JOHN Byrne could have ended up playing in a skiffle band like the hero of his latest musical play, Underwood Lane.
But his performing career never really got off the ground because he could only ever play three chords on his Epiphone ‘Elvis Presley’ guitar and his first love was always going to be drawing and painting.
Byrne has revealed that during his time mixing powdered paint in the slab room of the Stoddard’s Carpet Factory, in Elderslie, he used to take an unofficial break from working when his gaffer wasn’t around to practise on a second-hand banjo.
He then bought himself an ‘Elvis Presley’ guitar for £15 – which in the early 1960s was a princely sum – that he spent hours practising on.
Byrne is reminiscing, as the cast prepare for the Underwood Lane show’s sold out world premier, at Johnstone Town Hall, on Thursday, July 7, 8 and 9.
The play is in memory of Byrne’s long-time friend and fellow Paisley Buddie, Gerry Rafferty, who died nine years ago and was born and spent his early years living in Underwood Lane, in the town.
The show, a co-production between the Tron Theatre Company and OneRen, is set in the late Fifties and early Sixties telling the story of pals, Dessie, Donnatella and Joey, who form a skiffle band and try to make the big time. It’s also a tale of fierce love rivalry, broken hearts, dodgy dealing, sex and death.
The show, directed by Andy Arnold, was originally to be staged two years ago, at Paisley Arts Centre, but Covid caused its postponement and now the Arts Centre is undergoing a major refurbishment as part of Renfrewshire Council’s capital investment programme.
Following the performances at Johnstone Town Hall, the show moves to the Tron Theatre, in Glasgow for a run between July 14 and 30. Underwood Lane is supported by Future Paisley, the wide-ranging programme of activity led by Renfrewshire Council which aims to use Paisley’s rich cultural story to transform its future.
Byrne himself grew up in the Ferguslie Park housing scheme only a mile or so away from Underwood Lane where the Rafferty family lived. He became friendly with Gerry Rafferty’s older brother, Jim, who worked beside him in the slab room at Stoddard’s. One of Byrne’s most iconic theatrical works was The Slab Boys, based on his time there.
Byrne takes up the story of his fledgling musical performing career that never got much further than strumming a few chords:
“I loved skiffle music and at the time my favourites were The Vipers and Lonnie Donegan, who was wonderful.
“Then rock ‘n’ roll exploded into all of our lives and Bill Haley and the Comets was who I liked best.
“What a time we had listening to Radio Luxemburg and we could only get a decent signal at night when it was dark. Weekends were great because that’s when they broadcast the Top 20.”
He continues: “When Jim and I worked together, we went halfers buying a three-string banjo for ten shillings from a woman who worked in Stoddard’s design room.
“We would keep it in the slab room, but put a dustcoat over it to hide it from the gaffer. And when none of the bosses were about we’d get out the banjo and practise.
“We weren’t that good at playing the banjo and one day Jim asked if he could take the instrument home to give it to his younger brother, Gerry who apparently was learning to songs from listening to the radio.
“I didn’t have a problem with that as Gerry didn’t have an instrument at the time and I didn’t want to be caught playing the banjo when I should have been working. So the famous Gerry Rafferty’s first guitar was actually a banjo his brother and I gifted to him!”
Later, Byrne saved up enough money to buy a six-string Epiphone ‘Elvis Presley’ model guitar with The King’s name spelled out on the fretboard, from Cuthbertson’s music shop, in Gilmour Street, Paisley.
“When I was at art school,’ Byrne continues, “everyone had a guitar, but the problem was not everyone could play it properly. But what mattered was that you had a guitar and when rock ‘n’ roll came along everyone was ready and armed to the teeth.
“There was no chance of me joining a band as I could only play three chords – G, C and D. I learned the chord shapes from a book and it was probably the tutor everyone used at that time – Bert Weedon’s Play In Day. However, it would have been a really long day before I would be able to play the guitar properly.”
Playing guitar might just have been a sideline for Byrne, as by this time his artistic talents with a pencil and a paintbrush were being well recognised, but he did collaborate with Gerry Rafferty in writing a song called Benjamin Day.
This was eventually released as a single with the band, Fifth Column, which was the group Rafferty played in before the Humblebums and Stealer’s Wheel.
Byrne admits: “Playing guitar was just a hobby for me and the difference with Gerry was that he turned his hobby into millions of pounds.
“I was always going to be an artist as my mother used to say I was drawing while I was still in the pram. I can’t remember when I started to draw and it’s as if I’ve been drawing all my life.”
Byrne has become one of Scotland’s most talented artists and writers and is best known for his paintings, theatrical masterpieces like The Slab Boys Trilogy and the hit TV shows, Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin’ Heart.
The Underwood Lane musical play features music from that Fifties and Sixties era, although it has taken years to get it from page to stage.
Byrne explains: “A London West End musical director came to see me in my home at the time, in Nairn and asked if I could write a script that would carry Gerry Rafferty’s back catalogue of songs.
“Leave it with me, I said, but it has taken 17 years to get it produced on stage. It took all that time because it probably took my agent that long to read the script and also unfortunately, we couldn’t get the rights to use Gerry’s music.”
And fate intervened when Byrne was searching for right title for the show.
He explains: “I’d just finished the script and wasn’t sure what to call it. I had given it the working title Underwood Lane because that’s where Gerry Rafferty was born.
“I’d been given the biography of painter, illustrator and stage designer, John Minton, which I’d then started to read. On Page 8 of the introduction I saw the name Underwood Lane and although it was a place in a different town, I knew this was a good omen and that would be the title of the play I’d just finished. It was magical the way it happened.
“I didn’t even finish the book as I’d got everything I needed from it with the Underwood Lane title.”
Paisley has always been central to Byrne’s creativity and he’s delighted the world premiere of Underwood Lane is going to be in Renfrewshire.
John says: “Paisley made me and I had absorbed everything that happened to me when I was growing up in the town. “
And he remembers the exact moment that he had an epiphany and realised this – ironically on his birthday, January 6, which is the day of the Christian Epiphany.
“I was about 14 or 15 years old and had an epiphany travelling on the bus heading home to Ferguslie Park,” he explains.
“The bus drove down Well Street, past Underwood Lane, ironically; went through Craigielea; up our street, Dalskeith Road and turned a corner to park at the terminus.
“At that very moment I looked out the window and it dawned on me that I had everything – every piece of information – I would need for the rest of my days. My experiences living in Paisley has dominated and been a great gift to me.”
And to his legions of admirers, that journey would have been worth every penny of the bus fare.