Independent Scotland #7

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Mekons The First Year Plan 

THE MEKONS: NEVER BEEN IN A RIOT (FAST PRODUCT 1978)

 

I have still to see Big Gold Dream: Scottish Post-Punk and Infiltrating the Mainstream, which premiered recently at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and which explores and celebrates what might be called the late ’70s / early ’80s independent Scottish music scene with an emphasis on Edinburgh label Fast Product set up by Bob Last and Hilary Morrison – who both appear in the film.

Surprised that Fast should play such a prominent part in a full length documentary?

Well, Bill Drummond (in his book 45) praised Last as the definer of Post Punk, while in Simon Reynold’s Rip It Up and Start Again, Factory’s Tony Wilson maintained that, ‘The first really arty, clever label was Fast Product. A damn sight artier than us.’

Still not convinced?

Okay. In The 500 Greatest Singles since ‘Anarchy in the UK’, published in 2003, Gary Mulholland judged that Fast Product was ‘as important an indie label as Rough Trade, Postcard or Creation’ and Jon Savage wrote in the sleevenotes of his history of punk, England’s Dreaming: ‘You could point to the label as containing all the cutting edge elements that would become mainstream styles: New Pop, synth pop, rock funk.’

And if you still aren’t convinced, listen carefully to the lyrics of Hitsville UK on side 1 of The Clash triple album Sandinista, where Joe Strummer namechecks the leading indie labels of the day with Fast in there along with Small Wonder, Factory and Rough Trade.

 
And now a quick introduction to the debut release from one of the acts that helped make Fast so influential.

The University of Leeds Art Department in 1977 was an absolute hotbed of talent, if not in visual art, then certainly musically. First to emerge in that field was The Gang of Four, named after the politicians who ran China after Chairman Mao’s death in ’76, then The Mekons, named after the villainous arch nemesis of Dan Dare in a comic strip in The Eagle. Another act closely linked to these two followed in their leftwing and confrontational footsteps – Delta 5.

Art students, including Kevin Lycett, Tom Greenhalgh and Jon Langford formed The Mekons, with an idea far from the norm even in 1977 – not only did they believe that anybody could do it and reject the idea of stardom but, more radically, there was to be no set line-up and anyone who wanted to could get up onstage with them and join in. Instruments were also to be swapped around and it’s maybe not too surprising that Lester Bangs later declared that: ‘The Mekons are the most revolutionary group in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.’

One small but significant connection existed between Leeds and Edinburgh – the Callis family. Jo Callis (Luke Warm) of The Rezillos would occasionally send down cassette tapes of some very basic versions of new songs he’d written to his sister Jacqui, then studying art in Leeds.

Jacqui played some of these to her pals, who just happened to include The Mekons and Gang of Four (Jacqui herself would later join Delta 5 at one point). One of her brother’s songs doing the rounds that had a particular impact was a rough as a bear’s arse version of I Can’t Stand My Baby.

Hardly into their (non) career, The Mekons were invited to support
The Rezillos at the F-Club in Leeds, where they struck Bob Last – then also working as the Edinburgh band’s road manager – as being exactly the sort of edgy talent that he’d set up Fast to work with.

So he signed them that night.

Which did create one problem.

Originally The Mekons had been more interested in politics than music and they adhered to a punkier than thou manifesto that would ensure they would never sell out; most thought seeming to go into what they wouldn’t do – it was envisaged that they wouldn’t make records, wouldn’t be photographed and wouldn’t headline gigs.

Their comrades Gang of Four and others disagreed with their ideas, eventually persuading them that there was nothing wrong with putting their songs out on an interesting, intelligent independent label, which Fast undoubtedly would soon prove itself to be.

FAST 1 was a critique by The Mekons of White Riot, the first single by The Clash, and many initially misunderstood the track (including myself) taking it to be an expression of regret that unlike, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon (who’d both taken part in a troubled Notting Hill Carnival in ’76), The Mekons had never had the chance to hurl bricks at cop cars or loot supermarkets.

No, no, no, no. The Mekons were acknowledging the vulnerability of being in that kind of situation and not being able to handle it, of being scared rather than performing macho heroics.

Rough Trade, by then vital to independent labels through their distribution network, declined to stock FAST 1, claiming it was just too incompetent, although they later had a change of heart. See what you think, released early in 1978, this is The Mekons with Never Been in a Riot:

 
Tony Parsons reviewed the single for NME along with the second Fast release, All Time Low by Sheffield’s 2.3. That week he nominated three 45s as Singles of the Week and remarkably two of the three were the Fast releases.

Of the Mekons’ Never Been in a Riot, he observed: ‘125 incisive seconds of cacophonic commitment from the pyrotechnical radicals who make the Sex Pistols sound like Black Lace.’

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And now for a Mekons single that I don’t think Tony Parsons or anyone else would ever describe as making the Sex Pistols sound like Black Lace.
Released in 1988 on the Sin Record Company this is the utterly superb Ghosts of American Astronauts:

 
The Mekons are on Facebook.

And finally a newish single from Port Sulphur on Creeping Bent, a band and a label that can both trace a number of connections to Fast Product and indeed to Big Gold Dream.

Had Neu! ever been commissioned by a particularly adventurous BBC producer to write a theme tune for a children’s TV show in 1974 it might just have sounded something like Fast Boys & Factory Girls:

 
Port Sulphur will be making their live performance radio debut on Thursday 20th August on Marc Riley’s excellent BBC 6Music show between 7-9 pm. For a measly pound you can buy Fast Boys & Factory Girls here.

If you want to visit the Creeping Bent site then here’s your link.

‘Too Punk Even For The Punk Crowd’: Part Two (Aberdeen & Dunfermline)

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Thanks to Les Clark for getting in touch and sending me his tale of attending the Clash show the night after the band played the Glasgow Apollo, which he originally sent to the letters page of Record Collector magazine.

The Aberdeen Music Hall leg of the On Parole tour seems to have witnessed the same kind of aggro as the Apollo gig although in Glasgow, The Specials did at least go down pretty well. Click on the image for a larger version.

Les Clark Coventry Specials Photo 
Directors Jack Hazan and David Mingay filmed segments of both these shows for the docudrama Rude Boy, footage of The Prisoner, with Joe’s famous introduction, ‘Some of us spent last night in jail, this a song called I don’t wanna be the Prisoner’, being shot in Aberdeen.

The final Scottish date of the tour took place at the Kinema in Dunfermline and unfortunately trouble again flared: later one eye-witness – Richard Jobson – recalled it as being one of the most violent crowds he had ever witnessed, with Suicide receiving their now standard barrage of abuse and Sham 69’s notorious fans known as the ‘Sham Army’ wading into Clash fans once the headliners took to the stage.

According to another account I’ve read of the night, fistfights were breaking out across the entire hall like some bar room brawl scene from an old Western movie, to the point where the bouncers just gave up and let the crowd get on with it.

Joe Strummer did attempt to quell the boxing, although he wasn’t on the whole successful. When fans began clambering onto the stage it was time to end. The cops arrived soon afterwards.

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Les Clark, incidentally is a graphic artist nowadays and has just designed the artwork for the upcoming release by Suicide’s old NYC contemporaries, The New York Dolls.

New York Dolls Butterflyin' 
Butterflyin’ is a rare live recording featuring tracks such as Looking For A Kiss, Trash and Personality Crisis. Available shortly on the Easy Action label, the CD also includes liner notes by Johnny Thunders/Dolls biographer Nina Antonia, who I previously interviewed here and here.

‘Too Punk Even For The Punk Crowd’

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7x7-1977

SUICIDE: GHOST RIDER (RED STAR)

Last week Suicide performed what they called a Punk Mass at the Barbican in London and though I wasn’t there to see the show, reading the reviews did bring back memories of the first time I saw the duo live.

Asked to select an unforgettable, career-defining gig in the Guardian back in 2008, Alan Vega of the band chose an infamous night at the Glasgow Apollo in the summer of 1978 when an audience member threw an axe in the direction of the singer’s head. “We were supporting the Clash and I guess we were too punk even for the punk crowd. They hated us. I taunted them with, ‘You fuckers have to live through us to get to the main band.’ That’s when the axe came towards my head, missing me by a whisker. It was surreal, man.’

Suicide 1978 Press Ad
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I was there, right down the front of the stalls and can confirm that, even by the standards of the Apollo, this was a mightily wild night even though I can’t remember any axe being thrown.

So why did this particular night explode into such a state of disorder?

Well, firstly Suicide was all about confrontation, two New York nihilists who liked to goad audiences and their shows were as much performance art as concert.

Alan Vega and Martin Rev were sonic innovators who can be compared in that respect to The Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk or My Bloody Valentine. As Joe Gross wrote years later in Spin: ‘Suicide managed to tear a giant hole in rock orthodoxy and scream inside the wound’ but this obviously wasn’t something that a majority of Clash fans wanted to hear on the night.

Historically too, at least from the era of music hall and variety onwards, Glasgow audiences have always been quicker than most to let an act know if they are unhappy with them. If they like you they love you, if they don’t like you, you might have problems.

It might be difficult to believe today when Joe Strummer is seen as an almost saintly worldwide punk icon but when The Clash headlined the Apollo at the tail end of 1977 as a ‘thank you to fans’, there was repeated booing from some punters between songs.

They weren’t bad but neither were they anywhere near the form of their Apollo debut just weeks beforehand.

Importantly, this third visit to Glasgow from The Clash was due to be the final ever time a rock act would play the venue as owners the Mecca organisation were reportedly keen to convert it into a Bingo Hall despite the ‘Save the Apollo’ campaign that quickly gained hundreds of thousands of signatures, including Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton… and myself.

Actually I must admit that I signed the petition more than once. Or twice. Or even more than three times.

As fears grew about potential trouble, rumours surfaced that the concert might be switched to the venue upstairs, the much smaller Satellite City. ‘Lynch law and mob rule will prevail, no doubt,’ one letter writer to Sounds predicted.

Things kicked off within seconds of Suicide taking to the stage and many in the crowd began demonstrating just how much they detested the avant-garde rockabilly racket conjured up by Vega and Rev. Boos and insults rang out across the old hall and before too long a hail of missiles were being aimed at them. And here I should add that luckily the Apollo stage was around eighteen feet high and anybody hoping to scale it required something approaching the climbing skills of Sir Edmund Hillary.

Some did occasionally manage the feat although I forget if anybody did that night.

Singer Alan Vega is not someone who is ever gonna come out with any ‘Make some noise, Glasgow’ or ‘You’ve been a wonderful audience’ clichés and the reaction of the baying crowd only encouraged his adversarial streak. ‘You’re all a bunch of bastards–bastards–bastards’ and other abuse echoing out from his mic in his Elvis yelp while Rev’s keyboards throbbed on.

Seats were broken, seats were thrown at the stage. Bouncers versus punks violence grew out of control and then managed to worsen. Once Suicide ended their set a comparative calm did descend but the aggro resumed with the appearance of the headliners.

This is how Chris Salewicz described the atmosphere in NME as The Clash hit the stage: ‘It’s like the Apocalypse is upon us and performing live in the stalls. Pogoing kids being dragged to the back of the hall and having the shit kicked out of them…Pogoing kids having the shit kicked out of them in front of the stage… ’

Some in the crowd believed that The Clash could have done more to end the beatings. Outside afterwards, an exasperated Joe Strummer was caught by plain clothes police officers smashing a lemonade bottle while discussing the idea with an assortment of fans. Paul Simonon came to his aid and both were arrested.

In court, the Judge is said to have asked Strummer the name of his band. ‘How appropriate,’ he observed on hearing it was The Clash. ‘Twenty five pounds fine.’

The Apollo remained closed and in limbo for the remainder of the summer with various acts offering to play benefit gigs. The campaign continued and in the middle of September good news finally arrived when it was confirmed that the hall would reopen for concerts later in the month coupled with an assurance that the venue would be given a £50,000 facelift.

The Tom Robinson Band, The Stranglers and Steel Pulse were some of the acts lined up to play though Suicide would never again play there.

From their self titled debut album, released on Marty Thau’s Red Star record label in December 1977, this is a live version of Ghost Rider:

 
For more on Suicide, click here.

Tess & Anton (& Five Guys Named Moe)

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Tess Parks and Anton Newcombe. I Declare Nothing

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In the early days of this blog I interviewed Tess Parks, a young singer and songwriter from Toronto who had just landed a deal with Alan McGee’s newly launched 359 Music, and during the interview when I inevitably asked her about the bands she most admired, Tess replied that along with Oasis, Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Spacemen 3, she loved The Brian Jonestown Massacre.

And now she has just released an album with Anton Newcombe from that band and very good it is too.

The sound of I Declare Nothing is lean and brooding but also dreamy and beautifully tender too and, although recorded in Anton Newcombe’s Berlin studio, many of the tracks conjure up images of desolate and dusty little saloon bars on the edge of the New Mexico desert surrounded by towering cactus trees and with perfect cerulean blue skies above.

There’s some great gauzy psych/shoegaze guitars and Tess’s always captivating vocals, while easily recognisable, are raspier than on Hot Blood and are now delivered with something of a melancholic mysteriousness, think somewhere between Patti Smith and Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star.

On the minus side, so far the album as a whole strikes me as slightly samey at times although I am just familiarising myself with it and my thoughts on this might just change after a few more listens.

This is German Tangerine:

 
Tess and Anton will be playing Glasgow’s King Tut’s next Tuesday (14th July).

For more on Tess, click here.

For more on The Brian Jonestown Massacre, here’s yer link.
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And now for some more Ontarians, well three Ontarians and one Scot.

Twenty five years ago I was asked if I fancied going along to see K.D. Lang at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow, the idea of which really didn’t excite me in the least.* Until, that is, I discovered that the support act for the show would be Five Guys Named Moe, a quartet actually, which consisted of Meg Lunney (vocals), Jonathan Evans (guitar and vocals), Tom McKay (bass) and Graeme Murray (drums).

To this day, I still don’t know that much about FGNM, only that they formed in Ottawa while young, relocated to London due to nearly all their influences being British bands and that they then somehow ended up making Glasgow their new base – where I would guess they met drummer Graeme, the sole Scot in the line-up.

From their self-titled album of 1990, this is Selfish Days:

 
* After a few beers I did rather enjoy K.D. though not as much as most in the auditorium that night. In fact, I was likely one of the few that thought Meg Lunney was actually a better singer.