Ask Paul Haig and Malcolm Ross what they remember about the gig they played in Brussels almost 40 years ago as vocalist and guitarist with Edinburgh’s premier post-punk moodists, Josef K, and both give the same answer.
“The only thing I really remember is the snare drum breaking,” says Haig.
Ross recalls how “It broke on the first song. Ronnie Torrance the drummer had left all his spare skins in the studio in Brussels, so we had to carry on without a snare and improvise for about four songs. Fortunately for us, Lene Lovich’s road crew were there, and they lent us their snare drum. Listening to it again, Ronnie copes with it amazingly well. When it broke, it made things seem kind of hard. It was quite a prestigious gig, I remember. We were only playing a short set, but it wasn’t a nightclub. It was a theatre set-up, and was quite formal and quite staid.”
The unintended snare drum incident nevertheless gives the recording of Josef K’s April 1981 performance an extra edge that can be heard on The Scottish Affair (Part Two), a lavishly packaged record of the show released on limited edition clear vinyl by Les Disques du Crepuscule. The chic Belgian label promoted the concert at the Beursschouwburg venue in Brussels following a multi-media extravaganza on Hogmanay four months earlier. That was at the warehouse-based Plan K venue alongside Postcard Records label-mates, Orange Juice.
Josef K had released their debut single, Chance Meeting, on Orange Juice drummer Steven Daly’s Absolute label. Their two follow-ups on Postcard, Radio Drill Time and It’s Kinda Funny, mixed angular urgency with downbeat lyrics that made for a kind of existential disco.
With Crepuscule forging international connections, Josef K had recorded their Sorry for Laughing single for them during their first visit. This captured the raw sound that had eluded them on previous recordings, including that of the album that was awaiting release. They decreed to re-record it in Brussels during their second visit, and it was this that was released as The Only Fun in Town, its seemingly self-sabotaging release foreshadowing the band’s split in August.
Ross remembers the Brussels trip as having “a real sense of optimism and excitement that things were moving forward. We did feel we were part of a kind of change of the guard in terms of what was going on musically. Josef K would always try and do something, not totally experimental, but not just the same things that we’d done before. We were so young then, and I think we were quite naïve, trying to find new chord structures and all that, then as you get older and learn more, you realise why they’re structured the way they are.”
Europe may seem an increasingly distant place right now for a new generation of home-grown talent with ideas above their station. For Haig, Ross and the other members of Josef K, drummer Torrance and bass player Davy Weddell, their first trips abroad as part of what was effectively a trans-global Crepuscule salon, it was an adventure. The band’s name may have been drawn from Czech novelist Franz Kafka’s existential novel, but Brussels seemed just as exotic.
“Paul and I used to read European literature in translation,” remembers Ross, “and we always felt we had an affinity with Europe.”
The European romance they envisaged was slightly different from the harsh realities of life on the road.
“We did that terrible journey in a Bedford van, with loads of things going wrong,” says Haig, “but when we got to Brussels, it was great to just be able to to a café and have a proper French coffee. We liked our coffee and cigarettes, but you couldn’t get that in Scotland. Then we met the Crepuscule crowd, and they had it much more together than we did. They all had flats and everything, and we were these pale little Scottish guys pretending to be sophisticated.”
The album cover image for The Scottish Affair (Part Two) is a reproduction of the poster for the Beursschouwburg gig, featuring artwork by Jean-Francois Octave that epitomised the
ennui of serious young men. The thirty-odd minute recording itself captures Josef K at their frenetic peak.
“Some moments sound really intense,” says Haig. “It’s always a bit weird going back, because it feels like a lifetime ago, but I think it stands up.”
Once Josef K split, Haig formed Rhythm of Life, a loose-knit umbrella organisation that produced a couple of singles before releasing numerous solo albums. Having briefly come up for air a decade ago for a handful of rare live dates, Haig continues to release new material, with his most recent album, The Wood, released last year on Les Disques du Crepuscule.
Ross joined Orange Juice, then Aztec Camera before embarking on a solo career that saw him release two albums. He made an album with The Low Miffs, and is currently part of The Bum-Clocks with Fire Engines drummer Russell Burn and his actor brother Tam Dean Burn. The Bum-Clocks also form part of Out of the Ordinary, the Edinburgh supergroup put together by maverick singer and writer, Joseph Malik.
Both Haig and Ross express surprise at Josef K’s increasing cachet over the years. This has come about through various compilations, name-checks as an influence by the likes of Franz Ferdinand and their appearance in Grant McPhee’s Scottish post-punk documentary, Big Gold Dream. The release of The Scottish Affair (part Two) adds to the historicising of their brief but vital lifespan.
“I think for people interested in music of that period it’s an interesting document of its time,” says Ross.
For Haig, “I think it’s quite an important document of what we were like that night, and because it’s a live experience it gives people who never had the chance to see Josef K an idea of how fast and intense it all was. Listening to it now, sometimes it takes me back, and sometimes it’s quite uncomfortable, but you really get the feeling it was a special night.”
The Scottish Affair (Part Two) by Josef K is available now on Les Disques du Crepuscule.
The Herald, December 19th 2019