Silly Wizard - mad, mad glory days


Phil Cunningham is reminiscing about his days with his first band, Silly Wizard. As the personalities and incidents tumble forth, it becomes apparent why his special night at Celtic Connections 2007 is being billed as Phil Cunningham & Friends, rather than, say, This Is Your Life.


The roll call of those with Wizardly connections is all but endless. Alvin Stardust, Suzi Quatro and Mungo Jerry are just a few of the motley crew of musicians with whom Silly Wizard shared stages as the folk band of choice for university balls in the late 1970s.


Julie Walters and Matthew Kelly were among the cast Phil joined when he "deputised" on accordion with the band for the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool’s planned wake in 1976 – the six-week run was so successful that the theatre carried on, as did Phil’s spell with the band.


Add familiar faces from STV’s Take the High Road, whose theme music Phil and brother Johnny played under Silly Wizard’s name, innumerable musicians passing through Edinburgh who joined the band’s regular Tuesday sessions in the St Vincent bar, and sundry visitors to the band’s legendary Broughton Street flat - and Michael Aspel’s famous red book would be full with these years alone.


The classic Silly Wizard line-up – minus one very significant player, Johnny Cunningham, who died in December 2003 – will feature as part of the Phil & Friends concert. Joining Phil will be Andy M. Stewart, who has continued to charm audiences on both sides of the Atlantic with his warm, rich singing, founder member, guitarist Gordon Jones, and bassist Martin Hadden.


The irony that Jones and Hadden both subsequently moved into the record business - Jones with his Ulverston-based Harbourtown label and Hadden running CD manufacturing company, Birnam CD – isn’t lost on Cunningham. As he recalls with that characteristic dirty laugh, although their albums sold well, Silly Wizard’s attempt to cash in on the High Road theme with a single resulted in their record company’s MD – allegedly - having a kitchen built from boxes of unsold discs covered with worktops.


"I was lying awake in the middle of the night, thinking about this gig and I realised that procrastination isn’t a good thing to indulge in when you’re in your 40s," says Cunningham. "We’d been talking about a reunion of Relativity, the band we formed after Silly Wizard. But first Johnny died and then just last summer Micheal O Domhnaill passed away, leaving just Triona Ni Dhomhnaill and myself from that band. So I phoned the guys from the Wizard and they were all up for it."


Not only were the members of Silly Wizard Cunningham’s formative influences, the group had an enormous effect on a whole generation of Scottish traditional musicians who followed. With a considerable, Johnny Cunningham-sized gap to fill, a small fiddle section comprised of his younger admirers is likely to take his place on the gig.


"In some ways it’s surprising that the band’s legacy has survived in Scotland," says Phil. "Because most of our work took us away from home. We were based in Liverpool for two and half years, working round the Midlands and north west of England, and for eight months of the year, we’d tour Holland, France and Germany and latterly, the States. There didn’t seem to be that much interest in us up here at the time and yet I know a lot of the younger generation of fiddlers grew up on Johnny’s playing."


The young Johnny Cunningham cut quite the romantic figure. He joined the original Silly Wizard at the age of fourteen and soon this slip of a lad with his long blonde locks was the talk of the folk scene, playing tunes at speeds that his older colleagues at first encouraged and then – as he accelerated further – regretted.


When the band’s accordionist, Freeland Barbour, dropped out just before their Everyman Theatre run, there was an obvious replacement waiting in the Cunningham home in Portobello, Johnny’s young brother, already a demon accordionist at fifteen.


"I was actually a reluctant participant, believe it or not," says Phil. "By the time I joined, Silly Wizard were a real entity. They had an aura about them even as they walked down the street in Edinburgh. I only joined initially for a year because I was going to be a zoologist and although I dodged school to join them, my plan was to go back and study. But when it came time to leave school, playing with the band seemed the obvious choice – and zoology is still waiting."


Phil joined after the band had vacated its Broughton Street den – many of its furnishings and floorboards were reputedly used as firewood during one particularly harsh winter – but he remembers visiting it as a schoolboy ("it was very smelly") and learned to play the tin whistle there. His baptism as a band member included watching his older brother hanging upside down from the Everyman Theatre’s ceiling, escaping from a straitjacket then playing his fiddle with a rose between his teeth, although the reason for this feat now escapes him.


"I look back on those years with definite fondness," he says. "I learned so much, especially about survival, and it was great to be part of a band that, at the time, was almost unique. There were very few folk bands in Scotland then – not like now – and when we called a halt, it was because we weren’t getting a chance to turn over new material and it was becoming stale. There were certainly no personal differences. We’d been living at such a pace that I think we were all just tired. So it’ll be good to have a tune and a crack with the guys again."


From The Herald, January 2007.


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