Aidan Smith: The greatest Scottish band you have never heard of

Billy Ritchie
Billy Ritchie
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Aidan Smith on the ‘three thistle and haggis voiced bairns’ who changed the course of pop history before vanishing

If you’re anybody in Scottish pop – the great and the good and the Bay City Rollers – then you should find your name on the door at an august Edinburgh hall this Friday and maybe one of your plectrums in a display cabinet.

The National Museum of Scotland’s big summer-long exhibition will chart the history of jock ’n’ roll from 1950s trailblazer Lonnie Donegan through to the hot new skiffle of Young Fathers, and I’m really looking forward to it. But at the same time I’m getting nervous for one of our old bands, now no more, but arguably the most influential to emerge from these shores and certainly the unluckiest.

They never had a hit record and yet an entire musical movement owes them a huge debt. David Bowie, a friend and champion, once wrote an impassioned letter intending to raise their profile in which he hailed them as “thistle-and-haggis-voiced bairns”. They’re the greatest Scottish band you’ve never heard of. And sadly it would be all too typical if they were to be missed by the retrospective show.

I should say that I don’t know they definitely will be. You hope the museum has looked under every stone and in all the remainder racks. But when I got in touch with the band’s keyboard player yesterday he knew nothing of the exhibition and hadn’t been contacted by the curators. Billy Ritchie, Ian Ellis and Harry Hughes seem destined to forever wander lonely as Clouds.

If you know this band at all it’s as Clouds, although a discerning few may remember them under their original name, 1-2-3. The supergroups Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and King Crimson definitely know them because they laid the foundation stones for the progressive rock with which that triumvirate would conquer the world. And you thought our national football team could tell tragic tales…

I love the story of Clouds, not least for the poignancy and the masochism. Young Ritchie in the South Lanarkshire village of Forth (most famous resident before him: 7ft 3ins George Gracie, Scotland’s tallest man) might have chosen a different path in life if his parents hadn’t rescued a piano being thrown out by neighbours. “The war had not long ended. Anything that was free you took,” he recalled. And, who knows, maybe Keith Emerson of ELP and Rick Wakeman of Yes might not have stood at their keyboards, and attempted such bold arrangements, if they hadn’t seen Ritchie and his pals at London’s Marquee Club in 1967.

Prog-rock eventually became about triple albums, a juggernaut for each musician with his name on the roof and spectacular shows on ice. It was lambasted by the punk-rockers as self-indulgent and pretentious and fell seriously out of fashion, although Johnny Rotten and others would later admit they secretly liked its ambition and complexity and these days Kanye West samples it.

As 1-2-3, our trio secured a residency at the Marquee and future prog royalty came to watch and make notes. Six years ago for sister paper Scotland on Sunday, I got Ritchie, Ellis and Hughes to reform for the afternoon and describe how they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. “You might find this hard to credit because he became such a big star but David Bowie used to hang around trying to impress us,” Ritchie told me. “We’d just been signed by [Beatles manager] Brian Epstein and David thought we were the next big thing, as did we.” Hughes remembered how the then David Jones – who as an unknown the band introduced to Jimi Hendrix – would help them lug their gear into the Marquee along with Ian Anderson, another who would eventually leave 1-2-3 behind and find fame with Jethro Tull, and a fellow Scot who will surely feature in the museum show.

Typical of 1-2-3, Ritchie took a Bowie song not yet released, I Dig Everything, chopped up the verses and stuck Bach’s Fugue in C Minor in the middle. Bowie loved it and, irked by some audience conservatism, gushed to Record Mirror about “three thistle-and-haggis-voiced bairns who had the audacity to face a mob of self-opinionated hippies with a brand of unique pop music which, because of its intolerance of mediocrity, floated as would a Hogarth cartoon in the Beano”.

But the fates were against our heroes. Within months of taking them under his wing, Epstein died. His successor, Robert Stigwood, had just signed the Bee Gees and was preoccupied with them. Then came Terry Ellis who was preoccupied with Jethro Tull. The latter proposed the change of name to Clouds which Ritchie hated (“In a Scottish accent it’s Clowns”) and, bizarrely, sent them on a variety tour of northern clubs with jugglers and fire-eaters. By the time they got back to London, elements of their act had been nicked by their rivals.

Ritchie acknowledges that Scottish dourness held them back. When everyone was experimenting with synthesisers, he doggedly stuck to the organ. While Clouds sneered at showmanship, it obviously worked for Emerson who jammed knives in his keyboards and Anderson who played the flute one-legged in a codpiece. Ritchie acknowledges that his contemporaries’ great musicianship was going to make them stars anyway, but it would have been nice if they’d credited his band with being as inspirational as they obviously were.

So there you have it: a song of what might have been, in many complex parts. Ritchie, now 74, was so grateful for me having dug up his old combo he’s been sending a Christmas card every year. Now he turns up in the occasional rock documentary and a new compilation album is on the way.

Keep watching the skies and you might still see Clouds, and maybe on Friday there will be one hovering over the museum.