Chemikal Underground on their East End Social

Stewart Henderson’s record label is helping to ensure Glasgow 2014 has an artistic legacy too, writes David Pollock

Mogwai will be among the acts appearing at Chemikal Underground's East End Social. Picture: Contributed

THOSE who like to see connections in everything might note that this summer’s Commonwealth Games drags the 20-year existence of Glasgow’s highly-regarded alternative label Chemikal Underground round into a full circle. This was, after all, an imprint formed by a group who named themselves after a legendary Tour De France-winning cyclist (the Delgados, in honour of Spain’s 1988 champion Pedro Delgado) and who called their second album Peloton in 1998, back when a teenage Bradley Wiggins was just breaking through in junior cycling.

In 2014, their office in a red brick industrial building in the east end of Glasgow – chosen because it was big and cheap – stands just 15 minutes’ walk from the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome, this summer’s international focal point of the cycling world. With the city’s transformation into a cultural centre having largely passed their area by until now, they felt they couldn’t let the opportunity pass without handing something back to the community – hence the East End Social, a summer-long collection of alternative concerts and community dances curated by Chemikal and funded by the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Sector Open Fund, whose aim is to kick-start a longer-lasting cultural regeneration to match the physical changes the area has seen of late.

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“Chemikal Underground is a Bridgeton company,” says the label’s Stewart Henderson proudly. “We’re based in the east end of Glasgow and we’ve been here for a long time. We’re not a city council, we’re not a regeneration agency, we’re not a set of architectural consultants. So if we make a f***ing arse of this, we’ll still be here in the rubble of it for years.” He laughs when he says this, but his words reflect his stated concern that this has to be done the right way, and that the communities the project seeks to engage are consulted and communicated with rather than talked down to and dragged along for the ride.

King Ayisoba

“The idea is to create the East End Social as a club or a movement,” Henderson continues, “beginning with a programme of music we can curate as Chemikal Underground, but which can also act as a catalyst for whatever social and cultural engagement we can put in place for areas of the city that haven’t benefited from it up to now. I’m more wary than most about the territory we’re in with this, because we’re very mindful of the fact that it’s a delicate, complex series of issues around regeneration in the east end of the city and the role that the arts play in that. But from our point of view, we just thought there’s got to be a way we can attract some of the music events that people would normally have to go to the city centre or the west end to enjoy. ”

What’s happening as part of the Social over the course of the summer is in a constant state of flux, but the events which have already been announced from this week until the end of August thrive on not just the variety of artists and performances but the unusual spaces which are being co-opted in service of them. Things kick off this Thursday with Ghanaian kologo player King Ayisoba at Easterhouse arts venue Platform (Chemikal Underground’s Alun Woodward is music programmer there), while over the next two weeks the Jim Cleland Trio will perform tea dances of traditional Scottish country music for older audiences at Bridgeton Community Learning Centre and Calton Heritage & Learning Centre.

Further into the season, May will see larger tea dance events at the Barrowlands and a day of performances and DJ sets at the Duke Street Expo, while Rutherglen Town Hall will host the Nectarine No 9 (performing Saint Jack, one of Henderson’s favourite albums) and Casual Sex in June and Chemikal’s SAY Award-winning RM Hubbert in August. There will be dub reggae from the Mungo’s HiFi Soundsystem on Alexandra Park in June, trad jazz from Penman’s Jazzmen in July, a Lost Map label showcase featuring Pictish Trail and indie-pop from the New Mendicants in August, all at Bridgeton’s Bowler’s Bar, and a large closing concert on the last weekend in August, featuring some of the most influential artists on Glasgow’s music scene. Chemikal Underground alumni Mogwai and internationally renowned DJ collectives Optimo and Numbers have already been announced.

“This is about us partnering with people within the music industry but also trying to work with the youth groups and the community centres in our area to say, what have you got going on at the moment? What do you need? What could you benefit from if we can help you do it?” says Henderson.

“So things like these wee tea dances, these are simple, easy things, but something that people can be involved in and help to deliver. At the heart of that is what I hope the East End Social has the potential to become – it can be a Mogwai gig on Richmond Park or a tea dance at Calton Heritage Centre or an Easter egg hunt at the Forge for primary school kids or a Todd Terje gig at the Barrowlands [the latter making his Scottish live debut at the Optimo Barrowland Social in May]. I’m guarding against being too happy-clappy about it, but it should be, if it’s delivered properly, benign and inclusive and credible enough for any individual or organisation to feel it’s something they want to be part of, that they could legitimately contribute to or participate in.”

So what’s the objective here? Henderson is hesitant, but as he points out, “the only reason I sound skittish about this is that I’m hung up on saying anything that sounds too prescriptive or condescending. What we want to try and demonstrate is the variety of provision for gigs or concerts or whatever, that you should be just as able to go and access one of these types of concerts in the east end as you are elsewhere, and that’s a long-term thing. This side of the city has got the capacity to have all of these things going on as well, and we want to adrenalise that process a wee bit in the hope that once it’s up and running it can feed itself.

“From Chemikal Underground’s point of view,” he continues, “while being a record label will always be a core part of what we do, I wonder if there’s a role for us as time moves on to be seen as more of an arts organisation that’s doing stuff in the east end, with music at the heart of everything we do. The conversations we’ve started having as a result of delivering this, they can’t be for nothing, they have to be maintained and developed. For us, that could be the template for the modern record label – we’ve been here for a long time and it can’t just be about firing out an album every three months.”

To succeed, then, the spirit of the East End Social should survive beyond the end of August. “It has to,” says Henderson flatly. “If we’re not able, over the course of the next few months and with the resources we’ve been given, to set something up that endures beyond the transient, frankly cosmetic arrival and quick departure of the games, we’ll have failed, it’s as simple as that.

“It’s like, does anyone really need another do-gooding cultural exercise that comes along for a month or two, packs up and says, ‘there’s the receipt’? No they don’t. The east end has to feel poorer for the Social’s absence, and the measure of its success in my view won’t be attendances at concerts or ticket revenues, or even the amount of kids we’re able to deliver workshops for. These are all important, but they’re component parts of a bigger thing. The real success of the East End Social will be in its ability to continue after the Games have gone. That’s the challenge.”

The East End Social begins with King Ayisoba at Platform on Thursday and the Jim Cleland Trio Community Tea Dance at Bridgeton Community Learning Campus on Friday, and continues throughout the summer until the Last Big Weekend Festival in Richmond Park on 30 and 31 August.