Radio Scotland - Days Like This

Theme: Culture


Mark Fleming

I was playing guitar in a pop group and one day in June 1984 we had good reason to be pinching ourselves. We were in the BBC Maida Vale Studios in London recording for Radio 1.

The punk revolution's clarion call to 'start a band' had touched the fuse in our mid-teens; by our 20s we had several years performing behind us. None of us were brilliant musicians but there was a chemistry within the band; and, it must be said, arrogance.

Our lead singer Tom also played clarinet and keyboards; our backing vocalist Susie had a strikingly sultry voice (think Sade, minus the boring lounge muzak) and our bassist Colin conjured funky riffs. Instead of a standard rock drumkit we used percussion, Jack applying subtle rhythms with beaters or full-on tribal pounding.

We wrote impudent songs, one eye on the charts, the other on John Peel's more esoteric radio show. We could do singalong love songs, such as 'You are my sweety shop', or jazz-tinged mood pieces, as one critic glowingly described longer pieces like 'The Blue Whale in Chambers Street'.

Tom's lyrics were defiantly colloquial. Not for us the Duran Duran jet-set glorification. We wrote about our own environment: messy relationship breakups, the joys of getting blootered on strong cider. We did a crashing instrumental named Tay Bridge Disaster. Another song was a paean to Dudley D Watkins, the artistic genius behind 'The Broons'. Singing in our native Lowland Scots was as intrinsic to our sound as the 4 beats in every bar.

In the mid 80s the whole Glasgow Postcard thing still cast a shadow over the Scottish music scene. Bands appeared cloned: plaid shirts, floppy fringes, baggy trousers, white socks. Chords came without sustain, 'fuzzboxes' having been anathema for a while: funk not punk. But much as I bought Orange Juice and Aztec Camera singles, I balked at the thought of just aping all those jangly guitars. Perhaps I was being partisan but I preferred the spikier, less sugary tones from this end of the M8: the Visitors, The Freeze and Josef K; but especially Fire Engines and The Scars.

The studio producer that day was Dale Griffin, founder of Mott the Hoople (who went on to produce Nirvana's Incesticide sessions). It was fazing being introduced to a bona fide 'rock celebrity', even if he came across as a grey ponytailed, not to say grumpy, middle-aged guy. During the punk era the barrier between performer and audience had been eroded. You'd go and see The Buzzcocks and between songs Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle would crouch down to chat with the audience, swap badges. You skived school and hung around Clouds to roadie for the Vibrators. I used to correspond with Abbo, vocalist with Luton band UK Decay. We met at the Nite Club when UK Decay supported Dead Kennedys for the American band's first UK gig and it was like bumping into a mate rather than any star. I also met Eve Libertine from Crass. For an avowed black-shirted anarchist whose 'blasphemous' records were creating an even bigger furore than the Sex Pistols had, she couldn't have been pleasanter. I also met The Fall's Mark E Smith once: we exchanged some rubbish short stories I'd written for a Carlsberg Special! You were never wary of upsetting minders because there weren't any.

When my own band was playing we countered stage-fright by drinking cider. By the litre. Some of our appearances at La Sorbonne in the Cowgate, or Glasgow's Rock Garden, were akin to the late Ollie Reed lurching from green rooms onto chat shows like a staggering dervish.

However, stone-cold sober in that BBC studio there came a terrifying moment when a red light came on, indicating a live take. Stress transformed the most resolute bar-chords into awkward blurs. Nevertheless we rattled through four songs, overdubs, then went out to purchase a carry-out the aforementioned Ollie would have been proud of. Griffin's irritation rose in direct ratio to our alcoholic intake. Whenever one of us roared some suggestion at him about improving his mix he just muttered. If the previous ten years in rock had been transformed by the 'new wave' he'd merely gone in an extended huff, aghast by the DIY ethos introducing impudent brats to his studio who didn't know pentatonic scales from the bathroom variety.

But by the end of that day we had completed our Radio 1 session. One reason we got the gig in the first place was down to contacts. Sitting in for DJ Richard Skinner, Muriel Gray had been given free reign to book up-and-coming Scottish bands for the show. Our manager happened to be Muriel's then partner.

Despite the airplay we remained undiscovered. Live, we were unpredictable. Our fondness for drink-fuelled improvisation made us difficult to pigeonhole, and therefore market. The one time our manager did arrange for a record company scout to witness a show we overdid the liquid nerve-calming beforehand, in Bannerman's. There were unscheduled key changes, flying drum sticks, the odd missing chorus, a temporarily misplaced clarinet case. It is a telling epitaph that the other up-and-coming band Muriel chose for the Skinner show that week was Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. They did seize their moment.

But that day a 21-year-old from Shandon, Edinburgh, felt like a rock star. My name is there in black and white in the directory of Radio 1 sessions, alongside everyone from Marc Bolan to Jimi Hendrix to Tom Waits to John Lydon.

For the record my band was called Little Big Dig. We deserved to be a lot more widely listened to than we ever were. Almost famous? It all reminds me of a quote from one of my favourite TV shows as a kid, 'The Flashing Blade': 'It's better to have fought and lost, than not have fought at all!'

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