Belle and Sebastian, Britpop, Chantal Meteor 200 Jukebox, Franz Ferdinand, Humor, Josef K, Midge Ure, Music, National Museum of Scotland, Nostalgia, Orange Juice, Originality, Pop Music, Postcard Records, Rip It Up: The Story of Scottish Pop, Wee Red Bar, Young Fathers
“Your music belongs in a museum” is not, I think, a compliment. Nonetheless, most of the exhibits in Rip It Up: The Story of Scottish Pop come to look surprisingly at home amidst the augustness of the National Museum of Scotland. By the time that you have made it to the eighties, the natural unease of this exhibition has completely dissipated and Rip It Up seems very worthwhile.
One can relive the history of Scottish pop by simply playing a load of songs on YouTube. We should expect more from a curated exhibition, therefore, than just a playlist. To account for pop music with instruments and glitzy costumes might be like trying to convey what the sea is by exhibiting snorkelling equipment. Can you really access and inhabit the glamour of, say, the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” by perusing some old guitars?
Rip It Up actually makes a lot of headway here, in that the art that it chooses to evoke its music is often very beautiful. Or more beautiful than you might think and with a sensitive, rather thoughtful beauty. To wit, Gerry Rafferty is represented by an acoustic guitar that was gorgeously hand painted for him by the artist John Byrne, with dreamy figures floating in sinister, vaguely moonlit colours. Lulu has donated a trouser suit in cool forest green with gold lacing, which is so quaint that it could be an artefact from some faerie civilisation. Likewise, there is a weirdly wrought piano that was made by or for KT Tunstall, and a just as magical-looking schalmei, or hydra-headed horn, that the Beta Band had apparently brought back from Eastern Europe. It was no doubt sold to them by the Devil disguised in gypsy costume. “Like a candy he spoke in orchidic conversation,” a line from a Postcard Records press release, could furnish an epigraph for entire sections of this show.
That said, you occasionally wish that Rip It Up could be practical in its sensibilities as well as artistic. The Chantal Meteor 200 jukebox, with its body standing pert in sugar-plum purple and chrome, is unmistakably a work of art. It is admittedly smaller than YouTube, with a mere two hundred songs in its repository, but its stylishness gives it the decided edge. An overhead mirror allows you to peer through its transparent carapace and into its insides, which resemble those of some incomprehensible loom from early in the industrial revolution. We never get to listen to it, however, since the accompanying headphones are instead plugged into a disconnected digital playlist. Mightn’t we want to hear how good the jukebox’s speakers sound? Is there no way of funnelling 1950s coinage through its mechanism to keep the discs spinning?
Other promising exhibits are similarly lacking in practical information. The Amek Einstein Super E mixing console looks formidable, but there is no explanation of what it does exactly. It is raised on a platform away from our curious eyes and caressing hands. The Franz Ferdinand stall features “robotic dancers” but after studying them for a time I decide that they must be merely mannequins with some limited degree of automation. It is not clear how they work and I cannot understand why they could not have been activated for us.
Such an emphasis on art favours musicians with more visual flair. So Franz Ferdinand and the Beta Band both get a caravan-sized helping of exhibition space, whilst the famously dull Travis, who must have shifted a hundred times more units than the Beta Band ever did, get a car boot. Yet this exhibition has, in the main, undertaken a scrupulous audit of Scotland’s pop music. Rip It Up unpacks the history and lays out the contents fairly and respectfully, regardless of how off-putting you might judge some of them to be. By far the funniest exhibit is a letter to Midge Ure from Prince Charles, commending the success of the Band Aid single. The hapless do-gooder (the Prince, I mean) suggests that Midge’s next song could address Africa’s need for “the right sort of farming methods… irrigation schemes and, above all, family planning.” A celebrity singalong of The Wurzels’ “I’ve Got A Brand New Combine Harvester” would cover most of these bases.
Where there are injustices around the allocation of exhibition space, they invariably concern two wall brackets that mimic a display in a record store. Artists are profiled on the loose plastic boards that fill in as the vinyl sleeves. To confine the chart-topping Calvin Harris to this bin of ignominy smacks of open snobbery. In the comments book outside the exhibition, several visitors are also kicking off about the Cocteau Twins receiving such a treatment. Curiously, I couldn’t locate any mention of anything that Edwyn Collins had done after Orange Juice, including his super-single “A Girl Like You.” I suspect that there must be a story behind this.
So Rip It Up doesn’t fawn over big names and one sometimes alights upon very precious details that would be overlooked if it was curated by an algorithm. Here I find a kind of intimacy stealing over me or the feeling that an ever deeper inroad is being cut into my memories, over scrappy alleyways that have until now always seemed like private lanes.
When the chief curator Stephen Allen propounds the view that Ballboy “should be playing arenas,” this masters the necessary obscurism and it reassures me that there is the correct quality of judgement overseeing the exhibition. Ballboy were the first band that I ever saw in concert (literally – they were the support) and I thereafter went to their gigs routinely. Midway through the exhibition, I am astonished to see a poster for a show by Uncle John and Whitelock, who I had encountered by accident at T in the Park and who I have been brooding about ever since. I had assumed that I was the last person left who still actively remembered them. Next, I come across a poster for Edinburgh’s Wee Red Bar, which I have, in my time, ornamented as a barman. Somebody (the WRB’s Colvin Cruickshank isn’t credited) had designed this poster for a Proclaimers’ anti-Apartheid benefit back in 1985. When I kept the bar at this institution, me and my fellow workers were awed that Colvin had made some of its posters at a time when we were children or even gametes. It was a shock that he wasn’t the same age as us.
In a stroke of genius, Rip It Up has salvaged the ticket display board from the window of Ripping Records, which, when tickets were bought in shops, and when I went to a gig every other week, I would regularly consult to learn about my next adventure. It is as if I have suprised an old friend. For a second there is that flickering scramble to remember where I am – am I here in the museum or suddenly back there standing in Nicholson Street? But this will have to stop – I hate nostalgia! – I can’t abide Stranger Things! All nostalgia is hallucinatory and false consciousness and it involves switching off some of the most important regions of the brain. Yes, this will have to stop!
At the place where I currently work, there is a radio in the kitchen and it is permanently tuned to Absolute Radio 90s. Its medley of songs by Blur, Radiohead, and Supergrass is, as I frequently harangue the younger chefs, irretrievably out of sync with what really went on in the nineties. No commercial radio station would have had such a playlist back then and, if it did, the DJs would have been promptly replaced.
Back then, you would need to be prepared to listen to daytime radio for an hour if you wanted to hear a particular song that was any good. I can remember waiting through the cycles of synonymous adverts for car insurance, the spiritless “banter” that the DJs were then prized for, and the tediously empowered Ibiza “anthems,” before, finally, the four-minute relief of – whatever it was – probably something by Sheryl Crow. This was what we had back then instead of the internet and we lived in a poverty that is now unimaginable. If anybody is still harking back to the nineties, they need serious psychiatric help.
I am uncertain that when people valued Scottish music during the eighties and nineties, they did so due to its Scottishness. To understand this, see how Trainspotting, a bastion of Scottish cultural nationalism, has been written out of Rip It Up because, aside from one song from Primal Scream, they had forgotten to put any Scottish music on its soundtrack. It was 1996 and Edinburgh’s streets were being coolly configured with music from Iggy Pop, Pulp, Blur, New Order and Underworld.
Nostalgia is indiscriminate and it will gild anything that it touches, however undeserving. I can, for example, pour nostalgically over photographs of a hospital where I was held in traction for ten weeks as a teenager. Were it ever possible to dim nostalgia’s lights on Rip It Up, then what would we actually see?
We might judge this exhibition to confirm that Scottish pop has not in fact produced any leading innovator, a Beefheart or a Talking Heads or a DJ Shadow. The phrase “rip it up” is, in this respect, tantamount to a delusion of grandeur. Rather than ripping up the rules, Scottish music has largely copied them and it is derivative through and through.
Postcard Records is probably as original as it gets, though even here it comes across as a distant, fruity suburb of Manchester. Scottish popstars were at their most energetic during Britpop, a guitar-laden movement that was itself nostalgic and a spinoff of bygone music. Franz Ferdinand is a case in point. Some residual power from Postcard’s licentiates is stored up in Franz’s lightly cushioned, carefully weighted Britpop punches. They look like Josef K and they sound like Blur and the general effect is of numbers from a bouncy musical about Postcard Records that are being performed by Blur. There is nothing solid within all the dancing air, a truth mercilessly commemorated in the Misty’s Big Adventure takedown “Fashion Parade.”
Rip It Up admittedly avoids the complacent, self-congratulatory attitude that now prevails almost everywhere within the Scottish arts. Its curator is a Liverpudlian who has cultivated an encyclopaedic knowledge about Scottish music. Despite a sensitive handling of the tensions between nationalism and unionism, an inevitable trouble with this exhibition’s format is that Scotland is made to look like a mere receiver of outside influences. A signed card from David Bowie and a tour tee-shirt that Nirvana gave to Eugenius testify to faraway approval, but there is no sense that Scotland’s music had exerted any real power beyond its own borders. Indeed, it appears that Scotland had transmitted little more than genes, with one section of Rip It Up noting Rod Stewart’s and AC/DC’s blood ties to the old nation.
The provinciality of Scottish pop is indicated by the fact that it was not until 2008 that it recruited a band that sounded as modern as Young Fathers. Without Young Fathers, this exhibition would be in the most tremendous trouble. It would look as white as the European Union. Young Fathers are summoned as emergency evidence in the final minutes, as though the exhibition is in a courtroom drama and on the verge of being convicted of racism. Orange Juice’s multiracial line-up, and the visibility of Zeke Manyika in the video for “Rip It Up,” also probably explains why this tune is fronting the exhibition.
Still, if one can perceive any unique essence to Scottish pop, then it might very well be its cheerfulness. Orange Juice, the Eurythmics, Belle and Sebastian, Franz Ferdinand, Texas and (the sort-of Scottish band) Garbage are all fizzy fun from top to toe. The sincerity of Young Fathers and the sticky tragedy of Frightened Rabbit seem like a recent aberration. I am not sure that Scottish pop is capable of producing a Nirvana or a Radiohead or the soaring solemnity that usually fills the world’s football stadiums. If Nina Simone was Scottish, she could have made “My Baby Just Cares For Me” but she couldn’t have made “Sinnerman.” If the Pixies were Scottish, they could have made “Here Comes Your Man” but not “River Euphrates.” Nevertheless the frivolity of the periphery is not bad as a consolation. Belle and Sebastian answered the pompousness of Britpop with a child’s recorder and some maddeningly fey lyrics. It is the same with Travis’ daftly plodding “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” which is, if you ignore the words, spectacularly sunny.
If pop’s next great innovator happens to live in Scotland, then I am sceptical that the history of Scottish pop will supply them with a helpful resource. There ought to be a lot more ripping up than humming along. But it would be nice if the next big thing stayed fun as well.