imomus (imomus) wrote,

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.

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