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Teenage Superstars – An Interview with Grant McPhee (An Updated Repost)

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Big Gold Dream Teenage Superstars

Tomorrow night (29/6/18) sees a screening of Teenage Superstars, the sequel to Big Gold Dream, in Glasgow’s Govanhill Baths.

The film, shown last week in Edinburgh as part of the Film Festival’s Documentaries Strand, follows on from where the Big Gold Dream left off. There’s plenty of fine music from The Vaselines, Jesus and Mary Chain, BMX Bandits and a host of other Scottish indie stalwarts with the likes of Jim Reid, Alan McGee, Edwyn Collins and Eugene Kelly all interviewed along the way.

For those lucky enough to be going along, the legendary Jowe Head (Swell Maps & Television Personalities) will be playing his first Glasgow gig in 20 years, with some Teenage Superstars, Duglas T Stewart and Rose McDowall, helping out on backing duties. Additionally there will be a Q&A with director Grant McPhee and you can BYOB.

The screening starts at 7 pm on the dot but there will also be a few Easter eggs being shown from 18:30, so get along early, folks. A percentage of the ticket price goes towards support for Dan Treacy of The Television Personalities. Booking information here.

The Original Interview (from Sept 2016)

What can we look forward to in Teenage Superstars?

Like Big Gold Dream there will be a lot of joining up of the dots. Most of the bands covered are better known to a wider audience but how interconnected they are is probably less well known, and probably very surprising; especially the Bellshill bands who are a very large focus of the film. There was a point where BMX Bandits, Soup Dragons and a pre-Teenage Fanclub Boy Hairdressers shared most of their line-ups simultaneously. This is really the story of those bands and the wider Glasgow scene which followed pretty much straight on from where Big Gold Dream ends. It starts with The Pastels and the vacuum in the Glasgow music scene left by Postcard imploding.

Did you always plan to make two films?

No, it was originally to be one film called The Sound of Young Scotland which was to be about Postcard and Fire Engines only. It actually does exist – to an extent in a 2010 film, but it doesn’t really make sense for it ever to be released now.

Why the decision to double up?

Two reasons. The main one being that a fuller story was beginning to emerge that went far beyond our initial Postcard only story. It became apparent that when we were speaking to some of the stars of the first film there was a direct continuation to a bigger story which warranted a film in itself. For BGD, when speaking to people such as Eugene (Kelly) and Norman (Blake) we realised it made sense to speak to them about both films at the same time rather than coming back at a later date.

Oh right, so to an extent both films were really shot at the same time?

Well, when the idea for TS came along and the scope became wider, rather than risk BGD being eaten up by itself again we just made the decision to make two films. Saying that, BGD was a two hour film that at a very, very late stage had 30 minutes taken out. Those 30 minutes now form a good part of TS. Like I said, it’s complicated haha. But we now start off with The Bluebells, Pastels and Strawberry Switchblade. It’s not fair to say it’s the Glasgow story but some parts of BGD are re-told from a West Coast perspective.

What stage are you at with Teenage Superstars and when would you envisage it first being premiered?

Teenage Superstars is very nearly complete. Things may change, but we have some really exciting offers for premieres. At the moment we can’t say too much, but we will be able to make some announcements towards the end of the year. The film is almost there but what takes up so much of our time is dealing with archive clearances – music and video and we need to finalise them first. We decided very early on that if we were to do the films properly we needed to use the best music and archive available – it just would not work any other way. I can’t imagine anything worse than using a series of ‘soundalikes’ or those cheap Beatles films without actual Beatles music.

That kinda thing really should be banned!

We also purposely decided to not allow the film-making to take precedence. Both films are very simple in terms of how they are made and told so we felt it would only take away from the story to try anything complicated. And to not have proper archive would just take away from the excitement. So collecting our archive is a long and expensive process which is going to take up a large part of the next few months. But we do have some exciting and unique footage found in people’s lofts and basements.

How would you pitch the film to a distributor or sales agent?

We’re in a lucky position where both films are at such a late stage where they are beyond a proof-of-concept so we don’t have to explain to anyone too much what it would be like, we can just show them the finished film. BGD did better than we ever could have imagined and with that as a track record it makes TS much easier to pitch. The downside is that because of a lack of initial track record they had to be made on our own which was very tricky. At a basic level it’s just a story about great music, regardless of where it came from or when. So really the pitch is if you love this music you will love the films.

Any theories on why Scotland has managed to consistently produce so many talented independent bands over the years?

I think there are a combination of reasons. One is Fast having a strong and driven personality who happened to be around at the right time to nurture some very talented people. Those people having an element of success inspired others to believe they could do something similar. And generations of others have been inspired to either try the exact opposite or something similar to those who came before.

Where do you end Teenage Superstars and – if it takes in the 1990s – do you include the reactivated Postcard?

TS really ends at the beginning of a new era and the end of the film is the end of Postcard 2 and the emergence of Britpop. But like BGD it ends on a positive note, or more positive than that sounds.

And will there be a third film bringing the story up to date?

There is a skeleton for a third film. The honest answer is that both current films have been so all-consuming and personally incredibly expensive that a third film would really have to be commissioned by somebody for it to get beyond where it currently is, so it’s likely to remain unfinished. It covers or would have covered Belle and Sebastian, V-Twin, 1990s, Franz Ferdinand etc. There’s so much left to do it likely won’t be released.

What was your technique when shooting the documentaries, carefully plan everything or go with the flow?

Pretty much go with the flow. There was little opportunity for technique due to time. The main objective at the start was making contact with everyone involved and forming relationships and essentially getting voices down onto tape, to document in the purest sense. Obviously the early years were asking questions to extract just information, then as a story emerged – and more contacts were made there would be a refinement of the questions. A big part of the entire process was building up trust with the cast. It’s a lot to ask someone who doesn’t know you to tell you their story and allow you to tell that story to someone else in your own way. Overall we didn’t have any ulterior motives other than attempting to make a great film, and without any previous experience it was difficult to convince everyone of that.

Well, judging by the interviewees, you didn’t do a bad job on that score.

After BGD was released it became a lot easier, mainly that we could show that the first film had serious prospects so this next one could be similar. We were very careful with how we handled the material and various personalities which we took great lengths to achieve and hopefully that would show. But absolutely over and above everything we had an amazing community built around the film. So many people were so open to helping us create the story and we’ve managed to get contacts, information, photos, posters and advice to get the films where they are. That’s really what a lot of time was spent on. Mike O’Connor in particular seems to have an amazing online community of Scottish Indie music by running FB pages for most of the bands involved and his help has been a fantastic resource.

Having that support must have given you some extra motivation to keep at it during the inevitable times when the going got tough?

Actually, it’s by no means an exaggeration to say that without all the music fans support, the films would never have been completed. Of course that also helped the film as expectations started to mount and we had to produce something that could live up to it.

You’ve been filming for a long time now; I would guess that process has speeded up as you’ve gone along?

In the early days things moved very slowly, equipment and time were expensive so we had to save up for a while to do each interview – and that was frustrating. Even a dozen interviews could take a couple of years. Towards the end we managed to cram many interviews into a single day to keep costs down, it wasn’t ideal but it was the only way we could finish the film. Erik (Sandberg) and Innes (Reekie) coming on board was essential with their knowledge and enthusiasm and again the films would not have been made without them. Angela Slaven, our editor was the backbone to the film. We just handed her the material and she managed to make it into a film. Without her it would be very different. Wendy Griffin, the producer elevated the film to places and contacts we just could not achieve on our own, and in terms of finding a place for TS, winning the EIFF audience award has been a significant help. So for the film, a major part was finding the correct behind-the-scenes people for the film and waiting until they were available as their contributions would make or break it. And we had a great team.

Since you’re obviously such a massive fan of the music you cover, it must have been enjoyable talking to your subjects.

That was pretty easy as I was genuinely enthusiastic about finding out about them. My day job is as a technician on larger, mostly American movies so I’m pretty comfortable being around famous actors so I was never starstruck; though to me someone like Norman Blake is a far bigger star than Brad Pitt – and far more interesting.

Definitely!

Angela just cut around my mumbling and tangential questioning and we just had fun speaking to people about records. Other than having to be your own producer and arrange the interviews it was by far the most enjoyable part, along with the editing. Everything after was something close to nightmarish and involved little sleep for two years, haha. But really any process was born out of a massive enthusiasm in the subjects so in that respect this was the simplest part. I just told our subjects that we wanted to make a good film and explained that I didn’t really know what I was doing so asking for their help to achieve this seemed like a good move.

Any plans for a Big Gold Dream TV screening yet or news of a DVD release or VOD?

Yes and yes and more. There is a network TV screening later in the year, and we will have a DVD, streaming and other things available. Our B-Side, The Glasgow School is one extra but we also have 70 odd hours of interviews that have not been seen.

How do you think current Scottish independent music stands up against the Sound of Young Scotland era acts?

It may seem contentious but I think Postcard was the best and worst thing that has happened to Scottish music. Because Postcard had more of a focus on Scottish based bands, unlike FAST it quickly became regarded as a Scottish label whereas Fast were a record label based in Scotland. This, combined with the great music associated with Postcard quickly set Glasgow as a focus for music and aspiring local musicians. The legacy that’s built around Postcard has been so great that it’s very difficult to escape it’s shadow, and the irony is that’s what Postcard was all about. But there are great acts around and some very talented people.

You also direct your own drama films, how is that going at the moment?

Very different to the documentaries. The documentaries are fairly conventional so the dramas allow me to be a little more experimental. There’s one coming out later in the year called Night Kaleidoscope, which has had some good previews and I’m hoping to do another one early next year. I’ve been working with Dave Balfe, who used to run Zoo Records, who’s now a fantastic screenwriter. We’re working on a couple of drama scripts at the moment, one a horror and one a little closer to Zoo history (but purely drama).

And finally, what’s your own favourite music documentary?

I think All You Need is Love is fantastic, some amazing ’70s performances by folk like Jerry Lee Lewis.

Thanks for taking the time to talk and good luck with the film!

For more on Teenage Superstars here’s the Facebook page and here’s the link for Twitter.

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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.’

*

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.