Classic Scottish Albums: Glasvegas: Tartan Noir?

Episode 13 of the Classic Scottish Albums Podcast looks at the incredible debut album by Glasvegas. Link HERE

The following is a paper I presented at the Singing Storytellers Symposium at the University of Cape Breton.

Depending on which version of the anecdote you believe, the term Tartan Noir was cooked up by L.A. crime writer James Ellroy to describe an emergent Scottish fiction whose authors included Ian Rankin, or by Ian Rankin himself who may have suggested the term to Ellroy while waiting to have a book signed. In any case the term neatly sums up the sometimes-gritty personality of a nation – Scotland – while acknowledging the tendency of its artists to look West for inspiration.

In my work for BBC Radio Scotland I’ve presented a series on Classic Scottish Albums, now available as an epic podcast, that in one sense attempts simply to tell great stories about great music. But of course there is a deeper research question around the identity of great Scottish music, the development of a music canon and the process of developing archives. Narrative strands, themes, categories emerge over time and alongside the ‘Celtic Mystics’ who number among them Donovan, The Incredible String Band and John Martyn, I’ve often mentally grouped the socio-political voices of Capercaillie, Deacon Blue and The Proclaimers. Emerging from my list is also a music that seems to embody some of the grit and darkness hinted at by that phrase first applied in a literary context…

One of my favourite editions of the Classic Scottish Albums radio show was that which featured the eponymous album by the group Glasvegas, released by Columbia Records in 2008. On that debut James Allan seemed like a songwriter capable of noticing new things: Flowers And Football Tops, a rumination on roadside shrines and the mute, anguished narratives behind them was one notable example and the portrait of Geraldine the social worker another. In short, the music suggested a connection to the craft of telling the everyday story in the everyday voice with humour and what I perceived as a kind of humanist bite. Among the most interesting recordings on Glasvegas is the spoken word piece Stabbed, which has its origins in an early Glasvegas single (I’m Gonna Get Stabbed, 2004). The reworked piece that appears on the 2008 album is sonically a world apart both from that early single and from much of the other music that surrounds it however I would argue that in some ways it is the perfect distillation of the distinctly Scottish vision of Allan and his collaborators and I’ll go on to discuss this later. The piece is also strongly reminiscent of Past, Present & Future by The Shangri-Las, a 1960s Red Dot Records girl group whose famous recordings, conceived and produced by George ‘Shadow’ Morton among others include Leader Of The Pack and I Can Never Go Home Anymore. The similarities of the recorded performances, the narrative material and the approaches of the performers are striking: the differences equally so.

My own reintroduction to the work of The Shangri-Las came in two waves. The first was through New York singer songwriter Amy Allison, who despite a reputation as a kind of alt-country chanteuse was clearly in thrall to Brill Building era songwriters and was able to Xerox the smart, tough but vulnerable wordplay of Goffin / King, Barry / Greenwich, not to mention her own father Mose Allison, with clarity and freshness. Amy also loved ‘The Shangs’, identifying an authenticity in the somewhat overheated melodrama of their recordings clearly related to the narratives of her own youth, the time and place in which she formed a relationship with their music and also recalling Laura Nyro’s sleeve note for Gonna Take A Miracle, which reads “Nights in New York street angels running down steps into the echoes of the train station to sing’. The second wave that brought me to Past, Present & Future was the death of Alex Chilton in 2010. Chilton, most famous for his 1960’s hits with The Box Tops and most influential for records that nobody bought; Big Star’s three brilliant albums and his own chaotic Like Flies On Sherbert among them, had been adopted as a kind of talisman by a certain cut of Glasgow guitar groups and had alternately thrilled and frustrated his disciples by grumpily refusing to play any of those influential songs that nobody bought, opting instead to play amazing covers of daft Memphis ephemera like Ernie K Doe’s Tee Ta Tee Ta Ta, Danny Pearson’s What’s Your Sign Girl and selections from the musical Bye Bye Birdie. Less than a month after he died his widow Laura came to Glasgow to see the great music town and meet the people Alex had privately raved about for so long; at an Alex tribute show I accompanied Laura on a song she and Alex often played and ‘sang’ round the house; The Shangri-Las: Past, Present & Future, written by ‘Shadow’ Morton, Jerry Leiber and Artie Butler, produced by ‘Shadow’ and released on Red Dot in 1966.

Link: The Shangri-Las: Past, Present & Future

The narrative of Past, Present & Future is related from the perspective of a young girl ruminating on the three time locations of the title. Over the course of the piece it becomes clear that something traumatic has happened in ‘the past’ and is travelling through the present into the future although we are never told what that trauma is. The narrator, Shangs lead vocalist Mary Weiss alternates between speaking to herself, addressing the audience and conducting a dialogue with another character in what presents as a dream, almost trance state. She is hesitating from explaining something, leaving lines unfinished and hanging: “There were moments when…well…there were moments when…” The past is full of ‘silent joys and broken toys”, in fact everything seems broken in this story, most clearly the trust of the speaker. In the ‘present’ the girl narrates one side of a conversation with a suitor who asks her to go to a dance and later to walk along the beach. Here, there are more than just hints of darkness and the narrator is assertive and insistent, spelling out a message with pauses, repetition and full stops: ‘But don’t try to touch me, don’t try to touch me, ‘cause that will never. happen. again’. While Weiss has denied that Past, Present & Future alludes to an assault or rape I would argue that it is fair to question her assertion that it refers to a simple story of teen rejection or loneliness such is the power, not just of what is said, but the brooding darkness of the musical setting and what might be seen as deliberate narrative silences.

There are strongly theatrical elements to the recorded arrangement and performance, notably the ‘Shall We Dance” section where ‘Shadow’ Morton gives full scope to his kitsch Hollywood / cinematic vision with a swirling arrangement of strings, bells and hammering piano figures that finally gives way to the lacy thrum of vibrato electric guitar over which Weiss intones ‘I used to sing a tisket, a tasket, a green and yellow basket, I’m all packed up and I’m on my way and I’m gonna fall in love’ in a voice that speaks of far more misery and disappointment than rightly belong in that children’s rhyme. Themes of compromised, broken innocence and pessimism are not simply derived from the lyrical narrative but from a conflation of sonic gestures including the ghostly ‘backing vocals’, Morton’s impressionistic interludes and the inherent qualities of the performers. Those qualities most notably include the speaking voice of Mary Weiss; Amy Allison discusses her love for the recordings of the Shangri Las with particular reference to the accent of the vocalist. “What I liked about Mary is she had just the right amount of Queens / Long Island accent. It was very honest and tough / vulnerable. The songs were dramatic but Mary was subtle and plain spoken and that’s what made them work. I loved it because she sounded like girls I knew on Long Island.” It is this combination that imbues Past, Present & Future with what Allison identifies as a kind of overheated, melodramatic authenticity. While the track becomes grandiose the narrative voice at its centre remains plain and lacking in theatricality. The effect is for many listeners, singularly moving. This ‘plain speaking’ is just one of a number of elements Past, Present & Future has in common with Stabbed by Glasvegas.

Link: Glasvegas: Stabbed

Beethoven’s famous Moonlight Sonata is the first obvious common element between the tracks. While Past, Present & Future parodies elements of the Sonata, and Stabbed quotes verbatim from one section of the Beethoven piece both derive much atmosphere from the somnambulistic spookiness of its tempo and gloomy minor key arpeggios. Exaggerated use of reverb is also common to the recordings, both in sections of the vocal and in the way the piano and other instruments are treated. This perhaps connotes mediated images of churches, night forests or graveyards. The visual image being evoked by the shared sonic language of Past, Present & Future and Stabbed is not that of the young girl happily singing ‘a tisket a tasket’ but that of the older, haunted girl considering a broken, empty and reverberating landscape and in the case of Stabbed of the hunted central character, alone but for the diminishing echoes in the space that separates him from his hunters. The tracks share a structure of four spoken sections of varying lengths (with the addition of one short instrumental section in each) and clock in within 10 seconds of each other. The word ‘stabbed’ (‘I’m gonnae get stabbed’) falls on exactly the same part of the bar as the word ‘past’, which opens the Shangri Las recording. James Allan, author of Stabbed confirmed his awareness of Shangri Las music when I interviewed him for Classic Scottish Albums: Glasvegas although it is questionable how many of the specific structural and sonic similarities were the direct decision of the writer or as a result of collaborative processes between the musicians and their production team, a process which might be said to include a kind of collective immersion in an established popular music language.

It is possible also to hear some of the same dispassionate tone in the vocal delivery of James Allan and Mary Weiss. But where Weiss is caught somewhere between delivering an at-times poetic narrative, reliving events and sleepily talking to herself, Allan is bluntly resigned, his language brutal and darkly comic. The narrative of Past, Present & Future is a gloomy but otherwise richly coloured patchwork of half-facts and hinted-at conclusions; Stabbed lays the facts bare with monochromatic clarity and despite one moment of attempted street smart braggadocio (‘You don’t want tae stab me, you don’t want tae stab me, because you don’t know ma family and our capabilities’) the writer sees the ‘swords and knives’ of the gang – the feared Baltic Fleeto – and flatly acknowledges his fate as sealed. The visualisation of the central character’s demise is not outlined by an expansive poetry of sound – Stabbed is delivered by one piano, one vocal and a deeply reverbed sonic texture – or by deliberate narrative silences but by an incisive acceptance of the facts and by the unaffected vernacular of the speaker. I would argue that James Allan’s performing ‘voice’ is authentically of his own time and place in a way that some idiomatic, exaggerated Scottish accents in contemporary popular music are not. And where Past, Present & Future plays with time and point-of-view Allan takes a more straightforward approach to dramatic structure, addressing the audience directly and introducing in short order his predicament, short-lived rebellion and moment of crisis before finally taking flight, along the way introducing clearly defined antagonists (The Fleeto Boys). The conclusion (‘It’s time tae go, it’s time tae run. Run, rabbit, run. Run, rabbit, run’) with its piano joke (a funereal take on ‘run, run, run’ that also recalls John Lennon’s stark Mother) reinforces the vernacular authenticity of both character and author, suggesting one last grinning moment of defiance.

Stabbed, along with Allan’s other work is influenced and formed by American popular music, particularly the rakish, louche Hollywood of Phil Spector; but it might be argued that Allan’s work can also be viewed within the context of an emerging musical Tartan Noir. The literary anointees of the term, among them McIlvanney, Mina and Rankin, have created a relatable mirror of the darker alleys of Scottish life with an approach to place, character and dialogue that chime with a frankness which is often recognisably working class or at very least of the people. The cheery vulgarity, coarseness, and brutality embodied by some of this fiction is also to be found in the music of Glasvegas, Bill Wells & Aiden Moffat and in previous lives in the work of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Bert Jansch. It is the everyday acceptance of the reality of treachery, death and violence that we also find in early Scottish ballads like The Twa Corbies; in this famous piece two crows discuss the whereabouts of a veritable feast, a ‘new slain knight’ whose body, is abandoned by ‘his hawk, his hound and his lady fair’ the latter of whom has already taken a new lover. In other variants of the tale, notably Three Ravens, there are hints of rebirth, transformation and redemption framed in a delicate and magical poetry. All that is to be found in The Twa Corbies is pragmatic brutality; the slain knight will provide food for the birds, salacious gossip for them to ‘mak a mane’ over and golden hair to mend their nests in the winter, by which time the bones will be picked bare and the freezing wind will be the knight’s only companion in death. The crows do not recognise tragedy in this, only opportunity, sustenance, humour and the inevitability of nature.

I have argued elsewhere that the Scottishness of Scottish music and musicians often presents as a kind of humility and that political and other concerns of Scottish songwriters are most comfortably expressed from a local perspective. Robert Burns Man For ‘A That might be the same road sweeper who ‘packs his lunch in a Sunblest bag’ and dreams of a dinghy called Dignity or Ewan MacColl’s My Old Man who was ‘skilled in the moulding trade’, handed his pay packet over every week and was allowed ‘a few jars on a Saturday night’ or indeed the Proclaimer from Auchtermuchty who walks 500 miles simply to ‘haver’ to anyone who will listen. Similarly in the emerging strand of music that looks at the darker side of Scottish lives, the Tartan Noir is a Noir of the everyday, the ordinary and the understated.

David Scott

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