For a country with a population just under 5.5 million, Scotland has perhaps produced more astonishing music per capita than any other locale. Cocteau Twins, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Orange Juice, The Pastels, Arab Strap, The Delgados, Belle and Sebastian… and that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg! Indeed, with just a little more digging and an openness to a certain indie aesthetic, one’s record collection can quickly become dominated by the Scots.
While there had certainly been Scottish rock bands during the ‘60s and early ‘70s, it was the British punk explosion of 1976–77 that kickstarted the music scenes of Glasgow and Edinburgh. With bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Slits making the trek north to perform, the Scots—much like their peers just south in Manchester—were directly inspired to form their own bands, and for the first time, their own labels.
Big Gold Dream: Scottish Post-Punk and Infiltrating the Mainstream (Tartan Features), a film by Grant McPhee released in theaters on the other side of the pond at the end of 2015 and now finally issued on DVD, is an invaluable examination of those bands and labels. Blending archival footage with countless interviews with those who played key roles in this tale, as well as those influenced by the music and bands of this period (1977–82), Big Gold Dream is a fascinating story of a largely undocumented place and time. It begins by focusing on the Fast Product label, which issued singles by The Mekons, The Human League, Gang of Four, and Dead Kennedys, among others, before branching out to delve into the histories of Edinburgh bands like the Scars and Fire Engines, whose single on Fast impresario Bob Last’s subsequent Pop Aural label gives the film its title.
With Last and his partner Hillary Morrison, as well as nearly every member of every band of importance, interviewed extensively, McPhee gets firsthand perspectives of this richly creative scene, with particularly hilarious commentary from The Fire Engines’ Davy Henderson and Scars’ Robert King, among others. Of equal importance and interest are the stories of Human League, The Associates, and Josef K, whose signing to Postcard Records, Fast Product’s Glaswegian rivals, makes for an easy cinematic segue into what was going in Glasgow at the time. Dubbed “The Sound of Young Scotland” by proprietor Alan Horne, Postcard was also home to Orange Juice and Aztec Camera, as well as Australia’s Go-Betweens. Although aside from some archival footage Horne is conspicuously absent from Big Gold Dream (the film’s afterward states that “he remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”), those that are interviewed have plenty of (mostly negative) things to say about him.
While Big Gold Dream could easily have followed the now commonplace music doc theme of commercial success continually remaining just out-of-reach for our heroes, it eschews this easy tact to take on a more a celebratory look at what transpired. Sure, there are a few tales of “what could have been,” but you never get the sense of sour grapes from any of the musicians appearing onscreen. As Douglas Hart, former bassist of The Jesus and Mary Chain, states succinctly, it was a great time to be in Scotland. But this film is only the beginning of the story, and McPhee has already completed work on the next chapter. And thankfully, with great sounds continuing to emanate from the country, the story won’t end there.