Renaissance Men: From the Port to the Bridge

Ahead of an exhibition at the Beacon Arts Centre celebrating their contribution to music, three Scottish DJs explain the significance of Robert Rental and Thomas Leer in the story of post-punk

Feature by Michael Lawson | 28 Sep 2018

"If only he had made more music, I think he might have been a Scottish Arthur Russell. He doesn't sound anything like Arthur, but the few pieces of music he left with us come from a similarly unique part of the soul.” Optimo’s JD Twitch is enthusing over Scottish DIY post-punk pioneer Robert Rental and his deeply moving track Double Heart. “I might have listened to it more than any other record ever made, but I still get something from it every time I hear it.”

Rental and his long-time friend, collaborator and contemporary Thomas Leer will be the subject of a display at Greenock’s Beacon Arts Centre this month after local music archivist Simon Dell decided to curate an exhibition in their honour. Three years in the making, the exhibition is a combination of press material, synthesisers and drum machines used by the two artists along with an assortment of unseen photos, artwork and tapes.

Accompanying the exhibition will be a film featuring interviews with a number of contemporaries, including Mute Records founder Daniel Miller and Throbbing Gristle, while some unreleased demo tapes found in the Rental family home have been released (Different Voices For You. Different Colours For Me.) via Twitch’s Optimo Music imprint.

Growing up a stone’s throw from Greenock in the tired industrial town of Port Glasgow, the pair would relocate to London and play a pivotal role in the emergent post-punk movement of the late 70s. Whereas punk set the foundations with its unrelenting energy and DIY ethos, it was post-punk in the immediate aftermath that spawned some of the most boundary-pushing music of the period.

Rental and Leer were quick to embrace the new technologies and electronic equipment of the time, yet the most enduring feature of their early music is its proudly DIY ethic. Using a combination of Stylophones (“just a little bit bigger than the one Rolf Harris used,” Dell jokes), primitive drum machines, some guitars and a few effects pedals, the pair would take turns recording music in each other’s flats – lugging the equipment back and forth between the two.

Despite enjoying little commercial success at the time, their music has been subject to pockets of critical acclaim in the decades since. San Francisco-based reissue label Dark Entries has rereleased music from both men, repurposing it for a new, more youthful audience in the process, while much-revered Los Angeles DJ Silent Servant has been known to drop Rental’s tracks (chiefly Double Heart) in his sets and mixes.

“I’m always surprised at how many younger electronic music fans are aware of Thomas and Robert and really hold them in very high regard,” Dell confesses. “Although they may not directly influence their music, this idea that you can do it yourself and be true to the music continues to ring true for various generations of bedroom musicians.”

Ahead of the exhibition, Twitch and two other Scottish DJs profess their love for Leer and Rental’s music, while attempting to further explain the duo’s enduring legacy.

JD Twitch, Optimo
"Robert and Thomas were at the vanguard of DIY electronics in the UK, but beyond the fact that their records helped kick-start a musical revolution they were both simply great songwriters. Even in the depths of a noisy, experimental, unsettling Robert Rental song such as Paralysis, great songwriting is lurking.

"With hardly any synths and the most lo-fi of recording setups, they showed what was possible and that great ideas, inspiration and dedication are often the most important resources for making a brilliant record. They inspired legions of enthusiasts to do it themselves no matter how meagre their equipment."

Becky Marshall, aka Ribeka, So Low
"I think part of the appeal with their music is that you can really hear that they’re just figuring out and playing with these new machines, but still making very melodic and emotive music. Both of them have an incredible ability to make extremely heartfelt songs, while experimenting with the parameters of traditional pop song structure.

"They’re important in the story of post-punk because they were such early adopters – even working with local university professors to build their own early modular systems – and were really at the forefront of experimental music in the mid-to-late 70s.

"I also don’t think you can underestimate the fact that they were young, working-class men from a very deprived part of Scotland, who would have been expected to follow their fathers into the shipyards of the Clyde coast. Instead, they took the brave decision to move away from home and immerse themselves in DIY culture in London.

"Double Heart is one of the most heartbreaking pieces of music I’ve ever heard and yet I could listen to it endlessly and never tire of it."

Fergus Clark, 12th Isle
"Over the past 15 years or so the ease of access to previously underground or marginalised, fringe-dwelling music that the internet has provided has been incredible. That said, I think that for many music fans there is still a fascination with the locale. When I first heard Thomas and Robert’s music it was not only a way of joining the dots between industrial, new wave, post-punk and techno, it was also a strange feeling of pride, pleasure and pain hitting all at once.

"There is a raw immediacy in their music that pulls at the heart; from the much-lauded single Double Heart, even through to Leer's most saccharine, pop-focused moments like International (1984). To hear their early tracks and see what two men from small-town, working-class backgrounds could achieve with minimal technology and limitless ambition was like a eureka moment, especially with roots so close to home.

"With so much contemporary electronic music suffering the cruel fate of over-production, recycled sample packs and uninspired functionality, I think it’s only natural for younger audiences to seek out music like Leer and Rental’s – not just for the historical context but for the fact that all these decades later most of their recordings still sound fresh and honest."

From the Port to the Bridge, Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, 2-28 Oct
JD Twitch, Security, hausfrau and DJ Loraine Williams perform at Celebrating Thomas Leer & Robert Rental – Live Electronic Night, Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, 12 Oct
Different Voices For You. Different Colours For Me is out now on Optimo Music