Friday, June 16, 2006

Time for some R&R

A note for the loyal readers: I'll be taking the next four days off. Heading up to the beach cottage, where I'll: make sand castles via the "drip method," defeat my kids in Wiffle ball, feed the gulls soggy fries at Markey's, fall asleep to the sound of the waves coming in through the open windows, watch the fireworks over Hampton, get sunburns on the tops of my feet, waste $6 on nabbing the top score in Pac-Man, pick flecks of seaweed from between my toes, and gorge myself on Tripoli's pizza.

Here's a few summer-themed songs to tide you over (pun intended) until I get back on Wednesday.

Hear them for yourself. Download:

"Summer (Priority Version)" by Mogwai.

"Sylvia Plath's Platinum Summer" by Saint Jude's Infirmary.

"A Summer Wasting" by Belle And Sebastian.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Scotland's glamorous frontwoman

One could make the argument Scottish pop peaked during the years 1980-81. Acts left over from the punk explosion, like Scars and The Skids, were still churning out quality material; Orange Juice and Josef K were leading the much ballyhooed Sound of Young Scotland charge; and a treasure trove of extraordinary new wave bands emerged: Altered Images, Associates, Simple Minds.

And while acts like The Skids were cementing their status as their country's best punk band, Orange Juice was crafting the template for indie pop, and Associates were exploring sonic territory no other Scottish act ever had, none possessed what made Altered Images so distinctive: Clare Grogan.

She was discovered by director Bill Forsyth at a Glasgow eating establishment named the Spaghetti Factory and cast as one of the lead roles in his 1980 flick Gregory’s Girl. Grogan rose to prominence with Altered Images the following year and those who raved about her acting performance now learned something else: The girl with the on-screen effervescent charm and schoolgirl-cute looks could also sing irresistible pop tunes.

There's a picture I have of Grogan taken during an Altered Images gig (not the one seen above, though close). Pouting lips, too much eye makeup, teased hair in the eyes, a look of feigned innocence on her face -- Grogan strikes a pose and melts a heart. "Vibrant, vigorous, and cocquettishly teasing" was how she was described by one music scribe, and you could see it all in this photograph. In the 1980s, there wasn't a more glamorous frontwoman in the U.K.

Hear it for yourself. Download: "Beckoning Strings" by Altered Images. A fitting song title, really, since Altered Images' sound -- thanks largely to Grogan's lump-of-sugar sweet voice -- was so tantalizing.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Hollywood finds The Prats

"We're now getting the worldwide acclaim we craved 20 years ago," Paul McLaughlin joked. And he can thank Jonathan Demme for that, a man McLaughlin had never even heard of until the fateful afternoon the Academy Award-winning director’s office gave him a jingle.

The story of McLaughlin's pre-teen punk outfit becoming Hollywood media darlings (if only for the short lifespan of your typical summer blockbuster) was well documented two years ago. McLaughlin, frontman to Inverness' The Prats, was commuting from London to his home in Chelmsford when Demme's people called. Is this the Paul McLaughlin? Why yes, it is. Would it be okay if use your song "General Davis" in the movie we are filming? But of course . . . this is a cruel joke, right?

It wasn't. A 45-second snippet of "General Davis" was featured during the opening credits of Demme's big-budget remake of The Manchurian Candidate. And just like that, The Prats had become one of the least unlikely bands to be immortalized on a movie soundtrack.

However, even without this second act, The Prats' career is an interesting one. Formed in late 1977, the members of the group ranged in age from 12 to 15 and were all students at St Augustine's Roman Catholic Comprehensive School. McLaughlin, a wizened 13 at the time, was initially too frightened to tell his mum he was in a punk band; after-school hours were being spent playing tennis, he informed her.

Eventually, Mrs. McLaughlin learned of The Prats thanks to the tiny bit of fame the band achieved: John Peel offering his DJing fee from an Edinburgh event to finance one of the band's releases; a No. 20 spot in the UK indie chart with “General Davis”; a one-off performance at The Factory in Manchester.

Hear it for yourself. I've had a bit of trouble securing an mp3 of "General Davis," so in the meantime, here's "Disco Pope," which was a single released on Rough Trade in 1979.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

It's easy, it's cheap -- go and do it!

They visited pals and chums, hats in hand, asking for donations. "We're recording a single on our own," they said. "Anything you can spare would be grand."

Some friends forked over a few quid; others likely chortled at their autonomous, seemingly delusional approach to making it in the music business. "But you no longer need London or the major labels," they informed the doubters. "It's 1980 and it's all about D.I.Y. It's easy, it's cheap -- go and do it!"

In the end, The Scrotum Poles collected 500 pounds and put it towards recording the single "Revelation" at Wilf Smarties' studio in Edinburgh. However, the band began to bicker over which track would be included as the B-side and reached a compromise by expanding the single to a five-song EP of the same name. In typical D.I.Y. fashion, the record's sleeve was photocopied and then glued together in band member Craig Methven's kitchen.

One thousand were made and like all do-it-yourselfers, The Scrotum Poles handled the distribution duties, sending copies out to places like Rough Trade, as well as hawking them at gigs.

Hear it for yourself. Download: "Pick The Cat's Eyes Out" by The Scrotum Poles. A pleasing, three-chord ditty that draws its lyrics from a bit of Brittish slang, as "cat's eyes" are a common name for the tiny orange reflectors found embedded in highways. Regardless, the catchy chorus is bound to raise a few eyebrows when sung aloud.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Trouble with bovines

Bands are always experiencing relative stumbling blocks: a rehab stint here, a nervous breakdown there. But crashing your car into a herd of cows?

Such a calamity befell Glasgow's The Diggers in 1993. The fledgling four-piece act was gaining momentum on the local circuit thanks to the strength of its live shows and several recorded demos. But then the dream was put on hiatus for six months when guitarist John Eslick's automobile went hurtling into said bovines, and he fell into a coma. Fortunately, Eslick fully recovered and the lads regrouped soon after.

The Diggers eventually found an avid supporter in The Boo Radleys' Martin Carr, who passed their demo tape onto Alan McGee. The Creation Records head eventually attended one of their rehearsals, dug what he heard, and four months later, following a performance at the T in the Park festival, signed them to Creation. The single "O.K. Alright" (one of the last Creation ever released) and an opening slot with labelmates Super Furry Animals followed, before The Diggers released their debut (and only) album, Mount Everest.

Hear it for yourself. Download: "Waking Up" by The Diggers. A quote from bassist/singer Alan Moffat sums up their sound: "We're not into the cult of the personality stuff, or paying homage to the past. We're striving towards being a truly original pop band: Take That with guitars!"