Towards the end of a function late last year at Dundee’s Bonar Hall to launch an excellent biography of the singer songwriter Michael Marra by James Robertson, the usual opportunity arose to pose questions to the author.
No-one piped up to ask for clarification about something that might, on the face of it, have seemed obvious to the casual observer, or even fan, of Marra’s work.
Since he wrote Hamish the Goalie, that great paean to the former Dundee United custodian of the sticks, it surely stands to reason the composer of the ballad was a Dundee United supporter. Well it doesn’t and he wasn’t. Marra grew up a Dundee fan.
In truth, the singer, who died just over five years ago at the age of 60, had answered the question himself on a live album while introducing Hamish the Goalie (alternative title Grace Kelly’s Visit To Tannadeechi, in honour of ITN newsreader Peter Sissons once mangling the stadium’s name on live television).
Marra once noted how odd it might seem for him to have written such a song, so full of feeling, about a player who starred for the other lot. “But we are not Glaswegian about this sort of thing,” he added, drily.
It seems the right time to revisit a song about McAlpine. Despite still looking the same as when he played, he turned 70 this week. On Thursday night in Glasgow, meanwhile, Marra’s life and work will be celebrated at an event at Glasgow Pavilion during Celtic Connections.
On a live album recorded at the aforementioned Bonar Hall, Marra explained how a Dundee fan came to write a song about a Dundee United legend. He was asked to do so by the late United midfielder Ralph Milne, whom he met in a pub. In typically thoughtful style, Milne thought it would be nice if Hamish had something composed in his honour since his testimonial year was coming up.
Marra went to work, using as inspiration a Uefa Cup tie he’d recently attended between Dundee United and AS Monaco, in September 1981. He stood among the home support – you see, Dundonians really aren’t Glaswegian about this sort of thing – and clocked Hollywood actress Grace Kelly and her husband Prince Rainier sitting watching the game from a box above a hoarding for Taylor Brothers Coal. “It was what we cry incongruous,” he noted.
Since he had no camera with him he wrote a song instead, as sometimes used to happen before Twitter. We should be glad he did. Because Hamish the Goalie, in which Marra even succeeds in making the phrase “Invergowrie Bay” scan, also happens to be the best song about football ever written. Don’t just take my word for it.
When NME compiled a list of best football songs of all-time last year Hamish the Goalie didn’t feature, which is as good a commendation as any these days. But it did top the charts, so to speak, when the Sunday Times picked its best-ever football song in the early 2000s.
Despite Leo Sayer recording a cover version, it’s often overlooked. Dundee United do not play the track at games, opting instead for such over-familiar anthems as Beautiful Sunday. But then football clubs aren’t known for employing discerning DJs. Except at East Stirlingshire, where legend has it an entire side of a Kraftwerk album was once played before a game. Marra would have liked that. He cherished the esoteric.
“He loved going to places like Forfar where you are so close you can hear what the players are saying, what the ref is saying and the manager comes and has a wee lean at the side and talks to the fans,” says Peggy, Marra’s wife. We met for a coffee in Meigle, yards from where the bold Hamish, up until recently, sometimes worked pulling pints behind the bar at the pub in the square.
This, or more accurately a few miles south in Newtyle, is Hamish’s heartland. It was also once Marra’s. He and Peggy moved to Newtyle in the late 1970s, “because playing piano at midnight was less likely to annoy neighbours than in Dundee”.
Meigle also has a place in this story. Prince Rainier and Princess Grace stayed outside the village on their trip to watch Monaco, likely at the nearby Drumkilbo house, where the 18th Lord Elphinstone lived at the time.
To get to Tannadice from Drumkilbo the distinguished visitors’ three-car cavalcade, police motorcyclists to front and rear, would have travelled via Newtyle. “Michael would have loved that had he known,” says Peggy. “She must have driven past the top of our street! It could have been another song.”
The scenes depicted in the song are already surreal enough without this further detail. There’s Hamish, the star of the show, “framed in woodwork, cool as ice”, keeping out the wolves “in his particular way”. This is where Invergowrie Bay comes in – Marra portrays McAlpine kicking the ball from Tannadice Park into said tidal basin. Such local references have perhaps hindered the song being wider known.
“It has not enough credit because for a song with that kind of depth both lyrically and musically it would need to be about some huge figure like Maradona or Pele,” says Robertson, author of Michael Marra: Arrest This Moment. “But that is one of the beauties of the song. It is about a guy called Hamish McAlpine, who was a great goalkeeper for a lowly team in the world scheme of things. And yet it captures so much, not just about the game of football but human life as well.
“That line at the end: ‘But Hamish stokes young men’s dreams into a burning flame’. Well, that’s just brilliant.”
This is high praise indeed from one of Scotland’s foremost living writers. And yet Robertson confesses he is too shy to approach McAlpine when he sees the legendary goalkeeper walking his dogs in the fields around Newtyle, where the author is also based. Even Marra and McAlpine were not bosom buddies despite living so near to each other.
Their association is hinged around a time and a place. “Michael and his whole family were football obsessed,” says Robertson. “That idea you go off to a game and you watch it, and there is laughing and joking going on, it’s an event, an occasion, and sometimes something miraculous happens. That is what he encapsulates in that song. He nailed it.
“That bit about Grace Kelly and Taylor Brothers Coal, it’s just that moment. Whatever else you forget or remember about that game, everyone will remember that particular detail. It could be something else, an amazing goal, a save…”
Or a fox running along the side of the pitch, as once happened at Celtic Park in a game between Celtic and Aberdeen. Marra heard of this invasion on the radio and composed a song he titled Reynard in Paradise, where, he later explained, “the fox revises his opinion of mankind, having watched Aberdeen play Celtic”.
Robertson describes it as Marra’s “most sublime” song about football. So there’s an argument the Dundonian created not one but two of the best songs ever written on the game. Marra also wrote The Flight of the Heron, about former Celtic footballer Gil Heron, father of the musician Gil Scott-Heron.
“He did not see football in isolation,” says Robertson. “He saw it as a mirror to life. He saw the triumphs and the tragedies, the farce and the surrealism, and he saw those same things in life as well. It is one of the things that drew him to football and why he wanted to write so often about it.”
But what he didn’t do was write a song about Dundee FC, the club through which his love of football was originally channelled (he would later spread his affections further afield, becoming a Celtic sympathiser in his later years, the team Peggy, daughter Alice and son Matthew follow).
Given Dundee’s storied and often chaotic history, there was plenty inspiration. The Day Gianni Rivera Visited the Nethergate sounds like it could sit perfectly in the Marra oeuvre, to file away next to Frida Kahlo’s Visit to the Tay Bridge Bar.
Marra was just 11 when he met Rivera, the handsome AC Milan defender, in the Dundee city centre as the players went for a walkabout prior to the Italian club’s European Cup semi-final appointment at Dens Park in 1963. As Robertson writes, this was where “high romance and the down to earth touched again”.
Other occasions when Marra might have been moved to song was when John Barnes twice visited Dens Park for testimonials with Liverpool in the late 1980s. According to Peggy, the singer-songwriter was taken by Barnes’ athleticism and the easy manner in which he glided across the Dens Park turf, style he hadn’t witnessed since the days of Gordon Smith.
If he had plans to commemorate Barnes’ trip to Dens, they were never realised. But so much more was before Marra’s untimely death in 2012. Grace Kelly’s Tannadice visit, meanwhile, was her last to these shores. She died after a car crash outside Monaco just a year after her trip to Dundee, one so adeptly depicted in a song about an ageless goalkeeper called Hamish.