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Scotland's 100 best rock and pop albums

WE'LL get the jokes out of the way first, shall we? Trying to determine the 100 best Scottish rock and pop albums of all time is a logical impossibility, like voting for our hundred best summers, or the all-time healthiest Scottish dishes involving a deep fat fryer.

Well, denial is an appropriate response. It is a habit of that tremulous organ, the Scottish psyche, to cut down anything that tends towards boastfulness. As a country, we have been defined by our limitations for so long that we have grown fond of them. We inhabit a conundrum inside a cave. We are both intensely proud of our culture, and intensely suspicious of grand gestures. As a people, we are, I think, comparable to the Monkees, a manufactured pop group whose theme tune was so busy boasting that it had something to say that it never got round to mentioning what that something was.

But let's forget that bashfulness for a moment and try the T-shirt for size. Scotland has made a significant contribution to rock and pop music. How does that sound? As a sentence, a little too bald. Significance is a fancy hat, and it's hard to argue that this wee country has ever done anything more than borrow the bold clothing of others. Who is our Robert Johnson, our Charley Patton, our Memphis Minnie, our Elvis, our Little Richard, our Fats Domino? Where is our Aretha, our Otis, our Hendrix, our Dylan? Who, amongst our tremulous west coast balladeers, can really hold a candle to the wonky genius of Brian Wilson's Beach Boys? (Clue: not the BMX Bandits). Who are our Beatles, our Rolling Stones? Who did we have that could match the Clash, the Sex Pistols? Where, lord help us, is our Kylie?

Well, a historian might point to the fact that - via the sawstroke bowing of Neil Gow - we exported the old fiddly-diddly to the Appalachian mountains, which led to the invention of bluegrass, and hillbillies, and country music, and Dolly Parton, which would be true in some senses, and ridiculous in others. Or you might, if you were feeling generous, accept the evidence of Johnny Cash's family tree, and concede that the great man's size 13 footprints can be found, under landfills of Armoury Show albums, in the ancient turf of Fife.

But all of this is too modest. There was a man, Sir Harry Lauder: our one true world star, but a man whose name is now associated with national embarrassment and a road which bypasses Portobello. Harry was the highest paid entertainer in the world in his time - around the Great War - and his couthy kilticisms and knobbly crook have come to embody everything we profess to hate about the way we are perceived. We may cringe now at Roamin' in the Gloamin, I Love a Lassie or - how painful to even type these words - Stop Your Tickling, Jock, but there was a brilliance to Lauder which few have matched. Lauder was our Al Jolson, a kilted minstrel who took folk material and added a shameless brand of showmanship.

Harry, though, was 50 years too early. His music, when it wasn't heard live, was rendered on a hand-cranked Victrola. Our survey is about albums, a form that really grew to fruition after the first hormonal flushes of rock'n'roll had begun to subside. You can hear the first crackles of that electrical storm on one of Andy Stewart's singles - Donald Where's Yer Troosers, I think - when the guitar suddenly rips into a solo that might have been played by Scotty Moore (if Scotty had been unwrapping a McCowan's toffee chew and got it stuck under his fingernails). And you can see remnants of Lauder in the tartan trim on the hand-sewn uniforms of the Bay City Rollers.

Without wishing to spoil the suspense, the BCRs are unlikely to feature high in our top 100 because their success - global Rollermania, five gold albums in the US - was based not on music, but on some sort of hormonal tsunami. It mystifies now, and it mystified then, but - to borrow the get-out of every baffled critic - the little girls understood.

In any artistic audit, there is a problem of perspective. Rock, or pop, or whatever the cheap music of the day is calling itself, aims for urgency. Timelessness comes later, and is subtly different to greatness. In a British context, the late 1970s were hailed as the time of punk rock, a phenomenon that was more social than musical. At the same time, unheralded by critics, pop was in the throes of a fabulous revolution, disco, and the little people, uneducated by the aesthetic tsars of the NME, were rising to acclaim the one group which can claim to rival the Beatles: Abba. And no, there is no Scottish Abba. The Scottish Donna Summer, since you ask, is Kelly Marie.

If there are the beginnings of a critical consensus about the artistic value of Scottish pop, its architecture will, to an extent, depend on the age, and perspective of the person making the list. Older artists of great significance may have fallen out of vogue. Who now praises the late Lonnie Donegan, the Glasgow-born King of Skiffle, whose urgency impressed the Beatles, but who is remembered mostly for the novelty and horror of My Old Man's a Dustman and Does Your Chewing Gum Lose its Flavour on the Bedpost Overnight?

Who now listens to Stone the Crows, or their iron-lunged singer Maggie Bell, unless the theme from Taggart is playing? And, while we're thinking about Taggart, what about the Sweet, that great, ridiculous glam-rock band, who looked like hod-carriers in Bacofoil trousers, and whose frontman, Brian Connolly, was the half-brother of Jim Taggart himself, Mark McManus?

Does a Scottish singer qualify a "foreign" band for inclusion? In the case of Garbage, it seems to: and fairly, since that group's cold electronica is brought alive by the personality of its frontwoman, Shirley Manson. Turn the kaleidoscope the other way, and consider Lloyd Cole. Without the Commotions, he is an English singer whose digestive system has yet to fully dissolve the lyrical roughage of Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen. Add the Commotions, and stick Lloyd in context as a graduate of Glasgow University in the mid-1980s, and Rattlesnakes becomes a snappy, literate reminder of everything that was good about Glaswegian pop at a time when Glaswegian pop was supposed, not entirely erroneously, to be the bees' knees.

Cole may have retired to the manicured golf courses of the American midwest, but his albums with the Commotions are a high-tide mark of a brand of jangly pop that was nurtured on the Postcard label by Alan Horne, and which led - through Orange Juice and Aztec Camera - to a club of freaks which includes the Pastels, Teenage Fanclub, Travis and Belle and Sebastian. Temporarily out of favour, but an important stop on this branch line, are Del Amitri, who made the mistake of a) becoming popular and b) growing beards.

Where, though, to place Sheena Easton, the Bellshill bauchle who was transported to global success by her appearance on a starmaking documentary helmed by Esther Rantzen, and who overcame public ridicule to win two Grammies (including one for Best-Mexican American performance), record a Bond theme, duet with Prince, appear on Broadway and in Las Vegas, and star in a horror movie directed by John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper? For Sheena, the answer came when she found herself booed at Glasgow's Big Day in 1990.

And what to say about Donovan, whose sweet, wobbly folk so readily encapsulated its time that it sounds, now, like a transmission from a particularly flowery corner of Mars?

To some extent, these are the wrong questions. One of pop music's most appealing features is its refusal to respect national borders. In a past life, I wrote for a magazine called Cut, which started with the idea of promoting Scottish music, but was forced, by commercial and aesthetic reality, to reassemble its priorities. Latterly, it considered all pop through Scottish ears, the best compromise. Thinking like this also allowed for some appreciation of the deviations of taste which occur within our small country - soul has always done well in Dundee; US West Coast guitar groups go big in Glasgow; Aberdeen was the first place I ever saw the word "house" used to describe a disco.

On a recent visit to the United States I was asked - in a guitar shop in Mississippi - about the late Big Country guitarist Stuart Adamson, a player whose reputation abroad seems to outweigh his status at home. And, in one of those rambling late night conversations that seem to go nowhere and everywhere, I found myself having to explain to a baffled American the meaning of the word "haver", 10 years after the Proclaimers had a US hit with I'm Gonna Be (500 miles).

The influence of Scottish acts can be found in surprising places. Glasgow's Vaselines were seen as rudimentary post-punkers here, but something about them appealed to Kurt Cobain, and two of their songs made it onto Nirvana Unplugged. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, too, caused ripples around the world. Nick Cave's first band was a Harvey covers band, and the singer feels that SAHB had an uncommon influence in Australia, possibly on AC/DC, (whose singer Bon Scott, was born in Kirriemuir). Harvey, Cave told me recently, "was where it was at ... and the band were extraordinary. As a kid I never knew what a f***in' Scotsman was, let alone had I heard one and his lyrics, which are just the most twisted thing. The places he went, nobody went..."

Inevitably, our chart will infuriate. Fans of Rod Stewart, for example, will be miffed to discover that he has been excluded on the grounds that he was born in Highgate, North London, (though he could, by virtue of his Scottish parents, play for our national football team). David Byrne (ex of the Talking Heads) misses out too, despite spending the first few months of his life in Dumbarton, and receiving The Broons annual for Christmas throughout his childhood. A chart with Stewart and Byrne in it would look very different.

There is, it transpires, much to celebrate, and in the process of compiling the long list from which our top 100 was derived, it has been a pleasure to be reacquainted with the operatic strangeness of The Associates, and to discover that Billy Mackenzie's solo album Outernational has matured on the shelf; to hear, afresh, the lush T Rexisms of Win's Freaky Trigger, the fey delights of Orange Juice, and to check that Surf by Roddy Frame still sounds as good as it did last year. (It does).

Revisiting these dusty grooves was a reminder, too, of a great many nights out. There was the Rezillos firing water pistols at the crowd at the Edinburgh Odeon, Billy Mackenzie crooning at the Assembly Rooms, the Fire Engines speeding through a 15 minute set at Valentino's, and Mike Scott's Another Pretty Face hammering away in the spirit of the Clash at the Hillhead Halls of residence, Aberdeen. While dredging, I also uncovered memories of my second ever concert: Nazareth at the Edinburgh Odeon - tickets courtesy of a Radio Forth competition - after which I ran like the wind to catch the North Berwick bus, feeling slightly tainted by the knowledge that I had smelled (but not smoked) a jazz cigarette.

And, I was put in mind of the good bands who never released LPs. The Poets are one - and they were important enough to inspire a James Kelman play. And why didn't the Valves record an LP? Whatever happened to the album the Visitors were recording with Wire? Why did every Edinburgh band in the late 1970s play on a PA borrowed from Mowgli and the Donuts?

Reading other people's lists - thank you Simon Frith and Eddi Reader - has alerted me to the fact that Michael Marra had a record out in 2002, called Posted Sober. Marra is the unsung laureate of Scottish songwriting, but his records have suffered from unsympathetic production. Perhaps this time he has made a record which adequately displays his talents. Perhaps now a bright TV producer will put him in a pub with a piano and film the result. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Perhaps, I am reminded, is an album by The Associates. Not their best, but it does include Waiting for the Loveboat.

Excuse me, records to play.

The Panel

To compile the Top 100 Scottish Rock and Pop albums, The Scotsman polled over 50 musicians and critics (and one music-loving culture minister). The Top 100 albums have been annotated by Brian Hogg, author of The History Of Scottish Rock and Pop: All That Ever Mattered.

You can vote for your own favourite albums at scotsman.com or by e-mail to albums@scotsman.com

Let us know what you think by writing to us at: Top Scottish Rock and Pop Albums, The Scotsman, 108 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AS

 
 
 

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