Jim Keoghan3 Comments

FROM PROG TO POSTCARD: SCOTLAND AND THE SHOCK OF PUNK

Jim Keoghan3 Comments
FROM PROG TO POSTCARD: SCOTLAND AND THE SHOCK OF PUNK

When the popular story of punk is normally told, it can be a little London-centric. All too often the vibrancy of provincial music scenes and the sheer volume of bands that emerged are overlooked; their role only really appreciated by those who take the time to delve deeper into the scene’s history.

Perhaps because of this trend and also its strength musically during the post-punk years, Scotland’s experience of punk barely gets a mention. Which is odd, because during the late-seventies Scotland was a bubbling cauldron of musical creativity; producing not just major punk bands, including the Skids and The Rezillos but also a plethora of well-regarded also-rans, such as Fire Exit, The Zips and The Freeze.

Like other parts of Britain, the music scene in Scotland during this period also underwent a seismic shift, one that changed it permanently. The musical landscape that emerged post punk was different to that which existed before punk’s explosion. It was one characterised by innovation and creativity and also one that saw Scotland possessed of its own nascent musical infrastructure. According to Fire Exit’s frontman, Gerry Rodden (Gerry Attric), prior to punk, in common with much of Britain, the Scottish music scene was in dire need of change.

“If you wanted to sum up the Scottish music scene back then in one word, then that would be ‘dull’. It was a boring time for music; all a bit stale really. Most people seemed to be into hard rock. You had a few more knowing, slightly arty people that were into the likes of Bowie and Roxy Music. And there was also a wee pub-rock scene in the big cities. But really, it was a lot like everywhere else; little of interest going on. There also wasn’t much of a local scene; Scotland didn’t seem to be producing that many good bands, certainly not in the same volume that it did during punk and has continued to do so since. I think what you did have though, was a hunger for something to change. You could sense this at gigs and through conversations with your mates. People wanted a change, they needed something to come along and give Scottish music a kick-up the arse. They just didn’t know what this was”.

But it wasn’t just a sense of musical stagnation that was fuelling this desire for change. Scotland was also undergoing something of a cultural and economic shift too, as the certainties that had underpinned the post-war years were gradually being undermined by deindustrialisation, growing unemployment and the gradual fracturing of traditional working-class communities.

For young lads, such as Brian McGee, who would go on to drum with the Glasgow-based, Jonny and the Self Abusers, there was a sense that it wasn’t just the Scottish music scene that needed a ‘kick-up the arse’ but Scotland itself.

“There was something in the air in the towns and cities of Scotland, as I’m sure there was in places down in England, like Liverpool and Manchester, a feeling amongst the younger generation that the world of our parents was in decline, and that something had to change. What that was we weren’t sure. But it was definitely a time of uncertainty, one that provoked a desire to rebel amongst younger people”.

When punk first began to emanate out from London, it was met greedily by a section of Scottish society for whom it seemed to provide the answer to what they had been looking for, the perfect vehicle to reenergise the local music scene and provide a medium for that embryonic spirit of rebellion.

“I remember hearing the Sex Pistols for the first time and it just blew me away” says Jim Smith, vocalist and guitarist with The Threats. “It just sounded so distinctive, the energy of it, the snarl of Lydon’s vocals, it was just so different to the boring shite that had been around before. And then when you began to see these kinds of bands live, their attitude spoke to people like me. Without really knowing it, punk was what we’d all been looking for”.

In the early days, when punk bands first began to perform in Scotland, it was the university and college venues that offered them a welcome home. Places like Queen Margaret’s in Edinburgh and Glasgow College of Art were initially the principle places that those hungry to sample punk could go to.

And what was on offer back then was largely imported from south of the border. In the early days of punk, it was bands from England, and specifically London, that dominated the live punk scene. Initially at least, there was very little of domestic origin to challenge the ascendancy of English punk, something that Bruce Findlay, the man behind local record label, Zoom, puts down to Scotland coming late to the party.

“I think it’s fair to say that Scotland was a little bit behind the curve when it came to punk. Not by that much but by enough to mean that it took us a little while to start getting our own bands out there. There were a couple of groups who were slightly ahead of the rest, like The Rezillos and Johnny & the Self Abusers but by and large in the early days it was mainly English bands that were performing in Scotland. I think you can probably blame the distance from London for much of that. But, once we did get going, things just exploded up here and a raft of new bands and venues started to emerge”.

For a legion of young Scots, the simplicity of punk, certainly when compared to something like prog-rock, made the idea of creating a band begin to seem more accessible. Starting one up, even if you could barely play an instrument, became something anyone could do. All you needed was some instruments, a rudimentary knowledge of how to play them and somewhere willing to put you on.

Brian McGee: “The simplicity of punk inspired people, the fact that you didn’t need to be that skilled as a musician, which had appeared to be the case with a lot of the bands that you saw on tele in the early-to-mid seventies. The people in punk bands looked no different to us and so music suddenly seemed accessible. But I think equally important was the energy of the scene, something that started to motivate people to get up on stage and do it themselves too; people who might not have done it otherwise”.

But it wasn’t just new bands that were embracing the punk sound and aesthetic, some of Scotland’s existing outfits also thought that the time was ripe for a change in musical direction.

Silk had been part of the Scottish music scene since 1974 (having grown out of a previous incarnation, Salvation). The four-piece comprised of Jim McGinlay, Kenny Hyslop, Billy McIsaac and Jim ‘Midge’ Ure. The band (who weirdly adopted a uniform of 1950s baseball outfits) had enjoyed chart success in the mid-1970s with singles such as ‘Forever And Ever’ and ‘Requiem’. But, according to drummer Kenny Hyslop, once punk came along the band’s ‘poppy’ sound soon became something they were keen to abandon.

“Punk changed things. On one level, it was clear that the music we had been making was outdated. Punk just blew all that out the water. And on another level, we were all instant fans of this new sound. So it became clear that the band had to change. It was dramatic but we chose to abandon our name, our old sound and our existing fans and start all over again. When you look back it was quite a bold decision. After all, as Silk, we’d had a number one with ‘Forever And Ever’. But it seemed obvious to us at the time that a change was needed. We took the name PVC2, signed to local record label Zoom and starting gigging and recording as a punk band, building up a whole new audience in the process. It was a daunting experience but also one that was very exciting”.

Although to begin with punk had largely been confined to the university and college circuit and primarily evident in the country’s two major cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow, as the music began to grow in popularity a range of different sized venues began to open up to bands and the influence of the scene started to stretch to other parts of Scotland.

“There were many fantastic venues all over the country” says Ross Galloway, bassist with The Axidents “My favourite personally was a place in Edinburgh called Clouds which was originally a discotheque. Most of the main players in the punk movement played there along with a host of local bands. Then over in Glasgow there were some really good venues too, such as the Doune Castle and the Mars Bar. Pretty quickly though, punk spread beyond the confines of these two cities, moving into places like Dundee, where you had Caird Hall, Aberdeen, where you had The Music Hall, and Dunfermline, where you had the Kinema Ballroom. I remember that Fife in particular was a bit of a punk stronghold, what with the likes of the Skids coming out of there.”

Despite its growing popularity and spread across the country, according to Eugene Reynolds from The Rezillos, there were still plenty of venues that were hostile to the scene and its bands.

“Early on, when it became apparent to venue owners that there was an audience in punk, it wasn’t too bad; there were a lot of places, specifically those who’d already been open to live music, that were happy to put you on. This began to change though when punk started making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Regardless of how much they were inflated, ‘gutter-press’ stories of violence and trouble after some gigs began to make certain venues nervous. You’d start to find more examples, both for your own band and those of people you knew, of owners not having you back, even if you’d played well and had a good gig. It was as idiotic as the people who smashed up Elvis Presley’s records in the fifties, or when some Americans decided it was time to burn Beatles records. But that’s just how it was. People can be amazingly narrow-minded and lots of them swallowed the scare stories about punk completely, which was a shame”.

Probably the most extreme example of this intolerance took place in Glasgow during the spring and summer of 1977. Following some trouble after a Stranglers gig in the city centre, Glasgow’s councillors decided to introduce a ‘punk-ban’. It meant that the city’s venues, places that had helped nurture and develop the Scottish punk scene when it was in its embryonic state became wary of contravening the ban and booking an act even remotely ‘punk’ in look or sound, something which led to a significant drop in the number of bands playing the city.

One of the most surprising effects of this was the impact it had upon the town of Paisley. Musically, nothing of note had ever emerged out of this Renfrewshire town, which lies eleven miles west of Glasgow. But the decision by Glasgow City Council to ban punk led to an exodus of audiences and groups to Paisley, a place that welcomed them with open arms.

“We were getting groups from all over the place coming to Paisley when they wanted to play the West Coast” says Gerry Rodden. “It meant that loads of great venues, big and small, started to cater for this scene, like the Bungalow Bar, the Silver Thread Hotel and the Arkleston Inn. This encouraged the development of a strong local scene too. Prior to the Glasgow ban, there had already been a few local bands playing around Paisley, outfits like my first group, The Pencils and others, such as Mod Cons and Mentol Errors. But when big bands from all over the country starting playing here it created a real buzz and more and more local groups began to emerge. The amazing thing is that even once Glasgow lifted their ban on punk in the city the Paisley scene continued. It was like it had its own self-sustaining energy by then.”

To complete its musical transformation, Paisley even created its own label, Groucho Marxist Records, which sporadically released tracks from local artists, such as Defiant Pose, The Fegs and XS Discharge. The creation of locally based record labels such as this in Scotland was largely an innovation of the punk scene. As Bruce Findlay, the man behind Edinburgh based Zoom Records explains, prior to punk there was often nowhere for local bands to go other than London.

“Like anywhere else in Britain, before punk came along and revolutionised things, if you wanted to make music, then that meant getting signed by one of the majors, which also normally meant relocating down to London. Punk started to change all this. Aspiring musicians and people like me who were involved in local music scenes, began to realise that there was no reason why London and the majors had to be approached at all. You could make music in Scotland and put it out yourself. For some bands that even meant ignoring all labels completely and just doing it themselves. It seems simple in hindsight but at the time it was a bit of a revolutionary concept.”

Prior to his career as a label boss, Bruce ran a chain of local record shops, ‘Bruce’s’, which had expanded across Scotland during the early 1970s. It was through this that he had come in contact with many of that periods aspiring local bands, who often brought demos into the shops for Bruce to pass on to his record industry contacts.

“Because of my connections with local bands, I’d briefly got myself involved as a manager of one, Café Jaques, in the mid-seventies. My experience of dealing directly with big labels through this had taught me you can’t always rely on the majors, which was why I was so receptive to the idea of starting my own label when punk kicked-off.”

After taking some advice from Stiff Records, who had recently set-up in London, Bruce established Zoom in 1977, putting out a release by local punk band, The Valves.

“The amounts of money that the majors spend can be quite intimidating, but through talking to Stiff I realised that a lot of this was unnecessary and that, in reality, this record-label-business can be done on a low budget. The first single released by Zoom was ‘Robot Love’ (with ‘For Adolfs Only’ as B-side). I think that the recording of it, the pressing of the single and the artwork cost around £1000. We released it on August 30th, 1977 and it went on to sell 15,000 copies, which represented a decent return on the label’s first venture.”

Integral to the success of Zoom’s releases, according to Bruce were the plethora of small record shops, like his own, that existed in the towns and cities of Britain.

“If you take that first release by The Valves as an example, I sold half the copies in my shops and the rest I drove around the country, offering to other small, independent record shops, the kind of places that were willing to take a gamble on something different. These were shops that helped fuel the punk revolution and who ensured that aspiring labels like mine had an outlet for the music they were putting out. Without them I’m not sure what we did would have had any chance of success”.

Zoom was just one of the many labels that sprang up in Scotland on the back of the punk scene, with others such as, NRG, No Bad and Sensible Records, each embracing the DIY ethic inherent to punk.

“I think there was a desire amongst bands and those behind labels to do something different, to have an alternative to London and the majors” says Bruce. “There were the beginnings of a cultural shift taking place and part of that was Scotland trying to set up its own music industry infrastructure. At the time, I would have liked it to have gone further. To me, there should have been no reason for any punk band to have felt compelled to sign to a major down south. But some did. You can’t blame them though. When a big label waves a contract at you and the prospect of life in ‘glamorous’ London, it’s inevitably going to turn some people’s heads. But despite the incompleteness of this revolution at the time, I still think what took place was no small achievement and I’m proud of the role that I played in it.”

As Bruce admits, despite the flourishing of a Scottish music industry, London and the major labels continued to lure bands away from their homeland. In part this was due to the financial limitations of the newly created local labels. Although, the likes of Zoom, Groucho Marxist and Sensible could provide a band with a start in the industry, they lacked the financial punch or the organisational capacity to embed the groups within the national consciousness. This is part of the reason why bands such as Skids and The Rezillos moved from small, local labels onto majors and why others, such as The Jolt, opted to ignore local labels completely and head down south instead.

“Aside from the lack of cash behind these labels, you also have to bear in mind a lot of people started bands as an exercise in escapism and part of this was a desire to escape the environment we grew up in,” argues Iain Shedden, drummer with Glasgow band, the Jolt.

“The other members of the band and I were young and looking for adventure, so when Polydor (after many other offers) signed us it was the perfect time to up sticks and check out the fashionable ‘London’ we had read so much about. Even if in hindsight that might have been the wrong decision, I have no regrets about it because it was what I wanted at the time. And it still turned out to be an interesting experience”.

When you collect all these bands together, those that stayed in Scotland and those that moved on, the question arises; does anything that could be defined as a ‘Scottish–punk sound’ emerge, a defining characteristic to the scene? The answer, at least according to Bruce Findlay seems to be not really.

“Musically, sartorially and culturally, there was little to differentiate what happened in Scotland to what happened in other parts of Britain. For Christ’s sake, you had Scottish lead-singers screaming out lyrics in an adopted English accent! I think punk was punk, whether you were in London, Manchester, Glasgow or Edinburgh. What you did have though, and this was equally true of scenes in other British cities, were bands who were looking to do something innovative with the punk ‘sound’ by absorbing different influences to produce something new. Bands like Wire in London or The Freeze in Scotland were laying the foundations for post-punk and adding a degree of innovation to their respective scenes. These were the rogue elements that gave every scene a dash of individuality”.

Owing a considerable debt to the arty-end of Glam-rock, The Freeze quickly moved on from the thrasher sound of early punk, which they had originally adopted, and began experimenting with longer format songs, live improvisation and the absorption of a wider array of musical influences. With a set-list that included covers of Roxy’s ‘Virginia Plain’ and Eno’s ‘Baby’s on Fire’, it was evident that this was a punk band with a difference.

“I like to see the band as more akin to something like Wire” says Gordon Sharp, lead-singer of The Freeze and its successor, Cindytalk. “From my perspective” he continues, “Wire embodied one of the main elements of punk, which was challenging the status-quo. If you sounded the same in 1978 to the way you sounded in 1976 that would be quite conservative, everything that punk wasn’t meant to be. It probably helped that we were on the periphery of the scene because this gave us the time to develop our own sound, bringing in elements that some people have likened to Goth and New Romanticism. Bands that found an audience immediately probably felt more pressure to adhere to a classically ‘punk’ sound. For us, that wasn’t the case, which although a bit disappointing at the time, was probably beneficial in hindsight”.

As the seventies came to a close, the innovative approach of The Freeze became more common amongst the bands that were emerging from Scotland. Groups such as Scars, The Flowers and The Fire Engines were starting to move on from punk, seeking out new sounds and influences in the process. In Scotland, as elsewhere in Britain, the traditional ‘punk’ sound was on the wane, something also illustrated by the fact that most of the bands that had emerged during the first-wave of Scottish-punk had either moved-on musically, broken-up, or were nearing the end of their shelf-life.

The sole exception to the move against punk was Paisley, where the spirit and sound of the scene endured a tad longer.

“Paisley hung on a bit more than everywhere else and kept going into the early eighties” says Gerry Rodden. “I’m not sure why this was” he muses “but it could have something to do with it being quite a tight scene, a bit set apart from what was happening elsewhere. It had its own energy and its own local bands and maybe this helped sustain the scene there when punk had fallen out of favour in other places in the country. The music that was produced in Paisley was always more energetic too, more in tune with the first-wave of punk than what was made elsewhere in Scotland, so maybe that had something to do with it as well.”

Despite its demise elsewhere in Scotland, the influence of the country’s punk scene continued to be felt. On a very basic level, several of those who had been involved in punk’s first flowering in Scotland continued to enjoy commercial success, albeit not always within the punk genre. Both the Skids and The Rezillos (who following a late seventies split morphed into The Revillos) continued to make music into the eighties. Perhaps more famously, various members from Johnny & the Self-Abusers, including, Brian McGee, Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill joined together to form Simple Minds, a band that would go on to enjoy massive commercial success and arguably become Scotland’s most recognisable and successful musical export, even if they ended up distancing themselves from their punk roots to do this.

But beyond the scene’s impact upon those artists who had been swept along in Scottish punk’s first rush of blood, there was also other areas where the scene’s influence could be recognised.

“In the most immediate sense you had the vibrant post-punk scene that emerged in the early eighties, which was centred around Glasgow’s Postcard Records” argues Bruce Findlay.

Postcard, established in 1979 by Alan Horne became home to a handful of the most interesting bands to emerge from Scotland during the eighties, including Josef K, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera. Although the label’s bands might have been musically quite removed from punk, specifically Orange Juice’s proto-indie-pop, according to Bruce, the label and its approach to making music was endemically ‘punk’.

“This was a label set up by a nineteen-year-old lad in a dingy flat in Glasgow’s West End. What’s more, a young lad who had no experience in the music industry. What could be more punk than that? This was the DIY aesthetic in action. What the punk scene had taught people in Scotland was that anything was possible and that if we wanted to make and release our own music then there was no reason why we couldn’t; even if that meant doing it from your own flat!”

The birth of Postcard illustrated that what happened during the punk years in Scotland was not a one-off, an interesting but never-to-be-repeated experiment. The idea of a Scottish music industry had taken hold and over the following years enterprising ‘musoes’ would continue to adhere to punk’s DIY template and establish record labels of their own; labels such as Electric Honey (one-time home to Belle & Sebastian, Snow Patrol and Biffy Clyro), Armellodie Records (home to Cuddly Sharks, The Hazey Janes and The Scottish Enlightenment) and Fence Records (home to King Creosote, Eagleowl and The Pictish Trail).

“I think this was punk’s most important legacy to Scotland” argues Bruce. “The idea that Scot’s could set up their own record labels and that bands could sign to them, stay in the country and still have a career. Not every band does this and not every label has been a success. But some do, and so the idea has endured, which I think represents a fundamental shift in how the making of music is viewed in this country.”

But it’s not just Scotland’s musical infrastructure that was changed by punk. There has, according to Gordon Sharp also been a lasting impact upon the music that the country has subsequently produced.

“I think it would be very difficult for any Scottish band to not be affected by what happened in Scotland during the punk years. Punk democratised the possibility of getting involved in music, the idea that anyone could get up on stage and be in a band. And that’s a lesson which has persisted. The reason that young kids in Scotland today feel able to start making music in their bedroom or put on gigs locally is because of punk. And the effect on Scotland has been transformative. Just think how few great bands emerged out of Scotland before punk and then look at how many have come since. The country has a vibrant music scene today, filled with a multitude of bands creating varied and innovative music. Not all of it, in fact not much of it sounds like punk, but its existence owes punk a huge debt. For me, that’s an impact that cannot be underestimated. Punk was the shock that kickstarted Scottish music into life and that’s something that we should all be grateful for”.

Jim is @jimmykeo.