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Sat, May. 10th, 2008 12:58 pm
TV Revisionism: Caledonia Dreaming

Caledonia Dreaming, the recent BBC documentary about Postcard Records, is now online in its entirety. Right from the start, it's as infuriating as it is intriguing. "And now on BBC Scotland we celebrate the ups and downs of one of Scotland's most iconic record labels," says the continuity announcer, "Postcards". It's so iconic that the man has never heard of it, apparently. The woman doing the documentary voice-over doesn't sound much better. Luckily, though, my cousin Justin appears within a few seconds to tell us that the A&R men coming up to Scotland in the early 80s were cocaine-snorting, vodka-swilling wankers. Now there's someone who knows what's he's talking about!



The framing of Caledonia Dreaming is wonky. First there's that title, which of course refers to California Dreaming, and ignores one of the key points about Josef K, for me anyway: their Euro-centrism. Secondly, it's assumed that Postcard was all about the city of Glasgow; Edinburgh's music scene is hardly mentioned at all. Thirdly, all that happened before Postcard is summed up with a couple of stock shots of Rod Stewart (not a Scot) and the Bay City Rollers. No mention here of the Incredible String Band, Donovan, or other acts from the 60s and 70s who had already put Scotland on the pop map.



Even in the post-Postcard sections of the doc, there are curious omissions. There's lots about Wet Wet Wet and The Proclaimers, but no mention at all of the Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream. There's also an odd emphasis on commercial success or failure; this is a documentary about Postcard, after all, which had zero success. Yet Altered Images (who weren't on Postcard) get more screentime than Josef K, who were. Aztec Camera get about two seconds in the whole programme, and the Go-Betweens aren't mentioned at all. Quite a lot is made of Franz Ferdinand's re-discovery of the early 80s sound, but the Fire Engines, who toured with FF and influenced their sound a lot more than Orange Juice, don't get a single reference. And John Peel, an important influence, wasn't spoken of at all.



There's far too much emphasis on the Blue-Eyed Caledonian Soul period of the mid-80s (Wet Wet Wet, Hue and Cry, Deacon Blue, Texas and, dare I say it, Del Amitri); music which, though it may have shifted mega-billions of units in its time, isn't musically innovative enough to inspire anyone in the future, and, as Paul Morley rightly says, represents the major music industry reasserting its control and reining in the very maverick talents whose creativity brought them on flights north in the first place. As my cousin Justin (a great interviewee and narrator) puts it: "They were absolute wankers, these guys. They didn't know anything about music. They didn't care about music. They only cared about getting paid a hundred grand a year."



I had an odd feeling, watching the film. For a start, I've met so many of the people interviewed, despite not having lived in Scotland since 1984. It was great to see the young, beautiful, camp Edwyn Collins smirking on a sofa and talking about how the major labels could come to Glasgow "and bring the coals to Newcastle and the fish from the fire". It was interesting to catch one solitary glimpse, in Part 2, of what Paul Haig looks like now (slightly mad-eyed behind dark glasses, and complaining that Alan Horne merely tolerated his band).



Although I did get glimpses of the scene that birthed my own music career, it was through the depressingly revisionist lens of mainstream TV which, as the Reid Brothers would put it, will "never understand, huh huh huh". They'll never understand what exquisite mysterious pleasure there was to be had from the Josef K album in 1981, what a secret rush of amphetamines and darkness it contained, how it turned away from America and towards Brussels and Prague, how it transformed Edinburgh into an Eastern European town, how it channelled Camus, how it fitted with the Citizens' Theatre's Genet season.



That'll all have to wait for my own autobiography (not that I'm promising one, mind), as will any account of my own part in Scotland's music scene, a shifty and peripheral and commercially-insignificant role, to be sure, but, in that sense, not much different from Postcard's. One thing I'm happy about is that I've never had a golden age, a hit, an anchor. I'm not pinned to any of the three decades this documentary covered, just as I'm not pinned, ultimately, to the geographical location of Scotland.



I'm making a record right now with a Scot, Joe Howe from Gay Against You. The track I finished minutes before watching the Postcard documentary takes a sketch Joe had made, a 180bpm 8-bit baroque fantasia, and marries it to the urgent existentialist spiky sparkery of Magazine's third album.



Is it a "Scottish" song? In some way it is; we're both Scots. It also spans the exact period Caledonia Dreaming covers; I started in the Postcard era, very much because of Postcard, and Joe wasn't even born when the label disappeared. The new song audibly contains both 1980 and 2008. But I think it's fair to say that this is a song nobody from television will ever hear or understand. And maybe that's no' such a bad thing, hen.

33CommentReplyFlag

jannavarro
jannavarro
j. navarro
Sat, May. 10th, 2008 11:31 am (UTC)

that's definitely no' such a bad think...


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petit_paradis
petit_paradis
erik
Sat, May. 10th, 2008 11:50 am (UTC)
briefly

they only focus on the associates successfull period too.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, May. 10th, 2008 11:54 am (UTC)

I'm starting to think that "iconic" is the most weasly -- and the most revealing -- word in TV cultural commentary. It basically means (and you can imagine this being spoken in the voice of Kirsty Wark if you like):

"Now we're going to tell you about something that neither we the broadcasters nor you the audience know much about. You don't know about it because we didn't tell you about it, in fact. But it's been drawn to our attention that, although the thing itself never got anywhere, some of its derivatives, further down the line, made lots of important people, including celebrities, very rich. And they wouldn't have got rich without the tiny wee obscure thing existing. So it probably deserves coverage of some kind. This coverage we will now bring you. Let's hope to fuck our researchers did their jobs."

Of course, anyone relying on television for their cultural coverage deserves all they get. They deserve to hear about stuff 28 years late.


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restingpedant
restingpedant
Resting Pedant
Sat, May. 10th, 2008 01:26 pm (UTC)

That's surely Kirsty's definition of the word seminal too.


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inuitmonster
inuitmonster
inuitmonster
Sat, May. 10th, 2008 12:23 pm (UTC)

And John Peel, an important influence, wasn't spoken of at all.

Maybe this was deliberate, rather than a curious omission - a sign of creeping Peel fatigue?


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niddrie_edge
niddrie_edge
raymond
Sat, May. 10th, 2008 01:19 pm (UTC)

They did assert that they were looking at the political empowerment angle of the "Scottish music industry". It led to political statements from Hue and Cry, Deacon Blue at al. They almost say, in fact they do, that Devolution happened because of an indiginous pop scene!
A friend and I were reminiscing about the amphetamine driven euro-centric Edinburgh scene. He says, the guys at Forrest Road getting their French Blues were so into Iggy Pop (who was as French as they come) and intolerant of anyone who even suggested Jazz might be an important music. Then they read the NME.
I disagreed. Speed made for paranoid scenes. I do think a lot of the Scottish scene never made it past that other punk precursor bad pub rock.
As for euro..what happened to Jim Kerr is the big question.



Oh yeah. Derek "left".



Edited at 2008-05-10 01:41 pm (UTC)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, May. 10th, 2008 01:50 pm (UTC)

They almost say, in fact they do, that Devolution happened because of an indiginous pop scene!

That's a ridiculous claim, and I must say it makes me nervous to hear Pat Kane saying in the film that the 80s ascent of Scotpop was part of a "raising of the national voice". I mean, I can see how that might justify the Blue-Eyed Celtic Soul bands in ways that a formal analysis of their work wouldn't, but I remain a formalist and an elitist in the sense that I don't want pop's significance to be merely sociological or political. I want it to be aesthetic, primarily.

As for euro..what happened to Jim Kerr is the big question.

Jim's first three albums have a European tint. After that -- and the corner is turned at the exact point of the interview you've embedded -- he had a hit in America, and started making songs called "The American" ("Ameri- Ameri- Ameri- Ameri- American") and "Big Gold Dream". Which is also the point I stopped buying his records.



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eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
Sat, May. 10th, 2008 01:49 pm (UTC)

I find it leaves a horrible taste in my mouth when media try to handle this sort of thing. On a much larger scale, look at how time periods are represented in mass culture - the fifties, say by Elvis; the sixties, by the Beatles, (and everyone's always a hippy!). It's an unhealthy obsession with iconography as much as anything else. The thing is, this day-in day-out bombardment gets to form the reference point in audiences' minds.

Why does this happen? I'm not sure, but I think it comes down to trying to portray a complex reality in a medium which, owing to its very nature is perhaps not the best way forward. Plus the preconceptions of the programme makers, adhering to certain 'professional norms' end up either omitting or simplifying to the point where the final 'product' is really a distortion, a rewrite. Yet it acquires legitimacy. I have a text by John Fiske, (a relic from my days at the Centre for Mass Communications research!) on this idea:
"we can say that what passes for reality in any culture is the product of that culture's codes, so 'reality' is always encoded, it is never 'raw'. If this piece of encoded reality is televised, the technical codes and representational conventions of the medium are brought to bear on it, so as to make it a) transmittable technologically and b) an appropriate cultural text for its audiences'

I think the second part of that is particularly relevant here.
I'm going to quote Zappa again, speaking of the 60's in New york:

"It's not like you'd go on stage and there would be a sea of people with long hair all decked out in 60s fashion, like the special Time-Warner version of the 60s, they weren't like that. They were people who were from the suburbs, who were coming to this concert out of curiosity, weren't really part of any kind of a scene, except their local community, and basically stood there with their mouths open just going 'Duh!'."

So with tv, it seems like you get a sort of crass manipulation of subjective experience passed off as historical document :-(



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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sat, May. 10th, 2008 01:59 pm (UTC)

That Fiske quote -- and I agree -- is pretty much a restatement of McLuhan's "the medium is the message".

As for the Zappa line, I think that's also true. If you look at photos of audiences in the punk era, you don't see people with spiky hair and bondage trousers. You see shaggy-haired 70s people, for the most part, who wouldn't look out of place at an Abba show, and possibly went to those too.

The change from flared jeans to straight-leg seemed like a big thing at the time, betokening the shift from prog to punk, but I think the shift from modernism to postmodernism was the big change, and it's interesting to see that reflected in the documentary. Not in the commentary, of course, but in a shot of a Paul Morley piece whose headline mentions "Postmodern pop".

It's one of the earlier uses of the term, and it's interesting that Morley tied it into the Scottish pop scene. I think Edwyn Collins, for example, had a great sense of postmodernist style. People tend to call it "camp" in his case, but it's more than that. Visually and musically, he very much knew the way the wind was blowing.


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cheapsurrealist
cheapsurrealist
Dave Nold
Sat, May. 10th, 2008 03:55 pm (UTC)

No mention here of the Incredible String Band

Well let's give them their due. At least part one of their due.


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mippy
mippy
Wronger Than Ten Hitlers
Sat, May. 10th, 2008 04:28 pm (UTC)

Where were Scars, too? Also, JAMC got on the cover of Smash Hits in the 80s, which was a major achievement for a band which took the sound of the Beach Boys and made it as chart-unfriendly as possible. They also missed Idlewild, who had to rein themselves in - or just 'mature' - to get known outside the press. Wet Wet Wet I understood the inclusion of - Wishing I Was Lucky was blue-eyed soul, but like the equally horrifically slick Simply Red's Something Got Me Started, it was about unemployment in Fatcher's Bwitain.

Rod Stewart is a Scot in popular consciousness, though, sadly.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, May. 11th, 2008 01:01 am (UTC)

The Scars feature in the other documentary about Postcard, which I hope hasn't been stymied by this one.


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eptified
eptified
H. Duck
Sat, May. 10th, 2008 06:33 pm (UTC)

Q: Will there be a chemikal underground doc in ten years? Will it be this bad?

A: I hope so, cause that means someone'll remember them


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(Anonymous)
Sat, May. 10th, 2008 10:14 pm (UTC)
No Mogwai Either

The BBC have to produce a certain percentage of 'regional programming' under their licensing terms. This documentary felt like filler to hit those targets. In the same way that Doctor Who is now a Welsh regional programme.


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microworlds
microworlds
Sparkachu Maelworth
Sun, May. 11th, 2008 01:24 am (UTC)
Somewhat relevant

A comparison between The Fire Engines and Franz Ferdinand, who covered each other:
Franz Ferdinand- Jacqueline
The Fire Engines- Jacqueline (cover)

The Fire Engines- Get Up and Use Me
Franz Ferdinand- Get Up and Use Me (cover)


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pay_option07
pay_option07
Sun, May. 11th, 2008 01:59 am (UTC)
Donovan, or other acts

Can't get much better than Donovan with extended metaphors like "Elevator in the brain hotel." Lyrics are as clear as glacial melt. Great post!

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(Anonymous)
Sun, May. 11th, 2008 04:04 am (UTC)

+BOY/GIRL LOVE PRIDE WORLD WIDE+


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toasterinthbath
toasterinthbath
toasterinthbath
Tue, May. 13th, 2008 02:20 am (UTC)

Momus, you carefully omit to mention that your cousin Justin ("a great interviewee and narrator") is also the bassist in ("dare I say it") Del Amitri!


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand


(Anonymous)
Thu, May. 15th, 2008 11:43 pm (UTC)
scotland muses

i love the beta-band debris:

steve mason's projects (ie):

http://www.myspace.com/metalbiscuit

and the aliens:

http://www.myspace.com/thealiens1

also love the momus though mostly through the music of the intellect via web posts thoughts that help maintain me sanity; but i also own 20 vodka jellies-- the cd is in my attic storage room and the tracks are in apple lossless on the ipod 160 GB hooked up to (frivolous techie audiophile details) a headroom total airhead amp and some etymotic phones)and they(the tracks) gets good play in my hipster perambulations, which, it must be said, are (justifiably) highly paranoid american hipster perambulations. in germania huh.
peace


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Sep. 21st, 2009 10:35 am (UTC)
Re: scotland muses


Bleating in the - where- are-the-bands-I -like style is kind of childish.

The Blue Eyed Soul era coincided with demands for Scottish independence was interesting despite the low artistic merit.

And if you want other bands to be covered, ask the BBC to commission more. It wasn't a list show of top 50 Scottish Indie bands.


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