Pop Thrills: A Love Letter to Scottish Pop

Ahead of the National Museum of Scotland's Rip It Up exhibition we speak to journalists, radio hosts and documentary makers about the moments in Scottish music that matter to them

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 11 Jun 2018

How do you get yours? Blaring LOUD from your car radio? On a playlist a pal made you? On shiny, special edition vinyl? On... cassette? When was the last time you choreographed dance moves with your best friend? The first time you bought a magazine because your favourite band was splashed on the cover? Which chorus takes you back to a clumsy kiss at a house party? Will you show us your best karaoke ballad? 

Pop music is for the people. It’s the soundtrack for pub garden pints, sticky dancefloors, or a soak in the tub using the showerhead as a mic. A great pop song can be a time machine, party fuel or a comfort blanket, and a pop star can be a preacher, a poet, an alien, a sexual awakening. In this love letter to Scottish pop, we ask long-serving journalists, radio hosts and documentary makers about the moments that made music matter to them – and why they feel compelled to document the transcendent chaos of pop. 

Straight to Your Brain: Vic Galloway, 5SC, and Scottish music on radio

With a blast of Hey, Johnnie Cope on the pipes, radio station 5SC roared into life. Broadcasting from Bath Street, Glasgow in March 1923, 5SC was the first BBC radio station to be based in Scotland and then-director Herbert Carruthers told the Evening Times: “To elevate the public taste in music […] and to give the public the best in entertainment will be our motto.” 95 years later, BBC Radio Scotland sits proud in the shiny Pacific Quay, gazing out to the Hydro from over the Clyde. Every Monday night, Vic Galloway’s show introduces eager listeners to brand new sounds – it’s no surprise that he believes pop’s spiritual home is on the airwaves. The radio DJ, esteemed author and tireless champion of excellent tunes enthuses: “There’s no distraction besides the music. It’s mainlined straight to your brain, and you either like something or you don’t. Radio reached its all-time high in listening figures in 2017, which shows how it still moves people.” He emphasises, too, the importance of an expert curator/selector, name-checking the late, great John Peel: “I don’t trust or expect an algorithm to second-guess my music taste, I like being recommended things that blow my mind, or lead me in different directions!”

Trusting someone’s music taste is an intimate exercise, and one which Scottish radio has taken extremely seriously. For seven months in 1967, Radio Scotland endured the freezing waters off the coast of Dunbar on a boat called the Comet, determined to bring pop joy to the masses – until the Marine Offences Act shut down pirate radio in the UK. Student radios have demonstrated similar grit, albeit in the face of diminishing budgets rather than blowy seas. The Skinny’s Music editor and former manager of Edinburgh University’s Fresh Air station, Tallah Brash, remembers: “We had no money, so we did a lot of fundraisers and put on a lot of gigs. There was a real sense of community!” Glasgow University’s influential student radio Subcity has been on air nearly twenty five years, and offered an early platform to the likes of LuckyMe co-founder and hip-hop oddball Hudson Mohawke.

For Galloway, hearing one band in particular sparked his interest in the power of radio: “I would have been around 12 or 13 years old, and already considered myself a ‘punk’ in rural Fife, dressed in DM boots and tight jeans,” he says. “When I heard The Jesus and Mary Chain I couldn’t believe the racket they were making, with those layers of feedback and distortion. There were sugary sweet tunes in there though, and I was hooked. To then discover they were Scottish was really important too.” He reckons that TV is too populist by nature to be a useful tool in music discovery, but admits that Annie Lennox’s “visually striking, cropped orange crew-cut hair” is perhaps his earliest memory of seeing a Scottish ‘contemporary’ artist on national television: “She looked amazing, sexy and somewhat androgynous. Her voice had soul and power, and tunes like Sweet Dreams and Love is a Stranger stood out when I was a wee boy. I still like them today!”

Music Television: Top of the Pops, and Scottish music on TV

Evidenced by Lennox’s flaming locks, visual aesthetics are vital for a pop band. From Primal Scream’s effervescent, all-consuming psychedelia to Shirley Manson’s inimitable kohl eyeliner, or Franz Ferdinand’s skeletal pop art visuals for evergreen banger Take Me Out (2004), the greats are usually instantly recognisable. Perhaps you remember Edwyn Collins' angular precision during Orange Juice’s triumphant performance of Rip It Up on Top of the Pops in 1983? Or perhaps you picture Bender’s fist in the air as The Breakfast Club ends every time you hear Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me)? Maybe you see Irvine Welsh’s Leith when you hear Young Fathers, after last year’s T2: Trainspotting sequel?

A pop single can be intertwined within broader popular culture in myriad ways, and sometimes taken completely out of context. For Sylvia Patterson, storied journalist and author of I’m Not With the Band, Skids’ 1979 ToTP performance of Into the Valley was pivotal: “[It’s] a song which made me and my best mate Ali go completely berserk in front of [the TV], the pair of us doing high kicks to the ceiling and bawling 'Ahoy! Ahoy!' while laughing like demented banshees. We were 13/14 and this was sheer, irresistible euphoria. I had no idea what it was about [young Scots being recruited into the army after Richard Jobson’s soldier pal was killed on duty in Northern Ireland] [but] it didn’t matter, this was simply MAGIC. Whenever we hear it out in the world today it still makes us go completely berserk.”

Filmmaker Blair Young credits his love of music videos to Douglas Hart, who’s famed for working with, and briefly playing with The Jesus and Mary Chain. He tells us how Hart’s video to Whiteout’s Detroit (1995) drew on visual techniques from the skate scene, and admits: “I think I still rip him off on a regular basis!” Young’s filmed for Scottish royalty like Biffy Clyro, Belle and Sebastian and Franz Ferdinand, and more recently has teamed up with TeenCanteen leader and solo musician Carla J. Easton for Since Yesterday, a documentary designed to celebrate all-female Scottish bands from the 1960s to the present.

“We’re both a bit anoraky in our love of music,” he admits, and explains that discovering a shared appreciation for The McKinleys (a duo of Edinburgh sisters, prolific in the mid 60s) sparked the idea for the collaboration. “[The documentary] is a story of swimming against the tide that is somehow still relevant on a global scale. Since the advent of pop music, people have seen ‘bands’ as being a male thing, and there’s no valid answer why. It’s a set of musicians who have been repeatedly overlooked, and now is the soonest time we could do it!”

Young enthuses that the documentary format has given them space "not only to tell stories, but to use all this great music to illustrate and soundtrack them. Even in the Netflix era, everyone loves a gig, and being surrounded by other like-minded people." Coming full circle for the project, Since Yesterday feeds into a live show that’s planned for August, with SAY Award winners Sacred Paws, sticky pop heroes Bossy Love and bittersweet Glasgow band The Van T’s as part of Leith Theatre's Light on the Shore series.

Put It In Words: Scottish Pop in Print

Print media has been 'dying' for a suspiciously long time, but Scotland’s got a robust medical history when it comes to music magazines. Of course The Skinny’s biased in this department, having celebrated our 150th edition earlier in the year, but we’re in fine company: Clash, launched in Dundee in 2004, will soon hit its fifteenth birthday, and The List’s been dedicated to covering the scene since 1985. The digital turn altered the music industry in previously unimaginable ways – the ability to download or stream a song changed the economic landscape for labels and artists alike, and this instantaneous access has impacted journalism, too. Last year, Stuart McHugh’s Jockrock announced its 20th anniversary of internet-aided vibrancy, after setting up its domain in 1996. A shift online in the noughties saw sites like Aye TunesScottish Fiction and Podcart come into their own, and Tom Johnson's GoldFlakePaint has re-worked the relationship between reader and journalist in a manner similar to Galloway’s insistence on a trusted curator/selector. Johnson’s site rewards financial patrons with hand-picked new music and painstakingly curated digital mixtapes, to such success that he launched an in-house record label called Human Noise Records earlier this year. Music journalism’s not dead, it’s just different.

Dr John Williamson is a Fellow in Popular Music at the University of Glasgow, and remembers reading The ListCutStreets Ahead and TLN in the mid-to-late 80s. He juggled a part-time PhD in pop with the hands-on experience of managing Belle and Sebastian and Bis, a job he affectionately describes as “probably a bad career move for all parties, [although] none of us were thinking too much about careers.” At this time, Williamson was also working as a freelance music journalist for newspapers like The Herald, and even then he remembers thinking sceptically about the direction in which the music industry’s finances were headed: “I interviewed Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera around the release of Deep and Wide and Tall. I’d taken the bus to Clydebank, but got a lift back to the city centre in his well-stocked, chauffeur driven car. It was not the last time I thought about the spurious economics of the music business. The single reached number 55 in the charts.”

In Patterson's autobiography, she details moving from Perth Grammar School’s DIY mag PG Snips to Dundee’s DC Thomson-owned Etcetra [sic], before getting the call from Smash Hits and speeding down to London. Later in her career she would quit the NME in spectacular fashion, inspired by an interview with Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite – “one of the smartest, funniest men on the planet” – which revealed the increasingly corporate face of the once radical mag. He told her, “Music as a cultural force is a way of life. And to move the goalposts to the point that [music is] actually a commodity, is the sad, sad fact of what’s happening.” The magazine refused to print the feature and for Patterson “this interview foresaw the demise of integrity.” She muses, “I have a fantasy that we’ll return to the jazz age, when we had wealthy ‘patrons’ financially supporting all the arts, [but] the objectives remain the same: inform, inspire, and find out what’s in these people’s heads, hearts and souls. And if someone’s an arse, it’s still our duty to print The Truth!”

Doin' It For The Fans: Scottish pop zines

Dig out your Pritt Stick and a stapler: we’re making fanzines. From Cripes in 1977, publishing news and offering a mail order service from independent record store chain Bruce's, Dundee’s Cranked Up, Livingston’s 60s-focused Bam Balam, which supposedly influenced iconic London ‘zine Sniffin’ Glue, to The Next Big Thing – Scotland’s longest running music fanzine, according to The Herald – Scotland’s music fans have a grand tradition of taking matters into their own hands (and printer/scanners). These home-made publications were once integral to the distribution of their authors’ favourite bands, as Chemikal Underground label boss and ex-Delgados member Emma Pollock attests: “When we went on tour in ‘95/’96’/97, most of the interviews that we did were with fanzines, and these were getting posted to people all over the country. That’s how it worked with spreading new bands. It was very grassroots, people felt empowered, like they could do something.”

Contra to journalism’s digital shift, ‘zines have seen a strong resurgence in recent years. After visiting Rip It Up, pop round the corner to browse the newly installed Edinburgh Zine Library (upstairs at the Central Library on George IV Bridge), or purchase a treat at Paradise Palms' ‘Crisps’ collection (41 Lothian St). Glasgow-based pop critic Claire Biddles has been making ‘zines – notably Fuck What You Love, dedicated to pop crushes – since 2016. She says: “I wanted a way to bring together marginalised voices to talk about pop culture through a lens of enthusiasm and fandom. My zines are often collaborative, and it’s selfishly a good way for me to collect writing about my favourite things! It’s important to carve out spaces outside of mainstream culture writing, both so that fans/writers can explore topics in more depth than traditional outlets would allow, and also so that the voices of people who may be excluded from mainstream conversations can be amplified. Just because writing comes from a place of fandom it doesn’t mean it can’t be critically rigorous!

A Common Thread?

In his forthcoming book which accompanies and shares its name with the exhibtion, Galloway's Rip It Up attempts to trace a common thread through decades of Scottish pop. Does he succeed? “The music has been so eclectic, varied and disparate,” he reflects. “I [do] think there is an element of struggle, of being the underdog, of being isolated from the pop-culture epicentres such as London, New York and Los Angeles, that has given Scottish artists some kind of plucky courage and dedication. They won’t take no for an answer, and keep fighting until someone pays attention and listens! Elements of both melancholy and euphoria, I’d say. What always amazes me is how each era, genre and style has bled into the next one. I like how each group or artist influenced the next generation, and often played alongside them; sometimes the markers between generations aren’t as defined as you think.”

Taking stock of some unforgettable encounters, Patterson ponders the same question: what do Scottish pop stars have in common, if anything? “There’s been a few memorably Scottish interviews,” she confesses. “I witnessed Paolo Nutini being booted out of a posh pub in west London for smoking a spliff in the front garden. Back in 1991, a hallucinogenically wasted Bobby Gillespie thought a hotel room carpet was on fire in Brighton and ran out of the room; it was a red Quality Street wrapper glinting in the light. And Steve Mason (ex-Beta Band) in 2016 decimated the prevailing culture in a rousing outburst of indignation. This is him talking about today’s groomed, identikit pop stars making music-by-committee: ‘They're essentially little business people and I don't want those fuckers making music! I'd put them all in a fucking trash compactor. The whole system is set up against anything real coming through. I want art, based on reality!’ He is not only a spectacular talent but a man built out of uncompromising passion. This also reminds me of Shirley Manson’s one-word description of the Scottish spirit: ‘Defiance.’”

Scottish Pop Memorabilia, and Rip It Up

Music journalists are rarely chasing rock stars as part of a lucrative pension scheme: they’re in it for the thrill, for the love of it. Galloway reflects, “pop and rock’n’roll has always been seen as lowbrow, [but] it has helped shape modern culture, fashion, film, politics, civil rights, and has been the soundtrack to our lives. Key singers, performers and lyricists are as important as the politicians in many ways, they have certainly connected directly with more people. Pop is continually changing, morphing and mutating to keep up with the times – echoing, reflecting and mirroring what’s going on. Capturing and documenting these moments is like recording modern history. Some may think it’s silly, but to me it’s important.”

Rip It Up's display of lurid treasures proves that pop is the stuff of ridiculous memorabilia, iridescent memories and 100% guilt-free pleasure. Williamson admits to skipping school "under cover of a stomach bug to get a copy of the Strawberry Switchblade album signed by Rose and Jill! They may have been the first pop stars I ever met." Brash enthusiastically recalls Radio One's Big Weekend in Dundee in 2006 as a catalyst for her love for Franz Ferdinand: "I only had a scrap of paper and I shoved it in [Alex Kapranos'] face! He smiled this big goofy grin and signed it for me, and I still have it framed to this day. I bought Franz Ferdinand pants, like y-front pants, and I've got a Franz Ferdinand snap bracelet... So embarrassing!" 

Patterson remembers, “I loved The Bluebells and went to see them play the Dance Factory in Dundee in the early 80s. Bobby Bluebell was wearing a Bluebells T-shirt featuring a picture of himself doing ‘the Vs’. I was down the front, he took his T-shirt off and… handed it down to me from the stage! Sadly, I’ve lost it since. Three years ago I met Bobby in Edinburgh and he claimed ‘I remember that!’ These are the thrills of the pop fan.” 

Pop is deeply personal; we invite songs into our hearts and our heads and our bedrooms, and stain our hopes and fears with favourite lyrics. In 2016, beloved and sorely missed musician Scott Hutchison reflected on Frightened Rabbit’s feverishly passionate fans in a cover story for The Skinny: “It’s a privilege that people have immersed themselves in the songs, and allowed the songs to be part of their lives... It's wonderful. Someone said, ‘Oh fuck, I don’t like the new Frightened Rabbit song. I’m going to have to get rid of this tattoo!’…”