Not bad… for a cowboy

There was a time back in the late 1980s when people (me included) railed rather vociferously about a new-fangled format called the Compact Disc. This was a format (so the argument went) that record labels and Big Artists were leveraging to, ahem, ‘encourage’ consumers to buy their record collections all over again, somewhat spuriously (so the argument continued) under the promise of Better Sound Quality. The result was lots of, hm, older individuals offloading their vinyl collections in charity shops and filling the coffers of the labels and artists who, frankly, had already grown fat on the excesses of the 1970s and certainly didn’t need their coffers (or anything else for that matter) being filled any further, thankyouverymuch. There were of course positives in all of this. It allowed some amongst the vaguely ‘younger’ generations to feel antagonistically smug towards both older generations and those of their peers who (in hindsight quite rightly) could not have cared less about ‘format wars’ and just wanted to buy music they enjoyed listening to. Plussing as which it allowed those on limited incomes (the dole, student grants – remember those?) to pick up discarded treasure for (the price of) peanuts. They were truly the best and the worst of times.

Fast forward some thirty-five years or so and one could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps things have either barely changed or somehow come full circle, for the fashion these days appears to be for consumers to once again re-purchase music they already own, this time on ‘limited edition’ vinyl reissue collectables at ludicrously high prices. Still, it also means it is possible to pick up CD versions of the same recordings for (the price of) peanuts. Once again, these truly are the best and the worst of times.

Whilst the fashion for The Vinyls (as I believe some of the Young People call records, and who am I to say they are wrong to piss off the older generations who profess to Know Better) may or may not be fleeting, I would not personally be so dim as to not admit to a degree of hypocrisy. Do I still have a functioning record player (‘turntable’ is, I believe, the term preferred by The Audiophiles)? No. Do I still buy some new releases on vinyl? Yes I do. Partly this is as a means of supporting artists and small labels whose music I like and who I want to support financially (having run a tiny label for a few short years I appreciate how effective they are as a means of haemorrhaging money) and partly, I will freely admit, as a vague form of ‘investment’ (my new music purchases are funded almost entirely by old music sales). And yes, of course my younger self has just written a fanzine filled with disgust and is filing for divorce from this poor old soul. It’s a fair cop. I wouldn’t much want to still be hanging out with that insufferably angsty young man either.

All of which rather circuitously (one might even say tortuously) leads us to the rather magnificent Unadulterated vinyl boxset by Paul Quinn and The Independent Group (one purchase that has most definitely not been made as vague ‘investment’). Collecting releases from the early 1990s, it is, one has to say, a beautifully curated artefact filled with some of the most soulful sounds of world-weary ennui and bleak cinematic romance one could ever hope to hear.

Now much has been written, rightly, about the brilliance and lasting influence of Postcard Records. Most, if not all, of this focuses exclusively on the first flush of youth when the dashing young pretenders to the throne of Pop cast a disparaging eye on the cut of your jib and released a flurry of sensational singles in a riotously brief few years. Infected by a (post) Punk, effervescently furious youthful energy, more than a hint of ADHD and the overwhelming need to escape the suffocating environs of Ayrshire coastal towns, Postcard burned as an incandescent beacon of light, movement and magic. Standing still was never an option. In extremis, this perpetual nervousness came to a head in the form of the label’s only LP, Josef K’s The Only Fun In Town, being pressed up and released in a form everyone seemed to have already agreed was Not As It Should Be. Still, it resulted in a subsequent cottage industry of re-issues and re-imaginings of The Perfect Mix and the Perfect Sequence. What was that we were saying about collectibles?*

As brilliant as the first incarnation of Postcard was, however, I’d be willing to go to battle** in defence of Postcards’ Second Coming being the finer instalment in the whole magnificent story. Where Postcard part one was unapologetically singles based, part two was all about the albums. Whilst this might, symbolically, reflect the, hm, maturation of everyone involved (from Postcard’s Presidente Alan Horne through to the fans) it also quite simply reflected the fact that the artists involved had naturally developed to the point where the long form was of more interest than the short. Certainly some former Postcard artistes had been showing the way since flying the nest at West Princes Street, with Roddy Frame and Aztec Camera perhaps most obviously moving onto Bigger Things.

Almost immediately irked by an ’80s Indie Schmindie kitsch he no doubt saw as a myopic misreading of The Postcard Aesthetic, Frame had already jumped ship from Rough Trade to WEA in 1983, worked with Mark Knopfler and gone stratospheric (well, top three in the singles charts at least) with sophistipop classic Love. By 1993 he was in a delicious Dreamland with Ryuichi Sakamoto but probably already with an eye on the kingdom of Frestonia and the eventual dissolution of Aztec Camera as an entity, a band, a concept. Apparently not one for giving up on gripes and grudges, he would still spit spite in the Indie eyes even as he headlined the 2006 C86 ‘celebration’ nights at the ICA. The September 2021 release of all the WEA Aztec Camera albums plus a generous assortment of live performances and B-sides will perhaps remind us afresh of what a gift Frame left us with.

Elsewhere, OJ’s James Kirk had released one classic single on Horne’s Swamplands label in the form of the unutterably beautiful ‘You Supply The Roses’ and promptly disappeared from view, whilst Paul Haig had created a string of glamorous Pop delights for Postcard’s Belgian penpal label Les Disques Du Crépuscule. Sir Edywn, meanwhile, was not so very far away from his super smash single ‘A Girl Like You’ and the glorious Gorgeous George set. Eyes were firmly on the future. No looking back.

All that said, the first album that Postcard part two released was a blast from the past, a statement of intent to rewrite history. A chance to Put Things Right, Put The Record Straight, Put Things To Bed or whatever. It’s said that Ostrich Churchyard is what the first Orange Juice album should have been and perhaps would have been if Polydor hadn’t grubbed their hands all over things, but in the hindsight of history I’m not so sure it matters if that’s the case. Or rather, if it does then it does, and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever remains sublime and so does Ostrich Churchyard. Play one when you feel punky, the other when funky. Or vice-versa. Or something else entirely. Certainly though Ostrich Churchyard and the Heather’s On Fire compilation of 1993 reminded us of what we already missed and of what the world could have had. Postcard was always inherently self-referential and implicitly understood that notions of authenticity were, and remain, nonsensical in such a context. Postcard understood that Pop is about massaging reality to create new fantasies. That and spoiling parties with punky sneers. Those posthumous Orange Juice releases were about all that and more.

Fire Engines never made it to Postcard part one, but there are those who believe that spiritually they certainly did. In that parallel universe ‘Candyskin’ joined Josef K’s ‘Chance Meeting’ as a double Postcard 7″ release that stormed the charts and took no prisoners. Horne certainly corralled former Fiery Red Davey Henderson and his WIN incarnation for the short-lived Swamplands project, though Postcard part two twisted the fantasy into stranger shape yet with the Nectarine No. 9. The first release was A Sea With Three Stars, an album of funky noise and melody strung out on rusted barbed wire. Songs like ‘Pop’s Love Thing’, ‘The Holes Of Corpus Christi’, ‘Don’t Worry Babe, You’re Not The Only One Awake’ and ‘Chocolate Swastika’ showcased Henderson’s skills for dissembling rock, pop, disco, noise, whatever into new forms that glittered with peculiar charm and decadent decay.

It’s been said many times in the past that Vic Godard was the Patron Saint of Postcard. If one were in doubt of this then one could do worse than check out the wonderful package that New York based Text Und Töne have assembled around Godard’s latest Subway Sect record. In the beautifully risographed booklet Kevin Pearce’s peerless chapter on Godard from his Something Beginning With ‘O’ book rubs shoulders with new texts from Steven Daly and Stephen Pastel, all of them in some form or another nodding to the connections with West Princes Street and the Sound of Young Scotland. As an added treat the package also includes a flexi pressing of Alan Horne’s audience recording of ‘Holiday Hymn’, at the altar of which the young Orange Juice worshipped whilst whipping up their own storm. As Kevin taught us to note: It all fits.

Speaking of which, of course Godard made a record for Postcard part Two, and The End Of The Surrey People from 1993 certainly remains one of my very favourite albums by Vic or anyone. Meanwhile, in the realm of singles, the same could be said of ‘Won’t Turn Back’ as a 45 that shakes the rafters and shoots from the hip. A pure Pop Art KaPPPPOW!

Bullseye.

It’s these Paul Quinn and The Independent Group records that I keep coming back to, however, with Quinn the crooner exploring the shadows cast by nightclub spotlights, cigarette smoke drifting upwards and onwards as in some hardboiled Noir novella by Horace McCoy or David Goodis. Like Godard, Quinn here slips into Sinatra 1am nightclub singer persona and curls us around his finger. For me, these Independent Group recordings take the promise shown in the early Jazzateers and Bourgie Bourgie records and raise everything to an entirely new level. Unafraid to extend songs that envelop us in seductively stained velvet, these records are immersions, soundtracks to films (un)seen in minds’ eyes and utterly theatrical. Method acted operettas, even. The luxurious box set collects 1992’s The Phantoms And The Archetypes, 1994s Will I Ever Be Inside Of You and a confection of other oddities alongside a lavish hardback book that more than fills in the detail lacking here. Predictably, the box sold out within hours on pre-order, but all the recordings are available on Bandcamp.

Something that is not in the vinyl box set is the tremendous mix that Alan Horne and Paul Quinn assembled for the intermission at the Independent Group show at Glasgow’s Atheneum Theatre in 1993. It is, thankfully, also available for download on Bandcamp and it is perhaps the perfect Postcard artefact. Weaving extracts of Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western themes with Mahler and early pre-Rock Pop tunes with Lou Reed classics, the effect would be entirely cinematic even without the extracts from Midnight Cowboy that weave and tease within. It’s a tremendous, mesmerising way to spend a half hour.

More than anything though the reference points laid bare in the mix give lie to any lingering ideas of Postcard as some raggedy underground Indie underachievement. Eyes were always set firmly on the stars/Stars, just not at any cost. Delusions/illusions of grandeur are infinitely more appealing than grubby surrenders to ‘reality’, after all.

*Full disclosure: I probably have at least five different vinyl and CD versions of The Josef K Album and no, I could not tell you which one I prefer.
** I would not Go To Battle because that would be daft. I would, however, go to a marble bar and argue the toss over a gin sling.

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