This originally appeared in The Borders Telegraph, 18/01/2018
Where Were You?
40 years ago this month a group of wayward youths broke into a quiet Galashiels cottage.
In the 1970s there was nothing unusual about housebreaking sadly – unemployment was high, policing was low and there was little in the way of entertainment for the disenfranchised young. The country was in crisis and theft and violence were commonplace – even in the sleepy Scottish Borders.
This break-in was very unusual however, nothing was stolen but there was a sense of burning revolutionary intent. These youths were far more dangerous to society than mere petty criminals – these were the new bread of Punk Rockers. A threat to the old order and they were here to record one of the most pivotal Punk Rock records of the 1970s. And they had travelled all the way from Leeds to do it.
This recording would become the first 7” release on the hugely influential Edinburgh record label, Fast Product. The recording would not only become a blueprint for the emerging Post-Punk genre but also inspire a generation of misfit Scottish youths to believe they too, regardless of ability or class could become pop stars – albeit in their own unique way.
The Mekons, the unkempt bunch of Leeds art students who recorded the 7” are now regarded as one of the most visionary groups of the era. They would later combine punk music with politics, country and folk – all years before anyone else would dare. The Fast Product organisation would soon thereafter gain major international success by giving the world a Christmas 1981 No.1 single – ‘ Don’t You Want Me’ by The Human League.
In late 1977 this was all still a dream though, one based in a small Edinburgh flat from where impresarios Bob Last and Hilary Morrison ran their fledgling record label. Reality arrived while they were assisting Edinburgh band The Rezillos during an edgy tour of Northern England.
Bob, inspired after Hilary had given him a self-financed Buzzcocks EP, was looking to find a suitable band to record for their label’s first release. He knew he had found it as soon as the support band stood on stage. They were The Mekons. “I just thought, well this is something that can cut through the crap to put it simply”.
Singer, Mark White stated -“The Mekons USP was that we couldn’t play, we could haphazardly break down the barriers between audience and band because we were the audience”. This was something completely different from the posturing and sneering of The Sex Pistols. Playing was one thing, making a record however was another…
Jon Langford (drums) – “It wasn’t like any of us had the faintest idea how to make a record but Bob was quite confident and assertive so we kinda went along with his plans”
Bob arranged a meeting with his manager at the Bank of Scotland and asked for £400 to record and release the single; to his surprise the manager amazingly agreed. All they needed now was a quiet place to record it. You had to move fast in 1977.
The Rezillos then soundman, Tim Pearce had an uncle who lived in the country – the perfect place to record a Punk record they all agreed. Gathering a cheap 4 Track recorder they then set off for Galashiels. On arrival, to their horror they discovered that Tim’s uncle had left for the weekend. With mobile phones being a few years away it was decided their quickest and simplest solution would be to post Hilary through a small window and let everyone in.
Mark: “It was effing cold. It was fairly intense and busy and done very quickly.”
On hearing the recording back Jon was horrified – “I thought it would magically sound like a real record once it reached vinyl form but it just sounded like us banging around in a cottage in Scotland”.
Bob though believed they had made a hit record. Unfortunately Rough Trade, then the most important distributor of all things punk, thought it was the worst recorded single they’d heard and refused to stock it. Without Rough Trade’s support the single would flop.
Salvation came from the NME – the weekly music bible for rebellious teenagers, ready to devour the latest Punk release. They declared it their ‘Single of the Week’, lofty praise indeed. This would change everything for band and label. Legendary BBC DJ John Peel gave it his thumbs up and soon after the band would sign to Virgin Records. It was a decision they would regret but that is another story in itself.
After the release Fast Product would soon became inundated with tapes from hopeful young bands from around the world, releasing the first recordings by Gang of Four, Joy Division, Dead Kennedys, DAF and The Human League. Such exemplary recordings being released from Edinburgh had an enormous effect on the then Scottish Youth. Bands, labels and gigs would emerge from the Scottish wasteland – producing work which would go on to influence many others.
Today The Mekons still tour and have released over 30 records to great critical praise. They may not have sold many of them but they have nonetheless influenced numerous bands, especially the hugely popular American Alt-Country movement -who have gone on to sell millions. And it all started by breaking into a small cottage in Galashiels.