Things are certainly looking up
The myth of London as the cradle of Britain’s rock culture has crumbled dramatically in recent years. it began with Birmingham’s 2-Tone label, then Factory emerged from Manchester, and Zoo and Inevitable from Liverpool.
And if any confirmation was needed that London no longer dominated the Industry, it’s come this month with a fierce onslaught on the big city from a surge of genuinely exciting new talent from Scotland.
The Scots resurgence has been engineered by the fierce independence of boy genius (and world musical authority) Alan Horne, who founded Postcard Records in Glasgow, while Fast Product supremo Bob Last gave Edinburgh a second David to attack Goliath-Pop: Aural.
While some bands, like the Scars, still looked to London for their fortune, the bands fostered by Horne and Last determinedly made their records north of the border, and left the kilts to Spandau Ballet. The result is a new belief and commitment in Scots rock, and a new incentive for local bands who suddenly saw that they could flourish beyond the jaded circuits and played-out rituals of the Southern metropolis.
Yet, unlike 2-Tone and Factory, the new Scottish labels are not in pursuit of some special and ultimately inhibiting “sound” of their own, as this month’s invasion by Pop: Aural’s Fire Engines and Postcard’s Orange Juice, Aztec Camera, and Josef K has so clearly proved.
So what of the other? Is Aztec’s Roddy Frame really Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney rolled into one? Do the Fire Engines dress up in silly uniforms? And how existentialist can Josef K get?
You may not find all the answers here, but it’ll be as near as dammit.
East Kilbride, Glasgow’s overspill satellite, is the home of Scotland’s brightest pearl, Aztec Camera. Down it’s cold, grey streets lives an unassuming trio whose music will break the meanest heart of stone. Armed with only their hopes and songs, they came to London for the first time ever this month to play just their third show of the year, and held The Venue’s normally blase audience in rapt attention for over an hour.
They were hauled back for a triumphant encore, and were paid one of the largest fees in their short career – £125. As 17-year-old Roddy Frame, the group’s singer, writer and guitarist, said afterwards. “It was a great gig – we don’t usually react with an audience like that. We’re usually very shy!”
Having only heard, and loved, their first single “Just Like Gold” / “We Could Send Letters”, the depth and relaxed confidence of their performance came like a revelation, giving credence to the ravings of Postcard’s Alan Horne.
Persuaded by Josef K’s Malcolm Ross to see the Aztec’s support The Rezillos. Horne was sufficiently moved to write later: “It was like stumbling into Max’s to find The Velvet Underground, but this Lou Reed was 16 and the audience were 61. We had all been proven wrong; there was another group in Glasgow apart from Orange Juice.”
Apart from their youthful charm, Aztec Camera are distinguished by Roddy Frame’s gift for singing and writing songs that are driven by the most exquisite, twisting melodies, and sculpted into dynamics subtle enough to be called serene.
It was back in 1979 that Roddy formed the group with drummer Dave Mulholland and bassist Welsh, since departed and replaced by Campbell Owens. “David and I were in a group called Neutral Blue.” Roddy told me. “I was the lead guitarist and we used to do stuff like “White Riot.”
Prophetic stuff, perhaps, though today they choose one of The Clash’s milder statements of early intent, “Garageland” is more a happy coincidence than a rediscovered paean to forgotten principles.
“We were practicsing in a friend’s garage and someone suggested we do it as a joke. I suppose we are a bit of a garage band, though, but that’s because we haven’t got anywhere else to practice, so if anybody’s got any offers!”
The unaffected maturity in Roddy’s latest songs could not be further from the three-chord thrash that would later mutate into the wonders of Oi, but in the beginning things were quite different.
“All the early stuff I wrote was very punk,” Roddy admits, nervously glancing at the floor. “I try and concentrate more on melody and chords now – there’s hardly any lead guitar in the songs either.”
Two characteristics seem to be especially outstanding in his work: the unusual, almost jazzy chord progressions exemplified by a new gem called “The Spirit Shows”, and the searingly poignant, emotional lyrics, a sample of which run:
It makes sense to discover, then, that Roddy’s current heroes are more likely to be Wes Montgomery and Django Rheinhardt than Magazine or The Clash, and that instead of lyrically aping The Damned’s “New Rose” he says his approach is “much more upfront these days.”
“I can only do songs that really mean something to me these days,” he says. “I try and capture the feeling I had when I wrote the song when I’m singing it as well. That way it always works better.”
Living in East Kilbride, a town equivalent to England’s Milton Keynes, seems to have nurtured the group’s endearing sense of survival humour, and while they all see it as “rather dull and drab”, they say there’s nowhere they would particularly prefer to live. Going into town with their mates on Saturday afternoon and sipping the occasional carry-out at home are high spots in their dizzy social life.
At first this helped to give Roddy a “bleak outlook on life”, but this, he adds, faded. so what happened? “Aw, the sun came out.” was his smirking reply.
Small gigs like their recent stint in the Glasgow Spaghetti Factory are their life blood, with intimacy high on the list of priorities. “I just couldn’t believe how many people were at The Venue,” Campbell recalls in awe. “There were 957! I know because I counted their legs and divided by two!”
Likewise, the thought of signing with a major record company terrifies them. Roddy: “I’d hate to be with a big company. I don’t want anyone pressurising us to come up with material or to do it a certain way. I’d rather take three years to do an album that I really like – every song has to be a good one. I don’t want an LP with any fillers on it like so many others.”
In fact they aren’t far short of having enough original songs (leaving out the singles, including the latest, “Mattress Of Wire”) for an album that will hopefully be recorded in the autumn, which goes under the provisional title of “Green Jacket Grey”.
Even for this they don’t intend to expand their line-up, preferring to push to the frontiers of their present possibilities. “I think it’s interesting to see what we can do as a three-piece,” says Roddy, who has only recently acquired a proper semi-acoustic jazz guitar. “I think we can do a lot within the framework we’ve got.”
On this point nobody’s arguing, and when I urge them to summarise their style, the effervescent Campbell comes to the rescue: “Unique, that’s the word you’re looking for.”
Magic? You better believe it.
THE FIRE ENGINES
Break up, not down! Their music is made of shattered surfaces, broken moods and shredded images. Such linear agility allows spiritual appearances by Beefheart and T Rex in any typically segmented composition.
Facts: The Fire Engines are (from Scotland): David Henderson on guitar and vocals; Russell Burn on drums; Murray Slade on guitar. Records released on Bob Last’s Pop:Aural label, based in the group’s home town of Edinburgh, are: Singles: “Get Up And Use Me”, “Candy Skin”. LPs: Lubricate Your Living Room. Speakers for the group are David and Murray. Subjects are:
Venues: Prior to their Heaven show, with first-time live backing singers and strings, the largest London date was the Lyceum.
David: “Most people missed us at the Lyceum because we were on first. Heaven was much more exciting, very fast. It was quite interesting because that’s the first time we’ve played in front of an audience for about three months – we had a big break while Murray was at college.”
Packaging: With Fast Product, Bob Last made pure packages available that contained little except more packages. The Engine’s new compilation LP for the American market bears the message “Ready Packed For Action Fun.”
David: “I think it’s important that things have a label as such but the people concerned should get the chance to label themselves. We designed the cover of our album, but I feel we’re just a group. We never saw ourselves as an Edinburgh group.”
By showing multiple aspects at once, The Fire Engines establish themselves as the true futurists. Uninterrupted motion is conveyed through a grand musical transparency of overlapping styles.
Indies: Though “Candy Skin” came near to making the national charts their real success has been mainly visible in the so-called independent charts, with both singles and album enjoying long stays at the top.
David: “The Rough Trade attitude makes me puke. That independent bullshit! They don’t want any stars or superstars – that’s disgusting. We want to get across to as many people as possible, so we will use all the aspects of the business around us to our own advantage.”
It’s common knowledge among the cognoscenti that the Fire Engines only came down to play at Heaven so they could see the royal wedding on the cheap.
Media: Their contributions to other popular expressions include writing the music for a fringe play called Why Won’t The Pope Come To Glasgow, which they describe as “very Brechtian”, and a cowboy film made on Super 8.
David: “The printed word is dead. It’s so outmoded now. Journalists are generally very irresponsible. I mean, most of the music press is not worth getting your fingers dirty for.”
“I admit the build-up has helped a lot. There probably wouldn’t have been so many people at Heaven if it wasn’t for the coverage we’ve got. It’s given us a lot of access to things we needed – it has ts good points.”
“Generally though, I don’t like the music press. They’re so limited and sterile. The layouts are so old-fashioned for a start. They never change from week to week. The only thing that makes them change is when new groups come along and do things themselves. I love television, but there’s no control over it. We should have more access.”
The New Pop: Murray: “I think it’s just coincidence, any similarity to The Fall, though there is that kind of Northern thing in our music as well. There’s something ancient there – something to do with King Arthur. I dinnae ken what it is though. On the other hand, I quite like listening to some disco stuff.”
David: “We all listen to so many different things, but I don’t hear much that is really new. First it was rockabilly, now it’s funk. People are falling back on old styles to cover their lack of ideas and relax in the security of the past.”
Scotland: David: “Most people who work in the music business in Scotland are assholes. They’re all cokeheads totally interested in making money and nothing else.”
Murray: “We’ve known Bob Last for years now and he’s one of the few people who are alright. He just showed an interest. He’s out to make money alright, but not at our expense.”
Listen to The Fire Engines. They could jar you into REACTING, THINKING, MOVING! Their dance is Break Up! The message to Wake Up!
Don’t stop, don’t even pause. Go head over heels to Josef K on their staccato rush, their burning iridescence, above all their terrible urgency demands immediate attention.
Forgive an unpredictability that springs from untamed spirits. Ignore diversionary production diatribes in misleading reviews, they have made one of this year’s most haunting LPs – suitably named and lovingly played, The Only Fun In Town.
A timeless collection of immaculate songs, Fun . . . represents the group’s second attempt at 33 rpm perfection. guitarist Malcolm Ross explains: “We scrapped the first LP because we simply didn’t like the results. I think we rushed into it really. Alan Horne just started Postcard and he decided it ought to make some money, so he suggested we make an LP just because he knew if Orange Juice made one they wouldn’t be happy with it, but he thought we would be satisfied with what we could do at the time.”
“Looking back, I don’t think we really gave it enough thought. We just went, ‘Oh we’ve got enough songs, we can do an LP.”
Recorded at the 24-track Castle Sound Studios on the fringes of their native Edinburgh, the final results came nowhere near the sound and feel they hoped to capture.
“I must admit it turned out really bad. We put in too many things – to many gimmicky things: slamming doors and background shouts, that sort of thing.”
Still on the dole, yet realising starting afresh meant a straight loss of two grand, they unanimously agreed to go back to square one – dedication, as you can see, sometimes costs are more blood, sweat and tears.
Brushing aside this setback, Josef K have an unshakeable confidence in their music which has nothing to do with shallow bravado, and they started the ominous year of ’81 playing on the same bill as Orange Juice in Brussels’ Plan K, a vast converted sugar refinery split into five floors of freaks. films and transvestites.
The force behind Les Disques Du Crepuscule and Factory Benelux, the enigmatic Annik and Michel, suggested the group recorded a single (“Sorry For Laughing” / “Revelation”) at a tiny garage studio before departing. Vindicating their earlier decision, it was happily realised that at last a place had been found which allowed their energy to come through.
Imagine their chagrin in discovering that nearly every reviewer saw the resulting unorthodox production (a group effort) as sadly misconceived. Crackling with rough exuberance, the treble-high guitars and unusually delicate bass-drums axis proved too much of a culture shock, while the mixed-down vocals were decidedly out of order for those unfortunate souls addicted to the sterility of high-tech attack.
It’s not as if they came near to the neo-Luddite style of early Fall. Never slipping into excessive opulence of new psychedelia, they achieve a satisfying clarity without sacrificing the subtle tensions and fierce exigency that is so close to the soul of Josef K.
There are, it seems, no regrets from the group. “We’re all very happy with the LP,” Malcolm says in whispery Scottish tones. “We wanted to sound hard and aggressive but not heavy. In fact we used to be a lot more trebly – we’ve mellowed a bit!”
“Besides,” adds bassist David Weddel, “I’m not sure what difference all the reviews and hype make anyway. I mean, The Fire Engines album sold 11,000 while the Scars, who have a huge promo campaign behind them compared to The Fire Engines, sold 12,000. We’ve already sold 10,000,” he announces triumphantly, “and that was just in the first two days!”
Josef K all met each other at school in Edinburgh. Paul Haig, the group’s singer, lyricist and second guitarist, started the nucleus with his then next-door neighbour, drummer Ronnie Torrance. Later joined by Malcolm, they made they first stage appearance as TV Art at the Pollock Halls in Edinburgh. The departure of their bass player Gary McCormack left a space for David, who gave up his role as roadie / manager, marking the beginning of a harsher and more personal group style that would eventually evolve into their special mix of oblique melodies over brittle, angular guitars.
During those formative days their inspirations were closer to the surface, and TV Art were seen as a kind of mutant cross between Lou Reed, Television and The Only Ones. Wunderkind Alan Horne remembers them as being “very half-baked. Malcolm was playing Steve Cropper’s part from ‘Dock Of The Bay’ at the soundcheck and I thought, ‘Oh God.’ They did have one song that stood out though, called ‘Chance Meeting’.”
This was to become the first Josef K single on Absolute Records. Only 1,000 were pressed, backed by a song called “Romance”.
Dipping into Subway Sect, they continued to move on, releasing three further singles, “Radio Drill Time”, “It’s Kinda Funny” and “Sorry For Laughing” as well as recording the lost LP. 10 copies of which were retained for posterity.
Along the way they collected a reputation for erratic but sometimes electric stage shows – an image unbroken by their recent appearance at London’s Venue, where they failed to realise their full potential.
Imagine an unholy cross between Lou Reed and Frank Sinatra singing “sometimes I know it’s crazy to exist” against a wall of shrill, razory guitars and you have the sound of Josef K.
This, as Paul would say, is “intensity – that’s what I think we achieve, intensity.
(Melody Maker, 22/08/81)