A blaze that won't go out

Franz Ferdinand and many other Scots bands cite The Fire Engines as a major influence. David Pollock revisits the legends
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The Independent Culture

While bands like Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai and Travis might have sent ripples of interest beyond Hadrian's Wall in recent years, it is thanks largely to the rise and rise of the Mercury-music-prize-winning Glaswegian flagbearers Franz Ferdinand and, to a lesser critical extent, their adoptive compatriots Snow Patrol, that the music-press spotlight has been upon Scotland's largest. As FF's Alex Kapranos prepares to lecture on "Scotland's contribution to modern music" at Edinburgh University's Reid Hall on 12 February, Scotland's post-Franz musical landscape finds itself spectacularly well-equipped with first-rate new bands to spearhead the charge.

In Glasgow, for example, there are Sons and Daughters, two boys and two girls who meld the sound of Johnny Cash and Nick Cave to left-field early-Nineties American indie with lacerating effect. The fact that they share label-space with Franz Ferdinand (on Domino), and that they toured extensively as support to the larger band in 2004, can only stand them in good stead as they prepare to release their first album proper, early this year.

Edinburgh, meanwhile, possesses the utterly affecting Aberfeldy, who condense folk-pop and Seventies MOR so authentically that Rough Trade made them their next Scots signings after Belle and Sebastian. Meanwhile, in underground haunts like Glasgow's Stereo, 13th Note and Nice 'n' Sleazy, and Edinburgh's Bongo Club and The Venue, great bands like Mother and the Addicts, the Magnificents, Multiplies and Ballboy toil in local notoriety and national obscurity, awaiting their shot at a title.

It all has striking parallels with the last time Scottish music basked in such widespread critical respect, rather than pinning all of its hopes on one name lucky enough to get a bit of attention. The Glasgow-based Postcard Records cottage empire of the early Eighties turned out some truly great bands (each of them lapped up by the national music press), inspired Alan McGee's Creation Records, and, perhaps most crucially, provided direct musical influence on the biggest Scots band of modern times.

Where Postcard's Orange Juice, Josef K and Aztec Camera can all be traced in the Franz Ferdinand sound, it was the black sheep of the bunch that provided most inspiration. Edinburgh's Fire Engines turned down the opportunity to sign for the Postcard founder Alex Horne, instead affiliating themselves with Bob Last's Edinburgh-based Fast Product. They only existed for 18 months between 1979 and 1981. But their unexpected reformation last year to support Captain Beefheart's old cohorts the Magic Band provided sufficient spur for Franz Ferdinand to invite them to guest at Glasgow's SECC just before Christmas. The Fire Engines returned the favour for Sons and Daughters and Aberfeldy a week later at the Liquid Room in Scotland's capital.

Writing in The Scotsman prior to the gig, Alex Kapranos enthused wildly about his band's forebears. "They were the true antithesis of the hated prog excess," he wrote. "They played terse riffs that were rhythmic and repetitive, 15-minute sets instead of 15-minute solos. Their melodies were atonal, yet as catchy as a Phil Spector pop song. Everything was precise, yet sounded unpredictable.

"They gave us inspiration because they sounded like a pop group," he continued. "They were unquestionably at the edge, challenging the accepted norm of what pop music was, but they were still a pop group - genuine rebels who didn't care for convention, so much so that they stole convention and warped it for their own means."

The Fire Engines' bassist, Graham Main (the band impressively maintain the original line-up of Main, singer/guitarist Davy Henderson, drummer Russell Burn and guitarist Murray Slade) remembers such shock tactics as being the intention from the outset. "Our reason for starting the band was, I suppose, the same reason as any other band's," he says. "You see something missing in the scene that's happening around you, and you get together to fill that gap. And what was missing in Scotland was excitement - there was a lull after punk, and we wanted to inject some excitement into things. In the end a lot of bands were fired up in the same way, and it became quite a rich period."

The Orange Juice frontman Edwyn Collins remembers how it came to national attention. "We always thought the Scottish scene was far too parochial," he laughs, "so what we did was put 300 copies of our first single, "Falling and Laughing", in the back of Alex Horne's dad's Austin Maxi and set off for London. We stopped off at Rough Trade and Geoff Travis took 300, then we went to Broadcasting House and Alex demanded to see John Peel. He said to him (he affects a thick Glasgow accent) 'listen, a' that Liverpool scene stuff your playin's auld hat, where it's gonna happen now is Glasgow'. So Peel played it that night - the only time he played it - saying he'd been confronted by 'a very truculent youth'. Then we went to the NME and gave one to Danny Baker, we went to Sounds, Melody Maker, Smash Hits, even Cosmopolitan. By the time we got back to Glasgow we already had a couple of 'Single of the Week's."

Collins can't recall a time since when so many bands from north of the border were attracting interest in London, not just in the music press but in the broadsheets, too. He's produced Sons and Daughters and remixed Mother and the Addicts, but it's Franz Ferdinand which most strike a chord of recognition.

"I've met Alex, and he's a very nice young man," he says, "but it's not for me to say if they're influenced by me. I can see parallels... we used to call our videos things like Dada with Orange Juice and use the Russian Constructivist idea, and we also had floppy fringes. But in the music I hear more of The Fire Engines - the riff from "Take Me Out" could almost be "Get Up and Use Me", The Fire Engines' first single."

Franz Ferdinand covered "Get Up and Use Me" for a free 7-inch giveaway at that SECC gig, The Fire Engines returning the favour with "Jacqueline". "There's no legacy or torch being passed," says Main. "The only torch is the desire to make music, and if we're inspiring people to make music either because they love us or because they hate us, that's great."

"I remember speaking to Edwyn when we recorded with him," says Scott Paterson of Sons and Daughters, "and Glasgow seemed a very different city back in the Eighties. But because of the name it's built up for itself musically over the years, and because there are so many great venues like Stereo and Sleazy's, being a Glasgow band does carry a certain good reputation with it. It's almost like being on an incredibly trustworthy label, and we love to think that we're a part of that great Scottish indie lineage."