Scotland’s Top 60: The Best Bands from North of the Border (10-1)
by Thomas Blake
10. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band
Alex Harvey was to glam rock what Shane McGowan was to folk, or what William Blake was to romanticism: existing within the broad framework of a genre, but individual, inspired and iconoclastic enough to completely transcend that genre without seeming to give a shit about it. Already a veteran of the music scene (he began playing in skiffle bands as early as 1954 and once supported the pre-Ringo Beatles), he formed SAHB in 1972 from members of progressive rockers Tear Gas. The SAHB sound was anything but prog though, drawing as it did from wild R&B and a bawdy, Brechtian theatricality that was simultaneously self-aware and bonkers. Harvey died of a heart attack in 1982, aged 46, but his music remains some of the most unique ever recorded, anywhere. And he was responsible for the best ever song about getting your dick bitten by a hooker.
9. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions
Literate art-pop was Glasgow’s thing in the eighties, and no-one did it better than Cole. The first Commotions album, Rattlesnakes, was a fully-formed masterpiece without a single slack moment. The lyrics bordered on the pretentious (references to Simone de Beauvoir, Leonard Cohen and François Truffaut decorate the songs) but the knowing nudge and wink with which they are delivered makes them more than bearable: Cole was always a cool and confident conveyor of words, even in his early twenties, and was enviably proficient at producing an instantly hummable melody. Two further albums followed, each with certified moments of genius, before Cole embarked on an excellent solo career which shows no signs of stopping.
I’ve heard interviews with Donovan, and he doesn’t sound like a particularly pleasant chap. There’s nothing nasty about him, but his annoyingly high opinion of himself seems a bit misplaced in light of the fact that one of his most famous songs – Mellow Yellow – is basically about giving drugs to his fourteen-year-old girlfriend. Add to that the fact that he looks like a cross between Jimmy Page, Steve Bruce and Bungle the Bear and you wouldn’t think he had much to boast about. But then you remember the songs. Not the shitty Dylan-aping singles of 1965 (Catch the Wind, Colours, The Universal Soldier) but everything after that until 1973’s Essence To Essence. We’re talking eleven top-notch studio albums in eight years, plus a whole load of unreleased songs and excellent live recordings. The guy worked with Jeff Beck, the Beatles, various members of Led Zeppelin, Nicky Hopkins, Rod Stewart, Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson and jazz flautist Harold McNair. He covered William Shakespeare and was covered by King Crimson. He was a major influence on the young Vashti Bunyan. Most importantly he recorded some of the most enduring songs of the era, from the hip jazz-folk of Sunny Goodge Street and the funky psych of Barababjagal to the pastoral Isle of Islay and the elliptical, Maharajah-baiting Epistle to Dippy.
7. Trembling Bells
Alex Neilson is everywhere. From playing drums for just about everyone on the experimental folk scene, to freaking out with modern jazz/mixed media combo Death Shanties, and when he isn’t touring or recording he finds time to write for The Wire. The Trembling Bells are as close as Neilson has come to breaking into the mainstream. Their sound ranges between folk-rock, country and, most recently, heavy psych, and Carbeth is one of the great debut albums of the last decade.
6. Alasdair Roberts
Like Alex Neilson, Roberts is super-prolific and willing to try his hand at various forms. He veers between traditional and contemporary, acoustic and electric, solo albums and wide-ranging collaboration. Taking folk as a starting point, he has worked with country singers, poets and free-folk improvisers. He also has a huge knowledge of folklore and traditional music, among other things, and talks eloquently on these subjects, as this interview I conducted with him in 2013 shows.
5. Cocteau Twins
Elizabeth Fraser is one of the most extraordinary vocalists in modern music, and Robin Guthrie one of the most accomplished composers and multi-instrumentalists. As solo artists they have been responsible for admirable bodies of work, but as the core of the Cocteau Twins they created an entire new musical landscape. Fraser’s inimitable vocals, which often resembled glossolalia (particularly on the mindblowing Victorialand), were a work of art in themselves, and Guthrie’s settings were so unlike anything else in the musical climate of the 1980s that it is remarkable that they ever got a record deal. They never made a bad album and their work sounds unique to this day.
4. Lonnie Donegan
Quite simply one of the most important musicians of the twentieth century. Without him no Beatles, and probably no punk. Forget the novelty songs (although some of them are great, and can be seen as precursors to the Beatles’ more humorous tunes), it is the high energy proto-punk-folk of his readings of American standards like Pick A Bale Of Cotton and Rock Island Line that really revolutionised – and democratised – music in the 1950s.
3. Incredible String Band
Responsible not only for some of the best songs in the folk idiom, but also for introducing any number of exotic new instruments to the British scene (and discovering, nurturing and in some cases lending their talents to many young musicians, not least Vashti Bunyan), Robin Willliamson and Mike Heron survived questionable religious leanings and accusations of hippie daftness to record some of the weirdest and most wonderful music to emerge from the counter-cultural experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s. Even their drug free, Scientology-era albums (notably Changing Horses and U from 1969 and 1970) were stunningly odd. The perfect example of two excellent and obviously competitive songwriters egging each other on to ever fancier and freakier feats of excess.
2. Vashti Bunyan
Just Another Diamond Day, Vashti Bunyan’s debut album, is one of the most perfectly formed works of art that I know of. It took her thirty five years to record a follow-up, but when she did she proved that the first one was no fluke. Technically, she is English (born in Newcastle), but her long residence north of the border and the way in which the Scottish landscape seeped into those early songs, qualifies her for this list, in my mind at least.
1. Belle and Sebastian
The best Scottish band ever. But you knew that, right?