From pop art to art rock, the interface between the musical and visual arts is fecund in Scotland to the point of groupie-like promiscuity. Stalwarts from one world hang out with movers and shakers from the other, the first to garner intellectual cred, the latter to look cool.
Who’s who in the above dichotomy these days, however, is becoming increasingly blurred. In Glasgow, The Chateau birthed a scene that embraced all of these, and when Franz Ferdinand went mainstream, you know it was partly because they knew their visual reference points as much as musical ones.
Art school has always been a sublime breeding ground for pop stars. From Roxy Music to Adam and the Ants, to the Rezillos, to Life Without Buildings, here was one more means of production: when punk poetess Patti Smith covered the Byrds ‘So You Wanna Be A Rock ’n’ Roll Star,’ it was the perfect evocation of how art had broken out of its gilt-edged frame and into a live arena where image was all.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Pass The Time Of Day, the Edinburgh Collective Gallery’s recognition of pop as something transcendent and ephemeral, which recalls Noel Coward’s dictum of the potency of cheap music.
Music, then, is something to aspire to, a get out of jail card in an iPod age where, yes, you actually can buy a thrill. It’s what Lou Reed wrote about in ‘Songs For Drella’, his and John Cale’s belated elegy for their sometime Pittsburgh-born mentor, Andy Warhol. ‘When you’re growing up in a small town/You know that you want to get out.’ You know the scene, very humdrum. So picture this.
There’s a cartoon in an old copy of Mad magazine, which features a pair of dead-eyed teens sitting on their front porch. Lanky, listless and fully aware that life is elsewhere, ‘Whadda you wanna do?’ one asks. ‘I dunno,’ says the other. ‘Maybe we could go down to the barbershop and watch a haircut.’
You can imagine the late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, bunged up with perma-adolescent fury, at the centre of both these stories. Especially when you see Rodney Graham’s ‘Aberdeen,’ a series of postcards from the edge of Cobain’s Washington hometown. Still lifes of even stiller lives abound between the parked cars and shop fronts that become a Twin Peaks -like facade hiding the disaffected self-destructive creative rage beyond it that Cobain came to represent.
Stasis abounds here, in the work, rest and play of Rosalind Nashashibi’s film, ‘Open Day’, where the mundanity of everyday activity becomes a rhythmic leisure process in itself. Here then are the nine-till-five downtimes that precede the mood-altering transcendence music posits, and which can, in the right circumstances, with the right chord changes, and with every potential for eyes meeting across a crowded room, create a very different nirvana.
This isn’t the New York, London, Paris, Munich, Good Times of the aspirational metropolis that forms the city’s throbbing heart in the Human League’s ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’. Rather, this is more Bellshill, Akron, Cleveland and, in Arab Strap’s case, Falkirk, where dreams are all hung out to dry.
Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton’s debut single, ‘The First Big Weekend’, remains the perfect evocation of small town ennui, where, as in Gordon Legge’s equally downbeat novel, The Shoe, lives revolve around music, football and the prospects, if not the manifestation, of sex and drugs in the mire of a dead-end dole-queue culture.
The song’s simple playback, followed by its spiritual sister, ‘Girls Of Summer’, demonstrates a waggish gallows humour at the last gasp desperation of it all. In their subversion of rock ’n’ roll as a form as well as a documentation of the everyday, these two gritty vignettes are fat with the meat and two veg of a Raymond Carver story.
Michael Winterbottom’s film, 9 Songs, has already demonstrated how the simple visceral thrill of a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle-eight-chorus routine can define a moment of intimacy in all its clumsiness, honesty and beauty. Sex and music, then, are inseparable bedfellows, even if both can be somewhat commitment-phobic.
The idea of the anonymous hotel room, where strangers touch and go, is explored in ‘Real Society’, Phil Collins’ series of slides displaying a variety of men and women in gradual states of undress. Some are together, others alone. Some are coy before the camera, others unashamed and in the throes of passion. Set to a soundtrack of classic pop melodrama, it’s a peek into private lives that goes beyond rock star romance.
Accidentally, but beautifully perfect, songs from each work play across each other. As Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ bleeds into Dionne Warwick’s take on ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’, they rub against each other like tumbled bodies daydreaming separate ‘Our Tunes’. It’s as if desire itself had been put on a loop.
Let us not forget, though, that beyond such highs and lows, the most important half of the phrase ‘music business’, is the second one. In ‘Atomic’, Matthew Noel-Tod’s frame-by-frame fantasy wish-fulfilment remake of Blondie’s pop video, the business is exposed as an industry of parasitic vampires by having it set to a contemporary score for FW Murnau’s silent movie classic, Nosferatu . The hollow artifice of video-shoot glamour is laid bare too in Cerith Wyn Evans’ ‘Kim Wilde Auditions’, where a trio of pretty boy wannabes strike a pose.
So, where others take art out of the gallery and into less formal spaces, the Found collective play live electronics accompanied by cartoon projections and live remixes inside the Royal Scottish Academy. Jenny Hogarth’s ‘Pentland Rising’ echoes Found’s equally maverick flipside.
Taking place on Hillend ski slope in Edinburgh during August 2004, its choreographed re-enactment of the Covenanters’ 1666 uprising, complete with a half-naked Liberty on skis, looks, on its film document screened to accompany ‘I’d Rather Jack’, like it’s burst straight from some romantic religious canvas to perform an alternative Passion Play.
Its felicitous approach to history recalls I Am Curious Orange, Michael Clarke’s outrageous 1988 ballet featuring punk’s most relentless survivors The Fall playing live. Its epic scale is reminiscent too of the Beltane Fire Festival, the Mayday pagan rite reconstituted by ex-Test Department supremo Angus Farquhar, whose later environmental spectacles under his NVA banner it also resembles.
‘Pentland Rising’s title is a double-edged sword, its real life roots reclaim history from the tartan heritage brigade, while the film’s lysergic hand-held fuzz nods to Beat film guru Kenneth Anger’s pagan psychedelia, but without any fantasy-wish-fulfilment faux 60’s fakery.
‘Pentland Rising’ reclaims history while recognising its own silliness. Sacred and profane, singing and dancing in the rain has never looked so punk rock. It’s also infinitely more fun than watching a haircut.
Neil Cooper is an arts writer