Thursday, November 7, 2013
The Glasgow School
by Simon Reynolds
Summer 1980: the sombre pall of postpunk hangs over the nation. Overpowered by the dark visions of Metal Box and Unknown Pleasures, the new bands coming through all devoutly follow the Gospel According to John or the Gospel According to Ian (preached, on Closer, from beyond the grave). But, wait, heresy’s brewing north of Hadrian’s Wall. A bunch of Scottish bands, foremost among them Orange Juice, are bringing the sunshine. Affiliated to Alan Horne’s ludicrously ambitious Postcard label, the Glasgow group herald the demise of postpunk, proposing a new life-affirming mindset in which “pop” isn’t a dirty word and it’s cool to sing love songs.
The closest Joy Division ever got to the latter was the harrowing “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” while Lydon was still sneering “this is not a love song” as late as 1983 (despite being a happily married man!). Orange Juice’s debut single “Falling and Laughing” was both a love song and a meta-pop manifesto in defence of romance. Crushed by his latest crush, the humiliated and heartbroken Edwyn Collins concludes “what can I do but learn to laugh at myself?” “Love Sick,” the B-side of OJ’s second single “Blue Boy,” could almost be a riposte to Gang of Four’s “Love Like Anthrax”. It describes the same symptoms (“my head is pounding/my mind is confused”) as Go4 (“feel like a beetle on its back… thoughts like piss down the drain”). But unlike the agonized Jon King, Collins’ lump-in-throat croon and his band’s spangled jangle make maladie d’amour seem like a delicious delirium.
Just about the only thing Orange Juice shared with PiL and Go4 was a passion for the dance music of their day. “Falling” is an endearingly shaky take on disco. Drummer Steven Daly does his level best to execute the requisite bustling hi-hat and cymbal patterns, David McClymont makes a fair stab at a funk bassline, and Collins and James Kirk supply Nile Rodgers-style double-time rhythm guitar. But the end result is closer to Swell Maps sloppy than Chic superslick, while Collins doesn’t sound so much like he’s singing in the bath as singing through a mouthful of bathwater.
Disco flirtations aside, OJ’s sound mostly came direct from The Velvet Underground, especially the warm, golden guitars of Loaded songs like “Rock’n’Roll”. But in a manoevure that pretty much invented “indie,” OJ took that sound and divorced it from New York cool. They replaced the VU’s bohemian worldliness with an early-Byrds-like innocence. “You must think me very naïve” goes the first line of “Falling and Laughing”, while “Simply Thrilled Honey” vows “worldiness must keep apart from me”. As much as they worshipped Lou Reed and his Gretsch guitar, there was no room for heroin or methedrine in OJ’s world; they barely even touched alcohol. Sounds’ resident Postcard champion Dave McCullough dubbed OJ, Josef K, and Aztec Camera “New Puritans”. When OJ gleefully chanted “no more rock’n’roll for you” on “Poor Old Soul (Part Two)”, they meant it: it was high time to jettison all that decadent sex ‘n’ drugs ’n’ r & r nonsense. In this respect, Orange Juice were heirs to the cleancut straightness of Jonathan Richman and Talking Heads.
After the jejeune shambles of “Falling”, OJ’s second single “Blue Boy” was disconcertingly robust-sounding: a boisterous gallop that adds a touch of Dylan and Neil Young to the Live 1969 Velvets, with discreet swells of keyboard and a verging-on-psychedelic guitar solo. The American sound of “Blue Boy” inaugurated a whole tradition of Scottish outfits, from Lloyd Cole & The Commotions to Teenage Fanclub, who looked admiringly across the Atlantic (their gaze, ironically, often falling on Anglophiles like Big Star). After this almost manly rocker, “Simply Thrilled Honey” is gorgeously fey. Which suits the lyric’s scenario: Collins as frail waif fending off unwanted advances from a female predator. (Four years later Morrissey would replicate the scenario--“she’s too rough and I’m too delicate”--in “Pretty Girls Make Graves”). Wondrously eccentric-in-structure, “Simply Thrilled” climbs a hill at the end just to rush down it in a breathless tumble. “Poor Old Soul,” the fourth single, reverts to the discopunk of “Falling and Laughing,” all flustered rhythm guitar and a walking bassline, but it’s far better produced. This was Orange Juice’s most concerted lunge for a mainstream hit, but while it topped the independent chart effortlessly, “Poor” stopped short at #80 in the real chart.
The group’s sound was still too ramshackle for daytime radio, while Postcard lacked the muscle to get the hits Horne craved. So OJ signed to Polydor. The rest of The Glasgow School consists of all 12 tracks from Ostrich Churchyard, their first attempt at recording an album, plus a few bonus obscurities. Ostrich bears the same relation to You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever (the debut LP Polydor actually released) that Hatful Of Hollow has to The Smiths, i.e. these are the underproduced but zestier prototypes of the songs in question. There’s a scintillating freshness to the versions of “In A Nutshell” and “Dying Day.” But I prefer the You Can’t Hide take of “Consolation Prize,” the most poignant tune in OJ’s entire songbook. The Ostrich version features an incongruous Glitterband-like “HEY!” chant from the group during the first chorus, while the song’s home stretch of soaring glory doesn’t achieve quite the same giddy angle of ascent as it does on You Can’t Hide.
In the song, Collins croons to yet another object of unrequited adoration: “I wore my fringe like Roger McGuinn’s/I wore it hoping to impress/So frightfully camp, it made you laugh/Tomorrow I’ll buy myself a dress”. Probably more than anything else by Orange Juice, “Consolation Prize” is the blueprint for the C86 shambling band movement. “I’ll never be man enough for you,” sings Collins at the end, but the tone is triumphant not lamenting. Minor cutie-pop band One Thousand Violins took their name from the song’s first line, and a thousand more mid-Eighties indie groups modeled themselves on Collins & Co’s androgyny. Perhaps, on reflection, that’s not much of a legacy. But this music is its own testament. I honestly don’t understand why Alan Horne would weep after playing each hot-from-the-pressing-plant OJ single back to back with “Pale Blue Eyes” and finding it lacking. OJ might actually be that almost-unknown thing: the derivative band who are better than the thing they’re indebted to. They’re certainly more loveable than the Velvets.
Get well soon Edwyn.