Born out of the blues boom of the early ’60s, the Thames Estuary scene was a fertile breeding ground for the stars of the decade and beyond. Away from the distractions of London city centre, it proved the ideal training ground for the very musicians who’d help make the city swing in the coming months and years; Jagger and Richards were welded at the snake-hips as a result of a shared love of Chess Records. Alexis Korner’s blues nights in the Ealing Jazz Club brought together like-minded afficianados in the shape of Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, and both Clapton and Page would take stints as lead guitarist in The Yardbirds, a role also filled by Jeff Beck. Amongst it all was John Mayall, his Bluesbreakers band a constantly-revolving who’s who of the movers and shakers of ’60s guitar-based music; Jack Bruce, Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood, Mick Taylor… you name them, they likely appeared on stage or on record with John Mayall in one way or other. It was a small scene, they say, but a highly influential one which helped shape the popular music of the day. You knew all that already though.
Fast forward to Lanarkshire in the mid ’80s. A short train ride away from the attraction and distraction of Glasgow city centre, a scene – let’s call it the Bellshill Boom – developed around the singular vision and concept of Duglas Stewart. Born out of a love of post-punk, sunshine pop and anything with a decent haircut (although…check below for conflicting proof), this scene was, in its own way, just as influential as that satellite scene around London 20 or so years previously. Taking their cues and clothes from the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jonathan Richman and the melancholic ache of Burt Bacharach, Stewart’s band BMX Bandits led the way, the real sound of the suburbs, a Bluesbreakers for the Bellshill beat brigade.
Like a foppish, pointy-fingered John Mayall, Duglas curated a group of musicians that created a new sound of young Scotland – twee, perhaps, arch, certainly, and totally at odds with the Caledonian bombast currently being force-fed via commercial radio, but with an element of fun running through it like the lettering on a stick of Blackpool rock.
That the individual Bandits were free to come and go, to form other bands, to play on other people’s records only added to the looseness of it all, but every one of those players has, at one point or other, said just how formative being in the BMX Bandits was.
Once a Bandit, always a Bandit, as Duglas has said. He’s watched on, headmaster-like, as his charges have gone on to form (deep breath) Teenage Fanclub, The Soup Dragons, The Pearlfishers, The Vaselines…and all of the side-projects there-of; Hi-Fi Sean, The Primary Five, Future Pilot AKA, Superstar, Green Peppers, Linden etc etc. If Pete Frame were to produce a Rock Family Tree for the Bellshill scene, it’d be longer and more detailed than the Bayeaux Tapestry.
BMX Bandits are the very epitome of cult. As a favour to Alan McGee they took a youthful Oasis on tour with them, a mismatched yin-yang of non-macho and monobrowed mayhem if there ever was one. Kurt Cobain sported their t-shirts and was quoted as saying that if he could be in any other band, it’d be BMX Bandits. Duglas may well be the Scottish equivalent of Daniel Johnston, another of Kurt’s favourites and, like Duglas, a writer of simple, tear-soaked heart-jerkers, unpretentious and innocent.
In some quarters BMX Bandits were considered a kind of joke band, but to those in the know, their songs, in equal parts life-affirming and heart-breaking, are perfect little vignettes of proper Scottish soul, a considered mix of the fragility of sandpit-era Brian Wilson with a wide-eyed wonder at the world around them. Their 1991 album Star Wars is set for reissue on May 4th (obviously) via Last Night From Glasgow. Having received an early copy last week, I’ve been on something of a Bandits binge for the past few days; Come Clean, The Sailor’s Song, later songs like That Summer Feeling and Little Hands. All essential listening. The track though that’s really stopped me in my, er, tracks is Serious Drugs.
BMX Bandits – Serious Drugs
Serious Drugs was released as a single in 1993 and appeared on the Life Goes On album. Both single and album failed to bother the charts. Nothing unusual in the world of the BMX Bandits, but in the case of Serious Drugs, it’s Serious Shrugs – the great lost number 1 hit that never was.
Voiced not by Duglas but by Joe McAlinden, Serious Drugs is a fantastic record, the sound perhaps of Teenage Fanclub respectfully tackling My Sweet Lord.
It’s there in that E minor to A major chord change. It’s there in the “ooh-la, ooh-la-la-la” Come Up And See Me backing vocals. And it’s definitely there in that super-charged slide guitar part after the first bridge when Joe and Norman come over, just for a moment, all John ‘n Paul. The melding together of McAlinden’s and Blake’s voices is sublime, Joe high and keening, Norman low and honeyed. Serious love, indeed. And that spangled, high in the mix Big Star acoustic guitar…the compressed drums…the frugging bassline… Serious Drugs wears its influences proudly but politely in a way that someone like Noel Gallagher could never grasp.
By the time the saxophone solo has oozed and eased its way to the forefront and is leading the band to their rasping fadeout, you’re already thinking about playing it all again. Serious Drugs is seriously great. I suspect you knew that already too.