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Back when Postcard Records came with a stamp of approval

It was a September Tuesday in the Bungalow Bar in Paisley.

The year was 1980, the band was Orange Juice and the room was crowded out. A couple of weeks before, singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Edwyn Collins had been gifted a nice new jumper for his 21st and he was feeling fairly chipper. "Shut up!" he told the boisterous audience. "I'm trying to do a nice little show for you, so just behave yourselves!" His penchant for ned-baiting camp was one of the factors that divided an Orange Juice audience. The other, as observed by a reviewer from BBC Radio Scotland's alternative music show Rock On Scotland, was entirely musical.

The first number started with a distinctly vaudevillian air which our man felt might be a step too far. The single, Blue Boy - a song familiar to followers of the band in its previous incarnation, Nu-Sonics - rattled along with style. The influence of the Velvet Underground was duly noted and approved. However, the newer numbers were rhythmically messy and no two instruments were ever in tune. During the ramshackle set, a third of the audience took their leave, but those remaining demanded two encores.

The fame of Orange Juice and Postcard Records had already started to spread. Also in the room, besides our reviewer, was a man from the rock and pop weekly Melody Maker, who was to interview Orange Juice and their manager Alan Horne after the performance. (His efforts would be countered with deliberate, calculated confusion.) But was this attention, wondered our critic, all too much, too soon.

Frankly, I found his report a hindrance. If we had simply said that Orange Juice were wonderful, as on record they certainly were, I could then have introduced said record with a touch more ceremony. My producer Chris said that there was no point in running reviews in our fast-paced fanzine-type format if I was going to bleat about the verdicts. Perhaps we could now play something of decent quality, murmured Chris, such as Genesis. (No, we couldn't.) Eight programmes into Rock On Scotland's debut series and we were still bickering about content.

Rock On Scotland (ROS), the precursor to Beat Patrol - which in its turn would run for 16 years - was the unexpected result of persistent lobbying combined with the temporary absence of one of our country music presenters. Called upon to fill the gap, I was granted full editorial control. But also a producer, Chris, who arrived with some very firm ideas of his own. Shamelessly I enlisted the expert support of BBC Scotland's Gramophone Librarians, Sandy and Stewart (this being a time when the Corporation had use for gramophones and libraries) and we rapidly bonded into a team. Our fun could have been short-lived, but for the fact that our country guy decided to remain in Nashville and our programme's run was extended again and again.

I really have no idea what happened in the 34th and final ROS programme, but in the penultimate show we made a point of filling the running order entirely with Scottish material. That we could do so purely on merit and without a hint of effortful condescension on our part proves that Postcard was far from being the only kitty on the cushion. Nevertheless, Rock On Scotland's arrival in 1980 and subsequent departure in '81 pretty much coincided with the lifespan of the original version of Postcard Records, whose presence as far as we were concerned was heaven sent. It was as if a benevolent Indie Godmother had waggled her deely bobbers and waved a magic wand.

The Postcard label had a particular sense of style and identity. It also had a well-developed sense of its own importance: or, if you like, Alan Horne believed that his judgments were manifestly correct and everybody else's were laughable rubbish. This was a perfectly appropriate post-punk attitude, but it did mean that mild criticism, such as the occasional less than ecstatic review or meant-to-be helpful remark, invariably attracted a withering retort from Postcard HQ in flat 2/R, 185 West Princes Street. Once or twice I felt it prudent to sue for peace on air, but that was because I didn't know any better. Postcard kept sending us music and we kept playing it.

My first encounter with Postcard resulted because of an in-band dispute over musical standards. At the end of 1979, a personal hunt for interesting records brought me to a small store in Glasgow's city centre managed by two local celebrities. One was Brian Superstar, friend of Alan Horne and soon to play guitar in the first incarnation of those pillars of independent music, The Pastels. The other (I have deduced and now claim as fact) was Steven Daly, who had recently quit his position as Orange Juice drummer in protest at the group's aforementioned feckless floppy-fringed bohemian tendencies. He was running his own label, prior to being lured back into the band. Among the 45rpm vinyl singles I bought that day was Steven's first release on Absolute Records, a song called Chance Meeting by the sombrely suited Edinburgh band Josef K. As fate would have it, their next single, Radio Drill Time, would be the first Postcard record to be played on Rock On Scotland nine months later.

It went like this: "There's so many pathways that lead to the heart. The records were letters, the wrong place to start." Songsmith/vocalist Paul Haig intoned a critique of music radio as a substitute for first-hand communication and the banal limitations of the conventional pop lyric. "These words are so dull, though. The records were letters, from hundreds to millions; the wrong place to start." That record was played in our third programme, probably - in part, anyway - because it had "radio" in the title (which seldom fails) but one might detect the coming together of a "postal" theme if one believed in such things.

In the current digital age, it's worth considering just how cool and cute the musical medium of a bygone time - the vinyl disc - could be. The first Orange Juice single, Falling And Laughing, included a flexi-disc, with a lone track called Felicity. This bore the poignant, evocative label I Wish I Was A Postcard. The Radio Drill Time single cunningly shared its Postcard artwork with Blue Boy, by virtue of printing the designs on opposite sides of a sheet of paper and folding as appropriate. The result was hand-coloured and, like Falling And Laughing, sold in a protective polythene bag along with the vinyl disc. It was the definitive, resourceful hallmark of an independent single.

These quirks of packaging were enticing, but equally intriguing was the realisation that the title Felicity referred not to a girl - the usual cue for a song - but to happiness itself. Felicity jangled and bounced with a touch of worldly innocence. It seemed familiar, yet distinctively different. It would have been strongly reminiscent of The Smiths, but for the fact that The Smiths had not yet been invented. Falling And Laughing, meanwhile, loped along to a choppy Chic-like rhythm, with a genial though distracted Edwyn ending his lyric lines in afterthoughts.

Those other purveyors of quirky literate pop, Josef K, released more material than any other Postcard act and were the only ones who recorded an album for the label. It seemed that Postcard had plans for them. When the band rejected their first album because it was over-produced and then kept us waiting for a re-worked version which was fatally under-produced, the plan seemed to veer into shoogly territory. There were other indications that reinforced this hint of fragility. The presence of the Australian duo The Go-Betweens made musical sense, maybe even promised new directions and fresh energies - but they only recorded one single for the label.

Then one day, while sitting in the Rock On Scotland cubby-hole, musing on playlists, I got a package in the mail. A cassette - we're talking old-school recording media, here - from Campbell Owens, the bass player with an East Kilbride band called Aztec Camera. The outcome was that, in mid-December 1980, we played a song by Roddy Frame with jazz chords and a lyric about the problems of communicating with a loved one, even in a small room. It was called We Could Send Letters. This became the B-side of a gorgeous single called Just Like Gold. To me, this was the very essence of the Postcard sound. Like our ROS listeners across Scotland, and beyond, we were all ears for what this idiosyncratic label would surprise us with next. What I didn't understand was that Orange Juice were Postcard and Postcard was Orange Juice, and the band were about to move on.

So, no master plan after all, but considerable influence and of course the work itself, much of which is still available. It was a privilege to be among the first to receive those letters to the world from Postcard. Love letters, I guess.

A new book about Postcard Records, Simply Thrilled, is published by Ebury Press on April 17, priced £16.99 hardback and £9.99 ebook.

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