From The Guardian newspaper, on 1 March 2016:-
The Pastels long ago became a kind of shorthand for a wan, wonky and distinctly unambitious strain of guitar music that’s as niche as they come. That – the result of a reductive association with the NME’s C86 cassette – has rendered them one of the most misrepresented cult groups of their era. There’s a much more compelling story to be told about a band integral to the birth of the Glasgow independent music scene, who continue to make wonderful and surprising music (albeit very slowly: they average an album every seven years).
Without the instincts, inspiration and energies of the Pastels’ softly-spoken founding singer-guitarist Stephen McRobbie, AKA Stephen Pastel – who runs the Domino Records imprint Geographic and co-founded one of the UK’s best independent record stores, Monorail – the Glasgow scene would probably be bound together by significantly less camaraderie and common purpose than it does today.
The Pastels formed in 1981 – another indie group on the fringe of the Postcard Records scene – just as Orange Juice were setting about their post-punk mission to rip it up and start again. It was Brian “Superstar” Taylor, a slightly older friend of Postcard svengali Alan Horne, who first took seriously the cocksure aspirations of the duffle-coat sporting Bearsden boy with a DIY haircut. Taylor helped McRobbie advance his rudimentary guitar skills, and became the first recruit to his fledgling band, influenced by the untamed mayhem of the Velvet Underground and naive charm of the Television Personalities. They recruited bassist Martin Hayward and drummer Bernice Simpson, and were playing shows and recording music with indecent haste. McRobbie booked their first gig at Bearsden Burgh Hall because he’d seen Crass play the same venue.
Such was McRobbie’s certainty about his new group’s worth that he wasted no time in impressing on Rough Trade Records in London the necessity of snapping up the next big thing out of Scotland. Geoff Travis was sufficiently convinced to release the Pastels’ 1983 single I Wonder Why (their second single following chaotic debut Songs for Children, which had been released on Television Personalities singer Dan Treacy’s label Whaam!). Multi-tracked and divested of the raw, almost childlike energy of their live playing, it was a false dawn, and the band’s relationship with Rough Trade ended as the label became preoccupied with shinier new signings Scritti Politti and the Smiths. But, at their own, geological pace, the Pastels were on a path to releasing a minor masterpiece of a debut album.
Before that came several more singles, a John Peel session and lots of cassette sharing and fanzine scribbling. (The Pastels’ fanzines Juniper Beri-Beri and Pastelism long predated the self-publishing culture that grew up around the C86 bands.) All that and some principled staying put. Having watched Orange Juice, among others, move to London and become swallowed up by the industry machine, there was a determination to do what no significant Glasgow guitar group had done before. When their debut album Up for a Bit With the Pastels finally arrived in 1987 via Glass Records, it was staunchly promoted with one foot firmly planted at home, in part because McRobbie was studying for a master’s degree in librarianship at Glasgow University.
The Pastels’ ageless debut saw them cited as a favourite by everyone from the Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream to Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. It never set the world alight, despite the gothic swirl of Ride, the motorik drone rock of Baby Honey and the anthemic Crawl Babies (the decaying spires of the Glasgow skyline are romantically invoked in the gorgeous lines, “I want to build her up / up as tall as a church / just to watch her / just to watch her falling down”). However, it did help to inspire confidence in the Glasgow scene and showed that bands didn’t have to move south but could let the record industry come to them. In its wake came such Scottish classics and quintessentially Glaswegian debuts as Belle and Sebastian’s Tigermilk and Mogwai’s Young Team through to Franz Ferdinand’s self-titled arrival and arguably even Chvrches world-beating synthpop.
The first lineup of the Pastels disintegrated with the departure of Taylor, Hayward and Simpson following their long-lost second album, 1989’s Sittin’ Pretty (which is well overdue a reissue). The band could have called it a day, but a new incarnation instead assembled around McRobbie, keys player and vocalist Annabel “Aggi” Wright (a long-standing member of the group recruited from the Shop Assistants, who was also responsible for a lot of the Pastels’ artwork) and drummer Katrina Mitchell. It didn’t seem to bother anyone that Mitchell, who would become McRobbie’s long-term girlfriend (the pair still live together), couldn’t play the drums when she joined and spent years learning to do so. Which says it all about the Pastels’ excruciatingly patient approach to music-making.
With Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and Gerard Love among others fleshing out the lineup, the Pastels returned in 1995 with the release of Mobile Safari on Domino Records, at last a sympathetic and stable home for a band who had worked with no fewer than seven labels (including three spells on Alan McGee’s Creation Records). The uncharacteristically prompt follow-up Illumination arrived in 1997, as the Pastels’ sound mellowed and evolved into a form of gently psychedelic off-kilter pop, adorned with orchestral instrumentation.
Around this time, through their association with Japanese musician Cornelius, the band became incongruously wrapped up in the hype surrounding Britpop in Japan, jostling for position in magazines with the likes of Blur and Manic Street Preachers. On one trip to Tokyo they were mobbed by screaming fans outside hotels and venues. For a bunch of unassuming Scots who could barely get arrested back home, it must have felt like stepping into an alternative universe.
In 2000, McRobbie started up his Domino imprint Geographic, releasing gems from, among others, Maher Shalal Hash Baz, Bill Wells Trio, Future Pilot AKA, The Royal We and Lightships. In 2003, he became one of the founders of Monorail Music, a vinyl-centric record shop based in a railway arch next to music venue Mono. One of the hubs of the Glasgow scene, it’s a bright, open and inviting space where you can browse the latest releases by local labels as well as rare imports. Any of which might be sold to you by McRobbie himself, who is often to be found working behind the counter.
A collaboration with Japanese lo-fi duo Tenniscoats in 2009 gave rise to the soft-hued Two Sunsets, a playful, spontaneous and spellbinding must-hear. In 2013, the Pastels released their 16-years-in-the-making album Slow Summits. It is perhaps their most complete set since Up for a Bit, with its 10 summery, groovy flute and french-horn-licked songs, trippy in the sense of the kind of trip that lands in a pile of freshly mown grass.
Every so often the Pastels get their just deserts. In 2013, Slow Summits was shortlisted for the Scottish album of the year award; a year later, they opened for Mogwai at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh; and last year Copenhagen micro-brewery Mikkeller made a beer in the band’s honour, appropriately titled Pastelism.
Cheers to that, and to the enduring health of a band who have been integral to Glasgow’s music scene for about as long as anyone can remember there being such a thing.
I know The Pastels aren’t to everybody’s taste. I like some of their music, but there’s loads more that I just can’t take to. There’s no question, however, that Steven has been an essential part of the local music scene in so many different ways and Glasgow would be a much poorer place, culturally, without him, his band, and his record store.
So many tunes to select from. Here’s one from 1989, the opening track from the album Sittin’ Pretty, which gets mentioned in the above article.