Songs for Europe – Malcolm Ross and Paul Haig on the legacy of Josef K

Songs for Europe – Malcolm Ross and Paul Haig on the legacy of Josef K
Josef K in Glasgow - image; Simon Clegg

Nowadays, when a gig takes place, video will be on the internet within hours, warts and all. But before technology took over, bands could build up an air of mystery – like Josef K did, 40 years ago.

However, a new release from the archive, ‘The Scottish Affair (Part 2)’ captures the Edinburgh quartet in their heyday.

“My memory is it was really hard work.” says Malcolm Ross of the 1981 show in Brussels.

The gig, as the guitarist recalls, was thrown into chaos when Ronnie Torrance’s snare drum skin broke during the first song.

“So when (label boss) James Nice was talking about releasing it, I was going to say no,” says Ross.

“However, when I listen to the songs they’re really good versions, Paul (Haig)’s in very good voice.”

“And the sound quality is pretty good really for a live record of almost 40 years ago.”

Which will be a relief to the band, their legendarily perfectionist nature seeing the foursome (completed by bassist Davy Weddell) ditch debut ‘Sorry for Laughing’ and travel to
Brussels to re-record the 10 tracks – adding somewhat to their mystique.

“Things would have been a lot different if we’d had YouTube and everything else that’s available now,” Haig admits.

“We were very young and had no great experience of recording,” Ross continues. “Someone aged 26 or 27 trying to tell us how we should be recording ourselves… we always felt there was a kind of element of excitement that was always missing in a studio.”

The band’s live performances are indeed the stuff of legend with the foursome often quoted as influential and ‘seminal’.

“Franz Ferdinand were quite open about owning us a slight debt,” Ross contends, “but if you get a group of young people in a room and give them bass guitar, drums and a couple of
mics they’re always likely to come up with something that sounds quite similar – that 1977 year zero punk rock thing meant the rules of making rock music were ripped up.”

That spirit translates into the new album, capturing the frenetic sound of the band four decades ago – and which can be heard today in chart acts like Futureheads and The Rapture.
Ross went on to have commercial success successfully with Orange Juice, as well as Aztec Camera – both of whom cracked the pop charts rather than remaining underground.

“I’d say that was the difference between us and Orange Juice,” says Ross. “Edwyn (Collins) was always nodding towards music from the past, like Credence or The Byrds. We were more contemporary, strongly influenced by Television and Talking Heads and Pere Ubu, those more arty American new wave bands.

Ross now plays with Out Of The Ordinary, an Edinburgh collective formed around singer Joseph Malik, as well as with ’80s contemporary Neil Arthur out of Blancmange. However, Haig post-Josef K has largely confined himself to the recording studio to produce a string of acclaimed solo releases, often via the Crépuscule label responsible for the live release.

Although at the time not everyone was quite so appreciative.

“I remember being attacked in Amsterdam just before a concert by a group of karate-practising teenagers who thought we were weird punks,” the singer recalls.

Which might explain the rarity of the band’s shows.

“I enjoyed being away on the road; Paul didn’t,” Ross recalls. “If you were going to think about it practically you’d take a few months off and then make a new record, but you have to keep going to be successful, to some extent.”

“I prefer recording music rather than playing it live,” Haig agrees. ”There is a lot of great music around these days, especially because technology has become so much more accessible and enabling. Live music is great if you like to go on stage I guess.”

And the new record – is it a good example of Josef K’s live music? “Yes, it is,” Haig agrees. “It’s not perfect but then we were never anywhere near perfect live.
“At least we didn’t break any guitar strings!”

‘The Scottish Affair (Part Two)’ is available now. More at lesdisquesducrepuscule.com