Inside the National Museum of Scotland sits a vintage wooden harmonium, once dolorously played by a little man in plus fours and a fez, the late absurdist folk-poet Ivor Cutler, who was second only to the Fall in the number of sessions he recorded for John Peel. A relic abandoned in storage for years, the harmonium is now owned by trad-folk minstrels Capercaillie and proudly on loan to the Edinburgh museum as part of the first ever exhibition of Scottish pop, Rip It Up. “I’m so glad it was found,” says curator Stephen Allen. “I was agonising over how we could give Ivor Cutler his rightful place in Scottish pop music.”
Cutler’s harmonium, emblem of the tragicomic spirit so often found in the Scots, is now a kind of 20th-century equivalent of Beethoven’s clavichord, one of more than 300 objects – alongside photos, videos and music piping everywhere – telling the nation’s musical story from the 1950s onwards.
For Allen, though, the most stirringly potent artefact is the fluorescent green PVC jumpsuit that captivated his 13-year-old self, worn by Eugene Reynolds of the Rezillos: the fright-wigged Edinburgh troupe who stormed TV’s biggest chart show in 1978 with their novelty-punk caper that bellowed thrillingly: “Everybody’s on Top of the Pops!”
“The zip was a bit rusty,” says Allen, a man who had “Ian McCulloch hair” back in ’78, “and the full camo gear. I looked like a starved extra from Apocalypse Now.”
The sometime teenage Rezillos renegade is now the kind of person who shapes Britain’s heritage, his post-punk generation now all grown up into cultural gatekeepers, understanding that pop music, for many, gave you not only a life but an education.
“Pop culture was the gateway into other art forms,” he says. “If it wasn’t for Siouxsie and the Banshees I wouldn’t have got interested in Weimar Germany. This distance in history lends credence, brings perspective. There are now universities with professors of pop.”
This perspective underscores Rip It Up across several themes arrayed from global impact to Scottish voices to politics and identity. The spirit of Scotland can be traced, then, from 50s pre-rock’n’roll skiffle (Glasgow-born Lonnie Donegan) to 70s pub rock, disco and perm-haired heavy rock (the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, the Average White Band, Nazareth) to post-punk luminaries and tartan-pop tomfoolery (the Skids, Altered Images, Bay City Rollers).
In between there are the pop giants past and present – Simple Minds and Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics in the 80s, Paolo Nutini and Calvin Harristoday. But it’s the indie heroes who dominate in numbers, including the roster of Postcard Records, set up to launch bequiffed dandies Orange Juice(whose biggest hit lends the exhibition its name). Others featured include the Associates, Jesus and Mary Chain, the Blue Nile, Belle and Sebastian, Franz Ferdinand – and scandalously unsung acts such as late-90s art-rock surrealists the Beta Band.
With such a diverse spectrum, can there be such a thing as a Scottish sound? Midge Ure, born in 1953, co-architect of the Band Aid/Live Aid phenomenon and coolly wafting frontman-in-a-raincoat with Ultravox in 1981, ponders the question.
“There is something in the Scottish spirit,” he says. “A yearning, a romanticism. And this longing, this sadness, does come out in the music. It’s maybe a working-class thing. We always seem to be the underdogs. Country music has always been big in Scotland. But there’s also a feistiness. We like a party.” What are the Scots, then, yearning for? “Probably to get out of the slums of Glasgow!” he hoots.
There’s a lexicon historically associated with the Scottish character: hardy (the weather), passionate (alcohol), brave (heart), defiant (politics), romantic in the face of almost certain defeat (the national football team), dour (Frazer from Dad’s Army’s owl-eyed catchphrase, “We’re doomed!”), funny in the face of historical adversity (Renton from Trainspotting’s primal howl, “It’s shite being Scottish! We’re colonised by wankers!”). All of this, alongside the hardship endured in decimated post-industrial cities, the glorious, brutal landscape, and the isolation from London’s seat of economic power informs the collective consciousness [ . . . ]
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