I’ve rewound to the early days of 1979. By this point independent music labels have started springing up in Scotland; there’s Sensible and Zoom in Edinburgh for instance, Boring in Glasgow, NRG in Dundee and No Bad in Dunfermline but they’re still a real rarity.
In an NME article titled Product Packaging, and Rebel Music, I read about the most high profile addition to this trend, Edinburgh’s Fast Product, whose first releases, singles by The Mekons and 2.3, had came out around a year earlier.
Bob Last, a former architecture student and theatre set designer at the Traverse, is interviewed and writer Ian Cranna concludes that: ‘Last has the potential to be what Brecht was in theatre,’ a statement that sounds mightily impressive even though at this point in my life I know as much about concepts such as Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect as I do about quantum mechanics.
Nowadays I’m reasonably up to speed with Brecht and, although I’m still pretty mystified by the science behind the big bang theory, I think I can at least say that according to the new feature length documentary Big Gold Dream, the nearest musical equivalent of any big bang exploding the whole punk and independent movement in Scotland into life would be The Slits and Subway Sect performing on the Edinburgh Playhouse date of The Clash’s White Riot Tour.
‘It was a real Year Zero moment,’ Davy Henderson explains in the film. ‘It was incredible.’
Many young fans were certainly galvanised that evening and a bunch of them would quickly gravitate to the artistic hub of the Keir Street tenement flat of Bob Last and Fast co-conspirator Hilary Morrison, where they would discuss music and literature, try out some William Burroughs style cut-ups and eat a lot of toasties.
Fire Engines, Keir St. Sitting Room: Photo by Hilary Morrison
‘Glam punk’ Morrison is an always particularly entertaining presence in the film, talking of her delight at Johnny Rotten telling her that he despised her when she asked him to sign a Sex Pistols single in Virgin Records in Edinburgh and recalling the tale of having to break into somebody’s uncle’s remote Borders cottage in order to record the first single by The Mekons. I won’t though spoil the ending of her very amusing story about a photoshoot that involves various Fire Engines, £15 worth of meat from Safeway, baby oil and a visit regarding a break-in unrelated to any recording session.
Alan Rankine also made me smile while relaying a meeting between American impresario Seymour Stein and The Associates, where the Sire head honcho offers them the moon unaware that Billy Mackenzie was far from the average rock star and more interested in whippets than whopping advances, especially if the money involved world tours.
Fast Product release a string of stunningly inventive tracks by The Mekons, Gang of Four, Human League, Scars, Dead Kennedys and even as part of their one-off Earcom series, Joy Division. They also turn down any chance of Joy Division signing to Fast due to their problematic name, turn down the chance to release Human Fly by The Cramps and somehow manage to sell rotting orange peel. The label mutates into Pop:Aural and brings out records by local acts including a Fire Engines single called Big Gold Dream.
A new kid on the block independent makes its presence felt very quickly in Glasgow and the inter label rivalry between Fast/Pop:Aural and Postcard Records is explored. Yes, both labels share the belief that Scottish acts shouldn’t have to up sticks and move to London in order to have a shot at success but they disagree about so much more with Alan Horne branding Fast ‘pathetic’ in one music press interview – although Bob Last denies the feud involved him sending any death threats to his west coast adversaries.
Glad to hear it.
Notably, Alan Horne, a kind of West End of Glasgow Warhol in the early ’80s, passed up on the chance to appear here and I’m sure that, if he is even anything like the spectacularly acerbic young man of the Postcard era, director Grant McPhee could have had great fun intercutting between the pair as they aimed a few digs at each other – like the footage of Alan McGee and Kevin Shields in the documentary Beautiful Music.
‘He was condescending and dismissive of musicians’, Campbell Owens of Aztec Camera complains although David McClymont from Orange Juice remembers him as being ‘a lovely guy’. But only very ironically.
A happier relationship existed between Bob Last and Tony Wilson with Last even offering Wilson advice when he was setting up Factory. It would have been interesting to learn Wilson’s thoughts on Fast but at least we get to hear what the ever reliable raconteur Peter Hook has to say about the two men.
Scars doing pix for single sleeve: Photo by Hilary Morrison
Anyone who read my Scottish Post–Punk Top Ten a few weeks back won’t be too surprised to learn that I’m very happy that Scars are one of the most heavily featured acts here, with Douglas McIntyre of Creeping Bent Records going as far as to argue that Horrorshow and Adult/ery were Scotland’s Anarchy in the UK but if there is a heart of the documentary it’s probably Fire Engines singer Davy Henderson, later also of Win, Nectarine No. 9 and The Sexual Objects. Henderson is always fascinating, often funny and obviously still haunted by his decision (urged on by Bob Last) to break up Fire Engines. ‘One of the biggest regrets of my life,’ he admits.
Around this point it’s time for the infiltrating the mainstream part of Big Gold Dream, some of the film’s participants achieving this ambition more successfully than others.
Win seem to be on the verge of a real commercial breakthrough after their uber-pop single You’ve Got The Power is used in a very imaginative ad for a third-rate Scottish lager but they’re cruelly denied a place in the top 40 due to the track being chart weighted as such a high percentage of sales were concentrated in one part of Britain.
Aztec Camera, Strawberry Switchblade and The Bluebells fare better as do Orange Juice, who move from Postcard to Polydor, while Alan Horne is offered his own label by London Records which he names Swamplands – the cutesy pussycat Postcard logo replaced by a prowling panther (something I’d strangely never picked up on until Allan Campbell mentioned it here).
It’s Bob Last, however, in his role as manager (or Executive Manipulator) of The Human League and Heaven 17 who is involved in the most stratospheric success aided greatly by his decision to help split the original Human League line-up in two and bring former Rezillo Jo Callis into the shiny new version of the band and later insisting that the shiny new version of the band release Don’t You Want Me as a single despite pressure from Phil Oakey not to.
Despite the global success of Dare and the undoubted influence of Fast Product, Bob Last didn’t go on to equal in music or any other medium what Brecht did in theatre, which is hardly a disgrace. And he did also go on to co-produce one of the most magical animated movies that you could ever wish to see, The Illusionist, which also incidentally features music by Malcolm Ross and Ian Stoddart – who both appear in Big Gold Dream – and Leo Condie in the guise of beat combo, Billy Boy and the Britoons.
Big Gold Dream won the Audience Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and so far reviews have been highly favourable: my fellow blogger the Vinyl Villain, for instance, calling it ‘a joy to watch’.
Richard Jobson, though, isn’t much of a fan, tweeting: ‘Just watched Big Gold Dream rewrite history to fit a story and Bob Lasts ego – fuck off.’
I thought myself that at least some mention of The Skids could have been made – likewise Johnny and the Self Abusers/Simple Minds, but just don’t ask me what I would have cut to make room for these suggestions as there are so many great interviewees here such as Fay Fife, Billy Sloan, Jill Bryson, Vic Godard and Tam Dean Burn to name only a handful.
The film is a vast improvement on the fatally flawed BBC Scotland doc Caledonia Dreaming (no Hue and Cry and Wet Wet Wet for starters). In fact, it is easily the best documentary on Scottish music I can think of and one of the best music documentaries made in the last decade or so and the good news is that a sequel Teenage Superstars: The Fall of Postcard and the Rise of 53rd & 3rd Records will follow on, hopefully in the not too distant future.
Big Gold Dream will screen this Friday (2. Oct) at the Doc ‘n Roll Film Festival in London followed by a live Q&A with Bob Last. The film’s Facebook page can be found here while if you prefer Twitter, this is your link.