When did the first issue of Big Noise come out and how long did the fanzine run for?
About 1990 or 1991… seems so long ago now it’s like another life! It ran in various printed forms until around 1999 and then hissed and spat on the web for a wee bit longer. So probably a quarter of my life, which is a strange reflection.
Were you a musician yourself at the time?
It got started BECAUSE I was playing in bands, and it was a result of one particular night. Me and a few of my mates (including bassist Woody McMillan, who played a big role in BN for many years) had put our hearts and souls into what we were determined would be the best gig Cumbernauld (for it was there we lived) had ever seen. Stupidly young and ambitious, but that’s what being young is for, eh? We really knocked our pans in on rehearsals and spent money we didn’t have on stupid gimmicks like that gold tinsel they used to hang over closed shop windows. We wanted to perform art, not just play songs… and nobody cared. About a dozen people turned up — the question was, do we get sad or do we get mad? I got mad and Big Noise was created that same night. At that time, our wee town was hoachin’ with bands; there were probably nearly 20 different outfits, from indie to rock to metal to synth-pop. It was an incredible hotbed of talent for a shithole of about 60,000 inhabitants. But the infamous ‘new town’ model had hurt creativity badly. The council authorities offered you two options to fill your spare time once you were a young adult: go to the sports centre or go to the pub. We wanted at third option and it was always resisted. In fact, the one good place, Cumbernauld Theatre, was almost permanently under threat of closure – and I understand it still is today. Short-sighted unimaginative local pen-pushing wage-thieves… actually in 1994 I stood in the local elections as an independent candidate, and part of the idea was to stand up for local people who were capable of imagining a better town to live in. (I beat the Tory!).
Some early readers resented the fanzine going from 4 pages of text to something far more like a magazine, didn’t they?
Hah! I’d forgotten about that. That was weird. For me it was a natural progression and everything has to progress. In fact, we’d stopped doing the four-pages because, like everything else in that shithole town, it got sucked under by apathy and the powers-that-vaguely-be’s refusal to help (with the VERY important exception of Gordon Hughes, now a Falkirk Councillor, who ran the local Community Education centre and gave us a home and a great deal of support.) By the time we moved onto something more resembling a magazine I’d started working at the Daily Record, and of course my impression of what a publication should be had changed. My world-view had also changed since I was suddenly working in a world where up to two million people a day read what I did (even if it was only the bingo numbers in the early days!). Another important point is that, as far as I could tell, no one else was doing a fanzine like that. But it turned out some people had a puritan view of what a fanzine should be, and BN2 didn’t fit that. And since it also didn’t fit the view of a “professional publication” we found ourselves in a disputed territory – which was double-fuckin’ fine with me!
This would have been the early days of desktop publishing?
Sure was. My first experience of DTP was putting the school yearbook together in 1989, and I was very quickly hooked.
In the BN era pictures were still a bit of a no-no (hand-held scanner, fuxake!) and I really resented clipart for its generic unimaginative blandness, so we came up with the kind of weird Aldus Freehand graphics you saw in BN.
By BN2 things had moved on a bit and we were able to use Quark XPress to put together something a bit more dynamic-looking, no matter how much it was hated – and, indeed, how much I was pushing the boundaries of my own ability. But of course that was good, that was part of the experience… My boss at the Record once caught me photocopying some BN2s on the editorial floor. They were kinder, more encouraging days – when asked for an explanation I told him it was effectively work-experience, and a way for me to become a better journalist, and he was cool with that. You wouldn’t even be asked today – you’d just get your jotters because no one in management gives a fuck about talent and that’s why newspapers are dying, not because of the internet – but I digress!
For almost the entire run we stole photocopies, except towards the end when there was enough money coming in from sales that we could afford to have slightly-better quality copying done. We even experimented with colour, thanks to the fact I was sat very near the colour copier in the Record! We’d pay for the main run of paper to be done in a copy shop (Graham Trotter at a place I no longer remember in Woodlands Road, Glasgow, gave me excellent prices, close to cost, because he appreciated what we were trying to do) then run the outer leaf through the colour machine. It worked okay, until we had the idea of having the inside done at the copyshop before we put the page through the colour copier to get the outer added –– the inside toner melted and fucked the machine! I thought I was in deep shit that time… especially since torn, soggy bits of BN2 with the credits list were stuck inside the workings… That was the end of our colour experiment!
And how did you distribute it?
Distro began with putting copies in Cumbernauld community centres and a few pubs, and, I think, a couple of shops in the town centre which offered their support. It was free at first – in fact, people told us we should charge for it rather than the other way around. Not that it made money when it was BN… we were always just a few quid short here and there, and someone (sometimes local promoter Jock Barnson, the “Mad Jock,”) would chuck in a couple of tenners to help, buy an ad or even run a fundraiser evening. When we were a bit more serious we did posters and flyers and put them round the venues in Glasgow – I’d moved to Glasgow by then so BN2 and NW (Noisewave) weren’t about that Cumbernauld apathy thing. (In fact, we’d wound down BN because it became a victim of apathy itself. It was going nowhere; we’d been preaching to the converted and the powers-that-vaguely-be had listened to not a word.
In the BN2 era, we made sure the “right people” got copies of the zine. I suppose in today’s parlance they’d be called “tastemakers” or “brand champions” or some bullshit phrase to suggest it’s a new concept. But there were always people in every wee scene who were kind of leading the charge, and they got their copy free, and the word-of-mouth tradition worked its magic (or “it went viral on Facebook” if you like)…
Did you sell many copies at its peak? You mention in SAHB Story that ‘at one point it could have turned into a real job’ but for an ‘advertising director’ ripping you off.
There was talk – and indeed action. In all honesty I can’t remember many figures, but I recall we generated £2000 from one edition, and I worked out that if we could do that every month there’d be enough to pay me a full-time wage and pay everyone else for their contributions. I had a two-bedroom flat in Shawlands at the time and the spare room was set up with two desks and two computers – I had visions of about six people battering away in there, and we came damn close. We coulda been contenders. Unfortunately – as anyone who’s tried to make anything of themselves in this here industry will recount – the scene is full of wankers. The “advertising director” (and I should have been red-alerted because he was intent on giving himself a job title and talking himself up rather than putting the fucking shift in) was one of these people who offered an impressive account of himself. Drove a flash car (his dad’s), living in a posh address (his dad’s), was always dripping with cash (his dad’s) and carried the air of achievement (his dad’s). I’ve given people lots of chances throughout my career, and despite being just a little too old for as much of that shit as I used to be, I’m still in favour of it. The thing that bugs me about this guy is he WAS capable of doing everything he said he could. But he didn’t do it – he just talked about doing it. Suddenly he was gone, phone number changed, moved away, the money he’d taken for that month’s ads vanished. Fortunately I had some savings out of my job at the Record and I was able to publish that edition of the mag and deliver what we’d promised to the advertisers; but that was another moment of, “You know what? Fuck this.”
When I finally came round to NW, I more or less did it myself – pointing me in the direction of writing books, of course.
What were your favourite interviews you did for Big Noise?
The very first scene that jumps to mind is me and my mate David ‘Gibby’ Gibson interviewing Ben Folds in The Arches. We’d been allotted 15 minutes and the tour manager wasn’t keen on giving us that, but Ben (eating breakfast cereal as we spoke) really got into the spirit of our questions and our approach. That interview got us a lot of coverage, including the praise “an excellent piece” on Channel 4 Teletext’s revered fanzine pages. The Gin Goblins were memorable too –– no one in Cumbernauld had experienced this kind of debauchery, with dolls cut to pieces, blood splattered over bandmates and really angry music. But the audience took the band to their hearts: it was most strange to hear them deliver this furious satanic noise then stop to say: “Thank you – thank you! You’re all so… lovely!” The interview was equally lovely. (I didn’t really smoke weed, never have, but I got the feeling that Big John Duncan would have felt a line had been crossed if I hadn’t partaken. So I took a tentative mouthful and as I thought, “Fuck it, let’s see what happens…” he told me: “That’s skunk, I should warn you.” Yes he fucking should have!)
So too did my interview with Billy Rankin, formerly of Nazareth, who was later a colleague in SAHB and Rock Radio, and again now at TeamRock. I think he thought he really was talking to “just” a fanzine, so he said things that were perhaps a little strong, and they did the global thing, and it gave both of us a laugh for some time to come!
And Big Noise morphed into Noisewave and Noisewave is now also the name of your publishing company?
Big Noise was always meant to be called Noisewave, but the people I was surrounded by at the time didn’t like the feeling of the word. They were of the opinion that “noise” suggested too closely what the powers-that-vaguely-be thought of the music we covered. Which, to me, was the point –– but then none of them went on to be award-winning headline writers! “Noise” meant more than “sound”; it was about an attitude, a character, which I wanted to project. The word just kinda stuck with me. Everything I’ve done under my own steam has come out under the NW banner, but it’s many years since I thought of what the word means to me. It’s been a fanzine, an online fanzine, a music PR service, a management company and now a book publisher. It’s kinda just better than using my own name –– it gives the impression of being bigger! And I still like the logo I designed all those years ago; like any good logo it’s come to represent whatever the fuck it is happens under its auspices. It wasn’t really planned but it’s there now; if I go into making milk-bottle tops next it’ll be Noisewave Bottletops.
Did you see the fanzine as a stepping stone for journalism and writing music books, which you went on to do?
It’s probably been more instrumental than I usually realise. The copies of BN I took with me to my Daily Record interview helped me get the job (the person who interviewed me saw through the lo-fi production and saw the attitude behind, which was the point). BN2 was taken seriously by a lot of record labels (especially Maureen McCann of Sony (now wife of Simon Pegg)) and that put me in a position to do some good-quality journalism at a higher level than I could have done without it. NW led to some kind of global awareness –– not much, but enough such that people could check out what I did and decide whether it was worth giving me interview time or whatever I was looking for. And of course NW led to Ted McKenna of SAHB asking me about writing their book, which has led to other books and my brief management career.
But I didn’t envisage that; it wasn’t a battle plan. If I can allow myself some arrogance here, it was certainly a statement of confidence. “Look what I can do, and imagine what I can do if I have more clout.” On some occasions I think that was nearly said in words, and I definitely thought it in words at times. But the entire concept subsisted on JUST DOING IT and believing (I suppose) that talent would out through hard fucking graft.
In the same way that we poor folk used to never buy something until we had the cash to buy it outright, I try to avoid acting as if I’ve written something until I’ve actually written it.
The Apollo book is one of those great ideas that, once published, everybody thinks,’ Why didn’t anyone do that before?’. Did it seem obvious to you that such a legendary venue had to have a book written about it?
It did –– but I wouldn’t have known where to begin if the guys who ran the website hadn’t asked me to look at the idea. AM is still the book of which I’m most proud because I don’t think you get to capture a moment in history like that as well as we managed to do it. My other titles all have great things to say about themselves, but AM is a one-off.
Scott McArthur and Andy Muir had seen SAHB Story, where I’d set out my stall in terms of telling the story and trying not to get in the way. It was actually inspired by Spike Milligan, Monty Python and The Goodies, but I’m not sure that’s obvious!
Eh, not to this reader, no.
In retrospect I think it’s because those comedians were trying very hard not to get in the way of the laughs, and I took the concept of not getting in the way of the people from that. SAHB Story is missing things I’d liked to have in there, but it’s not my story, and it’s my job to tell the story the people who were there want to be told. (Many people disagree with me there, but of course they’re free to do it their own way, and I look forward to reading the results.) AM is, I think, the crowning glory of that approach, because EVERYONE wanted to say EVERYTHING.
It does seem an obvious way to do that kind of thing. I’m not sure I invented it, although I can’t say I’d read anything similar before AM was published. I’ve seen a lot since, of course, and it would be nice to think that was partly me.
There’s an interesting point here… I do what I do to this day because of my unique experience in working at the hard end of tabloid newspapers and also the sticky end of rock’n’roll. I’m not sure there are many other people with the individual spikes of experience I have. That means there are certain things I can do brilliantly –– and, it has to be said, many things I can do averagely and many more things I can do badly. AM is a prime example of where it all went right. There have been more (my interview with Robert Fripp in Classic Rock last year, for example), and I hope there will be more still.
You’ve managed two legendary Scottish acts who both featured in your book Big Noise: The Sound of Scotland, SAHB and The Rezillos, how did you find band management?
It found me. I’m the eldest of six and being a big brother is natural to me. When I was starting out in bands I saw a lot of ego battling for victory, and it seemed to me something of a veto was needed, which was why I started getting involved. It wasn’t anything like what I imagined, but it was a concept I was used to dealing with so I kept going, even if I’m not sure whether I was ever actually happy with the idea of me being a manager. The best bits were when you’d looked after your team – band and crew – and everyone was happy and able to get on with their work. Watching thousands of people having a great time while the band led them through it and even the roadies were enjoying it was a great experience: “I brought this together! That was me!”
I worked with SAHB because it seemed to me they deserved a better end than the one we were able to give them in the book. Time will tell whether I was right. I did feel they deserved to feel better about their legacy and I THINK they do; and I think many of the fans feel to an extent their loyalty in the band has been, if not fully rewarded, then at least recognised in a very real sense. It was important to me to try and please everyone – which is, of course, impossible. But even those who are disappointed with what I did would be lying if they claimed I haven’t added something to how SAHB are remembered. And there’s more to come!
The Rezillos was an interesting dynamic… Lots of strong personalities pushing and pulling in many directions. The results were amazing on stage, and I think in retrospect what I was bringing to the table was more appropriate than it felt at the time! To be honest, after SAHB I’d kinda had my heart broken a bit, to say nothing of my bank balance. Going back sort of forced me to decide whether I was going to get back on the horse that had thrown me or not, and once I realised I could if I wanted to, I possibly felt I’d achieved my personal victory. Which sounds selfish, but it’s an over-simplification of the situation.
Management isn’t dead in me… Jo Callis and I are still working on something, although it’s taking longer than we planned for it to come to fruition. But in many ways I think music management was a natural progression from where BN and NW had taken me –– only it was a bridge too far from where I should be, which is in a more creative place. You see, the way I did it, I regarded management as a form of practical art, and I know that annoyed the shit out of a lot of people. In the 60s, aye – now, new!
Your book on The Beatstalkers is coming on later this year, what led you to want to tell that band’s story?
When I interviewed Alan Mair for Big Noise the book in 2006, his summary of the band’s experiences seemed to me to be the best-fitting line for what most Scottish (or at least west of Scotland) bands of the era went through. The explosion of popularity following Beatlemania, the negative reaction from the powers-that-vaguely-be, riots and crowds of girls, more money than the day-job paid, a complete escape from the life that otherwise lay ahead… oh, aye, and playing music that mattered to you.
Since then I’d been working on a fictional version of that scene – I have four chapters drafted and the storyline in an advanced state. For some reason it didn’t occur to me that, instead of making something up, I should be doing what I do best and tell the stories for those who actually lived them.
I spoke to Alan, who’s very much the kind of person who does things when he feels the time is right. The idea was to do a book about him, but in the process of discussion it became very clear the time WASN’T right for that. I suggested a Beatstalkers book instead, and the response was positive. It should have been done last year, to be honest, but my personal schedule went up in the air as my role with Classic Rock and its sister magazines grew far bigger than anyone could have foreseen.
But I’m glad to say I’ve been in this position before: people doubt I’ll get the book done, and you can see it in their faces; but I know I will. And I will, and it’ll be good. It’s a great story!
The subtitle of that book ‘Scotland’s Number One Beat Band’ might surprise some people but they must have been absolutely huge here in the 1960s?
Here’s the undeniable fact: the Beatstalkers had a number-one hit single, but it wasn’t accounted as that because there were only two chart-return stores in Scotland. THAT’s how big they were. And the way they got that big has a similar emotional vibe as the Apollo –– there was something about THOSE people playing THAT music to THESE people that created a perfect storm. George Square flooded with screaming fans… crawling under windows so the girls who camp outside your house won’t see you… building a secret bedroom at work because you were racing home from a gig to get to the office in time… the gang warfare… the clothes… and the fucking SONGS. The Beatstalkers story sums up the rock revolution as far as Scotland is concerned. They were rock stars in every sense of the phrase.
Plans for the future?
Get on with the Beatstalkers book and ‘Project Fingerhalo’ with Jo Callis, because their time has come… continue with my work for Classic Rock, Prog, The Blues, Metal Hammer and TeamRock Radio, because it’s immensely challenging and rewarding… Sell my historical fiction novel Simon The Fox and continue work on the next novel (set in Orkney 5500 years ago)… Get to work on the campervan me and the wife just bought… decide whether my drumming days are over and it’s time to sell the kits… and there’s a couple of other things I can’t talk about in case they don’t happen and I look more of a twat than I already do!
I’m also actually working on an online magazine with the Historical Writers’ Association – which has something of the old fanzine feel about it. It’s nice to be back!
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