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

When SNP candidate Jim Sillars overturned a safe Labour majority to take Glasgow Govan in the 1988 by-election, Ricky Ross sat down to write a song. The lead singer with Deacon Blue wrote "Don't Let the Teardrops Start". It's about the long road to Scottish self-determination, hinting that the familiar foes of emotionalism and negativity may once again crush Scottish self-belief.

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!"

Tomorrow: Nadine Meisner on the trouble with Scottish Ballet

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past