AFTER George Gallacher’s death, Allan Brown argues that The Poets deserve a place in the pantheon of Scotland’s greatest pop acts.
The place was Glasgow, the time was 1964, and outside the Flamingo ballroom on the edge of the Gorbals, five young men emerged from a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, incongruous in their stage costumes: velvet jackets, Cuban-heeled Beatle boots, extravagantly ruffled blousons.
They were The Poets – to trade a gang of metal workers from deep in the east end – and tonight was meant as a ticker-tape parade, their debut single, Now We’re Thru, having just landed in the NME chart.
An hour later, though, an object arcs through the stage lights. When the drummer regains consciousness, shards of ceramic plant pot and rivulets of his blood mingle on the stage. Flower power is some years off, but this is a foretaste, Gorbals style. The teenybopper audience has scattered, replaced with a pitched battle between rival street gangs. The rest of the band stay backstage, plotting their retaliation. And, outside, the Rolls-Royce pulls away, unoccupied.
The band’s singer and songwriter, its heart and mind, was George Gallacher, who passed away last week at the age of 68. George, it needs be said, was not troubled unduly when these dreams of pop stardom eventually evaporated. His soul was irrigated more by Delta blues, and Bob Dylan: when obliged to find rhymes for moon or June, or whatever the pop conventions of the day demanded, George in his mind went to Mississippi and high-fived some sharecroppers.
• Watch a clip of The Poets performing Now We’re Thru, from Shindig in 1965: Now We’re Thru
Rather, the greatest loss in the unhappy chronicle of The Poets, in their Keystone Cops chase sequence of a career, was sustained by the rest of us. As with the age of steam or with the Second World War, the Swinging Sixties was a great British national narrative. The record shows that Scotland made only a trifling contribution: Lulu, singing Shout!, over and over and over again. Which, grievously, is to reckon without The Poets. Had the band’s wondrous string of singles – including Now We’re Thru, Baby Don’t You Do It and Wooden Spoon – not slipped sadly down the back of the cultural sofa, the musical history of the 1960s might have been subtly different. John Lennon, for example, described the band’s debut single as “f***ing weird”, an opinion he seldom expressed, no matter how much she may have deserved it, of Lulu.
Three months after Lennon made his remark in the autumn of 1964, his group released Beatles For Sale, a downbeat album that shared with The Poets a sensibility and a sound. The band from Glasgow were always some way ahead of the pack. While British pop continued to orchestrate the diaries of 14-year-olds, Gallacher and The Poets sang sad, reflective songs of dismay and estrangement, mini-operas of male disappointment like I’ll Keep My Pride and I Am So Blue: “So long ago… and yet,” as one song tearfully put it, “I can’t forget…”
Sonically, too, the band stood apart, producing its own brand of chamber-pop, woven from a dense mesh of 12-string guitars, tambourines and a bass drum pounded like it was a errant member of the Calton Tongs. There was something chilling and forlorn in the music of The Poets, a taste of horizontal rain in a fading city. Above it all floated Gallacher’s vocals, a keening Glaswegian falsetto that, in later years, in sundry reformulations as a bar band of emeritus distinction, would deepen and solidify into a blues holler that could blister paint: “He had only one lung and still he could sing like that…” says his bandmate and brother-in-law Fraser Watson, alluding to the health issues that fed into Gallacher’s death.
The band may have ended badly but it couldn’t have had a more auspicious beginning. A chance encounter saw it welcomed into the management stable of Andrew Loog Oldham, the precocious Svengali behind The Rolling Stones. Oldham had been intrigued by the band’s outrageous image; part Robert Burns, part gay Beatles from Dennistoun. He wangled for the band a contract with Decca Records and safe passage into the inner sanctums of Swinging London. One early single was produced by Paul Gadd, later to become Gary Glitter. Living in the same hotel, Jimmy Saville engaged Gallacher to keep his menagerie of girlfriends supplied with drinks. The Rolling Stones became (ever-wary) acquaintances; Gallacher was asked to give lessons in songwriting to Keith Richards.
And then, like a bursting bubble, the party was over. The band’s singles continued to be deemed strange; Loog Oldham retired in 1965, aged 21; the money dried up and The Poets were obliged to establish residence in a pair of camper vans parked near Euston station. As noted earlier, Gallacher wasn’t overly fussed; a laconic and pragmatic Glaswegian of the old school he had his rhythm and blues, his socialism and his football to fill any Tony Blackburn-shaped hole his life may have had. He returned north, moved to East Kilbride (for into each life some rain must fall, as another poet wrote), got married, had children, and started work in a pneumatic tool plant. Made redundant, he became an English teacher, gaining his qualification at 49.
Galloway had been astonished over the past decade to discover The Poets were being rediscovered; that their meagre output (they didn’t get round to recording an album) was being seen now as a crucial contribution to British pop, Mod and psychedelia. This even occasioned last year a brief reunion, and shows in Glasgow, London and Italy.
Gallacher was compliant yet ambivalent. Ever the good socialist, he knew nostalgia to be an opium of the masses. If only things had been different. In Gallacher’s day, the gulf between Glasgow and London had been vast. Never countenanced was the idea that from the frozen north might hail a decent pop group, never mind a remarkable one. The result was the unwarranted exclusion from the official histories, and, for four decades, the obscurity of The Poets, a band that measured up easily to the big boys, even when the plant pots were flying.
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