Mark Fleming, a past contributor to The Leither, has just finished a memoir, 1976 - Growing Up Bipolar. This is more than a lurid story of psych wards and the side-effects of long-term anti-psychotic medication. It is a celebration of the rejuvenating potency of music, at times a vivid celebration of Scotland’s electrifying post-punk music and cultural scenes, awash with enthusiastic anecdotes about gigging, songwriting, recording sessions at BBC’s Maida Vale studios, and teenage obsessions with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
spend most of my time in the lounge, passive smoking hundreds of cigarettes. Beyond a galaxy of fag burns on the carpet tiles, the room’s focal point is the TV. After the evening meal, chairs are arranged in rows before this altar. Although I’ve watched for hours, news reports and drama plots just wash over me. Sportscene does stand out on what must be Saturday. I overhear a nurse chatting during the highlights of Celtic’s 4-0 trouncing of Dunfermline.
He was there, in the Jungle. Frank McAvennie bagged his fifth since joining from West Ham. Club record. Three-quarters of a million. Souness approached him at last year’s World Cup in Mexico. Wanted him to be Rangers first Catholic signing to signal his bold new direction. He adds, Macca KB’d him. Signing a token Uncle Tam’s not going to stop the legions singing The Sash.
The chairs have been stacked against the walls. A teenage girl places a bulky cassette player onto the carpet. Introduces herself as Susan, an occupational therapist. For the keep-fit session we’ve just to follow her movements. She pokes a button. Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Physical’.
I can’t remember when I last paid attention to music. A chasm opened during the summer. After buying albums and singles, playing in bands that performed gigs, recorded demos and albums, even being broadcast on Radio 1 and Radio Forth, my interest waned like a dying bulb. I became more comfortable with silence. So, it dawns on me this cheesy song, with its dance-lite beat, insipid lyrics but catchy melodies, is the first time I’ve listened to music for months.
Olivia implores there’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s done horizontally. Lust is such a prevailing undercurrent of pop music yet individual songs have always been vilified by the Mary Whitehouses of this world. Typified by the BBC banning Gang of Four’s rubbers you hide, Frankie Goes To Hollywood when Holly Johnson sang about avoiding coming, and OMD’s ‘Enola Gay’ for glorifying homosexuality.
The eradication of desire from my own radar has been an obvious symptom of my depression, but Olivia puts me in mind of another song entitled ‘Physical’ that was way more intense. Long before Adam Ant’s chart-topping, swashbuckling shtick, sporting the hussar tunic worn by David Hemmings in The Charge of the Light Brigade, he was reviled by the music press. Prompted to write ‘Press Darlings’ in reply. He was supposed to be a punk but ignored anarchy, fascism and boredom, and celebrated ‘ant music for sex people.’
I snigger at everyone following Susan’s lead. Gyrating from side to side. Stretching. Groaning at the unfamiliar muscle strains. Now we’re marching on the spot. You can’t help but laugh at the incongruous way we instinctively move to the beat. From Polynesian villages to Detroit house clubs to a locked psychiatric unit, the way music inspires self-expression with synchronised movement is one of the most wonderful human instincts.
In the doorway, I spot two nuns nodding to the rhythm. I’ve no idea how often nuns visit the ward, but one patient has RFC inked into his neck. I wait for the inevitable reaction. He’s too busy exercising. The weird irony of performing star jumps in front of nuns, stretching our limbs like St Andrew’s crucifixion.
Closing my eyes, I’m reminded of pogoing. Taken back to my youth … Clouds is rammed. My white T-shirt, the one I wore to PE last year, now marker-penned with band names, is plastered to my skin with the heat. ANTZ: ANTMUSIC FOR SEXPEOPLE daubed across my shoulder blades. The Ants’ London gigs draw cult followers wearing fetish gear, PVC masks, reflecting their song titles: ‘Beat My Guest,’ ‘Whip in My Valise,’ ‘Rubber People.’ Does fantasising about Servalan from Blake’s 7 in her black leather uniforms make me a sex person?
The lights cut. A pregnant pause. Everyone craning towards the stage. Before me, two punkettes. Hair sculpted with egg whites into Statue of Liberty spikes. The blonde in a torn blouse, the brunette a fishnet vest revealing her bra. Homage to The Slits. Perfume potent, an intoxicating aphrodisiac. A roar from the front gathers momentum until everyone is cheering. Whistling. The stage lights ignite, revealing Stiff Little Fingers. In a gruff Belfast brogue encapsulating fury at the decades of mindless sectarian violence instigated by the partitioning of their homeland, Jake Burns barks about a suspect device that has left 2,000 dead. Everyone is leaping up and down and stumbling and struggling back up and howling the words and although I’ve got school in the morning there’s nothing beyond this moment.
Susan presses ‘stop.’ Like everyone else I’m breathless. Heart thumping. I’m visualising the flat-line of my depression starting to pulse again. Tightening my fists, I savour this heartbeat. My life’s relentless drum. I imagine this as the rhythm of so many songs I’ve long forgotten; the records and tapes that have been gathering dust in my bedroom for months. I need to listen to them again. All of them. Every single and flip side. Somewhere inside there’s still the essence of a naïve 16-year-old punk. A disciple of Iggy Pop. Lusting for life. ■
Info: Mark Fleming’s 1976 – Growing Up Bipolar is published by Tartan Moon at £11.99. Available at Portobello Books (and other outlets) now