“He [Alan Horne] was never keen on our angular sound at all. He appreciated much more the softer West Coast aspects of Orange Juice. He used to say that we were The Velvet Underground of Postcard, and Orange Juice were like The Byrds. I think he felt that it was cool to have a gloomy band as well as a jolly one on the roster.” (Paul Haig)
As a young man, knee-deep in Kafka and Camus, the world weighed heavily on Paul Haig’s shoulders. At the same time as I would have been racing back and forth to The Odeon on Renfield St. to dream of clandestine liaisons with Clare Grogan in ‘Gregory’s Girl’, by contrast, Haig’s sense of alienation was finding its way onto a striking series of prickly yet savant 7” singles, released by Josef K to great critical acclaim between December 1979 and March 1982.
During that time Josef K made good their impetuous oath to release only one album and then disband, although improbably, they recorded two. Their first attempt at a debut, “Sorry For Laughing”, was shelved, the band dispirited by its ‘insipid’ production. In its place they released ‘The Only Fun In Town’, recorded in only two days in Belgium, a few months later, as a defiantly lo-fi response. It was a gamble which never paid off. The critics were divided and the fans, accustomed to the exhilarating vitality of the band’s live shows, featuring Haig’s provocatively charismatic performances, were largely underwhelmed. While ‘The Only Fun In Town’ has now assumed the status of lost post-punk classic, to my mind it pales in comparison to its abandoned predecessor. One wonders why of the two albums, this was the one to be condemned, like Kafka’s protagonist, without a fair trial. Nevertheless, whichever one holds to be the authentic or apocryphal Josef K moment, this decision helped to cultivate the mystique, the enigma, the legend, that set in motion one of the most feverish pursuits for the curious record collecting teenager of the 1980s.
In fact, Josef K arrived in my house on Christmas Day 1987, in the form of the ‘Young & Stupid / Endless Soul’ compilation album released earlier that year. 1987. I was always about five years behind. Its instantaneous impact sent me on an only partially successful hunt for the band’s fabled Postcard singles and their long unavailable solitary album. As things eventually transpired, my younger brother would beat me to the post with its capture, but while green with envy, our house echoed to the strains of the band’s music for some considerable time. It was a good time to catch on, before they fell foul of ever changing musical fashions. Guitarist Malcolm Ross recalls:
“There was a while especially when acid house music and hip hop first came along that nobody was interested in Josef K. There was a period of over ten years between 1988 and right up until the end of the late nineties when nobody gave a damn about us. I remember when I released my second solo album in 1998 the ‘NME’ was sent a copy and the editor said to the record company, ‘We are not going to review this. This has no relevance to us now.”
In truth, as far as being fashionable or relevant, the emerging post-punk Scottish music scene was slow to blossom and certainly lagged behind the rest of the UK in developing the spirit of ’76/77. At the very least, it took longer for the records to arrive. But, by allowing the more artless and noxious aspects of punk to fizzle out, that gave Josef K and Orange Juice, along with their peers, given the tag ‘The Sound of Young Scotland’, sufficient distance to confidently exhibit a more expansive range of influences in their music than most others could muster.
Often parallels are made between the distinctive Glasgow / Edinburgh music scenes with the corresponding US demarcation between East Coast and West Coast sensibilities, but these are overplayed. If the Glasgow bands (Orange Juice, The Pastels, Aztec Camera etc) professed an admiration for Love and The Byrds, they were quite often equally in awe of NY’s The Velvet Underground. Likewise if the Edinburgh bands (Josef K, Fire Engines, Scars) were more indebted to the sharper caustic traits of Television and The Voidoids, at the same time they bore the influence of Beefheart (LA). And, as is well documented, Josef K preferred Chic in any case. In truth there was more harmony than discord between the two scenes. However, when it came to Josef K’s music the reverse was true. Discord was a fundamental ingredient of the bands thrilling sound.
John Lydon had penned Death Disco, which I always felt was the perfect Josef K song title. Behind those near-nerdy (occasionally) baggy suits, were detuned twitchy guitars, equal parts punk scratch and funk catch, underpinning a batch of lyrics brimming with existential angst. Consider ‘Drone’ for instance, which features guitars so ferociously discordant it feels the fretboards will ignite or even fingers fall off, where the lyrics sound like they’ve been ripped from a random page of Knut Hamsun’s ‘Hunger’:
‘I’d like to starve, fade away
Don’t need the cash, just decay.’ (‘Drone’)
On ‘Variation Of Scene’ I’m imagining Haig lurking in the shadows a la ‘The Third Man’ (Auld Reekie surely could have been as atmospheric a location as Vienna for Carol Reed’s classic noir, a film with which I’m sure the band would have been familiar)
‘I hear our footsteps echo
This trip is so much fun
One more eternal city
The psychos always rerun’
Between them, on ‘Heads Watch’, Haig and Ross somehow contrive to create a frenzied guitar battle between Television and Gang of Four, while David Weddell, playing Hooky, does his best to drag the whole thing through the floor and into the bass-ment. You can dance to it, you can sing along to it, and at the same time affect a supercilious urbane sneer:
‘I stand and look outside,
At pseudo-punks and all the mindless,
I see what they think about here,
I watch the girls and watch the heads turn.’ (‘Heads Watch’)
The influences are worn openly but converge to create something unique and vital. At times the band borrow heavily from Martin Hannett’s production for ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (‘Citizens’, ‘Sense Of Guilt’), while the jocular bass on ‘Crazy To Exist’ could be from one of The Fall’s early singles, and the intonation on ‘No Glory’ is a straight lift from David Watts. I imagine Alan Horne’s ears may have pricked up, his inner voice screaming ‘a hit at last!’ as he tuned in eagerly to the beginning of ‘Art of Things’. It promises a shift towards Orange Juice’s more melodic shamble and anticipates the charming amateurishness of The Pastels, but it soon flexes it’s rhythmic muscles to reveal a jittery heart of beef.
Despite that darker edge, Josef K still managed to find room in their album titles for the words ‘Laughing’ and ‘Fun’, but they were young then after all. The band’s reputation has grown, aided by a number of factors, not least through the high profile of Scottish bands Belle & Sebastian and public devotees Franz Ferdinand, but also through the booming vinyl market. Josef K were a band made for vinyl, if ever there was one. This, the album they themselves rejected, finally saw a vinyl release in 2012. It makes it into The New Perfect Collection not only for its bravery, wit and invention, nor simply because it is has the most sparkling guitar playing from any Scottish band ever, but also because every connoisseur’s collection should contain the stuff of legend:
“The world needed a squeamish, jumpy quartet of po-faced, slapstick modish punk kids with concerns about their mental health who would leave behind a messy legacy, a near legend, a fragmented narrative, a bent brilliance, a throbbing rumour of false starts, different versions, other mixes, half songs, shadowy codas, rejected tracks, bits and pieces, lost meolodies, twisted torch, bitty thoughts, missed hits, different members, temporary aberrations, bad dreams, old classics, nervy remakes, buried treasure, Peel sessions, failed ambition, part time associations, sure things, collapsed potential, scattered lies, romantic vision, sentimental sickness, solo attempts and dynamic inadequacy.” (Paul Morley)
[The documentary, ‘Big Gold Dream: The Sound Of Young Scotland’ is scheduled for release on July 4th 2015] (JJ)