The 1980s saw plenty of Scottish bands pushing the boundaries of rock and innovating new sounds. The Proclaimers, by comparison, could be considered shocking for their backwards looking aesthetic and traditional songwriting styling. But what they were doing wasn’t easy. Sunshine on Leith sees the band seamlessly blending country, folk and even blues with an unassailable pop exuberance. Songs like On My Way proved that there was plenty of room for traditional techniques in the new landscape of popular music. Beginning with a swinging honky-tonk jangle, twins Craig and Charlie Reid open with a pseudo-chorus to set up a folky repeating structure within the song. It’s the type of playful move that defines everything about the track, standing firmly on the shoulders of a certain era of songwriters while providing winking updates. They even maximize the sportive tone by breaking from their synchronized singing for the occasional series of call and response uh-huhs. The whole thing ends up soundly a bit like a love letter to Roger Miller (who the band would cover). Like so much of The Proclaimers’ work, it’s deceptively simple, finely crafted and heartwarmingly upbeat. It’s an infectious, joyous, sunny day of a song from an era in which that was becoming increasingly rare.
Truly one of the great one album wonders, Josef K proved far more influential than popular after the release of The Only Fun in Town. Like Joy Division, the Edinburgh post-punk outfit eschewed the tonally upbeat, instead opting for bleakly obscure, philosophy inspired lyrics over jagged guitars. Cuts like Forever Drone see the axes and the vocals duking it out, both angular and frantic with a drum frenzy fighting along in the background. Jangly, but never exactly joyous, it’s a fatalistic seizure of a track that burns itself out after two minutes when lead singer Paul Haig declares: I’d like to starve/Fade away/Don’t need the cash/Just decay. Yet neither the song, nor indeed the album, are morose affairs. Instead, Forever Drone is a bracing jolt through the musical history that’s still perfectly strange and vital today.
We’re taking a look at great Scots this week, in honor of Primal Scream getting 11 unbelievable albums deep into their career with the release of Chaosmosis. The band are the poster children for reinvention, sometimes more successfully than others. While the 2008 release Beautiful Future is seen as a lesser entry in their oeuvre, there are still a large handful of great tunes on it that are worth revisiting. One thing that’s been consistent throughout all the band’s stylistic changes is their apocalyptic view of the future. That’s never truer than on Beautiful Future. It’s as pure a piece of pop as the band have ever produced, a song so sweet and light you’d never realize it’s about lynching, executions, torture, threats of being sectioned and the terrifying machinations of society. Bobby Gillespie positively coos his way through the candy-colored horror story, complete with tubular bells, hand claps and twinkling piano. It’s five minutes of twirling, feel-good genius that masks a fearsome vision of what’s to come.
Another burgeoning London act that came out of the gate swinging is Formation. Their first official outing was the Tom Vek channeling Hangin. Formation are bringing soul, authenticity and edge back to electronic music. They’ll be gracing festival stages all summer long, so don’t miss the chance to see them if you can.
I’ll keep this quick because it’s the weekend, but two great new London bands are headed out on tour together. Virgin Kids and The Big Moon (who say they were inspired to get together by seeing the likes of Palma Violets) are both energetic, infectious additions to the local scene. The Big Moon provide darkly polished, 90s alternative inspired pop while Virgin Kids specialize in snotty, lo-fi garage rock. They’ve just released LP Greasewheel, while The Big Moon’s are beginning work on their debut album. Both are worth keeping a keen eye on in the future.
I realize I’ve been giving London guitars bands a bit of a short shrift this week. I’ll partially rectify that with some bonus picks over the weekend, but the main reason for the poor showing was the fact that I was building up to the inimitable Palma Violets. The current kings of the London scene, there is probably no better live band on the planet at this juncture (Johnny Marr suggested that watching bassist Chilli Jesson live was akin to seeing Joe Strummer onstage). While their music is surprisingly divisive, no one can knock their stage presence. They are the epitome of what it means to be in a rock’n’roll gang, which is why I think they’ll prove to be this generation’s band that launched a thousand bands. There’s a lot I could say about these guys (A LOT), but I’ll try to stick to the song in question, Johnny Bagga’ Donuts. It’s a ramshackle, joyous snippet of modern punk (or as the band would say, pub rock) that features all the secret weapons that made their first album such a success: Chilli Jesson’s gravely howl, Will Doyle’s surprisingly fleet drumming and Peter Mayhew’s proto-punk keyboard work. Jesson has previously spoken about how the idea of jeune is important to the band and this song nails it perfectly. There may be no set of opening couplets that better captures the insouciance and petulance of youth than when Jesson snarls:
Oh the ragga you write and the rhythm you breath in/I’m going down to the scene Oh you don’t know just what I’m feeling/I’m banging my head on the ceiling
It’s a euphoric, celebratory track that unravels at the seams, ending when it can’t be held together for a second longer. While not as physically dangerous as their live shows, the track goes a long way toward capturing the raw energy that makes them such an unforgettable force on stage.
After dropping single Yesterdays, Niall Galvin, better known as Only Real, started garnering immediate comparisons to Jamie T (and somewhat more surprisingly, King Krule). It’s an understandable urge given the upbeat, hip hop inspired track, but I’d like to believe Galvin can prove it’s earned in future releases by expanding the depth of his work, something he hinted at through other tracks on debut LP Jerk at the End of the Line. But if that doesn’t happen, that’s just fine too, considering the Londoner released one of the sunniest singles of last year in Yesterdays. Taking a heavy cue from Len’s Steal My Sunshine, with touches of Jamie T and Happy Mondays thrown in for good measure, it’s a catchy, buoyant throwback tune with a simple chorus as floaty as they come. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s got bouncy charm for miles.
Sometimes the place an artist is from serves to influence their work, but other times it is the raison d’être of their artwork. Kate Tempest’s work exists to channel and examine South London. A Ted Hughes Award winner for Brand New Ancients and Mercury Prize nominee for Everybody Down, Tempest’s art lives in a place where poetry and spoken word meet hip hop and rap. Her delivery often looks to the meter of epic poetry, rising and falling in hypnotic rhythm. She mixes classical form with modern subjects, placing a collection of desperate London characters under the microscope. Marshall Law, the lead track off her debut album, uses a sparse alienating beat to feature her novelistic storytelling. Tempest inhabits multiple characters on the track, able to embody both disgust and idealism at the music industry, but always with an undercurrent of anger throughout. She doesn’t glorify having a tough life or excuse her characters’ actions, instead fully committing to exploring their shortcomings and weaknesses. The more it unspools, the more painfully rich her work becomes. It’s a captivatingly honest display that is simultaneously the ultimate product of where Tempest is from and like nothing else that has come out of it.
New London trio Real Lies have barely begun their career, but they’ve already garnered comparisons to both New Order and The Streets. It might seem like an odd combination until you hear their nocturnal house soundscapes that are as brilliantly produced as they are socially relevant. Album opener Blackmarket Blues perfectly shows off the urban grit of both their sound and their lyrics, capturing the aimless frustration of unmoored youth. The beat makes you wish you’d heard it at The Hacienda: thumping, trance-like, layered and expertly increasing in intensity. The lyrics are as earnest as they come, declaring “I love my friends more dearly than I’m allowed to say aloud.” It’s something that might be bothersome if they didn’t so perfectly capture the listless drift of an entire generation, unfurling couplets that easily recall Mike Skinner:
You’re the church bells in the morning when you’ve woken up cold On the sofas you surrender to when you’ve been out being bold You are the 5am exodus. You are the, “Have you got a light?” You’re every new friendship that dies quickly in a fight You are the prodigal son hid in the phonebox from the rain You’re in the shower Mondays whispering, “Never again”
Everything about Real Lies flirts with the border between painful authenticity and histrionic self-seriousness. What they’ve done is the nearly impossible: hit the minuscule sweet spot of danceable, relevant and heartfelt.
During a drunken conversation with Gang of Four’s John Sterry a few months ago, he asserted to me that he was over London. Too expensive and no musical scene, he said. I was shocked, insisting that there is always a crop of fresh, exciting work coming out of the city, but he vigorously preferred the output of Los Angeles based Burger Records to bands calling the English capital home. I still think he’s overlooking a lot of talent. I’ve already covered plenty of current London artists: Shopping, Savages, Fat White Family (I should add apparently he is mates with them), The Vaccines, Jamie T (technically not London proper, but on the tube map, so close enough). And there are loads more worth a mention. Archy Marshall is certainly on the top of that list. Working under his own name and a bevy of pseudonyms (King Krule, Zoo Kid, etc.) he’s melded genres like hip hop, trip hop, jazz and dubstep to create a dark soundscape all his own. The BRIT School grad can sometimes seem laconic and dazed on record, but his live performances come with a surprising dose of ferocious aggression. One of the few songs that sees those qualities present on record is the jagged, jazzy A Lizard State. It’s a threatening tune made all the more menacing by the erratic composition. The sputtering drums (which are suitably hypnotic live) and punchy sax underlay Marshall’s rapid-fire rantings. It’s a tightly coiled, volatile piece of musical bravado that earns every bit of its raw rage.