I’ve read Watership Down, Doctor Zhivago, The Year of Magical Thinking, Never Let Me Go, All Quiet on the Western Front and Tender is the Night – and none of these books has induced in me a mood of misty sadness to the degree that Nuala Naughton’s Barrowland – A Glasgow Experience has. This melancholy is not teased out by Naughton’s breathless history of the music venue or even the knowledge that her account is amongst the last volumes to be published by Mainstream. No, it is a simple list that inspired my tristesse: a spreadsheet-style rundown of every band to play the Barrowland, complete with date, ticket price and the name of the support band. I cannot resist the temptation to mention the words ‘Proustian’ and ‘madeleine’.
Although raggedly written, Naughton’s appendix engrossed me. Was it really in mid-December 1998 that I saw PJ Harvey for the first time, then touring an album featuring a song that shared a name with a woman I was on the verge of dating? I remember seeing it as a sign that this song was performed. The subsequent relationship was as doomy as the one depicted by Harvey; should have listened harder. I see listed the November 2002 Morrissey gig, which my friends and I left only to discover our car had been broken into. And did I really go to three Barrowland gigs in little over a week in 1999? I haven’t been to three this decade so far.
Referencing the high regard the Barrowland is held in by fans and musicians, Vic Galloway describes the venue as ‘probably the perfect live venue – somewhere between an intimate club and a big hall, with a sprung dance floor and easily accessible bars from which you can see the band’. A number of the acts he writes about in Songs In The Key of Fife have played the venue, including The Beta Band, the most remarkable outfit to emerge from the East Neuk micro-scene that somehow also produced Brit Award-winner KT Tunstall and James Yorkston (‘the songwriter of his generation’ said John Peel). At the heart of his narrative are the Campbell brothers, Een, Gordon and Kenny. Kenny eventually became King Creosote, the creative and business leader of the Fence Collective, a cottage industry record label that releases collections of music by Campbell’s friends. If accounts of contemporary Scottish music are almost always Glasgow tales, Fence and company represent an East coast counterbalance, shaming that perennial underachiever, Edinburgh, in the process.
This is a personal story for Galloway, a musician, Radio One DJ, music journalist and acquaintance of his book’s dramatis personae. A Fifer himself, Galloway calls Yorkston his oldest friend and he played in bands with many of the individuals he writes about. Galloway’s connections mean he can colour his narrative with the sort of detail an outsider can’t hope to bring into play, although the reader also comes to suspect he is holding back when recounting incidents that might reflect badly on acquaintances.
The overriding impression one takes away from Songs in the Key of Fife, besides the passion and doggedness of its cast of characters, is that commercial music appears to be an even less lovely industry than publishing. Once a harbour for the eccentric, cussed, and over-medicated, the contemporary scene is an edgeless, conformist business that values deal-making over music-making. Galloway sums up the mindset perfectly in one story: Radio One’s playlist team tell The Beta Band, hungry for mainstream radio support, ‘We only play bands who look like our customers.’
Fence was conceived as a response to major record company disdain. With its folkish strains and unapologetic Scottishness, Fence and its satellites were seen as a hard sale by the London-based music business. A recent documentary The Great Hip Hop Hoax underlines the problems Scottish musicians face if they want to make it. The film tells the true story of Gavin Bain and Billy Boyd, two would-be rappers from Arbroath. After an audition in London, Bain and Boyd were dismayed when record company employees laughed in their faces, not so much because of their material but because of their accent. One suit dismissed them to their faces as ‘rapping Proclaimers’. Their response? To reinvent themselves as Californian hip hop frat boys, Silibil and Brains. Incredibly, despite merely passable American accents, they fooled industry insiders, to the extent they signed a record deal with Sony UK. When the duo became unstuck it wasn’t because someone figured out their true identities but the standard personality clashes and record company bean-counting that kills the majority of bands eventually. Their story is positioned as a remarkable one, yet British singers have in fact long adopted something approaching a mid-Atlantic style. For commercial reasons and because of a cultural cringe not unique to Scotland, there are few unrepentantly regional voices in the mainstream of popular music in the UK.
Coming at it from another direction, one can say that the value fans draw from Fence is largely based on its authenticity, its ‘homespun, homemade’ qualities. Pip Dylan’s country-flavoured albums failed to connect because he sang them as if he was born Stateside. ‘Americana and bluegrass don’t work in a Fife accent,’ he argues. Fence fans weren’t convinced, and the lack of success appears to have caused a strain in his relationship with his brother Kenny.
Galloway is even-handed in his approach to this part of the story, as he should be, what with his own prose being studded with Americanisms (one person is said to have ‘flunked school’; he’s forever paying bands ‘huge respect’). He also has a weakness for cliché: ‘With a major label, you take the rough with the smooth.’ Galloway unwisely structures the book so that each chapter follows one artist for a period rather than a chronological shifting of perspectives. As the musicians featured grew up together and have frequently collaborated, the narrative grows repetitive.
Graham Forbes’ Rock and Roll Busker has an air of deja vu too, although only because he kept joining bands that one could tell from the name alone (Thundersoup, Greenfly, The Velvet Hammer Band) were never going to make it. While the majority of music books are about legends or at least glorious failures later rediscovered (and profitably repackaged by record companies), the majority of musicians are closer to Forbes: working men and women busking their way through sets in bars, hotels and wedding receptions. Forbes toured the States with the Incredible String Band in the 1970s, hanging out with Bruce Springsteen and Jimmy Page. When that ended, he found himself playing wedding receptions in the Gorbals.
The pressures musicians face are such you frequently wonder why they bother. One can’t help noticing that almost all the musicians Galloway profiles took several false starts to get anywhere, when they did success was fleeting, and that along the way many suffered some form of breakdown. Steve Mason, The Beta Band’s chief songwriter, admits to driving around Fife looking for a tree to crash into following the band’s break-up. The most spectacular example is Gordon Campbell, whose nom-de-musique was the Lone Pigeon. His story involves walking semi-naked cross-country with the top bar of a cross after a religious vision, and a DIY circumcision during a stay in an Israeli prison, as well as making some wonderfully off-kilter lo-fi recordings. While Gordon Campbell’s problems are deep-rooted and pre-date his recording career, there can be little doubt that attempting to make a living through music is a precarious and thankless move that has unmoored the minds of many sensitive artists.
Kenny Campbell also suffered a period of mental turbulence prior to setting up Fence. Only once he had committed to making music purely for himself and a close circle, to reconciling himself to not making it, did he in fact begin to accrue a certain level of national recognition. When the briefly modish New Folk scene enamoured London tastemakers, King Creosote found himself being courted by critics and A and R men alike. Interestingly, when he recorded an album for major-leaguers Warners in the mid-noughties, artist and company were unhappy with the results. It didn’t sell; critics were lukewarm. Returning to releasing material under his own label, he quickly scored a Mercury Prize-shortlising and general critical esteem with his album Diamond Mine. Fans appeared happier too. Fence represents a creative, indeed, artisanal response to making a living as a musician today. The artfully shabby DIY aesthetic of the records’ packaging, the albums available only at gigs, the sell-out boutique festivals held in Anstruther – it’s an object lesson in how to inspire devotion in a certain kind of fan.
Besides a grim view of the music business, what the three books and documentary share is nostalgia. Naughton’s oral history of the Barrowland rings with the phrase ‘I remember’, while her interviewees are musicians (Fun Lovin’ Criminals, Stiff Little Fingers, Shed Seven) whose creative years are far behind them. The Beta Band were collagists who plundered their record collections for beats and samples, while their Fence Collective peers hearken back to a lost period of folkish authenticity. Silibil and Brains reference Malcolm McLaren’s notion of the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, while Forbes remembers his own youthful adventures on the live circuit.
The condition is endemic to popular music, with its endless rounds of heritage rock reissues and cut-and-paste genres. The music journalist Simon Reynolds diagnosed the condition as ‘Retromania’ in his 2011 book of the same name. You do see it in other areas of the arts, although none is as dependent as music on what has come before. Or as Forbes, a tribute band veteran, puts it: ‘Tribute acts are unique to the music business; you don’t find comedians dressing up as Billy Connolly and telling all their gags.’ One is bound to ask whether an art form so dependent on strip-mining its past can continue to remain relevant, especially when the industry that supports it has an untenable business model in the download era. Whether contemplating music’s past or future, a fan can’t help feel sad.
Songs in the Key of Fife
Polygon, £14.99, 978-1846972355 pp371
Barrowland – A Glasgow Experience
Mainstream, £12.99, 978-1780576503 pp320
Rock and Roll Busker
McNidder & Grace, £8.99, 978-0857160188 pp304
The Great Hip Hop Hoax
Directed by Jeanie Finlay