published: 24 /
John Clarkson examines new five-CD box set 'Big Gold Dreams', which documents Scottish punk and independent music between 1977 and 1989, and proves to be the definitive account of a definitive era.
It has been over a quarter of a century since Brian Hogg published his 1993 book, ‘All That Ever Mattered: The History of Scottish Rock and Pop’, which was the first publication to highlight the creativity and fertility of the Scottish punk and independent music scene from the late 1970s to the late 1980s.
In more recent times, the era has been given further weight by ‘Rip It Up’, a major four-month long exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh last year. It gave almost as much focus to ‘indie’ acts such as Orange Juice, the Fire Engines and the Vaselines as it did to more commercially successful bands like Wet Wet Wet, the Eurythmics and Deacon Blue. Documentary maker Grant McPhee has meanwhile directed two films, ‘Big Gold Dream’ (2015), which was about the Edinburgh bands of the time, and ‘Teenage Superstars’ (2017), which concentrated on the parallel Glaswegian scene. David Keenan’s award-winning 2017 debut novel ‘This is Memorial Device’ also told of the rise and fall of an imaginary Airdrie-formed post-punk group of the early 1980s
Now the always dependable Cherry Red Records has released a five-CD box set, ‘Big Gold Dreams: A Story of Scottish Independent Music 1977-1989’. Beautifully packaged in a seventy-two page hardback book, which includes an extensive foreword from McPhee and biographical notes on all the acts involved, it stretches to 115 tracks, each one from a different act.
‘Big Gold Dreams’ runs in chronological order. Its first CD focuses on some of the dozens of Scottish bands who sprung up in the dawn of punk, and followed the Rezillos - who officially released the first Scottish punk record with ‘I Can’t Stand My Baby’ on local DJ and entrepreneur Lenny Love’s Sensible Records in August 1977 - by putting out records often on their own steam or on tiny independent labels. The second and third CDs concentrate on the increasingly experimental post-punk genre of the late 70s and early 80s, and the fourth CD on those groups who arose at the time of NME’s legendary ‘C-86’ cassette. The fifth CD touches on dance-influenced acts such as the Shamen, and also the final wave of indie groups of the late 1980s
‘Big Gold Dreams’ works at several levels, but one of the things that it does particularly well is capture some of Scotland’s best-known bands in their earliest forms.
The flamboyant, cartoonish Rezillos were together initially for just over two years after they formed at Edinburgh Art College in 1976, and their 1978 debut album 'Can't Stand the Rezillos', which was recorded at the legendary Power Station in New York by which time they had signed to Sire Records, remains a classic. The whiplash Sensible Records version of ‘I Can’t Stand My Baby’, which opens ‘Big Gold Dream’, however, finds them at their most abrasive and caustic.
By the mid-80s Simple Minds were one of the biggest groups in the world with their would-be messianic, stadium-filling brand of anthemic rock, but 'Chelsea Girl', their 1979 second single which was released on Edinburgh record shop owner Bruce Findlay's Zoom Records, shows a very different art-house side to the Glaswegian band. A tribute to Nico, Mick MacNeil's lofty, panoramic keyboards give 'Chelsea Girl' a European and abstract sound reminiscent of other 70s synthesizer bands such as Roxy Music and the early Ultravox! Before then Simple Minds mainstays Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill were in a short-lived punk band Johnny & The Self Abusers. They released just one single 'Saints and Sinners' on Chiswick in November 1977 before splitting up on the day it came out. 'Dead Vandals', its B-side, which appears on the first CD of 'Big Gold Dreams' shows a band of some originality with their combination of buzzsaw guitars and saxophone.
Altered Images developed an increasingly sophisticated and elegant pop sound over three albums and a string of hit singles in the early 1980s. Their debut 1981 single 'Dead Pop Stars', which opens the second disc and frontwoman Clare Grogan continues to play at gigs with a revived all-female version of Altered Images, is a much spikier, more skewed proposition, owing a debt to Siouxsie and the Banshees who they toured with and whose bassist Steve Severin produced it and the bulk of 'Happy Birthday', their first album.
Mike Scott's The Waterboys became renowned throughout the mid-80s for their self-proclaimed 'The Big Music', and their 1983 debut single, 'A Girl Called Johnny', which was released on Scott's Chicken Jazz label and was about Patti Smith, whom he had interviewed as a late 70's fanzine editor, is an early proponent of this. Four years before that, Scott was the frontman in the Edinburgh-based Another Pretty Face. Their 1979 first single, 'All the Boys Love Carrie', which appears on the opening disc and came out on Scott's first label New Pleasures, takes its jagged roots from punk and new wave. A paean to out-of-reach women, it, however, reveals then English Literature student Scott's initial lyrical dexterity, and, with its unusual use of a saxophone solo, some of the Waterboys' later trademark epicness.
Primal Scream's Mercury Prize-winning 1991 third album 'Screamadelica' was the defining sound of the Acid House era. 'All Fall Down', their 1985 debut single, which came out on the still young Creation Records, however, takes is influences from the easy-on-the-ear harmonies and chiming guitars of The Byrds.
Del Amitri by the time of the classic and adult-orientated rock of their 1989 second album 'Waking Hours' had become brooding and melancholic in scope, yet their second single, 'Hammering Heart', is an urgent piece of indie rock, in which with his soaring vocals frontman Justin Currie is reminiscent of Stuart Adamson from Big Country.
Of the many cult acts on 'Big Gold Dreams' one of the biggest are the Jesus and Mary Chain. Their 1984 first single 'Upside Down' was their only release on their then manager Alan McGee's Creation Records before they signed to Warner Brothers subsidiary Blanco y Negro. It is an early blueprint for the shrieking wall-of-sound distortion and underlying sense of sublime melody that the controversial group, based around brothers Jim and William Reid, became known for a year later with their classic debut album, 'Psychocandy'.
Josef K were together just over two years from late 1979 to early 1982. Named after the protagonist in Frank Kafka's bleak and paranoiac novel 'The Trial', their brittle guitars and angst-ridden, literary lyrics posthumously influenced bands as diverse as The Wedding Present, Interpol and most famously fellow Scots Franz Ferdinand. They were the only band to release an album, 1981's 'The Only Fun in Town', on Alan Horne's short-lived but also influential record label Postcard Records. 'Sorry for Laughing', their fourth single again from that year which appears on the second disc, found them briefly switching labels to Belgian independent Les Disques du Crepescule, and showcases their scratchy guitars and frontman Paul Haig's nerve-worn vocals. Haig also appears later on the same disc with his debut single, an in-contrast upbeat cover of Sly and the Family Stone's 'Running Away', which combines electronica with a soaring brass sound.
Another major influence on Franz Ferdinand were the equally edgy the Fire Engines, who were like Josef K from Edinburgh. They reformed temporarily between 2004 and 2006 for occasional shows, including support slots with the Magic Band and Franz Ferdinand, but their original tenure was equally brief, lasting only two years between 1979 and late 1981, and expanding over just three singles and a largely instrumental album, 'Lubricate Your Living Room'. 'Big Gold Dream', their final single, which gives this box set its name, has a stronger pop component than much of the rest of the Fire Engines' discordant output, but maintains their trademark jitteriness and singer Davy Henderson's manic vocals. Henderson and drummer Russell Burn, who would also write songs with Clare Grogan after Altered Images had broken up for her recorded but never released 1987 solo album, developed a further pop focus for their next project Win, who recorded two albums and whose debut single, the slickly-produced 'Unamerican Broadcasting', appears on the third disc.
Both The Associates and the Cocteau Twins were celestial-scoped. The Associates' 1981 third single, 'Tell Me Easter's on a Sunday', collates together much of the duo's hallmarks, and, with the late Billy Mackenzie's fragile vocals and the jarring jangle of multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine's keyboards, reveal a group of unusual, intense vision. Equally original and breathtaking, the Cocteau Twins' 1982 'Feather Oar-Blades', taken from their early EP 'Lullabies' and which opens the third CD, is harsher in tone than their richly beautiful later recordings, but nevertheless highlights Elizabeth Fraser's otherworldly vocals and Robin Guthrie's gloriously haemorrhaging guitars.
Glaswegian group Friends Again were together just two years between 1982 and 1984 but remain fondly remembered despite breaking up within days of the release of their debut album, 'Trapped and Unwrapped'. With the disc due for re-release later this year and also a compilation of Friends A gain’s early other recordings on its way, they seem set for more renewed interest. 'Lucky Star', the B-side of their self-released debut single 'Honey at the Core', which was re-recorded in a much tauter version on the album, comes across as surprisingly wide-eyed and twee, especially given the melancholic nature of its two central protagonists vocalist Chris Thomson and guitarist James Grant's subsequent work, the former with the strings-drenched Bathers and the latter with the soulful Love and Money.
Always chaotic, BMX Bandits 'Strawberry Sundae' appeared originally as a live track on the 12" version of 'E102', their 1986 first single, which was released on the seminal Edinburgh label 53rd & 3rd. The studio version, which appears on 'Big Gold Dreams', did not come out until 1992, appearing finally as an extra track on an extended version of 'C-86', BMX Bandits' 1989 debut album which was released on Vinyl Japan. It is a typically ramshackle number, combining wonky, upbeat guitars and keyboards with a wryly hilarious vocal from frontman Duglas T. Stewart about masturbation and an unrequited love affair. One of the great eccentrics of indie rock/pop, Stewart has released now ten albums in thirty years with BMX Bandits, and has recently turned to acting, giving a first-rate performance in the main role in Scottish film director Graham Drysdale's independent film 'Wiglia' as an out-of-luck, emotionally damaged musician under the financial control of his unhinged brother.
Goodbye Mr Mackenzie are often best remembered for being the first band of Garbage singer Shirley Manson, who spent ten years with them as a keyboard player and eventually a vocalist. The sextet's 1986 single 'The Rattler', which appears on 'Big Gold Dreams' in its 12" version, highlights the Bowie, Iggy Pop and Birthday Party influences of main songwriter and vocalist Martin Metcalfe. Released on their then management's Precious Organisation label, it won the Bathgate/Edinburgh-formed group a slot on influential music programme 'The Tube' and some airplay, but was subsequently banned from radio for a throwaway line about "eating beaver." They were always a huge draw in Scotland, and in 1989, after signing to EMI, scraped into the Top 40 charts with a re-recorded version of 'The Rattler', which remains their best-known song. Goodbye Mr Mackenzie have recently reformed for the first time in nearly twenty-five years with four of the original members including Metcalfe for some Scottish dates in May.
The Vaselines were part of a wave of bands that came from Bellshill, a small town in Lanarkshire ten miles south east of Glasgow, and which also included BMX Bandits, and the Soup Dragons and Teenage Fanclub, both of whom are also featured on 'Big Gold Dreams'. Both its main members Eugene Kelly (vocals, guitar) and Frances McKee (vocals, guitar) had appeared in early line-ups of BMX Bandits before forming the Vaselines in 1986. 'Teenage Superstars', which is taken from their 1988 second EP 'Dying for It', which was released like all their original round of material on 53rd & 3rd, is a masterclass of grungy, tinny guitars and abrasive, sneered dual vocals. A huge fan, Kurt Cobain infamously boosted their career by recording covers of two of their other songs 'Molly's Lips' and 'Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam' with Nirvana. He also persuaded Kelly and McKee to briefly reform the Vaselines after they had split up the previous year when they had broken up romantically to support Nirvana at Calton Studios in Edinburgh in 1990, and named his daughter Frances after McKee. The Vaselines have been reunited since 2008 for occasional shows, and have recorded two albums, 'Sex with an X' (2010) and 'V for Vaselines' (2014), to accompany 'Dum-Dum', their 1989 debut album.
'Big Gold Dreams' also highlights many unknown or largely forgotten bands. With TV21 obscurity came out of self-choice. They seemed destined for greatness, but, affected by a poor relationship with their record label Deram and also dealing with internal musical disagreements, broke up backstage in 1982 at the Edinburgh Playhouse directly after playing the last of three Scottish dates in support of The Rolling Stones. 'Playing with Fire', their 1980 first single which was released on their own Powbeat label before they signed to Deram and which appears on the first disc, is a rousing, anthemic slab of shimmering power pop. They reunited briefly to put out on Powbeat a second album 'Forever 22' in 2009, which followed on almost three decades after their 1981 'Snakes and Ladders', and to play some shows before splitting up again.
The Exile are barely remembered at all now but released a four song EP 'Don't Tax Me' on their own Boring Records in August 1977, a few days after the Rezillos' 'I Can't Stand My Baby'. 'Hooked on You', which is taken from the EP, is a lo-fi punk classic with its scratchy guitars and bleakly hilarious tale of being led astray by love.
'Out in the Open', which came out in late 1980, was the first of two singles, both released on local label Oily Records, by Aberdeen four-piece the Presidents Men. It is a cascading 60's-tinged power pop number with a soaring performance on main vocals from Jeremy Thoms. Thoms has since gone on to run the successful indie label Stereogram Recordings (The Eastern Swell, Stoor, The Band of Holy Joy) and also fronts alternative rock band the Cathode Ray, which briefly featured Paul Haig, and which will release its third album this year. The Presidents Men received some national airplay, but broke up in 1982 when Thoms moved to Edinburgh as he felt that there was more of a happening music scene there.
Article 58 was the first band of guitarist Douglas MacIntyre, another mainstay of Scottish indie rock. MacIntyre runs the durable Creeping Bent label (Nectarine No. 9, The Secret Goldfish, Monica Queen), and has also played in countless Scottish bands including Love and Money, Cowboy Mouth, the Sexual Objects (Davy Henderson's current band) and Port Sulphur. Cited by Henderson as an influence on the Fire Engines, 'Event to Come', Article 58's 1981 only single, which was released on Reaction Records, is a shrill but feisty post-punk number and was co-produced by Alan Horne and Josef K guitarist Malcolm Ross, with whom Article 58 had toured.
The Twinsets did not even get as far as releasing a single or an album. Centred around the sublime vocal harmonies of sisters Gaye and Rachel Bell, they combined this with a country punk edge. 'Out of Nowhere' is a cover of a 1931 jazz standard, originally recorded by Bing Crosby, and, previously unreleased, appears on 'Big Gold Dreams' in a demo version
The Motorcycle Boy briefly gained a lot of initial press attention. The new band of Shop Assistants frontwoman Alex Taylor, 'Big Room Candy Mountain', their debut single, which came out on Rough Trade, shot to no. 2 in the independent charts in 1987, but they were unable to follow it up. 'Scarlet', an album, was recorded for Chrysalis but never released, and their following five singles met with diminishing success. 'Room at the Top', the B-side of 'Big Room Candy Mountain', takes its name from John Braine's 1957 novel, and is a gorgeous indie pop anthem with hazy guitars and spiralling vocals.
For this reviewer, there is so much of my youth in this box set. I was born in Edinburgh in the mid-1960s, brought up there throughout the 1970s and came of age in the early 1980s. I have vivid memories of hanging out in the street outside their practice room listening to the Valves rehearse. As a twelve year old, it was one of my first introductions to live rock music. 'Robot Love', their 1977 debut single and the first release of Zoom Records, which appears on the first disc, has a deliciously warped lyric about robot romance, and is an appealing fusion of Alex Harvey theatricalism, stomping pub rock and experimental early new wave.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were a lot of record shops in Edinburgh, six within lunchtime walking distance of my secondary school. I remember being captivated in the window of one of them by the sleeve of the Visitors' single, 'Electric Heat', which shows the band sitting on a snow-ridden terrain huddled around a tiny heater. The Visitors were like the Valves short-lived, both of them releasing just three singles. 'Electric Heat', their 1979 debut single represents a very different kind of sci-fi to the Valves with its fraught vocals, ominous guitars and eerie, futuristic keyboards.
I saw many of the bands listed above and would eventually go on to interview some of them.
The Blood Uncles were managed by my parents' next-door neighbour, and 'Swallow', which is taken from their 1985 debut EP 'Petrol', closes the third disc. It is a strange combination of punk and metal with skewed, grinding guitars from 'Big' John Duncan who would go on to join Goodbye Mr Mackenzie and a snarled Beefheart-style vocal from singer Jon Carmichael. It is my favourite track on 'Big Gold Dreams' along with the Motorcycle Boy's 'Room at the Top'.
It is always easy to find fault with box sets like 'Big Gold Dream', to concentrate on what is missing. It seems odd that the hugely acclaimed Glaswegian band The Blue Nile, who were also missing from the 'Rip It Up' exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, are conspicuous by their lack of presence, especially as their few first releases came out on Linn Recordings, the indie label offshoot of hi-fi manufacturers Linn. 'Big Gold Dreams' also largely focuses on the Scottish central belt of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the many punk and indie bands that sprung up in the other big cities and provinces are somewhat neglected. These are, however, faults that could be very much directed elsewhere too and at other summaries of the time.
'Big Gold Dreams' ultimately provides an encyclopaedic, exhaustive account of the Scottish independent music scene of the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. It is the definitive box set of a definitive era and time.