley (adv) – wrong, askew.  The saying, ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry’ (which provided John Steinbeck with the title of his second-most famous novel) is an anglicised version of lines from the poem To a Mouse by Scotland’s greatest bard Robert Burns: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”


Aiblins (adv) – perhaps.  The late, great Glaswegian writer Alasdair Gray borrowed this word for the surname of the title character in his short story Aiblins, which appeared in the collection The Ends of Our Tethers (2003).  This is about a creative writing professor being tormented by an eccentric student called Aiblins who is, perhaps, a literary genius or is, perhaps, just a fraud.


Avizandum (noun) – a word in Scots law meaning, to quote the Collins Pocket Scots Dictionary, ‘a judge’s or court’s consideration of a case before giving judgement’.  Avizandum is also the name of a bookshop on Edinburgh’s Candlemaker Row specialising in texts for Scottish lawyers and law students.  Not being a lawyer, I’ve never had cause to go into Avizandum-the-shop, but I do think it’s the most majestically titled bookstore in Scotland.



Bairn (n) – a baby or young child.  I once saw an episode of Star Trek (the original series) in which Scotty lamented, after Mr Spock had burned out his engines in some ill-advised space manoeuvre, “Och, ma poor wee bairns!”  So I guess this Scots word is safe until the 23rd century at least.  Also, the Bairns is the nickname of Falkirk Football Club, so it shouldn’t be dying out in Falkirk anytime soon, either.


Bahookie (n) – rump, bum, backside, ass or, to use its widely-deployed-in-Scotland variant, arse.


Bampot (n) – a foolish, stupid or crazy person.  During the documentary Big Banana Feet (1976), about Billy Connolly doing a stand-up tour of Ireland, Connolly responds to a heckler with the gruff and memorable putdown, “F**king bampot!”


Bawbag (n) – literally a scrotum, but normally, to quote the online Urban Dictionary site, ‘a derogatory name given to one who is annoying, useless or just plain stupid.’  Thus, when former United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage steamed into Edinburgh in May 2013 in a bid to raise UKIP’s profile north of the border, he ended up besieged inside the Canon’s Gait pub on the Royal Mile by a horde of anti-racism protestors who chanted, “Nigel, ye’re a bawbag / Nigel, ye’re a bawbag / Na, na, na, hey!”


Bertie Auld (adj), as in “It’s Bertie Auld tonight!” – rhyming slang for cauld, the Scottish pronunciation of ‘cold’.  Bertie Auld was a Scottish footballer who played for Celtic, Hibernian, Dumbarton and Birmingham City and whose finest hour was surely his membership of the Lisbon Lions, the Celtic team that won the European Cup in 1967.


Bide (v) – to live.  Derived from this verb is the compound noun bidie-hame, which refers to a partner whom the speaker is living with but isn’t actually married to.


Blether (v) – to talk or chatter.  Journalist, editor and Rupert Murdoch’s one-time right-hand-man Andrew Neil used this word a lot while he was editor-in-chief at Scotsman publications.  He was forever fulminating against Scotland’s blethering classes – the equivalent of the ‘chattering classes’ in England who were so despised at the time by the English right-wing press, i.e. left-leaning middle-class people who spent their time holding dinner parties, drinking Chardonnay and indulging in airy-fairy political discussion about how Britain should have a written constitution, proportional representation, devolution, etc.  Then, however, Neil started working for the BBC in London and suddenly all his references to blethering ceased.


Boak (v / n) – to vomit / vomit, or something unpleasant enough to make you want to vomit.  One of those Scots words that convey their meaning with a near-onomatopoeic brilliance.  In his stream-of-consciousness novel 1982 Janine, Alasdair Gray – him again – represents the main character throwing up simply by printing the word BOAK across the page in huge letters.




Bowffin’ (adj) – smelling strongly and unpleasantly.  Once upon a time, mingin’ was the favoured Scots adjective for ‘smelly’.  Now, however, mingin’ seems to have packed its bags, left home and become a standard UK-wide slang word – with a slight change of meaning, so that it denotes ugliness instead.  It has thus fallen upon the alternative Scots adjective bowffin’ to describe the olfactory impact of such things as manure, sewage, rotten eggs, mouldy cheese, used socks, on-heat billy goats, old hippies, etc.


Breenge (v) – to go, rush, dash.


Bourach (n) – sometimes a mound or hillock, but more commonly a mess or muddle.  Charmingly, this has recently evolved into the term clusterbourach (inspired by the less ceremonious ‘clusterf*ck’), which Scottish politicians have used to describe the absolute hash that the London government is making of the Brexit process.


Callant (n) – a lad or young man.  The Common Riding festival held annually in the Borders town of Jedburgh is called the Callant’s Festival.  Accordingly, the festival’s principal man is called the Callant.


Carlin (n) – an old woman, hag or witch.  Throughout Scotland there are stone circles, standing stones and odd rock formations that are known as carlin stones, presumably because people once linked them to the supernatural and imagined that witches would perform unsavoury rituals at them.


Carnaptious (adj) – grumpy, bad-tempered or irritable.  For example, “Thon Belfast singer-songwriter Van Morrison is a right carnaptious auld c**t.”  There’s a lot of carnaptiousness in Scotland and another common adjective for it is crabbit.


Chib (n/v) – a knife, or to stab someone.  Considering the popularity in modern times of wearing Highland dress at Scottish weddings, and considering the custom of having a ceremonial sgian-dhu (i.e. dagger) tucked down the side of the hose (i.e. socks) in said Highland dress, and considering the amount of alcohol consumed at such affairs, it’s amazing that Scottish weddings don’t see more chibbing than they do.


Chitter (v) – nothing to do with the sound that birds make, this means to shiver.


Clarty (adj) – dirty.  A dirty person, meanwhile, is often called a clart.  And a pre-pubescent boy who avoids soap, shampoo, showers and clean socks and underwear, like Pig Pen used to do in the Charlie Brown comic strips, would undoubtedly be described in Scotland as a wee clart.


Cleek (v) – to hook, catch or capture.  It’s also a noun denoting a large type of hook, especially the gaffe used by fishermen, and poachers, when landing fish.  At least once, in my hometown next to the salmon-populated River Tweed, a cleek has also been used as an offensive weapon.




Cloots (n) – a plural noun meaning hooves.  By extension, Cloots came to be a nickname for the world’s most famous possessor of a pair of hooves, Auld Nick, a.k.a. the Devil.  In his poem Address to the Deil, Robert Burns not only mocks Auld Nick but brags that, despite his wild and wanton behaviour in this present life, he’ll escape the fiend’s clutches and avoid going to hell: “An’ now, auld Cloots, I ken ye’re thinkin’ / A certain bardie’s rantin’, drinkin’ / Some luckless hour will send him linkin’ / To your black pit / But faith! he’ll turn a corner jinkin’ / An’ cheat ye yet.”


Clype (n) – a contemptible sub-species of schoolchild, i.e. the type who’s always running to the teachers and telling tales on his or her schoolmates.


Colliebuckie (n) – a piggy-back.  Scottish playgrounds once echoed with cries of “Gie’s a colliebuckie!”


Corbie (n) – a crow or raven.  The knowledgeable Australian musician / singer / writer Nick Cave uses this word at the beginning of his gothic novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, which has a couple of ‘sly corbies’ circling in the sky above the dying hero.


Cowpt (adj) – overturned, fallen-over.  Often used to describe sheep when they fall onto their backs, can’t get up again and run the risk of breaking their spines.  Around where I live, there’s a story of a young farmer who was about to get married and, just before his stag party in Edinburgh, was collected at his farmhouse by a coachload of his mates.  As the coach was driving away from the farm, someone on board spotted a cowpt ewe in one of the fields.  Jocularly, the young farmer told the coach-driver to manoeuvre the vehicle off the road, into the field and across to the spot where the unfortunate beast was on its back, which he did.  The young farmer got out and put the cowpt ewe on its feet again; but meanwhile all the other sheep in the field, seeing the coach and not knowing the difference between it and a tractor carrying a load of hay, flocked around it expecting to be fed.  That left the stag-party and their transport marooned amidst a sea of woolly white fleeces.


I’ll return to this topic in this blog and cover further letters of the alphabet.


© Viz Unicorn Entertainment / Brent Walker