Gary Raymond fires through fifty years of Scottish balladeering in search of what makes the sound so unique.
It started with Bert Jansch, although that was certainly not the beginning. His guitar playing sounded like a man wrestling with taut sticky twigs. The bent notes to his ‘Black Waterside’, the swaggered doom of his ‘Angie’. He recorded his first, eponymous album in a Glasgow kitchen in 1965, so the story goes, and he recorded a hit. He was a devout folkist, and although extremely accomplished, channelling the wiry complexities of Davy Graham’s finger picking style and the adenoidal throatiness of the 1960s male folk vocal, it was not so easy to spot what made this record so special. There is a distinct similarity between Jansch and Graham, and John Renbourn, and Roy Harper (all from the relative gentility of the South East). But Jansch stood out. With him on the scene, folk was now about grey concrete as well as rolling hills and woodland. Jansch had decided he wanted to be a guitar virtuoso, the next Davy Graham, and so he learned to be, in a matter of weeks. You look at the cover of his second album, It Don’t Bother Me (also 1965). Jansch looks nonchalantly over his shoulder into the camera lens. Nothing really bothered him. From within comes an attitude that goes way beyond what the sixties had down as ‘cool’. Many others were cool. Graham, Renbourn and Harper were cool. Jansch was something else. Scottish, possibly?
And then there was the song that made him the standard bearer of the late sixties folk scene, and moved it on from often edgeless, pop interpretations of traditional ballads, and made the scene awaken to the tragedy and grit of modernity. ‘Needle of Death’ was about demise from heroin abuse. Scottish writers would return to this social scab to pick again and again and again, of course.
Jansch’s solo work from 1965 onward, where his contemporaries became mystics and embraced hippydom, was continuously sombre, continuously excellent. Of course, he had folk supergroup Pentangle in which to relax in Technicolor – he was not immune to the ways of the hippy. But his solo work back then was monochrome, it was jeans and plaid shirt. It was Glaswegian.
Since then the Scottish balladeer has become a figure in modern music that has endured, and while the English chuck out the pop-spermatozoa of Ed Sheeran, Damien Rice and all those other bastard children of Richard Curtis movie dénouements, the Scots have maintained a credible, at times vital, voice, with one man/woman and his/her guitar. They have one thing most others do not have, and that is a collective dour grit that drapes across them all as much as any flag.
Kenny Anderson, aka King Creosote, is perhaps Scotland’s current finest songwriter, and one whose lilting, lyrical sound is instantly recognisable. Part of the Fence Collective, who can also boast artists like James Yorkston, The Burns Unit, KT Tunstall and many others as luminaries past and present, Anderson is perhaps soon to become the godfather of the Scottish folk scene. He is a writer of immense talent, who combines grit, wit, that council estate bleak nostalgia, with the eerie sound of the mountain mists. His crushingly beautiful ode to halcyon days, ‘And the Racket They Made’, is the song, if I’m lucky enough to choose, I want to be lowered into the ground to.
One thing that Anderson can claim to be, and that is part of a scene. Many of the bands in and around the Fence Collective are made up of members who frequently collaborate and intertwine. The Delgados can be found in The Burns Unit who can be found in The Soup Dragons who can be found in Teenage Fanclub. This isn’t Dermot O’Leary getting teary-eyed over Ed Sheeran covering Lady Gaga in an airless Radio 1 booth; this is a real mix of musicians who play pubs and clubs, who jump up to jam and who hang out and enjoy each other’s music. This is people with things to say before having things to sell. Former Beta Band frontman Steve Mason’s last album, Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time, is a searing protest record – a protest against the ruling elite, warmongery, bigotry, his own depression and the state of modern music. The songs clatter into one another amidst samples from Black Panther rallies and dutiful condescending lectures from Kissinger acolytes. Scotland has a radical political history, and her musicians subsume that radicalism, take it in with the strong folk traditions, and come out with a sound that is entirely theirs.
But it’s not just the loneliness of the long distance songwriter, either. You know when a Scottish band has come to you, for you are stained with the sound, the sunken shoulders and the latent threats in the lyrics. Even the most loose-limbed, such as Belle and Sebastian, are dark enough to suggest they would kill you in numbers. The Jesus and Mary Chain would kill you with extremely heavy blunt instruments. Primal Scream would use automatic weapons. And when recording their first two albums, dark sprawling discomforting nightscapes both, Simple Minds would have probably tortured and then killed you. That they went on to egomaniacal stadium onanism just goes to show what happens when you leave Scotland and the shipyards behind. Simple Minds’ first two albums, Life in a Day and Reel to Reel Cacophony, both came out in 1979, and they are pretty much a double album in tone, style and attitude. The records have the granite impregnability of a slightly-too-polished Joy Division, and perhaps with a bit of Magazine’s sonic ambition in there, too, not to mention a fashionable slab of krautrock. Manchester and Glasgow (and Berlin) have never been so entwined, like the twinned tenements wrapped upward like beanstalks.
I’ve missed out many great musicians, songwriters and bands. But it is important to note the distinctiveness of the Scottish voice is one that comes from its glorious dour roots. You can always tell a Scottish artist because they talk to you like no-one else.