March 5 – Proclaiming This Reids’ Day

Today we’d walk five hundred miles to deliver our birthday wishes. Well, perhaps not, but still a big pair of Happies go out to Craig and Charlie Reid, the twins who collectively are The Proclaimers. They turn 60 today. Big Country might have emerged first and Simple Minds might have sold more, but no band of the modern rock era epitomized Scotland more than this band. Their thick accents, even when singing, are as much their trademark as their nerdy Buddy Holly glasses.

The boys were born in Leith, a port city north of Edinburgh, to working-class parents. As much as the city and landscape influenced young Charlie and Craig, their parents did even more. Both of their folks were big music fans, and their dad had a large collection of records, mainly American jazz, R&B and country. Merle Haggard and Hank Snow were as much a part of their childhood’s as haggis and foghorns.

Although as teens they developed and interest in acts like The Clash and the Damned and tinkered around in a couple of local punk bands in high school, it didn’t really represent their musical tastes. By 1983, they’d paired up to form The Proclaimers. The name came about, as Craig recalls, “We wanted something with a Gospel feel to it, that indicated strength in vocal delivery (with) a sort of spiritual element.”

They garnered a bit of a following around their hometown and Edinburgh, playing their folkish music (their own description of their sound is “the netherworld where pop, folk, new wave and punk collide”) in various clubs, but it wasn’t until 1986 that they caught a big break. A dedicated fan sent a tape of them to The Housemartins, who were so impressed they got the Reids to open for them on a British tour that year. This in turn got them booked onto the TV show The Tube in January, 1987. Someone from Chrysalis Records was watching, and only days later they’d signed with that label which in turn sent them into the studio the very next day. A mere nine days later, they’d recorded their debut, This Is The Story. What a story it was!

While the simple, acoustic debut did OK in Britain, eventually earning them a gold record, it was the second release that put them down in music history. Chrysalis liked Charlie’s acoustic guitar and the lads’ tight harmonies well enough, but decided to bring in well-known producer Pete Wingfield and a back-up band, including members of Fairport Convention and Dexy’s Midnight Runners to fill out the sound a little. The result was Sunshine on Leith, released in the summer of ’88. The album was outstanding and again luck intervened, helping it become one of the major British cultural references of the past forty years.

Initially, it was quite well-received. The Guardian, for example, complimented their “thick but melodic Scottish accents” and “unique brand of tuneful old-fashioned pop.” Jim Sullivan of the Boston Globe compared the twins to Elvis Costello, not only because of their short hair and thick glasses but also for sharing his “knack of weaving serious trenchant lyrics into soothing, gently stinging songs.” There was something instantly catchy about tracks like “I’m on My Way” with its upbeat tempo and chipper, sing-along lyrics (“I’m on my way from misery to happiness today…”), and that song was a minor hit in the UK, as was a cover version of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” from it. One might think that there was a little bit of a travel theme going on there, and it really came to fruition with their signature tune, the album’s first single – “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”. Few songs from the Eighties have weathered as well and few people out there aren’t at least moved to tap their feet along when they here “I would walk five hundred miles/ And I would walk five hundred more/ Just to be the man who walked a thousand miles/ To fall down at your door.”

Craig had written the song while passing time waiting to go to a concert. He remembers “I knew it was a good song, maybe even a single, but I had no idea how popular it would become.” No doubt. “Popular” is a bit of an under-statement. Continue reading “March 5 – Proclaiming This Reids’ Day”

January 3 – Dog-gone, Softer Approach Worked For Scot Rockers

This day in 1976 was a good one for Scottish bands. As we already noted today, the tartan-adorned heartthrobs, the Bay City Rollers spelled out what it takes to have a #1 smash in the U.S. with “Saturday Night” and the same chart saw Nazareth hit the American top 40 for the first time. The song that put them there was not only their biggest, but one of the first examples of a hard rock band doing a “power ballad”, a tender love song to widen their appeal. “Love Hurts”, but changing your sound up once in awhile doesn’t!

Love Hurts” was originally written as a country tune by Nashville writer Boudleaux Bryant, but was first recorded in 1960 by the Everly Brothers. It was a well-liked song but never released as a single, and remained largely unknown until the mid-’70s. Then, oddly enough, not only did the Scottish metalheads take a go at it, so too did Cher, and Jim Capaldi (who actually did the best on the British charts with the song, almost simultaneously with the Nazareth release.) Others including Gram Parsons have done it since.

Nazareth were by 1975 a successful touring act and albums band in their homeland and in Canada, where they’d already had three gold (or later, platinum) albums, as well as a few spots in Europe. But U.S. success had eluded them, so by the time of Hair of the Dog, their fifth album, they decided to change that. They had their own guitarist, Manny Charlton, produce the album, and of course, had the aching love song added in to their usual fare compared to Black Sabbath by allmusic. Mind you, record buyers in the States would have a taste of the more usual sound of the group if they flipped the single over, as the cowbell-ringing, hard rock staple “Hair of the Dog” was the b-side.

Although the song stalled at #41 at home, it did indeed break open the North American market for them. It was a top 10 in the U.S. and pushed the album to platinum status; to the north in Canada it was a #1 hit. But no one liked them like the Norwegians. There it was #1 for a record 14-straight weeks, making it chart-wise the biggest hit of the decade. So perhaps Norway love Nazareth, but it hurts that the entire country’s population is barely larger than that of Los Angeles.

Nazareth are still going but only one member of their “Love Hurts” lineup, bassist Pete Agnew is still a part.

January 3 – Roller-mania Extended Well Past Bay City

It was the beginning of the Bicentennial Year, and Americans were so happy they wanted to party…like it was “Saturday Night” maybe! So it seemed, since the #1 song on Billboard to start 1976 was the song of that name by Scotland’s Bay City Rollers.

It was more or less the first the U.S. had heard of them, but they’d been a sensation in Britain for a couple of years (in typical British press hyperbole, they were oft-dubbed “the new Beatles!”) and had even invaded the shores and ears of Canadians a year earlier. In fact on their home island, this song remarkably didn’t chart but they’d had two prior #1 singles in “Bye Bye Baby” and “Give A Little Love”. “Saturday Night” had been an afterthought on their first UK album, 1974’s Rollin’, which hit #1 there and went platinum. By ’76 they were on album number four and Bell Records biggest act there. They had lagged in North America though due to lack of representation for one thing, when Clive Davis saw their potential to win the hearts and purses of teenaged girls here too, and signed them to his new Arista label. By then they’d had a few lineup changes (two members had left to form Pilot) and they repackaged some of their existing best material into a self-titled album released in North America. “Saturday Night” was re-recorded, with new vocals from the then-new vocalist, Les McKeown.

With heavy promotion, the cute lads known for their love of tartan pants and scarves, stripy socks and upbeat melodies took the continent by storm. “Saturday Night” went quickly to #1 in both the U.S. and Canada and went gold in both; when they arrived in the States for promotions and shows, they were mobbed by adoring – mostly young, mostly female – fans in scenes that was a little reminiscent of the Liverpool “moptops” a dozen years earlier. They even had a fan in Howard Cosell! The first public playing of the hit was on his short-lived variety show.

Unlike The Beatles however, it didn’t last. Although they did score another #1 hit in Canada (“Money Honey”) and two more top 10s at home, they couldn’t keep up the momentum and by summer, open-shirted Peter Frampton had diverted a lot of those teenyboppers’ attention away from the Scots. They’ve continued rolling, on and off, since but have never had much of the spotlight…rather like the tall ships that sailed into American ports that year.

While many are quick to dismiss them as a novelty act, the Rollers actually were head and shoulders above some other teeny delights. They were essentially founded by brothers Alan and Derek Longmuir (who played bass and drums respectively) in Edinburgh in the ’60s, where they played local clubs doing mostly early rock covers. They became the Saxons, then signed to Bell in ’71 and changed the name. They liked “Rollers” but wanted an adjective, and having a hope of hitting U.S. gold, they threw a dart at a map and hit Bay City, Michigan. Voila! While their music wasn’t deep or heady, they did write most of their material, played the instruments themselves and, yes, they had a knack for a catchy hook! And if you’re of a certain age, methinks you’ve probably yelled out the letters to the title with them a time or two, too. Don’t think so? No less, or no different, an act than the Ramones were fans. They’ve stated their song “Blitzkrieg Bop” was a deliberate attempt to make a song as danceable and pop-py as “Saturday Night”.

December 16 – Big Country Singer Went To The Bigger Unknown

A sad one 20 years back. On this day in 2001 Stuart Adamson of Big Country decided it was time to leave this mortal coil and commit suicide in a Hawaiian hotel room.

Adamson had recently finished a tour with his Scottish band and was seemingly depressed, with his second wife filing for divorce weeks earlier, a DUI charge pending and the eighth album for Big Country, Driving to Damascus (or John Wayne’s Dream, as it was titled in the U.S.) flopping commercially. In happier times he and friend Bruce Watson had ridden to international success in the early-’80s with their first couple of albums and singles like “In a Big Country” and “Chance” . Although they really only got noted for their 1983 debut over here, at home they remained popular through the ’80s, scoring eight top 20 songs and putting all four of their first albums into the UK top 10. But by the ’90s, tastes were changing and their fanbase was shrinking.

However, among their fans were U2, and The Edge from that band delivered the eulogy at Adamson’s funeral. He described him as having “a heart as a big as a mountain and a real romantic soul.” 

November 11 – Brits Didn’t Need To Mull Over Wings Single

Paul McCartney learned some lessons well during his time in the Beatles…not only involving the creating great music, but in the marketing of it as well. Case in point, this day in 1977 when he and his band Wings took a page out of his old band’s book by putting out a standalone, two-sided single not tied to an album. The single was (to Europe and Australia) “Mull of Kintyre” or to North American audiences, “Girls School.”

They’d recorded them late in the summer, with Wings At The Speed of Sound beginning to drop from the charts and work on their next album, London Town, slowing down considerably because Linda McCartney was pregnant. So they decided to give the fans a single to tie them over until spring ’78, when London Town would be ready. And much like the Beatles had done a decade earlier with “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane”, it was a massive success… especially the Euro A-side.

To the Scots, a “mull” is a bare hill or mountain. Kintyre is a peninsula where Paul had his beloved farm. So the traditional-sounding song was, according to him an ode to the place. “I certainly loved Scotland enough…it was really a love song about how I enjoyed being there.” And what’s a Scottish ditty without bagpipes? Wings brought in the Campbelltown Pipe Band to play them on the track, which was largely recorded outside. The pipes and Paul’s guitar and singing was all done in the elements on the windy moor, with only Linda’s percussion and Denny Laine’s guitars being recorded in a studio.

McC correctly assumed that Americans might not relate much to a song about the Scottish geography nor to a “rock” song with lots of bagpipes, so over here, the “b-side” was in fact the “a-side.” “Girls School” was much more of a typical Wings rock song with Paul playing bass, Jimmy McCulloch (guitars) and Joe English (drums) supplementing the McCartney’s and Laine. And the lyrics… well, Paul had some interesting ideas about all-girls’ schools, which Songfacts characterize as “semi-pornographic.” A nurse who gave all-body massages, a school mistress who ran movies that required the shades be drawn. If Paul didn’t get the idea from an X-rated movie, one can bet it probably inspired at least one or two!

However, despite the raciness and rocking sound, “Girls School” wasn’t a major hit. It got to #33 in the U.S. and #34 in Canada, their least successful single since the forgettable “Letting Go” in 1975. But his assumption was right also; “Mull of Kintyre” tended to baffle North Americans and was not embraced by radio. But overseas, it was a different story.

Mull of Kintyre” hit #1 in Australia, Germany and several other lands including of course Britain. There, it was a smash of the first order, booting none other than the Beatles out of the all-time best-selling single spot. Bye-bye “She Loves You,” hello, “Mull of Kintyre.” It was the first single to sell more than two million copies in the UK (which would have been equivalent to selling about seven million in the States at that time) and would remain the biggest-ever until Bob Geldof and his Band Aid came along with “Do They Know It’s Christmas” seven Christmases later.

Although initially only released as a 7″ single, both “Mull of Kintyre” and “Girls’ School” were added to the CD version of London Town later on.

August 7 – Bonus Bit : A Letter From St. Paul

This weekend, I once again am a guest columnist over at Hanspostcard’s website and his Song Draft, a collective of about a dozen of us writing about great songs. It’s well worth a visit and veers musically from genre to genre, day by day. This is my third piece in that event.

Believe it or not, I do listen to music that’s not from the 1980s! But I find myself going back there again for my third pick here. But whereas my first two picks were from multi-platinum artists known far and wide (R.E.M. and Rush) this one is taking us a bit off the mainstream radio-beaten path. I reminded myself of this great, much over-looked track in my previous post here, when referencing Canadian Alt Rock Superstation, CFNY. It was one of the only places you were likely to be lucky enough to hear “A Letter From St. Paul”, the title track to the 1987 RCA Records debut by an obscure, London-based Scottish band, The Silencers.

The Silencers were formed out of the remnants of Fingerprintz, an equally-obscure post-punk act that had minor attention paid to them by college radio in the early-’80s. A quartet of bassist Joseph Donnelly, drummer Martin Harlan, guitarist Cha Burns (who’d played in Adam Ant’s backing band) and leader, singer, lyricist Jimme O’Neill. The four share credit on the writing, and Tim Finn, the super-talent who led Split Enz, is given a mysterious credit for “composing” in the liner notes with no real details explaining his role.

The entire album is well worth a listen. Particularly if you like that brand of guitar-driven alt rock only the mid-’80s could deliver…the Smiths, early R.E.M., the Bangles when they were allowed to be themselves, etc. CCM rank it as the 262nd best album of all-time, correctly describing it as “jangly and atmospheric guitars, driving rhythms, sultry and subtle vocals, poignant and pinpoint lyrics.” While the single “Painted Moon” was a minor hit which deserved to be a major hit, and apparently got “regular” airplay at KROQ in L.A. as well as my beloved Toronto station, it is the title track that really gets underneath your skin and deposits an earworm.

A Letter From St. Paul” is definitely a tune to both test your speaker’s tweeters, and one best enjoyed in the dark through headphones. Hypnotic, jangly guitars rollicking away that you figure can’t get any better … until an equally wailing harmonica joins in! And unlike the album’s other tracks, it lacks O’Neill’s singing. Replacing it, sparingly, is an uncredited woman speaking in a monotone voice about her drab life in Minnesota and suggesting (threatening?) to come see the letter’s recipient in London. We don’t know if she is serious or has a deadpan sense of humor, and if he should be happy or running for the hills. Treblezine succinctly state it to be the “eeriest song I’ve ever heard.” Somewhere out there, there’s a Hitchcock-wannabe movie maker itching to make this letter, this song, into a film noir classic.

There’s probably a great story behind the song. But being as under-the-radar as The Silencers are, I haven’t found it. So instead, lie back, put on the headphones and enjoy. Then maybe look for a postcard. She collects them.

July 15 – Big Sounds Made ‘The Crossing’ From Scotland

A big start for a band from a smallish country – Big Country! The Scot power-pop band put out their debut, The Crossing on this day in 1983. Although they’d go on to put out eight more studio albums and continue to this day, they never matched their success from this album and singer-founder Stuart Adamson commit suicide in 2001. When they reformed in 2010, they brought in a voice as close as they could to replace Stuart, Mike Peters from The Alarm.

Many consider Big Country a one-hit wonder, but they did have a decent run in the ’80s in their native Britain. There their follow-up album went to #1 and they scored four-straight top 10s. Over here though, not so much. The band was put together by Adamson in ’81 and wanted to mix traditional Scottish folk sounds with the power of the punk rock Adamson had dabbled in the late-’70s. The resultant album was exuberant and rather unique-sounding. The track “In A Big Country” is oft-thought to be the only rock hit using bagpipes, but the sound was actually their electric guitars using a device called an MXR Pitch Transposer.

Rolling Stone was typical of the reviews of the day, considering the record “a big noise guitar band from Britain that blows the knobs off the synth-pop diddlers …cluttering up the charts” and compared them favorably to U2. Perhaps no coincidence that; they used super-producer Steve Lillywhite for it, just months after he’d finished up working on U2’s War. Later, both allmusic and Blender would rate it 4-stars, the latter calling it an “album flush with thrilling anthems about war and heroism.” Both singled out the slower “Chance”, the album’s fourth single in Europe, as a highlight. The Crossing was a top 5 hit in the UK and Canada , top 20 in the U.S. and went platinum in all of those lands. It did particularly well on the few and far between “alt rock” or new wave stations on our side of the Atlantic, being #4 on the year-end charts on both L.A.’s KROQ and Toronto’s CFNY. Surprisingly, “Fields of Fire” was the big hit single off it in the UK, not “In a Big Country.”

July 9 – No One’s Forgotten About Jim Yet

Even a simple mind would want to wish Jim Kerr a happy birthday ! The Simple Minds singer turns 62 today. Often compared, slightly negatively, to U2, the Scottish band do have a number of things in common with their counterparts from across the strait – most of them good. When it comes to longevity and ability to change and sound fresh, not many others from the British Isles post-punk scene come close to that pair of groups.

Kerr was born in Glasgow and like many of his peers soon gravitated not only towards music but punk rock as a teen. He was one of the founding members of a punk outfit called Johnny & the Self Abusers there in the punk acme of 1977. He started as the keyboardist (which was something not too many punkers outside of the Stranglers utilized back then) and occasional singer; by the time the band called it quits nary a year later, his voice and mind had taken over and he’d become their main singer and songwriter. That continued as the band had a few personnel changes, becoming Simple Minds by 1979. The group continues to this day with only Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill being permanent members through the decades.

Although some of their early music would best be described as electropop, for the most part, Simple Minds made their mark (as did U2) with boisterous, guitar-driven anthemic alt rock songs, elevated by Kerr’s great and distinctive voice. Allmusic compare it to “Bowie’s rock baritone melded with Bryan Ferry’s velvety croon”, and Kerr cops to both those artists being early influences on him, although the voice is just his. While Kerr’s largely given up playing the keyboards for them, he’s been the band’s unifying factor with his vocals and being the primary lyricist through the years. And those years had them put out 18 studio albums, with massive popularity in the British Isles. In the UK, they had five #1 albums, including four straight from ’84 through ’89: Sparkle in the Rain, Once Upon A Time, Live In the City of Light and Street Fighting Years) and 20 top 20 singles. Surprisingly perhaps, the one song they’re forever remembered for on this side of the ocean – “Don’t You Forget About Me” – never appeared on one of their studio albums and was disliked by Kerr. That song, the only hit they had he didn’t have a hand in writing (Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff wrote it specifically for the Breakfast Club movie and had originally wanted Bryan Ferry to do it), was a #1 in both the U.S. and Canada but is infrequently performed live by them.

Don’t You Forget About Me” as well as British hits like “Waterfront” and “Promised You A Miracle” made the band a hot commodity for Live Aid, which was one of the times in their 40 years they’d thought about calling it quits. “We were knackered,” by that time Kerr recalls. “We were desensitized. There was an element of ‘the chore’ creeping in.” They’d just fired bassist Derek Forbes, and the huge Live Aid stage in Philadelphia was the first time they’d played with John Giblin. The other was in the early-2000s, according to Kerr, when he likely started putting together his solo album Lostboy! AKA Jim Kerr, which Scotland’s national newspaper called “not groundbreaking but a healthy turnover” which was “less uptight” than Simple Minds output. It generated one British top 20 single, “She Fell in Love With Silence.”

The band is back together, and Kerr told the BBC recently they are feeling energized now that they’re older and the children have grown up. Kerr’s eldest daughter, now 35, was with his first wife, Chrissie Hynde whom he was married to through a good chunk of the 1980s. Simple Minds were awarded an Ivor Novello Award in 2015 for their “outstanding song collection” through the years.

Unlike today’s other birthday boy, Jack White (turning 46 today), Jim isn’t picky about whether his music is listened to on vinyl records. He told the BBC he’ll listen to it from “anything” and if its “a good song it’ll come across.” He recently commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Sony Walkman. Back when the cassette players were expensive and Simple Minds not an internationally-known act, their label gave each of them one. He wrote on the band website “it certainly revolutionized in a most enjoyable way an aspect of touring for us, as previously we had no way of carrying our favorite music with us as we made those laborious, long distance drives.”  Let’s hope they’ve all been given Spotify accounts to get them rolling again!

April 27 – Sheena Strutted To ’80s Superstardom

Happy 62nd birthday to one of pop’s more versatile women. A “one hit wonder” who actually wasn’t just one hit at all. Scottish, American; pioneering reality TV star, Mexican music award winner, Broadway star, Prince’s girlfriend (perhaps)… guess there’s more to Sheena Easton than her 5-foot frame or “9 to 5” song might suggest.

Easton was born in a small town in Scotland as Sheena Orr. She grew up in a musical household, apparently loving singing and doing so in public as young as 5. She set her mind to becoming a professional singer after seeing Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were.

Around the time she hit the age of 20, two important things happened to Sheena. She married a young man with the last name of “Easton”, and became a TV/music star. The marriage, her first but not last, didn’t even last one year but she kept his name, Then there was TV…

At the end of the ’70s, the BBC in a surprisingly ahead-of-its-time move, had a show called The Big Time which designed to take an unknown and follow their career right the way through into music stardom. Easton won her audition and was the contestant, and eventually got signed to EMI Records. The show filmed her right through the recording of her first single, “Modern Girl”, which took its time but eventually got to #8 in the UK.

Her next single was the one she’s synonymous with, although curiously depending on which side of the ocean you’re on has two different names. At home for her, it was released as the upbeat, perky “9 to 5”. Over here, it was released as the upbeat, perky “Morning Train”, as weeks before it was released, Dolly Parton scored a #1 hit with an entirely different song called “9 to 5.” Whatever you want, the song about the doting housewife waiting for her hubby to come home from work after taking the morning train “so we can play all night” was a delightful pop ditty that the public loved. It got to #3 in Britain but topped the charts in Australia and North America, with it ending among the year’s 20 biggest singles in both the U.S. and Canada in 1981. By hitting #1 on Billboard she remarkably became only the third Brit lady to have a #1 song in the States. Petula Clark and Lulu preceded her in that.

The popularity of the song made her decide to ditch the cold, misty moors and move to America (she now lives primarily in the Las Vegas area and became a U.S. citizen in ’92) and got her invited to sing for Bond…James Bond.

Continue reading “April 27 – Sheena Strutted To ’80s Superstardom”

April 11 – Country Wasn’t Big Enough For Stuart To Escape His Demons

We remember the birthday of Stuart Adamson, who would’ve turned 63 today.

Unfortunately, the main man of Big Country commit suicide in 2001 after a series of unfortunate events in quick succession left him depressed – his second marriage hit the rocks, he was facing a drunk driving charge and perhaps most significantly, the latest Big Country album, Driving to Damascus had flopped. It was the first of their career to not even make the top 50 in the UK (or elsewhere). Nonetheless, the man DJ John Peel once called “the new Jimi Hendrix” left behind a decent musical legacy, so much so that among the people eulogizing him was U2’s The Edge.

Stuart was best known as the singer and main force behind Scotland’s Big Country in the early and mid-’80s but he’d spent the last few years of his life in Nashville, working in a country-rock duo called The Raphaels and before Big Country, there was his teenage band Skids. They had a top 10 hit in the UK with “Into the Valley” in ’79 and one of their tunes was resurrected in a big way in 2006. “The Saints Are Coming” was performed by a super-group of Green Day with U2 , at an NFL game in New Orleans, which was trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina the previous year. the song was released as a single to raise money for the city and became a #1 hit in Australia and Ireland, and #2 in the UK (oddly it missed the top 40 in the U.S.). The song thus became the biggest (and most charitable) song written or co-written by Adamson, albeit doing so posthumously.

By the way, the tune most of us probably remember him by...”In a Big Country” by, yep, Big Country sounded archetypically Scottish. But those aren’t bagpipes we’re hearing, it’s Adamson’s Yamaha guitar. He attached a device called an MXR Pitch Transposer to it which lifted the sound up an octave and gave it that weird, bagpipes-like whine.