Big Gold Dream: Scottish Post-Punk and Infiltrating the Mainstream

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Big Gold Dream

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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.

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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.

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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.

A 1975 Top Ten

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In 1975, unemployment in Britain rose to over one million, inflation peaked at a post-war high, Margaret Thatcher was elected Tory leader and as if all that wasn’t bad enough, as we all know from watching documentaries on punk, absolutely no good music was produced with the singles chart being clogged up with dross like Barbados by Typically Tropical and Whispering Grass by those two fellas from that laugh free sitcom set in India while the only albums being released were by Tolkien obsessed Bill Bailey lookalikes ham-fistedly fitting their latest pompous concept onto four sides of vinyl, wrapped in some airbrushed fantasy landscape gatefold sleeve courtesy of Roger fucking Dean.

Or maybe not.

Peter Hammill: Nadir’s Big Chance

Speaking of prog, although a solo work, Hammill’s fifth album is performed by the members of Van Der Graaf Generator, who after a break of a couple of years, reformed in 1975. VDGG are a group that I think of as the epitome of tiresome proggishness so what’s with the one-two-three-four opening, raucous guitars and angry young man lyrics here then?

In Nadir’s Big Chance ex-public schoolboy Peter Hammill adopts the persona of alter ego Rikki Nadir, an anarchic teenager who rails against the music biz and the world generally. Hammill told Sounds that during the recording of the album: ‘I was absolutely, absolutely Rikki Nadir’ and in the song he screams: ‘I’ll show you what it’s all about; enough of the fake / Bang your feet in a rage, tear down the walls and let us out!’

Johnny Rotten was a huge fan and punk is only a few steps away from Rikki’s glorious racket.

David Bowie: Fame

Okay, the video below isn’t technically Fame but it is the first appearance of the killer riff from Carlos Alomar which is added here to a medley of old R&B hits – Foot Stomping by the Flares and Shimmy Like Kate by The Olympics – and rasped out by Bowie here on The Dick Cavett Show. You can see the accompanying interview online where the Beckenham boy seems to be plagued by some kind of, ahem, nasal problem.

Fame went on to become Bowie’s first US numero uno and the track was swiftly and slavishly copied by James Brown for his far less successful single Hot which you can hear here.

 
Hamilton Bohannon: Disco Stomp

And on the theme of rip-offs, this UK top ten hit also inspired another big hit in ’75, New York Groove by Hello. Both were favourites of the very young Johnny Marr and, along with Bo Diddley, were a big inspiration for How Soon is Now?. Can’t quite imagine the young Mozza, though, doing the disco stomp.

Kraftwerk: Radioactivity

One famous Columbia ad campaign of the time claimed: ‘I saw rock’n’roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.’

Actually, it could be argued that the future of not just rock’n’roll but music generally was being created not in New Jersey but in West Germany and one of the strangest sights of ’75 had to the appearance on Tomorrow’s World by Düsseldorf based Kraftwerk, four guys who could have been mistaken for bankers, standing almost like statues behind a quartet of synthesisers, while playing a song about their country’s motorway system with the show’s host Raymond Baxter informing the audience (a large percentage passing time before Top of The Pops came on) that: ‘Next year, Kraftwerk hope to eliminate the keyboards altogether and build jackets that can be played by touch.’

Neu!: Hero

And also from West Germany, this is Neu!and a song that was in David Bowie’s mind when was writing and recording his album “Heroes” a few years later. On his Head Heritage site Julian Cope claims that Neu! ’75 is that act’s perfect album. ‘Side 2,’ he writes, ‘begins […] with the classic Ur-punk of “Hero”, in which every proto-punk device is thrown into its six heavenly screamed minutes. Klaus Dinger sings like a man possessed (though not possessed with a singing voice) over banked Steve Jones massed guitars and the double drumming of life.’

Dr. Feelgood: Back in the Night

Pub rock is nowadays often spoken of as some kind of pointer towards punk, a direct precursor even though the vast majority of it was backward looking and lame like Bees Make Honey (you just knew a band with a name like that would be a bore). Few bands broke out from the pub scene but by the summer of ’75, amped-up R’n’B act Dr Feelgood were certainly making waves. Looking like a bunch of villains from new hit show The Sweeney, the Canvey Islanders were installed as second top of the bill at the opening night of that year’s Reading Festival, where they were deemed by many the hit of the weekend. According to Melody Maker: ‘They had within the hour slot of their set transformed the festival site into ‘a tiny, sweaty, steaming R&B club.’

 
Jet: Nothing To Do With Us

By early ’75 the lustre of glam rock was rapidly losing its sparkle and many, if not all the young dudes, had by this point decided they’d had enough of silk sash bashes and hazy cosmic jive and it was a case of wham bam, we’re fed up of glam. Bowie’s Ziggy cut has been replaced by a wedge and he’s wearing zoot suits while Bryan Ferry starts sporting his GI look.

A kind of peculiarly English post-glam sound though lingers on with influences as diverse as music hall and Noel Coward. Think bands like Sailor and a little later Deaf School. Think also of Jet – no, not the pointless Aussie dullards – but the band fronted by Andy Ellison, he of the extremely arch vocal style who was upon a time was the singer of John’s Children and in the future would become a Radio Star.

Television: Little Johnny Jewel

Back in 2004 Television announced a very rare live performance at the Arches in Glasgow. On the night of the show I get a subway into the city centre early and meet my pal. It’s the night of a football match between England and Portugal and my pal has a big bet on Portugal so we find a wee bar showing the game and have a few beers. At half time I want to head to the venue but he insists we stay as the game is in the balance. It stays in the balance and remains a draw after ninety minutes. Extra time beckons. I try and drag him out the pub but he buys a double round in and almost manages to convince me that Television won’t be on till much later. I am easier to convince after a few beers and a glass of whisky.

Of course, extra time doesn’t settle the game and there’s no way he is leaving before the penalty shootout. I rush out during the spot kicks and Television have already started their set. I fail to locate my pal later inside the Arches until a voice I recognise shouts out a request for Little Johnny Jewel in between songs.

Television have already played that one.

Patti Smith: Gloria

I completely missed out on Patti’s performance of her album Horses in Glasgow back in June of this year but I’m assured it was an utterly mesmerising show of which Gloria was a highlight. This is Patti and band on Later With Jools Holland in 2007.

 
Gavin Bryars: Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet

This is one that was never destined to be jostling at the top end of the charts with the likes of The Stylistics or Showaddywaddy.

In 1971, Bryars worked on a documentary about homeless people in London and during the shoot one old fella was filmed singing a stanza of the religious song Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. This clip wasn’t actually used in the film but Bryars was given the tape of it anyway, which he played while at home and began improvising some music on his piano as an accompaniment which he later looped before adding an orchestral element. The original version of the piece was first performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall a year or so later, and then recorded for Eno’s Obscure label and released in 1975 as side two of the album The Sinking of the Titanic and I find it absolutely haunting.

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On another day these might have been included:

Eno: Another Green World / War: Low Rider / Roxy Music: Both Ends Burning / Ian Hunter: Once Bitten Twice Shy / Chris Spedding: Motor Bikin’ / Sparks: Get in the Swing / Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel: Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) / SAHB: Action Strasse.

A Scottish Post-Punk Top Ten

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As promised, my ten favourite Scottish post-punk tracks – or at least ten tracks that could be categorised as post-punk – in no particular order and with pretty much random thoughts on each, although I will go into much more detail on some of these songs in my Independent Scotland series in the weeks and months to come.

Scars: Horrorshow (1979)

When this was released I had read but hadn’t yet seen A Clockwork Orange. Hearing Horrorshow only made me want to see it even more although post-Kubrick’s death when it was re-released in cinemas I was almost inevitably disappointed by the film. Fantastic as it was in places, even its hyper-stylised ultraviolence failed to match the chilling intensity of this track, which is arguably the best record ever put out by a Scottish band.

Josef K: Sorry For Laughing (1981)

Although some could make a convincing claim for this track written by Paul Haig and Malcolm Ross and released by Belgian label Les Disques Du Crépuscule early in 1981.


The Associates: White Car in Germany (1981)

Wondering how Billy Mackenzie managed to achieve the particular vocal sound on this track? According to Alan Rankine in Simon Reynold’s book Totally Wired, he sang through greaseproof paper and a comb in the studio during its recording.

Strawberry Switchblade: Trees and Flowers (1983)

The band will always remain best remembered for Since Yesterday though I’ve always much preferred this pastoral and poignant track written about Jill’s agrophobia. I remember the first time I laid eyes on Jill and Rose in what used to be the Rock Garden in Glasgow. I was just up from working down south and I asked a pal if he knew who the two girls in the polka dots were. He explained they sang in a band called Strawberry Switchblade and I instantly knew that stardom was inevitable for them.

Simple Minds: I Travel (1980)

As previously featured on this here blog. A favourite back in the day at Maestros in Glasgow. And many more clubs across the country I would imagine.

Cocteau Twins: Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops (1984)

From Simple Minds to an act that named themselves after a song that Simple Minds recorded as part of their second demo tape in 1978 and which evolved into No Cure on their Life In A Day album.

Elizabeth Fraser is Scotland’s most imaginative singer ever. Discuss.


 Orange Juice: Blue Boy (1980)

The run-out grooves on the A & B side of this second Orange Juice single are: ‘When is an artist at his most dangerous?’ & ‘When he’s drawing a gun.’ Boom boom.

The Fakes: Production (1979)

If you read my last but one post you will remember me mentioning that it seems almost compulsory when making lists like this to include a relative obscurity. Well, here is the obscurity, although after another track by The Fakes was included in the Messthetics #105: D.I.Y. 77-81 compilation I guess the band are slightly less obscure. Production really does sum up how mind numbingly boring being a factory wage slave can be and luckily for me, by the time this single was released I was no longer working in the field of production myself. No huge loss for the factory that employed me although it did go out of business not too long afterwards.

Fire Engines: Candyskin (1981)

‘The Rough Trade attitude makes me sick,’ Davy Henderson told Melody Maker in the late summer of 1981. ‘That independent bullshit! They don’t want any stars and superstars – that’s disgusting.’ I still have no explanation why Henderson and his band of merry men never became stars let alone superstars.

The Jazzateers: Wasted (1981)

In his book on phase one of the Postcard label, Simply Thrilled, author Simon Goddard put the boot into The Jazzateers, or at least their earliest incarnation. ‘Their singer,’ he wrote, ‘was a waitress called Alison, who looked like a singer and sang like a waitress.’ He also writes of the band having wasted ‘Wasted’, their cover of that song from Donna Summer’s 1976 album A Love Trilogy. Yes, it does lack the gloss and slickness of the Summer version but I adore what I suppose might be called the naive charm of this track.

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On another day these might have been included:

Article 58: Event To Come / Altered Images: Dead Pop Stars / Strutz: We Are So Fine / Positive Noise: Give Me Passion / The Prats: Disco Pope / The Flowers: Ballad Of Miss Demeanour / Boots for Dancing: Boots for Dancing.