Q&A: Brian Hogg

The legendary chronicler of Scottish rock and pop on Edinburgh's counterculture

Brian Hogg's latest book, Cosmopolitan Scum! Edinburgh, The Arts and The Counterculture, chronicles Auld Reekie's bohemian happenings, from the Paperback bookshop and Traverse Theatre in the 1960s, to Richard Demarco's pioneering exhibitions of contemporary art from Central and Eastern Europe in the 1970s, and the publishing activities of Rebel Inc. in the 1990s. There's plenty of music in there too, from the folk scene that spawned Bert Jansch and the Incredible String Band, to the post-punk legacy of Fast Product and Creeping Bent. A lifelong champion of marginal sounds from Scotland and beyond, Hogg produced the cult music zines Bam Balam and Strange Things Are Happening, and worked for legendary Edinburgh indie label Zoom Records. In 1993, Hogg published All That Ever Mattered: The Story Of Scottish Rock and Pop, which remains the definitive account of the music's first four decades. It's an honour to feature him in this inaugural edition of Ion Engine, where he talks about Edinburgh's lost prog bands, the city's crucial contribution to post-punk, and his encounters with Captain Beehfeart and Vivian Stanshall.

Firstly, can you tell me a little about yourself? Your background, how you got involved in the Scottish music scene?

Music has been an integral part of my life for as long as I can remember.  I turned thirteen in 1964 but was already an avid listener to Radio Luxemburg prior to Beatlemania. The following year I began going to Edinburgh’s beat clubs - the Greenhill, the Gonk - and would devour the music press to inform my growing vinyl habit. By the late 60s I was working for Bruce Findlay in Bruce’s Record Shop. I moved to Dunbar in 1974 when I got my teaching diploma but kept in touch with Bruce who subsequently set up Zoom Records. I had seen an early Simple Minds gig at the Astoria and gave him a call to suggest he check them out. Coincidentally they had been up to his office with a demo and he was equally impressed after catching them at the Mars Bar in Glasgow. I gave up teaching, we signed them to Zoom and I worked there until 1980 when the label was dropped by Arista, who co-funded it.  After that I went freelance and began writing retrospectives - usually about 1960’s music - and from there helped compile and annotate reissues. So my involvement was initially that of a fan, then briefly a facilitator before latterly becoming a chronicler.

What motivated you to write Cosmpolitan Scum?

Firstly it was affection for the city in which I was born and grew up.  Its artistic environment made me who I am and I wanted to pay tribute to that.

When I wrote my book on Scottish music, All That Ever Mattered, I described it as 'a story that needed to be told', i.e. one that (undeservedly) hadn’t been done before. It was much the same for Cosmopolitan Scum! Edinburgh has played a vital role within so many different strands of ‘alternative’ culture and while portions may have been noted in other studies [e.g. recent scholarly books by Angela Bartie, and Eleanor Bell & Linda Gunn] there wasn’t a book in which it was all brought together to show how these different facets began, the context in which they occurred and how they developed.

Initially I planned something a little simpler, mostly about the folk and literary scenes and their subsequent influence on, and relationship with, London’s counterculture. I used to meet up with poet [and Cream] lyricist Pete Brown when in London and his enthusiastic tales about Edinburgh in the early ‘60s was really the spark that set it off. As I began to write, however, the book took on a life of its own and embraced a much wider perspective than I originally envisioned, especially with respect to the 1980s and onwards. At first I hadn’t considered grasping the Trainspotting nettle but it became inevitable as the narrative progressed and its inclusion now makes perfect sense.

Do you agree with [Paperback bookshop proprietor and Traverse theatre co-founder] Jim Haynes' observation that Edinburgh in the early 1960s was a 'bubbling volcano' for the arts?

Absolutely. Edinburgh was, and in some ways remains, a city of contradictions. There was a sense of cold propriety, even Calvinism, with respect to the established arts in the 1960s but a vibrant, alternative culture was active beneath that surface early in the decade. Haynes’ Paperback bookshop stocked Beat poetry, French literature and other ‘new writing’, as well as providing space for theatrical productions and art exhibitions, anticipating the Traverse. Venues such as the Howff helped folk music flourish while the Waldman brothers opened coffee bars and clubs where live bands could play, inspiring others to follow suit in the wake of the Beatles. The Mersey poets (and more) were regular visitors to the city, reading in ad hoc venues with local writers such as Alan Jackson. Ian Hamilton Finlay began publishing Poor.Old.Tired.Horse. and in the process made connections with progressive art movements globally. Edinburgh was already a melting point by the time of the Edinburgh Writers Conference in 1962.

How important were the Festivals – including the Fringe and the folk revivalist People's Festival – to the development of the Edinburgh counterculture?

It’s worth noting that the Writers’ Conference and subsequent Drama Conference [in 1963], were both part of the ‘official’ Festival, as was Beyond The Fringe.  However, I think the existence of the Fringe provided the ideal focus for counterculture arts, particularly as it offered informal outlets for enthusiastic individuals from throughout the UK and beyond. It also allowed scope for art that was thought-provoking. This helped those working within the city see they were not operating in a vacuum as there were considerable obstacles from conservative forces, politically and culturally, to overcome. There was strong resistance to the programmes implemented at the Film Festival during the late 60s/early 70s, for example, but the work of Linda Myles and David Will during that time, and their clear understanding of the medium itself, did much to establish its international reputation despite barbed criticism from a variety of repressive voices.

The People’s Festival [1951-54] was an early, brave attempt to break from a perceived elitism, which indeed had been the main reason for the founding of what became the Fringe. It was ripped apart by party politics but something of its grass-roots, self-determination remained in the air. However, the more free-form, anarchic elements found in many Fringe ensembles, combined with a pot-pourri of artistic references, would prove more influential.

At the same time, you have a strong dance hall scene. Is there much crossover with the more bohemian/countercultural scene?

I really don’t recall much of a crossover between the two. Edinburgh had some great bands, most of whom sadly didn’t record, but it was a self-contained scene. Indeed there wasn’t even a great interaction between venues; if you went to the Place you generally didn’t go to the Gamp. Several bands did follow the beatnik-like look of the Pretty Things (bar Phil May’s long hair) but it was more of a fashion style as opposed to anything literary.

There were more links between folk music and other cultural pursuits; the singer Owen Hand, the poet/writer Alan Bold and painters John Bellany and Sandy Moffat all knew each other. Owen also provided music for A Child’s Christmas In Wales, an early Lindsay Kemp piece at the Traverse, while Robin Williamson did the same in 1965 for director George Mully and The Man With A Flower In His Mouth.  There was also the brief liaison between the Paperback and the Howff but that ended in tears. It wasn’t until later in the decade that links between pop/rock music and other disciplines emerged. Skin provided also music for a Traverse production, for example, and the same band attempted a brief poetry/rock fusion with Alan Jackson.

In the 70s Bread Love & Dreams scored several plays but it was not until the following decade that more obvious ties were made between music and literature, chiefly through Paul Reekie, formerly of the Thursdays who, as a poet and writer, became an integral part of the Rebel Inc group. Meanwhile, raconteur Jock Scot would work with both the Nectarine No. 9 and Gareth Sager, ex- of the Pop Group and Rip Rig & Panic.

The Edinburgh folk scene's transition from traditional to bohemian is really fascinating – to what extent did the folk scene benefit from the wider music and arts scene?

In some ways it’s almost the opposite - folk music provided an inspiration for others to follow. Many of the clubs and venues of the early 60s were run by the musicians themselves, notably Archie Fisher, featuring everything from traditional to contemporary performers. That sense of independence and individuality proved significant. Folk music attracted the bohemian crowd in a way Beat music didn’t and it was from that outsider context that an audience for the Incredible String Band emerged. As a rough generalisation, beat clubs attracted a younger audience - no alcohol was served - whereas folk clubs were often located in pubs. Indeed, as far as any link across musical genres was concerned, the group took some flack when adding Mike Heron because he had previously played in an R&B group.

The classic texts - On The Road, ‘Howl’ etc - would certainly have been important reading within the folk community but I think influences from the wider Edinburgh art scene would again be indirect, i.e. that a sense of possibility, of change,  was in the air and being acted upon, rather than something specific. What did make Edinburgh’s folk scene so crucial is that it produced the Incredible String Band and Bert Jansch whose influence on music internationally is incalculable.

You've clearly got a passion for more obscure corners of 60s music - the section on the progressive bands who never made it is both fascinating and poignant. Can you tell us a bit more about that scene? What went wrong for them?

I moved out to Longstone’s suburbs in 1967. About 500 yards from my new front door was a church hall which was pressed into service as a venue on Saturdays. The main road westbound was at the top of a nearby hill and Edinburgh bands heading to Glasgow, as well as Glasgow bands travelling to Edinburgh, stopped off to play en route to other gigs. Over the next 18 months I saw almost every band from each of the cities - the Pathfinders, Bo-Weevils, Dream Police - it was quite unique. 

1-2-3 were astonishing, reshaping and rearranging songs in a manner anticipating the likes of early Yes; only much better. They provided the template for progressive rock to follow and their ideas were mercilessly plagiarised in the wake of a residency at London’s Marquee in 1967. A deal with Island/Chrysalis followed by which time they’d changed their name to Clouds, but their two albums never quite struck a balance between instrumental prowess and the melodic pop songs leader Billy Ritchie wrote. When their management was distracted by the success of label mates Jethro Tull and Ten Years After, Clouds were dropped.

Both Writing On The Wall and Skin were awesome live; really powerful. Sadly both were put into a studio with unsympathetic producers and the resultant releases were totally unrepresentative of how good each band could be. Skin were even forced to change their name to Human Beast which only compounded the felony and they broke up soon afterwards. Writing On The Wall, now popular throughout the UK, were offered several new deals but their management (also their label and publisher) turned them all down. By the time the band was free of all obligations, their moment had passed & they split when their van was broken into & all the equipment stolen.

I was lucky my local club existed, not just because of who I saw, but because Edinburgh’s once-thriving scene was all but gone. Redevelopment and fire regulations saw most clubs closed and while the city’s Arts Lab, known variously as the Centaur, Caves or Combination, was an excellent venue, its tenure was short-lived. Also, where beat clubs were for dancing, prog rock invited listening, alienating those who preferred a physical response to music. Thus the rise of discotheques.

There's a fascinating section in the book on jazz musician Sandy Brown. I'd had him down as a bit of a mouldy fig, but he's a much more idiosyncratic figure, isn't he?

He certainly is. I made the same assumption for years until taking the time to pay more attention to his output. I spent too long being blinkered by my ESP albums. I’m still not a huge fan but I can appreciate the uncompromising ‘mainstream’ line he took - neither Trad nor Bop - as well as his pioneering adaptation of African music. Sandy was also an innovative acoustic architect, designing several recording studios, most notably that of Ginger Baker in Lagos. Yet he remained wonderfully irreverent as the most casual dip into his anthology, The McJazz Manuscripts, attests. Similarly, once seen, the sleeve of his Hair - At Its Hairiest album is never forgotten: Brown stands naked bar a sporran and lengthy wig.

Any thoughts on the Edinburgh jazz scene and how it developed over the years with groups like Nexus? Was there much crossover with rock, post-punk etc?

To be honest I wasn’t really aware of Edinburgh’s jazz scene. Prejudiced? Probably, and guilty of looking only to the USA. I met saxophonist Gordon Cruickshank through mutual friends on several occasions during the early 70s and we had lively discussions about music but my recollection is that the rock and jazz camps, at that time, remained apart. The more open nature of post-punk provided greater opportunity for collaboration - Volunteer Slavery [who would go on to become Dog Faced Hermans and part of The Ex] springs to mind - but my active involvement in live music reduced post-Zoom and I may well have missed out on any such alliances. For the first time my knowledge of the local music scene became guided by records rather than gigs.

Edinburgh's contribution to post-punk is more widely recognised now, but has that always been the case?

I think Edinburgh was crucial to post-punk and, no, that wasn’t always seen to be the case. I really admire Postcard but its importance has been over-emphasised mainly because it was the first Scottish ‘phenomenon’ to interest the wider UK music press. Edinburgh’s scene was overlooked in the process. Fast Product’s take on Situationist theory, marketing and graphics pre-dated that of Factory and a milieu producing Josef K, Fire Engines, the Scars, Metropak, the Visitors and more is a creative hub unrivalled by any contemporaries. If you follow that line into the 1980s you uncover another posse - the Flowers, the Shop Assistants, Jesse Garon (and offshoots), the Vultures, the Dog Faced Hermans - all of whom were excellent. Still not enough credit has been given to what was a remarkably innovative time and place. For example it’s worth noting how so many of these bands featured women as an integral part of the line-up, as opposed to the clichéd ‘girl singer’.

Can you tell us about your zine Bam Balam? It sounds like a Scottish equivalent to Greg Shaw’s Who Put The Bomp. Did you do any other zines after that?

I started writing in the early 70s with a piece in Cracker, Edinburgh’s ‘alternative’ guide and the spiritual ancestor to The List. I wrote a handful of stuff for Hot Wacks, a magazine styled after early ZigZag, but was gradually finding less and less of interest with respect to new music. Reissues such as Nuggets, The Beat Merchants and an early retrospective of the Creation (‘66/’67’) were timely reminders of the many great records almost expunged from history in the rush to laud, say, Bad Company. I picked up Bomp’s British Invasion issue and some early copies of Alan Betrock’s Rock Marketplace and, duly inspired, began Bam Balam in 1975. Over 14 issues it covered British R&B, the early San Francisco Scene, folk rock, the 13th Floor Elevators, Mod pop, the Move, Big Star, Love, the Doors, Scottish beat, the Velvet Underground and, of course, the Flamin’ Groovies, after whom it was named. Such bands seem commonplace now in our prevailing ad nauseam retro-mania culture but at the time it was unique, at least with respect to the UK. From there the next step was writing sleeve notes.

Of course no sooner do I consider music dying than the first releases by Television and Pere Ubu begin filtering though! In 1977 I produced a one-off punk fanzine, Away From The Numbers before self-publishing two discographies devoted to UK 60s bands, Smashed! Blocked! and Son Of Smashed! Blocked! I retired Bam Balam in 1982 but six years later Bam Caruso’s Phil Smee and I launched Strange Things (Are Happening) which, over seven issues, covered a whole spectrum of pop culture from Moondog to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

You mention working in Bruce's Record Shop, with people like Captain Beefheart and Vivian Stanshall coming in. Can you tell me a little more about this?

For the first three or so years, beginning in 1969, Bruce’s was a wonderful place. We not only stocked contemporary rock and - the holy grail - US imports, but we also boasted wide-ranging jazz, blues and folk sections. We ordered directly from Incus and Topic and Mike Leadbetter of Blues Unlimited was amazed at what was in our racks. Meanwhile we were equally thunderstruck when he brought Son House in to meet us following a gig at Leith Town Hall. Bruce’s was also the main outlet for all the underground publications and we even sold tickets for gigs (Led Zeppelin for example) and the Film Festival (ditto Easy Rider’s European premier.)

We had a lot of hip people drop in. Captain Beefheart wasn’t actually one of them although I did meet up with him on two occasions when he played at the Empire and then the Caley. Fascinating man - part genius, part huckster. Viv Stanshall dropped in when he was appearing at the Pool, the nearby arts venue. I remember him demanding discount as he was 'an impoverished artist' to which I replied that he still earned more than a shop assistant. He paid full-price for the Link Wray ‘shack’ album which I (almost) reminded him about several years later.

For about a year the Pool was also the base for Lindsay Kemp’s Troupe and they were all frequent visitors to the shop. Lindsay, Jack (Birkett) and Annie (Stainer) filled it with light and when they came through the door you knew to suspend normal service. Meanwhile Bruce and Mike Heron were longstanding friends and the Incredible String Band called in regularly. Joe Boyd, Ivan Pawle from Dr Strangely Strange or even Vashti Bunyan might turn up with them. Indeed we served as an unofficial information centre for all things ISB. Lady June, Tammo De Jongh and the Moody Blues were among the others who  popped up - well, two out of three’s not bad. It all seemed quite natural at the time and it’s only in retrospect that you realise just how unique it actually was.

All That Ever Mattered came out of BBC Radio Scotland's series Beatstalking – did you work on that show too? I also wondered if you could say a few words about the contribution of the late, great Stewart Cruickshank - who produced that series, as well as legendary new music shows Rock On Scotland and Beat Patrol - to Scottish music.

It’s almost impossible for me to be objective about Stewart. We met in first year of secondary school and remained close friends until his death. He was best man at my wedding; I was the same at his and I miss him. Every time I hear a new piece of music I become aware of a conversation I will never be able to have.

I did some research work for the early instalments of Beatstalking which in turn formed the basis for All That Ever Mattered. Indeed there were tentative plans for the BBC to publish it but that fell through. Stewart’s contribution to Scottish music is incalculable and it owes him a considerable debt. Every single band from this country who recorded during his tenure at the BBC probably had their records played by him before anyone else, whether Wet Wet Wet or Primal Scream or the Bachelor Pad. He was forthright, loyal and utterly committed, bound by a limitless knowledge of music and its history. There’s no doubt in my mind that rock and pop in Scotland would not only be poorer but completely marginalised had Stewart not been its tireless champion. A national award for ‘Best Debut Album’ (or something) should be set up in his honour and memory.

An anecdote. Stewart was a big fan of the Aints, Ed Kuepper’s post-Saints band. They recorded for Hot Records, who duly sent him new releases. On one occasion the label mailed a copy of something so different from their usual output they suspected it would not be to his taste. However, any help would be appreciated. They were right, it wasn’t a fit for his programme(s) but Stewart knew someone to whom it might appeal and forwarded it with a recommendation. The recipient was Terry Wogan’s producer, the record ‘Over The Rainbow’ by Eva Cassidy - airplay and success followed. That, in essence, was Stewart Cruickshank, an unselfish man whose profession was personal and vice-versa.

Are you working on any other projects at the moment?

Not really. I’m not sure I’ve got a major project left in me, although I have been working with Jimmy Hush, drummer in Writing On The Wall. The idea is to put together an oral/illustrated biography but one primarily focussed on visual content. Jimmy has an amazing archive of photographs dating back to his first band, the Embers, as well as tickets, handbills, business cards etc. It would be costly to produce but the idea is still up for consideration. Covid has, of course, sidelined everything. When we reach the other side, it might be nice to find a publisher for Cosmopolitan Scum! who could take it to a wider audience. However, as there was little interest forthcoming from such quarters prior to my doing it myself, I doubt that will materialise. In the immortal words of Kurt Vonnegut, 'So it goes.'

Cosmpolitan Scum. Edinburgh Arts and Counterculture is out now on Nova Mob (Ink).