Skip to main content


This Case Is Closed: The Enduring Enigma of Tom Verlaine

One of the great punk records is Marquee Moon by Television. Of course, that's a contradiction. There's nothing punk about Television really, except that they appear at the right time, in the right place, and Richard Hell is briefly in the band, and he has some claim to be the inventor of the punk look, with the spiky hair and the safety pins. But there is only one TV in Television, and Hell is gone long before Marquee Moon appears. Marquee Moon doesn’t need a category. It’s a record of jagged imagery in which the voice is a nagging shadow and the guitars - of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd - do the talking. Patti Smith compares Verlaine’s guitar to a thousand bluebirds. What they are talking about, I still can’t fathom. Marquee Moon is a timeless mystery. I talk to Tom Verlaine on the phone. This is probably better than talking to him in person. On a transatlantic phone line there is an excuse for the delays and the hesitations and the awkward silences. We are talking a full

The Soundtrack of a Valve: An Appreciation of Gordon Dair

A few weeks ago, when the news was bad, I sent Gordon an email. I wanted to say something; anything. Gordon didn’t want cards and had limited use for sympathy, so I emailed an apology. I had a nagging memory about a historical injustice dating from 1988. It was about punk rock. It was about Gordon.
Where were we? We were in a basement in Stockbridge, finding our voices. We were in the office of CUT magazine, doing our best, and although not many people noticed, sometimes our best was good. But it was 1988. Music was changing. Punk had died. Dance music was threatening a new kind of fun. Compact discs were on the way. Even The Clash had one. It was called The Story Of The Clash Vol 1, and Gordon had reviewed it.
Here, there is a conflict between memory and archive. In memory, Gordon reviewed this album with an outburst of autobiography. He overwrote, obliterating his word-count. While his writing was urgent and heartfelt, it barely addressed the music. It discussed Gordon’s life, the power of punk, the way songs stick to memories, making them ring. That was how I remembered it. Why bring up this ancient history? No reason, apart from male reticence, emotional repression, East Coast Calvinism, shyness. These are my traits. I’m not saying Gordon shared them. But he did say that he didn’t “do chat”. He did come from Fife. And there is a story, fondly told, of him trying to impress a girl after a wild gig in Belfast by making her listen to his Frank Zappa tapes, saying “check the percussion on that!” The conclusion to this anecdote involves a gravity-defying bag of chips, and Gordon on the Falls Road being challenged by an armed squaddie in his underpants. (Gordon in the pants).
So. There is a certain kind of man - perhaps even the odd woman - who finds it easier to communicate in code, and there is no more beautiful code than music. When men talk about music, they are talking about something else. Gordon’s lock-up record shop was called The Soundtrack To Your Life. The shop sold soundtracks, and that was a way of marrying Gordon’s interest in music and film. He also made great cassettes, ranging across decades, genres. A recently excavated Betty Blue mixtape for the Filmhouse bar flirts with disco, doo-wop, jazz, easy listening, Sinatra, French lament, funk, and country. And Frank Zappa.
Gordon had been doing some curation of his own musical past in recent years. In 2020, after an intermission lasting 40 years, The Valves produced an album, called Better Late … on the Portobello Record label, catalogue 001. It’s a collector’s piece, put together by a collector, which means it prizes scarcity and novelty. As such, it’s not quite the final word. The band’s most popular songs, Robot Love, For Adolfs Only and Ain’t No Surf In Portobello are represented by recent live recordings, presumably because of an ancient contractual restriction. Still, the LP is a beautiful thing. There stand The Valves on the surfless sands of Portobello, black and white figures against a colourised sky, visibly failing to take themselves seriously. Gordon is on the right, dressed in a biker jacket and a white scarf. He is obviously talking. Telling the photographer Paul Slattery what to do, perhaps. In taking direction, he was failing. Gordon had many talents. Being a poser was not one of them.
What were the Valves? From this distance, they were pioneers in punk Edinburgh, playing everywhere, releasing a record on Bruce Findlay’s Zoom label mere moments after the Rezillos became the first Scottish punk band who weren’t really punks to show the world how it should be done. Scrape back into the cuttings, from Cripes, from Hanging Around, from The Next Big Thing, and things get messier. At a time when punk wasn’t really defined, they weren’t quite it. A review in Cripes has them veering between folk and raging rock. When they supported the Rezillos, the band described their sound as “new wave rockabilly spaceship music”. Sounds critic Garry Bushell, the sperm donor for punk’s moronic sub-genre Oi!, called them “pub rock with a belly-laughing vengeance”. Mostly, when a category was needed, everyone, including the drummer sometimes known as Gordon Glucose, settled on “no wave r ’n’ b”. Since record collecting is all about knowing where to file things, the Valves deserve to go in the box alongside bands like Dr Feelgood or The Dictators. They prized energy over virtuosity, wit over pretension. Those were punk qualities until the cement set.
The Valves weren’t always The Valves. They assumed the moniker as a condition for signing to Zoom Records after a short period as Sale, which was itself an update on their pre-punk name Angel Easy. They were called Sale when they supported Australian pioneers The Saints in Edinburgh, but Bruce Findlay was not impressed by the name, and urged them to come up with something more energetic, to do with engines or cars. (They were billed as Sail in a newspaper advert for a gig in East Wemyss: a further illustration of that name’s limitations.) In the Angel Easy times, the band had hair like Farrah Fawcett’s unacknowledged sister, and favoured the kind of music that would appear in Zigzag magazine. Angel Easy played “relatively arcane covers” according to Valves’ bassist Gordon “Pada” Scott: Traffic, Alex Harvey, Steve Miller, Man, Babe Ruth, Flying Burritos, Fleetwood Mac, Ducks Deluxe. Things got “a bit rockier” when singer Dave Robertson (punk name: Dee Robot) joined. The singer also wrote the lyrics, which were jammed with the irreverence of the time. Often they were love songs with an untraditional approach, as in Fab Front Loader, which begins with the line: “Walking in the street she was moving like a washing machine.”
“We were older than most punks,” says Pada, “and had a musical hinterland of the Sixties, psychedelia, blues, Dylan, prog rock, so we tried to do more than three-minute thrashes. We were not really into punk in the early days, but I remember the Sex Pistols playing Pretty Vacant on Top of the Pops in Bruce’s flat which was a revelation. We really didn’t take ourselves too seriously. We had fun just gigging and rehearsing, which seemed to involve spending a lot of afternoons in the Yellow Carvel. We didn’t follow the fashions either, being Scottish and more remote from the London scene. I’m sure our semi-outsider status prevented us getting gobbed on during gigs, thank god.”
As well as keeping time, Gordon was the designated driver, being the only band member with a driving licence. He bought the “berry van”, an event which appeared as a news item in Hanging Around fanzine. “The Valves now have a van. This means they can play anywhere, as long as it’s downhill all the way.” The van endured extensive service, though there was a scare when it skidded on ice near Leven one cold December night.
“As a bandmate,” says Pada, “Gordon was positive and inventive, although he did like getting his own way at times. He was always the most organised and the ‘guy to get things done’.”
Mike Scott, who progressed from Jungleland fanzine and Another Pretty Face to leading The Waterboys, says this. “The Valves were a fantastic live band, powerful and funny with a brilliant front man - ace teddy boy Dave - and a rocketblast rhythm section powered by Gordon’s mean drums. They even let waifs and strays like me jam with them on occasion and I treasure the memory of doing Jumping Jack Flash with them one night in Edinburgh.”
What happened with The Valves? They played on most of the stages in Scotland and beyond, the full Tutti Frutti, including memorable sets at an anti-nuclear power demo at Torness, and at the famous Anti-Nazi League rally in Craigmillar, when The Clash - unaware, perhaps, that that anyone was expecting them - failed to turn up. They played the Glasgow Apollo and the London Roundhouse, supported the Stranglers and the Greedy Bastards (a supergroup comprising members of Thin Lizzy and the Sex Pistols), toured with Joe Jackson, and played their final show at the Edinburgh Rock Festival in 1979. “We messed up a few chances in the late Seventies to move up a league,” says Pada, “but I don’t remember Gordon being any more bothered than the others.”
What happened next? The post-punk period in Scotland was a time when things became possible. Original music blossomed. There were gigs, clubs, festivals, music events of all shades and flavours, all of them needing drivers, DJs, fly posters, liggers. Gordon was qualified in all of these fields, despite an education at Beath Senior High between 1965-70 in which he registered no significant qualifications and joined no clubs or societies. “I avoided work,” was Gordon’s summary of his school career.
Prior to the Valves (summarised on LinkedIn as “43 years of drumming and shouting”) there was a short stint as a GPO technician, finding telephone faults in Edinburgh city centre. But with music becoming a plausible industry in Edinburgh, Gordon was the Friday night DJ at the Nite Club, and worked on and off as a stage manager, fly-poster and box office manager for Regular Music, and as a dispatcher for the post-punk label Fast Product.
One of the more intensive of these informal musical jobs involved working with Edinburgh band The Delmontes, who were managed by Allan Campbell. “The Delmontes were quite a family group and as bands go, fairly un-hierarchical,” says Allan. “I’m not sure I ever referred to Gordon as ‘assistant’. When I say he drove and looked after the band, I’m not sure that covers it. He was a significant part of the Delmontes’ joint initiative.
“Gordon was great and respected by the band for his good nature and unwavering support. Always known by the more familiar ‘Teddy’, they also knew that he had fought in the Punk Wars and had been through worse than they’d likely encounter, so were happy to learn from him. I guess he was like an older brother.”
For three years from 1986 - Jim Hickey’s last three years as director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival - Gordon was Films Officer. “His job was dealing with the shipping of film prints and keeping them safely in the film vault during the festival,” says Jim. “He was also responsible for getting the films to the right cinemas for the screenings.”
In 1986, David Byrne’s True Stories received its world premiere at EIFF. In a recent email, Gordon recalled: “I drove out to the airport to meet him. He came out clutching the reels. He was so nervous about letting them out of his sight. Later I took him to the Odeon so he could give the projectionist the exact orders for the showing. Attention to detail. And that’s why he is where he is now. True Stories. Sweet film.” (Photo shows David Byrne, centre, and Gordon, right).

Gordon followed Allan Campbell from the Hoochie Coochie club to CUT magazine, where he was commissioned to write a story on the subject of “kitchen knives in horror films”. CUT was a magazine slightly out of time, influential, but never lucrative. It ran on enthusiasm, and towards the end Gordon’s natural optimism was stretched. His frustration emerged in his review of an album by 10,000 Maniacs. “I trashed it,” he wrote recently. “I was in a frame of mind that all new music was shit and I couldn’t be bothered with it. It got spiked, obviously.”
Something was up. In Gordon’s telling of it, there is a crucial moment, a handbrake turn of the Transit in which he decided to concentrate less on the soundtrack, and more on his life. He decided to get an education. “I was sitting on a stool at the bar at the City CafĂ©,” he wrote. “With Allan, Paul Haig (formerly of Josef K), James Locke (of the Chimes) and (the late Radio Forth DJ) Colin Somerville … and thinking, this is nice. I’ve got work at the Cameo as Relief Manager. I’m writing at CUT, DJ at the Hooch and some work at Regular Music. Bits and pieces. But do I see myself sitting here this time next year? The answer was no. I wanted one real job.”
This was 1987. He started teaching English as a foreign language, and in 1992, he went to Edinburgh University, where he earned an MA and an MSc in Applied Linguistics. Around 1987, Gordon had to move his record collection from his flat in Dalry to his parents’ home in Kinross. “It was housed in custom-made shelving,” recalls his helper Andrew Kerr, “from the floor to the roof of a boxroom. I had never seen so many records in one place.”
The Ford Transit was loaded, and on arriving in Fife, Gordon reversed the van down the steep drive towards the garage. “We unloaded all the records and then got back in. Gordon accelerated to get back up the slope but halfway up there was the most horrendous noise. We had removed half of the guttering on the side of the house!” The van, weighed down with records, had passed under the gutter. The empty Transit sat higher, and was wedged under what remained. “We had to let down all four tyres. We then drove very slowly to the nearest petrol station to re-inflate them.”
Gordon spent two years in Vilanova i La Geltru, Spain, teaching English, and on returning to Edinburgh, met Nuria. They were married the following year, and when Josephine was born in 1999, he found real contentment. This didn’t mean the ligging was over entirely. A film festival party wasn’t a party unless Gordon was at it. In documenting his globetrotting as a language teacher - to Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Paraguay, New Zealand, Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates, Thailand plus yearly visits to Europe - he still managed to find (and take a selfie of himself inside) a surprising number of record shops.
Music made a comeback. First came the Gordon Dair Trio (the band had five members), which morphed into Plats Cominats, operating as a kind of post-punk Angel Easy, playing songs by The Cure, The Only Ones, and a ska version of Leonard Cohen’s Tower Of Song. Trio bassist Jane Denholm says: “We share an abiding memory of Thursday practices after a long day at work, sitting up in the wee studio at Coloursound and Gordon taking the longest to get his stuff assembled, then the first deafening test CRACK on his snare drum, flushing work away, and we were off.”
Then, the Valves returned. First there was a full reunion, with Dave returning from Antwerp for a one off performance in 2013, before former Cheetahs singer Joe Donkin joined, alongside original Valves Pada, Ronnie Mackinnon on guitar, plus Gordon Mackinnon on keyboards. “The reunion gig was Gordon’s idea and it wouldn’t have happened without his efforts and persuasive abilities,” says Pada. “I’ll always be hugely grateful for him doing this. I’d forgotten how much fun it was playing music with the old band (and the new one too).”
But what about The Clash? Without checking the text, I had apologised in my email to Gordon for butchering his meaning. “It was over-emotional,” Gordon replied. “So, don’t worry. The thing is that I got it off my chest. My love. I know they only released six LPs during their existence but I have 25 LPs of The Clash and 43 CDs.”
That is, by any standard, a lot of love. Still, I wondered: what remained of Gordon’s emotional outburst? To my surprise, on revisiting the archive the bits that I thought I had excised were still there.
“These songs mean so much to me,” Gordon wrote. “Each exists as a separate event in my mind. Each has a definite time and place.
“When you heard a record or saw a band you had A MOMENT, etched into your psyche. It wasn't Top Of The Pops and it had nothing to do with some hack ad director’s flash editing technique. It was an experience. For example, White Man In The Hammersmith Palais - at a party in Dunfermline after The Clash/Suicide gig, with Stuart Adamson, the pair of us bawling out the lyrics, wondering if we could ever write such a perfect song... And years later, seeing The Clash on their last legs playing the Hammersmith Palais, with Strummer and Jones throwing punches at the end of the set, arguing whether to encore with White Riot. (They did, without Mick Jones).” The Clash, Gordon wrote, were “rude, controversial, brilliant and sometimes boring. But always THERE!”
Yet Gordon did not want a Clash reunion. It was enough to acknowledge the power and the beauty of memory and shared experience, and to enjoy the way they rhyme in music. “Look back in fondness,” he wrote, “not anger.”


Post a Comment

Popular Posts