Interview: Rab Noakes prepares to celebrate 50 years in music at Celtic Connections

He walked away from success with Stealers Wheel, missed out on a solo hit due to '˜silly' planning, had tonsillar cancer '“ but Rab Noakes is smiling as Celtic Connections hails his 50 years as a professional singer.

Rab Noakes played his first professional show 50 years ago. Picture: Carol Ann Peacock
Rab Noakes played his first professional show 50 years ago. Picture: Carol Ann Peacock

Rab Noakes has been a familiar figure at some of Celtic Connections’ biggest productions over the last few years, appearing as a performer in Greg Lawson’s massed, dazzling celebration of Martyn Bennett’s Grit in 2015 and helping to curate some of the festival’s acclaimed tribute concerts to the likes of Bob Dylan and, most notably, Noakes’ old friend and associate Gerry Rafferty.

This year, however, the focus is on the man himself as he marks a couple of anniversaries. Noakes turns 70 in May. In the same month, it will be 50 years since his first professional shows, hence the billing for his Old Fruitmarket headline concert, Rab Noakes 70/50 in 2017.

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The Fife-born performer – he prefers that designation to “musician” – is one of our more underrated talents, championed by the likes of John Peel and Johnny Walker in the early 1970s and poised for commercial success which never materialised (there’s some great footage online of an Old Grey Whistle Test appearance from 1974).

He never entirely gave up on playing and writing, even when a complementary parallel career in radio beckoned, and has been more musically active over the past few years than he has been in decades – save for a notable blip in 2015 when he was diagnosed with tonsillar cancer and the music, including the release of his I’m Walking Here album, went on hold while he underwent intensive, 
gruelling treatment.

“It just became all-encompassing,” he says over tea and mince pies in the living room of his Pollokshields home, with his wife and creative partner Stephy Pordage at his side.

“My mouth was just wrecked with ulcers and terrible, thick, toxic saliva that I had to spit up. The first couple of weekends were a wee bit dark. We all get those times when there’s a blue tinge around everything. But I got through that. There’s a terminology around cancer – battling it, defeating it – which we didn’t really buy into. It was more ‘it’s here, how do we deal with it?’

“As soon as it became clear that the voice was going to be there, I just got in the music room and started strumming and singing as much as I possibly could until it started to get to a more acceptable noise.

“I still have slight pronunciation on things – it’s not thick lips but I do notice it – and there’s a couple of notes on the top that are occasionally hard to reach. I’ve learned to navigate that.”

Next week, Noakes releases the fruits of those initial forays back into songwriting, an EP impishly titled The Treatment Tapes. You can hear the voice is slightly altered, a little lower and coarser on a couple of tracks, as Noakes sang his voice back to health with his guitar tuned a tone lower.

Noakes has been singing “since I was a wee laddie”, learning songs he heard on the BBC Light Programme and Home Service. “I like to think that something was being implanted in me of what the song could be.”

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He attended Miss Neilson’s local singing class and remembers his first public performance as a rendition of Westering Home.

“I found performing at the Christmas parties, all those other mothers would be watching young Bobby Noakes with tears in their eyes and I thought ‘this is not a bad thing to be able to do’.”

Noakes formed a skiffle group while still at primary school but, as with many of his peers, hearing Bob Dylan was the watershed moment. “This whole vista opened out – he was the gatekeeper who introduced my generation to folk music and even your own indigenous folk cultures.”

He began playing floor spots at folk clubs while working for the civil service in London. On moving to Glasgow in 1967, he formed a guitar/banjo duo with Robin McKidd and played that first professional show at the Glasgow Folk Centre in Montrose Street.

“It was an interesting place at the time,” he recalls, “because Billy Connolly and the Humblebums were around, Iain McGeachy who became John Martyn, and the older guys like Hamish Imlach who we learned a lot from.”

Noakes further honed his craft during a 1969 residency in Denmark, releasing his debut album Do You See The Lights? the following year. “In those days, someone else decided when it was time for you to make a record,” he notes.

Around the same time, he teamed up with Gerry Rafferty in an early incarnation of Stealers Wheel, even meeting the clowns and the jokers who inspired their best-known track, Stuck In The Middle With You.

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“I was there that night,” he confirms. “We were in one of those downstairs places on the Kings Road. You had the managers and Jerry Moss [the M in A&M Records] on one side of the table. On the other side were some producers we weren’t going to work with but who came along to the free dinner anyway. We were this team in the middle drinking and having fun. That was the scenario out of which came that song that’s had so many lives . . .”

But Noakes opted to leave the band before their success kicked in. “I’ve never known whether I made the right decision or not, but I made the decision that I would rather do some more performing myself.”

While other acts, including Lindisfarne and fellow Fifer Barbara Dickson, recorded his songs, the solo breakthrough hit remained elusive. Noakes continued gigging regularly on the fertile university and club circuit but by the end of the 1970s that audience had inevitably changed and opportunities started to dry up.

Looking back, Noakes remains philosophical. “I had my time as someone who was getting played and you devote yourself to it, but there were a couple of strategic errors.

“When Branch [the lead single of his 1974 album Red Pump Special] was out, which was probably the one that had the most chance – it was a Radio 1 Record of the Week – they had me away in the States making the follow-up record, so that was silly planning.”

Instead, he moved into radio, presenting somewhat reluctantly on Radio Clyde in the early 1980s (“I never managed to adopt that performance skill”) before moving over to the production side for BBC Radio, first in Manchester and then as Head of Entertainment at Radio Scotland, managing 70 hours of output a week.

“I think of it as more of a continuation, it wasn’t a sharp turn,” he says. “I was still involved in pop music and it had a lot of performance skills – putting a running order together shares a lot with putting a setlist together.”

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Both strands now happily co-exist. His independent radio and television production company Neon, founded with Pordage in 1995, has now spawned Neon Records, transforming his output in recent years with a schedule of re-issues, rarities, live recordings, tribute albums and new original material including I’m Walking Here, which was eventually released in late 2015.

Noakes is already on to his next batch of songs, some of which will make it into his Celtic Connections set beside material from throughout his 50-year repertoire.

“Everything you do, every noise you make, everything you listen to does filter its way into your output at some point,” he says.

The Treatment Tapes EP is released by Neon Records on 20 January. Rab Noakes 70/50 In 2017 is at the Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 2 February,