a dear friend who will be deeply missed

Bruce Fraser and Music – the Early Years in Scotland

Wilma Alexander, Alan Thomson, Colin Allison, Rosa Michaelson

Schooldays (late 1960s)

In the late 60s, Bruce attended an all-boys secondary school called Heriots in the centre of Edinburgh. He sang in school and scratch choirs, being most interested in early music, and madrigals. He took part in the annual joint Gilbert and Sullivan production with Gillespie’s, a local all-girl school, and sang and acted in Iolanthe, Ruddigore and Pirates of Penzance. Bruce could do all the parts, as in those days he had a very versatile voice and was a musically-literate bass (most of the boys ended up light tenors). The English teacher at Heriots was the father of Mike Heron, a member of the Incredible String Band. Bruce and Colin Allison were members of the school folk club, where they heard pre-release ISB recordings supplied by Mr. Herron.

At this formative time, Bruce listened to the guitarist Segovia, and the recordings and broadcasts of David Munrow. In 1968 or 1969 he attended an Early Music Summer School at Dartington Hall in Devon. Hearing Segovia perform at Leith Town Hall during the Edinburgh Festival was very influential. Bruce played through most of the classical guitar music and transcriptions in the music section of the main public library, including Villa-Lobos, Narvaez and Bach. And some of the then rather obscure lute music, which was only just being “discovered” in the 60s; Dowland was especially a great favourite, as his tunes played well on Bruce’s Levin guitar. 

Bruce went every year to the annual performance of “The Messiah” on New Year’s Day at the Usher Hall, and attended folk nights at the Triangle Folk Club, seeing performances by Bert Jansch, the Incredible String Band, and the Humblebums  (where Billy Conolly started out as  banjo player) amongst others.

University times (1971-1976)

At this point Bruce listened to more extreme folk-type stuff, such as the Holy Modal Rounders, and started playing guitar and mandolin with Sandy Semeonoff, Norrie, and Robin Munro (whose mother was a folklorist at the School of Scottish Studies) in an Incredible String Band/Pentangle influenced group called ‘Broth’. Bruce spent time at Edinburgh University Folk Club in Potters Row, performing at open floor evenings, playing early String Band type things with a bit of Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Robert Johnson thrown in.

Wilma remembers: Whatever happened to the lute he built in Caley Place? Bruce could have been a good luthier, one of the things he had time and patience for, although he took over a year to finish it – the rose was an amazing piece of inlay and fretwork. He explored Bach and Dowland on this beautiful instrument.

Bruce began to appreciate jazz , Charlie Parker and Charlie Byrd, and bottleneck blues. Getting hold of a 4-track TEAC, he experimented with double-tracking, dubbing; buying the “Electric mistress” (Phaser/flanger) and experimenting with that – it is hard to remember how very “far out” and labour-intensive any special effects were, in those days of reel-to-reel, resistors and transistors. Listening to John Martyn (Solid Air; Inside Out) and Roy Harper (Come out Fighting, Genghis Smith; Stormcock).

During this time Bruce played in a number of bands; the names came and went. One of these rehearsed in the University Settlement cellar down off Guthrie St – an old, damp, Edinburgh tenement building with water practically running down the walls and a lethal electrical supply. Bruce always claimed he was getting addicted to the mild shocks. 

The bank loan story from Wilma: in 1973 we went to the bank for a loan to buy a fretless Rickenbacker bass, with some trepidation, as this was not the sort of thing bank managers normally give people loans for – we did our best to look like a respectable young couple. It turned out the bank manager’s son was seriously into rock music and he said “do you mean the one with the split pickups?” And so we got the loan, about £300 which was a huge amount of money in those days.

Bruce (bass/guitar), Wilma (drums), Colin Allison and Brian Roddy (guitars) formed a rock band called “Rolling Machine” around 1972/3. Wilma remembers being cold and the classic problem of keeping on playing the drums when the power (shilling-in-the-meter) had gone off and everyone else silenced.  

A number of Edinburgh friends formed a university society called the Moped Rock Society, which allowed them to put on experimental bands in university venues, and gain funds from central university coffers for these events. The first house band was called “Jefferson Moped”, and featured Bruce, Colin, Sandy, Robin and an unnamed drummer. There was a memorable performance at the St Andrews University Union Grand Opening, being introduced by John Peel. Bruce wore an amazing pink brocade suit Wilma made from her mother’s curtains. Still, on the same bill as Caravan, Arthur Brown, and of course The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. 

Influences: lots of Steve Miller, West Coast Pop Art Experiences, Colin and Sandy’s tunes including “Last Bus” and “Cockenzie Frenzy”.

Jazz and beyond (1973-1976 onwards)

Bruce was in two jazz/rock combos: “Pork Pie Hat” and “Free Huts”, with musicians such as Colin MacGregor and Steve Kettley (a composer, and founder member of Salsa Celtica), both bands with regular gigs. A high point was when Lol Coxhill turned up one night and jammed with them.

At this point Bruce acquired the “cabinet-maker’s” double bass which occupied the whole reverse-stairwell curve of the room in the flat in Morrison Street. This bass weighed a ton, and was almost impossible to get into any ordinary vehicle. Bruce managed to develop a technique for walking everywhere carrying it.  Steve Kettley, the saxophonist, occupied a room in this flat and shared his tastes for musical improvising, playing Bruce recordings of Evens Wentz and the Arts Ensemble of Chicago. 

Around 1976, Bruce decided to “go for it” and try and make a living out of playing music after dropping out of University, and leaving a Civil Service job. He became a member of “Iron Virgin”, a sort of Iron Maiden take-off; they were “in talks” with Tam Paton (manager of the Bay City Rollers), but did not last for long. Another group called Orchid consisted of contacts from Iron Virgin days, very tight and quite commercial. But that band also didn’t last long, and it became obvious that Bruce didn’t make his best music with people who weren’t friends. 

“Mowgli and the Donuts” was the band that lasted the longest and came the nearest to commercial success, after extensive gigging all over Scotland and managing to get a proper van and sound system. This band shared a stage with the Police (in the early days of Sting’s career) one time at Tiffany’s in St Stephen’s Street. M&D was a 5 piece doing rather eclectic, 'power pop' based on a peculiar mix of clever British pop and west coast US rock. Their songs really were in a class of their own. Bruce on bass, Alan Thomson on guitar, and Wayne on drums formed the rhythm section.

Alan remembers: Bruce and I, rather foolishly, took on the responsibility for keeping the van on the road. Along with all the time spent rehearsing it was here that our real bond was forged. Hours immersed in engine and/or gear-box oil, lying under the damned machine in the pouring wet, getting slowly crushed by large, heavy metal objects - while enduring regular tidal waves of freezing water being washed down the back of our necks as traffic rushed by inches away - oh joy!

Over the next two years the Donuts went on to perform quite extensively - ranging from protest gigs at Torness (a nuclear power station) to gigs at a number of Universities, and a couple of supports for Simple Minds. After a tour in East Anglia, the band split.

Bruce, Colin Allison, Tim Smyth (drums) and Alan T. went on to form the 'Spheres' - a punkish, hard-edged guitar band. None of us were particularly prolific songwriters and the lack of a dynamic front-person (or at least someone that could make a decent stab at singing...) meant that the band didn't go on for much more that a few gigs.

And then Bruce decided to move to the states, and his music went with him.

Coda: Rosa and Colin visited Bruce & Pam in SF in 1980. They took a fiddle and mandolin with them, and, with Bruce on mandolin and guitar, they busked outside Maceys all Christmas, sometimes making enough to buy coffee and doughnuts.

Quote from Bruce: In tune? No one is ever out of tune, just playing another type of music…


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Last Updated: 1/6/07