My top 10 songs are not Scotland’s but they’re in my heart, they’re in my soul | Kevin McKenna

My countrymen’s choice of their favourite Scottish albums weren’t to my taste...

Earlier this year, I was finally forced to admit defeat in my efforts to keep up with the prevailing spirits of the age. If this could be put down to advancing years I’d have accepted it some time ago. From my early years, however, I’ve always had a suspicion – a mere bat squeak of unease – that there was dissonance between me and the habits of happy, successful people. The 1980s ska band Madness sang One Step Beyond; my song would have been One Step Behind.

Other people seemed to surf the shifting and treacherous currents of style with ease. This entailed knowing just when to get out of flares and high-waisters and into collarless jackets and light coats. It meant knowing the edgy argot of cool hairdressers and when to play it long at the sides or short at the back. The elect and the anointed seemed to know shops down side streets that could kit you out like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. They knew entire passages of Star Wars and what came after “There’s a starman waiting in the sky… ”

And so I embraced the world of very heavy and very loud rock music, blew half of my first-term university grant on a long, black leather coat and sought out the company of other social misfits. I’d have done the whole mascara and painted fingernail stuff, but there’s only so much a west of Scotland Catholic household can deal with at one time. Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen formed the soundtrack of those years; in other words, the entire spectrum from A to B. The Leach brothers, my two friends from Cumbernauld, were as cool as margaritas and would dismiss my musical tastes as “shagging in a Cadillac” music because, well… much of it did seem to feature frantic concupiscence in large American cars. But no one ever pretended that you paid much attention to the words in heavy rock and certainly not to seek spiritual equilibrium.

The problem is that my musical tastes haven’t really matured since then; except perhaps for the occasional bit of Radiohead and the Killers. When other people talked of going to concerts I was jealous that they were so easily pleased by such a wide range of musical artists and styles.

I mean, I quite liked the odd track by some contemporary band like the Blue Nile or the Charlatans, but come on; you don’t expect me to sit through song after song as the limitations of musicianship and imagination surely became exposed. (I didn’t really know who the Charlatans were, but you heard people talking about them.) What’s the point of being in a band if you can’t turn the volume up to 11 and rip the absolute arse out of it?

Earlier this year, Glasgow’s Herald newspaper published a list of its top 10 Scottish albums of all time as chosen by readers and some of its writers. In those moments when I first beheld the chosen ones I felt as if I’d been living in a different country for the past few decades. There was no Nazareth; nothing by Gun or Primal Scream or the Almighty.

Unforgivably, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band didn’t feature and there was no mention of AC/DC. Instead, the list mainly featured outfits that seemed to specialise in introspective songs about relationships and emotional intensity. It was music to accompany painting ceilings or making smoothies. It was confirmation that I was three goals down in the lifetime game of popular culture, with no hope of ever recovering the deficit.

Perhaps now is the time to build some bridges and maybe make some compromises. In previous years, I’d have dreaded the idea of going to other people’s houses for parties, knowing you’d have to wait until midnight when everyone was absolutely howling with it before they’d let you play something by Guns N’ Roses or Thin Lizzy.

Any social gatherings at my place featured Frank Sinatra or Andy Williams as a sort of uneasy truce; occasionally, I might permit something by Simple Minds or U2 (their early work). My guests had to wait until I was hammered before they got to hear their disco stuff or Bryan Ferry and David Bowie.

In the end, people just stopped coming and cracks began to appear in relationships. Long car journeys in mixed company were ordeals as you faced the prospect of death by pop.

And so I’ve begun to compile a playlist of songs by Scottish bands which, although not exactly high voltage, wouldn’t embarrass an authentic rocker and won’t scare the horses of normality either. In no particular order, I’d have some of Simple Minds, especially anything from their epochal New Gold Dream album (epochal being the word most favoured in these lists). I’d also have Magic by Pilot and, of course, Biffy Clyro and maybe Teenage Fanclub and Strawberry Switchblade. Rod Stewart’s You’re In My Heart carries a special resonance, too.

My friend Marianne Taylor, who compiled the Herald’s list of top Scottish albums, took pity on me and kindly supplied bands such as Prefab Sprout, Arab Strap and Garbage. She also mentioned Belle and Sebastian, but their music is strictly for people living in the West End of Glasgow and contemplating the best places to have their skinny decaffs. And what sort of band calls itself Belle and Sebastian anyway?

If I was forming a band to be named after an old children’s television series, it would have to be Captain Pugwash or Mr Benn, both of them middle-aged men who also seemed out of step with their fellows.

• Kevin McKenna is an Observer columnist


Kevin McKenna

The GuardianTramp

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