Ian Mackinnon of Glasgow outfit Medicine Men pays tribute to the incredible talent and trailblazing soul that was Dale Barclay in the wake of the sad news of his death.
I FIRST met Dale round about 2004. I used to go to Divine at the Art School every Saturday, and one night a guy called Jamie spoke to me at the bar and recognised me from a gig I’d played the week before. Dale was one of his mates, as was “Big Wullie”, future Snakeheads bass player. And there were plenty more of them too. A mix of guys and girls, all working class, always impeccably dressed, whilst never being conscious of looking cool. They would often have problems getting past the bouncers, as you still needed a student card to get in to the Art School back then, or at least get signed in by someone who did. But they always seemed to make it in, and when they did, you knew about it. They would come crashing through the door like the Anthill Mob, and head straight for the dance floor, often being the first people on it. Dale was the de facto leader of that gang, he had this quiet confidence and understated charisma, with a warm smile that could quickly turn to an icy stare if anything kicked off. I don’t remember it ever getting to that stage, but you knew if it did he could handle himself. The great thing about Divine was that they played all the best music, both rare and well known, from the 50s up until about the late 70s. Any genre, any tempo, there was always something to suit everyone. Me and Dale would often find ourselves being the only 2 people on the dance floor some nights when we were both in early doors, we seemed to both have a penchant for the big horns and pounding beat of 60s RnB from what I remember.
It was the last ever Divine at the art school in 2011 when he turned round to me on a packed dance floor and said, “Me and him have got a band going, we’re playing way yous the morra, we’re called The Amazing Snakeheads”. I was shocked, it was completely out of the blue and I never even knew they played instruments till then. I had absolutely no idea what to expect but I knew I had to see it. There was something intriguing about Dale as a person, he drew you in without even trying. So the next night we all pitched up at the now sadly gone captains rest, and Dale is even more impeccably dressed than usual. They never had time for a soundcheck so we literally had no idea what to expect. And jesus christ, it was an absolute hurricane that hit you when you first Saw The Amazing Snakeheads. It was like absolutely nothing I had ever heard before. It was so different, but at the same time it was the absolute essence of rock n roll. The Captains Rest only held 100 people, and it wasn’t that busy to begin with, and a few people actually left during their first song, but me and our bass player Fuzzy just looked at each other, eyes both popping out of our heads, and simultaneously mouthed to each other, “FUCKING BRILLIANT”. The intensity of Dale’s performance in particular that night is something that I could never forget even if I wanted to. It was haunting, frantic at times, but there was never any hint that he was putting this on. It was abundantly clear to everyone that this wasn’t theatrics, nothing about it was contrived, he absolutely meant it. They left the stage and we followed him in to the dressing room, I went on what was most likely a completely incoherent rant about how much i was blown away by their set and how different it was and everything else. Dale’s response to this praise was the same as it always was – “Cheers”, in a non plussed but still appreciative manner. He didn’t really like to talk about himself or the meaning behind his music, certainly not to me anyway, which kind of endeared him to people even more, as he genuinely did just let the music speak for him.
Loading out that night I asked when their next gig was, to which he said they didn’t have any. I told him we had a gig out in Bathgate in a couple of weeks and managed to get them on the bill. I’ve never seen so many people leave a room in complete disgust as I did that night in Bathgate. They genuinely terrified a lot of the locals, and I thought it was fucking brilliant. There really was no middle ground with the Snakeheads, nobody ever said that they were “just ok”. I was certain that something was going to happen for them, they were simply too unique to stay a secret for very long. When the record deal with Domino came for them I was not surprised in the slightest, and delighted that it was (for once) happening for a bunch of lads who were as genuine as them, and playing music for the right reasons.
Round about the time the album was released they played a monthly residency at Broadcast in Glasgow, and I think I was at all 3 of them. Anyone who was at these shows will tell you how utterly mental they were, but I also remember how completely on top of their game the band was too. It was at these gigs that I first heard what would become their signature song, “Here It Comes Again”. This is not only the title of the song, it’s also the complete lyric sheet as well. With that song he only needed 4 words to express himself. There are 4 words in the whole song, 5 syllables. I can’t think of anything more effortlessly punk rock than that.
The fact that the Snakeheads story came to such a premature end, if anything reinforces the belief that fame and fortune was the furthest thing from their minds. I still don’t know the full details of the split and truth be told I never asked, as I knew it would be a difficult time for all of them. So I hadn’t heard from Dale in a while, but when my dad died later that same year, he was one of the first people to get in touch, to offer both his and Laura’s condolences and ask if there was anything he could do. We weren’t dealing with some self centred rock star here, that was always abundantly clear.
The last time I saw Dale was when him and Laura played a joint set at this years Stag & Dagger. By this point he had made his cancer public of course, and came on stage wearing a black cowboy hat. However it wasn’t long before he revealed his new found baldness, Isaac Hayes style, whipping off the cowboy hat with a massive smile on his face. The usual intensity was all there in Dale’s performance, and it was great to hear him playing some Snakeheads material, particularly “Memories”, which has always been my favourite song of theirs since that first time I saw them. At one point during that song his guitar cut out and from my position near the front I could see one of his pedals had gone off, so I leaned over and fixed the cable. I just wasn’t having this moment taken away from him by a faulty cable. He couldn’t of been more grateful after the gig, and it was clear by that point that he was going to enjoy every single second he had on stage from there on.
A few weeks before that when he went public with his illness, I sent him a text asking if there was anything I could do, just as he had done for me when my dad had died. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me sharing his response, which for me sums him up so well:
“Thank you Ian. Big fight on. No mercy shown, none asked for. Onwards always. FTA
Dale Barclay was a one off, an original, born with rock n roll burning inside of him, but he never forgot to be a human being. I’ll leave you with probably my favourite lyric from my favourite song of his.
“Take it by both hands, and shake if it needs it. These memories, will last a lifetime”