September 5 – The ‘Other’ Famous Scottish Stewart Storyteller

Maybe we’ll hear a song on the radio by this guy today. After all, it’s the day of the year of the cat…happy birthday Al Stewart! The literate Scottish folkie turns 77 today.

Last week we mentioned how there were two fine bands – the Proclaimers and Jesus & Mary Chain – that were built around a pair of Scottish brothers with the name “Reid.” Well, turns out there were also two highly successful Scottish singer/songwriters named “Stewart” who came into their own in the ’70s – Rod and Al. Rod sold more records and likely had more women swooning over him, but Stewart may have been the one who won critic’s hearts. He’s put out 19 studio albums from 1967 through 2008 but is best known for the album and single “Year of the Cat.” That album and its follow-up, Time Passages, both went platinum in the U.S. and gave him top 10 hits in the States and Canada with the title tracks. Stewart developed his musical chops as part of the London folk scene of the late-’60s along with Van Morrison and Cat Stevens, Andy Summers (who was in the Police years later) as well as briefly being Paul Simon’s roommate when the New Yorker moved to England. Along the way he played the first Glastonbury Festival, and met Alan Parsons, who produced a trio of his records including the two smash hit ones. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, when he switched producers in ’80 for 24 Carrots, sales dropped significantly.

Stewart’s singles seldom sound like conventional pop hits. He’s said “I don’t like repetition” when it comes to music and while others are singing about love and old Chevys, Stewart has written songs about things like travel (his two best known songs, “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” both refer to travel and being in exotic places) World War I battles, the Spanish Basque separation movement, Lord Mountbatten, Kurt Vonnegut novels and the French Revolution. As he puts it, “making a leap forward often entails taking a step backward.”

77 or not, he’s currently on the road, playing shows in Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois later this month and in Britain in October.

August 31 – Scotland’s Other Reid Brothers

What does a band who adored the Velvet Underground, Stooges and Siouxsie & the Banshees as well as the Monkees and Beach Boys sound like? Well, according to Paste, like “the midpoint between the Sex Pistols and Modern English.” Or at least they do if they were the Jesus and Mary Chain! They put out their second, and arguably best album, Darklands, on this day in 1987.

The Jesus and Mary Chain is essentially brothers Jim and William Reid, who grew up near Glasgow. Remarkably, they apparently are no relation to Craig and Charlie Reid, another pair of Scottish brothers we know as the Proclaimers. Although the Reids have utilized a number of other musicians in their band’s many years and incarnations, ultimately it usually comes down to just the two who write and sing the songs, play most of the guitars and at times produce their own records.

They’d been fans of the whole punk movement when teens, but didn’t get around to starting a band until 1983. William says “it was perfect timing. There weren’t any guitar bands, everybody was making this electronic pop music.” Well, his fellow countrymen Big Country might take issue with that but his general point was correct it would seem, at least in the north of Britain. At first they went by The Poppy Seeds but they changed to the name we know…although we don’t know where the name came from. They’d suggested it was a Bing Crosby line in a movie, which didn’t bear out , or that they saw a gold-colored “Jesus and Mary chain” offered as a gift for sending in a certain number of cereal box tops.

We may never know exactly where they came up with the name, but we do know they figured their first demo tape sounded too much like the Ramones. So they set out to write songs which were a bit more complex and then add in a lot of feedback and noise. This caught the ear of Indie label Creation Records, which signed them for a one-off single. That was “Upside Down,” and it was a minor hit. The NME, in typical British press form declared them “the best band in the world!”. That coupled with their shows around the UK got them signed to a Warner Bros. subsidiary, Blanco y Negro. Now, their shows weren’t necessarily great, but they were noteworthy. They had a fondness for speed and that paced their 20-minute sets, which often had them standing with their backs to the crowd. This sometimes led to bottles flying and rows taking place, and the press decided they were the “next Sex Pistols!”.

Their first album, Psychocandy, was a distortion and feedback-laced record which did fairly well at home for them. But they seemed to tire of that sound and the labeling, so for Darklands, they decided to lighten up just a little, despite the name. They brought in a drum machine to replace their real drummer, but relied less on sound effects and feedback for the ten song set. As David Hutcheon of Mojo noted, it was “as far as you could get” from their first album – “no feedback, acoustic guitars, audible lyrics” on songs like “Deep One Perfect Morning.” Paste would later declare “time has proven Darklands to be under-rated.” It got good reviews, then and now, with Rolling Stone and Spin both grading it 4-stars, and allmusic 4.5. The latter says “from a distance, this is an appealing, enjoyable record...’April Skies’ made for a great single and the soaring-in-spite-of-itself ‘Happy When it Rains’ was another winner.”

those two singles did indeed bolster the band’s fortunes and put them on the map a bit outside of the UK. “April Skies” in particular got to #8 at home and #6 in Ireland, their best-ever charting song in both lands, #16 in New Zealand and while not making the hit parade, it did get lots of airplay on North American college radio. Added in with the third single, the title track, it helped get the album to #5 in Britain where it went gold.

The Reids still work together at times, putting out five albums since Darklands, although only one of those has come this century. They most recently were in the news last year when they sued Warner Bros. over copyright issues involving Psychocandy

July 19 – Pilot Flew Big Hit Over From Scotland

Pilot were flying high! The Scottish band hit #1 in Canada this day in 1975 with their iconic single, “Magic.”

To North Americans it is the most-famous song for the band which many consider a one-hit wonder; the single was also top 5 in the U.S. and went gold in both countries. At home in the UK, however, it got to #11 but they soon had a much bigger hit with “January” (a #1 there and Australia.) “Magic” was off Pilot’s debut album; they’d end up putting out four from ’74 to ’77 before splitting up, with occasional reunion’s since.

“Magic” was indeed that, a perfectly catchy and well-produced single that has lived on on retro radio stations, movies like Herbie Fully Loaded and in ads ranging from Pilsbury rolls to pharmaceutical meds. The spot-on production is no surprise – Alan Parsons was in the studio in control of the dials. The catchy chorus (which shows up four times in the song) was distinctive, and the playing spot-on. It was written by David Paton (who played guitar and sang the lead vocals) and the keyboardist, Billy Lyall. Paton had been in the Bay City Rollers briefly (before they became teen idols) and he and Ian Bairnson from Pilot worked on Kate Bush’s debut album before essentially disappearing from the scene. They might have disappeared, but the song hasn’t. Nor did the title. Within a decade of their hit, Olivia Newton John and the Cars each also had top 10 hits titled “Magic”, all of them different from each other.

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.”