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Tome On The Range

Searching for the Celtic Soul Rebels: Scottish Pop, 77–84
John Quin , October 29th, 2022 10:36

Hungry Beat: The Scottish Independent Pop Underground Movement (1977–1984) by Douglas MacIntyre and Grant McPhee with Neil Cooper tells the story of independent music north of the border

Bob Last. Photo credit: Paul Research

This is a book about two record labels, Fast Product and Postcard, whose tiny number of releases have a disproportionally positive effect on Scotland’s musical legacy. The authors use the oral testimony format, as pioneered by Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s book on Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick. Andy and his band, The Velvet Underground, are recurrent reference points here. The tale is divided into yearly sections, each entitled with a song by Vic Godard, Vic being another key influence on the Scottish scene at the time. For all Scotland’s reputation as a place of gloom and doom the story is (generally) one of a confident optimism, of a time still fondly remembered. Why is this?

The veteran Scots writer Ian Jack can help explain. Here he is in an article in the London Review of Books writing on the decline of Glasgow’s shipbuilding: “In 1955 the Clyde had twenty-two shipyards … with ninety-one ships launched. Today, the river has two yards left.” These we learn were made by men and women with a trade; their skills are now almost forgotten. Jack’s litany of loss goes on: “Low life expectancy, the highest rate of drug-related deaths in Europe and the near total foreign ownership of aquaculture and renewable technologies (mean) the essential mechanics of the Scottish economy are all made elsewhere”. He points out that “outside (of) defence contracts, Scotland builds almost nothing.” Thatcher’s brutal deindustrialization in the 1980s means today’s Scotland manufactures… not a lot. But despite the attrition, despite the unemployment throughout the period delineated here, Scotland did make something else… something bright and shiny and golden; it made great records. Music was where Scotland’s self-respect re-centred itself. And this is why this book, this history, is so important. This book is about the centrality of music to modern Scottish culture.

As Ian Rankin says in his foreword, Postcard and Fast “created a vibrant subculture that drip-fed into areas such as film-making and literature.” This was when Bill Forsyth was making hit movies like Gregory’s Girl and Comfort and Joy starring Clare Grogan from Altered Images. At the same time Alasdair Gray and Ian Banks published fantastic debut novels. But let’s not go the full Dougal on you (Dougal being Harry Enfield’s clichéd Scottish boosterist) with his persistent boasting about innovations from north of the border, his constant decrying of English influence. Hungry Beat clearly stresses the pivotal impact of English punk, specifically the Clash’s White Riot tour of 1977 with its explosive support acts – the Subway Sect and the Slits. As Davy Henderson from the Fire Engines/Win puts it, this was the real year-zero moment. The bands put on a “Dadaesque performance like Hugo Ball”. Douglas MacIntyre extends this argument: “Fast Product and Postcard had more in common with art movements than the commercial music industry.”

The story hits its stride first in Edinburgh with the deliberate provocations of Bob Last’s Fast Product. Last was inspired by Herbert Marcuse and saw his company as “an ironic version of an Althusserian ideological state apparatus”. Phew: that beats a free flexi-disc. More prosaically Paul Research from Scars thought Edinburgh “wanted to move on from punk really quickly and make their own original music.” The Leith born actor Tam Dean Burn is diagnostic in identifying Last and his partner Hilary Morrison as the local equivalents of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. They hung out in a flat on Keir Street with its décor (one wall painted with the words This is Luxury) reminiscent of the interiors in La Chinoise, Jean-Luc Godard’s movie from 1967 about young Maoist activists. Unsurprisingly Last would go on in time to work with the legendary French director. The Bowie/Iggy albums from Berlin were on regular rotation: quelle surprise.

This, we must recall, was a more progressive moment when even arch-reactionaries of today like Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill made the Mekons ‘Never Been in a Riot’ (FAST 1) the NME single of the week. Then there were further thumping debut releases on Fast by the Gang of Four and the Human League. The latter’s Martyn Ware says of Fast Product that it was “a conceptualist project. It was deliberately obtuse.” In turn he’d agree to that free flexi-disc. Predictably the operation quickly came up against the sclerotic toxicity of the established music industry. Hilary Morrison notes that it was “a big, bad, sexist world full of really horrible people”. Even punk heroines got up Fast’s nose: there’s a great story here about Paul Research berating Siouxsie Sioux for appropriating Nazi iconography. Scars debut, the double A single ‘Adultery/Horrorshow’, FAST 8, is described accurately here as the equivalent of Scotland’s ‘Anarchy in the UK’. All the young droogs duly picked up a guitar.

Another key influence from England was the Pop Group from Bristol. One of their members, Gareth Sager, is quoted here (semi-jokingly?) speculating on why the Velvet Underground were the most important group to Scottish bands following on from Scars. His theory was “that Scottish people are brought up with drones through being exposed to bagpipes, and the VU used a lot of drones in their music.”

The role of record shops is stressed in both Edinburgh and Glasgow as meeting places, nodes of nascent creativity. Youngsters made their way from new towns like East Kilbride into the city to hang out and flip through the record racks. In contrast to the chthonic darkness and angularity of the Edinburgh bands those typical of Glasgow’s scene appeared sunnier, lighter, if rather more obviously ironic in intent. If Glasgow was, as writer Alan Massie has it, the Eastern-most city in America then Postcard went for a mutation on the West Coast sound, championing Buffalo Springfield. Fast Product and Edinburgh were more aligned to the spikier charms of Television and the contorted shards of James Chance’s saxophone. The glue between the two cities was the VU and Suicide.

Fanzines like Robert Hodgens’ Ten Commandments were important too, with its iconic images of Orange Juice posing with their enormous guitars in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens. Soon enough fans were turning up at their gigs wearing bolo ties and lumberjack shirts. Fringes were long and unkempt. Kids said they were into the Byrds. This was, as the writers here point out, a new Glasgow “poles apart from the No Mean City image and more like a camp union of Isherwood’s Cabaret and Warhol’s Factory.” Allan Campbell, manager of Edinburgh’s Josef K, wonders if (oddly, counter-intuitively) it was a middle class thing that gave the Glaswegian label a “cheerier outlook” and “took Scottishness and stood it on its head by putting the Scottish kilt on Postcard artwork.” In contrast to Bearsden’s finest the bands from Edinburgh came from more modest backgrounds; they were not Morningside based.

Postcard’s top cat was Alan Horne who could be contrarian. He’d say contradictory things like “while you can’t fault the Fall, their attitude sucks”. There was a degree of competition between Postcard and Fast with Bob Last saying Horne could be “stroppy”. Last didn’t want Fast to be “narrowly Scottish … it was to say Scotland stands up there with everybody else.” As for Horne, Postcard meant “kicking against this Scottish inferiority complex that suffocates us all”. In truth their aim was, as the writers here conclude, about underlining a confidence in being Scottish. Horne and Last, Postcard and Fast: their rivalry was a quality form of narcissism with minor differences and the book is scrupulously fair to them both.

There was a feline character about the skittish Scottish scene of the time, both graceful and feral. Witness the clues, the kitten logo for Postcard and the panther for Horne’s later project, the more adult evolution that was the Swamplands label. We can imagine Last and Horne hissing and spitting at the officious Officer Dibble’s of the music industry. And we might even see Davy Henderson as one of those hep cats, Spook or Choo-Choo from the cartoon series: Davy and his baroque beatnik patter purring on about super-popoid grooves. There’s a great story here about his meeting with Richard Hell, that and a ripped T-shirt.

Although the underappreciated influence of Grace Jones is outlined here the book does not shirk detailing the misogyny of the times, the fact that no all-girl groups signed record contracts during this period. Our loss. But as Caesar from Altered Images concludes it was “a period when Glasgow’s optimism in the face of economic adversity shone like floodlights from Hampden Park”. If only such bright optimism about Scotland and its future could return soon…

Hungry Beat is published by White Rabbit Books