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.

Fireengines_KeirSt_sittingroom

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 sleeve2

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.

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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.’

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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.

Independent Scotland #4

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Human League Being Boiled

The Human League: Being Boiled (1978) Fast Product
 
In a Melody Maker interview back in February 1979, Martyn Ware of The Human League mentioned that the band were more influenced by films than by they were rock, claiming he’d rather see a good film than a good rock band. In the cinema, ‘You’re part of the experience. Whereas, watching a rock band, it’s just some guys up on a stage.’

When a tour (due to take in Edinburgh and Aberdeen) was later announced supporting Talking Heads, it became apparent that The Human League didn’t see themselves as your standard guys up on a stage kinda band.

Their idea for the show was a multimedia extravaganza, utilizing their new synchronization units that meant they could operate slides in sync with each song. The problem with the plan as far as Talking Heads (not exactly backwards looking dinosaurs themselves) were concerned was the fact that while each member of The Human League would be at the gig, rather than being the centre of attention, they would supposedly be in the audience, hopefully discussing the automated events on stage and signing autographs.

The idea got the band dropped from the tour although they wanted to press ahead with the concept and even expand it.

As their manager Bob Last explained to NME: ‘It’s cost us a lot of money to set up and now we have audio-visuals, tape memory banks – in fact, the whole gist of the show – just sitting in boxes and waiting to go.’

Last outlined the potential of the show and spoke of creating a version for discos rather than rock concerts. ‘There are various other avenues to be explored. For example, I think it would be the ideal support for Alien, or a film of that nature.’

After the comparative failure of second album Travelogue, tensions within the band increased; eventually singer Phil Oakey decided that he wanted to sack Ware, Ian Craig Marsh wasn’t keen on the idea and the pair quit and teamed up on a new project to be known as the British Electric Foundation (BEF).

Remaining members Oakey and Philip Adrian Wright retained The Human League name, although they had to be convinced by Bob Last to do so. The music press didn’t see much of a future for a band with only a singer and director of visuals (even if Wright had started playing incidental keyboards). And you could hardly blame them.

Oakey, though, came up with a possible solution to enable a forthcoming European tour to still go ahead. His plan to fill in the gap left by Marsh and Ware revolved largely around the recruitment of two schoolgirls, Suzanne Sulley (17) and Joanne Catherall (18), who he’d spotted on the dancefloor at the Crazy Daisy’s ‘Futurist’ night in Sheffield although he also additionally employed a professional keyboard player, Ian Burden.

Neither girl had any kind of remarkable singing voice and neither was that great at dancing either. If the pair had time-travelled thirty odd years forward and showed up at an X-Factor audition, they would likely be dismissed as no-hopers.

Luckily the pop buying masses of 1981 didn’t require performers with touching ‘backstories’ on Saturday night TV, neither did they require anyone to have been coached by professionals to perform pointless vocal gymnastics or to display a look that had been (supposedly) ‘styled’ to perfection by somebody with no sense of originality or indeed style.

Having seen the new look League on Top of the Pops miming to Sound of the Crowd, the pop buying masses decided they actually liked the caked-on mascara, beauty spots and lippy and the slightly awkward and un-coordinated dance routines. Generally, girls identified with them while boys fancied them.

The Face Sept 1981 Human League Smash Hits 1981

Joanne and Suzanne soon became the poster girls for synth-pop but Bob Last, in particular, judged the band could be improved further by the addition of one final and vital ingredient, another professional musician, after Ian Burden temporarily left post-tour.

It might have appeared that the ex-guitarist of the retro obsessed Rezillos and the futuristic Human League had little in common bar sharing the same manager but in April 1981, Jo Callis was invited to become a permanent member, the idea being even stranger if you bear in mind Callis’ confession that he had never been near a keyboard in his life.

The first Human League album with the new line-up, Dare was released in October, 1981 and quickly made its way to the top of the UK album charts. By Christmas it had gone platinum in Britain, its number one status equalled by a single that Phil Oakey hadn’t wanted released, Don’t You Want Me – he only agreed finally on the condition that a large colour poster accompanied the 45, otherwise, he felt, fans would feel ripped off by the ‘substandard’ single alone.

Co-written by Callis, Oakey and Wright, the ‘substandard’ single went on to become one of the UK’s biggest ever selling songs*, the British Christmas number one of 1981 and also later an American #1 too and a worldwide smash.

And here I finally get round to the Scottish independent labels part of the post. Due to the success of Don’t You Want Me, the first ever Human League single, Being Boiled, which had been originally released during the summer of 1978 on Bob Last’s Edinburgh based Fast Product label, was made available again and this time entered the top ten of the singles charts, where it should have been first time around. For me it’s a much better record than Don’t You Want Me. See what you think:

 
And if anybody is wondering, this is only the first of a number of entries in this series looking at Fast Product, so I will get round to writing more on the actual label in the future. Honestly.

* It even re-entered the charts here a couple of months ago after being taken up by Aberdeen fans in the run up to their team winning the Scottish League Cup.

For more on The Human League: Official Site