Introducing the Rip It Up exhibition

As the curator of the National Museum of Scotland's exhibition on Scottish music, Stephen Allan introduces Rip It Up: The Story of Scottish Pop

Feature by Stephen Allan | 11 Jun 2018

My own love affair with Scottish pop music probably goes back to 1978 being mesmerised by Eugene Reynolds, resplendent in lime green jumpsuit, alongside Fay Fife on Top of the Pops, singing – appropriately enough, Top of the Pops. Fast forward exactly 40 years, and here we are, getting ready to put that same jumpsuit on display in Rip It Up: The Story of Scottish Pop at the National Museum of Scotland.

It will be one of over 300 objects on show, many of which have come directly from the artists and bands, and which mostly haven’t been on public display before. For all sorts of reasons – space, availability of material, curatorial choices, basic sanity – the exhibition is not and cannot be comprehensive. Through a mix of chronological and thematic approaches, we’ll give the broadest possible overview to the story while also offering fresh sights and insights through unique objects and first-hand artists’ contributions. We’ve also had expert help and advice from a wide range of people over the past 18 months.

We start in the dancehalls and cafes as skiffle catches on, with Scots-born Lonnie Donegan in the vanguard of a movement in which a young Alex Harvey also cut his teeth. An industry forms, with its centre in London. Young Scots artists make their way there, seeking fame and fortune. Some find it, like Lulu. At the same time new folk starts to emerge from the clubs and bars as bands like The Incredible String Band are at the heart of an emerging counterculture. Folk traditions are adopted and adapted into the new pop music – a fusion which continues to this day.

Into the 1970s, other Scots make global breakthroughs on their own and as part of groups – Average White Band, Gerry Rafferty, Nazareth, Jack Bruce in Cream, Ian Anderson in Jethro Tull and, of course, the Bay City Rollers.

In the late 1970s, social and technological changes turn everything on its head. A new generation seizes the means of production; more portable and affordable recording equipment and even the emergence of the humble office photocopier lead to the emergence of smaller independent labels throughout the country, with notable examples in Scotland including Zoom, No Bad, Postcard, Fast Product and, later, Creation. There is a parallel creative flourishing around new wave and post-punk. Lots of hugely influential artists emerge around this time, from The Skids, Josef K, Orange Juice, The Associates, Altered Images, The Fire Engines, Scars and artists who went on to have global commercial impact like Simple Minds and Midge Ure… the list goes on.

In amongst all this a recurring presence is Scotland itself, and its changing social, political and cultural climate. To what extent can you hear that in the music? In some cases, very obviously; the inimitable sound and the politics of The Proclaimers, or Runrig, the only band to perform in Gaelic on Top of the Pops. In other cases, it’s far less obvious and some would say rightly so, that music is universal, and transcends national boundaries.

Maybe more subtly, particular places have had movements and moments of creativity with a particular sound and voice. Most obviously Glasgow through different periods, whether the Bellshill blossoming of Teenage Fanclub and BMX Bandits, or the emergence of the scene fostered by The Pastels and Belle and Sebastian. More recently labels such as Fence, Lost Map and of course Chemikal Underground continue Scotland’s do-it-yourself musical ethos. Contemporary voices have recently emerged in Scotland, most notably in Young Fathers and also through the success of the Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Awards. And we will celebrate artists whose work and career reflects some of all of those themes and influences, and who have had global success, like Franz Ferdinand, Shirley Manson, KT Tunstall and Biffy Clyro.

Alongside the objects, we’ve been working with BBC Scotland on this project and so, sometime not long after we open, there will be a three-part TV series on the history of Scottish pop. Vic Galloway has written a book which will accompany the exhibition, and will also present a four part series on Radio Scotland.

And it’s actually going to be a whole summer of Scottish pop, as this carries over into live music, particularly the associated events coming up with the Southern Exposure Festival at Summerhall in June, and Light on the Shore as part of the Edinburgh International Festival at Leith Theatre. We’ll also have our own range of events happening here at the Museum throughout the exhibition run.

Rip It Up: The Story of Scottish Pop runs at the National Museum of Scotland from 22 Jun-25 Nov