In politics Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and in Scotland there was the First Devolution Referendum in 1979. Labour did well in Scotland in the general election of that year and the SNP won two seats. See how that has all changed re the SNP. There was the Firefighters strike and there was a picket line outside the Edinburgh College Of Art in their support. In the Edinburgh Art scene the 369 gallery was new and vibrant. Joseph Beuys was here and at Graeme Murray Gallery (where you could buy Metropak's first single) you could see new work by Richard Long.
Analyzing the three vinyl singles now, I think that a significant element of the sound of the band was the character of the drumming from Toni D'Ana. It was not the usual and predictable bass drum/snare drum beat. Instead the drumming was characterized, it has been suggested to me, by a kind of pattern formation shifting under and alongside the other instruments. In a good way for example splashes on the cymbals are not in places where one might expect them to be. It was unique and sensitive, contributing a sense of fluidity that has a life of it's own which, when listened to carefully, remains rewarding on subsequent plays. Robin Havana's approach to playing the guitar and song writing was also critical to the sound. Unusual, interesting and edgy chord sequences set the tone and although often repeated they are changed well in advance of becoming too comfortable or boring. The line is kept intriguing. Sharp lyrics too. His opening line on the third single 'You won't believe what is going on' is in my 'I wish I had thought of that line' file. You can hear that Bruce Banner's bass guitar playing is of a very high calibre, finding a wide range of notes and also being constructive, cohesive and essential. Hel's minimal 'beep beep' keyboard playing on the song 'OK Let's Go' contributes to making that song highly distinctive and a favourite of mine. Elsewhere too her playing sounds refreshingly free of the synthetic and predictable. Regarding my own contribution, I think I had talent for finding strong vocal melodies and lyrics and also in often contributing the initial attack and initial chord sequences as the song writing process began. Often an opening move would just come out of me from nowhere to set things off, and then Robin's guitar and my guitar created some vibrant counterpoint for example in the song 'Here's Looking At You' and words came immediately too. Very nervy in the live appearances it wasn't just my guitar that was highly strung and so my stage name 'Shaakking Stephen' was appropriate. That we all had stage names externalized a kind of warm humour that I think was never really picked up on at the time. There was a lot going on in our music. It was a radical departure from what I had done before - I was 19, I was changing.
My best memories were of the actual writing of the songs together. It was, in my opinion, a truly democratic process. That was great and there were moments of very bright humour too in that process. Writing of material was never a problem and it was exciting. It was Tom Paine (1952-2018) who liked the band to the extent that he funded the three singles, and took on the role of 'manager'. He was a great manager. You didn't have to get you hair cut, wear suits or have the top button of your shirt done up or wear your guitar a couple of inches below your neck. Generous, honest and perceptive and also sharply focused and talented in his own work in the media of film. He chose his words carefully and I often remember things he said. He was a very interesting conversationalist. I had the pleasure of meeting up again with Tom Paine on two occasions in the relatively near past and it is with great sadness that I heard that he came to the end of his life this year.
It has already been said that those were still the days where many thought the way 'out' was to be, for example, a great footballer or in a successful band - and/or to be famous. I am not saying that the other band members thought in that way at all - but unfortunately I was inclined to think that way - a huge mistake. The 'Pop/Rock' world or whatever you want to call it was still so seductive then. I think that's all changed now. Was it Stephen Fry who commented that the 'young' these days no longer exclusively have posters of rock stars on the wall and instead have posters of the greats from other fields? Related to that earlier stated inclination on my behalf a strong early Metropak song is, in my opinion 'You're A Rebel' which, especially in the chorus which includes the sharply sarcastic line 'What A Rebel You Are' shines the spotlight on those who think they are rebels but just want to be famous - to be seen, to be heard, to be 'fast'. 'Give Us An A' I shriek at the start, referring to wanting or perhaps even worse demanding to be marked with an 'A' by teacher in existing and accepted tables of calibration. I was one of those 'rebels without a cause' so I now see the song aimed at myself as much as it is to others. There are many who can justifiably be called Rebels in the most dramatic meaning of the word, by which I mean doing something far 'Greater' than what many may at best aspire to do in everyday life where one listens to ones own inner voice to choose between good or bad. At the current time I would cite political prisoners in North Korea as real Rebels. In UK history I would cite The Suffragettes as real Rebels. Compared to them I am nothing, unworthy surely even to dare to refer to them in my little piece here. Am I one of those Greats? No. - Are You? Could you be if tested? Maybe. I hope so. In the UK most will never know if they would step up to the mark and maybe most of us are fortunate not to be tested. It is often the sacrifice made by others in the past that liberates one from being tested to the extreme where ones actual life or personal potential and liberty goes on the line. Please note that I am not saying that there are no real Rebels in the UK at the current time or that there are not many people here currently in various situations of extremis. Being a Rebel is perhaps a matter of degree. I see a tipping point between being a rebel as one refers to ones own conscience on a day to day level going about ones life and being a Rebel on the world stage where very great sacrifice must be made.
For me it was good, very good, being in the group in the beginning, and I was good in the beginning, but as the group developed I struggled to keep up in mood as the complexity grew and the group interrelationships became more subtle. Instead of seeing that as a positive and as a personal adventure, I weakened and after the second single was recorded in Tony Pilley's Barclay Towers recording studio I left the group in a selfish Spinal Tap like scenario but without the hilarity of that film. Perhaps it's just as well, and I was told it was easier in the band after I had left and I have no problem accepting that. By coincidence, on the day of our first concert at the Netherbow Theatre in Edinburgh, I was in London that morning shaking hands with Sir Hugh Casson at The Royal Academy in Piccadilly (what a rebel I was) and getting a medal for an early painting of mine that was in an exhibition there. I was at Edinburgh College Of Art at the time when Sir Robin Phillipson was head of the Drawing And Painting School. We played an art college gig once in the Post Graduate building and the post grad students made disturbingly accurate copies of their lecturers work and hung it on the walls for the dance. I thought that was brilliant. Sir Robin attended very convincingly dressed as an elderly woman. He told me that the dance was nothing compared to the 'Raves' in earlier decades but asked me 'Are you going to be terribly loud?' I remember Artists dancing - but I digress. I fly back to Edinburgh late that afternoon to arrive at the Netherbow where the band were already setting up. So the push and pull between being a painter and being in a band may have had something to do with leaving too, though I did not realize it at the time. Prior to leaving the band I seemed to be happy riding two horses at the same time, so to speak. Subsequently my painting muse left me and it took decades to get it back and I am still a long way away from being an Artist. Meantime I prefer to think of myself as a painter - and songwriter. Maybe my muse leaving me was a kind of long punishment - like a Hard Brexit one might say - for my various shortcomings which have plagued me all my life, though I think I now understand where they came from. But yes, time is running out.
Something that I think would have helped me greatly in Metropak along with a guitar tuner, would have been listening to The Velvet Underground. Surprisingly, I never listened to them until about 1983. Had I listened to them, I think my confidence would have been boosted. They might have taught me how to be cool. The music that influenced me at that time was, in no particular order, Pere Ubu, Wire, The Fall, The B52's, Talking Heads, Devo, The Only Ones. David Bowie was in there of course too, with his album 'Heroes' released in 1977 and seeing him perform in Glasgow at around that time remains a very great highlight and remains one of the best experiences I have ever had. Many in Scotland will remember his concerts there in Glasgow that year. Prior to that era my record collection consisted of many records by artists who, at least for a while, were to be rejected but who provided the musical background whereby bands such as The Sex Pistols could easily sound so influentially radical.
Also, although I was young and very thin, no one told me that you had to have a vintage guitar! I got one later of course - too later, when I had money for one. At that time just buying a round of drinks at the bar was expensive enough to make me sweat with panic. But back to the guitars - I am reminded that when we say to our friends that we have been to a concert, we say 'I went to see such and such a band' We don't usually say we went to 'hear' them. A lot of it was and is about the look and there's nothing wrong with that. It is surprising how important having a vintage guitar seemed to be to many bands in Scotland around 1979/80 and I do not mean that in a judgmental way. Some of the guitars look like museum pieces, which is ironic because when you 'fast forward' 38 years or so a museum is exactly where they ended up, even if just on loan and, in some ways, exactly where they seem to have come from too. It could be that a lot of what I see as being in part nostalgia in general is also to do with wanting to see images of people before they start to 'age'. Again, it's a visual thing but why is it that the later adult years are not far more interesting? They are for me. Repeatedly, great and exciting challenges come later in life and that era in Edinburgh represented for me a very small proportion of time relatively speaking. To be so totally focused on that early stage would be strange and say little for the rest of ones life even though behaviors formed then can be very hard to alter. I admit to be focusing mainly on that stage in life in this piece.
There is often talk of Scottish and UK bands being influenced by the so called New Wave movement. I'm not really sure what it should be called but it is reported to have started in New York before being picked up on in Scotland. Exciting things were happening in New York venues such as CBGB's. I think it notable that Metropak were, as far as I know, the only Edinburgh band of that era (1980) to perform, thanks I think to Tom Paine's contacts there, in New York at Tier Three, The Mud Club and The UK Club while those venues were still at their prime. Thus there was a very tangible and this case an unusually reciprocal connection with the music scene in New York. I had left the group before the New York gigs. Looking back of course I like to think it would have been amazing to be there in New York at that time.
Reading this you are thinking that those guitars were used because of the quality of sound they made and not because of what they looked like.
So what remains? Valuable and rekindled friendships (so far anyway), three good collectible and cherished singles comprising of studio recordings of seven songs, a handful of photographs and some film without sound. There were many more songs that survive only in very rough recording format and these would have shown more range, variety and depth had they been recorded in a studio. I have many rehearsal tapes to remind me of the songs we wrote when I was in the band, for example the song called 'Follow Me' which was full of unexpected twists and turns and even an extraordinary descending note on a trumpet played by Robin. I am unfamiliar with the material Metropak wrote after I left the band and when the band were also known as Pak, except the two songs on the third single, and the little I have heard of that phase in the bands development appeals to me very much. It strikes me as very emotional, expressionistic and sharp. I find beauty too in the third single.
Was there the album? No. Was there the John Peel Session? No - although he liked and played the singles and called the first one a 'mighty record'. Was there the tour supporting the better known band? No. Was there the National Press? No, and any local press seemed often to be, how shall I put it, 'not exactly onside?' For example I think we were once described in a local review as sounding like 'a badly recorded Devo bootleg played backwards' or words to that effect. I wonder if when you play Metropak backwards it sounds like Devo? Not all reviews were bad and I am inevitably sounding churlish and I will pay for that. Sometimes it seemed to me there was an unpleasant kind of cartel in operation. If that is not true, then it is how it felt to me at the time so it must be true to that extent and probably that's how it's meant to feel. If it was true, was it because two in the band were female? Surely it couldn't have been that because that would be ridiculous. Was it because two of us were English? Surely it couldn't have been that for that would be daft. Did we walk the wrong way around the wheel somehow? It couldn't have been that because what was going on was contra cyclical and new. Was it because two of us were art students? It couldn't have been that for that would be stupid. I would have laughed off all that kind of thing now and relished fighting back but at that time could I? No. I was unassertive. I was weak. Was it because my voice was poor? Yes, that's the reason!
I can understand to some extent why the band are not included in the documentaries, archives and books - for example Vic Galloway's book called 'Rip It Up' (2018) along with all other books published so far about music in Scotland because what remains of Metropak might be considered somewhat embryonic in form or hard to label. Unfortunately there isn't quite enough studio recorded material to communicate the full scope of the band's music and get a handle on it which you can do with bands involved with Fast Product and Postcard Records for example. I remember once we went to see Fast Product at their flat. You had to submit and fill in a questionnaire. He showed us one that another Edinburgh band had filled in earlier. I don't think we ever filled ours in. His flat was a stones throw away from the Fire Engine depot on Lauriston Place. Bob didn't like us! He won't remember.
Memories of our fuller repertoire provide me with the broader picture that is impossible to share however much I would like to, hence in part my frustration. In some ways I have found the exclusion, as you can doubtless tell, stimulating. We were never everyones cup of tea and it seemed we put some peoples backs up though I am not sure how we did that if that is true. It was certainly not intentional and maybe I am doing exactly that now and if so please confirm how. There was never the 'big splash' but this too is the case for other bands who somehow do get mentioned at least on the historical roll call. Whether the exclusion is a matter of policy and stems from a bias stretching way back or if it simply comes from a lack of awareness of the band is something I do not know. Exclusion may simply have depended on who the authors were talking to and what they said or didn't say - and anyway, you are going to tell me that there isn't space and that not all the little turtles can make it to the ocean or something like that.
But it's alright. The recorded songs are finding an audience all over the world on the digital music platforms and the original vinyl records are sought after and sell for surprisingly high prices. It would be counter productive to push people to the recordings because what is represented by the recordings is not a full repertoire. Better to let people come across the existing recordings themselves where the music can fit into a playlist for example on a scale or proportion that suits the listener. Ironically, now that everyone knows who the heroes are it is Metropak's obscurity that generates much of what interest there is in the band. Probably it's all best left at that (he says having just published a blog about it all) Ha!
Stephen Harrison, 6th July 2018, Edinburgh