Mutant Pop: Scars – Author! Author! (Expanded Edition)

❉ Your Attention Please! Cherry Red’s expanded edition of post-punk‘s Scars 1981 album, reviewed.

Postcard Records, one of the most beloved independent labels of the late seventies and eighties, proudly described themselves as “The Sound of Young Scotland” and those sounds still cast a long shadow on modern independent music. Scars may seem today to be a footnote in that story but at the time made a huge impact on the Scottish music scene. Sounding closer to fellow Edinburgh bands the Fire Engines and Josef K, they shared that scene’s fondness for the spikier sounds of Television and the Velvet Underground rather than other Glasgow bands’ fondness of the sunnier sounds of the Byrds and Love.

Scars were initially signed to Fast Product, the cult label that was home to the Mekons, Human League and Gang of Four but after that label refused to issue a follow up their debut, they eventually moved to a short-lived sublabel on Charisma called Pre. Their label mates here are also revealingly diverse: Tuxedomoon, Gregory Isaacs, Prince Far I and the Residents. I’m not trying to say that if you factored in elements of each of those musicians you might end up with a sound a bit like Scars (although that might be a fun experiment on these dark evenings) but it does show you how difficult the band are to pigeonhole. This is possibly why they’ve always stayed a cult concern rather than achieving the posthumous fame some of their contemporaries have. Hopefully this collection – almost everything they ever recorded, plenty of demos and live performances  – will go some way to address this.

For modern audiences Scars are probably be mostly known for that debut single, Horrorshow, forming much of the song The Shouty Track by electronica oddbods Lemon Jelly. As remixes go it doesn’t add or subtract much from the original, instead amplifying the build-up of that song and interspersing it with some of lead singer Robert King’s excitable yelps. There’s brilliant footage of Scars playing this live with Lemon Jelly in 2010 but there’s an even more extraordinary clip of them performing Horrorshow in a BBC session for Marc Riley. The great gap at the heart of this otherwise authoritative box is that debut, a youthful and very Scottish sprint through the salient plot points of Clockwork Orange (although it does turn up as a demo and live version, both of which crackle with youthful anger and energy). The most extraordinary thing about the Riley version is how much King mines that youth for a wholly new reading of the song. It’s quite the thing.

I first came across Scars on another Cherry Red collection, the indie pop box set Scared to Get Happy. The first disc is a particularly revealing, suggesting several possible avenues indie music of the eighties could have taken. Many of the bands on that disc have recognisable jangly traits later bands would spend whole careers emulating, but there are also several bands that suggest an odder direction the scene could have taken. Scars are key to that. They still sound very contemporary to the extent that my wife was incredibly sniffy about the sounds emerging from my stereo until she realised these weren’t modern copyists but the real deal. She still didn’t like it but she absolutely appreciated how forward sounding it was.

Let’s get onto the meat of the thing – how it sounds. Fast Product described themselves as Mutant Pop which seems as good a description as any. Scars also called themselves glam punk and we have evidence here in some covers of Steve Harley and David Essex, the latter of which sounds incredibly prescient of the racket the Jesus and Mary Chain would perfect (the Reid brothers are fans). The real crux of the sound is tension – there’s a fantastic NME interview by Paul Morley from 1981 where the band state “our immediate goal was to annoy people” and you can hear this particularly on the live disc. The rhythm section are tight and funky but over the top of this there’s the scratchy guitar of the  wonderfully named Paul Research and Robert King’s youthful, very Scottish yelp. Morley again describes them as “anxious, fervent pop music produced out of a confusion of disgust, cynicism, celebration and romance”. And they do seem to juggle spikiness and peppiness, joy and chilly distance, cynicism and gaucheness – and it’s probably why they never quite achieved the fame expected of them because they were too stubborn to compromise that tension.

Some of the lyrics play a lot with images of childhood – which feels a little like a barbed commentary on bands like Orange Juice and their many copyists who have fetishized childhood as a whole career – and this reaches its peak with The Lady in the Car With the Glasses On and a Gun (one of the all-time great song titles!). This plays with a very ironic reading of spy film clichés, almost as if it’s trying to articulate the danger, thrill and excitement of the glamour of those films to a child. It’s not half as creepy as Obsessions or Je T’aime Ce’st La Mort though. The latter song’s opening line – “your cold lifeless body is all that I have left” – could have been played straight by countless bands in 1981 as the start of a gothy dirge, but what Scars want to do is not so much shock the audience but play with the tensions around that: it feels a bit like they’re toying with you, playing with that tension with a cynical grin. There’s a kind of deliberate gaucheness here, as if the band want to wrong foot and constantly unsettle you by never quite resolving what they really are.

The most successful expression of this is Your Attention Please, which takes a harrowing nuclear poem by Peter Porter and sets it to music. It’s definitely an angry piece, but there’s a real sense of King using his very broad Scottish accent and his youth to tease out another layer of it. It’s delivered like a more knowing Rick from the Young Ones and I think is deliberately commenting on the bathos of youth. One of the great gifts of the Scottish indie scene was that singers like Edwyn Collins could express themselves in their own voice, using the tools of punk for something more intimate and personal. But Scars are less the wide eyed and optimistic teenager of Orange Juice and Gregory’s Girl, but the more playfully dark and cynical world of Bill Forsyth’s earlier film That Sinking Feeling.

A quick word about the image of the band: As can be expected from their interest in glam and Bowie, Scars seem more image conscious than their peers – but to an extent that means their look by the time Author! Author! was released was that of a strange proto-Adam and the Ants New Romantic Sci Fi pirates. Which if you like that sort of thing – it was designed for them by Vivienne Westwood and they did a gold flexi disc for fashion bible ID magazine – you will very much love but sometimes looks… distractingly odd compared to their music. But again, they’re playing with the audience’s expectations.

As ever the Cherry Red reissue has all the attention to detail you’d hope. I kind of don’t want to use the term lavish in my first review but it does kind of feel appropriate for what you get here – it’s been created with love and attention to make accessible an album that’s been increasingly difficult to find. The live disc and demos do sound what you expect a live disc and demos to sound like: raw and primitive, but that kind of works for the sound because you really get the seedy menace behind many of the songs in its fullest form. It’s like a veneer of irony has been stripped off the music.

Cherry Red really do seem to positioning themselves as the affordable but authoritative label of choice for voluminous reissues like this. It looks like any future reunions are unlikely due to tensions between the lead singer and the rest of the band, but this is as good an epitaph as any, a great collection deserving of such a beloved and quietly influential band.

❉ Scars: Author! Author!, 3CD Expanded Edition (CDTRED803) is released October 30, 2020 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £17.99.  Order now directly from Cherry Red Records.

❉ Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

❉ Chris Browning is a librarian but writes and draws comics and other strange things to keep himself out of trouble: he can be found on Twitter as @commonswings but be warned he does spend a lot of time posting photos of his cats.
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