Glasvegas are the sound of the tabloids' Broken Britain

Bruised, brooding and big of quiff, Glasvegas are the sound of the tabloids' Broken Britain. 'What's happening to us?' they ask Sylvia Patterson

"Vegas Blade Horror Song!" shrieks the tabloid newspaper pop page as the man who wrote said Blade Horror Song, James Allan from stunning Glaswegian reality-rock visionaries Glasvegas, scans the report in huge-eyed disbelief.

"Soaring Scots Glasvegas have written a song in response to Britain's knife-crime epidemic," yodels the Scottish Sun, alongside the full lyrics for a song called Stabbed, lyrics which James describes as a "poem". The song, a spoken-word monologue of eerie dread over the exquisitely doomed piano reverie of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata was written, in fact, three years ago. "The thought-provoking track," avers the Sun, "centres on a gang of youths who set upon an unknown victim. Lyrics include "I'm gonna get stabbed/No cavalry could ever save me' and 'Now I'm running for my life'."

"That is mad," chirps James, cheerily, "but it's a good poem!"

Paul Donoghue, 24, Glasvegas bass player with a large front tooth comically missing (from a fight three years ago, "but I got loads of money for it") ponders the knife-crime "epidemic".

"It's been in the news a lot in London," he says, "but in Glasgow it's always been like that. If you grow up in Glasgow, you've been chased with something. I've been chased with a five iron!"

A member of the Glasvegas crew peers over James' shoulder. "It's not very often," he smiles ruefully, "you see the word 'thought-provoking' in the Sun..."

It's not very often a debut album emerges which synchronises with the very atmosphere a generation is living in. Glasvegas' debut is so spookily resonant it's almost prophetic, a debut album which isn't about escape, oblivion and forgetting about the news but actually facing the news; from a teenage boy's murder (the devastating Flowers & Football Tops), to the "angel" in your life not being your lover but your social worker (the gallows-hilarious Geraldine), to absentee fathers (the profoundly poignant Daddy's Gone). If the words are introspective, the sound is anything but: a colossal oncoming tsunami of guitars with drums as tall as tenements, five decades of classic atmospherics crashing on the shore of 2008 through the monumental shimmers of Phil Spector, the Shangri-La's, the Ramones, Joy Division and the Jesus And Mary Chain. There are also anthemic sing-along terrace chants and the most affecting working-class vocal howl since Liam Gallagher in 1994, sung in an unreconstructed accent which makes the Proclaimers sound like The Queen.

Ian McCulloch, Echo And The Bunnymen elder, calls them "the best band since Nirvana", they call themselves "a rock'n'roll band" but, really, they're a soul band.

In a drizzly concrete car park in south-west London, outside the vast ex-brewery warehouse which houses Channel 4's Transmission, James Allan, 28, sits inside the TV crew's catering van and proves himself a cheerful, gentle, contemplative soul as curiously vague as a cloud. Since last November's release of single Daddy's Gone ("I won't be the lonely one/Sitting on my own and sad/A 50-year-old reminiscing what I had"), a re-recording of which is released next week, he's seen the foaming bedlam of a label-bid piranha pool, a typhoon of media hype and remained serenely oblivious to all of it: "If you believe all that you also have to believe you were rubbish five months ago when nobody cared." James - with a 50s quiff, dressed all in black, a hole at the collar of his plain black T-shirt - bears an almost alarming resemblance to the late Joe Strummer. There's no piercingly politicised angry young man here, mind, more a hippy-dude humanitarian who calls himself "a pure daydreamer", who appears to have no clue whatsoever of the importance of what he's created. When the album is released next month (recorded in New York with Franz Ferdinand producer Rich Costey) Glasvegas will be known, perhaps, as The Sound Of Blade Britain.

"Really?" balks James, bewildered, "I just wanted to express ideas and be sincere, as long as it was real to me. Why these themes? I don't really know why. To be honest, you don't think that far down the line, that people are even going to hear these songs."

He contemplates the epic Flowers & Football Tops, lyrically inspired by the racially motivated murder of 15 year old Glaswegian Kriss Donald (abducted near James's home in March 2004, stabbed 13 times, drenched in petrol and set alight) from the point of view of a mother waiting for her son to come home.

"I'm just not a very numb person," he blinks. "And when you're not very numb the downfall is you're too sensitive to human things. Certain things are just so heartbreaking they stay in my mind and I can't shake them off: the hurt, the fear or the euphoria. And so you sit down with a guitar and it pours out of your brain."

For years, on the dole in Glasgow, he'd listen to "the tranny" (the transistor radio, not the transvestite) and hear "people singing about limousines and girls and I thought, 'Pfff, people are never gonna get my stuff, it's me that's wrong'" until buying a Hank Williams compilation with Christmas vouchers in December 2006, "which had 20 tracks and every title had 'lonesome' or 'cry' and I thought, 'He knows who he is and it's all right, so don't be so hard on yourself'".

James is, in fact, your genuine creative eccentric, a pale man newly returned from a week's holiday in blistering Barcelona which he spent "in the shade, on Valium, so I could cope with the heat. I'm from Dalmarnock man!" Dalmarnock, in Glasgow's ever-beleaguered, working-class east end, he describes as "exotic" and "beautiful" with no sarcasm intended. "It's relative, I grew up there so I see the beauty; I love the grey, I love the rain, I had loads of fun," he says. Leaving school at 15, he played professional football for Falkirk and Gretna "until music started taking over". Besotted with Elvis, 50s rockabilly and the early-60s, his favourite album was and remains Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift For You. He played it all year round "really loud, so all my neighbours knew me as the crazy kid who played Christmas albums in the summer. I love Christmas, it's dark but everything's glittering."

Around 2005, the fledgling Glasvegas was James and his cousin Rab Allan (their mums are twins), eventually recruiting Rab's old schoolmate Paul on bass and Caroline McKay on drums, who James met in Glasgow's vintage clothes shop Mr Ben. She had zero drum experience. "I knew she'd be good," chirps Rab, "because when she's so drunk she can't speak, she dances like an angel." She drums standing up. "Because I'm so short," smiles Caroline, "you wouldn't see me otherwise." At exactly five feet, she's one inch shorter than Kylie. "Haven't got her arse, though," she quips. Rab, meanwhile, was a labourer while Paul was a ceramic tiler. "The only reason I liked it," grins Paul, "was because you were on a massive building site so you could smoke dope and hide! The building trade's more rock'n'roll than rock'n'roll..."

James thinks about his music, notes Rab, "24/7, we hear him talking about it in his sleep", music which, far from glorifying horror, looks for hope. Does James think Britain is Broken?

"Is Britain broken?" he muses, having clearly never considered it. "In Britain, like a lot of places in the world, you've got two elements together: the darkest gothic horror movie and the most beautiful romantic one like Casablanca." He ponders the relentless knife-crime news reports and suddenly looks forlorn. "I guess there's a big list of potential roots to the problem," he decides. "There are definitely frustrations in the youth which have been in our culture for quite a while. But no matter how many times you read about it, it strikes you with total shock, the lack of humanity. Or like I say in Ice Cream Van [the album's closing hymnal, which sounds like the Requiem mass for morality itself] 'pure community, freedom of faith, act of citizenship'. Y'know, there's no-one's actually saying, 'Grow a heart, man'. How could you actually harm another person? What's happening to us man?"

Glasvegas were all born in the 80s, and are, notes James, "a weird band of weird people with a weird sound" who are, fittingly, about to record a Christmas album in a cathedral in Transylvania. "One song," swoons Rab, "is the best song James has ever written. It's called Cruel Moon, just him and the piano and it's really quite frightening. I think it could be Christmas number one."

Today, they've a new friend in Lisa Marie Presley who phoned James up after hearing Daddy's Gone, igniting the rumour she'll soon cover it (with surely world-boggling results). "Naaaaah," chokes the ever-humble James, "I very much doubt it!" The debut album's artwork, meanwhile, has now been decided, without the spectre of a blade in sight.

"It's based," twinkles James, "on Vincent Van Gogh's The Starry Night. It's beautiful."

Vincent, you'd imagine, the very emblem of excavating beauty from insanity, would definitely approve.

· Daddy's Gone is out Aug 24. Glasvegas play Leeds Festival on Friday and Reading Festival next Sunday. The album Glasvegas is out Sep 8


Sylvia Patterson

The GuardianTramp

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