There was an ancient encased clock, all polished brass and varnished wood, that kept time in the foyer outside the main hall at the old Irvine Royal Aademy. Set into the wall, it was part of the very fabric of the school and when I was a pupil there in the mid 80s it looked as old as the school itself, a building erected in 1901 to replace the original school that had become too small for the growing population of the town. The old clock, they said, had been part of that original school and was moved across as the centrepiece for the new school. Bells rang on the hours it chimed. Exams crawled past in the minutes it ticked. The headmaster’s busy footsteps echoed in time through the hall as each second swung past to and fro on the metronomic pendulum. The old school has long-since closed, converted into turn of the century offices for businesses keen to impress, but I’ll bet the old timepiece still determines when meetings start and finish, when deals are concluded and the working day is over.
The clock, they also said, was the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit And The Pendulum, his gothic horror story about a prisoner trapped in his cell during the Spanish Inquisition. The pendulum wipes away the minutes of the prisoner’s life as he tries to come to terms with and then escape from his situation. You should probably read it.
Edgar Allan Poe spent time in Irvine and was around when the original school was opened, so I like to think there’s some truth in the ‘they say’ story. If you’re a local or are familiar with the town, Poe stayed in an upstairs room in the building that is now James Irvine’s solicitor’s office at the Cross. Anyway….
The Pit And The Pendulum also makes an appearance as a line in the Beach Boys’ 1971 under-played classic Surf’s Up. From the album of the same name, the title track is a weird and wonky, dark and dense tour de force. The song’s genesis stretches back to Brian Wilson’s troubled period when he composed on a piano inside a sandpit on his living room floor. With music by Wilson and oblique, stream of consciousness lyrics by Van Dyke Parks (it’s about spiritual awakening, they say), it was to be part of the Smile album, but after that album was shelved, Surf’s Up lay unheard for 5 years before being revived as the titular closing track, a title loaded with inference that the early cars ‘n girls ‘n fun fun fun Beach Boys was very much a thing of the past.
Here’s the Smile demo:
Beach Boys – Surf’s Up (piano demo)
…and here’s the finished version that closed the Surf’s Up album; sleigh bells, percussion that sounds like rattling jewellery and stack after stack of those signature rich, thick Beach Boys’ harmonies in the close-out.
Beach Boys – Surf’s Up
It’s a good album, Surf’s Up. Save the hokey 12 bar blues Student Demonstration Time that closes the first side, it’s packed full of sad melodies, ahead-of-it’s-time eco-friendly messages and home to one of the finest songs in the Beach Boys’ canon, the Bruce Johnston-led Disney Girls (1957).
Beach Boys – Disney Girl’s (1957)
Also worth investiagting if you’ve never heard it before is ‘Til I Die, Brian Wilson’s whimsical, autobiographical address to the state of his health. I’m a cork on the ocean, it goes, floating over the raging sea. How deep is the ocean? I lost my way. It’s soul music, Jim, but not as we know it.
Beach Boys – ‘Til I Die
Here’s Brian in the middle of a Surf’s Up recording session wearing his pyjamas.
Six Of The Best is a semi-regular feature that pokes, prods and persuades your favourite bands, bards and barometers of hip opinion to tell us six of the best tracks they’ve ever heard. The tracks could be mainstream million-sellers or they could be obfuscatingly obscure, it doesn’t matter. The only criteria set is that, aye, they must be Six of the Best. Think of it like a mini, groovier version of Desert Island Discs…
“If I could be in any band,” enthused Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, “I’d be in BMX Bandits.” Not The Beatles. Not Black Sabbath. Not Led Zeppelin. But BMX Bandits, the cult band from Bellshill in Lanarkshire. This was no small claim. Back in 1992 when Nirvana was omnipresent, Kurt Cobain was in turmoil with himself. Months previously, his band had released Nevermind, the epoch-defining multi-million seller crammed full of Beatles-meets-Sabbath by way of Zeppelin radio-friendly slacker anthems, an album that would in time make Nirvana as definitive as some of those very acts.
With a record company keen to milk the band for all they were worth, Cobain withdrew. Commercialism wasn’t a game he was keen to play. His two fellow band mates, the drummer in particular, were much more comfortable with their sudden and quite unexpected lofty status, but not Kurt. He sought solace in the music he wished he was able to put out; lo-fi, fragile, arty, tinged with pathos and a punk sensibility, but most of all, played and recorded for fun. Fun, it seems, was in inverse proportion to Nirvana’s record sales. It’s not hard to see why the poster boy for 90’s disaffected youth held a flame for BMX Bandits. His favourite band, led by the enigmatic Duglas T Stewart has all those things in spades.
Kurt in his ‘Fat Elvis’ phase
“We’re just one of those bands,” summarises Duglas T Stewart, Bandit-in-chief for 30+ years and curator of one of our most-loved musical collectives, “that’s historically been lucky enough to have had, throughout all the line-up changes, great musicians. Norman Blake….Stu Kidd….Jim McCulloch….Francis MacDonald….Eugene Kelly…. Regardless of who they go off and play with, they’ll always remain a part of this band. Being in BMX Bandits is a bit like a stay at the Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave!
Norman ‘left’in 1992, but has contributed to every album since, up until the new one (‘BMX Bandits Forever’, released May 26th). Both he and Eugene have said that the happiest times they’ve had making music was when they were in BMX Bandits. It’s a chance to step out of the limelight for a wee while, take side stage rather than centrestage. I think that’s what maybe appealed to Kurt when he said what he said.”
To celebrate the release of BMX Bandits Forever, Duglas and co-vocalist Chloe Philip will lead their renegade 7-piece band in a couple of rare live outings. They’ll play the small-but-perfect Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine on the 18th March and following the album’s release, they’ll celebrate with a launch gig on May 27th at St Luke’s in Glasgow.
The Irvine date is particularly appealing, given that it’s 25 years since BMX Bandits last played the town. On that occassion, they played atop a flat-bed truck stage outside the famous Ship Inn, coincidentally next door to the HAC.
Back then, Duglas and co. were just one of the many bands who found time to veer left at Glasgow and fit in a date on the Ayrshire coast. In recent years, it’s sadly, frustratingly, been less of a thing.
“I’ve really vivid memories of that Irvine show,” recalls Duglas. “You tend to remember the more unusual shows. Eugenius were on the same bill. Gordon and Eugene were both ex-Bandits, so lots of our pals were there. There was no holding back with the audience. Sometimes at a Glasgow or Edinburgh show, the crowd can be a wee bit too cool for school. But the Irvine audience just went for it.
It was a great time to be BMX Bandits. We’d just released ‘Life Goes On’, our first album for Creation and our stock was high. Alan McGee kept saying, ‘You’re gonnae be a hit! You’ll be in the charts!’ I’ve friends who’ve been lucky enough to have had singles, or in the case of Eugene who had Nirvana covering his songs and Joe (McAlinden) who did very nicely on the back of Rod Stewart recording one of his, friends who’ve made a lot of money from songwriting. I’m genuinely happy for them – we’ve all come from the same musical background, so in a funny way, their success is also my success.
‘Serious Drugs’ was the big BMX Bandits hit that never was. It was melodic, but it was still noisy, with loud guitars to the fore, yet totally non-macho. It flew in the face of what was hip at the time. Paul Weller has said since it’s the best single ever released on Creation and Radio 1 went so far as to A-List it, guaranteeing it so many plays a day. Unfortunately for us, its release coincided with Radio 1’s Anti-Drugs Week. A song called Serious Drugs, even if its message is very anti-drugs, could never be played over the week, so it had kinda flopped before it even had the chance to be a massive hit. Ironically, The Shamen chose to release ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ the very same week, a song that very clearly promotes drug use…..and Radio 1 found nothing wrong with it.
The view from the stage, BMX Bandits live in Irvine, July 1992
That Irvine gig 25 years ago was, if memory serves me correctly, a really great gig. On a patch of land overlooking the harbour, 1000+ folk (the picture above doesn’t do it justice, believe me!) momentarily turned our wee part of the world into the best place on the planet. The Harbour Arts Centre holds just a fraction of that audience, and amazingly, there are still a handful of tickets left for their upcoming show. Will BMX Bandits once again turn our wee part of the world into the best place on the planet? You better believe it!
Ahead of the upcoming shows and album release, Duglas took time out from rehearsing – “We don’t rehearse too much, actually. I tend to find you can over-rehearse and by the day of the show, you’ve lost something. You don’t want it too smooth. It’s better being a wee bit rough around the edges” – to talk about his favourite tracks. When he sent these through to me, they came with the caveat that he’d likely pick a different set of songs next week. “Had you asked me last week, Jonathan Richman would definitely have been in there, but these tracks are the ones that’ve stuck with me for years.”
Paul Williams – Someday Man
Paul Williams is incredibly well-known in the States, but in the UK, there’s next to zero knowledge of him. His songs have been a big, big part of my life. He wrote the songs for The Muppets’ Christmas Carol, an album that’s had as much influence on me as any rock album. He wrote ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ and ‘Rainy Days And Mondays’ for The Carpenters….The Rainbow Connection….the soundtrack to Bugsy Malone. I’ve only ever watched that film I think twice, but I know all the songs. He won an Oscar for ‘Evergreen’, the theme song for ‘A Star Is Born’, sung by Barbra Streisand. He even collaborated on the last Daft Punk album. Everything he’s been involved in has real heart.
Paul Williams – Someday Man
Someday Man is mind-blowing. You might know it from The Monkees’ version, but the original has a real gravitas and depth. It’s got that Wrecking Crew kinda feel. The changes of tempo! The not knowing where it’ll go next! The overall feeling you get when you listen to it is one of poignancy and hope.
Beach Boys – The Night Was So Young
This is my favourite track from my favourite Beach Boys’ album (1977’s Beach Boys Love You). It’s an album held in high esteem. Alex Chilton said it was his favourite Beach Boys’ album too. And Brian Wilson told me it was his!
Beach Boys – The Night Was So Young
Brian wanted people to feel loved when listening to his music. Music was everything – it was sanctuary. As someone who was incredibly messed up, in the early years by his father, in the later years by bad management, Brian wrote this for himself. It’s a beautiful track. It embraces you. You can sit late at night listening to it, alone, but you’re not totally alone. ‘The Night Was So Young’ comforts you. It’s an aural cuddle.
The Shangri-Las – Give Him A Great Big Kiss
The Shangri Las are my favourite-ever girl group. There’s two distinct sides to them; the celebration songs and the melodramatic heartbreakers. They said more in their songs than film makers with a big budget can do in 2 hours. These songs are movies without pictures, over and done with in 2 and a half minutes.
The Shangri-Las – Give Him A Great Big Kiss
The use of reverb and sound effects, the spoken-word sections, the delivery… it could fall into pastiche, but Mary Weiss makes it real. I love the call-and-response vocals. ‘What colour are his eyes? I dunno – he’s always wearin’ shades.’ The best bit though? ‘Dirty fingernails – Oh what a prize!’ Hahaha! How dreamy! Shangri Las’ records are full of excitement, joy, humour and musical twists. There’s been no-one ever quite like them since.
Robert Mellin & Gian-Piero Reverberi – The Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe
This piece of music is responsible for some of my earliest musical memories, of music affecting me deeply. How could sad, beautiful music make me feel good? I’ve spoken to Jarvis Cocker and he’s told me he feels the same way whenever he hears it.
In the early days of primary school, they’d show The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe during the school holidays. As it was a French-language programme, the BBC re-dubbed it and decided to replace the original score/theme tune with Robert Mellin and Gian-Piero Reverberi’s piece – a vast improvement on the original. I can’t remember much of the actual show, but the music, and the emotions it created, has stayed with me. It’s sad and sentimental. It’s uncontrollable. It’s the key to what I’ve always tried to do with my own music.
Bill Wells featuring Lorna Gilfedder – My Family
At less than a year old, this is my most contemporary choice. Bill lives, eats, drinks, breathes and, yes, dreams music. He’s an extraordinary talent. He’s collaborated with a whole host of interesting artists; Yo La Tengo, Future Pilot AKA, Norman Blake…. a whole bunch of people. His Aidan Moffat collaboration was on a completely different level of brilliance. Really terrific.
Bill’s a jazz guy, and not conservative by any means. Despite its appearance as wild and free, jazz is actually quite conservative and lead by certain rules. Bill’s an outsider who went against the grain of jazz. He finds sad beauty in music. He has the saddest chords. Unusual rhythmic ideas. He has a knack of spotting the right people to work with.
If arranged differently, this track could be a massive hit for a contemporary soul diva. As it is, it’s a very understated piece, with the least earnest, not over-emoted in the slightest vocal you’ll hear on a contemporary piece of music. The singing is understated in a Peggy Lee/Frank Sinatra kinda way, and the track is all the better for it. Bill is easily one of the giants in music today.
Jigsaw – Who Do You Think You Are
This has been done a couple of times, of course, by Candlewick Green and Saint Etienne, but the original is the best. It’s the kinda song I want to write! It’s like an actual jigsaw puzzle, where all the individual parts come together into one great picture of sound.
When you first hear it, you’re thinking, ‘That’s a great verse!’, ‘That’s a great chorus!’, ‘Woah! That’s NOT the chorus – it’s only the pre-chorus! HERE’S the chorus! Wow! This is terrific!’
It all comes together in a fantastic rush of melodies and counter melodies, call and response vocals, keyboards replicating backing vocals, melody versus melody. Everything fits together beautifully. And look at them! They didn’t want to look like the cool guys, they just wanted to have great music. Not fashionable, but always great. Just like the BMX Bandits.
Great choices, eh? Very Duglas, but perhaps pleasantly surprising at the same time. As I said to Duglas during our conversation, hunting down some of these records is going to cost me a fortune. I’ll be keeping a spare tenner though, for the upcoming show in Irvine. Maybe I’ll see you down the front.
Cor! Eh? You beauty! (Nudge, Nudge). Knowotoimean? (Adopts Sid James cackly wheeze). I mean, ‘oo wouldn’t? Eh? Eh! Ow’s yer father? Eh? Eh? She’d get it! And no mistake! Let’s slip into sumfink more comfortable, shall we?
Yeah, let’s slip into something more comfortable. Like the honeyed tones of La Cracknell and her backing band of boffins and beard strokers tackling some of the finest moments in thinking man’s pop. With mixed results. Saint Etienne annoy me. Not in the way that wasps annoy me. Or paper rustlers in the cinema. Or blue-blooded ‘n bigoted Rangers fans. Or those paranoid green-tinted Cel’ic supporters and their uncouth manager after a decision goes against them. But Saint Etienne get my goat. I can’t put my finger on it or tell you exactly why. There’s no one reason. I’ve got tons of their stuff, vinyl and CD, bought in faithful chronological order as and when released, up to a point around How We Used To Live. I’ve always liked their way with a sixties-inspired piece of London pop and the sly wink of an eye towards the reference points therein. They’re a true ‘record collection’ band, that’s for sure, but with that comes a feeling that they’re just a wee bit too hip for their own good, just a shade too arch for those in the know and slightly smug in the knowledge that no-one is quite like them. Suffering from something of an identity crisis, they’re too ‘indie’ for pop when they themselves’d probably consider themselves too pop even for pop.
That said, they probably wet their collective knickers when asked to produce a version of Kylie covered Nothing Can Stop Us with a coolness that even Sarah would find difficult to cultivate. This was Kylie BH (Before Hot Pants), the Kylie of mid 90s hell, when only Nicky Wire and ironic students paid her any attention. And here she was, covering obscure, non-charting singles built around old Dusty Springfield samples. Of course. Great version, Kylie! Really!
Saint Etienne’s best known cover is surely Only Love Can Break Your Heart, a pre-Cracknell track where they dismantled whiny old Neil Young’s campfire strumalong of angst and re-tooled it as a Soul II Soul-styled shuffler for the dancefloor. But you knew that already. Dig deeper into the Saint Etienne ouvre and you’ll find all manner of cover versions. Available on the rare-as-can-be fanclub-only Boxette, you’ll find their version of David Bowie‘s Absolute Beginners. I saw them do this live, at the Mayfair in Glasgow, with a pre-fame Pulp supporting. I’ll need to dig out the ticket some time, as the band’s name is written as St Etiene, with one ‘n’. Anyway, their version was rubbish that night (no Bowie aping bap-bap-ba-ooos, surely the best bit?) and the studio version, despite the inclusion of the aforementioned bap-bap-ba-ooos, remains kinda rubbish to this day. Some shouty sampled bit or other by the boys whilst Sarah sounds like a Dalek on downers. Not their finest moment. Maybe they should’ve tackled The Jam track of the same name instead.
On the Deluxe Edition of So Tough, you’ll find them having a go at Teenage Fanclub‘s Everything Flows. A staple of TFC’s live set since their first gig, Fannies fans froth at the mouth for its meandering Neil Youngesque solos and melancholic ruminations on life. Saint Etienne, surely having a laugh at our expense, render it practically unlistenable. Now, some folks say that the best cover versions are when the band takes the song and makes it their own (see, for example, Only Love Can Break Your Heart), but when the heart and soul of the track (in this case the insistent, wailing guitars) are replaced by synth washes and a politely skittering drum machine so bland a yoga teacher would have trouble chilling out to them, well, you can imagine….
Going some way to redeem themselves, this year found Saint Etienne taking a shot at the holiest of holies, TheBeach Boys‘ Wouldn’t It Be Nice. It‘s not bad – starting acapella before morphing into a soft focus mush of warm harmonies, ticking clocks and half-speed backing tapes, keen scholars of Wilson pop will easily spot the odd nod to the Smile-ear Barnyard amongst the mix. See – they’re too fucking smart for their own good, that Saint Etienne.
‘Screamadelica’ by Primal Scream is a modern classic. From the cover art on the outside to the last faded twinkling bit of percussion on the digitized grooves of ‘Shine Like Stars’ it’s as landmark an album to my generation as ‘Revolver’ was to my dad’s. Possibly. It’s also one of a number of albums where the title track is missing. Led Zepppelin‘s ‘Houses Of the Holy’ wasn’t on the album of the same name. You can find that track on ‘Physical Graffiti’. The Doors‘ ‘Waiting For The Sun’ is on 1970’s ‘Morrison Hotel’, released 2 years after the album of the same name. And Primal Scream‘s ‘Screamadelica‘ isn’t on the ‘Screamadelica’ album. But it should’ve been. What was already a great album would have become a really great album.
Dixi Narco ep cover
‘Screamadelica’ (the track) is a 10 minute potted history of everything Primal Scream were about in 1992. It was released on the ‘Dixie Narco’ ep to promote the album. The lead track ‘Movin’ On Up’ took all the plaudits (and the airplay), but if you kept your record spinning past the pseudo-druggy ‘Stone My Soul’ and the barely-recognisable, electric piano ‘n’ pedal steel cover of Dennis Wilson‘s ‘Carry Me Home’*, you’d’ve found ‘Screamadelica’. Produced by Andrew Weatherall and Hugo Nicolson, they add all the necessary bleeps, squelches and tyre screeches to keep it contemporary, although it starts off like some Blaxploitation movie soundtrack. The brass refrains. Giddy black female vocalists. Thumping George Clinton-esque rhythm section. Some Bobby Gillespie ‘Wooos’. A flute solo straight off of ‘What’s Going On’. The phased guitar-as-percussion track. How very John Squire. Talent borrows, genius steals they say, and Primal Scream certainly nicked from all the right reference points. I think this is one of Primal Scream’s very best tracks, and why it was never include on the album of the same name I’ll never know.
*Footnote. ‘Carry Me Home’ was written as an anti-Vietnam protest song and was considered, but not included on the Beach Boys 1973 ‘Holland’ album. Travesty! My copy comes from the ‘Bamboo’ bootleg, which as many Wilson watchers now know should really be spelt ‘Bambu’. You can download the track here.
* Footnote 2. ‘Dixie-Narco ‘sounds great. ‘Dixie’, the south of America, where the blues, jazz and all that great music comes from. ‘Narco‘. Short for, oooooh, ‘narcotics’. Sounds a bit dangerous. A bit rock’n’ roll. A bit Primal Scream. Not many people know this, but Dixie-Narco is the name of a company who make soft drink vending machines. Stick that in yer Marshall stack and smoke it.