A Brief History of Scottish Music: 1978 - 2008

Feature by Ally Brown | 23 Sep 2008
  • Boards of Canada

In Scotland we like to boast about how brilliant we are at just about everything. We invented pretty much the whole modern world, including television, the telephone, antibiotics, the steam engine, and probably sliced bread and dogs and football and sex and the wheel and all that stuff too. So it’ll come as no surprise to anyone who’s been listening that we’ve also got a fandabidozy (that’s a word invented by an old Scottish woman dressed as a young boy to mean “excellent”) history when it comes to modern music: we just about invented that too. And we’re not even going to mention people like David Byrne, Talking Heads frontman, who was born in Dumbarton; or Bon Scott and the Young brothers, of AC/DC, who were all born here; or Donovan, who was born in Glasgow; or Bert Jansch or John Martyn, or Mike Scott or Alex Harvey. We certainly won’t be mentioning the Bay City Rollers either, for different and obvious reasons. We don’t have to. Instead The Skinny Student Handbook presents a brief look back at the last 30 years of Scottish alternative music, from the 70s heyday of punk, to the beginning of last week.

Scotland has never been as culturally mixed as cities down south or in the States; you don’t get much in the way of good hip-hop or dub coming from these shores. We do a few things well, but we do them very well. Punk’s mid-70s explosion changed the game for anyone wielding a guitar, and Scottish bands were quick to adjust. Glaswegian label Postcard crammed a frankly silly amount of great music into their short lifespan, but it was in the 80s when Scotland’s first truly great bands arrived. The Jesus & Mary Chain and the Cocteau Twins made an impact with alternative music lovers worldwide, and Primal Scream’s seminal 1991 acid house voyage Screamadelica is rightly considered a timeless classic. They’ve had their ups-and-downs since, but that’s allowed other great bands to come to the fore. Belle and Sebastian annoy twee-haters, but their fans know they offer far more depth than that casual dismissal accounts for. They’ve since been voted Scotland’s greatest ever group, and who are we to argue? Well, another contender would certainly be Mogwai, who emerged thanks to another great Glaswegian label, Chemikal Underground, in the mid-90s. As we arrived in this millenium, Franz Ferdinand became global pop stars, and it remains to be seen whether Glasvegas have the momentum behind them to do similarly.

Any skinflints skimming the timeline will see that several key Scottish bands burned out or faded away very quickly, meaning their recorded legacy is sweet but very short. All three Postcard bands listed here are covered well by one-disc compilations, as are The Skids, Lowlife, the Vaselines, the Rezillos, and arguably the Beta Band. So take our advice and give them a shot if you don’t know them already. Elsewhere, the Cocteaus, Belle and Seb, and Mogwai will require a lot more of your time and money, but they’ll pay dividends.*

Obviously, because we Scots invented this music shit, there’s a lot more out there beyond this handful of picks. I hadn’t even written this yet and my flatmates were complaining: what about Aztec Camera? What about Long Fin Killie? What about Doing The Dishes? (yeah OK, that was about something else). Well, that’s where The Skinny will help you out. We’re always on the lookout for new talent, and reminding our readers about all the great music that’s already out there in this fair nation. We try to be modest, but we’re actually quite brilliant at it.

LATE 70s
The Rezillos
Campy glam-rockers who were swept up with all the excitement of punk. Like the Ramones, yet both smarter and sillier, Can’t Stand The Rezillos was their one and only album.
The Skids
New wave band from Dunfermline which featured Stuart Adamson. More from him later: in the meantime check out Sweet Suburbia, which includes the classic singles Into the Valley and The Saints Are Coming.

Video: The Skids - Into the Valley

Josef K
Kings of Edinburgh post-punk, with jerky angled rhythms and guitars splashing all over the place like splaying hi-hats. Check out the Paul Morley-compiled Entomology for an overview.
Orange Juice
Edwyn Collins’ genius post-punk group from Glasgow, who got a Top 10 hit with Rip It Up (And Start Again), and were one of the formative groups of all indie-pop. The Glasgow School’s a good starting point.
The Fire Engines
Really undervalued wiry post-punk band from Edinburgh. Another recent compilation Hungry Beat goes over the main points of a band that barely even attracted a cult following, but should’ve done.

Video: The Fire Engines - Candyskin

The Jesus & Mary Chain
Famed for hiding sugar pop melodies under overdriven, feedback-drenched guitars, the Mary Chain’s greatest album Psychocandy was an important forerunner to shoegaze and grunge. Bobby Gillespie was the original drummer, before he went on to found…
Primal Scream
From the Andrew Weatherall-produced acid house classic Screamadelica, to the dub-inflected Vanishing Point, to the naked aggression of XTRMNTR, Primal Scream have looked dapper in lots of different outfits. They don’t always hit the mark, but those three albums alone make them one of Scotland’s greatest ever bands.

Video: The Jesus and Mary Chain - April Skies

Cocteau Twins
The Cocteaus are to dream pop what Nirvana are to grunge. From Grangemouth, near Edinburgh, check out Treasure and Heaven Or Las Vegas for Liz Fraser’s melismatic mewl and the celestial guitar swathes that surround it.
Cocteaus-offshoot formed by former Twins bassist Will Heggie. Would it be silly to call dream pop that’s a little darker “nightmare pop”? A recent compilation, Eternity Road, is a great summation.

Video: Cocteau Twins - Heaven or Las Vegas

The Beta Band
Fife’s never really recovered from the effortlessly surreal genius of the Beta Band. Their earliest work, compiled on The Three EPs, is marvellously batty and seductively tuneful.
The Fence Collective
Collective of contemporary folk musicians based in Fife, featuring an amorphous cast of ex-Beta Band members, King Creosote, Lone Pigeon, James Yorkston, and just about any decent singer-songwriter in the land.

Video: The Beta Band - Human Being

The Vaselines
Kurt Cobain’s favourite band should be one of yours too. Downright silly and completely loveable indie-pop, covered perfectly on The Way of the Vaselines compilation. Reformed this year, so keep an eye out for any gigs.
Teenage Fanclub
The so-called Fabulous Fannies sound a bit like the Byrds, and a bit like the Beach Boys, but they come fae Belshill. With eight solid albums so far, Bandwagonesque or Grand Prix are probably the highlights.
Belle and Sebastian
Belle & Seb shocked everyone when they won a Best Newcomer at the BRIT Awards: it was the first decent band the BRITs had ever seen. If You’re Feeling Sinister, and the EPs collection Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, are both essential.

Video: Teenage Fanclub & De La Soul - Fallin'

The ultimate post-rock band. Not bothering with normal pop music structures, they start quiet and get very loud and then quieten down again. OK, so there’s more to it than that, but it’s beautifully done.
The Delgados
The Chemikal Underground founders also knew how to make a right racket, but they wrapped more-or-less conventional indie-pop structures around the bluster. Check out Emma Pollock and Alun Woodward’s contrasting vocals on The Great Eastern, or Hate.
Arab Strap
Frontman Aidan Moffat is a thoroughly modern poet with an old-fashioned romantic heart. Assisted by Malcolm Middleton before their split in 2006, Arab Strap are often casually called miserablists, but can also be hilarious and uplifting.

Video: Mogwai - Travel is Dangerous

The Proclaimers
According to the Da Da Da Da (Scotland) Act 1999, citizens of this country are required to have the lyrics of 500 Miles tatooed on their inner eyelids so that we may never miss an opportunity to triumphantly bellow it into the night.
Big Country
Remember Stuart Adamson? His new band became a huge, international success, with rock heavily influenced by traditional Scottish sounds like bagpipes and fiddles. Great band, actually.
We’re joking now, right?

Video: Big Country - In A Big Country

Famously burned a million pounds in cash as a publicity stunt. Yeah yeah, but also – wrote a book, The Manual, about how to have a No.1 hit single and then had one (Doctorin’ the Tardis as The Timelords), dumped a dead sheep at the BRIT Awards, and pioneered ambient house. We’d love to say all that other stuff shouldn’t overshadow the music, but all that other stuff was brilliant.

Video: The KLF - America: What Time Is Love?

Boards of Canada
One of the most beloved ambient electronica groups in the world. Music Has The Right To Children and Geogaddi, in particular, are stunningly gorgeous examples of what can be done with a little creative maneouvring of field recordings.

Video: Boards of Canada - Dayvan Cowboy

Franz Ferdinand
Franz presented a challenge to high-minded rock fans to appreciate derivative pop-rock that was unashamedly aimed at the hips. Also, they presented a challenge to history teachers when they became better known than that Archduke fella who fought in the war or somesuch.

Video: Franz Ferdinand - Michael

The Twilight Sad
2007’s fiery debut album Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters was The Skinny’s Album of the Year. The follow-up album is due out very soon and we can hardly wait.
Frightened Rabbit
Labelmates of the Twilight Sad on Fat Cat, 2007’s Sing The Greys was a solid if largely unremarked upon indie-rock record, but this year’s Midnight Organ Fight blew it away. One of the albums of the year, and definitely one of Scotland’s best new bands.
The biggest new band in Scotland. The Skinny’s been on their tail since last year, but the debut album just came out this month. Remember those Mary Chain guitars? Just add epic emotional tales in strong local accents, and you’ve got anthems to fill Sauchiehall Street for the next three thousand weekends.

Video: Frightened Rabbit - Head Rolls Off

* Travesty amnesty - we forgot Idlewild, and Texas! And The Blue Nile! And Travis! And, eh, Wet Wet Wet!