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.
A few weeks ago I was involved in putting on a fantastic gig in the tiny but perfect Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine, half an hour from Glasgow on the west coast of Scotland. The main act for the night was BMX Bandits, an act who last graced my hometown a mere quarter of a century ago at one of our Tennent’s Live-sponsored ‘Rock On The Watter’ events. The beginning of the 90s saw Tennent’s dip a corporate toe into the world of live music and Rock On The Watter, which ran annually from 1990-1994 was, in a way, the precursor to T In The Park. Indeed, if our town fathers had had any ounce of rock and roll in their brittle, backwards-thinking bones, TITP might’ve been staged at Irvine’s Beach Park rather than Strathclyde Park in Hamilton. But that’s another story for another day.
As it transpired, Duglas T Stewart had fond memories of playing in Irvine and took great pleasure in eating a banana during the opening song Cast A Shadow – just as they’d done 25 years previously. The gig would unravel to be something of a classic, with a heady mix of Bandits’ greatest ‘hits’ getting a good airing alongside debut live performances from their very imminent BMX Bandits Forever LP. I’ve since heard a couple of these same tracks played on Marc Riley’s 6 Music show, which I suppose gives the whole gig some extra gravitas. The last band to debut new material in Irvine was young upstarts Oasis, who chose the Beach Park in 1995 as the venue in which to float Don’t Look Back In Anger out into the ether, Noel playing his barely-disguised, ham-fisted version of All The Young Dudes with yer actual George Harrison’s actual plectrum. Again, another story for another day.
The whole point of this post though was to highlight the undeniable talents of Joe Kane, the artist who provided support to BMX Bandits in the HAC.
Joe is one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets. He spends most of the year being Paul McCartney in Them Beatles, regarded as one of the most authentic Beatles tributes around. Squint hard enough and he has an undeniable, two thumbs aloft, McCartney look about him. Add a pair of pointy boots, a perma-surprised mouth agape and crucially, a Beatles’ wig, and the look is complete.
For months on end he can be found playing Beatles conventions all over the world. Them Beatles have a trainspotterish approach to authenticity, so going to a show is quite possibly as close as you might get to the real thing. A fantastic array of period guitars – the Hofner bass, George’s Rickenbacker, John’s Let It Be-era Gibson – played through a backline of vintage Vox valve amps, coupled with the studied mannerisms and learned lines of each Beatle – “Rattle yer jewellery,” “Opportunity knocks,” etc etc, all add up to the real deal. Fab, even.
Joe’s ‘hobby job’, if you like, is playing his own music; wonky pop, looney tunes and merry melodies, all swimming in nutty effects with a rich Beatleish undercurrent. It’s a job that’s found him playing sessions on BBC 6 Music, performing alongside the cream of Scotland’s indie elite and co-writing with big hitters (in a parallel universe) such as Norman Blake and the aforementioned Duglas. You may be aware of some of his nom de plumes; The Owsley Sunshine, Dr Cosmo’s Tape Lab, as part of Ette…..
Here’s Joe in his Owsley Sunshine incarnation, clattering along like Supergrass doing Badfinger by way of an XTC Bond theme, all compressed vocals, ringing and lightly toasted guitars, stop/start riffs and a brilliant rhythm section – which may be all his own work. (*Update – it’s not, but Joe is happy for you to think that – not for nothing does he have a track called Don’t Pump My Ego, Baby!
The Owsley Sunshine – Powered By An Electric Shepherd
For the Irvine show, his 4-piece Radiophonic Tuck Shop sounded extraordinary; slightly psychedelic and Super Furry super-tuneful. Amazingly, this was their first ever gig. Not for them though the usual sweat of jittering first-night nerves; Joe surrounds himself with tip-top, top-chops musicians, and the Radiophonic Tuck Shop comprised of seasoned pros (I’m sure that was ‘George Harrison’ stage left) that brought out the best in his songs.
Their set of skewed power-pop went down extremely well, the short, sharp blasts of Nuggety pop from Joe’s back catalogue given an urgent, insistent makeover in the live setting. Intentional or not, each song was counted in with a none-more-Macca “1234!” to great applause, which you could be forgiven for thinking was a smart sample from any one of those early 60’s Beatles’ BBC sessions. As first gigs go, it was a brilliantly explosive cherry-popping and an exciting portent of things to come.
Only Joe Kane – As Hard As I Feel
Only Joe Kane – Disnae Time
This coming Saturday (22nd April) will see Joe and his Radiophonic Tuck Shop support Teen Canteen at the launch of their also-endorsed-by-Riley ‘Sirens‘ EP, which is pretty much the perfect double bill if y’ask me. It may well be sold out by now, so if you can’t get to it, keep an eye on the gig listings pages. Joe’s out and about regularly and definitely worth catching. Indeed, the following weekend will see Joe wig out in his Beatles guise, for two shows at Oran Mor, on the 28th and 29th April on Glasgow’s Byres Road. Yeah, yeah, yeah!
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.