n 1980, indiepop as we have come to know it did not exist yet. Someone had to invent it. Arguments can be made as to who actually did, but a strong case can be made for the handful of bands that emerged from Glasgow who the press (and leading label Postcard Recordings Of Scotland) glossed as “the Sound Of Young Scotland.” Inspired by the DIY ethos of punk, yet weaned on classic pop of all sorts—from the Byrds to the Velvet Underground to Chic and Motown—these bands threw it all into a blender and made it work: pop art imagery, soul music, classic balladry, a decidedly romantic lyrical bent, a slight absurdist streak, an almost willful ignorance to learn to play properly, and an undeniable sense of energy and enthusiasm for their craft. It might not have seemed like it at the time, as none of the bands really achieved any lasting chart success, but these bands changed the face of music forever. Led by Orange Juice, Josef K, Postcard, and a host of other players, the music still sounds fresh as a daisy today to these ears.
What follows is a rough guide to The Sound Of Young Scotland, as well as recommendations as to where to start your listening. This is by no means a definitive guide, merely a starting place with a strong encouragement for those interested in guitar pop—especially fans of bands like the Wedding Present, Franz Ferdinand, Belle & Sebastian, or any of the other countless bands who bear an influence of the movement—to check it out.
Undeniably the poster children of the Sound Of Young Scotland movement, Orange Juice were a rather unique outfit. They were rough around the edges and weren’t afraid to miss some notes and do things the “wrong” way; yet unlike their post-punk contemporaries, they strove toward classic soulful pop and campy romance. They dressed like Boy Scouts, in coonskin caps, worshipped the Velvet Underground, the Byrds, Al Green, and Chic in seemingly equal measures. They were campy, unabashedly romantically minded, and had the classic cute, quotable frontman in Edwyn Collins, whose distinctive voice was half-Bing Crosby and half-Mrs. Miller. Their songs were classic pop paintings rendered by fingers rather than fine brushes. Jangling guitars, restless invention, tender ballads, fabulous haircuts—Orange Juice had it all. In some ways, they even had too much.
Formed in 1976 as the Nu-Sonics, by the time the quartet changed their name to Orange Juice, the buzz was already beginning. With Collins writing timeless pop material (and more worthy material being produced by guitarist James Kirk, who proved himself a capable songwriter in his own right), the band were tied to the Postcard label from the get-go, as Postcard founder Alan Horne was essentially a protégé of Collins.
As such, it stood to reason that the first Postcard single would also be OJ’s first and so in 1980, the classic “Falling And Laughing” was released. The UK indie scene was never the same. Produced on a shoestring budget (and you can tell from the sound of it, the drums in particular) and packaged in a hand-folded sleeve, Postcard paved the way for Creation and other pop revivalist labels that would further shape the face of independent music in the UK. The song itself is a masterpiece, with the famous adrenaline-fuelled coda injecting an organic energy that had long been missing from the indie scene. If one song illustrates the Postcard/Sound Of Young Scotland ethos, it’s “Falling And Laughing”: naive, enthusiastic, ripe with the sound of newfound love, and almost infectious in its energy. And yet, it all sounds like it might come flying off the rails at any second, lending to an almost intangible charm that has led fans like myself to feel such an emotional connection to the music.
Orange Juice recorded three more singles for Postcard and an album that sat unreleased for 12 years (see below) before signing with Polydor and effectively ending the Postcard era. And while there is a lot to recommend about the band’s four Polydor albums, especially their classic debut You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, that crude charm eventually was crushed by the machinations of the major label record company game and the band dissolved, piece by piece until it was only Collins left. Tired of fighting a losing battle with the suits, Collins went solo and indie again and eventually found ironic success with a million-selling single. Sometimes justice just takes a while to be served.
What To Listen To
Alan Horne reactivated the Postcard imprint in 1992 and subsequently released Orange Juice’s recordings for the label on CD for the first time across two separate discs. The Heather’s On Fire compiles the band’s four classic Postcard singles—“Falling And Laughing,” “Blue Boy”/“Love Sick,” “Simply Thrilled Honey,” and “Poor Old Soul”—as well as four BBC session tracks from 1981. A fifth single, “Wan Light” c/w “You Old Eccentric” (interestingly, both featuring lead vocals by James Kirk) was scheduled for release in 1981 and assigned a release number (81-6), but the band jumped ship to Polydor, Postcard folded, and it never surfaced. The disc also contains a “hidden” track by the pre-OJ Nu-Sonics, the primitive (to put it mildly) “Who Are The Mystery Girls?”
More thrilling for OJ collectors, however, was Ostrich Churchyard; basically what would have been Orange Juice’s debut album for Postcard. Though nowhere near as polished as the “official” Polydor release, You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, the roughness is a large part of its ramshackle charm. This release also featured a four-track BBC session, including what to my ears is the definitive version of “Falling And Laughing,” a fiery take that easily tops both the poorly recorded Postcard original and the overly slick Polydor recording.
Both Postcard discs are essential listening for those looking to grasp what the Sound Of Young Scotland was all about, or anyone else with a fondness for the classic indiepop sound. Unfortunately, both of them, as well as the band’s four subsequent Polydor albums, are now out-of-print again, with only a mish-mash compilation of Collins solo and OJ Polydor material currently available outside of Japan, where the band have a huge cult following.
While Orange Juice were jangling, soulful, campy, and charming, fellow Glaswegian quartet Josef K were dark, spiky, and angular. Slashing guitars playing circular, hypnotic riffs and taut rhythms clipping out tight neo-funk, topped by Paul Haig’s monotone vocals made for an intense listen that still holds influence to this day (see Franz Ferdinand, the “punk funk” bands, etc.) Where Orange Juice crooned and pined, Josef K throbbed and ached. The two bands may have shared influences (Chic, the Velvets), and later, members (Josef K guitarist Malcolm Ross joined Orange Juice following his previous band’s demise), but the musical output was worlds apart. Think of it this way: Orange Juice is a sweet breakfast drink; Josef K is a tormented character in Kafka’s The Trial. Nuff said.
The band’s first single, 1979’s “Chance Meeting” was the one and only release on the Absolute label and found their sharp-edged sound fully formed. The 1980 follow-up was for Postcard, and a scene was officially born: released in a double-pack with Orange Juice’s “Blue Boy”/“Love Sick” single, “Radio Drill Time”/“Crazy To Exist” put the band’s name on everyone’s buzz list, and said double-pack could be found under the arm of any self-respecting music hipster.
After the down-tempo “It’s Kinda Funny” single, Josef K set about to record an album for Postcard and delivered Sorry For Laughing, which label boss Alan Horne rejected. The band regrouped and recorded again, this time to be called The Only Fun In Town. Although the band still weren’t totally satisfied with the results, this time the album was actually released, the first and only Postcard ever released in its first incarnation. A fantastic album, but the hype was already starting to bother the art-minded band and cracks began to show. Following another handful of singles, for both Postcard and Brussels-based Les Disques Du Crepescule, and with the declaration that they had already done what they set out to do, the band split up.
What To Listen To
The Young And Stupid CD compiles all of the band’s singles and is a very worthy introduction to their sound, as their singles seemed to encapsulate what Josef K were all about far more than their LPs did. For those interested, however, both the unissued Sorry For Laughing album and The Only Fun In Town are available on one RevOla CD. Buy them both and you have it all.
If Orange Juice were the movement’s cuddly yet subversive Beatles, and Josef K were the rougher-edged Stones, then if follows that Fire Engines were its own Velvet Underground—totally primitive, rudimentary sounding, built on an angry, mutated funk attack that lacked any of their cohorts’ sublety or, for the most part, pop songcraft. For all of the press’ talk that Orange Juice couldn’t play their instruments properly, Fire Engines sounded like they might have just picked them up 15 minutes prior to recording, chosen a key, a vague melody, and started to plug away mercilessly. Not that they didn’t prove capable of writing catchy numbers—later singles “Candyskin” and “Big Gold Dream” were classic-style skewed pop nuggets, the former even including strings. Generally speaking though, Fire Engines sound was all hard candy shell and very little soft creamy center. Too punk for Postcard, they were the black sheep of the burgeoning movement, and one gets the impression that is exactly the way they wanted it.
Led be enigmatic frontman Davy Henderson, Fire Engines recorded precious little studio material: only one LP and three singles. But what output it was. Honed by blistering live gigs, the band emerged with “Get Up And Use Me”/“Everything’s Roses” (the debut release on the short-lived Codex Communications in 1980). The pop charts were not ready to embrace these noisy, vaguely mad sounding tunes, but the Fast Product/Pop Aural label was, who released the band’s lone full length, Lubricate Your Living Room. Nine tracks of discord (itself the name of one nearly seven-minute ramble), repetition, and drums that sounded like they were played on plumbing rather than a traditional kit. Two decades later, it still sounds brave and abrasive.
The band’s final two singles pointed the direction that Henderson would take with his next project, the funky, slick yet still twisted Win, and later, the fuzzed-up Beefheart-ian guitar pop of Nectarine No.9 (whose 1992 debut, A C With Three Stars was released on the reactivated Postcard imprint). The “Candyskin”/“Meat Whiplash” single encapsulates the band’s identity crisis perfectly; “Candyskin” was a major indie chart hit in 1981, with a jaunty guitar riff and the trademark clattering percussion joined by a more radio-friendly production technique and strings. The flip finds the band in adrenaline frenzy mode, a relentless riff-and-percussion fest that is exhilirating from start to finish. Follow-up “Big Gold Dream” was as close as they ever got to pure pop, but it flopped and the band were finished.
What To Listen To
The entirety of Fire Engines’ output is available on one CD, Fond—which, of course, is no longer in print. If you can find it, however, not only will you be treated to the entirety of Lubricate Your Living Room, but also all of their singles and b-sides, and some welcome John Peel material, including their amazing take on Heaven 17’s “We Don’t Need This Facist Groove Thing.” Fans of White Light/White Heat, Captain Beefheart, and the Fall would be well advised to find this release by hook or by crook.
A group in name only, Aztec Camera is essentially the vehicle for singer-songwriter Roddy Frame. A 16-year-old prodigy blessed with a gift for tunes showing emotional depth far beyond his years, as well as youthful good looks, Frame was the only lone wolf of the set. His debut single “Just Like Gold” was released on Postcard in 1981 and the press were smitten. Following Postcard’s demise, Frame signed with like-minded indie Rough Trade (and, significantly, was picked up in the US by Sire/Reprise) and in 1983 released High Land, Hard Rain. Again, the production was a bit slick but the tunes were still ace and the album made Frame and Aztec Camera stars, especially after smash single, “Oblivious” seriously dented the charts. While he may not have had the most lasting influence, Frame certainly found the most success of all the Postcard acts.
Subsequent efforts saw Frame moving further into overproduced soulful schlock before he finally snapped out of it and returned to the lush, guitar-led pop he was born to play. He finally dropped the Aztec Camera moniker a few years back and continues to record as a solo artist, as well as frequently guesting on other albums, including most of Edwyn Collins’ solo albums and Trevor Jackson’s Playgroup project. But to these ears, he hasn’t yet eclipsed the work he did before he was old enough to know better. That classic album is still in him somewhere though.
What To Listen To
High Land, Hard Rain is prime early-80s indiepop fare and stands up well as an illustration of Frame’s early years. If you’re looking for his essential album, this is it. And while his Postcard output remains unavailable on CD to this day, the worthy Best Of Aztec Camera collection presents a great distillation of some lackluster albums.
And of course, the movement had to have its Monkees: Altered Images, a group of teens led by the unbelievably cute Claire Grogan and signed by major label (Portrait, a Columbia/Epic imprint). Far more traditionally “new wave”-sounding and chart friendly than the above bands, the band had great success with their debut album Happy Birthday (produced by Siouxise & The Banshees’ Steve Severin) and the single of the same name. In 1981, they were named Best New Group by the NME, and follow-up Pinky Blue sold loads. This of course led to the inevitable British press backlash and by the time third album Bite rolled out in 1983, no one much cared. All three albums, especially the first two, are recommended by those who like their pop poppy and their punk with lots of hairspray and bad ‘80s clothes.
Polka-dotted goth-pop duo Rose McDowell and Jill Bryson may not sound like they fit in with the Sound Of Young Scotland clan, but their roots place them firmly there—they were even named after a prominent Postcard fanzine. The pair met in Glasgow in 1977 and befriended Orange Juice guitarist James Kirk, who encouraged them to form a pop group. The band signed to Postcard in 1981, though they never actually recorded for the label. Picked up by Liverpool-based indie Zoo Records, the band’s 1983 debut single, “Trees And Flowers” featured Roddy Frame on guitar and was bankrolled by Echo & The Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch (they had manager/svengali/future KLF founder Bill Drummond in common). They went on to some chart success with their self-titled 1985 debut before disbanding in the middle part of the decade. While their darker, Cure-esque sound may not bear much resemblance to their Scot Pop roots on first listen, the naive charm and coy emotions presented therein (especially in the lyrics) make some case for their Postcard ties—but you really do have to be looking for it.
Yes, the Go-Betweens. Though Forester, McClennan and company are Australian, the band’s first non-Aussie release (“I Need Two Heads” c/w “Stop Before You Say It”) wound up being released on Postcard in the summer of 1980. Their status as honorary Scots was cemented by the fact that they recorded the tracks in Glasgow with Orange Juice’s Steven Daly on drums. Both cuts are available on the expanded two-CD reissue of the band’s debut album, Send Me A Lullaby.