It was 40 years ago not quite today when I first saw Edwyn Collins on a stage. That was with Orange Juice, the band who spearheaded Postcard Records of Scotland’s fleeting marriage between Velveteen cool and Glasgow cheek in some mythical pop paradise that arguably invented indie-pop as we know it.
It was August 19th 1981, and Orange Juice was headlining a short lived irregular Wednesday night Liverpool club called Plato’s Ballroom.Plato’s had set out its store in January of that year with its first event at the faded chicken-in-a-basket cabaret dive usually called Mr. Pickwick’s. With New Order playing their seventh or eighth gig ever as headliners, the arty-looking poster for the night also promised ‘film’, ‘performance’ and something called a ‘videoteque’.
This amounted to David Lynch’s film, Eraserhead, and assorted flicks by Kenneth Anger beamed onto the back wall of the stage while a soundtrack of The Pop Group’s She is Beyond Good and Evil, The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel, and Manicured Noise’s lost classic, Faith, played.
Artist Mick Aslin designed the early posters, and was one of the ‘Situationalist Youth Collective’ behind Plato’s Ballroom alongside future Happy Mondays manager Nathan McGough. Aslin presented some performance art that involved him breaking out of a coffin-sized box on the dancefloor as a tape-loop of his voice played. Self-confessed John Cooper Clarke wannabe, Badger Badgeroo and the Badgerettes, performed his poetry. A few years later, under his real name of Mike Badger, he would go on to form The La’s. All this, then, and New Order too.
Plato’s Ballroom followed this every other Wednesday with nights headlined by a Certain Ratio, The Durutti Column, Cabaret Voltaire, and Jah Wobble making his first live appearance since his departure from Public Image Limited. Things continued with Clock DVA, and a second show by A Certain Ratio followed.
As a curious/hungry/earnest/ 16-year-old, Plato’s Ballroom completed the unholy trinity that paved the way for my personal Great Learning of a world where music was a crucial part of a bigger whole. If Tony Wilson’s teatime arts magazine show on Granada TV, What’s On, was a foundation course, and music paper, NME, then in its expansive early ‘80s pomp, my heavy theory, Plato’s Ballroom was my very free university, where anything might happen. The eclectic mash-up of serious fun on show at Plato’s left its mark, and remains a profound influence on me today. Of course, I knew nothing about Andy Warhol’s Factory or the Dadaists original Cabaret Voltaire back then, but still.
The idea of Plato’s Ballroom was a duel enterprise. Firstly, those behind it wanted to take art out of the galleries and into a more speakeasy environment. At the same time, they wanted to put gigs on in environments that were a lot more inventive than simply shoving a bunch of random bands on a bill in black-painted pub back-rooms desperate to be CBGB and hoping someone other than their mates might pay attention. These days, one might say this fusion of artistic happenings at Plato’s Ballroom had been curated.
While some of the more outré multi-media elements had disappeared by the time Collins and Orange Juice played what turned out to be the final edition of Plato’s Ballroom, the attitude remained. The imaginatively designed posters and tickets were still present, as was the thoughtfully put together line-ups. The latter was probably how a pair of Liverpool bands called The Wild Swans and The Pale Fountains played their first ever gigs supporting Orange Juice at Plato’s. Both groups subsequently created their own legends, but that’s at least two other stories.
Whatever, it was the classic Postcard era Orange Juice line-up that played Plato’s, featuring Collins, guitarist and occasional co-vocalist James Kirk, bass player David McClymont, and drummer Steven Daly. The band was four scrappily perfect singles in, with only the twin magnificence of the second – Blue Boy and Lovesick – perversely excised from the 11-song set list. Mercifully, however, as my teenage post-gig scrawl testifies to, Blue Boy was played as an encore, confirming the band recognised its galloping Bonanza-themed brilliance even then.
For me, at least, this was one of the nights that changed everything. Musically, every day was a school day by way of an anything-goes oppositionist melting pot of ideas and attitude that seemed to take another great leap forward every week. 1981 had begun with the Rough Trade/NME C-81 cassette (free with postage and packing if you collected 4 – or was it 6? – weekly coupons and waited 28 days for delivery). Then there was Echo and the Bunnymen’s version of a magical mystery tour when they bussed the UK’s dole queue hoards to snow-laden Derbyshire to be extras in Shine So Hard. An art film masquerading as a pop video, the half-hour short was one of the earliest sightings of Bunnymen manager Bill Drummond turning record company cash into avant-garde action.
A summer of royal weddings and riots followed. In-between, my world was all about gigs and records and books and films and John Peel and NME and signing on. And now here we were, watching a band whose members looked like they’d escaped from an Enid Blyton novel and had turned what would later be misunderstood as tweeness on its head to take the piss. After the long macs and even longer expressions of existential angst that perhaps understandably permeated the collective psyche of a disaffected youth, it was suddenly okay to be funny, clever and sarcastic as well as tuneful. In this sense, Collins and Orange Juice resembled characters from a Ladybird book whose accidental exposure to punk and disco had turned them gleefully rogue.
Orange Juice may have been sired in the suburban fringe of Bearsden rather than Glasgow itself, but by migrating to a city full of hard men, there was something about their stance that was heroic. Glasgow in the late 1970s and early 1980s was in part still steeped in the macho mythology of razor gangs and bar-room brawling in spit and sawdust fleapits. Anyone with a floppy fringe, an effete demeanour and a penchant for phrases both arch and arcane would likely be chibbed or else have their heads kicked in before they got through the door.
Collins, Kirk, McClymont and Daly looked like they were as much a gang as any other, with all the fearlessness youth brings with it. But, after the insular Ballardian soul-searching of what had come immediately before, Falling and Laughing, Simply Thrilled Honey, Poor Old Soul and Felicity felt like some kind of statement, and Orange Juice a breath of fresh air.
Four decades on, I’m about to see Edwyn Collins play again, and one suspects some of Orange Juice’s songs now regarded as modern classics worthy of the pop equivalent of Penguin books might quite rightly be on the set list again. This time out, Collins and his band will be headlining an Edinburgh International Festival edition of Neu! Reekie!, the city’s premiere night of music, spoken word and experimental short film.
Inbetween the two occasions, there have been other nights. In the late ‘90s, there he was at The Garage in Glasgow, riding high on hit single A Girl Like You. With a foot perched rocktastically on a monitor, Collins grinned triumphantly as he recognised his own ridiculousness in taking such a stance. Then there was the Queens Hall show in Edinburgh in 2008, not long after Collins had recovered from two brain haemorrhages. That night, former Aztec Camera frontman and guitarist extraordinaire Roddy Frame played in Collins’ band. There have been other nights, lost to memory or else blurred into one another through age.
For me, at least, Edwyn Collins headlining Neu! Reekie! 40 years after Orange Juice played Plato’s Ballroom feels significant, somehow, and shows how far things have come. Back in August ‘81, the idea of avant-grade cabaret was considered to be the preserve of art students, hippies, lefties and other freaks, weirdos and oddballs. Gigs were meant for pubs, poetry belonged in bookshops, and experimental cinema was for subsidised film societies with dwindling memberships. A mini wave of something styled as ‘alternative cabaret’, however, begged to differ.
As culture has shifted, over the last ten years, poets Michael Pedersen and Kevin Williamson, who curate Neu! Reekie!, if you will, have put on nights in church halls and arts centres, and have released records, published books and taken the show on the road.
Neu! Reekie! has showcased cross-generational bills of artists that range from high-profile events headlined by the likes of Charlotte Church, to hosting a range of younger poets and musicians.
All the while, Pedersen and Williamson have remained aware of their counter-cultural roots. This has come by way of appearances from the likes of Linton Kwesi Johnson, and had Michael Rother of German kosmiche band Neu! sharing a bill at Leith Theatre with American writer and provocateur Lydia Lunch. The same night featured fleetingly reformed Edinburgh post-punk incendiarists Fire Engines, and Dunbar-based all woman rap trio The Honey Farm.
With Neu! Reekie! sired from assorted grassroots Edinburgh scenes, having the name on an expensive Edinburgh International Festival ticket gives it a kind of formal recognition among the ‘official’ arts world that would never have been entertained back in Plato’s Ballroom’s day. Conversely, having Neu! Reekie! in its programme lends Edinburgh International Festival a patina of cool.
For Edwyn Collins to be headlining a large-scale music and spoken-word cabaret night in 2021 is an infiltration of the mainstream those behind similar cross-artform bills at Plato’s Ballroom could only dream of. That Neu! Reekie!’s Edinburgh International Festival event also features Orwell Prize winning writer and hip-hop auteur Darren McGarvey performing with songwriter Becci Wallace, with poet Victoria McNulty completing the line-up, is a possible pointer to where we are now. Like the man said, the possibilities are endless.
Neu! Reekie! with Edwyn Collins, Darren McGarvey with Becci Wallace, and Victoria McNulty is part of Edinburgh International Festival at Edinburgh Park, Thursday August 12th, 8.30pm. Tickets £21-£26. www.eif.co.uk
First published in the FRETs litzine at The Creeping Bent Organisation's Patreon page, www.patreon.com/creeping bent, August 2021.