Among the conscripts are Deacon Blue, The Skids, Teenage Fanclub, The View, Mike Scott, Lloyd Cole, Hue And Cry, Eddi Reader, Midge Ure, Idlewild and King Creosote – on the surface as disparate and, in many cases, as successful a group of artists as you could hope to find this side of Glastonbury.
A bantamweight in terms of size, Scotland has consistently punched like a heavyweight in the pop arena. Lulu has had number one singles in both the UK and US, as have Simple Minds and the Bay City Rollers, briefly the biggest pop group on the planet. Scores of bands from Del Amitri to The Vaselines (covered and revered by Nirvana) have made a mark on a global stage; even Bellshill’s Sheena Easton reached the top of the US charts, recorded with Prince and eventually made it in to the bright lights of Las Vegas.
It’s an impressive roll call of talent, and yet a bewildering one, with no clear point of consensus. While English music has retained close links with its Vaudevillian roots and musical hall traditions through bands like The Kinks, Small Faces, Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Madness and Blur, it’s a struggle to find anything so overt this side of the Border: to locate an instantly identifiable vein of Scottish pop.
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As is often the case when dealing with elusive characters, at first it’s easier to say what it’s not. Scottish music rarely opts for barrow-boy cheek or eyebrow-raising irony. Culturally, the concepts don’t translate. There’s also been relatively little in the way of dressing up or elaborate artifice – with the obvious exception of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Few artists have excelled at the more theatrical end of the spectrum, such as glam, punk, and new romantic. One thing we can say with some certainty is that Scottish pop is rarely aloof. In tending towards the sincere, the heartfelt, the gruff, the twee, the overwrought and the melancholic, it almost always wants to emotionally connect.
In common with Scotland’s wider cultural and political affiliations, for much of the past half-century its musicians have tended to look beyond their own borders and away from England for inspiration. To Ireland, where U2 kick-started the Celtic rock boom which swept the likes of Big Country and Simple Minds along in its wake (it’s notable that the latter’s only UK number one came with Belfast Child, an adaptation of the traditional Irish air She Moves Through The Fair). To cold war-era mainland Europe, where David Bowie’s romanticised exile validated a rash of infatuated Caledonian crooners, from Hipsway to Franz Ferdinand, and where the dance floors of Dusseldorf, Berlin and Paris provided inspiration for Ultravox, The Associates and Simple Minds’ earlier records.
But primarily their gaze has returned again and again to America, whose traditional music they did so much to animate in the first place. Glasgow-born skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan has been cited as a pioneer in the development of British rock’n’roll by everyone from Paul McCartney to Van Morrison, and in many ways Donegan’s story described the pattern of what has followed: a Scots artist looking to the United States – in his case, the primitive folk-blues of Lousiana musician Lead Belly – for inspiration, then giving it a distinctly personal twist.
Maggie Bell, Alex Harvey, Average White Band, Texas, Deacon Blue, Hue and Cry, Paolo Nutini and many more followed suit, building their music on a bedrock of US blues, R&B, funk and soul. In the early 1980s, Glasgow’s small but perfectly formed Postcard label offered up The Sound Of Young Scotland. Jaunty and jangly, Orange Juice, Aztec Camera and Josef K wore their affinity to American bands like Love, the Byrds, the Velvet Underground and Chic very firmly on the sleeves of their tassled suede jackets. Later came the too-cool-for-school devotees of Lower East Side nihilist chic: stand up, if you can be bothered, The Jesus And Mary Chain. And while much classic English pop is obsessed with minutiae, the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, Scotland’s equivalent favours the widescreen American aesthetic, cinematic and a little grandiose. Something about the landscape seems to encourage the big – and occasionally empty – gesture.
While soaking up outside influences, Scottish pop hasn’t always enjoyed such a beneficial relationship with its own musical DNA. There have certainly been moments when pop and folk have interacted – Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia, now an unofficial national anthem; The Proclaimers in their earlier days – but generally it has seemed reluctant to embrace what it perceives as a rather suspect heritage, all tartan, shortbread tins and bittersweet memory.
The room has often been fiercely delineated, with The Corries on one side of the stage and Biffy Clyro on the other, but the influence of folk music has seeped through nonetheless. Scotland’s traditional legacy isn’t simply a convenient form of musical shorthand – a quick scratch of the fiddle here, a skirl of the pipes there. It burrows much deeper, resurfacing in an innate grasp of melody aligned with an emotional ache pitched somewhere between ecstasy and heartbreak.
Regardless of genre, it’s what connects The Blue Nile – all bubbling electronica and finely-wrought minimalism – to the heart-on-sleeve reportage of Glasvegas: the ability to access emotion and tug mercilessly at the heartstrings. Listen closely and you’ll hear it in everything from the Bay City Rollers’ Give A Little Love to Teenage Fanclub’s Ain’t That Enough. Similarly, the music of Lulu, The Rezillos, Sharleen Spiteri and KT Tunstall may share very few core characteristics, but there’s a certain gallus, rather desperate abandon evident in Shout, Top Of The Pops, Say What You Want and Suddenly I See that betrays a common gene pool. Scottish pop music is less about a distinct musical identity than a shared sensibility, primarily communicated through a voice that, like the country as a whole, often doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry, hit or hug.
Scotland has always had its stand-alone mavericks – the great Alex Harvey, an explosive mix of Jacques Brel and Bar Brel; Billy Mackenzie, perhaps the nation’s most complex and innately gifted pure pop star; and Bobby Gillespie, who for all his studied posturing has refused to allow Primal Scream to become a fixed entity – but in the main the body has been Zelig-like, an often thrilling patchwork of borrowed identities. Perhaps that’s why, while there has been no shortage of talent, it’s hard to argue that many artists – aside from Donegan and the Postcard bands, whose legacy lingers in modern groups like Bloc Party, Vampire Weekend and Franz Ferdinand – have been particularly influential. More followers than leaders, perhaps; more craft than innovation; more heart than head.
This may be changing. It certainly seems significant that in the past few years so many Scottish bands have ditched the Yankee bellow and Transatlantic twang to sing in their own accents. Whereas it was once only folk acts and The Proclaimers who did so, and were often ridiculed for it, nowadays dozens of artists – from rising indie stars like Frightened Rabbit, the Phantom Band, We Were Promised Jetpacks and The Twilight Sad, to bona fide pop acts like Nutini, Camera Obscura, The View and Glasvegas (who are, in other respects, a throwback to a borrowed American cliché of primitive cool) – declaim in broad Scottish tones.
The change is partly attributable to the decentralisation of the music industry, encouraging a more localised approach the world over, but there’s also a political context. Subconsciously, rather than by design, since devolution Scottish pop music has grown in confidence and proved more willing to confront and adopt aspects of its own heritage. Musicians have done this not only by singing in their given accent, but by accessing the darkness and mystery of folk music and making it work in a pop context, and also by displaying a growing eagerness to engage with other strands of Scottish culture.
The recent Ballads Of The Book project featured collaborations between pop bands like Sons And Daughters and Trashcan Sinatras and prominent Scottish authors, while Idlewild have worked several times with poet Edwin Morgan. Meanwhile, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, that daring reimagining of the nation’s self-image, inspired several songs on My Latest Novel’s excellent new album Deaths And Entrances. In all cases, the results are original and forward-looking, distinctly Scottish without evoking Brigadoon.
It isn’t a political statement, more an instinctive recognition of change in the air, a growing sense of ease about reflecting back something of Scotland’s unique culture.
As befits the central premise of Homecoming, which is primarily a celebration of a proud history, next weekend’s concerts lean heavily towards nostalgia, a totting up of some impressive and much-loved past achievements. It may explain why the halls have been downsized, reflecting a slow response in ticket sales. There is, however, the promise of more exciting times to come. After 50 years, Scottish pop might just be finding its own true voice.
Homecoming Live – The Final Fling takes place at the SECC and Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow, on November 28 from 5pm. For ticket and line-up details, go to www.homecominglive.com