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Alastair McKay – Alternatives To Valium: How Punk Rock Saved A Shy Boy’s Life: Glasgow Music Walking Tours Guest Blog

We’d like to thank Alastair McKay for his brilliant guest blog and playlist for his forthcoming book  Alternatives To Valium: How Punk Rock Saved A Shy Boy’s Life   published by Birlinn on April 7th. Over on our Facebook page we have 2 copies up for grabs and we can highly recommend it, it’s a hugely enjoyable read. Alastair will be appearing with Mark Hodkinson at Aye Write on Sunday 15th May at 3pm.

Alastair McKay is a journalist living in London and he currently writes for the Evening Standard and Uncut magazine.

He grew up in the fading Scottish seaside town of North Berwick in the 1970s. The cinema and outdoor swimming pool were closing, there were boot boys in the park, and excitement was scarce.

An exceptionally shy boy, Alastair found his voice through the punk explosion: the ethos that ‘anyone could do it’ prompted him to start writing, largely because it was easier than talking. He also sang in a band that was tipped by Sounds magazine to be ‘big in 1982’. It wasn’t.

From these hesitant beginnings, he went on to an award-winning career in journalism that included meeting Iggy Pop at the Chateau Marmont, being led astray by Tilda Swinton, corresponding with Mark E. Smith and shooting the breeze with Dolly Parton. Over to Alastair…

a close up of a sign
Punk died before it was even born, but for me it started to smell a bit when I saw a Sid Vicious T-shirt on sale in John Menzies. I wasn’t a punk like that, because nobody was. Punk was a passport to creativity, not a haircut. As a member of one of the top 3 not punk bands to come out of North Berwick, this is my Scottish punk Top 10. There are only nine of them, and none of them were punks.

1. The Valves
Ain’t No Surf In Portobello

The Valves were not punk, but they were not punk at a time when nobody else was either. They were gloriously energetic and played everywhere. One of the many times I saw them was at the demonstration against the building of the nuclear power station at Torness, near Dunbar. My dad, who subsequently got a job at Torness, drove me to the demonstration, and never failed to mention my opposition to nuclear power when he topped up my student grant. The Valves had rock ’n’ roll manners and punk energy, and the fact that their records came out on Zoom, an offshoot of Bruce’s Records (run by Bruce Findlay, future manager of Zoom graduates Simple Minds) was a practical demonstration of DIY audacity. The Valves’ greatest hit, Ain’t No Surf In Portobello, laments the demise of Porty’s open air pool and its incredible wave machine,

2. Rezillos
Can’t Stand My Baby

The Rezillos were not punks. They were a garage band from a future first glimpsed in a 3D Cold War comic book. The were a dayglo B-movie dressed in home-tailored PVC and they sounded amazing. It’s a small thing, and perhaps it shouldn’t be important, but hearing Fay Fife announce that she was “gonna go radge” felt like a small moment of liberation. I saw the Rezillos supporting Buzzcocks at Edinburgh Odeon, and Pete Shelley was very unhappy when he found himself on the wrong end of a water pistol attack from playful Rezillos fans.

3. Another Pretty Face
Whatever Happened To The West?

Mike Scott was not a punk, and the success of The Waterboys has obscured his importance to the Edinburgh scene. His fanzine, Jungleland, was the Sniffin’ Glue of Cadzow Place, a collage of rock ’n’ roll classicism (Springsteen/Patti Smith) and punk thrills. His band, Another Pretty Face, added the righteous fire of the Clash. I saw APF at the Hillhead Halls of Residence, Aberdeen. There was no stage. They were on the floor, on the level, and they blew me away. APF’s career was short-circuited by record company shenanigans, and they’re probably best remembered for All The Boys Love Carrie, which Julie Burchill made a single of the week in NME. I also love Whatever Happened To The West, which rages in all the right places.

4. Visitors
Poet’s End

Visitors were not punks. They maybe started out that way (when they were known as The Deleted) but they evolved, and kept evolving. Their early shows included a song called Exploiting The Masters in which singer John McVay berated the audience members for their lack of engagement, or apathy. One of many times I saw Visitors was in my first week at Aberdeen University. They supported the Adverts. I was beaten up on the way home. It was 1979, Aberdeen was still suspicious of straight leg trousers. Poet’s End catches Visitors at their peak, and still sounds like nothing else.

5. Scars

Scars were not punks. They were tougher and harder than that, even when they signed to a major label and acquired a new romantic puffy shirt wardrobe. Their album, Author! Author!, has its roots in the more sentient side of glam rock, but Scars earlier work is scratchy and violent; never more so than on their debut single for Edinburgh label Fast Product. Adult/ery sounds like heavy metal played with wire coat-hangers, and Horrorshow is a fuzzy appropriation of the stylised menace of Kubrick’s film.

6. Orange Juice
Blue Boy

Orange Juice were not punks, but without the inspiration of Buzzcocks and Vic Godard they probably wouldn’t have summoned the inspiration to mix the choppy guitars of Chic with the arch romance of … who? Their first two singles for Postcard Records were an explosion of repressed energy. They might have been trying to recapture the twisted Northern Soul of Subway Sect, but they bent an already bent thing into a fascinating new shape. My favourite OJ shows were the Postcard package at Edinburgh Nite Club, and the show in Aberdeen where Edwyn wore a piratical eye patch because, he said, he had been beaten up by neds. (He later suggested it was conjunctivitis).

7. Delmontes
Tous Les Soirs

The Delmontes were not punks. They were supposed to be like the Doors, but I hated the Doors and loved the Delmontes, possibly because the Doors were fronted by a Dionysian twerp in leather breeks and the Delmontes had Julie Delmonte who had a voice like a cool glass of water in a heatwave. My band, The Commercials – we were not punks – supported The Delmontes at Glasgow Tech, and they were entirely fantastic. Not punks, though.

8. The Associates
Party Fears Two

The Associates were not punks. They never claimed to be. They could play every kind of music and made a world of their own, a kind of sonic Creamola foam fizzed from Billy MacKenzie’s untamed imagination and Alan Rankine’s experimental instincts. I first heard of The Associates on Radio Forth, where – from memory – they explained that their name meant that they were not a normal band. Much later, I interviewed Billy and found him to be exuberant, insecure, and painfully honest.

9. The Whips

The Whips were not punks. The Whips were from North Berwick and Haddington, and were a truncated (more successful) iteration of my first band, The Instant Whips. One of the improvements they made was getting rid of me. Understandable, but I wrote the words of this eternal classic which appeared on the b-side of The Whips’ single on Flying Headbutt Records, Walking In Circles. It’s a literal example of shouting at the television. Nationwide was The One Show of its day, and I was warming up for my later job as a TV critic. Oddly, on a trip to Tennessee in the early 2000s I met a man who claimed – falsely – to be the singer of The Whips, and would not be persuaded otherwise, even when I quoted the lyrics of this song to him.