Sunday, 11 June 2017

Scared to Dance – The Skids and the Scottish Punk Revolution, 1977

[Apologies to those whose only interest is in The Sisters of Mercy – normal service will be resumed later this week ;-)]

Anyone spending a few days in Edinburgh over the next month could do worse than hop on a train over the iconic Forth Bridge to visit the Scottish nation’s ancient capital, Dunfermline, burial place of Robert the Bruce and birthplace of arch capitalist turned philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

The “Auld Grey Toon”’s modern claim to fame was as the home of punk legends The Skids, and this week saw the opening of a new exhibition (which continues until July 2nd) to mark the fortieth anniversary of the arrival of punk in Eastern Scotland as it broke free of its London roots. There are some who feel that for the movement to celebrate an anniversary goes against its founding principles, but for those of us with an interest in musical history and ensuring that it is fully and properly archived, this small exhibition is totally welcome.

The location of the exhibition could hardly be more appropriate, in Dunfermline’s Fire Station Creative, a recently opened arts co-operative housed as its name suggests in the town’s city centre art deco former fire brigade headquarters. Not only has Skids frontman Richard Jobson been one of the Creative’s most prominent supporters, but the gallery (the white building on the right of this photograph) is almost directly opposite the old Kinema Ballroom, home of the earliest punk gigs in the town in 1977, which can be seen the left of the photo sporting the name of its most recent incarnation, Velocity, although it has been closed for a number of years.

The Fire Station Creative hosts a number of resident artists in the upper floors, with the ground floor given over to a combined café and gallery space. On my visit to the exhibition, it seemed slightly incongruous to be looking at photos of wide-eyed young revolutionary idealists whilst almost trampling over the predominantly middle class clientele who had just popped in for a skinny latte, but the venue does a slightly bohemian alternative buzz not found in your average Costa, in keeping with punk’s art school roots.

“Scared to Dance – The Skids and the Scottish Punk Revolution 1977” has been co-curated by Jobson and fellow Scot Ronnie Gurr, a name I remember from his journalistic strapline in the Record Mirror in the late 1970’s. Gurr went on to manage Simple Minds before moving on to manage Culture Club at the height of their fame, but in 1977 he was a fanzine editor who documented the East of Scotland punk scene with his pen and his camera, and about one third of the exhibition features his small monochrome prints of the great and good of the London punk scene – Pistols, Clash, Stranglers etc – on their first visits to Scotland’s capital, as well as more local acts such as Johnny and the Self Absusers (who would famously resurface as Simple Minds). These crowded images successfully capture punk's whiff of excitement and revolution in an increasingly regressive 70’s society, and are more in tune with the punk ideal than the professional and impressive portraits of punk icons from Lou Reed to Jean-Jacques Burnel, large prints of whom ornament the gallery/café’s entrance area and make up a further third of the exhibition. These large and frequently inconic prints (Sid and Nancy, anyone?) are primarily the work of Steve Emberton, a snapper for the London music weeklies, and they are embellished here by comments from Jobson on their influence on him and their dealings with him. Appropriately, Jobson’s commentary is presented as stark back typeface on white paper blue tac’ed under the prints, rather than the more fancy Perspex adornments preferred by modern galleries. Jobson speaks of the long-lasting friendship The Skids have enjoyed with the Stranglers, and reminisces fondly about filling in briefly for Hugh Cornwell when the latter was infamously jailed, but also speaks about the power of Iggy Pop and Patti Smith and their influence on his own performances. There are also some Paul Slattery pictures from an early Skids photoshoot which capture their looks of youthful incredulity of four young lads from Fife getting the superstar treatment as they pose in front of the afore-mentioned rail bridge.

For me, the highlight of the exhibition is a new piece of work by Jobson and Gurr themselves, a wall-to ceiling collage spelling “1977” in a punk fanzinesque stencil font. Each of the figures is richly decorated with fascinating artefacts from the era – press reviews, tickets, hand-written Skids lyrics, even a page from a personal address book listing Captain Sensible’s then phone number – over a backdrop of reproduced button badges of bands from that era (on the "9"), and is a powerful reminder of the do-it-yourself cut-and-paste aesthetic that punk brought to the fore, and which was concretised as the same generation brought about the realisation of the ultimate democratic tool, the internet.

The re-formed Skids are celebrating their own fortieth anniversary with their first new album for thirty-five years and a lengthy tour, and this exhibition highlights their importance in the Scottish scene. Those wishing to explore the late 70's Scottish punk scene further will find plenty to satisfy their curiosity at this wonderful website which includes scans of the late Johnny Waller’s Dunfermline-based punk fanzine, Kingdom Come.

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