We continue our illuminating interview with P/M Ian McLellan, formerly of Strathclyde Police Pipe Band and 12 times winner of the World Championship crown…
Your record is quite stupendous; 12 World titles isn’t it? You must be very proud of that.
Well I’m really happy I suppose. The only championship we did better at in my time was at Cowal, where we won 13 titles. I keep watching Richard Parkes and he is catching up as far as major championships are concerned and I think if he keeps going he will win more majors than we ever did.
So he’s Tiger Woods to your Jack Nicklaus.
Yes, [laughs] but the difficulty comes in trying to get six in a row or 12 World titles. But he has a great band, a great band and you never know. Field Marshal restored a lot of people’s faith in the pipe band movement last year . They really had the package. There’s no doubt about that. In March, Strathspey and Reel playing Richard has now got it off to a fine art as far as his band is concerned. He and I have gone down the same alleyway as far as that is concerned. It is something that has developed with him. At one point he was pushing things. Then he went from one extreme to the other, being too cautious. Somebody must have had word in his ear. I didn’t say anything to him apart from making the odd comment on sheets. Now he’s on an even keel again and he’s really playing very, very well.
Most of the time his medleys have been very good, well constructed, well thought out. Most of the tunes he plays are melodic, unlike a lot of the instantly forgettable stuff that’s going around. A band finishes and you say to yourself ‘I can’t remember one single tune out of that lot’. There isn’t a melodic line you can latch on to and remember. It’s all about ensemble and if there’s not a strong melodic line the band has no real chance of making an impression, not with me anyway. Your ear tells you what you like and what you don’t like. It’s no use using drum effects and seconds trying to enhance something that is not really there.
Terry Tully has done a wonderful job with the St Laurence O’Toole. I’ve judged his band many times. I used to go over to Ireland to a place called Malahide on the outskirts of Dublin. It was always the first band competition of the season. Terry used to ask me what I thought, and I always re-assured him that he was going down the right lines; that if he kept going that way he would come to the surface, no doubt about it, and two or three years later he took the Worlds. The man has a lot of talent. His medleys are tremendous, albeit that they have maybe an Irish tinge to them; but in saying that he uses the tunes well. Their MSR playing has improved a lot over the years as well. I don’t think they did themselves justice at the last Worlds [Aug 2012]. It might have been an off-day for them. It happens to every band. You don’t want them to happen but they do. [Terry has since handed over the reins at SLoT to his son Alen].
Why is it that since your heyday Scottish bands have failed to dominate?
Some of our bands have started to come through this year. The Power have come on a lot in the last two or three years. Chris Armstrong is starting to find his feet now. I think he understands what the whole scene is about. He’s beginning to make it happen for his band and I hope he continues with it. Inveraray under Stuart Liddell can’t be faulted musically but to my mind they don’t yet have the power in their sound to captivate. I think it will come as they mature. They are a very young band and hopefully Stuart will manage to hold on to his players but I worry that being where they are the band will fragment as people leave for university or to take up jobs. If you have to keep replacing you are not really progressing you are flat-lining. But I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen to them because I think they have got an awful lot to give. You know I was thinking back recently that the first year we won the Worlds in 1976 most of that band wouldn’t have been born!
Boghall are one of those bands that to me blow hot and cold. They have done very well this year and I don’t like to criticise them because they are always there or thereabouts; but they are just not consistent enough. If you are going to make it at the highest level you’ve got to come in week in, week out, telling the judges that they can’t ignore you. Their achilles heel at times is their sound; it doesn’t always have the required impact.
I have a feeling Strathclyde Police are going to be a stronger band next year. There’s a lot of talent in that band. Piping-wise they have a lot of good players and they’re all young and really keen to do well. I think Duncan [Nicholson] is beginning to find his feet too. He’ll get them going well. I don’t know how the Shotts situation is going to pan out. Let’s hope they are back where they belong in 2013. Fife Constabulary are a good outfit but looking beyond that I can’t see any others such as the Vale or Lothian and Borders [since disbanded] being in contention yet for the top six but you can never be sure.
Can you summarise for us what you are looking for from a band? Do you place a high emphasis on the technique? Some bands cut out a lot of the work.
Obviously a good attack and how they go into the first tune. First impressions always count. If you strike up and the sound’s nice and the first tune is played well together, you are then going to start listening to them, to the nitty-gritty, the technique, is the intonation good, musicality. I mean it is not rocket science but the big thing is the sound; and it doesn’t matter what grade it is. If the band has a decent sound for that grade your ears immediately perk up and then you start listening for how the tunes blend together and flow. Then you evaluate how good the technique is. Are the basics there and are they played together. But if the tune is flowing you generally find that they are fingering together, one sort of goes with the other.
I’m not really too hard on a band as far as that is concerned you know, someone making a note error. Within reason of course, not a two-bar brainstorm. That would be unacceptable. But a minor slip is nothing. In fact sometimes you are so happy with how a band is playing that by the time you get to the end you’ve forgotten about it.
Is it the band that you are listening to or the piping alone?
Although I am doing piping, the ensemble effect does make an impression on you because if a band doesn’t have that overall blended sound the musicality is not going to come through the same for a start. I’ve seen me listening to a band, you can hear that the pipe corps is trying to play what you are wanting them to play, but the other half of the band is destroying them by not holding the same notes and phrasing in the same way, so your impression of the piping is diminished. It has to be. The drumming can affect things drastically if it is not doing anything sympathetic to the piping.
In terms of the judging package, do you think the points structure is correct? Do you agree with an ensemble preference when there is a tie?
Sometimes I wonder. I’ve seen results where a band like Field Marshal have had two firsts in piping but don’t win the competition because of their ensemble. As a piper that is not right, but that is the way the rules are.
Sometimes when it is a drummer on the ensemble he will be swayed by the drumming.
Yes, perhaps, but then it could happen the other way as well when you have a piper on ensemble. They won’t know the intricacies of drumming. It might sound OK to me but a drummer would dismiss it as rubbish. But at the end of the day I come back to what sounds musical as a band. That is the ultimate thing.
We are coming to a close now Ian so to finish could you tell us which bands over the years you have enjoyed?
Well going back, definitely the Muirheads band and before that the Edinburgh Police. Muirheads under Bob Hardie had an accuracy of playing and technique that was of the highest order. The Shotts under Tom McAllister had a sound that used to take the breath away; really brilliant. Edinburgh Police impressed me for years when they were under Ian MacLeod. I used to think Bob Martin’s Boghall was a great band. More up to date we had Simon Fraser. I was even impressed with them going way back when they competed against us. They were always a band that you knew you were going to have to play well if you were to get in front of them. At times the 78th under Bill Livingstone were very enjoyable, then of course the Field Marshal. Right enough when I think about it, for the past 20 years the Field Marshal have been impressing me and now SLoT too as I said.
What is amazing Ian is that you still have the enthusiasm for it.
Oh yes, I still love it and I hope the rule barring over 75s from judging is lifted. I was feeling sad about the whole idea of packing it in, being put out to grass as it were. I am happy at the thought that I might be able to carry on a while longer. Sometimes when you are doing the juveniles you think the youngsters must be wondering who that old hop along is that is judging them, what the hell has he done! I quietly hope they might take a look at the programme for the World Championships and see the list of winners there.
• This interview is from the October 2012 edition of Pipe Band Magazine. More from Ian from his earlier days to follow.