The Glasgow School
You’d never know it from listening to, say, the latest Camera Obscura album, but indie pop used to be punk. Back when the music took its first shambling steps at the turn of the ’70s, even Joey and Dee Dee would have recognized it as their own. Indie pop was all about amateurism, enthusiasm, and making things up as you went along. Its lowest common denominator was tunefulness. Otherwise, it was as edgy and restless as any emerging scene—so much so that, a few years later, fanzines declared the ascendance of “throwaway pop” and gave the stuff away on ephemerally fragile flexi discs. From Television Personalities to Talulah Gosh, bands were presumed to be making music exclusively as a way of living for the moment. It was punk’s no future recast as futurism: Burn the libraries, starting in the A/V department.
Or, as Orange Juice put it, “No more rock ’n’ roll for you!” Rock was the worst—a clutch of empty old myths of the sort that sharp, postmodern people don’t put much stock in: Originality. Timelessness. Virtuosity as a virtue unto itself. If the punk revolution were to mean anything, it had to be viewed as something other than a ritual purification. It had to be seen not as a return to the rock ’n’ roll past, but as an escape from it. In the early ’80s, you had to justify still holding onto that guitar and playing that love song somehow.
More than two decades on, postpunk has gone mainstream and rock is on the rise again. There aren’t many of those flexis that haven’t actually been thrown away. And though indie pop still jangles, it almost never fuzzes or flails anymore. If it isn’t exactly pro, it’s at least sophisticated-seeming enough to complement your cultural totems: Belmondo poster, Brautigan novel, Eames rocker. No, circa-2005 indie pop doesn’t sound much like Orange Juice at all. Not like the Orange Juice the Smiths copped from. Not like the Orange Juice Franz Ferdinand betrayed by putting so much cock-swingin’ swagger into “Take Me Out.”
New early-OJ compilation The Glasgow School—the first such disc in years, and the long-defunct band’s first U.S. release—probably won’t help. To ears raised on Pro Tools and Stereolab, it’ll sound like ass. Copies of OJ’s celebrated 1980 debut single, “Falling and Laughing,” now sell for a good deal more than the 98 pounds that were spent recording it, but who in his right mind would blow so much money on such a mess? Powered by an overreaching funk bass line and some unconscionably effected disco hi-hats, it’s nearly done in by singer Edwyn Collins’ adenoidal basso buffo and James Kirk’s pallid lead-guitar work. Upon hearing the song for the first time, one 20-something D.C. noisenik suggested that it contains “the most testosteroneless guitar sound ever.”
Of course, that might well have been the point—it’s often hard to tell where economic necessity leaves off and ideology takes over when listening to early OJ. But charm makes both a lack of funds and an overabundance of ideas go down easier, and these guys had an almost alchemical way of generating it. Collins’ lyrics, for example, expand the details of romantic longing into both existential propositions and, more often than you might think, statements of anti-rock purpose. On “Falling and Laughing”—here’s where Morrissey was listening—they suggest that angst might be better expressed through humor than volume, and that ridiculing oneself might be more interesting than ridiculing others. “So I’m standing here so lonesome/What can I do but learn to laugh at myself?” sings Collins, nearly doing just that in the first line. Typical, his letting us know exactly how aware he is that he might be getting a bit grandiose.
“Blue Boy,” the group’s second single, is less encumbered—make that enlivened—by such self-awareness, despite its protagonist’s habit of ignoring women so he can better pay attention to a singer. It rumbles in on a martial snare part that almost sounds menacing, though it’s played by the same drummer—current Vanity Fair contributing editor Steven Daly, whose eccentric timekeeping usually guarantees that a song’s ambition-trumps-ability spirit is at least as appealing as its tune. Once things get going, the band does loud-soft-loud with enough control to anticipate the Pixies at their rawest. It is, as Daly writes in the liner notes, a “rare example of Orange Juice admitting that ‘rock’ could be a verb.”
“Poor Old Soul” was Orange Juice’s last record for Postcard, the label/art project Collins acolyte Alan Horne had established as a home for the band and like-minded outfits such as Josef K and Aztec Camera. Flip side “Poor Old Soul Part Two”—for which rhythm guitarist Collins and bassist David McClymont traded instruments, with predictably roughed-up results—is the one with the middle-eight announcing that there’ll be no more rock ’n’ roll. But there was more than a bit of rockism sneaking into the band’s wimpy funk. Daly in particular sounds as if he was locked in a room ’til he got it right, and the backing vocals would make the Jordanaires, if not proud, at least not wince. By this time, the band’s critical profile had risen to such a degree that a big-time label was willing to take a chance on the burgeoning Scottish indie scene’s standard bearer. Soon enough, London-to-Glasgow flights were nicknamed “the A&R Express” as the majors began searching for the next Orange Juice, even though the preceding one hadn’t, in commercial terms, sold any records yet.
Included here are several of the best songs from the scrapped Ostrich Churchyard, which eventually became 1982’s significantly slicker, Polydor-released You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever: “Consolation Prize,” “In a Nutshell,” “Three Cheers,” “Satellite City.” The first starts with some repurposed rockabilly, segues into Collins’ admitting “I wore my fringe like Roger McGuinn’s/I wore it hoping to impress,” and finishes with the singer conceding, over and over, “I’ll never be man enough for you.” The last is the band at its most straightforwardly postpunk, Kirk’s guitar scrubbing away and McClymont’s bass coming to the fore in a mode that will be familiar to any A Certain Ratio fan. (Distinctive OJ touch? The witty tinkling of what sounds like a toy piano.) For some unfathomable reason, though, hands-down Forever classic “Felicity” didn’t make the cut, even though it falls within The Glasgow School’s Postcard-era purview: Its original release was with “Falling and Laughing,” on, yes, a free flexi disc. You’ll have to imagine for yourself how its frantic guitars and urgent, tuneless vocals influenced the Wedding Present—and, by extension, a good deal of early-’90s U.S. indie, both pop and rock.
Although Forever still sounds odd and energetic even now, its songs lack the intimacy of their Churchyard versions. Soul ballad “Nutshell” comes across about the same, its lush chorus of female backup singers the only real evidence of spending more than a day at a time in the studio. But Kirk’s more exuberant “Cheers” loses its rather endearing syncopation, despite the addition of guiro and finger snaps. On Forever’s version of “Satellite City,” punched up with Stax-y horns and nearly unrecognizable, Collins seems to be lamenting such changes: “I can remember the halcyon days,” he sings. “We leapt onstage though we couldn’t play.” Neither line is in the original.
Aztec Camera, Strawberry Switchblade, Del Amitri—the roll call of Weegie bands that jumped from recording the random song in grubby bed-sits to making albums in real-deal studios looks, in hindsight, like pure rock-biz folly. Rock is about the hall of fame and the greatest-hits package. Pop, fleeting even at its best, is about the secret influence and the great lost B-side. Rock proceeds by ignoring the fact that everything has been done before. Pop—the Orange Juice variety, at least—goes forward by glorifying that fact, reviving familiar sounds and themes, recombining them, and asking us to believe they’re new again for no longer than a miraculous few minutes. The Glasgow School is a wondrous resurrection—all the more so because we know it won’t last. CP