Sons and Daughters, love and laughter…

I went to see the Pixies play at the SECC on Sunday and they were blinding. I had been braced for disappointment from those who had seen them previously, but, for whatever reason, they were on the top of their form. After playing the whole of Doolittle, as advertised, they then came back on for an apparently spontaneous 40 min encore of early material and favourites. It was one of those nights where band and audience went for it together and this turned the cavernous, and normally vacuous, exhibition centre into a Barra’s like venue for the evening, a first for me.

The Pixies were more than ably supported by Sons and Daughters, and I want to ask why it is that Glasvegas are lauded yet Sons and Daughters are rarely seen or heard? Both deal in west coast influenced rock, both California and East Kilbride, but there is a sense of humour and style in the latter that is clearly absent from the former. Maybe it’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt but my heart has begun to sink whenever I hear James Allen’s honking vocals (in both senses of the word), and I would go for Sons and Daughters every time.

It’s purely a matter of preference but ‘mon the Sons:

BPE: Before Postcard Era

The music documentary Caledonia Dreaming was repeated recently as BBC4’s This is Scotland season began to show signs of padding. The programme takes the formation of Postcard records in 1979 as Year Zero for Scottish popular music, and dismisses what went before as fey disco/pop (Middle of the Road and Tina Charles being the examples cited) or sweaty rock (ie: Nazareth, Stone the Crows and Frankie Miller). While I love Postcard and the music they inspired more than most things in life it is far too simplistic to dismiss earlier Scottish music. For a little taste of the good things that were on offer BPE I thought I would post three musical clips, one each from the 1950’s, the 60’s and the 70’s.
The first is of the man born in Bridgeton, Glasgow, as Anthony James Donegan but better known as Lonnie Donegan. This is a cover of Woody Guthrie’s Gamblin’ Man, but he makes makes the song his own by shaking it to within an inch of its life:

Donegan has been cited as an important early influence on The Beatles, amongst many others, and the ferocity and verve of his music hinted at the energy that would fuel rock n’roll.

From the sixties here’s a clip of the one and only Donovan. Perhaps the only man to come out of Maryhill declaring love and peace, at least until Alan Rough played for Partick Thistle. There was none more sixties than Donovan, and he was an influence not only on the hippy movement, but on the second summer of love in 1988. Sean Ryder was so impressed that he sampled Donovan’s music, appropriated his lyrics, and married his daughter Oriole.

Donovan is oft derided as a hippy who spent his time trying to get high on smoking banana skins. In reality he is a fascinating musician whose music endures.

And so to Alex Harvey and his Sensational Band. The following clip is one of my favourites. It’s from a 1973 Old Grey Whistle Test performance, and it is their cover of Jacques Brel’s Next:

Alex Harvey’s story is a fascinating one, from his childhood in Govan in the 1930’s and 40’s, to being cast as Scotland’s answer to Tommy Steele, to fronting one of the most individual and interesting bands of any time. The above clip shows Harvey’s ability to mix touching vulnerability with the threat of impending violence. For those interested you should check out John Neil Munro’s biography The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Harvey fronted a fantastic band, but he was the one who made them great. I cannot think of a more charismatic front man. Sensational.

Account of Banks.

I mentioned in a previous post that every new Iain Banks’ novel is heralded as a return to form (see Transmitting Transition ). Such claims can lead to disappointment but this time, with his latest work Transition, the hype is justified. In a sense Banks is cheating by claiming this as a mainstream novel as if it is not strictly science fiction, then it is at least fantasy. But he makes the rules so he’s entitled to break them. Banks has previously blurred the lines between his mainstream and science fiction writing in Walking on Glass and The Bridge, and it would be churlish to criticise him for that.

Transition is almost like a greatest hits novel, dealing with favourite themes of sex, death, politics, morality and personal responsibility. Banks is one of the most nakedly moralistic writers at work today, but where some readers may view this as problematic I think it is his indignant, barely concealed, anger that makes his writing exciting. However his writing is most successful when the anger is woven into the story rather than simply placed in the mouths of characters. Banks works best when he shows instead of tells. By his own admission he is prone to railing at the world through his novels, and The Steep Approach to Garbadale and Dead Air are two recent examples where the desire to express his world view overshadows plot, character and story.
I suppose that that if you are a fan of Iain Banks you’ll read Transition, and if you’re not then I don’t think this is the novel to win you over. But if you haven’t read anything for a while, perhaps since his critical heyday of The Bridge, or commercial peak of The Crow Road, then this would be a good place to renew an old acquaintance. You could call it a return to form.

More tea vicar.

BBC4’s Scotland on Screen was a curates egg of a programme. It was always interesting, and the premise of returning to the locations of some of Scotland’s best loved films was a strong one, but surely the BBC should have made a 4 or even 6 part series. This would have enabled more films to be discussed, but even more importantly they could have used the fantastic guests and talking heads that they did have to much better use. David Hayman, Peter Mullan and Andrew McDonald were all under employed, but the real sin was to take The Wicker Man director Robin Hardy and Gregory’s Girl writer/director Bill Forsyth back to the scene of their movies and then only giving them a couple of minutes on-screen time. This brings me to the second problem with the programme. Alan Cumming is, I think, a charming comic actor (although I may be biased as I have happy memories of Victor and Barry’s pantos at the Tron theatre as a child, which were built around Cumming’s and Forbes Masson’s comical Kelvinside parodies) but he doesn’t strike me as a film buff. His insights and questions to those involved in the film were naive bordering on painful. His appearance only made sense when he was interviewing a group of ladies, and one hugely uncomfortable minister, from Morningside about the influence of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Here the natural performer appeared and charmed and disarmed the group.

Surely it would have made more sense to have had the film fronted by a director, producer or critic, or at least some one who has a reputation for their love of film. To have film critic and presenter Andrew Collins as one of the talking heads, and then Cumming presenting, appears to me a waste of both their talents, and a simple swapping of roles would have rectified this. Perhaps I’m being a touch harsh, but when Cumming’s role as presenter and guide is compared to that of Peter Capaldi doing the same job brilliantly in A Portrait of Scotland (see Malcolm Tucker, Art Historian) he can only suffer. In fact how perfect would Capaldi have been fronting Scotland on Screen? Not only is he a writer and director but his first film role was in Forsyth’s Local Hero. I would have loved to have seen Peter Capaldi and Bill Forsyth reunited and reminiscing on screen.
If you get the chance to see the programme I would recommend it, but with the knowledge it could have been so much better. To see a real film lover talking to Bill Forsyth about his work, in this case Local Hero, have a look at Mark Kermode’s film for The Culture Show from earlier this year. It not only captures the charm and magic of the original film, but he allows Forsyth time to inform the viewer about how Local Hero came into existence.

Beatles for sale

It may be the fact that I’m recovering from a slight illness, or that I’ve not been in town and amongst folk for a while, but making my way through Glasgow today made me realise that life is better when soundtracked by The Beatles. Everywhere I went their songs followed and made me relax and float downstream. I especially like the thought that the visiting Dutch footie followers would think this was a normal state of affairs in the city, and would return home to repeat the trick with Van der Graf Generator, or even Golden Earring.
I know that this Beatles ubiquity is mainly to keep Ringo and Paul in hair dye, but it did make me feel that piping their music throughout the city would be a positive move. How could you continue a square go in St Enochs‘ while ‘Here Comes the Sun’ is playing?

p.s. Could you argue that the Dutch are The Beatles of world football? If you love music you surely must appreciate The Beatles and likewise the Dutch if you love your football. Both remind you that it’s not just the winning, but how the game is played.

No longer gemme?

Last night saw the first episode of Happy Hollidays, the new sit-com from Effingee Productions for BBC Scotland. I am loathe to judge any series after only one viewing but it is going to take a comeback of Lazarus proportions for this to be any good. The writing team of Simon Carlyle and Gregor Sharp wrote the one-off No Holds Bard which was part of this year’s Burns’ night viewing, and were also involved in the 2001 comedy Terry McIntyre Classy Bitch, which had writer Carlyle taking the title role. While neither of these comedies could be called memorable, compared to Happy Hollidays they’re Father Ted.

Poor writing left a normally reliable cast with nowhere to go except exaggerate and enthuse as if they were in panto. Only Gavin Mitchell’s camp inspector (no, not in that sense) was exempt, (although he did seem to be doing an impression of Agent Smith from The Matrix films), which made it appear as if he had walked in from a different show. But I think the major problem can be found with the leading man, Ford Kiernan. It may be coincidence, but since he and former partner Greg Hemphill split it appears that Kiernan is content to do the same character over. The parkie in Dear Green Place is remarkably similar to his character of Cronie Cameron in No Holds Bard, and makes a reappearance in this caravan park based caper as Colin Holliday. Perhaps Kiernan is being stereotyped by the parts on offer, but the likability that could be found in characters such as Ronald Villiers or Jack in Still Game has been misplaced. A comedy grotesque only works if the audience is sometimes empathetic, for example Basil Fawlty or David Brent.

As a memory of how good he has been here’s a clip from the live performance of Still Game filmed at Cottiers Theatre in 1999:

(Just in case any body’s intrigued by the thought of a show called Terry McIntyre Classy Bitch there’s a YouTube channel dedicated to it. It’s , but don’t come crying to me.)

Orange Juice jonesing

Never mind literary spats, this is what we want. Below is a rare piece of film of the rather lovely Orange Juice, or at least Edwyn Collins, performing Simply Thrilled Honey in a factory which, brilliantly, makes orange juice. That is a literalness which borders on genius:

There are some people whose whole career can be recommended, those who even when they misfire are interesting enough to make them indispensable. Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and KateBush are three who immediately come to mind, and I would add Edwyn Collins to such a list. Orange Juice were a formative band for me, helping to lure a pre-teen away from a possible future which included the far tighter trousers of Heavy Metal. For that alone I am indebted, but he has always reappeared over the years with knowing lyrics, melodies and a rare warmth.

The recently published book by his wife Grace Maxwell, The Restoration of Edwyn Collins, deals with Edwyn’s recovery from a cerebral hemorrhage. This is one book that not only do I want to read, but, perhaps oddly, feel that I should. I know I’ll write more about the importance of Postcard records in the future, but the above clip gives me the excuse to indulge in a little nostalgia, and send my love to Edwyn.

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Kelman v’s Jakey: The Aftermath

The fallout from James Kelman’s appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival continued in The Sunday Herald. I’m not sure what’s happened to this paper and its weekly sister The Herald in the last year. At the moment they remind me of the kids in the playground pushing unwilling participants into the middle of a circle and chanting ‘fight, fight, fight’. Jasper Hamill’s article (see below) talks of ‘brutal put downs’ and ‘blistering attacks’ and goes on to describe how ‘Literary Scotland’ has been ‘torn apart’ by Kelman’s comments. Really? I know newspapers are having to create controversy as they increasingly lose out to other medium when it comes to breaking the news, but their current editorial stance, at least in terms of covering art and culture, is desperate. Much as I love the idea of fights breaking out behind Charlotte Square between gangs of ‘genre’ and ‘radical’ writers, circling each other like The Sharks and The Jets, this is just an attempt to reaffirm those old, and surely now redundant, categories of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art.

I may be wrong about this, but I don’t believe that Kelman is making these points for personal gain. He speaks on behalf of writers who do not fit any ‘genre’, and therefore are not easily packaged. His profile has never been higher, and part of that profile is ‘the angry man of Scottish letters’, something he will be fully aware of, and uses to try and effect change. Although his critical acclaim may not transfer to Rankinesque sales, nobody could argue that he lacks status. His argument was consistent with his wider concerns about suppression of language and the working classes by the education system and a capitalist society. The 2003 collection of essays and talks “and the judges said…” properly deals with his views and is well worth looking at, even if you don’t agree, although the novels are the real place to understand his political and artistic stance. Denise Mina’s opinion piece (also below), written to answer Kelman’s accusations, concludes that such arguments only push readers towards genre fiction. She may be right, but must see that such a state of affairs is not desirable. Genre fiction by definition only admits certain styles and voices. If other fiction is pushed aside then Scotland’s literature is diminished. The real shame about the sensational coverage of this debate, the personal attacks and divisive language, is that they obscure a very important conversation that could be taking place about the best way to introduce and promote literature to make it more inclusive rather than exclusive.

Full articles:
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Kelman v’s Jakey

The link at the bottom of this post takes you to Alan Taylor’s review in The Herald of James Kelman’s recent appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Having seen Kelman at previous festivals I get the impression that he likes to shake up the mainly middle-class audiences that attend such events, and that they, in turn, expect him to do so. It’s a complicated relationship. His decision to read for 25mins from his 2001 novel Translated Accounts, easily his most difficult, is a classic example of this. It’s the equivalent of going to see Lou Reed and discovering that he’s going to play the whole of Metal Machine Music. Kelman’s choice of text is particularly perverse in the year that his brilliant novel Kieron Smith, boy was lauded and awarded.
This year he also had a thinly veiled pop at Ian Rankin and JK Rowling as he bemoans the publicity, and I assume the accompanying promotional budget, afforded their work: “As I argued recently,” Kelman added, “if the Nobel Prize came from Scotland they would give it to a writer of fucking detective fiction or else some kind of child writer or something that was not even news when Enid Blyton was writing the Faraway Tree because she was writing about some upper middle class young magician or some fucking crap.”
I’m a huge Kelman fan. I find that the more I read him the better he gets, and it warms me that he is a difficult sod, and, is rightly, pissed that his work is not more widely read. But I think what sours his mood most can be summed up by this appearance in Edinburgh. He wants his work to be read by the people he writes about; the busconductors, the chancers and the disaffected. The people who he grew up with, went to school with, their children and grandchildren. But they are more likely to read Rowling and Rebus, partly, as Kelman points out, because that is what is sold to them. Kelman is much more likely to be read by the sort of people who buy tickets for the Edinburgh Book Festival. And so he finds himself back there, year after year, looking at the same or strangely similar faces. No wonder he swears.

Reason for Living

This first post is a little mission statement as to the reason for writing this blog. Contemporary writing and commentary that deals with Scottish art and culture often obsesses over questions of inclusion and exclusion, questions that usually arise from the thorny issue of nation. This blog aims to, if not ignore such questions, demote them to the sidelines as all aspects of art and culture are discussed and dissected. I cannot deny that I am Scots, writing in Scotland, and will concentrate (although not exclusively) on Scottish writers, poets, music, films, TV, art, comedy etc, but ‘where and when’ is of far less importance to me than ‘what and why’. Discussions can be had elsewhere as to what is or is not Scots and often they become a barrier to the enjoyment of that which is under discussion.

And that is what this blog is really for, to celebrate, debate and enjoy art in its widest sense. To deal with the art itself, and allow discussion and comment that looks at the old and new anew. To not take too seriously something which I take very seriously indeed. We have an ongoing relationship with our respective cultures throughout our lives and it is important to remember the relationship as it was when first consummated. The joy, wonder and the reason we fell in love in the first place with bands, films, poems and books. Like all relationships it changes, becomes more ‘serious’ as time goes by, and although I cannot pretend that a wary, weary and cynical side will be suppressed fully, (nor would I wish it so,where is the fun in that) I want to focus on my belief that art in all its forms can give us a reason for living better lives.

My first post proper will be thoughts on John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti which I have just watched for the first time since it originally screened in 1987. What struck me is the way that Byrne created a thoroughly Scottish drama, one that wears its roots and knowledge lightly, giving reference to outside cultural influence without apology, and does so with a light touch and a self-mocking sense of humour.

It is in this spirit that I write this blog. Of course this may change at any time, but until it does please excuse the indulgence and read on…