Postcard from Auld Reekie – Big Gold Dream: Scottish Post-Punk and Infiltrating the Mainstream
Grant McPhee's ten years in the making Big Gold Dream charts the highs and lows of Edinburgh's post-punk scene. Two of its vanguards, Vic Godard and Malcolm Ross, recall those heady days ahead of the film's world premiere at Edinburgh Film Festival
“I find them hard work, rock books.”
Vic Godard is sitting backstage in the Traverse Theatre having completed his second and final rehearsal with the Stool Pigeons. The band, comprising five post-punk journeymen, has been assembled especially in honour of Grant McPhee's Big Gold Dream, a rigorous documentary on the late 70s and early 80s Scottish indie music scene. The film's set to premier in a couple of hours' time, and it's a relief to find a man with so little interest in cliché and hagiography among its cast.
“Edwyn [Collins, erstwhile Orange Juice frontman] always used to amaze me because when I was working with him a lot in the 90s, every book he read was about rock, and I said to him, ‘Don't you ever read anything that's nothing to do with rock?’ He responded, ‘Oh yeah, birdwatching!’ ‘No, Edwyn! I mean like proper stories that've got no connection with music at all!’”
An enthusiastic recommendation of Jah Wobble's Memoirs of a Geezer – “it's about the East End of London, really” – makes it clear that Godard is more interested in social history than the nuts and bolts of music itself. Fittingly, Big Gold Dream's strength is that it offers a fascinating insight into two markedly different cities during a period of cultural upheaval. “It's a bit late now,” the singer cackles. “But it's good, historically, to have something out there that tells people what actually happened.”
“You're always remembered for the first thing you do. There's very few bands whose early stuff people don't think is best” – Malcolm Ross
Glasgow has long dined out on its reputation as a vibrant musical boot camp, an esteemed lineage of colourful, world-conquering acts having emerged from the city’s dilapidated post-industrial landscape over the past several decades. Operating out of a flat on West Princes Street, Postcard Records is rightly celebrated for having embraced punk’s DIY ethos and unsustainable energy, issuing essential early releases from the likes of Orange Juice, Aztec Camera and Josef K. The influence of these recordings reverberates to this day, and Big Gold Dream director Grant McPhee is clearly a devoted fan. Yet what sets his documentary apart from most other accounts of Scotland’s then-burgeoning indie scene is its focus on the nation’s capital.
Though often overlooked in favour of its brash western neighbour, it was in Edinburgh that central Scotland had its first taste of punk and found itself at a musical ground zero. Those who were present at the Edinburgh date of 1977's White Riot tour still speak of the experience in reverential tones. But while The Clash put on a powerful show by all accounts, it was sets by Buzzcocks, the Slits and Subway Sect that defied audience expectations.
“We weren't manufactured and you could tell when we went on stage,” explains Godard, frontman of the latter. “The Clash had all the gear and all the backdrops, but [when the Subway Sect were on] people were like, ‘Who the hell are that lot?’ It was the fact that any kid from Glasgow or Edinburgh could see themselves getting up there.”
Godard's quick to emphasise that a prop budget wasn't the only difference between his band and the headliners. “I remember looking at [Buzzcocks'] lyrics and thinking, ‘God, they're really good.’ I used to sneak into [Clash leader] Joe Strummer's bedroom and look at his lyrics and think, ‘What the hell is that, it's rubbish!’”
What Godard's anti-charisma taught disaffected Scottish youth was that anyone could produce a life-affirming, idiosyncratic racket and that wilful amateurism could be made a virtue. Davy Henderson was in awe of his performance and, featuring heavily as a talking head throughout, provides Big Gold Dream with a clear narrative through-line.
Having somehow dodged tangible success throughout his spells with Fire Engines, Win, The Nectarine No.9 and current outfit The Sexual Objects, Henderson’s career trajectory is a cautionary tale for those with seemingly unbridled talent and the will to apply it. None of his costars in McPhee’s documentary can be said to have bought into the promise of rock‘n’roll to quite the same extent. It’s devastating when, in a rare unguarded moment, he reveals that his biggest regret is breaking up Fire Engines at the behest of Fast Product label boss Bob Last.
McPhee is unwilling to offer his personal interpretation of this event, understandingly preferring to depict it on screen as objectively as possible. To many viewers, however, the financially motivated deal struck between Henderson and Last will surely be representative of a loss of innocence within the scene as a whole. Malcolm Ross, guitarist with Josef K, Orange Juice and tonight's Stool Pigeons group, sums up the change that took place from the sofa opposite Godard. “With Josef K, major labels would sniff around us and we'd be kind of against them, we wanted to be on an independent. And then, around '82, that changed. You didn't want to walk around with a guitar case, you wanted a briefcase. Like you were a young businessman.”
“We weren't manufactured and you could tell when we went on stage” – Vic Godard
When discussing the demise of his greatest group, Edinburgh's twitchy, darkly enigmatic Josef K, Ross suggests the lack of money floating around the small labels was what prompted most of his puritanical peers to redefine their career goals. “We split up to make a living. We had no record company backing so that was our only source of income, the money we could make from gigs.” Major label deals and conventional day jobs would soon take the strain off fatigued musicians. For his part, Ross is now a taxi driver.
Has it become a chore for him to have so much attention focused on his early years? “You're always remembered for the first thing you do. There are very few bands whose early stuff people don't think is best.” Nodding in agreement, Godard adds, “You come up in that sort of era, you can't really get away from that.” Perhaps not, but Big Gold Dream is definitive enough to satisfy all but the most casual interest in the subject.
With contributions generously split across all relevant parties, the film is as democratic as one could hope. The dulcet tones of Australian pop hero Robert Forster even lend its voice-over narration a sense of impartiality. Ross seems happy with the finished product. “Rather than have someone write a book, which could be full of inaccuracies, this gets it straight from the horse's mouth,” he says before cryptically concluding, “You are getting mostly the truth.”
More from EIFF 2015:
23 June, 8.25pm, Belmont, Aberdeen
27 June, 6.10pm, Odeon, (Lothian Road), Edinburgh