A comprehensive five CD anthology telling the story of independent music from Scotland between 1977 and 1989, ‘Big Gold Dreams’ is an interesting box set. From the no-frills and DIY ethics of punk through to lavish alternative pop, Scotland had more than enough talent to make a huge mark upon music in the 70s and 80s and the country’s greatest bands were every bit as good – and better – than many of the hugely celebrated acts from Manchester and the south. The many independent labels had as much to give the world in terms of underground talent and beyond, so in lots of ways, ‘Big Gold Dreams’ isn’t so much a box set, an anthology or collection as a celebration.
For admirers of Cherry Red’s 2018 power pop and new wave anthology ‘Harmony In My Head’ and Edsel’s Gary Crowley curated box set of punk curios, the first two discs of this five disc set will alone be worth the purchase. Covering the period between 1977 and 1982, as you’d expect, these discs have more than a decent amount of punky fare and the nature of the source material means that various obscurities are released on CD for the very first time.
A real highlight of disc one is a 1977 b-side by Johnny & The Self Abusers. Their sole Chiswick Records 7” has been long sought by many due to half the band eventually forming Simple Minds, so any time either of their tracks get a reissue, it’s reason to celebrate. It would be great if – just for once – a set such as this could issue both tracks in one place, but let’s not complain too much, since ‘Dead Vandals’ is superb. Tapping into the feel of punk’s first wave but also utilising a gift for melody that’ll be more obvious later, Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill churn out a sneering vocal and chuggy riff respectively and wind up sounding like a Glaswegian Buzzcocks. It mightn’t have quite the same edginess as its A-side (‘Saints & Sinners’) but it’s the sound of a band who are a cut above most on the punk scene. Perhaps their only real local-ish competition at the time came from Skids, whose ‘Reasons’ (originally issued a 7” via No Bad Records) throws a huge light on some great punk with a driving riff and classic 70s sounding crunch. Richard Jobson’s vocal carries a sneer without being afraid to hide an accent and that helps shape a very distinctive style at a very early stage. Although it’ll be familiar to fans, this is a fantastic number which stems from the band’s earliest recording sessions. Sharp, vibrant and brilliantly produced for a DIY release, for most, it will represent a more than welcome change from the omnipresent ‘Into The Valley’ or ‘The Saints Are Coming’. If this inspires a couple of listeners to dig further and then even perhaps purchase the mid-price box of their Virgin recordings, it’s all good.
‘Put You In The Picture’ by PVC2 is quite rough even for DIY punk/garage rock and sounds repetitive to the point of annoyance, but it’s also a track that’ll eventually catch you unawares, proving that repetition pays off…and a wobbly keyboard solo sounding like an old Schools & Colleges theme tune definitely ranks as a highlight. A piece of musical treasure, The Jolt’s cover of ‘See Saw’ (written by Paul Weller and featured on a late 70s Jam b-side) represents mod-inflected perfection, with chiming guitars set against an upfront bass. Frontman Robbie Collins might not quite summon the same levels of angst as Bruce Foxton once had, but with a warm and inviting sound coupled with a really tight arrangement, it isn’t necessarily the poor relation. It’s clear from the off that this is a great song. It’s likely that its inclusion here will mark a first listen for many, since the band split not long after this recording, just at the point of breaking through.
The Drive’s ‘Jerkin’ – a bouncy ode to self-pleasure – falls somewhere between bass dominated new wave and spiky pub rock, delivering a lyric that certainly couldn’t be misinterpreted – an interesting listen for fans of Eddie & The Hot Rods and various Stiff signed bands; ‘Take Me Down’ by The Zips sounds like a cross between The Jags and a future echo of Franz Ferdinand, offering sharp chords and a sense of self-knowing brilliance that’s not to be missed and Shake’s ‘Culture Shock’ ploughs through a punky two minutes that takes the guts of Stiff Little Fingers and melds that with something that occasionally feels more mod-oriented due to a fat bassline. If you can look past the vaguely xenophobic lyric, it’s even better.
Factor in a garage rock throwbacks TPI, the fuzzy guitar rock of The Headboys ‘Shape of Things To Come’ – so obviously an influence on U2’s formative work, along with Skids – and the pogo driven frnzies of Fire Exit’s contribution (sourced from a rare Timebomb Records 7”) and you’ll find a near perfect punk-oriented compilation that can be playlisted from the twenty five tracks on disc one alone. Perhaps the only misstep with regard to the punky picks on the first disc is the decision to include Fun 4’s ‘Singing In The Shower’. Fun 4 were a short-lived Glaswegian punk band – akin to a Scottish Sham 69 – and their sole three track EP has long been impossible to find in its original (non-bootleg) pressing. With this in mind, it would have been better to include one of the EP’s lesser known cuts, especially since ‘Singing In The Shower’ had only recently surfaced on the Gary Crowley box. Aside from that, once you scrape below the surface of lo-fi guitars and gang vocals, it’s also a track that becomes deeply unpleasant. The lyrics seem to celebrate and even trivialise Nazi ideologies and genocide. Yes, part of punk’s original remit was to challenge the establishment and to shock, but to deal with something so nasty in such a puerile and flippant way now seems unforgivable. The fact that it still unnerves decades later says something… [The drummer from Fun 4 later became a member of Orange Juice, arguably one of the most important Scottish independent rock and pop bands of the early 80s.]
Moving on, some of the early 80s selections on disc two are absolutely amazing; selections which take the spirit of punk’s rule breaking and apply that to more melodic new wave sounds. Melodic doesn’t necessarily mean more commercially viable, of course, and Delmontes prove this with a sub-gothic tune sung in French with the flat tones of a European chanteuse. It should be a difficult listen, but a great bassline and Lene Lovich-esque quirkiness are just enough to see things through, which is more than can be said for The Associates’ ‘Tell Me Easter’s On Friday’, a heavily mechanical, slightly unsettling dirge made even more marginal by Billy McKenzie’s troubled wailing. Also on the side of neo-gothic, Altered Images’ ‘Dead Pop Stars’ still sounds vibrant; with Clare Grogan’s untrained yelping and fat bass grooves throughout, this fairly minimalist offering gives little to no indication of the pop stars they would soon become (albeit briefly). A world away from the hits, had Altered Images recorded this single and then split, they would rival Johnny & The Self Abusers as one of the great short-lived bands.
Offering some proper pop influenced new wave, ‘All About You’ by Scars is an alt-pop classic coupling the fresh feel of early Duran Duran with the more arty flair of Simple Minds circa ‘Empires And Dance’. On this track – perhaps more than some of the others within this box – there’s something that feels defiantly Scottish; it could be the slight accent, but it’s more than that. The very heart of this track shares something in its DNA that can be found in the best early Simple Minds and Aztec Camera – so for anyone approaching this for the first time with a love for those bands might want to keep a keen ear. Also essential listening, Article 58’s ‘Event To Come’ melds a great post-punk bass line and shimmering guitar lines to a tune that results in some superb jangle-pop sounds. A selection of handclaps and a great overall melody make up for a less than obvious hook, but it’s obvious these guys had something, even if the production on this track insists on taking influence from Todd Rundgrun’s work and ends up sounding like it’s being played from a stretched cassette. Drawing from the burgeoning synth pop scene, Thomas Leer’s ‘Don’t’ (issued by Cherry Red as a 12” single in ’81) is a curious tune: at first it sounds like an unfinished demo, but allowing time for your ears to adjust works wonders. It’s repetitious groove sounds as if it were tailor made for alternative clubs, even if Leer’s wobbling and unsure vocal never seems to want to allow any of the melodic elements to work for the best. Somewhere between art-rock, synth pop and European electronica, sounding like a proto-New Order jamming with Can and with some steel drum noises thrown in, it’s genuinely bold.
The Wake’s ‘On Our Honeymoon’ comes across like a Bauhaus number cranked through at double time. As with so much of the alternative music of 1981-2, it’s a tightly wound bassline that’s the real highlight, but the tracks sharpness and brevity are what makes it all the more exciting, while Boots For Dancing’s ‘Ooh Bop Sh’Bam’ takes the quirkiness several notches further on a number that could easily be a fearsome jam between Talking Heads and The Birthday Party. Given that in their original life-span, the band only recorded four singles, this should be considered one of this box set’s most coveted tunes. It’s absolutely fantastic.
Elsewhere on the second disc, Puritans show a gift for sharp rhythms contrasted with artful vocals in a way that seems as inviting as The Associates had seemed unpalatable; French Impressionists tease with off-kilter jazz pop and as such maintain something of a cuckoo’s presence; Cuban Heels deliver some cool jangling guitar work and more of a willingness to craft something like a hit and APB drop some hard funk pop that deserves to be played loudly. If there’s an over-riding theme for most of the 1981 selections, it seems to be that half of the alternative musicians in Scotland seemed keen to turn Peter Hook’s basslines into shapes that would be more suited to early Simple Minds or Gang of Four. However you look at it, this should never a bad thing…and while this material might seem a touch more mood specific than the knockabout punk on disc one, there’s so much to enjoy and even the most knowledgeable listener will come away having heard a few unfamiliar bands. …And that’s all before we get to Alan McGee’s Laughing Apple, whose ‘Participate!’ marks a further shift away from punk and new wave, ushering in a hard jangle and a rough around the edges sound that would form the basis for a lot of late 80s indie and, ultimately, his own interests at Creation Records.
As the 80s progressed, so too did fashion. The willingness of indie labels to take chances on all kinds of interesting acts went into overdrive. Creation signed up dozens of guitar based bands and set about becoming one of the most influential labels ever.
For fans of Creation’s early output, the second half of ‘Big Gold Dreams’ offers a few choice singles. Revolving Paint Dream very much points the way to the Creation label’s future endeavours with a wall of jangling guitars on ‘Flowers In The Sky’, a tune that re-invents The Beatles as an echoing and wonky wall of sound. Featuring ex-Laughing Apple [and future Primal Scream] guitarist Andrew Innes, it’s a tune that has bigger ideas than its budget ever allowed; attention to a reasonable chorus would suggest NME favourites in the making, but since an album would not appear for another three years, it is somewhat unsurprising that they never became superstars. More jangle cuts through ‘Think!’ by Jasmine Minks on another highlight of this set. A hugely busy arrangement finds a lead bass punching through a speed driven rhythm guitar, while a call and response vocal really adds to the energy. There’s something defiantly 80s about this single; perhaps its that it has a similar energy to early Haircut 100, perhaps it’s due to something that sounds like an Aztec Camera demo creeping through. With that eighties drive for success coupled with McGee’s love of a Byrds-y jangle, this should’ve been a hit, or at least retrospectively recognised as one of the great singles of the age…but as it is, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone name-checking them as an influence. A three minute belter, ‘Think!’ is a must-hear. Similarly impressive, McGee’s own Biff! Bang! Pow! delve into a jangling world of neo-psych-pop on ‘There Must Be A Better Life’. Although it is not as well recorded as such pop-rock deserves, it’s an entertaining ditty that manages to sound like a cross between an old mod band and Husker Du; if anything ever seemed like the forefathers to at least fifty percent of second-rate Britpop bands, it’s right here.
Founded in 1980, the 4AD label also flourished throughout that decade and beyond. While they aren’t big time players in the story of Scottish pop and indie sounds, they still issued one of the era’s most important discs when, in 1982, Cocteau Twins released their ‘Lullabies’ EP. ‘Feathers Oar-Blades’ which kick starts the third disc of this anthology doesn’t have the sheen or floatiness of their later,much-celebrated, Coctaus recordings, but instead shows a band heavily indebted to ‘Kaleidoscope’ era Siouxsie. However, even on this DIY, medium sized budget recording, it’s always possible to hear the beginnings of something special, as the guitars lay down a sheet of sounds that blends a post-punk harshness with a shimmering edge, while Elizabeth Fraser croons nonsensically. This will be familiar to fans, for certain, but for the more curious listener it’s a great eye and ear-opener. Also providing highlights somewhere near the halfway mark on this musical marathon, Close Lobsters and BMX Bandits are on hand with tunes that very much epitomise the column fillers of NME, and indeed, their respective tracks can be found on NME’s now-famous C86 release, which spawned a neo-scene of it’s own [Those interested in the impact of that should invest in Cherry Red’s box set ‘C86: The Deluxe Edition’ for further listening].
With Creation and 4AD’s success and influence being hugely documented elsewhere, like Cherry Red Records’ previous endeavours, ‘Big Gold Dreams’ is at its most interesting when uncovering the work of even smaller labels. For music obsessives always looking to learn about (and hear) something new, many highlights from discs three to five can be discovered when exploring releases from labels such as NoStrings, Narodnik, Sha La La and 53rd & 3rd.
The two tracks chosen to represent NoStrings Records are absolutely essential listening. Kevin McDermott’s ‘No Time & Temptation’ [NoStrings, 1986] is a fantastic tune. A semi-acoustic shuffle, it’s stripped back feel really allows McDermott’s expressive voice plenty of room, and it’s busy narrative feel seems to look forward to the kind of story-telling would make fellow countrymen Del Amitri their fortunes [Del Amitri, meanwhile, still sounded more like a cross between The Housemartins and The Smiths in 1986]. Normally, the usage of synth strings would cheapen the end result, but there’s something about the intimate nature of this recording that makes the added keyboards sound very natural. Also ploughing a semi-acoustic furrow, ‘Where Do I Stand?’ by The Incredible Blondes [NoStrings, 1987] has a heavy Smiths influence, from both the busy sound of the guitars to the off-kilter croon from the vocal. Time to attune your ears is definitely needed, but with a bristling energy, a genuine warmth and an unavoidable mid-80s feel, this is brilliant indie pop fare…and since this single represented the band’s only release at that time, it’s very much the kind of thing you hope a box set like this will uncover.
Offering some fuzzy post-punk noise, The Fizzbombs are the epitome of mid 80s DIY fuzz. Their ‘Sign On The Line…’ single [Narodnik, 1987] makes a calculated effort to clock in at almost exactly two minutes and its sugar-rush of a chorus set against a slightly ugly backdrop offers a sound that paved the way for about a thousand similar bands during the following decade. Even hearing it decades on, it seems to have lost none of its appeal, while The Sting Rytes opt for retro sounds of another kind on ‘Baby’s Got A Brand New Brain [Snaffle Records, 1986]. On the surface, there’s a massive love for late 50s rock ‘n’ roll from Gene Vincent, but there’s far more going on; saxophones add a slightly quirky edge, Wurlitzer organ noises suggest an end of the pier oddity and the jerkiness of the performance is very much of the new wave, with Oingo Boingo being the most obvious comparison. Above all, it’s so, so tight. The most famous signings to the 53rd & 3rd label are also their most overrated: The Vaselines are a terrible band. ‘Teenage Superstars’, a 7” side from 1986 is, thankfully, one of their better numbers…at least to begin with. Featuring a reasonable amount of energy and a sound that’s a throwback to The Stooges re-dressed with an inferior vocal, it’s a decent stab at garage rock. It loses all interest towards the end when a yelping second vocal materialises and clings on to a repetitious hook until it becomes little more than a Bis-like annoyance. Kurt Cobain supposedly loved these guys, but in all fairness they’re a bit…shit, quite frankly.
With other cult items from the Egg, Sarah and Rough Trade labels scattered throughout the second half of the box, the quality threshold often feels high especially for fans of indie jangle, with the opportunity of discovering new sides at any moment. Another superb curio, Baby Lemonade’s ‘Jiffy Neckwear Collection’ [Sha La La Records, 1987] manages to splice the DIY energies of punk from 1977 to an unnervingly twee female vocal, foretelling the arrival of lots of tweeness by the turn of the 90s. It’s fantastic for what it is, despite the recording here being from a slightly wobbly, vaguely gurgly source. Less fortunate, though historically interesting, The Church Grims ‘Think Like A Girl’ should be indie gold for those who crave Joy Division-esque basslines and a pure jangle from the guitar. Musically, it’s just brilliant – made of almost all the necessary ingredients that’ll evoke strong memories of the period when listening, but a terrible vocal lets the side down in a way that makes it easy to see why this sat on the shelf for fifteen years. …And it should’ve been a truly epic six minutes, too…
Absolutely indispensable, The Groovy Little Numbers’ ‘A Place Is So Hard To Find’ [53rd & 3rd, 1988] unashamedly flirts with a twee sixties pop element. The synths and brass recycle musical motifs that sound like many of the kitsch tunes beloved by Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley, whilst a wistfulness adds further to the hazy feel. By the time the track fades out with an instrumental coda full of swirling flute melodies and jangly acoustics, it’s post-modern take on the likes of Tony Hatch and Burt Bacharach earns it a place among this box set’s essential listens. Fans of Terry Hall’s Colourfield will surely be in their element. Honestly, this is one of the best pop tunes you’ve never heard.
While the mood throughout the last couple of discs feels quite different from disc one’s punky origins, those interested in punk shouldn’t lose hope, since there were still bands working overdriven sounds and three chord bangers. Taking hardcore to extremes, Erskine-based Stretchheads borrow hardcore ideals and mangle them into joyously ugly art-punk shapes on ‘Groin Death’ [Pathological, 1989]. These brutal eighty seconds are like experiencing Darby Crash and the Germs spewing noise with a cartoonish glee and while the novelty could wear thin, it at least makes an impression. [Stretchheads‘ cover of Kylie’s ‘I Should Be So Lucky’, incidentally, is particularly diverting.]
Being geographically focused rather than genre specific, ‘Big Gold Dreams’ is most definitely a set that’s aimed at the more curious, open minded music fan. It’s for the buyer with catholic, far reaching tastes and musical ideals and of great wealth to the kind of crate digger always on the lookout for more new thrills. With so many obscure 7”s putting in an appearance and featuring well in excess of a hundred tracks, it’s an essential box but it’s also often one that’s best cherry picked according to mood. Some days, it’ll be all about those first two discs and only those; other times might warrant a more indie based experience. But…with twelve years of history and at least three discs’ worth of indispensable music included, you’ll often find dipping in and out of this anthology a fascinating experience.
December 2018/January 2019