Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This week: The rich history of edgy rock and pop from Scotland, from the emergence of the post-punk Postcard Records stable in the early ’80s to the recent wave of strong young guitar-pop bands like Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad.
Scot-rock 101 (The ’80s):
No matter how much music buffs love to trend-spot, few local scenes are as cohesive as we’d like them to be, which means any attempt to chart and classify the rock ’n’ roll output of an entire country is a foolish endeavor at best, and an ignorant one at worst. So with that disclaimer in mind, let’s talk Scotland! Because even though the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, and parts beyond have gone through multiple cycles of boom-and-bust and have spawned hundreds of superior bands over the past three decades, there are some distinct traits that link the Scottish rock musicians of today to those who were stars before they were born. Few national music scenes have been as consistent in their quality, or as conscious of their own past.
Plenty of Scottish bands pre-date Orange Juice, but the “Scottish scene” per se really starts with the Glasgow quartet, which formed in the punk era as The Nu-Sonics, but changed its name as quickly as it changed its sound. Inspired more by Buzzcocks than Sex Pistols, Orange Juice made a lasting impact on post-punk and indie-rock just with its first single, 1980’s “Falling And Laughing.” The song is as jagged and ragged as anything by the band’s punk and post-punk contemporaries, but it has a lighter tone, marked by unabashed lyrics about being in love and a skittery guitar that sounds like it was pulled from a tropical travelogue. The band later polished that sound to modest chart success—and frontman Edwyn Collins eventually left the band for a significant solo and producing career—but Orange Juice could never surprise and delight the post-punk community the way it initially did, when its sandpaper surfaces and cheery disposition opened entirely new possibilities for DIY music.
Orange Juice was the first band signed by local label Postcard Records, right before its fellow Glaswegian act Josef K, whose singles for Postcard were just as informed by pop and art-disco as Orange Juice’s, albeit with a thick streak of melancholy. And though it never signed with Postcard, Edinburgh’s The Fire Engines was a fellow-traveler, recording quirky little singles that chopped up influences from the New York and British scenes and refashioned them as personal statements.
By far the biggest band to emerge from the Postcard stable was Glasgow’s Aztec Camera, which released two singles on the label (the second one was Postcard’s last before a decade-long hiatus), then signed with Rough Trade and released one of the signature albums of early-’80s new wave, High Land, Hard Rain. Bandleader Roddy Frame had a more fully formed pop sensibility than all the other fellows representing Postcard’s “Sound Of Young Scotland,” which meant he channeled a lot of the creative impulses of other Scottish acts—the breezy tone, crooning vocals, and jangly guitars—into music more suitable for The Hit Parade. While Orange Juice, Josef K, and The Fire Engines inspired a wave of indie bands across the UK, Aztec Camera was at the forefront of a movement toward lush, romantic, “jet-set pop,” alongside bands like Haircut 100 and The Blow Monkeys.
At the same time that a handful of musicians in Glasgow and Edinburgh were helping invent indie-rock, Simple Minds was already reaching an international audience with a more polished kind of art-rock, inspired by Genesis’ theatrics and the darker shades of David Bowie’s collaborations with Brian Eno. Like a lot of his fellow Scots, bandleader Jim Kerr sang in a billowy, romantic manner, but while the band brightened up, Postcard-style, on the glittering 1983 album New Gold Dream, Simple Minds’ overall bent was toward the busy and booming, setting up what would be a persistent division in the Scottish scene between music with a small, handcrafted feel and music with grander aspirations—or what The Waterboys would dub “The Big Music.”
Dunfermline’s Skids had its feet in both worlds, drawing equally on from-the-hip punk and arena-filling guitar on singles like the working-class sketch “Charles” and the surging “Into The Valley.” Once guitarist Stuart Adamson left The Skids to form Big Country, though, he dove headfirst into the mainstream, hiring “big music” super-producer Steve Lillywhite to give Big Country’s debut album, The Crossing, the same kind of wallop he brought to U2 and would subsequently bring to Simple Minds. Adamson’s wailing, bagpipe-like guitar sound drew most of the attention initially, but beyond the gimmick, Big Country’s first three albums are a prime example of how to make music sound enormous without losing a unique stamp.
Preserving the unique and individual was practically the mission of C86, a New Musical Express-concocted pseudo-movement that gave a scattered breed of lo-fi guitar-pop bands a moment in the rock-media spotlight. The wave included several Scottish acts, such as Glasgow’s The Pastels, which started out as a shaggy garage band in the post-Postcard mold, steeped in ’60s psychedelia. Much like Edinburgh’s charmingly amateurish The Vaselines, The Pastels influenced young musicians in its scene with catchy melodies and a scruffy anyone-can-do-it approach, but also reached the nascent indie-rock and grunge scenes in the U.S. (For example, Nirvana covered multiple Vaselines songs, including “Molly’s Lips,” “Son Of A Gun,” and “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam.”)
But The Jesus And Mary Chain was the group that emerged from the indie ranks in the mid-’80s to become a near-instant sensation, far and wide. Inspired by the same battered 45s as so many of their Scottish contemporaries, the members of The Jesus And Mary Chain paid homage to the dirt and crackle on old records as much as to their snappy tunes, and between the band’s fuzzed-over early singles and its cantankerous 20-minute concerts, it was already one of the most written-about bands on the scene before it even released its 1985 debut album Psychocandy. Bandleading brothers Jim and William Reid were standoffish and egotistical, but in their early days at least, they had the goods. Even UK bands in the ’80s and ’90s who claimed they never listened to modern rock would frequently name-check J&MC.
Intermediate work (The ’90s):
The burst of creativity that characterized the various Scottish scenes in the early ’80s began to fizzle some by the end of the decade, though the indie bands did their best to keep the momentum going into the ’90s. Bellshill’s BMX Bandits generated a wealth of likeable, buzzy guitar-pop, while Duglas T. Stewart’s “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” attitude infected musicians who later ended up in other bands. The Vaselines’ Eugene Kelly borrowed from BMX Bandits to fill out his band Captain America (later renamed Eugenius), and Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake was a key creative contributor to the early BMX Bandits records. With Teenage Fanclub, Blake (along with Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley, who also contributed significantly to the songwriting) repaid the debut that the nascent American grunge movement owed to Scottish indie by debuting with a grungy album of his own, 1990’s ugly/beautiful A Catholic Education. The band followed that up with Bandwagonesque, a shiny, blatantly Big Star-influenced album that turned off a lot of Teenage Fanclub’s early supporters. Later, Blake and company honed their style with increasingly complex, polished records, ever-committed to walls of guitars, massive hooks, and a potent strain of adolescent pining.
Other stalwarts of the ’90s Scottish indie scene were beholden to other American styles, like Glasgow’s Urusei Yatsura, which beat Blur to the punch by releasing a string of albums and singles inspired by Pavement (among others), and Falkirk’s Arab Strap, which loved the eerie, rumbly folk-rock of Pavement’s early Drag City cohorts Smog and Palace Brothers. And then there was the goliath of the mid-’90s indie scene, Glasgow’s Belle & Sebastian, originally formed by Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David as part of a university project. David later left the band (and formed the more experimental Looper), while Murdoch expanded B&S’ sound beyond the rockabilly lullabies of its early albums to embrace glam-rock, disco, Motown, and prog. Throughout, Belle & Sebastian has maintained its roots as a necessary creative outlet for a nerdy pop obsessive, just as the band has maintained Murdoch’s alternately wry and melancholy sensibility, which recalls The Smiths in the way it turns Aztec Camera’s jet-set pop against itself to express feelings more intimate and lacerating.
While Belle & Sebastian were inspiring bookish music buffs to pick up guitars, the rowdier, more booming quartet The Delgados were starting their own label, Chemikal Underground, to showcase themselves and other exciting young local bands. Though The Delgados got together in the mid-’90s, the group’s best records came out in the early ’00s: the swoony 2000 LP The Great Eastern is the band’s defining statement, letting shapeless folk-pop songs first drift, then surge, with the able assistance of producer Dave Fridmann. The follow-up, Hate, is far more bombastic, and loses some of the grace that makes The Great Eastern great. On the other hand, Hate contains The Delgados’ best song, “All You Need Is Hate,” a smartass inversion of a handful of well-known rock love songs, polished up with an ironically Spector-esque sheen.
Chemikal Underground backed some worthy up-and-comers in the ’90s too, like the fizzy, busy, bratty electro-pop band Bis, and the oft-gorgeous Mogwai. The latter transformed the noodlier elements of the burgeoning post-rock movement into waves of overwhelming sound, writing mini-symphonies with heavily distorted guitars. While Belle & Sebastian were bringing back the bright, small sounds of Postcard, Mogwai and The Delgados were linking Glasgow’s indie-rock scene back to the grandeur of Big Country and Simple Minds.
In fact, big music dominated the end of the ’90s and the start of the ’00s. Belle & Sebastian’s Jeepster labelmates in Snow Patrol (featuring several Irish folk who met at college in Dundee) became one of the most popular bands on the planet in the ’00s with shout-to-the-rafters rock anthems like “Chasing Cars,” but they started out in the ’90s with a more experimental bent, attacking grungy and distorted guitar-pop from fresh angles. And the Glasgow-born, London-based Travis started out playing brassy arena rock, then switched to a more stately sound in sync with the post-Radiohead times. Andy Dunlop’s guitars chimed and echoed, while Fran Healy’s singsongy vocals put across lyrics that were witty, direct, and full of relatable moroseness.
Advanced studies (The ’00s):
As the ’00s dawned, rock music across the UK continued to trend toward loud, echoing guitars and chiming midtempo ballads, with persistent traces of Radiohead-like experimentation. Edinburgh’s Idlewild has never fully broken free of that pack, though its openhearted sentiment and shout-to-the-rafters choruses are appealing enough, and the band has made good use of Roddy Woomble’s Michael Stipe affectations and his fascination with dissecting unfixable relationships. Glasgow’s Aereogramme has toyed with dynamics more than most, moving dramatically between cacophony and stillness—like a tank battalion storming into a quiet village, then deciding to enjoy the countryside, stay a while, and postpone the war. And recently, Glasvegas has adopted a different version of the booming local style, incorporating some of The Jesus And Mary Chain’s retro coo and layers of distortion.
In the early part of the decade, as New York bands like The Strokes and Interpol helped revive the era of punk and new wave, Glasgow’s Franz Ferdinand stood up for the city where a lot of the best music of the early ’80s originated. Between scoring international hits with singles like the slashing, danceable “Take Me Out,” bandleader Alex Kapranos spoke openly of his love for Josef K and The Fire Engines. Franz Ferdinand’s success opened the floodgates for a tide of neo-new-wave bands across the UK, including St. Andrews’ bouncy Dogs Die In Hot Cars and the raunchy, power-poppy 1990s, which formed from the ashes of the ’90s indie band The Yummy Fur, where Kapranos got his start.
The quirkier side of indie stayed reasonably strong in the ’00s as well, thanks to bands like Mull Historical Society and Camera Obscura. The former put out three solid albums between 2001 and 2004, mixing elements of worldbeat exotica with breezy, arty, folk-rooted music. The latter followed the path of such literate record-collecting Glaswegians as Belle & Sebastian, delving into ’60s pastiche with deceptively twee songs that juxtapose archaic pop styles and contemporary lyrics. Camera Obscura blows kisses to its heroes with one hand while raising a middle finger with the other.
But the most exciting development in the latest era of Scottish rock has been the emergence of several bands that seem to have processed and synthesized a good-sized chunk of their country’s musical output. For example: The Twilight Sad, which started as a Mogwai-like post-rock outfit, then added the croony vocals that have become the hallmark of so many Scottish bands—along with the heartfelt reflection on a fast-fading past. Frightened Rabbit is a shade more mainstream and melodic in its approach, but it also combines personal narratives and resounding guitars into electrifying music. And the awesomely named We Were Promised Jetpacks just last year released a near-perfect debut album full of charged-up, yearning rock ’n’ roll, signaling that the future of the Scottish scene is just as bright as its past.
1. Orange Juice, The Glasgow School. This comprehensive anthology of the band’s Postcard output sounds a little rough at times, but the potential within the sound and the songs inspired so many, then and now. (Alternate choice:
Josef K, Entomology, which covers the same era. Really it’s impossible to pick one over the other. They’re of a piece.)
2. Big Country, The Crossing. One of the most rousing, gorgeous albums of the 1980s’ big-music era, and one that wears its cultural identity on its plaid sleeve. (Alternate choice: Simple Minds, New Gold Dream, which is both grand and graceful, like a big-music version of a Postcard album.)
3. Teenage Fanclub, A Catholic Education. Though less talked-about than it once was, this woozy, noisy, hooky record combined the late-’80s version of “the sound of young Scotland” with the best of American college rock. If the band had stayed on this path, it might’ve beaten Nirvana to the top of the charts. (Alternate choice: The Jesus And Mary Chain, Psychocandy, which is no less abrasive and beautiful now than it was 25 years ago.)
4. Aztec Camera, High Land, Hard Rain. A lot of the breezy music from the new-wave era felt like a yuppie lifestyle accessory, but this debut album from Roddy Frame’s bunch comes from a much deeper place, while sounding no less luxurious. (Alternate choice: Belle & Sebastian, Tigermilk, another pretty, catchy debut album with more bite than initially expected.)
And… The double-disc C86 anthology is a treasure trove of mid-’80s UK indie-rock, including terrifically catchy singles by here-and-gone Scottish acts like The Clouds, The Fizzbombs, and Meat Whiplash.
Not every act to come out of Scotland over the past 30 years conforms neatly to the “springy indie-rock” and “billowing arena-rock” molds. Dundee’s The Associates were as much a part of the original flowering of the Scottish post-punk scene as Orange Juice or Josef K, though The Associates quickly shifted from scorching, Bowie-esque avant-rock to theatrical synth-pop, following a musical progression more akin to Simple Minds, but on an indie budget.
Prior to The Fire Engines, Edinburgh already had a decent punk/new-wave scene, dominated by the hardcore ragers The Exploited and the zanier (but no less ferocious) The Rezillos.
Both Fairground Attraction and Cocteau Twins gained sizable followings on the American college-rock scene in the late ’80s—the former for jazzy, cabaret-like folk-pop, and the latter for expressive, baroque chamber-pop. During the UK dream-pop boom of the early ’90s—when bands like Lush, Ride, and Pale Saints were all the rage—Cocteau Twins and The Jesus And Mary Chain were the genre’s primary touchstones.
Primal Scream and The Soup Dragons both had long runs marked by several stylistic changes, from C86 indie-rock to the trippy dance-pop of the “Madchester” era. The still-active Primal Scream then followed their disco days with harder-edged electronica, and lately have given old-school country-rock a try.
The Blue Nile, Texas, and The Silencers each found varying degrees of success by giving mainstream modern-rock a touch of the cinematic, while Del Amitri and The Proclaimers hit the charts with traditional, well-crafted pop-rock.
Boards Of Canada has been one of the most influential ambient/electronica acts of the last 15 years, largely because it’s combined digital and analog sounds inventively, showing a fascination with texture that the band members themselves have traced back to the ’60s Scottish folk-rockers in The Incredible String Band. Their fellow Edinburgers in The Beta Band also owe an equal debt to The Incredible String Band and the alluring sounds of sputtering technology, which they worked into mind-bending records in the late ’90s and early ’00s.
In recent years, Sons And Daughters and De Rosa have built off the morose strains of Arab Strap, adding swifter tempos and a more charged atmosphere in the former’s case, and a more polished, delicate sound in the latter’s.
Altered Images had a brief, blazing run in the early ’80s with chirpy new-wave singles like “Happy Birthday” and “I Could Be Happy.” The group was over and done in less than five years (with guitarist Johnny McElhone moving on to the decidedly different Texas), but its influence can be heard in the magnificent Life Without Buildings, a Glasgow art-school group that lasted long enough to produce one classic album (2001‘s Any Other City) before breaking up. Guitar-driven, catchy, offbeat, and willing to quit while it was ahead, Life Without Buildings was a quintessential Scottish rock band.