By the late 1970s, punk was already showing signs of stagnating. Supposedly radical teens were spending increasingly more time moussing their mohawks and searching for that perfect safety pin for their leather jackets; the Sex Pistols had already said "fuck" on live TV; Sid Vicious had spat on hundreds of fans. Punk had reached a point where saying shocking things and dressing like a weirdo was no longer original. It had become the status quo.
Enter stage left: post-punk, a provocative and playfully experimental new genre that held on to the original DIY spirit of punk.
In London, John Lydon's Public Image Ltd emerged from the ashes of the Sex Pistols; Gang of Four came together in Leeds, and Joy Division in Manchester. Up in Scotland, too, there were many exciting post-punk bands surfacing—The Scars, Fire Engines, Josef K, Orange Juice. Their history, however, has been somewhat glossed over. Which is why filmmaker Grant McPhee has made The Sound of Young Scotland: The Big Gold Dream, a documentary about the post-punk bands associated with the country's two key indie labels: the Edinburgh-based Fast Product, and the Glasgow-based Postcard Records.
The story of Scotland's post-punk scene begins with Fast Product, the indie label founded by Bob Last and his partner Hilary Morrison in 1977. The couple were, in some ways, Scotland's answer to Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, with their lo-fi aesthetic and their let's-stand-out-from-the-crowd attitude. In the early days of the label, Bob sent Hilary down to London with their first release, a fuzzy recording by The Mekons, in the hopes of pricking the ears of the people at Rough Trade. It didn't pan out. Rough Trade told her it was the worst album they'd ever heard. But it didn't matter, because back up north a scene was beginning to take shape, and Fast Product was at the center of it.
I called up Grant McPhee to ask about what it was like for young Scottish post-punk bands in the late 70s, how Fast Product was a precursor to indie labels like Factory and Creation, and how these important labels have been unfairly ignored in the many, many retrospective coffee table books.
VICE: Hi, Grant. What is "the sound of young Scotland"?
Grant McPhee: It probably refers to Postcard Records [the label's motto was "The sound of young Scotland"] and probably Orange Juice and Josef K. In terms of describing that sound, I suppose it's really a mix of post-punk—which was a forward-thinking movement but with a lot of classic 60s American guitar bands like The Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Buffalo Springfield—and most importantly the driving drumbeat dance element that they probably got from The Pop Group and post-punk bands like that.
So punk was a starting point for these bands, but they wanted to move on and do something different. In what ways did they take it forward?
Malcolm Ross, the Josef K guitarist, says in the film that the slate had to be wiped clean. Josef K were very forward-thinking and tried to do things differently; they were also an Edinburgh-based band, and a lot of the Edinburgh bands were listening to New York/American sounds, like Television and Talking Heads and the slightly more discordant James Chance-type bands, and I think it was just about doing things differently and moving on quickly [from punk] but also about being inspired by their post-punk contemporaries locally.
Why do you think this scene's history has been largely glossed over?
It has a lot to do, I think, with Fast Product, which was the premier label in Edinburgh. Although they had a fantastic roster of bands, their records were rarely released. It's quite difficult to track down a lot of the original Fast Product singles. And because, really, the Edinburgh sound is the Fast Product sound, that's why it's been glossed over. Associated bands today like Fire Engines are a lot more easily available now that bands like Franz Ferdinand have championed them.
Take me back to the beginning. What was Scotland like for teens in the mid to late 70s?
It was fairly bleak. Edinburgh is a sort of dark, gothic city, which is definitely reflected in a lot of the music. And Glasgow is... I mean the city's nickname was No Mean City; it was a very rundown, dangerous place to be. Punk was really the antithesis of everything that was happening. In London, although it was still niche, it was more accepted and fanzines were more widely available. Edinburgh, being a much smaller place—I think it had a population of 300,000 back then—anyone who was into that really stuck out, and I think you had to be a tough character to get away with that. In the late 70s, Glasgow wasn't an open place. So I think these people were true rebels. Today you can wear strange clothes going down the high street and you might get some funny looks, but going down certain streets in Glasgow in the late 70s was a different experience—one I wouldn't like to experience myself.
How did these Scottish punks differ from London punks?
Well, they had no money. Edinburgh, in the center of the capital, is a fairly well to do place, but on the immediate periphery, in the 70s, people just didn't have disposable incomes. It really was about trying the best with what you had, and I think that's where a lot of creativity comes from. I think those limitations breed creativity.
There's a funny story about Hilary Morrison, Fast Product's co-founder, taking The Mekons' first record down to Rough Trade in London, and Rough Trade saying it was the worst record they'd ever heard.
Haha, yeah, Bob [Last] got Hilary to take the record down there. That record was ahead of its time; it was just a bit too DIY and far out [for Rough Trade], which in a lot of respects is what punk should be. You know, when we think of Rough Trade we think of The Smiths and all these fantastic records that were released. Back then Rough Trade was a record shop primarily, with a distribution deal for the records, but they were quite slow in getting into punk and they always seemed a bit hippyish. I think Geoff Travis—the very clever and successful man who runs Rough Trade—just didn't get it, and I think that was part of the appeal of Fast Product: that they were doing these things at a time when everything was changing very quickly. As Bob mentioned, punk had quickly set itself into an antiquated set of rules, and when something new and different is coming out, people just didn't get it.
Fast Product was the indie label that put all those early records out. How did it pave the way for Factory Records a year later?
I think, without a doubt, it was the design of the records. A lot of punk was against the big mainstream record labels, so anything that looked like it was advertising, or anything that wasn't just a blank record, was seen as suspicious. But Bob [Fast Product's founder] was playing with the concept of packaging, advertising, and design. Peter Saville, the Factory designer, saw a lot of the streamlined lines in Fast's designs. It really did pave the way for Factory, an equally fantastic label with a very similar impresario, Tony Wilson, at the head.
And Fast turned down Joy Division—who later signed to Factory—because of the name, didn't they?
Yeah, both Bob and Hilary [Morrison] said that they turned them down because the name was maybe a step too far. They knew what it meant [Joy Division referred to a prostitution wing of a Nazi concentration camp], whereas maybe others didn't know, and they saw that it could cause a bit of trouble.
They surely lived to regret that one.
Haha, yeah I would think so. But I think Joy Division/New Order probably met the right people for them at that time, working with Factory.
Bob and his partner Hilary had a flat where all the local bands would get together, hang out, and make art, almost like a budget version of Warhol's Factory.
Yeah, it was like a big hub where the local bands would come around and listen to music and inspire each other. I think with every band in every city, being inspired by their friends or their contemporaries is essential to every scene; those hubs are how they're created.
Was Bob Last Scotland's Malcolm McLaren?
I think to an extent. He was his own person; he did everything in his own unique way. I think he cared a lot about musicians and his product. Everyone who went around to their flat—they were inspired and inspired each other. He was definitely one of the first music impresarios in Scotland.
The Scars were a local group of 17-year-olds described as very intelligent. What else made them stand out?
I think probably, other than being very good musicians, they had a great attitude, they wrote some good songs, and weren't just copying the three-chord formula or the Sex Pistols' sound that seemed to be predominant around the country. The singer, Robert King, had fantastic stage presence, and Paul Research had an incredibly original guitar sound, which definitely influenced a lot of their contemporaries. They just went up there and did it before the others.
They were booed and called "poofters" at their early gigs. It seemed like their feminine look caused a fuss.
Yeah, I think that's just what happens when you're playing these small towns—not as many people get it. There's a lot of peer pressure. The scenes outside of London are a lot smaller, so the amount of like-minded people are a lot less. The audiences where all these bands played were incredibly receptive because a few like-minded people in the cities would go to one place and seek each other out. What interested me is, if you want to join a band or find like-minded people today it's very easy—there's Facebook—but at that time the only way people could tell whether someone was like-minded was by what they were wearing.
A lot of bands in the film mention John Peel's show. What role did he play in Scotland's post-punk movement?
John Peel was a way that people could actually listen to all the music they read about in the NME. They couldn't go to YouTube and simply type in a band. Back then, there weren't many shops in Scotland where you could buy unusual music; the only way you could really hear all this new music was on John Peel. He was incredibly important to aspiring musicians at that time. And he wasn't interested in fashion or cliques or anything like that, he just played music because he liked it. And a lot of the bands owe a massive debt to John Peel—although he didn't like the Postcard bands very much, which I think was maybe due to Alan Horne [Postcard's founder] harassing him one day.
Lastly, for people new to the Scottish post-punk of that period, where's the best place to start?
You would need to choose a different band from each city, so I suppose if someone was gonna listen to a post-punk band from Edinburgh from the late 70s/early 80s I would play them something by the Fire Engines and something by The Scars. I think they both really sum up the Edinburgh sound. And for Glasgow, it would have to be the early Orange Juice singles.
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