Scottish music stars share stories of their struggle to the top

The Proclaimers (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)
The Proclaimers (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)
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Their songs have become woven into the cultural fabric of the nation, but now some of Scotland’s biggest musical stars have shared the challenges they faced in getting their embryonic careers off the ground.

Deacon Blue, The Proclaimers, Wet Wet Wet, Simple Minds, KT Tunstall, the Average White Band, Hue and Cry and Del Amitri are among those who have relived their darkest days and big breaks for a BBC documentary series.

Struggles with poverty, unemployment, disinterested record companies, complaints about accents and criticism from peers in the ever-changing Scottish music scenes have been recalled by some of the key figures who have shaped Scotland’s musical tastes over the decades.

The Radio Scotland series, presented by Vic Galloway, who has written the official book on the exhibition, will start tomorrow ahead of a major new exhibition on the history of Scottish pop music opening in Edinburgh next week. The first instalment recalls how many of the biggest names in Scottish pop emerged from working class communities devastated by unemployment in the 1980s.

Tommy Cunningham, drummer with Wet Wet Wet, who were formed at Clydebank High School in 1982, recalled: “Desolation was the only word for it.

“We were told about that from starting school – ‘this is what’s going to happen. You are going to go into the shipyards to work with the heavy industries. You’ll get to 15, you’re going to walk out, you’re going to get a job and at 60-odd you’re going to retire. That’s your life’. But each of us had a thing in the back of our heads saying how glamorous and how wonderful music was. It spoke directly to us.” Jim Kerr, singer with Simple Minds, recalled lengthy journeys to and from London to try to drum up record company interest. He added: “I hitch-hiked down to London a couple of times with our demo cassettes. We were savvy enough to leave them with the record company receptionists. They would then play them and the A&R guy going out on his lunch break would go ‘who is that, it sounds quite good?’

“I was 18. We didn’t have a phone, so I would leave a neighbour’s phone number. When I got back, my mum would say ‘the wee woman next door said some record company guy had phoned up, but didn’t take their name’.”

Alan Gorrie, bass player with the Average White Band, recalled: “It was enormous leap of faith to go to London. You had to uproot yourself and go off with literally a couple of ten bob notes in your pocket and see if you could scratch a living in the most expensive part of the UK.”

KT Tunstall says she was forced to leave Scotland after years of trying to pursue a musical career in Fife and Edinburgh. “In the end, I just had to, partly because of what I was making,” she said. “I write pretty accessible pop music. A time came where I was just like ‘I can’t ignore what I’m good at’.”

When Del Amitri parted company with their record company, their manager advised them to spend their savings on trying to break into the lucrative American music market.

Singer Justin Currie recalls: “The plan was to fly over to America, borrow instruments from fans we had been writing to, stay in their parents’ houses, play little house parties or any gigs that the fans could book and pick up money busking on the way.”

When The Proclaimers were trying to make a name for themselves in the mid-1980s, they were urged to drop their Scottish accents. Craig Reid, who formed the band with twin brother Charlie, said: “The reaction was some amusement and some bemusement. I don’t think there was any hostility, but just a belief that it wouldn’t get radio play.”

* Rip It Up: The Story of Scottish Pop opens at the National Museum of Scotland on 22 June.