The end of the year is traditionally the time for looking back, and with that in mind we asked Glasgow-based writer Damien Love if he had anything lurking in his archives that might be a good fit for our last blog post of 2017. He’s had a rummage and pulled us out a cracker: this is a piece he originally wrote back in 1996, about the scene that was then bubbling around the fabled original 13th Note club, at its old home on Glassford Street in the centre of town.
Among the interviewees featured here are the young gent who was in charge of booking bands for the club, future Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos (then going by the name Alex Huntley), Chemikal Underground founder Stewart Henderson, members of BiS, and Teenage Fanclub’s Gerard Love. It’s a terrific snapshot of the much-loved venue and a young scene that went on to help shape music in Glasgow in the two decades since. All aboard the time machine for ’96…
Down at the Rock & Roll Club
(A version of this story was originally published in Scotland On Sunday, 1996)
The perfect career trajectory for any band has probably been best defined by the Buzzcocks: out of nowhere and heading right back there. In the case of Bis, regardless of their ultimate destination, the first half of the equation, at least, could at first glance appear to ring true. All at once this year, it seemed, the band were everywhere – grinning out from newspapers, the subject of features in Melody Maker and The Face, and gaining airplay on real, proper, daytime radio. Then, in the cresting moment of a frenzied period of attention, Bis, a band not yet out of their teens, became the first ever unsigned group to appear on Top of the Pops, earning themselves a place alongside Bowie, Roxy Music and an armful of others in the programme’s archive of ‘seminal TOTP moments.’
Of course, however, Bis didn’t simply arrive fully formed on the scene. If anything, they represent the most visible tip of an iceberg of bands, too disparate to be labeled a movement, that has been growing in Glasgow over the course of the past two or three years.
The one unifying factor between all these groups is the crucible in which they have been given the chance to form and evolve: that alchemical site is a modest-looking pub on Glassford Street in the centre of the city, called The 13th Note. It’s no exaggeration to say that this venue has effected a sea change on the city’s musical life, thanks to an enthusiastic, nurturing booking policy; the fact that it provides bands with a free P.A. system for gigs; and its lack of a ‘pay to play’ system.
For a while back there, music in Glasgow was in serious danger of being gently strangled by the influence of what has come to be known as ‘the Bellshill sound,’ and the impact of the mighty and blessed Teenage Fanclub in particular. The Fanclub are magnificent, of course. Not quite so great was how every new band that emerged seemed, to a greater or lesser extent, to be taking notes from the blueprint TFC had so successfully drawn up for themselves.
“The Teenage Fanclub thing was Glasgow for a while,” agrees Stewart Henderson, drummer with the Delgados, the band behind the Chemikal Underground label also responsible for issuing Bis’ first three singles. “We were in a band before the Delgados who, without any fear of contradiction, could be labeled as striving for that sound.”
The upshot of this situation was a kind of self-perpetuating vicious circle. With a mind toward profit, promoters, particularly those working with pubs and smaller venues, were eager to book acts they felt sure were going to generate money for their establishment, replicating sounds that were tried and true. Citing the example of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Teenage Fanclub’s Gerry Love says, “When it opened, King Tut’s was probably the most interesting place to go and see new bands. But it’s a very Music Biz place; they were dealing with agents, putting on bigger shows, and maybe doing local acts only once a month or so. You were entering The Music Business when you went to King Tut’s, and, if you confine it to a business thing, then people think they’ve got to conform to what The Business expects.”
Flash forward to now. We’re in a sweating red basement, capable of containing maybe one hundred people, at a squeeze. Maybe. At the far end of the bar, just beyond the scattered and scarred tables and chairs, play a band who look as though they’ve stepped from the fever-gripped mind of a paranoiac comic-book artist. Their songs are wire-tight blasts of geekish venom, rarely lasting much longer than a minute. They are called the Yummy Fur. They are not what the business expects. Neither are this next mob, the eerily, angrily chanting grrlpunks Lungleg. Nor are this trio of kids who don’t even have a bass player or a drummer, battering out a fresh, frenetic mix of a bunch of good things you’d forgotten you loved. They call themselves Bis.
“We played our first gigs in the 13th Note” says Steven from the latter band. “It was about the only place in Glasgow where you didn’t have to pay to play. We gave Alex a fanzine and a tape and asked him to give us a call if we could play. To get a gig there all you have to do is…ask!”
Stewart Henderson takes up the theme:”Because the 13th Note was so keen, so easy-going about putting bands on, all these bands who were starting up – us, Urusei Yatsura, Bis, Yummy Fur – it was inevitably the 13th Note you were going to play. To be honest, I think that the 13th Note, as far as the bands are concerned, is a testament to Alex more than anything. He’s the one booking all these bands, and when you talk to him you realise just how dedicated he is to getting all these bands in. So, hats off to Mr. Huntley”
‘Alex’ is the dapper figure of Alex Huntley, the man chiefly responsible for organising gigs at the 13th Note, who supplies the perfect analogy for his and the venue’s role in the scheme of things:
“Did you ever read the Raffles books when you were a kid? The thief who stole from the upper classes and stuff? He used to have this thing, he used to play cricket – it’s all dead toffee-nosed – and cricket used to have two people who played, ‘Gentlemen and Players’. The Players were professionals: they got paid for what they did; and then there were the Gentlemen who played just for the sport of it. And I feel I’m more in the… Well, I’m not in the Players side, put it that way.”
Like all good things, Alex’s involvement in promoting at the 13th Note came about more by accident than design. In the days when, as he says, “you couldn’t get a gig unless you sounded like Teenage Fanclub or Deacon Blue” his band, the Blisters, played a disastrously-attended club night, following which he was offered the chance to run the club himself, because the original organiser “couldn’t be bothered any more.”
As a result, Alex’s approach is that of a fan, more than that of a businessman: “We’ve had some quite unusual nights” he says. “Some quite ridiculous nights as well. My attitude throughout the whole thing has been to give everybody a chance, no mater how…ludicrous they seem. Quite often it’s only one chance if they’re really awful. But with some of the bands, like Urusei, when they started out, they were pretty shambolic. I feel that if they’d gone to King Tut’s then and said ‘We’ve got this band that play some daft tunes’, then Tut’s would’ve said, ‘You don’t seem very professional – no gig.’ Whereas at the 13th Note, it’s more like ‘Oh wow, you look like you’re having a lot of fun, come and play here.'”
Pat Laureate, founder of Glasgow’s Vesuvius label, which has had a symbiotic relationship with the 13th Note over the past two years, comments, “They don’t have any standards! There’s not a certain type of band that they like there or don’t. Anyone can play there, and that’s really important. It’s the sort of thing that would drive me mad, personally, if I ran it. I mean, I couldn’t stand some of the stinking bands that play there. But at the same time: it’s very important that someone’s doing it, or else nothing would emerge.”
In its small, Glasgow way, the 13th Note is to the city’s emerging music scene today what CBGB’s was to the New York Punk renaissance of the mid-seventies, to the extent that groups are associated with the venue both by locale, and by name. (There is one obvious difference, though: CBGB’s was a dive, whereas the Glasgow pub attracts band members as much as a café/pub as a place to play.) Like New York’s legendary Bowery venue, the reputation of the 13th Note is now spreading beyond the confines of the city. Both Stewart from the Delgados and Steven from Bis separately report that bands in England are beginning to ask them about playing at the 13th Note.
“People say that playing here, especially downstairs, is like playing your living room.” Says Alex. “Just the familiarity of it – you kind of know half the faces in it because they’re in all the time, and there’s an informal atmosphere. If you go to a proper venue, the lights are down onstage, then they come up and there’s the band and you watch them for forty minutes, and then they come off and the gig’s over. Whereas, at the 13th Note, everybody’s sitting about having a drink, chatting, and then some of the guys who are chatting get up on stage and do something, and then come off again and sit back down. Which helps create a setting for communication. The word ‘community’ springs to mind”
Teenage Fanclub’s Gerry Love hits a similar note as he muses on the venue’s success, and the affection it inspires. “It shows that if you provide a stage for people, they can make art and music which is relevant and different. The 13th Note, it seems more…communal, than most other places. It’s a more Punk Rock place, y’know? More grassroots. One of the things that attracts me about going there was that I knew I wasn’t going to hear the same old sound.
“But personally,” he adds, “I think it’s the big windows in the café upstairs that are the key.”