Fresh in from far out - Shetland

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Highland healed and honed

The reformation of The Daintees may not mean much in the great scheme of power-suited politicking, but for many who in the 1980s delighted in the Tyneside band's ramshackle, joyous lyricism and deceptively shambling musicality, it is more important than Broon's Great Purge of Whelk-Gatherers or the state of President Blair's increasingly dodgy Scargellite hairdo. For The Daintees were not just admired; they were loved.

Martin Stephenson and the Daintees, to be precise, proponents of a musical ecleticism that ran from berserk brass band honking via creamy jazz-soul to jagged Celtic blues. All topped with the toothy charm and goofy charisma of Stephenson himself, whose astonishing lyrics ranged from the occupational hazards of working in a slaughterhouse through the late Roy Buchanan's alcoholism to playground bullying and lurv in all its strangeness.

The Daintees, always much more than Martin plus backing band, were perennial contenders for the big time, punted by Newcastle's Kitchenware Records and hailed by all kinds of influential industry figures (including, horrifically, Simon Bates, for the indecently commercial album Salutation Road), until they imploded in the early 1990s. Stephenson disappeared into the Highlands, there to pursue a low-key life of local pub gigs and occasional solo forays into England and Europe. Some of these performances were wilful to the point of solipsism, as the gangling singer-songwriter battled a variety of demons and pushed the envelope of his own personality with little regard for the notion of entertainment.

But those lucky enough to see him in full, sober, communicative flight were blown away by the astonishing range of his abilities: brilliant guitar playing, taking in a range of styles studied in enormous depth; undimmed songwriting insights, a willingness to go way beyond any edge imaginable in performance, matched with a daft sense of humour, and that utterly distinctive voice.

But what the hell was he doing here? He was the superstar-manque who shared a flat with some mates in Nairn, the off-the-wall spiritual experimenter who could never disguise a keen urban intelligence and razor-sharp wit.But surely he was wasting himself in the vastness of the northlands?

I'd toured with him in the immediate aftermath of the Daintees' demise, then lived next door in Nairn. We spent many an evening being propped up by the Star's bar before Shetland eventually drew me back. And then, suddenly, about three years ago, things changed. A new, focused Stephenson emerged, releasing a range of experimental albums, some of them containing work equal to his early best.

The gigs grew less worryingly perverse and, while remaining in the Highlands, touring became more wide-ranging and successful. A solid, reliable infrastructure began to build around him. And now Martin Stephenson is part of the Highlands and Islands' cultural economy, operating worldwide via the Internet from his northern base.

Now news comes of the release of an album that will completely avoid the recording industry which, Stephenson says, has provided him with not a penny of income over the years. From the Highlands to the world, the new CD will be marketed over the net, and so interactive is the process that the first 100 ordered will contain an extra track naming those hundred buyers and paying tribute to them.

Once, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin retreated to Aleister Crowley's Boleskine House on the shores of Loch Ness to recuperate from the excesses of the rock'n'roll life. He brought nothing to the Highlands but tales of orgiastic parties and black magic. Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, in utter contrast, bought a retreat on Skye which he turned into a multimillion-pound salmon farming and processing industry, and an important bulwark of the local economy. But Martin Stephenson, until now a self-inflicted small-time troubadour, shows how new technology can turn remoteness into an advantage. From the Lossiemouth Folk Club to the Hilltop Bar on the Shetland Island of Yell, he has paid his remote and rural dues. Now the new, Highland-healed and honed version is ready to take on the world. Miss those Daintees gigs at your peril.

This article first appeared in the 20 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: yet again, they are lying to us