'We like a party!' – why is Scottish pop so potent?

It all started 60 years ago with the line: ‘There’s a moose loose aboot this hoose!’ But is the eccentric spirit that unites Biffy Clyro, Orange Juice and Ivor Cutler dying out in the age of Calvin Harris?

Inside the National Museum of Scotland sits a vintage wooden harmonium, once dolorously played by a little man in plus fours and a fez, the late absurdist folk-poet Ivor Cutler, who was second only to the Fall in the number of sessions he recorded for John Peel. A relic abandoned in storage for years, the harmonium is now owned by trad-folk minstrels Capercaillie and proudly on loan to the Edinburgh museum as part of the first ever exhibition of Scottish pop, Rip It Up.

“I’m so glad it was found,” says curator Stephen Allen. “I was agonising over how we could give Ivor Cutler his rightful place in Scottish pop music.”

Cutler’s harmonium, emblem of the tragicomic spirit so often found in the Scots, is now a kind of 20th-century equivalent of Beethoven’s clavichord, one of more than 300 objects – alongside photos, videos and music piping everywhere – telling the nation’s musical story from the 1950s onwards.

Video: the Rezillos play Top of the Pops

For Allen, though, the most stirringly potent artefact is the fluorescent green PVC jumpsuit that captivated his 13-year-old self, worn by Eugene Reynolds of the Rezillos: the fright-wigged Edinburgh troupe who stormed TV’s biggest chart show in 1978 with their novelty-punk caper that bellowed thrillingly: “Everybody’s on Top of the Pops!”

“The zip was a bit rusty,” says Allen, a man who had “Ian McCulloch hair” back in ’78, “and the full camo gear. I looked like a starved extra from Apocalypse Now.”

The sometime teenage Rezillos renegade is now the kind of person who shapes Britain’s heritage, his post-punk generation now all grown up into cultural gatekeepers, understanding that pop music, for many, gave you not only a life but an education.

“Pop culture was the gateway into other art forms,” he says. “If it wasn’t for Siouxsie and the Banshees I wouldn’t have got interested in Weimar Germany. This distance in history lends credence, brings perspective. There are now universities with professors of pop.”

Tomfoolery … 80s poppers Altered Images, fronted by Clare Grogan.
Tomfoolery … 80s poppers Altered Images, fronted by Clare Grogan. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns

This perspective underscores Rip It Up across several themes arrayed from global impact to Scottish voices to politics and identity. The spirit of Scotland can be traced, then, from 50s pre-rock’n’roll skiffle (Glasgow-born Lonnie Donegan) to 70s pub rock, disco and perm-haired heavy rock (the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, the Average White Band, Nazareth) to post-punk luminaries and tartan-pop tomfoolery (the Skids, Altered Images, Bay City Rollers).

In between there are the pop giants past and present – Simple Minds and Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics in the 80s, Paolo Nutini and Calvin Harris today. But it’s the indie heroes who dominate in numbers, including the roster of Postcard Records, set up to launch bequiffed dandies Orange Juice (whose biggest hit lends the exhibition its name). Others featured include the Associates, Jesus and Mary Chain, the Blue Nile, Belle and Sebastian, Franz Ferdinand – and scandalously unsung acts such as late-90s art-rock surrealists the Beta Band.

‘We always seem to be the underdogs’ … Midge Ure of Ultravox.
‘We always seem to be the underdogs’ … Midge Ure of Ultravox. Photograph: Ilpo Musto/Rex/Shutterstock

With such a diverse spectrum, can there be such a thing as a Scottish sound? Midge Ure, born in 1953, co-architect of the Band Aid/Live Aid phenomenon and coolly wafting frontman-in-a-raincoat with Ultravox in 1981, ponders the question.

“There is something in the Scottish spirit,” he says. “A yearning, a romanticism. And this longing, this sadness, does come out in the music. It’s maybe a working-class thing. We always seem to be the underdogs. Country music has always been big in Scotland. But there’s also a feistiness. We like a party.” What are the Scots, then, yearning for? “Probably to get out of the slums of Glasgow!” he hoots.

There’s a lexicon historically associated with the Scottish character: hardy (the weather), passionate (alcohol), brave (heart), defiant (politics), romantic in the face of almost certain defeat (the national football team), dour (Frazer from Dad’s Army’s owl-eyed catchphrase, “We’re doomed!”), funny in the face of historical adversity (Renton from Trainspotting’s primal howl, “It’s shite being Scottish! We’re colonised by wankers!”). All of this, alongside the hardship endured in decimated post-industrial cities, the glorious, brutal landscape, and the isolation from London’s seat of economic power informs the collective consciousness.

Emma Pollock co-founded Glasgow’s Chemikal Underground label in 1995, the heady era of maverick, DIY independence. Originally set up to launch her own band, the Delgados, it was soon a Scottish bedrock, signing the artful Arab Strap and post-rock hypnotists Mogwai. “Alternative, indie pop with guitars is where we’ve been prolific,” says Pollock. “There’s a love of song, with substance. And an honesty. A rawness, a humour, a sense of communal experience.”

This year, music lost yet another creative soul to suicide, Scott Hutchison from Selkirk’s Frightened Rabbit, a band whose melancholic storytelling was often wrought with unbearable sadness. Where a fatally depressive tendency knows no regional boundary, Scotland isn’t short of profoundly philosophical, sensitive spirits.

Collective consciousness … Belle and Sebastian.
Collective consciousness … Belle and Sebastian. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

“Perhaps this landscape does lend us room to just contemplate,” says Pollock. “And when you’re in the arts, part of your job is to stop thinking about the small stuff, have a broader understanding.”

Simultaneously, there’s all that communally singing, distinctive Scottish bedlam. It’s something routinely witnessed in the festival headlining shows of the rousing, melodically colossal Biffy Clyro, even if the Ayrshire trio’s music is often an exorcism of pain.

“In Scotland, we kind of celebrate misery,” says flame-haired Biffy bass-player James Johnston. “You accept defeat as an everyday part of life. Some bands are about escape and good times; we sing about the difficult times. And people exorcise their own demons by listening to ours.”

Biffy Clyro’s story includes the struggles with depression endured by frontman Simon Neil and drummer Ben Johnston’s recovery from alcoholism. His twin James’s torso hosts a tattooed verse from Robert Burns’s John Anderson, my jo, John, inked as an act of brotherly solidarity during Ben’s troubled years. For countrymen often seen as Teflon tough, is there a heightened sensitivity at core in the creative Scottish male?

“I think it’s just amplified,” says James. “Given the culture of the old-fashioned idea of men. But music gives you a forum to talk, under the guise of being creative. It’s a positive force in moving things forward.”

Biffy Clyro.
‘We’ve a lot of wacky, curious, intriguing artists’ … Biffy Clyro. Photograph: Caleb Coppola

The Biffy bassist is proud to be part of Rip It Up and hopes it can inspire in millennials some of Scotland’s finest traditions. “There’s an independent spirit in the Scottish,” he says. “And a lot of wacky, curious, intriguing artists, like Ivor Cutler. I think young people will be inspired, who are maybe attracted to certain elements of culture … like the fucking Kardashians! But we all need something with meaning. And we all need music to make us feel we’re not alone.”

In 1958, comedy big band Lord Rockingham’s XI secured the first UK No 1 by a Scottish vocalist (Elgin-born leader Harry Robertson) in the demented tartan twist of Hoots Mon and its jovial refrain: “There’s a moose! Loose! Aboot this hoose!” In mid-June 2018, Scotsman Calvin Harris had been at No 1 for two months with the generic, region-free techno-pop of One Kiss.

The 60 years between these songs tell the story not only of Scottish pop but of music culture itself, of the random pre-Radio 1 hits to the homogenisation of our digital democracy today – and the almost total collapse of music industry investment. Rip It Up is timely, an acknowledgement that rock’n’roll had 60 astounding golden years, of sounds and characters that could be the last of their kind.

Lord Rockingham’s XI, 1958.
Moose pioneers … Lord Rockingham’s XI in 1958. Photograph: V&A Images/Getty Images

“The life I led in the 90s, where the industry had enough money to develop artists and take an investment punt, that has gone,” says Pollock, who sees the fire in the young today often prematurely extinguished. “By the time they’re 30, they’re thinking, ‘I want to settle down and have a family, I can’t afford to be an artist any more.’ I am under no illusion that things ever stay the same. But this has been an accelerated revolution. Technology has changed everything. The last 10 years has made the last 60 seem unique. We’re now recognising they’ll probably never be repeated.”

Rip It Up’s curator, meanwhile, is happy to have captured a once-glorious natural force. “More and more there’s been a re-examination of pop culture,” says Allen. “And the National Museum is pop culture’s rightful place. I know on a personal level how much music informed me. It is character-forming.”


Sylvia Patterson

The GuardianTramp

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