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Scars - Post-Punk Author! Author's! Return

Musical reunions are everywhere just now, with recent shows at
Edinburgh’s Picture House by both The Human League and their funkier
offshoot Heaven 17 coming back after thirty years in the wilderness to
reclaim the early 1980s New Pop throne. Earlier this year agit-punk
provocateurs Gang of Four played the same venue, only to be upstaged by
The Sexual Objects, whose driving force Davy Henderson originally led
Edinburgh’s Fire Engines through their fifteen minutes of infamy.
Henderson briefly reformed the band five years ago, supporting Franz
Ferdinand, who owe openly owe a massive debt to Fire Engines jangular
urgency.

While all those named above have their origins in Bob Last’s
Edinburgh-based Fast Product record label, which, as the roster above
indicates, more or les invented Post-Punk and Electro-pop, when Fire
Engines fellow travelers Scars take the stage together for the first
time in a quarter of a century next week, it will provide the missing
link in one of the most influential musical scenes ever.

By rights, Scars potent mix of Paul Research’s cascading guitar
melodrama and the literate word-playing of singer Robert King over
Research’s bassist brother John Mackie and drummer Calumn Mackay’s
skewed rhythm section on mini epics such as their Clockwork Orange
inspired debut, Horrorshow, should have crossed over to the mainstream.
Or so the appearances on The Old Grey Whistle Test and the John Peel
show suggested, with King’s striking corrupted cherub demeanour making
them eminently photogenic for the music papers.

As it was, Scars fell apart after solitary album, Author! Author!,
which, released in 1981 on major label subsidiary Pre, turned out to be
too left-field for the charts, yet remained too poppy to attract the
underground. The rediscovery of late 1970s and early 1980s off-kilter
sounds by a younger generation of bands over the last few years,
however, suggests that Scars time might finally have come via this show
designed to promote the new Grassmarket presence of Edinburgh’s premier
indie record emporium, Avalanche.

With all four Scars somewhat far-flung geographically, however, the
first rehearsal almost didn’t happen due to assorted travel plans being
disrupted by the weather. When it did take place, however, it seems to
have taken all involved by surprise.

“It was mind-blowingly good,” says Research, now more commonly known as
Paul Mackie in a plush George Street bar that’s about as far from the
likes of long lost Edinburgh venues such as the Tap O’Laurieston and
the Wig and Pen, where Scars cut their performing teeth, as you can
get. . “Yesterday we rehearsed for five hours and again today for three
hours, and it’s hard to describe how good it was. Yesterday it was
encouraging how tight it was, and today it just stepped up another
gear. We were actually sounding better today than we ever have before,
and I’m not exaggerating when I say that. I’ve never played with a band
who know so intuitively what they’re doing. It sounds like I’m really
hyping it, but songs like Horrorshow sound really current now. Maybe
it’s something to do with the times we’re living in now, because
conventional song structures were never really our bag, and now,
conventional song structures don’t matter. At the time the record
company tried to mould us, but we were more like groups like Suede, who
have the confidence play about with things and still make something
special.”

Long championed by Henderson and former Josef K frontman Paul Haig as
the ones to look up to, the Mackie brothers formed Scars shortly after
punk broke. Inspired by the first Ramones album, John Mackie built his
own bass guitar before the nascent line-up played local halls and youth
clubs. It was King’s audition for the band, however, that changed
everything.

“Rab was such a compelling performer”, Mackie remembers. “There was
another guy supposed to audition the same day, and we said to them to
just sing a song they knew and we’d play along. Rab chose Anarchy in
the UK, jumped really high in the air, shrieked frighteningly and that
was that, the other guy was so freaked out that he decided not to
audition, and we knew we had to have Rab in our band.”

One early show at the Wig and Pen found sixteen year old Mackay not
allowed in until it was time for the band to play. By that time, the
Scars sound was coming on leaps and bounds. An early and unlikely
champion of Scars was Garry Bushell, then a writer about the lairier
side of punk for music paper Sounds.

“There were some principles about how we played”, says Mackie, “with
all the different layers of sound being important. We used a trebly,
high frequency guitar sound, and we were supposed to be a disco-punk
interface. We were all really into disco, but rather than play it we
used the vocabulary of it. Early in your development as a musician
there’s a real satisfaction in getting the sound you want. So even if
you can’t play a flashy chord, you can still get a good groove going
and build up a momentum. For some reason Garry Bushell liked that and
wrote up this rave review saying Scars were what Edinburgh was all
about.”

While the release of Horrorshow went well, Fast Product mastermind Bob
Last decided not to put out a follow-up, and Scars eventually signed to
Pre. Author! Author! was produced by Robert Blamire, bass player with
Penetration. The band toured Europe for a year to promote the album, a
move that may have tightened the band’s live sound, but made for
conflicts that eventually saw Scars fall apart.

“I thought the situation was retrievable”, says Mackie, who became the
bang’s singer for a while, “but when you’ve been know for something and
have gone down hill, people don’t believe you can come back.”

After assorted solo ventures by King and Mackie, with King living with
former Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico on Edinburgh’s then bohemian
St Stephen’s Street while John Mackie played bass with David Essex,
Scars have come back. Indeed, the Picture House show won’t be the first
time assorted Scars have reconvened. In 2007, on the back of some hefty
sampling from Horrorshow by electronic noodlers Lemon Jelly for their
track, 79, or The Shouty One, Mackie, Mackie and Mackay appeared live
onstage with the duo at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall to play the song. This
was instrumental in the eventual overdue release of Author! Author! on
CD.

More recently, King joined Mackie onstage to play Horrorshow alongside
Edinburgh band Shock and Awe at a low-key show at Henry’s Cellar Bar, a
venue infinitely more bijou than the Picture House, but which captured
the edgy spirit of early Scars shows perfectly.

A testament to the two-way influence of Scars could be heard in a
Telford College drama student production of A Clockwork Orange that was
produced at St Stephen’s Church on the corner of St Stephen’s Street in
2008. With King and Nico’s old flat a stone’s throw away, director
Scott Johnston, who’d been around the same scene that sired Scars, used
Horrorshow on the soundtrack of his all female show alongside new
material by King.

Beyond the Picture House show and an accompanying BBC 6 Music session
for Marc Riley in February 2011, any future plans for Scars are
sketchy. In the meantime, an official aftershow party fronted by Shock
and Awe may or may not feature the Scars songs left out of the main
event.

“There are a couple of directions we could go” Mackie muses. “We could
try and recreate the past, which this definitely isn’t about, or we
could get together and write new material, but we’ll see. I’d like to
see a rehabilitation of Scars as an entertaining and exciting band. On
the 29th there’s going to be lots of people who haven’t seen each other
for years. It’s going to be thrilling.”

Scars, TV 21, Ballboy and Kid Canaveral play The Picture House,
Edinburgh, December 29th. The official after-show featuring Shock and
Awe plus very special guests happens at the Citrus Club, Edinburgh
immediately afterwards.
http://venues.meanfiddler.com/hmv-picture-house/home
http://www.scarsresearch.com/

The Herald, December 28th 2010

ends

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