How Scottish Indy put fun back in my life

There's a famous quote by Lenin, that revolutions cannot stand still; they have to move forward. I'm guessing he wasn't talking about the British punk explosion, but it's applicable. There was a period of time around 1978—when that initial Sex Pistols thrill had subsided—when I thought it was stalling. The new bands started sounding dull, derivative. In all probability, I just had unreasonable demands: that a band should produce iconic albums weekly. I was 17, had just started work, and pretty much thought the world was there for my personal amusement.

Then from the pages of my holy book—New Musical Express—came news from Scotland. Shamefully, back then, my awareness of Scottish music began and ended with Nazareth and the Bay City Rollers. But the NME journos were excitedly talking about two new record labels recently set up north of Hadrian's Wall: Fast Product and Postcard.

Fast Product was an independent label, based in Edinburgh, set up by Bob Last and Hilary Morrison. Their aim was to create a concept around a single. Producing what they called "Mutant Pop," they wanted to create a label people trusted. It definitely worked with me: I would travel to my local record shop (the wonderful Bonaparte Records, now sadly gone) and ask for the latest release on Fast. Saturday mornings, there'd be a buzz. Usually I would arrive before the store opened. It was like a pilgrimage. Then I'd rush back to put the stylus on the vinyl.

The first releases on Fast Product weren't Scottish but from the north of England. The debut was "Never Been in a Riot" from The Mekons, who hailed from Leeds—as did Gang of Four, whose single "Damaged Goods" was released on Postcard in December. Postcard released "Being Boiled," by The Human League, in June. They were from Sheffield. (My geographical knowledge of the British Isles largely stems from my record collection.)

If so many of the second wave of punk were gangs of dour, Gang of Four et al. brought brightness. They weren't interested in being Pistols wannabees; their inspiration was the Velvet Underground, Bowie, Buzzcocks, even James Brown.

The Scars were the first Scottish band to appear on Fast. More interesting to me was an Edinburgh group on Last's other label, Pop: Aural: The Fire Engines. They set the scene ablaze, the Velvets meet Sly Stone. Anyone visiting me at that time heard "Candyskin," "Meat Whiplash," and "Big Gold Dream" replayed endlessly. Like many such bands, they exploded like a firework; for a brief moment, they lit up the sky. Then they fell to the ground. In just over a year, they split up. Decades later, Franz Ferdinand would cite them as an inspiration.

Postcard Records was set up in Glasgow by Alan Horne, with the aim of having a brand image like early Motown. (Their slogan was "The Sound of Young Scotland.") I bought every new Postcard single on the day of release, to get the hand-colored postcard that came with the first batch. I got lots of postcards. A large chunk of my weekly wage went to Scottish bands.

Postcard Records' debut release was Orange Juice's "Falling and Laughing," which heralded a run of thrilling 45s. Josef K followed. Josef K should have had international megasuccess. Josef K's "Sorry for Laughing" and "It's Kinda Funny" are perfect pop singles, up there with "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Baby Love." Aztec Camera's first single, "Just Like Gold," followed a few months later.

The Scottish indie scene was breathing life into what would become known as post-punk. The size of my singles collection was increasing. I settled into a routine. I'd hear about a new release, a new band, or a new label—either from the NME singles page or the John Peel BBC radio show—then it was off to Bonaparte's. Even if I hadn't heard the single, if it was on a label I rated, I'd buy it. Peel was an institution, from back in the '60s; his show gave countless musicians a break. A sizable number of my personal faves are because of him.

Soon it seemed that everyone in Scotland was in a band. Quite a few—The Associates, Simple Minds, Cocteau Twins, Altered Images—enjoyed a degree of chart success. The streets of Edinburgh must have been filled with folk traveling to their day jobs in high-waisted trousers and Lou Reed sunglasses with a guitar slung over their shoulders.

Bob Last closed his labels, but he didn't end his quest to create pop stars. He moved into management, managing Scritti Politti, ABC, Heaven 17, and the Human League. In 1982, the Human League, from Sheffield, breached the US singles fortress with "Don't You Want Me," reaching number 1. The album, Dare, got to number 3.

For me, this was four years when music was genuinely exciting, searching out the latest new release of the newest bands, often not knowing what I would come home with but impatient to find out. Because of a group of musicians at the other end of the UK, pop music was no longer a dirty word. The single was king. Not since Glam had I so unashamedly reveled in it. Fun had returned to music.

beeswax's picture

I'm sorry, but neither "Damaged Goods" or "Being Boiled" was released on Postcard as this story states. Editors, please.

amplifierx's picture

Obviously Being Boiled was on Fast

Alex Halberstadt's picture

Really enjoyed reading this, Phil!

phases's picture

I always find it interesting to read peoples points of view on music, its fads and fancies. For example, the whole electro pop, early indie era was an absolute nightmare for me. Boring, dull bands, with no imagination, that all sounded very similar - at least to me. The whole of that period was a triumph of style over substance, just as those who invented, then discarded, Punk, intended. Again, to me. Yet others loved every minute, and good luck to them. The same with NME. For me its the absolute epitome, and always has been, of pale, stale, middle class, and male music journalism. No wonder then that middle class kids in new wave and indie bands bemoaning that 'Cynthia had dumped them', found a willing, and enthusiastic ear among their middle class journalist peers. Even more depressing is the 'ten commandments' of music journalism, that means every single review, obituary, etc has to have one of those commandments shoe horned into them, making them a tough read - unless you subscribe to those commandments yourself. However, I've found in my old age, the more you read about music, the better you understand it, whether its your bag or not. And that was an insightful piece. Thank you.