Many a rock critic of the past quarter of a century has pointed to Glasgow as the indie rock epicenter and in certain respects the very origins of the genre buzz term of the same name. Orange Juice, one of Glasgow’s original starring groups, has been given the complete works treatment with Domino’s release of the six disc strong Coals to Newcastle. We tracked down guitarist Malcolm Ross, who also did work for Josef K and Aztec Camera, along with original O.J. drummer Steven Daly who has also been an editor for Spin Magazine and a contributor for Vanity Fair. These are those conversations:
So Malcolm how does it feel with the big six disc retrospective out from the Orange Juice years?
I guess good, you know, I’m glad it’s all going to be available.
Sure has been a while and long time coming huh?
Oh yeah and Domino did a good job puttin’ it all together.
What year did you join O.J.?
I was in there from 81’, part of the second sound of albums that came out all the way until Texas Fever.
Turning back the clocks to Josef K, The Only Fun in Town was one of those futurist records that would have a sound only to be realized some 30 years later. You’re responsible for that angular guitar bit then are you not?
I suppose, um yeah. You don’t really think of that at the time. I think about all the other guitarists that influenced me and hope to move it along anyway.
Who’s idea was it for that weird superimposed slime effect on that live performance of “Sorry for Laughing?”
That was the T.V. show’s idea! [Laughing] That was on a T.V. station from Brussels on a show called “Studio 80” because it was 1980.
With Josef K what were the influences that you all had at the time?
We trying to do the punk rock kinda thing like the Velvet Underground and David Bowie, those were some pretty big influences and we would all hang out and play guitar and then once punk rock happened we were more into the Americans like Television, Talking Heads also soul music like they played at the discos and dancehalls of Edinburgh. I liked James Brown and I remember the drummer Ronnie would play older soul records.
What attributed to the dissolution of Josef K?
Well because of the whole punk thing I don’t know if any of us ever set out to be musicians, I mean punk came out when I was 17, and when punk came it was like anything kind of went. Anyone can make a record, mostly the main reason we split was Paul didn’t want to tour and that was how we made our living was playing gigs and I mean sure you have conflicts but like a family you can’t walk away.
How do you feel about The Sound of Young Scotland carrying on with the indie boom of the 80s that followed after you?
I kind of think about if I was a bit more clever or smart about it I could have made a little more money out if it but I think about all my achievements that have withstood the test of time and that they don’t just sound like lame period pieces which is like so much other music of its time.
What lead to you joining Orange Juice?
I had always kinda been involved with them, I would be in the studio with them and I would play a tiny bit of guitar or a tiny bit of synthesizer on the record. I think to be honest we had this whole, ah, we always had this bit of tension in the air with Orange Juice I think some if it came from the producer but all these tensions were from certain members of Orange Juice.
Well yeah, you had the big line up shift in ’81.
Yea, kinda after we recorded the first album that hadn’t been released yet. These things happen, I mean you look back and say ‘what if’ and I think Edwyn [Collins] said quite often that he had no regrets about the change in personnel that happened.
Seemed like people we’re pulled in different directions, like not everyone was on board with band.
Yeah, I mean with Edwyn I bumped into Edwyn when Josef K was going to do one more gig and I told him, ‘Josef K is all finished we’re just going to do one last gig tonight.’ And he says, ‘Oh come join Orange Juice.’ And I asked, ‘Are you sure, well, what about the rest of them?’ And he says, ‘Don’t worry about the rest of ‘em.’ I don’t know if the rest of them were happy but it was Edwyn’s band. The worst thing you could do at the time was pretend it wasn’t Edwyn’s band, like with Aztec Camera it was always Roddy’s group and Orange Juice was a sham of a democracy cause Edwyn was the lead singer and songwriter.
How did you make the move to Aztec Camera?
Kind of a similar thing, Roddy just asked me if I wanted to play guitar with him. I don’t know if it was my music abilities or what but I think people just liked having me around.
You have left a mark through your guitar work in Josef K, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera and you can even hear it with the first wave twee poppers and C86-ers after you.
I think it was almost like when Bowie made those three “plastic soul” albums, we were always trying to be a bit funky in our weird own way. It is always interesting to see what you get with the cross pollination.
But to get back to your question I was kind of in Orange Juice as a five piece. Then Edwyn wanted me to play less guitar and sing and after being in the group a few months I found the whole thing quite oppressive I didn’t like being in the group at all and that was when the split came about. At the time I was doing work with Momus, before he was calling himself Momus and helping him get that thing going. So there was a lot of things I had to step out of Orange Juice really. I was kind of telling David this and David and Steve (Daly) the drummer didn’t get along at all, a real clash, David was all ‘I can’t stay in this group with Steve’ and blah blah blah. And then I’m not sure which one of us said we’ll tell Edwyn we’re leaving and tell Edwyn that if you want to keep Orange Juice going with us leave the other two and that was when Edwyn was given that horrible choice really.
That’s so bad yet so fitting for a band that made the song “Rip it Up” and start again.
People looking back always seem to like the early stuff better and if the original line up stayed together, who knows, people might have gotten bored, but again this is looking back with a “what if…”
You had played with the Fire Engines too back in the 70s and 80s?
Yeah, we used to do gigs together with Josef K and the Fire Engines, Orange Juice and the Fire Engines. Yeah it was kind of a scene back then, especially in Edinburgh, it was the Fire Engines, Josef K, the Associates, the Scars…they were really great but never really took off the way the other bands did. We were all kind of friends; we used to drink in the same bars, hung out together and things like that. I played on Davy Henderson’s Nectarine No. 9 and his new band the Sexual Objects. I did this thing with Rusell (Burns) that was quite funny, we did a thing at a University for Roland Barthes’ birth doing punky version of Barthes songs with Iggy Pop lyrics with me and Russell we’re just making a big racket.
How did you feel when the big indie explosion occurred in the early mid eighties? How did you feel about the monster you were partly responsible for in terms of influence?
I didn’t really enjoy many of those bands; you look at it different I think when you’re a musician yourself. Kind of like how as a journalist you might read another journalists’ work differently.
When you read Melody Makers, Sounds and the NMEs from the time it seems like your contemporaries heralded you and your cohorts as a driving influence.
Yes, I suppose so. I don’t resent any of the bands that came after us, it’s like good luck to ‘em.
What’s happening with the Lower Miffs?
We put an album out last year, but I’m semi-retired from music. I do commercial jobs sometimes for adverts, or T.V., corporate commercials. I kind of find it hard to make music when I don’t really like it especially with this kind of music when you think that everything is going real well and then a client tells you that it’s not right you have to scratch it and come up with some other kind of thing.
How did Domino secure the rights to the O.J. albums?
The members of the band own the rights and Orange Juice was a kind of group who pretty much could write their own contract and they did sign to a major label (Polydor). The way it worked with the record company was they advanced us money to make our own recordings which we did lease back to the company so the record company never actually owned the recordings. The complicated thing was the lineup changes on all the different albums and getting everyone to agree on the release.
And getting everyone to talk to each other again?
Yeah, a lot of water under the bridge kind of stuff.
What’s happening now in Glasgow and Edinburgh?
Well there’s the Phantom Band and Russell has been working with this band with a Swedish lead singer this band Spectorbullets that’s pretty fun.
Malcolm, thank you again for your contributions to pop music.
Then a few minutes later I called up Orange Juice’s original drummer Steven Daly to hear his perspectives on matters:
Tell me about the early days of Orange Juice’s beginnings.
The core trio of Edwyn, James (Kirk) and myself formed a group called the Nu-Sonics, and started rehearsing in bedrooms, lofts, wherever. A few rudimentary original songs plus some covers–“Mystery Girls” by the New York Dolls and whatever. We had a bass player at the time whose Beatles obsession was obviously not going to make him a long-term member of the group. We had a small core of groups that influenced us: the Modern Lovers, Talking Heads, Wire, the Velvets (an early favorite of Edwyn's). We wanted to carry forward the spirit of punk, but after late 1977 we knew that the movement was musically moribund, so I guess we looked to some older records for extra inspiration: Motown stuff, Creedence, the Byrds and so on.
We got to meet everyone on the small Glasgow punk scene through going to see bands like the Buzzcocks, Fall etc.–and we quickly realized that there were no potential Orange Juice members within that crowd. So Edwyn found David McClymont, a slightly older work-mate who hadn't been through the “Punk Wars”; Edwyn taught him how to play bass and what kind of clothes to wear etc.
We were surprised at the positive reception we got when we eventually made our debut at the Glasgow School of Art, our frame of reference didn't relate to anything else going on at the time. Likewise, when we had released a couple of singles we were astonished to find that a lot of people in places like Liverpool and Manchester “got it.”
Tell me more about you and the band’s punk favorites from that time.
We’re talking here about ’76, ’77 and we’re focusing on more of the American punk bands that were much more orthodox.
So you guys were more of into the Heartbreaker’s, Richard Hell, Television…
Yeah, Richard Hell, Talking Heads, Blondie, the Ramones’ first album was big with everyone. There was a large group of things being roped under punk and in the UK it was fast and aggressive. I mean, we didn’t go out and buy fuzz boxes, we kept it pretty lean. If we had been in America or in a major city we would have found our niche but in Britain we found nothing to grab hold of. I remember one weird band from Manchester called Manicured Noise that put out one or two singles, I don’t think they toured, they were more straight up Talking Heads influenced. And Wire as well and you know probably from Simon Reynolds’ book, (Rip it Up and Start Again) you grew to expect every six weeks there would be a new paradigm shift, new bands with new angles with something else going on.
In the UK post Ramones there was a chain reaction of activity, right?
Yeah, I think for us anything looking punk with a capital “P” by late 1977, pshaw, we wouldn’t even give a second look. But we loved the Fall, the Prefect, the Subway Sect and the Pop Group and the Slits, I guess when you’re talking about punk into post-punk there was no official break off point leaving a lot of those limited ideas behind. It was surprising how many people actually realized their visions in a pretty convincing way given that they couldn’t play very well.
Which is what made is so attractive in a way like, wow, if these guys are doing it so can I. Plus it wasn’t another boy band being pooped out by Bell Records. You could do it if you could plunk out three chords, perfect. A little attitude? Perfect. But 14 years down the line, what else do they got in ‘em you know?
I guess the problems for bands at that time like punk was a sort of year zero back to basics and then you could do what you wanted to do from there. And someone as bright as Pete Shelley could sustain the Buzzcocks through 3 or 4 albums but it burned a lot of people out so quickly.
Like “the scene is so humdrum and my favorite song is called “Boredom”…
Yeah, me and James (Kirk, guitarist for O.J.) were gone by then and I think that Spiral Scratch record (by the Buzzcocks that features the “Boredom” song in question) came out toward the end of ’76 and was one of the first, out of the blue independent records on a label that we had absolutely never heard of as an EP and (the Buzzcocks) listed on the sleeve how much everything cost, how much the pressing cost, how much the sleeve cost, how much it cost to produce and that one was real important to Edwyn.
But yeah, “Rip it Up” does not get a good reaction from me, there was a decent Uncut in Britain where I explained how a lot of the clever guys, thinking of Green Gartside from Scritti Politti and other clued in individuals that didn’t have a band around them that could get any producer they wanted and blow their ideas up to cinemascope size. And I think this made Edwyn very nervous which was why he wanted to get James out of the group and I didn’t go with that so I was out as well. I think “Rip it Up” was the big play to get in the charts you know, to do something more contemporary, funky. Fine, it succeeded but it got the version of the group regarded as a one hit wonder and it left Edwyn adrift for the better part of a decade you know.
I’ve heard about the riff over the producer’s inclusion of the cover of Al Green’s “L. O. V. E.”
I refused to learn it; I thought this was a satire. We had gone from Glasgow to London, we had chosen this producer, he had produced Scritti Politti’s “The Sweetest Girl,” nothing to do with what we were doing and he had another record by Robert Wyatt. But sonically he seemed to know what he was doing, but personality wise he was a world apart, he was a rich kid. I can’t remember if he was slightly older or younger than us but he had all kinds of motivations and things and partly doing a soul song like that would have enabled him to hire horn sections, string sections backing singers and whatever and then that goes on his show reel and is passed around town for his next gig just in the same way indie directors go from doing an indie film to a thriller to show that they can do it. So we were his experiment and Edwyn was seduced by that. So it was the beginning of the end, you know?
There is a big influence with the group but you don’t wanna come off doing some shoe smooth soft blue eyed soul thing.
And if you want to attribute a way to do a song like that then you configure to the way that you want it to be done but when you do it like he did with reproducing it note for note is the lamest way of doing and I’m surprised people are so forgiving…
I think there is a real sincerity though in Edwyn’s delivery of “L.O.V.E.”
Oh yeah the difference in the vocal is pretty striking and I guess that could be enduring to people, you know.
How does it feel to have the Coal to Newcastle boxset out?
Ahh, really bizarre. The Glasgow School I thought was closer to my part, I guess I wrote the linear notes for that, with Domino that’s up to Edwyn and his wife and manager Grace with the master tapes, photographs and all that, but I did write the linear notes for Edwyn’s release of The Glasgow School and I felt that was a complete and definitive wrap up of that period. This one is strange ‘cause it goes over that period, adds to it and then it has some pretty inexplicable leaps between albums and it genuinely proves that Edwyn completely went the opposite direction and burned every bridge he could find.
A lot of it comes down to the record company. People overstate the importance of the record company as entity but it’s the individuals who sign you and those relationships… We weren’t an ideal match for [Polydor]. Over the longer term I don’t think there was an understanding with the guy, that we were closer to Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis, who was distributing for Postcard, which was falling apart, so we had to explain to him that he wouldn’t be getting out the album. So we instantly put ourselves up for sale, letting it be known know we were looking for a deal, that we were interested, that we weren’t an unknown quantity or uninterested, so people knew we had a fan base. So we did that deal and paid him back and moved on, but while not all the records we put out were compatible to what we were trying to do, (Geoff Travis) definitely understood what a capital A artist was, know what I mean? He could have handled it better and helped us negotiate and helped worked our way through things, then with Polydor they just didn’t know what [Edwyn] was playing at because he would deliver them a hit record then he would go about doing perverse things and lineup changes and going all over the place with no regard for the feelings of others or how these actions affected the investments of others.
What did you think of the lineup change in ’81?
Ah, well, initially I thought it was, you know…as I’ve said in that interview in Uncut I was pretty blunt about it and I’ve talked to Edwyn about it and he realizes that if he stuck to his guns and kept the group moving in the original direction and imporving it would have been a better long term move for him, you know, instead of acting on a series of whims. But all that is history, at the time I was not happy about it and I thought some of the stuff was pretty ludicrous. Edwyn could always write good songs, it was always there, I think when he made the album Gorgeous George he had acquired a studio and I think that was closer to the vision than anything else he did in the interim, you know?
I think the whimsical attitude stemmed from Edwyn seeing it as his group, one he didn’t have to balance democratic demands versus what he wanted to do on a whim, such that he could go and make an international hit like “Girl Like You.”
Right, “A Girl Like You” I think was truer to where he started. Even on the day I met him he did like soul music, I liked soul records and Edwyn liked to go to clubs where they played soul music and so forth and then try to do that in a convincing way, so it went full circle. But you’re right, when you’re no longer having to nullify people or listen to opinions or whatever things can go haywire, sometimes they go well, sometimes you get the brilliant individual who can take care of everything and knows exactly what he’s doing. But it was a violent uprooting, not for me, but for Edwyn, going from the way the group operated at one point to the way it operated when he would stay in hotels in London and things and was living more of a pop star existence. You know the people you’re surrounded by and all this and you know The Glasgow School sounds like some people have said; we invented indie rock here in Glasgow, partly because of the isolation feeling that there was no peer group and all that so the accumulation of all these things meant that you had quite an individualistic style but then when you get to London it’s a… I don’t know, it’s an age old story.