Muisc: Rip it up, start again
Remember Big Country? Lush melodies? Raw emotion and home-town pride? Old news. In the fifth part of our major series on devolution, Elisabeth Mahoney applauds the way Scottish pop has reinvented itself
Friday 30 April 1999
In these momentous days of imminent political change in Scotland, you might expect to find plenty more of the same going on. You might imagine be-kilted balladeers penning sentimental hearts-on-sleeves numbers, songs with "Braveheart" in the title, or at least the chorus; you're probably expecting a Big Country revival any minute now. But no, something strange is happening, or not happening, in Scottish pop right now. No one, musically, is taking much notice of the political goings-on.
This isn't to say individual musicians aren't interested or passionate about political change. But so far, there's been little crossover between devolution and pop, and that has a lot to do with the very healthy state of music in Scotland these days.
There's a line of argument which says that cultural confidence in Scotland has in effect forced political change, and it's an extremely seductive theory: go see plays, knock up some tunes, be flamboyantly creative with your pals at all times, find an Irvine Welsh, and eventually, a devolution- revolution will follow. But in the recent history of Scottish pop, rock, and dance music, this argument does indeed hold water.
At the end of last year, at a double-bill Mogwai and Arab Strap gig in Edinburgh, I found myself thinking the unthinkable in the company of Scottish bands, even the very best of the last decade or so: this sounds like nothing else. Don't get me wrong. Some of my best friends are records by Scottish groups. It's just that much as lyricists north of the Border have made a poignant romantic melancholy a house speciality, so too have musicians laid bare their influences for all to see. This doesn't mean there are no originals in the pack, but indebtedness to certain traditions and styles is only now becoming the exception rather than the rule in Scottish music.
In pop terms, the quintessentially Scottish style stems from one short- lived record label, Postcard. Set up in Glasgow in 1980 by Alan Horne as a reaction against New Romantic frilly excesses, Postcard was behind those winsome wonders Orange Juice (featuring Edwyn Collins), the brooding gloom of Josef K, early Aztec Camera, and a non-Scottish signing, The Go-Betweens.
Although only in operation for a couple of years, Postcard in effect set a large part of the musical agenda in Scotland for the two decades that followed. While a number of Scottish bands had come to UK-wide prominence during the Seventies - most notably the glorious glam-punk-retro of The Rezillos, and The Skids with Richard Jobson - it was Orange Juice and Co that established a discernible Scottish take on pop, and its legacy, in good, bad and stinking varieties, has been with us ever since.
At its best, it blends the lushest guitar-based melodies with sensitive or rawly emotional lyrics (irony came later) and often quirky, distinctive vocals. Scottish bands have done some of the finest musical things ever with the joy and terror of love, the incandescent beauty of a (rare) summer's day, home-town pride, and the doom, gloom and misery when love leaves. With slight modifications, this formula applies to a swathe of Scottish bands, including The Pastels, Del Amitri, The Associates, Simple Minds, Geneva, Lloyd Cole and The Commotions (Cole isn't Scottish but the Commotions were), The Bluebells, Teenage Fanclub, Hipsway, Blue Nile, Belle and Sebastian and (shudder) even Wet Wet Wet.
Everything that followed in Scottish pop has been influenced to a greater or lesser extent by this style, even if only in the self-conscious rejection of it. Some favoured earlier, often American inspiration, such as Hue and Cry and Deacon Blue. Texas took the Stateside inspiration furthest, building their early image solidly from the styles of the American south.
Other mutant versions of Postcard pop included several bands signed to Alan McGee's Creation records, later to bring us Oasis. The Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream and Momus embodied the darker flipside of the pretty but often wimpy pop; the sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll aesthetic so often absent in the melodic outpourings of other bands. Altered Images came more obviously from the Seventies punk stable, but Clare Grogan's vocals were sweet enough to make them fit the Postcard picture: Grogan and Edwyn Collins shared an NME cover in the early-Eighties.
Big Country - what can you say? They aimed for an urgency of sound in the style of The Skids, adding their own ringing bagpipe guitar lines and heavy-handed nationalism. It wasn't long before they were on the skids, let alone sounding like them.
So how did we get from Big Country to Mogwai, Simple Minds to Dawn of the Replicants, and the Postcard sound to the massive dance scene in Scotland? There are obvious links to earlier sounds: the guitar is still there in Mogwai, if only to take a severe thrashing; Arab Strap have taken the quirkiness mode and run with it; and the dance music must doff its cap to the crossover sounds of Primal Scream's "Loaded" (mixed by Andy Weatherall in a turning-point for Scottish pop), and the transformation of The Shamen into the band who brought us "Ebeneezer Goode".
But there are differences that are even more obvious. That cultural confidence mentioned before shows itself through the casting off of the sometimes stultifying influences, be they American or Scottish, and that lyrical sentimentality has largely been eclipsed by something sharper, harder and more vital. In place of anthemic rabble-rousers or studenty-softies, there's the messed-up, dirty great sounds coming out of Soma Records, the Glasgow dance label started by Slam DJs Stuart and Orde. Or the delicious, diverse offerings of the crucial Chemikal Underground label, set up by The Delgados. Mogwai, Arab Strap and Bis all hailed from this front room in someone's house (they've got proper offices now).
These are serious labels pushing serious talent in an increasing number of good, small venues. Other healthy signs are: the big clubs which still give London a run for its money; the fact that two of the biggest Scottish bands, Texas and Garbage, are fronted by women after it being such a boy's club for so long; and the continued presence of T in the Park, Scotland's own musical mudbath in a field. Come see, if you haven't already. But please, don't send a postcard.
What Next for the Arts in Scotland?
Wendy McMurdo visual artist
"I hope that devolution will be a positive thing for the arts in Scotland, but it is hard to tell until we know how the Parliament intends to emphasise arts and culture, and how the role of Minister of Culture will be filled. Art should be at the foreground of political policy. It is not just a recreational activity, but a life-enhancing thing. The visual arts scene in Scotland is very healthy. Hopefully the Parliament can only do more good."
Anne Lorne Gillies, arts & culture spokesperson, SNP
"Our Parliament marks a new phase in Scotland's cultural confidence - and with independence Scotland can become a major cultural centre. The Scottish government must work with practitioners, the voluntary and private sectors and local councils to make the arts accessible to people in all parts of Scotland. We must wait for independence to gain autonomy in broadcasting - but we can and will lobby!"
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