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I wrote an extended version of my interview with Jane Birkin in which she talked about Serge Gainsbourg, motherhood, and the subversive legacy of Je T'Aime. https://open.substack.com/pub/alastairmckay/p/histoire-de-jane-birkin-an-english?r=695tp&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web

Hungry Beat: How Scotland's post-punk revolution was inspired by Vic Godard's sandwich, Chairman Mao's military strategy, and Andy Warhol's tambourine


I used to see Paul Morley in the street. He lived nearby, and occasionally could be glimpsed outside Sainsbury’s glowering intensely in his long coat, black turtleneck and post-modern trousers. I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to thank him for his music journalism in the NME, which was passionate and pretentious at a time when being passionate and pretentious was the best thing going. I wanted to ask him: did you really believe that Josef K should be number one in the charts? Or, to be clearer: did you really believe that they could be number one? 

Douglas MacIntyre, Davy Henderson, Vic Godard.
(Photo: A McKay)

Did Paul Morley actually say that? I think so. That’s what my memory suggests, and memories from that part of my life - where opinions are chiselled in stone - are immutable, even when the available facts suggest that they are distorted. I have the evidence somewhere, in a kind of pop annual collection of Paul Morley’s journalism, but the book is lost. The only tome I can find is Paul Morley’s Words And Music, in which the passionate, pretentious writer remodels his attitudes about music into … what? Into a conversation between the ghostly reverberations of a Kylie Minogue record and a brief history of everything. Paraphrasing, the book is a timeline which begins with the birth of the universe, pulses meaningfully in 1968 with the introduction of an accessible computer, a photograph of Earth from the Moon, and the birth of Kylie. And then in 1981, like a volcano spurting Alphabetti spaghetti, the grey planet erupts into colour with the release of Dare by The Human League. “A new pop mixture of localised punk self-expression, international pop obsession, lust for life, Kraftwerk machine-kinkiness, nightclub thrills, studio fun, fame fascination and A for Abba meets, somewhere over a rainbow on Mars, Z for Zappa.” (Does Paul Morley like the Human League? Of course/not. Yes/no/it’s complicated). 

Why am I thinking about Paul Morley? Because Paul Morley is the unseen architect in a book called Hungry Beat: The Scottish Independent Pop Underground Movement 1977-1984, written by Douglas MacIntyre, Grant McPhee and Neil Cooper. He is in it, a little bit. He is underneath it, a lot. 

Hungry Beat is an oral history of a time and place. (Two flats really. One in Edinburgh, headquarters of Bob Last’s label Fast Product. Another in Glasgow, home of Postcard Records, run by Alan Horne). Hungry Beat is many things. It is an argument. It is a partial history. It is a distortion. It is literally fabulous. And within these parameters it is a brilliant flashback - a passionate reminder, a mental nag - about the sensational period in pop music history when the spirit of punk collided with the concrete rhythms of commerce. In this formulation, the idea of having a hit record became a subversive act, though this was harder to achieve in reality than principle. 

In retrospect it seems obvious that the subversion flows in both directions, but Hungry Beat is more concerned with the sex of creativity - those sparks of inspiration, so intense that they feel like a cause - than the compromised outcome. If there is a winner in the book it is Bob Last, a creative agitator who ingested many bowls of semiotic semolina and cites the military stratagems of Chairman Mao as an inspiration.

Last’s reputation rests with his high concept imprints Fast Product and pop: aural, but his actual commercial pay-off arrived as manager of the Human League. (See Morley, P., above). Did Bob Last make Dare? Well, kind of. Phil Oakey of the Human League had something to do with the A For Abba part, and so did Jo Callis, the songwriter (ex- of the Rezillos) who helped turn the League’s electronic alienation into actual pop. Last certainly prompted this change by splitting the Human League in two, with the severed half, Heaven 17, following a route more obviously derived from those chewy stratagems. Heaven 17’s first album, Penthouse & Pavement, had the band - sorry, the Foundation - depicted as corporate players in a world of glass and steel. (For deep context into all things Heaven 17, Martyn Ware’s podcast, Electronically Yours, has instructive interviews with both Callis and Last). 

But if the success story of the Scottish Independent Pop Underground Movement is a band from Sheffield, what about Scotland? Last never implied that his label had a nationalist impulse (its other biggish names are Gang of Four - another hat-tip to Mao in their name - and the Mekons, both of whom came from Leeds). And while Postcard Records claimed to represent The Sound of Young Scotland, that lucky slogan came wreathed in the heather of camp intent. 

Fast and Postcard did change things. The fact that they happened at all was extraordinary, but the contributions of Last and Horne should be seen alongside the contributions of other Scottish visionaries. The list is long, but it should include record shop owner Bruce Findlay (who released records by The Valves on his Zoom imprint, hosted the Ramones in his shop, and managed Simple Minds to global success). Likewise Allan Campbell, who released records by Visitors, the Delmontes and Article 58 on his Rational label, while promoting inspired shows and clubs at the Hoochie Coochie and Valentino’s. Billy Sloan and Colin Somerville playing this stuff on the radio. Lindsay Hutton punting The Next Big Thing from Grangemouth. Mike Scott’s Jungleland. There were others. Possibly even some women. They catalysed. They made things happen. These things tend to be called a scene, which makes them sound like the aftermath a murder when what they are really about is vitality. 

Let’s draw a chalk outline around this scene. There is a year zero moment. It happens as the three sevens clash, on 7 May, 1977, when the White Riot tour visits the Edinburgh Playhouse. As recounted in my book, Alternatives To Valium, Edwyn Collins of Orange Juice (and co-creator of Postcard Records) was there, and blagged his way into the sound check by offering to carry The Jam’s gear. “I was a stage door Johnny,” he told me. And, though The Clash and Jam were the most professional performers on the bill, Collins preferred The Slits, the Buzzcocks, and particularly Subway Sect. “I liked Vic Godard, and Rob (Symmons) the guitarist couldn’t play, and the drum player, debatable, but so what? I liked the position they took. From the beginning of Orange Juice, I wanted to associate myself with that strand of punk rock.

“Another time I saw Vic walk onstage eating a sandwich,” says Collins. “It was a really low club, and he stuck the sandwich on the ceiling. I was 17, and the Subway Sect and the Buzzcocks were mesmerising to me.”  

Davy Henderson of Fire Engines was at the Playhouse too, along with school friends Willie Kirkwood (later of Mike Scott’s pre-Waterboys band, Another Pretty Face) and Murray Slade (a Fire Engine). “We always wanted to be in bands, but we thought there was no way: you had to be a divine virtuoso to be even pick up a guitar,” Henderson told me. “The thought of writing songs wasn’t even on the menu. There was no menu.” 

Henderson recalls in Alternatives To Valium how Ari Up of the Slits descended from the stage and started backcombing her hair among the audience in the aisles of the Playhouse. He subsequently understands this moment to be a kind of Brechtian dislocation. “Then the Subway Sect came on and they were just incredible. The singer kept going into his pocket, and singing, and ripping up paper. It reminds me of subsequently reading about Hugo Ball and his first Dada performance in 1921. It was almost like he was tearing up what he was singing. It was this otherworldly performance, yet these people looked exactly like you. They had what looked like their school greys on, like their grey school breeks and blazers, and white shirts, and the V-necks. They looked exactly like where you’d just been – at school.”

The singer in Subway Sect was Vic Godard, who appears in Hungry Beat as a kind of patron saint of Scottish post-punk. Godard is an interesting case. He was encouraged by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, managed by Clash manager Bernard Rhodes, and appeared with Subway Sect on the bill of the 100 Club punk festival alongside the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie Sioux. He was never a proponent of the ramalama school of British punk, preferring the literate mystery of Television, from New York. Musically, too, he was a restless spirit, branching into jazz and swing as punk turned into cliche, and inspiring the nascent Orange Juice when Postcard Svengali Alan Horne bootlegged a March 1980 Subway Sect show at the Camden Music Machine on his Sony boombox. As Steven Daly recounts in the sleeve notes of Godard’s recent album Moments Like These, the Sect - dressed in chinos and matching polo shirts - astonished the audience by playing a seamless set of Northern Soul numbers to an audience of “cider-marinaded proto goths” who were there to see the headliners, Siouxsie and the Banshees. Orange Juice inhaled the tape of the Sect’s Northern Soul set and added Godard’s Holiday Hymn to their first album. A punk instinct led to a very un-punk outcome. Or maybe the term is post-punk, a label ascribed to Paul Morley (by Paul Morley), to describe the unclogging of creativity which was prompted by that splenetic year zero. 

The roots of this revolution are twisted, but a solid tangle of them can be traced back to the Velvet Underground. In Hungry Beat, Fay Fife of The Rezillos reveals that she sang Sweet Jane at her audition for the band. According to Jill Bryson of Strawberry Switchblade, Edwyn Collins picked up an original copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico at Paddy’s Market in Glasgow for 10p. Davy Henderson reversed through Lou Reed’s Transformer to the Velvets, finding their albums in Cockburn Street Market. Henderson says he loved the “vibrant raw nature” of the group, and the fact that Reed (along with Bob Dylan) had an “unclassical” voice, “like a normal person”.  The Postcard bands were compared to the various incarnations of the Velvets by Alan Horne. “Alan [Horne] wanted to be the Andy Warhol of Glasgow,” Paul Haig of Josef K told me when I interviewed him for Uncut.

The Velvets’ connection was raised by Julian Marszalek when he interviewed Godard and MacIntyre at the Walthamstow Rock ’n’ Roll Book Club. Why were they so influential?

“I know the answer to that,” said Godard. “They didn’t hardly use any chords. You could learn how to play their songs a lot easier than anyone else.” 

When they started out, Subway Sect covered VU songs. “Sister Ray, Waiting For The Man. All the ones that have hardly got any chords; you know, Sweet Jane. Because once you do that, then you can work out your own songs that have hardly got any chords!”

“There was a big thing with Postcard,” MacIntyre recalled, “where there was a feeling that once Doug Yule joined the band for the third album, that was a better way to go than the previous records with John Cale. Now, that’s not a view that many people would subscribe to.” 

“It's a Glasgow record, isn’t it?” said Godard. “The third album is Glasgow and the first two are more Edinburgh.” 

So what about the charts? Well, the Velvet Underground connection is a clue. Though the commercial failure of Lou Reed’s group is overstated, they didn’t trouble the charts and the value of their music emerged over time. What’s notable about many of the groups in Hungry Beat is the way they tended to crash and burn when the spark of inspiration was smothered by the fire blanket of commerce. Subway Sect’s first album was never completed and disappeared without trace. Josef K recorded their debut twice, because the angular ferocity of their live show was impossible to capture. Scars, whose debut single Adult/ery was produced by Bob Last - and is the Scottish Anarchy In The UK, according to MacIntyre - had sanded off the rough edges by the time they recorded Author! Author!, leaving behind the tantalising suggestion of what might have been. Visitors were slated to record an album with members of Wire producing. It never happened. And Fire Engines played along with one of Last’s artful strategies, recording an extended “active ambient” dub version of their songs rather than a conventional LP. The source record exists in the grooves of Lubricate Your Living Room as the echo of a memory of a brilliant idea.  

Did Paul Morley really think that Josef K should be number one, and that Paul Haig was a pop star? I’d still like to ask. I’d still like to believe. I’ll keep looking for a ghost in an overcoat, skulking by Sainsbury’s with a plastic bag full of impossible dreams.  

Hungry Beat is published by White Rabbit, £20. Alternatives To Valium is published by Polygon, £12.99. 

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