“It’s weird to think there’s a book…
…where people are actively talking about the living room you had as a teenager.”
Says Bob Last, Fast Product/Pop Aural record labels founder, now film producer and chair of Leith Theatre.
That book is Hungry Beat, a vibrant and visceral chronicle of the Scottish pop underground published by White Rabbit books last year. Spanning the years 1977 to 1984, it focuses on Fast Product and Postcard Records, the definitive labels of the time, separated by the M8 but united by a fiercely independent ethos and a rare cultural confidence.
It was an era when the Scars, Orange Juice, Fire Engines and Josef K strode boldly onto the pages of the NME, an era when central Scotland was the epicentre of the alternative music scene, pushing postmodernism into the indie charts and creating a template for labels that followed, such as Factory and Zoo.
Hungry Beat vividly recaptures a time when the possibilities seemed endless, through the personal testimonies of a parade of post-punk players including the aforementioned and Hilary Morrison, co-creators of Edinburgh’s revolutionary Fast Product in ‘that’ legendary Keir Street living room. Alan McGhee and Edwyn Collins led the Glasgow charge, via Postcard Records and the self-styled “Sound of Young Scotland”.
Hungry Beat authors Douglas MacIntyre, Grant McPhee and Neil Cooper are steeped in Scottish music, Douglas as the founder of the ground-breaking Creeping Bent record label, Grant as the award-winning director of the Big Gold Dream documentary, of which more later, and Neil as an incisive commentator on all matters post-punk.
The book is a triumph, an essential social and musical history starting with year zero - the night the White Riot tour, featuring The Clash, Subway Sect and The Slits, landed in Edinburgh - and charting the path to Bob Last steering The Human League, Sheffield’s weird electronic pioneers, to the centre of the mainstream and a US number one.
Drawing extensively on Grant McPhee’s interviews for Big Gold Dream, it’s a superb oral history, largely because everyone’s still so opinionated over 40 years on. From John Peel urging Bob Last to release California Uber Alles by the Dead Kennedys, to the Fire Engine’s Davy Henderson swapping shirts with Richard Hell in a car park in Tollcross, it’s brimming with attitude, aesthetics and adventure.
As novelist and fan Ian Rankin notes in his introduction to the book: “The songs and many of the players remain and here they tell their stories and lick their wounds.”
That many of the players remain has led to an unexpected Hungry Beat pleasure, live events with an all-star house band reigniting the music and reminding us just how golden those years were.
The Edinburgh leg of Hungry Beat lit up La Belle Angel in November, kicking off with a provocative question and answer session with Bob Last, steered by journalist Nicola Meighan, before exploding into a blaze of post-punk nostalgia, sounding just as incendiary as it did the first time round.
Post-punk scenester and actor Tam Dean Burn declaimed extracts from the book, resplendent in a Fire Engines t-shirt and backed by a Velvet Underground-style drone, provided by the Hungry Beat band. The band’s a Caledonian counter-culture primer all on its own, made up of Douglas MacIntyre, Stuart Kidd, and Campbell Owens, formerly of Aztec Camera and Paul Quinn and the Independent Group. Leith’s own Malcolm Ross, formerly of just about everyone, but notably Josef K, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera, is on lead guitar.
During the evening they were joined by an assemblage of post-punk royalty for a thrilling romp through Fast and Postcard’s back pages, including a weird and wonderful take on The Human League’s Being Boiled, Orange Juice’s Felicity sounding as lovely as ever, and Josef K’s It’s Kind of Funny, all with Bluebell Ken McCluskey on vocals.
Boots for Dancing’s Dave Carson stepped up for a raucous version of The Mekons’ Where Were You?, and a deliciously twisted take on Gang of Four’s Damaged Goods.
Former Scars Paul and John Mackie hit peak post-punk with a blistering Adultery - Scotland’s Anarchy In The
UK - and a superbly menacing Horrowshow with Tam Dean Burn on vocals.
The Fire Engines’ contorted classic Candyskin ended the evening, with Ken McCluskey on vocals and Dave Carson and Tam on the la, la, las. Fast, intense and perfect!
The next Hungry Beat celebration event is at the CCA Glasgow in February, as part of Celtic Connections. The Hungry Beat band will perform songs associated with Fast Product and Postcard Records with guest vocalists including Fay Fife, Tam Dean Burn and Dave Carson. ■
Info: Hungry Beat is published by whiterabbitbooks.co.uk £20
The Hungry Beat Band and Bob Last