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The Story of Scottish Pop: A Rich Past But An Uncertain Future

In the unashamedly populist ‘Rip It Up’ at the National Museum of Scotland, the joy of fandom resounds but questions about the future are avoided

Wandering through the National Museum of Scotland’s new exhibition, ‘Rip It Up: The Story Of Scottish Pop’, the eye is drawn to the gaudy eruptions of tartan: a red tartan trouser suit worn by Annie Lennox, Del Amitri’s tartan guitar, the tartan trims on the Bay City Rollers’s flared suits, Postcard Records’s post-punk collages of kilted gentry.

Critiques of tartan are a long-running feature of Scottish cultural discourse. As the left wing critic Tom Nairn wrote in 1977, tartan contained a ‘huge, virtually self-contained universe of kitsch.’ This ‘vast tartan monster’ – by which Nairn meant the popular and sentimental discourses of ‘Scottishness’ – was all consuming, interring all hopes of a serious culture in a shortbread tin. 

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'Rip it Up', 2018, installation view, material from Franz Ferdinand, National Museum of Scotland. Courtesy: Neil Hanna

Yet as the critic David Goldie notes, such unsubtle critiques fail to recognize the ironic and self-reflexive uses of tartan. We see such strategies at play in Postcard Records’s pop art appropriation of Caledonian kitsch: The Sound of Young Scotland, setting the heather ablaze. Del Amitri’s tartan guitar is knowingly naff, a guilty showbiz pleasure. Lennox’s suit is more stylish than kitsch, acknowledging her Scottish background, while reconstituting Vivienne Westwood’s tartan punk gear for the power-dressing 1980s. In their own ways, these exhibits reflect Scotland’s renewed cultural confidence. Rather than be smothered by the tartan monster, new forms have emerged to supersede it, even cannibalize it. 

As the ‘Dream State’ narrative has it, Scotland’s cultural renewal gained full steam in the 1980s. Stepping into the political vacuum created by the failed devolution referendum of 1979, artists declared a form of cultural independence, defined by its opposition to Thatcherism. There is some truth to this, but with independence a distant prospect, cultural and political resistance did not always manifest itself in nationalist terms. That much is clear from ‘Rip It Up’. While acts like The Proclaimers, Deacon Blue and Runrig engaged with issues of language, class, diaspora and de-industrialization, many others were relatively apolitical. The exhibition does raise the question of what defines Scottish pop, but it wisely avoids any firm conclusions. While there are identifiable traditions and tropes, the takeaway is that Scottish pop can be whatever it wants to be. 

‘Rip It Up’ is part of a larger project including a  three-part BBC television documentary and a book by broadcaster Vic Galloway. There have been inevitable grumblings about the documentary’s omissions, (‘what, no The Poets, Shamen, Big Country, Beta Band etc’ cried Twitter) but ultimately this comes down to personal taste, and a lack of perspective as to what can be covered in three hours. Likewise, the exhibition is constrained by space and the availability of archival material. ‘Rip It Up’ makes no claims to comprehensiveness, but as an unashamedly populist project, it’s a success. The exhibition begins with the roots of Scottish pop, from Lonnie Donegan and the skiffle movement, through to the beat boom of the 1960s and Scotland’s first pop superstar, Lulu. There’s a nod to the folk revival and psychedelic butterflies the Incredible String Band, before we stomp into the hard rock 1970s and the post-punk and New Pop of Orange Juice, Josef K, and The Associates. 

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The Jesus & Mary Chain, Emma Pollock and Mogwai, 'Rip It Up': The Story of Scottish Pop, 2018, TV still. Courtesy: © BBC Scotland

From there, ‘Rip It Up’ plots a line through the 1980s indie scene, from the Jesus & Mary Chain to the Bellshill scene and the legendary Splash One club in Glasgow. In contrast to the documentary’s loving portraits of Slam and Numbers, electronic music is under-represented, but the wall-size photograph of a Sub Club queue, accompanied by Optimo posters and lightboxes, is one of the exhibition’s most effective displays. This opens into a larger, L-shaped room, the first section of which celebrates commercial behemoths like Simple Minds, Wet Wet Wet and Franz Ferdinand, while the second part explores the theme of ‘Scottish Voices’. This is admirably plural, recognizing that multi-racial acts such as Young Fathers and Sacred Paws are as legitimately ‘Scottish’ as Falkirk miserabilists Arab Strap or modern folkies Capercaillie. 

This story is told through a series of short films, texts and memorabilia. The latter is the main draw of course: there’s a genuine pop thrill to seeing iconic costumes, guitars and stage props in the flesh, whether it’s the Revillos’s retro-futurist PVC outfits, Lulu’s tiny dress from a Take That video, or Gerry Rafferty’s John Byrne-illustrated guitar from Top of The Pops. Other exhibits strike a poignant note, not least Billy MacKenzie’s beret, and the finely-rendered drawings of Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison. There’s some wonderful ephemera too, from demo tapes and hand-written lyrics, to badges stating allegiance to a particular Proclaimer. To convey the sense of music as a shared experience, Scotpop gems are piped into the exhibition space, culminating in a panoramic screen broadcasting sing-along favourites from the T In The Park festival. The joy of pop fandom resounds. 

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'Rip it Up', 2018, installation view, material from The Proclaimers, National Museum of Scotland. Courtesy: Neil Hanna

This populist narrative inevitably omits underground and experimental music – not that anyone would seriously expect a display on cult favourites like Richard Youngs or Tattie Toes – but the framework is open enough to invite further exploration and discussion. Along with projects like the annual Scottish Album Of The Year Awards, and the 2014 ‘Generation: 25 Years Of Contemporary Art In Scotland’ retrospective held across Scotland’s galleries, ‘Rip It Up’ reflects ongoing attempts to construct a new Scottish canon. Such efforts have been admirably plural and self-reflexive, putting paid to the claims of writers like Denise Mina and Kirsty Gunn that there is a nationalist agenda in arts funding and programming. If there is an agenda, it’s neo-liberal. The Scottish government’s support for the arts is to be welcomed, but I’d argue that their culture industry approach tends to place an emphasis on short-term projects and marketable brands, rather than sustained funding for infrastructure. 

Inevitably, in ‘Rip It Up’, thornier questions about the future of Scottish pop are avoided. In an incident all too familiar to Edinburgh music fans, a festival celebrating the launch of the exhibition had to be moved indoors due to noise complaints. Meanwhile in Glasgow, the closure of the Arches, and the knock-on effect of the School of Art and ABC fires, has dealt a major blow to the city’s club and live music scene. While Glasgow remains a relatively inexpensive place to live, benefit cuts and job precarity under Conservative austerity have made it increasingly difficult for DIY and underground acts to sustain their practice. Despite all this, there is still some brilliant music coming out of Scotland, from Still House Plants and Cucina Povera, to Lanark Artefax and Proc Fiskal. There’s also a concerted effort to challenge privilege and elitism, with DJs and promoters like Sarra Wild and Spite House working to create accessible spaces for POC and LGBTQI+ people. Through this, let’s hope we can counter the forces of austerity and conservatism, and ensure ‘Rip It Up’ is not the last word on Scottish pop. 

Main image: 'Rip it Up', 2018, installation view, National Museum of Scotland. Courtesy: Neil Hanna

Stewart Smith is a freelance writer and academic based in Glasgow.

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