Friday, August 13, 2004

For every music fan, much like myself, there are various "scenes" one can claim fandom to: clusters of bands and musicians in certain geographical locales and points of time who managed to create a distinct regional sound. Well, off the top of my head, I could throw at you a few names and places of which I'll claim allegiance to: DC ca. '80-'83; LA ca. '77-'84; Germany ca. '68'-'74; Ohio ca. '74-'79; Detroit ca. '67-'73; Milwaukee ca. '82-'90... you get the idea. I've been fumbling around with some old records of late, and whilst I won't put a definite period of time on it, I'll stake a claim on the Scottish underground scene of the early '90s. After all, someone has to.

At the time of said scene I was a loudmouthed champion of its cause, interviewing the likes of the Dog Faced Hermans and Dawson for a rag I was doing at the time, and so, ten years later, I've revisited some discs in question for a reappraisal, and so let me just say with a sigh of relief that this stuff has held up well. I say this because it can be a real ordeal revisiting musical loves of the past, only to shake your head with horror and disgust a decade later and ask yourself: What in the hell was I thinking? I did this just recently when I attempted to play a Derek Bailey CD all the way through, getting roughly 5 minutes in before I had to stop chuckling and have it taken out of my sight. I used to get excited over this kinda stuff? Who was I kidding? In a word: myself. Come back to me in 10-12 years time to see what I think about Acid Mothers Temple and SunnO))). Don't worry, though, I think the news will be good. I can happily and honestly say that I'm not embarrassed about a single album I've bought since I was about 13 years old. Not that there haven't been some real turkeys in there - of course there has - but I can blame them on being blind stabs in the dark as opposed to something really horrible I was actually into. Then again, maybe your definition of an "embarrassing" record is just different to mine.

Anyway, the point is this: if I take a look back at the music I was into in the early '90s, I'd say a lot of it, good as it may have been, was also fairly disposable, literally - but since I've never disposed of any of my Dawson, Dog Faced Hermans, Stretchheads, Badgewearer or Whirling Pig Dervish records, I'll throw them into a different category and get on with the show...

Hmmm.. now I haven't been to Scotland since I was 8 years old (my Dad's a proud Glaswegian), so I can't make any claims as to how the landscape or political climate gave sway to the unique sounds that came from its lands, but since the whole North of the UK has been in general decline since Thatcher hit power, let's simply blame her for the desperate, awesome sounds given birth by these bands. Maggie, just like Reagan - what an inspiration.

I first heard about Dawson, Whirling Pig Dervish and Badgewearer in a 1992 edition of Maximum Rock 'n' Roll[!!] (back when it was still remotely readable and at least had the likes of Jeff Bale writing for it), in which the reviewer name-dropped the Minutemen, Big Flame and Gang of Four in all three reviews for these bands on the curiously-named Gruff Wit label. I didn't know shit from shinola, but I threw some change in an envelope, asked them for some goods and sent the package on its way. Back came a pile of records crammed with lyric sheets, posters, flyers, photos and all kinds of DIY ephemera and I was sold. And then I decided to put the records on...

Badgewearer I know nothing about. I'll assume their name's taken from the Minutemen song "Badges", since their sound is heavily indebted to Boon & Watt, with its scratchy guitars, obtuse rhythms and blink-and-you-miss-'em songs. Their lone LP, F.T.Q. - that's Fuck The Queen to you - is a real gem. 14 songs in roughly 20 minutes, paste-on sleeve and, lyrics and rants aside, next to no info on the band, it's a curio item I'll hang onto 'til the next life. Heavily political in its angle, your interest, or lack thereof, in the squatting rights of Scottish peasants will not affect the pleasure you'll gain from its skittering sounds. A few months later I found a copy of Badgewearer's debut 7" sitting in the bargain bin in Au-go-go for a few shillings and hightailed it, record in hand. The This Bag Is Not A Toy 7" EP may look like a Crass disc, but it's far more listenable. Donning the kind of black-&-white anarcho artwork perfected by snot-nosed Limeys in the early '80s, it's much in the same vein as the LP: a barrage of slogans, cluttered agit-punk and the kind of uber-angst I reveled in as a hopeless young man at the time. A keeper!

Whirling Pig Dervish... well, I wish I could give you more information, but, again, I own one 7"on the Gruff Wit label which gives you nothing on the band at all, other than a thank-you list (featuring DFH, Stretchheads, Dawson, etc.) and lyric sheet. Housed in a smart, hard-cardboard sleeve with stark graphics and a photo of a young kid holding a watermelon (yeah, well, whatever...), their Full Feather Lovesuit 4-track 7" EP definitely possesses that scattered, angry post-punk sound you're likely to find on a dozen Rough Trade discs in the late '70s, and I for one ain't complaining. Think of the twang 'n' treble of early Fall and mix it up with the funkified antics of The Pop Group and you're getting there. Throw in a bit of brass, a couple of angry Scots and you've almost got Whirling Pig Dervish. Before the other night, I hadn't played this since last century, but I'm glad I never discarded it: coming out of nowhere and going right back there, WPD left a stamp on me somewhere.

Dawson were probably the linchpin of this "scene", as their guitarist/vocalist, Jer, was also the owner/operator of Gruff Wit (Scottish slang, don't ask) and a guy I was in regular touch with at the time. Weirdly enough, I fell out of touch with him in the mid '90s, only to have a friend tell me about 5 years back that Jer actually lived in Melbourne for about a year 'round 1997 or so. Huh?! Is this true? Can anyone verify this? I've got no idea what happened to the guy (he'd be in his mid '30s now) or his cluster of bands, but I can say for sure that Dawson - named after a teacher of his, apparently - released three fantastic albums: Barfmarket: You're Ontae Plums ('91), How To Follow So That Others Will Willingly Lead ('92) and Terminal Island ('93). Being a Scottish update on the "classic" Rough Trade sound, the three platters contain a smorgasboard of young-man angst, thousand-miles-an-hour twists and turns and, most of all, that awesomely lumbering, and occasionally funky, bass which sounds like it's been lifted from an old Birthday Party disc.

Barfmarket mostly comes across like a Gang of Four 33 on 78 - not a fuzz pedal in sight - though it's spliced up with what sounds like a DC Go-go band on 4-track, dance rhythms intact. It's got a zillion songs, all over in the blink of an eye, and they still sound great.

How To Follow... has always been the top-shelf Dawson outing for these ears. Housed in a spray-painted/hand-designed sleeve (oh, those were the days...) and containing a myriad inserts detailing everything from IRA terror to fox-hunting laws, it shows Dawson up to be the air-tight demolition unit they surely were. Crossing the boundaries of Boredoms-style noise, post-punk, Pop Group-style agit-rock, hip-hop and even African drum rhythms, it's their strongest legacy and statement. When the sampled "You don't give a fuck to be free" comes overhead, you're moving. With the more concise "rock" elements contained on the first side and the more "abstract" moments on the flip, it's divided up perfectly to complement each other. Later released as a twofer with their first album by God Is My Co-Pilot's Making of Americans label, there has to be copies of this long-deleted nugget laying around somewhere.

Dawson's swan song was '93's Terminal Island, a more dense and noisy affair, but certainly one still worth chasing down. With longer songs, walloping bass riffs and a guitar buzz that lays it on thick, TI twists and turns like the Boredoms ca. Pop Tatari, juices it up with some rants 'n' rhetoric and comes up trumps. You wouldn't want to start here, but if you've made the journey from A to B, then naturally you've got to finish it off with Terminal Island.

The Stretchheads somehow managed to coax the high-profile UK indie Blast First label into releasing their 1991 LP, Pish In Your Sleazebag. As to how that happened, well, I can only assume they had some friends there, or that someone at BF HQ really liked them, because I'd be willing to bet good money that its sales figures were barely above zilch. Which, of course, is not saying that it's a bad album - far from it. In fact, giving it a belated revisit this last week, I can only say that if this much-neglected recording was released in this day and age on a label like, say, Load, you'd probably get every undie hipster/tastemaker/trouserstain under the sun singing its praises and a queue of bedroom label-heads lining up to release the inevitable 8" box set (coloured vinyl, no less). The 'heads were simply at the wrong place in the wrong time. Less political - actually, judging by the song titles, not political at all - than their kilt-wearing brethren in DFH, Dawson, etc., the Stretchheads laid the distortion on thick, kept the pace lightning quick and let the rhythms fly every which way but loose. Compared at the time to the Boredoms (a fair enough assessment), if this was released yesterday I'd imagine a Lightning Bolt/Black Dice/Stretchheads tour hitting your town pretty quick.

The band also has a self-released LP from '88 entitled Five Fingers Four Thingers A Thumb A Facelift And A New Identity (oh, the zaniness!) which I somehow managed to find at some record-fair dorkfest at the time for a dollar or two, and almost makes their Blast First album sound tame in comparison. Forced Exposure praised their efforts in the late '80s, throwing around names like Venom P. Stinger, The Fall and Beefheart (or something like that... my copy of the issue in question is buried under a pile of mags somewhere) and hailed them (and the Dog Faced Hermans) as part of a new dawn in ass-kickin' Scottish music, and whilst next to zip caught onto the rush, I'm glad to say I managed to scoop up a copy of this headache-inducing monstrosity (that's a complement) and don't plan on parting ways with it anytime in the future. The band also released two EPs on Blast First: Eyeball Origami Aftermath Wit Vegetarian Leg and Barbed Anal Exciter - both of which I'll probably stumble across before I drop dead - and I can only assume the band drifted off into the sunset sometime in the early '90s.

Dog Faced Hermans I don't feel I need to really introduce (or necessarily write about), since they were kind of "popular" in the mid '90s due to a couple of US tours and the licensing of their albums on the Alternative Tentacles label. The most "accessible" and musically adventurous of the Scottish clan, the 'Hermans used a bevy of exotic instruments, ace musicianship and the occasionally atonal vocals of "Marion" to their advantage, the result being a kind of midway compromise between the scratchy hurk 'n' jerk of NYC No Wave and the funkified bombastics of The Pop Group. I interviewed them back in '93 and they said their original intention was "to be like the Art Ensemble of Chicago", and whilst such a statement would come across as a cringe-inducing slice of willful name-dropping in the hands of most musical outfits, for the DFH it makes sense. Hum of Life, Bump and Swing and Those Deep Buds - three albums you need.

There are other bands from this "scene" - like Archbishop Kebab, Glue and the Keatons - whom I've never been able to trace, along with higher profile (very relatively speaking) bands like Longfinkillie, who released a few OK, slightly poppier discs on the Too Pure label in the mid '90s, but hey, this a blog, not a thesis. For that, and I have to laugh at the irony of this situation, I'll direct you here. Once again, there's no real need to write articles on these kinds of topics, since Harvard graduates are furthering the causes of humanity by doing exactly that and posting it for the world to see. In short: whilst swept under the carpet of obscurity for nigh on a decade, these groups together made up a "scene" of music which delivered on its promise: eclectic, noisy, adventurous, DIY. A cliche, for sure, but the results speak for themselves. Whilst the rest of the UK was in a musical coma, the Scots led the way for the few to see. If you have any interest in the sounds of The Fall, Pop Group, No Wave, P.i.L., Minutemen, Boredoms, etc., you owe it to yourself to investigate these bands. Like I said: they were simply stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time.

No comments: