Big Gold Dreams Box Set Essay

From the Cherry Red Big Gold Dreams Box Set 

 

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We were like explorers.” That was the succinct phrase used by Bob Last when describing to me his nascent adventure running Fast Product. The word ‘explore’ is synonymous with my own experience in trying to document a small part of Scotland’s vast Independent musical history 1977-1990 with the films ‘Big Gold Dream’ and ‘Teenage Superstars’. These documentaries took the easy option – as did much of the press at the time – of focussing almost exclusively on three record labels – Fast, Postcard and 53rdand 3rd– and leaving out a complicated, sometimes confusing wider story, which could not be told as simply.

This box set aims to cover not just most of the expected benchmark names, including many of those artists featured in the films, but to also shine a light on the vast other riches from Scotland, still waiting to be fully explored and adored. When I started making these documentaries, I believed I knew a lot about this period but I quickly realised then – as I still do now – that even after interviewing over 70 people from the era, as soon as you enter into this rabbit hole you can only go deeper and deeper and still discover more.

The 1976 ‘Year Zero’ moment of Punk, as has been forensically documented over the ensuing 40 years, did shake up people’s worlds. It didn’t matter whether you actually fully bought into the Sex Pistols’ rallying cry for anarchy, in some form; by virtue of its mere existence, you became infected with the UK punk virus, either by your action or reaction towards it. No-one interested in music could escape its touch and as punk slowly worked its way up the country, eventually Scotland became no different to anywhere else when it arrived.

Punk’s effect on all aspects of Scotland’s pop culture – as with other towns and cities it had passed through – were immediate, fast and confusing for many. Music and youth were the prime focus for the culture-bending effects it brought; some were already patiently awaiting punk’s arrival, like UFO devotees preparing to be transported to its brave new world. Others were only too happy to have their old worldview shattered and rebuilt from the ground up and just as importantly, a vast majority of Scotland’s youth were often violently opposed to this new movement.

As teenage fists flew, Scottish groups would use this antagonism towards them and allow it to seep in and develop into one of their defining characteristics, a common thread which runs across every development throughout this box set – from the Postcard-era bands to The Jesus and Mary Chain and to Bellshill and beyond. It created a rebellious desire to become bone-fide pop stars; something which was possibly already present but the mixture of opportunity and the defiant attitude introduced by punk allowed this reality to happen for some. For others, it was simply the moment to create their fantastically uncompromising interpretations of pop music. “We were just waiting for it,” exclaimed Tam Dean Burn.

Like everywhere outside of London, the idea of punk would often arrive before many of the records themselves did. Despite John Peel’s best efforts, this often created confusion as to what ‘punk rock’ actually sounded like. In many respects, Scotland’s wild west period – that brief moment between the weekly music press announcing of this new form of music and the soon-to-be-established, somewhat formal rules of punk – helped inspire the exciting, diverse and fresh sounds which ensued. It was this recurring attitude of punk as a concept that would remain the over-riding force throughout the entire 1977-90 period driving the independent music of Scotland. Soon, the opportunity to hear punk’s stars in the flesh would be available to everyone in Scotland’s major cities; perhaps as a cultural dipping-of-toes into the water precursor to the Capital’s late summer arts festival, this opportunity took place in one of the city’s grandest, most prestigious venues.

Scotland’s Lesser Free Trade Hall moment was The Clash’s White Riot Tour concert at Edinburgh’s Playhouse on the 7thMay 1977. Unlike the more famous Manchester event, almost everyone who claims to have attended this gig was actually there. The venue was huge and filled to the roof with blank canvas-clad youths. The DNA for Scotland’s new music scene was born here and the attitude and influence for future bands was set from the audience reaction. Each band acted like giant mirrors, reflecting back fresh-faced teenage hopes primed for their new future. The DIY look and sound of support acts Subway Sect and The Slits were arguably as influential to a large part of Scotland’s music scene as headliners The Clash were to others. Fashion (or anti-fashion) would mix symbiotically with the attitude.

Before it fractured into a thousand tribes, punk in Scotland revelled in this brief but glorious ‘anything goes’ attitude. Previous musical tastes had a huge effect on a young band’s outlook: rather than taking the Year Zero approach of tearing down their old posters, they would re-interpret these influences into their own idea of punk. While Scotland never had its Beatles or Stones, it did have Alex Harvey and The Bay City Rollers, whose influences would be assimilated into Scotland’s first wave punk pot pourri. The first disc on this box set is testament to the sheer variety of interpretations of punk, all based around a common thread of attitude. Scotland wanted to progress quickly and do its own thing and as the dust of The Playhouse gig settled, this is exactly what happened.

Hilary Morrison from Fast Product would describe her early experiences as ‘Glam Punk’. “We weren’t like London punks; we didn’t have any money. There wasn’t the bondage trousers … the look was very much making yourself look as cool as possible because we’d all been into Bowie.” This approach to fashion would also become another defining characteristic of Scotland’s Independent music scene. The striped T-shirts and bowl cut image of mid-80s Glasgow can now be witnessed in the many hipster bars around Williamsburg, New York. While Fast Product is synonymous with Scotland’s Post-Punk landscape, there was a year-long spate of frantic activity before its appearance.

Lenny Love and Bruce Findlay are the two most pivotal characters in Scotland’s early punk scene. As well as feeding teenage minds through the importing of hard-to-find early punk singles, Bruce realised that, from his independent chain of Scottish record shops Bruce’s Records, he could support and nourish this burgeoning local punk scene. Having already been in the music business for years, Bruce was a highly experienced promoter, far removed from the spotty faced punk teenagers appearing everywhere. He also understood that independent record labels went much further back than the Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch to 1960s imprints such as Immediate, Track and most especially Island, understanding that the pioneers behind these labels possibly shared many of the same sensibilities of punk.

Bruce’s simple suggestion was for every independent record shop throughout the UK to start their own record label and release slices of valuable cultural vinyl artefacts from local bands. This was how Zoom! Records in Edinburgh was established. Having branches throughout Scotland allowed him to encourage and self-distribute many of the other local start up labels – NRG Records in Dundee, Bored in Glasgow and No Bad in Fife. All before Rough Trade and Fast.

The Valves, The Exile, Drive, Johnny and the Self Abusers and The Skids would all release some of Scotland’s earliest punk singles. One record and band, however, would not only be a leading light in their own right but contain the DNA for what would come later. Released in August 1977 on Lenny Love’s Sensible Records, ‘Can’t Stand My Baby’ by The Rezillos was Scotland’s first Independent single, available just a few days before Zoom’s first release, The Valves’ ‘Robot Love’. So much of Scotland’s musical heritage is contained within this Rezillos single, including the roots of Fast Product.

In contrast to Edinburgh’s success at The Playhouse, Glasgow council dealt their city’s rebellious youth an early crippling blow after a riot at a Stranglers concert. The judgement was for all future punk gigs to be banned in Glasgow. As a result of this draconian measure, that scene faltered. It would later reconvene in the nearby town of Paisley but the damage had been done. Many bands did, however, survive this attempt at curtailment. Out of this, The Subs and Johnny & The Self Abusers would splinter to form Scotland’s biggest musical export from the period, Simple Minds. Initially signed to Zoom and managed by Bruce Findlay, they would go on to lasting critical and later stadium success around the world.

The initial 1977 wave was to receive its own scorched earth moment with the arrival of a new label in early 1978. Bob Last had only recently become The Rezillos’ manager and it was during tours with guitarist Jo Callis and co-conspirator Hilary Morrison that they could talent spot potential support acts from the new, exciting bands emerging from the North of England. The Mekons, Gang of Four, The Human League and Joy Division seemingly strove not to adhere to any previously established rules of musicianship. Combined with Hilary giving Bob a copy of Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch, this would become the genesis of their new record label – Fast Product.

Sharp, clever, intellectual and contrary, the label was the antithesis of everything punk had quickly become. Fast Product dared to do the unthinkable in the music industry, quickly establishing itself at the forefront of what would be labelled Post-Punk. Soon, the three chords and leather jackets of 1977 were as out of step as ELP, and Edinburgh’s youth were eagerly primed to grasp this next change. “Punk quickly turned into Post-Punk. The slate had been wiped clean,” gleefully announced Josef K’s Malcolm Ross.

The intense media interest which quickly surrounded Fast’s new roster of bands would lead to a new sense of excitement within Scotland’s music scene. This teenage fever was further compounded by the record label seemingly operating from inside an Edinburgh flat but still somehow managing to grace the front cover of The NME. In contrast to the previous punk nihilism, this new development would be nourished by influences such as Post-Modernism, The Situationists, Captain Beefheart, The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol’s Factory. The inner circle of locals surrounding Fast – (the) Scars, Fire Engines and Flowers – would all be later awarded important support slots on tour with the more recognised Fast acts. More importantly for posterity, they would get their own coveted place on vinyl. The Scars; Fast Product single, ‘Horrorshow’ and ‘Ad/ultry’, has been described by Douglas Macintyre as “Scotland’s Anarchy in the UK”.

The regional intensity generated by ‘Horrorshow’ helped inspire many to form their own bands, venues and even labels. By 1980, Fast had evolved into Pop:Aural to capitalise further on this new breed of local talent – Boots For Dancing, Restricted Code and, of course, Fire Engines. Bob would take the role of impresario and manipulator even further by a move into managing The Human League which would eventually help take them to an International No.1 single and album.

Meanwhile, Glasgow’s punk ban was lifted at a timely moment at the turn of the decade. It heralded the arrival of Scotland’s most celebrated independent record label – Postcard Records – which, along with Factory and Rough Trade, would arguably have one of the greatest impacts on independent music. Simon Reynolds suggests “Indie Music as we know it was invented in Scotland”. It’s hard to disagree that Orange Juice don’t carry the DNA of almost every indie-pop band recorded in their first few singles. Jangling guitars, a foppish and fey appearance, arch and literate lyrics, and the feeling that any song was constantly on the verge of collapse, would typify what would later be known as an entire style itself – ‘Indie’. This would be further endorsed by a later wave of Scottish independent musicians in the mid-1980s.

Postcard and Orange Juice were everything which Fast Product was not. Like the reactionaries before them, they took the concept of the punk attitude but cleverly combined it with the forbidden past of the 1960s to create something completely fresh and original. Cutting and camp, the man behind Postcard – Alan Horne – was every bit as dangerous as Sid Vicious. Postcard may have only lasted for two short years but its iconic sleeve designs/labels and the assorted talent of Orange Juice, Josef K and Aztec Camera has allowed it to gain legendary status.

Orange Juice and Aztec Camera would soon head for the charts and major label success, leaving Postcard to quietly implode back in Glasgow. Entry-ism and selling-in – fuelled by Fast, Stevo, Zoo and Scritti Politti – were de rigueur now in independent music and London now wanted a piece of Scotland’s hit-making action. Journalists and A+R men were flown to Glasgow and ordered to sign anyone standing vaguely close to a guitar, especially if they had a long fringe and checked shirt.

The lights which Fast and Postcard had shone onto a new scene brought other new bands to the fore. The fantastic, fresh new pop of The Bluebells, The Associates, Altered Images and Strawberry Switchblade all had their roots in the earlier DIY ethos. The majors had smartened them up just enough to bring genuine pop chart success. The Big Gold Dream could be achieved but mainstream audiences would only accept this by means of a little polish first.

Before its demise, Postcard had been heading in a sophisti-pop direction with The Jazzateers and French Impressionists, albeit in their idiosyncratic, shambolic style that only added to the Postcard charm. A lot of great music would appear from this period which has strong links with both camps – Del Amitri, Hipsway and Bourgie Bourgie, who included one of Scotland’s most mercurial singers, Paul Quinn. So great was Alan Horne’s desire and belief that Paul Quinn should become a star he rebuilt and rebranded Postcard as a vehicle to achieve this. In 1984, Postcard would be brought to both London the city and London the major record label under the guise of new subsidiary Swamplands.

Joined by friends from the past – Fire Engines (now reborn as Win), James King and Memphis – Horne oversaw some records with real promise which was sadly unmatched by equivalent sales. As a result, Swamplands soon evaporated. This box set includes a number of Swamplands singles never before released on CD, remembering a marvellous, often forgotten postscript to Postcard’s history.

Back in Scotland, the once vibrant independent scene was now deathly quiet. Its former stars had cleaned up and taken the big gold road south for chart success. By 1984, the closure of Fast’s distribution operation heralded the end of an era. Thankfully, former employee Sandy McLean had other ideas for reviving Scotland’s ailing indie scene. In what was effectively a management buy-out, Sandy took control and, in a nod to its roots, named it Fast Forward. The next wave of edgy guitar bands would benefit from this moment of defiant attitude and McLean’s strong belief for a new generation of Scottish independent talent.

If 1983/1984 have been talked of as a wasteland for Scottish Independent music, it would open up fresh possibilities for a new generation to emerge. Firmly rooted in the Postcard scene based at 185 West Princess Street, Alan Horne’s flatmate, Brian Superstar, teamed up with Stephen Pastel to form the seminal Pastels. Influenced by Orange Juice and London’s Television Personalities, they become leading lights in a new music which was defiantly anti-chart. The punk rock attitude was grasped once more in Scotland and become the antithesis of the blue-eyed soul which was fast becoming associated with Scottish music. This was a new dawn for DIY, fashion, fanzines and an entire alternative industry.

The TV Personalities also inspired another Scot who had headed South for the allure of London, Alan McGee. His label Creation Records would provide a home from home for many travelling Scottish bands. Primal Scream and The Jesus & Mary Chain, the two Scottish bands most associated with Creation, cast a huge shadow over this period of the box set. ‘Upside Down’ still sounds like one of the most utterly compete mission statements ever committed to vinyl. The Mary Chain developed the punk attitude into something fresh and new for others to follow. With debut album Psychocandy, The Jesus and Mary Chain were one of the few bands who didn’t appear to have compromised to find a place in the charts. They made it on their own terms – riots, leathers, feedback and all.

The opening of Glasgow’s scene defining club mecca, Splash One, would also allow an important melting pot of influences to develop between Creation in London and Glasgow with a cross-pollination that would significantly lead to the development of the contents of the C86 NME cassette. Bands from the Creation roster would play at Splash One and many of the Glasgow bands would travel south to play at Creation events in the capital, each equally importing and exporting further developments in indie music, attitude and fashion. Independent and Indie would now often become interchangeable terms. What had originally started as a means of releasing records had now become a genre.

Fast Forward was hugely important in distributing the output from the newly revived Glasgow scene; its next step would revive Edinburgh’s musical fortunes. Fast Forward would provide a unique manufacturing and distribution deal for local wide eyed teenagers. It meant that if a local band could afford to hire a recording studio, they only needed to supply artwork and a tape for Sandy McLean to release a record. The means of production and distribution had been opened up. This provided a breeding ground for new bands to create their own singles and allowed budding entrepreneurs to create their own record labels, all running on top of Fast Forward. Meat Whiplash bass player Eddy Connelly would use Fast Forward to launch his Narodnik label, offering a home to Jesse Garon & The Desperadoes, The Fizzbombs, Baby Lemonade and The Vultures.

As important to Edinburgh as The Pastels were to Glasgow, The Shop Assistants perhaps epitomise Scotland’s mid 1980s indie scene. If a single image could sum up an entire generation, it would be their photo on the back cover of the Shopping Parade EP. Everything about this image encapsulates the marriage of a homegrown, DIY punk spirit with perfect pop which so many bands from that period tried to capture. The roots of this new scene were born with The Shop Assistants and Rote Kapelle, almost all from a single class at Edinburgh’s Napier Polytechnic.

Another new label formed on top of Fast Forward would help define the era. 53rdand 3rdwas formed by Stephen Pastel, Sandy McLean and The Shop Assistants’ guitarist, David Keegan. 53rdand 3rd’s influence on International bands would stretch as far as Washington State’s K-Records to the attention of Kurt Cobain, whose band Nirvana would cover three Vaselines Songs. He was also famously be photographed wearing a BMX Bandits T-shirt.

The Vaselines, BMX Bandits and a pre-Teenage Fanclub Boy Hairdressers were important cogs in the journey of DIY music from the bedroom to stadiums across the world. Like Fast and Postcard before it, 53rdand 3rdwould only last for a few short years. The label revived the DIY spirit from punk’s glory years as mid-to-late 80s guitar music flourished. Terms like ‘shambling’, ‘indie’ and ‘twee’ would become equally a rally cry for shy, sensitive teenagers as much as a form of new antagonism from the increasingly hostile weekly music papers – because the times were changing again.

Like punk music in 1977, the coming of dance culture would have a huge impact on Independent guitar music in Scotland. Some bands, such as The Soup Dragons, The Shamen and Primal Scream, would thrive and embrace this evolution. Others stuck to their guns: 1990 brought with it the arrival of Teenage Fanclub.

This era would be a watershed moment for Scottish Independent music. As raves and dance labels thrived, and slick Scottish blue-eyed soul acts like Deacon Blue, Wet Wet Wet and Texas sold millions of records, local indie guitar music seemed to retreat. There would still be the occasional fantastic single – as this this box-set can testify – but Fast Forward released their final record in 1990. The Cartel and Rough Trade would soon collapse to make way, at least for a while, to a new kind of music.

Thurston Moore has said that the Scottish Underground had a desire to write classic pop songs with no regard to moneyed production. This spirit is at the heart of pretty much every band on this box set. Punk allowed this to happen, not because of the mantra of ‘anybody can play guitar’ but because it had always been there; it was just finally allowed to flourish. New Zealand is perhaps the only other example but almost uniquely, DIY and Punk Rock was the vector which allowed Scotland to unleash its own pop songbook regardless of whether the recording budget was £1 or £100,000.

Of course, much of this overview still covers the usual suspects in Scottish music. The joy of digging deep, though, is to discover many of the unknown pleasures not often discussed or heard and those which don’t quite fit the story – Metropak, Thomas Leer, Finitribe, Cindy Talk, The Dog Faced Hermans and the dozens of other delights are all here.

It’s been a pleasure to work with Cherry Red on this box set. As I mentioned at the beginning, my journey with Scotland’s music from this period is one of exploration and the compilers have introduced me to some fantastic new music that I’ve never heard before. I hope you enjoy heading down the rabbit hole as much as I did.

Grant McPhee



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