SATURDAY’S SCOTTISH SONG : #237: THE PASTELS

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.

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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.

mp3: The Pastels – Nothing To Be Done

JC

NEXT YEAR’S NOSTALGIA FEST (Part 18 of 48)

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Here’s an unlikely confession from a Glasgow-based indie kid…….

…………..I don’t own all that much by The Pastels.

They’ve been part of the local music scene since I was a teenager with their first recordings seeing the light of day back in 1982.  I suppose my problem was that I didn’t take an instant shine to many of the early records and the first few times I caught them live, either as a headline or support act, I was rather underwhelmed.

But looking back now I can see and appreciate just how much of an influence they have had, not just on the local music scene, but on the growth and development of indie music over the past 30+ years.

They must have been one of the most experienced bands to be associated with the C86 movement as by that time they had released a number of singles on various labels including Rough Trade and Creation and by the year in question were on Glass Records for whom they would record their debut LP that was recorded in 86 and released in early 87.  The track on CD86 came from the debut album but it had also been released back in October 1984 as a b-side on a single released on Creation:-

mp3 : The Pastels – Baby Honey

A fantastic song extending to almost seven minutes in length it is actually the last song on CD 2 and so brings the 48-track compilation to an end.  For those who associate The Pastels with tweeness it must come as a bit of a shock as it, to all intent and purposes, rocks out a fair bit.

Anyways, as has been my practice with this series to try to track down any recordings associated with the track on the compilation album then here’s the other two songs on the 1984 single:-

mp3 : The Pastels – A Million Tears
mp3 : The Pastels – Surprise Me

A Million Tears is a fantastic piece of music and while I’m not so enamoured by Surprise Me I take it that a certain Jarvis Cocker listened to it more than a few times and came to be heavily influenced.

Finally…..if anyone ever wants to ever bump into Stephen McRobbie (nee Pastel) you can do so by dropping into Monorail Music in Glasgow where you’ll find him, as owner, behind the counter. His store is something to treasure and has become my first port of call for new music on the few occasions that I buy it!

Enjoy

SATURDAY’S SCOTTISH SINGLE (Part 85)

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For such an important and influential band, the wiki entry is a bit light:-

The Pastels are an independent music group from Glasgow, formed in 1981. The group consists of Stephen McRobbie (vocals, guitar), Katrina Mitchell (vocals, drum kit), Gerard Love (bass guitar), John Hogarty (guitar), Tom Crossley (flute, keyboards), and Alison Mitchell (trumpet).

Their early records (1982–85) for record labels such as Whaam!, Creation, Rough Trade, and Glass Records, had a raw and immediate sound, melodic and amateur, which seemed at odds with the time. But an emerging fanzine culture identified with the group’s sound and image, and slowly The Pastels started to influence a new wave of groups, which interested the NME and other UK media.

The Pastels’ sound continued to evolve and, although part of the NME’s C86 compilation, in interviews they always sought to distance themselves from both twee and shambling developments.Their debut album, Up for a Bit With The Pastels (Glass, 1987; re-issue Paperhouse, 1991) moved from garage pop-punk through to ballads with synth orch splashes. The follow-up, Sittin’ Pretty (Chapter 22, 1989) was harder but less eclectic. Reports started to appear in the UK music press that the group was splitting up.

Eventually it became clear that a new line-up was configuring around original members, Stephen McRobbie and Annabel Wright (Aggi), now joined by Katrina Mitchell. This line-up is probably the best known of The Pastels’ various phases, and often featured either David Keegan (Shop Assistants) or Gerard Love (Teenage Fanclub) on guitar. They signed with the emerging Domino Records and completed two albums, Mobile Safari (1995) and Illumination (1997), which showed them developing an odd, particular sound – melancholic and awkward, but warm and engaging. A remix set featured My Bloody Valentine, Jim O’Rourke and others on the album, Illuminati (1998).

Their next release is the soundtrack to David Mackenzie’s The Last Great Wilderness (Geographic, 2003), which, made for film or not, is one of the most completely realised Pastels albums. It featured a track recorded in collaboration with Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker. In 2006, The Pastels developed and completed new music for a theatre production by Glasgow based company, 12 Stars. In 2009, The Pastels, in collaboration with Tenniscoats from Tokyo, Japan, released an album called Two Sunsets.

The Pastels featured on the soundtrack for film,The Acid House (1998).

The Pastels now operate their own Geographic Music label through Domino, and are partners in Glasgow’s Monorail Music shop.

On 21 February 2013, the band announced it would release its first album since their 1997 album, Illumination, called Slow Summits. It will be released on 27 May 2013 through Domino.

“Check My Heart”, the first single from Slow Summits was released digitally on 8 April 2013. The song was released physically as a 7″ single on 29 April 2013 with the B-side “Illuminum Song”. Both songs were available digitally on 27 May, upon the full album’s release.

My favourite Pastels single dates back to 1986.  It’s astonishing to think this is not far off being 30 years old.

mp3 : The Pastels – Truck Train Tractor
mp3 : The Pastels – Breaking Lines

I still get a thrill when I walk into Monorail at this venue to buy records and Stephen is working behind the counter. It’s the equivalent of royalty serving you with your milk or bread down the corner shop….