I was a member of Metropak when I was at Edinburgh College Of Art in 1978.
Metropak were a band formed in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1978 and inspired by the New Wave/Punk/Post-punk movement at that time when bands started their own independent labels and made their own records.
Metropak were part of the thriving post-punk music scene in Edinburgh at that time along with The Fire Engines, TV Art, Josef K, Scars, The Rezillos, The Visitors, The Freeze, Boots For Dancing, The Colour Group, The Ettes, The Cubs, Green Rayo, The Prats, 35 mm Dreams, The Dirty Reds, Strange Daze, The Delmontes and many other bands. Please get in touch to add to this roll call. Metropak practiced for a while in the notorious Blair Street rehearsal rooms.
Metropak played a number of venues in and around Edinburgh, including one at the Odeon with The Clash. Their first concert was at the Netherbow Theatre in Edinburgh on 27th January 1979. That year, the first two singles were recorded. The third single was recorded in 1980. The second and third singles were recorded at Tony Pilley's Barclay Towers recording studio in Edinburgh. John Peel played the records at Radio 1. Crucial here is Tom Paine (1952-2018), for it was he that liked and supported the band enough to fund the three singles. He took on the role of 'manager' and in the autumn of 1980, Metropak went to New York and performed at The Mudd Club, Tier 3 and The UK Club thanks, I think, to the contacts he had established there.
Stephen left the band in 1979 after the second single was recorded and Helen left in 1980 after the third single and the gigs in New York. The three remaining members moved to London in 1981. Stephen remained in Edinburgh and continued with muisc through various projects. The Metropak songs 'You're A Rebel' and 'Here's Looking At You' were included on an American compilation album of bands from Scotland of the same era. (Messthetics 105, released February 2008).
Despite all of the above, and the gigs listed below, and having been known, relevant and respected amongst the band's peer group in Edinburgh at the time, Metropak have not been included in any of the books written about this era of music making in Scotland.
Stephen's factional and impressionistic account of those times (a work in progress) :
'I was a very young and introverted 19 year old at the time and I can only speak with any authority on the period up to and including the recording of the second single but I am confident that Metropak were interesting, innovative and engaging especially when performing. I clearly remember talking with members of what would become well known bands who were also starting then and seeing them in the audience and of us being in their audiences and performing at the same gigs etc. You went to see what the other bands were doing and vice versa. Quite a bit of copying went on. It still does.
On the subject of copying, I think it was once said of Picasso that when his peer group of artists knew he would be visiting their studios they would turn their canvasses to the wall because they knew that if Picasso was stimulated by what he saw, he would copy them. That's the classic story about copying. It is also said that 'talent borrows, Genius steals'. If someone steals, it does not follow that they are a genius. You have to be a genius first, that's the tricky bit. Otherwise you are merely a thief. If you are a genius, you are a genius and a thief, maybe. Thinking about Picasso's peer group, I can well imagine how painful it must have been to have been copied. It is not a pleasant feeling. It depends upon ones own status though. There are circumstances when it can work in your favour. If you are already established in a particular field, if you have been recognised there, then if you are copied people can see easily that the person doing the copying is merely a copycat. Your reputation is actually enhanced. However, if you are unrecognised and are copied, you are left feeling drained and annoyed. That's not so good. This can be compounded by trying to blame the copycat. It's pretty much an impossible thing to do without appearing churlish. There have been times in my life when I have suffered from being copied. You say to yourself, how can that person do such a rotten thing? How can I get my own back, literally? It can be quite a frightening thing and you wonder if it is really happening. It seems so extraordinary, so incredible. Possibly what is happening is that the person doing the copying does not really see that he or she is copying. It is as if they are unable to see the elephant in the room. They cannot hear their conscience tell them, 'hey, that's not right, I cant do that.' They are in a mode where they are as moths to a flame. The thief does not think or see that he or she is doing anything wrong, or even doing anything at all. The thief feels nothing. The only thing the thief detects is the loss of the money he or she controls. The only way to reach the thief is to take money from him or her because for the thief, the measurement of wealth can only be financial. Artists can be as morally questionable, as personally flawed as anyone else, but I don't think you can be a really good artist if you are a complete and utter devil. You have to have some morals.
The band started out in 1978. At first it was just myself and Robin, mainly with acoustic guitars and unamplified electric ones. Later that year a drummer called Catriona and a bassist called Camilla joined. We were called 41 at the time. We were able to plug in the electric guitars and make some noise over at Camilla's place in Fife. Somehow things evolved and Toni replaced Catriona on drums and Murray replaced Camilla on bass guitar. Last to join was Hel on keyboards. By late 1978 we had a room at the notorious Blair Street Rehearsal Rooms in Edinburgh. We had a saxophonist briefly called Mark. It was Mark who, as far as I know, came up with the band name Metropak. Mark knew a lot and he used to buy many albums and singles by upcoming bands of that time, and it was in his flat that I heard most of the recordings by the so called post punk bands, which he often played at full volume. There were some good parties there too. By January 1979 we were ready for our first gig, which took place at the Netherbow Theatre in Edinburgh on 27th January that year. We had a roadie friend called Alistair so at least someone kept their eyes on the road. He helped with the heavy lifting. In those days amps and speakers were still pretty bulky. Mind you, it wasn't all heavy lifting. Once when setting up at a gig I opened my guitar case and there was no guitar in it. It hadn't been lifted - it's just that I had never put the guitar in the case.
For those with an inclination to label things, and in situations where a label is required, you could say that the difference between Punk, and Post Punk was that Punk bands were spat at on stage by the audience and post punk bands were not. In 1979, when Metropak started playing gigs, it was already three years after the single Anarchy In The UK had been released by The Sex Pistols. We were never spat on so we must have been post punk. It seems a strange phenonomen now, the spitting. If it got in your eye I suppose you could catch something nasty. You'd think fans in the audience would start to run out of spit after a few goes. I think there was still a bit of pogoing going on in 1979. I can remember jumping up and down on stage and in rehearsals. It was funny. I think Devo did it too. When I was even younger, before punk even, I had a pogo stick. Surprisingly, the first pogo sticks were patented in 1891 in Kansas. The Sex Pistols inspired a plethora of other bands whose music in turn had influence on our sound.
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. Now, some 40 years later it is the SNP who have done well in Scotland in the UK general election of this year, winning 48 seats whilst Labour won a single seat. My, how the tables have turned. Almost a perfect inverse symmetry. During 1979 there was the Firefighters strike and 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 sensitive, contributing a sense of fluidity that has a life of it's own which, when listened to carefully, remains rewarding on subsequent plays. Boom Boom Boom went the Big Bass Drum? No. Not in Metropak. It was more pitter patter pitter patter pitter patter. 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.
Being critical, I might say that the Metropak singles fail, but I think they fail in an interesting and humorous way. It's a bit difficult to explain what I mean. If you look at Andy Warhol's screen prints, some might think that they are not very good partly because the colours are out of alignment. Others might think that they are good partly because the colours are out of alignment. In the same kind of way, and I am referring to the time when I was in the band, you could say that everything in the band was often out of alignment. In humour, you find a similar kind of misalignment. Guitars were a bit out of tune, sometimes we were not quite in time together, vocals sometimes off or ambiguous, etc etc. On the records, you could hear how the recordings were made. There was an element of human frailty apparent on the surface. This liberates the sound from the kind of claustrophobia I think you can suffer from when you listen to over produced, over completed, over done studio albums made on huge budgets. The songs knowingly and humorously relate to the context of what a band is meant to sound like. We were out of alignment. - Well, I did say it was difficult to explain.
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.
Looking back, it sees quite quaint, funny even that bands had managers - but it is true. Many, perhaps most Edinburgh bands had managers, even when their practice was on a very small scale. In our case I like to think there was a humorous twist to that, but otherwise it is as if a distance was preferred between the artists and the business operators. As if the artists could not manage themselves. A manager seemed to be especially required for those seeking a solo career. In that case it was important probably to be slightly aloof, mysterious even. The shy, sensitive and very private artist did not want to have to descend to the squalid level of actually having to negotiate the desired financial advance from the major record label and you wanted someone else to handle the phone. Otherwise, the carefully constructed aura of mystery would soon be dissipated, and reveal the artist as what he or she really is - another human being. By having a manager the band or solo artist could be kept tantalisingly out of reach like a rarity. It's all role play. And the deal had to be for a life changing sum of money. Enough to invest in property and enough so that you did not have to have a job. You didn't want to have to work for a living. That would be awful. No one would know that you were important. Besides, it would play havoc with the role play. Strangely, I suspect that even more nowadays, this kind of role play works for the benefit of the fan even more than the artist. A fan may 'follow' their star on social media for example, and take a healthy interest in what they are doing, but would that fan really want their star to 'follow' them in quite the same way? It would be strange if that happened. If I was a star, I might think twice about following a fan for that reason. It always amuses me that when, for example, you see a group of Stars together on a television chat show, none of them are in awe of each other at all. They just see the other Stars as one might see ones workmates or flatmates for example. The whole Star role play dissipates deliciously between the Stars. An audience may be in awe of the Stars, pay to see them, and not feel they should approach them, but the Stars themselves are not in awe of each other in the same way. It's all stupid, the fame thing! Imagine if your favourite Music Star or Art Star came to live with you in your house. It wouldn't be long before they started to be just as annoying as anyone else. They might leave food to go off in the fridge, or not do their share taking the rubbish out for example, or fart during your favourite TV programme. It wouldn't be long before the whole fame thing completely dissipated. Before long you'd probably pay just to get rid of them, get them out of the house. I don't really think fame exists at all. I don't think that Artists, Musicians, Writers, etc etc are any different from anyone else except in the sense that everyone is different. If they were, they would have to be a different species in the way that for example, a Giraffe is a different species than a Whale. As far as I know, Artists, Poets etc are human beings, and there is, as far as I know, only one species of human being. Perhaps the difference is in the perceived magnitude of achievement calibrated by the social constructs of any particular time and not so much in the nature of the individuals within the species. That would sound patronising if it were not for the fact that every now and again an artist comes up with a whole new way of making art. For example, when James Joyce broke new ground by writing Ulysses. Alright, I am confusing artists with celebrities. A good artist may be a celebrity too, but rarely is a celebrity a good artist. The 'Pop Music' field may confuse the two more than other artistic fields are confused by the two. This might be because to some extent both the world of 'popular music' and the world of pure celebrity for its own sake can both be fun up to a point. The world of 'serious' Art can be fun, but probably not to quite the same extent. The fun is probably not the priority with serious Art. I quite like it that the 'fun' world of popular music can often be a doorway into deeper, more serious and more rewarding and challenging Art. It can be a bridge. A way in. But I would not insist that one is better than the other. That really would be patronising, even though less often is the bridge crossed from serious art over to fun art and celebrity than the other way around. Once on the other side, the serious side, the journey back may seem unattractive and the thought of going back may not even occur to such a traveler. The above arguments underline the opinion that an Artist is someone who not only 'practices' Art, in the way that a Doctor practices medicine for example, but he or she comes up with a whole new way of making Art. The doctor may practice medicine, may find his or her own way of carrying out the profession, be very good at it, be respected, valued and liked etc etc, but the expectation that he or she should discover some whole new dimension to medicine is simply not there. However, the Artist is expected to make some great new discovery, some new way to make Art, to break new ground. That is the expectation. And, what's more, probably be living in relative poverty at the time, and on breaking the new ground is quite likely to be undervalued, mocked and ridiculed to the extent sometimes of being driven right around the bend by contemporary society. It's not fair!
However, I maintain that a life in or around Art is a good life.
But hang on a moment, let's turn some of that upside down and see what it looks like. Let us say that the Artist is fundamentally different, more important than other people. Before long you end up saying some people are more important than others. Some people are worth saving more than others. That doesn't seem quite right, or does it? Going back to our aforementioned good doctor, he or she must treat everyone equally in the surgery or hospital, regardless of their status, background and financial wealth and so on. If the Artist is special and different, then something mysterious must happen when the Artist leaves the hospital, where he or she has been treated equally with others, to return to the pedestal upon which he or she stands outside the hospital and where the Artist is expected to be on a pedestal and accepted on that pedestal.
Another way I have of thinking about the importance or otherwise of Artists goes along the following lines : It may help to form some categories. At the forefront are the Major Artists. These are the ones who break completely new ground. They are at the crest of each new wave. Swept up in this new wave and following the lead of the Major Artists are the Minor Major Artists. These artists explore and map out the new ground discovered by the Major Artists. Then come the Major Minor Artists. These artists, whilst exploring the aforementioned new ground, start to mix it up with elements from other and previously discovered grounds. Essentially what they are doing is not new, except to the extent that they are adding their own idiosyncratic twist to proceedings. What they do is inevitably different but only because everybody is different to some extent. Being different and being new are not the same thing. Then there follow the Minor Artists. This group exploit the hard earned fruits of the preceding categories often by copying. Finally there are the Minor Minor Artists whose main achievement may be simply to stretch the meaning of the word 'Artist' practicality to breaking point because what they do is a cynical and commercially orientated pastiche. By that time, what is produced is so stale, so nauseating, that the atmosphere created is one that simply has to be cleared by the next wave of new art, led by the next Major Artist, and so on. You can populate each category quite easily, depending on your own values, and the process may be rewarding. Generally speaking, the secondary Art Market confirms these categories whereby top prices are paid for the major artists and the price cascades downwards through each following categories. Also, prices paid are likely to be in inverse proportion to the degree that each category is populated.
Actors have agents, and the word 'agent' seems slightly better somehow than manager. Most people outside the arts do not have managers and manage OK without them. Therefore perhaps if you employ a manager you become an Artist. Or, an Artist is someone who has a manager.
I have first hand experience of this because a few years after Metropak I formed another band called Heyday and, despite only playing a couple gigs we decided even at that early stage we should have a manager, which seems ridiculous now. So somehow we got one. It actually doubled the work because I ended up having to manage the manager, or a least try to! At that stage, I had bought into the whole role play aspects of artist/manager/record label. It's certainly not something I am proud of. Some of the material I was writing was alright, but I was trying to sell it into the system rather than have the system find it and buy it. The project was a humiliating failure, and apart from the songwriting, I'm pretty ashamed of the kind of person I was at around that time. By then it was the mid 80's and the London based record labels were still sending up talent scouts to Scotland every weekend, especially Glasgow, to sign up pretty much anything that moved. I can remember a Heyday gig in Edinburgh in 1985 when we knew that a record company scout (A&R men I think they were known as) from London was coming to see the show but he was late, so we made the audience wait ages until he appeared. A horrible thing to do.
Thinking about 1979 and bands and managers I imagine the bands as 'families' and the leader in each band was the head of each family. Loyalty to family was important. A word out of place and you were finished. It was curtains. Exiled for ever from the love of the supreme head of all the families, The Don, the devil incarnate. I wonder if the heads of the families ever met up during that time and decided on strategies to divvy up their gains and also to work out how best to rig everything to an agreed advantage. It became a cartel. The bigger families were top of the pecking order. I remember that the film called The Godfather was popular around that time amongst the players. Maybe that had something to do with it. You still see the heads of the families out and about occasionally, sometimes with lower ranking members, sometimes with the promoters and label bosses, deciding what to do. They reunite from time to time, and if you go out quite late at night you might still catch a glimpse of them getting photographed swigging from bottles of beer, reminiscing and looking, with varying degrees of success, appropriately world weary, touting for interest from the Scottish disc jockeys and the documentary film makers. You could say that they have nw gone to the House of of Lords. The men, these crepuscular types, have found their answers, and now they must find the right interviewers who are the most likely to ask the questions that fit their answers, for to be actually scrutinised would not appeal. They are still doing the time, tweeting, and marking out their territory with their intellectual liquids - but the taste is not too sweet, is it? Most have wasted their lives on all this folly and a few, increasinlg desperate, will come to that realisation.
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 they 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.
Many of you love the song 'You're A Rebel'. Others love the song 'Ok Let's Go', as do I, with its deceptively simple lyrics. In some ways it is the marriage partner of 'You're A Rebel', its inverse, converse or reflection. The song lyrics open with the repeated question 'Hey which guy, which guy, which guy?" The answer to that question in the song lyrics is 'It could have been me'. But exactly what 'could have been me'? The listener may choose to ponder this, or alternatively not ponder it at all. In that mysterious probing, that non verbal fog, Art can thrive. But what I say is this : In any particular set of circumstances 'you' or 'I' could have done the deed imagined in the above question and answer conversation. We 'could' have done a deed that is perceived as good, or we 'could' have done a deed that is considered bad. We 'could' have done it too had we been in the same circumstances. Therefore, and this I believe is the crux of the matter, the terrible lesson to be learned from history is that not only could I have been the victim, I could have been the perpetrator. I remember the song being a lot of fun to perform and rehearse. It was only two chords, one less than a lot of popular songs! Don't ask me which two chords they were. They may have been G and A but I'm not sure. It would have been G first because G is higher than A.
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. Well, maybe it was a bit funny - though not for Tom Paine who had spent his money on getting the records made. 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 same morning shaking hands with Sir Hugh Casson at The Royal Academy in Piccadilly and getting a medal for a painting of mine that was in an exhibition there. Me with Sir Hugh Casson - what Rebels! What a rebellion! You could say that The Royal Academy was something of an 'Establishment' construct at the time, which is ironic because Art is meant to challenge established ideas and thereby find new ones. Certainly, getting a medal there was viewed by some as a terrible thing. Hey, you cant win! 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 amazing. For some reason it never even occurred to me that the Art College lecturers could actually be artists too. I had no idea what their work was like until much later. In those days you could not look them up on the internet for example. Sir Robin attended. He told me that the dance was nothing compared to the 'Raves' in earlier decades, and judging from photos of such earlier events, doubtless he was right. At that gig I remember Artists dancing - but, I digress. I fly back to Edinburgh late that afternoon having spent my prize money on the ticket to arrive at the Netherbow Theatre where the other band members 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 - a leaving rather 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. And time is running out.
It's interesting to think about how things were communicated then about the music scene in Edinburgh. It was eons before the Internet. The most modern form of communication was the telephone, and usually you would have to phone from a telephone box. None of the flats and bedsits I stayed in at the time even had telephones in them. There wasn't even an inside toilet. Alright, that's not true, though when I was in Metropak I lived for a few months in a rotten bedsit. There were many such places in Edinburgh then. It was in a house up Gilmore Place that had been converted into about 20 bedsits. You didn't know or want to know anyone else living there and there was only one toilet. Periodically it would get blocked up but other tenants (not me) kept on using it until the crap was overflowing onto the floor. It was disgusting. Far worse than watching the film Trainspotting. The bath was never ever usable and showers seemed not to have been invented then. You won't read about that sort of thing on your hashtag visit Edinburgh. I don't remember what I did about it. I must have held it all in! Very Edinburgh. You'd to leave the rent in your room once a week, and a guy would come into your room and take it. On the landing about halfway up the staircase was a filthy cooker, and a filthy sink. That was the kitchen! No wonder I bought my own place as soon as I could a few years later when I had a job.
I don't think video cassettes were around then. Cassette tapes were. I had an old Grundig reel to reel tape recorder that I had from school days and I took it to band rehearsals in Blair Street. I still have the tapes. Murray had an impressive twin decked radio cassette player/recorder which I was jealous of. It might have been a ghetto blaster. I'm not sure. It must have cost a fortune. This was just before the first DIY multi track home recorder came out called the TEAC 144 made by TASCAM. I think Sting bought the first one of those. Edinburgh musical instrument shops were pretty exciting places then and you'd look to see what was on the notice boards there. Even programmes on television (there was television then, usually black and white) like Tomorrow's World had not anticipated such a thing as Myspace coming into existence. Gigs were publicised by posters on the walls, and in record shops and at the Art College. I clearly remember going out late at night or in the early hours of the morning with a handful of posters that we screen printed at the Art College, a bucket filled with wall paper paste and surreptitiously pasting them up all over town. It might have been against the law. Actually it probably wasn't because I remember once nothing came of it when on one of these nocturnal expeditions a policeman intervened and said to one of us 'You seem a bit vacant' - maybe the officer used to be a Sex Pistols fan! News was also spread very successfully by word of mouth. It wasn't hard to know what was going on, who the new bands were, or when the next gigs were, and who was supporting who. Even I had a pretty good idea. I think that what was going on in the music scene may have been more exciting than what was going on in Art Galleries in Edinburgh at the time. I don't remember getting particularly excited about going to see exhibitions then, though there were important exhibitions on at the time. At the time, I was even unfamiliar with the work the Art College lecturers were doing and never even thought to familiarise myself with it. Visual artists seemed somehow remote. There were the fanzines as well, which were kind of self produced photo copied newspapers. As collectible now as the records, they have become museum pieces for the scholars to pour over. This activity continued certainly until the mid 1980's when, as far as I know, it all kind of frittered away and you no longer had a feel that something was going on out in the field. The fanzines were replaced by the first glossy music magazines. By then the music scene was about touring bands like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. Ghastly stuff. Back in 1979 you'd send your demo tapes and your self manufactured 45's to John Peel of course, and people like me would stay in all evening listening to find out if he played your material! He played loads of crap. Then there was the main stream music press, such as Melody Maker, and Sounds. I remember Melody Maker being a bit more heavyweight than Sounds, and a bit more expensive. The name Melody Maker sounds quite quaint now. By 1979 maybe there wasn't much melody left - or much maker, though the paper survived until 2000. I see that the NME still exists, but I had to look that up. If you were really cool you would pretend not to read the music press. You'd go round saying things like 'I don't read the Music Press, they are all biased, all old school' or words to that effect. You'd say that knowing that meanwhile, fortunately, Mom was buying the papers and cutting out any articles that you were in and putting it all into a scrap book.
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, and never really liked them until even later, when like many, I grew to like them enormously. Had I listened to them (and liked them), I think my confidence would have been boosted. They might have taught me how to be a bit more cool. I might not have spoilt things quite as much as I did. Sometimes I wonder though, if many of those who rave about them now would have raved quite so much had they seen them for real back in the time and place where they originated. Actually, I probably was influenced indirectly by The Velvet Underground through other artists who had been directly influenced. I got it second hand you might say. A bargain, perhaps! 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 at the Glasgow Apollo in June 1978 remains a very great highlight and is one of the best experiences I have ever had. It was incredible. Many in Scotland will remember his three day residency there 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. I've listened to bands in the era that predated 'punk' and most of them are very good.
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 as I was not one of the spoiled trust fund students who were the most articulate (and drunken) of the left field students and I was living off a student grant of about £300.00 per term. 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 in the first place. 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, drastically. Again, it's a visual thing but why is it that the later adult years are not far more interesting? They are for me. Maybe it's that the Pop/Rock art form relies, with many exceptions of course, on something to do with a particular aspect of the energy of youth itself. In other forms of Art, there seems to be on the whole greater longevity. Look what the great painters, writers and poets were doing for example in their later years. 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.
Metropak rehearsed for a time in the notorious Blair Street rehearsal rooms. These were in a windowless subteranean property in Blair Street, Edinburgh. There were passageways and rickety stairs leading down at least two levels. The space had been divided up into rooms, each with padlocked doors and a coin operated electricity meter. I guess there were about ten rooms. The first room we had was down one level, and later we managed to get the only room on street level which felt a lot safer somehow. I will never forget the sound of several bands playing at once, as there was very little sound insulation. The other bands seemed to be playing heavy rock. It was the The Sound of Young Scotland alright, to coin an oft used phrase about that era, but not the sound usually associated with that phrase. Drums going at full pelt, guitar lead breaks, ball busted vocals etc etc. Boom Boom Boom went the big bass drum? Yes - it did, and the whole of Auld Reekie rocked. It was a pretty safe bet that the drummer would have arms like tree trunks, tatoos and a mohican haircut. If hopelessness had an aroma, the place seemed to reek of it. You'd to practice until you got it right I suppose, and then take it out, whatever it was, on the road - to gigs. The rooms were a rock historians dream, because on the walls there were layers of posters of heroic rock bands put there by previous bands who had occupied the rooms and left their posters up. I don't know how long the place had been going, but you could peel off the posters and reveal rock history, going right back, to Nazareth or suchlike. Eventually you'd reach rock, Edinburgh rock, unless it was a partition wall. I remember on one occasion the owner, who must have been waiting and listening to our music outside our room until we finished a song so he could come in and collect the rent, asked us 'Are you religious?' - How cool is that? We weren't religious, at least not in the usual meaning of the word. I wonder what led him to ask such a question. Maybe we just sounded strange, to him. Maybe he asked all the bands the same question, or something similar such as 'Are you political?'. Grim as it was, anyone who has been in a band will know how hard it is to find somewhere you can practice without upsetting anyone with the volume, so the place served a purpose in that respect. I can't imagine a less glamorous place. To think that one might progress from such a locus to, for example, a television recording studio might challenge anyones self belief.
Something I think about is this : Is the burst of creativity by teenagers forming bands often really a damning indictment of the educational establishments, and in particular schools? The young person may be doing badly at school, may be bottom or near bottom of the class, but going home and picking up a guitar or other instrument, soon transforms into an incredible artist, writing original music. I think that shows the tragic waste for millions for whom school is a failed environment. Imagine if that talent materialised within the school and not outside it, and I don't just mean in the field of music or the other Arts. Thus the schools have failed, or at the very least something goes badly wrong there. It would be a colossal over simplification to blame the schools entirely for this. It's complicated. Some do well at school of course, but the examples of those who do not, and instead go on to form bands shows to me the magnitude of lost opportunity and waste of raw talent that everyone has who get 'stuck' at school.
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 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 and in a band. I went to New York in 1981 during my post graduate year at Edinburgh College of Art. It was amazing. It might as well have been a different planet. I returned early. I should go back I suppose.
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. It would take days to go through them all but perhaps there is something there that could be shared. 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. The tone is good.
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. Poor chap didn't realise it had to be listened to upside down. Not quite all reviews were bad and I am inevitably sounding churlish and I'll have to pay for that. It was the impresarios, the Svengali's, the promoters, 'les petit journalists' who were the brains behind it all. And they never had to play a note. The bands were mere cannon fodder. 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. 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. If it all happened again, I doubt it would be any different. Some things don't change, even in Scotland. 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 presented as weak. Too scared to externalise what I thought, I was bound to be treacherous and duplicitous.
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. A little amnesia comes in handy too I suppose. 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 form. They showed us one that another Edinburgh band had filled in earlier. I don't think we ever filled our form in. I reckon they had all the bands in the flat. Imagine them all filling in the forms and saying, 'at last, we've filled ours in'. Looking back, if anyone should have had to fill in a form, it should have been the record label. Their flat was a stones throw away from where the city Fire Engines were kept on Lauriston Place. They didn't like us and won't remember anyway. I don't think Postcard Records was up and running until after I had left the band, and I was not aware of them at the time - not that I was particularly astute in that respect at the time..
This reminds me, all that talk about the merits of those independent record labels : well from conversations I have had, it seems to me that what many of them offered was possibly worse than what the major labels (who were at the time despised) offered to bands. The deal was this : We will pay your recording costs. We will own the Master recordings. We are free to exploit those recordings in any way we wish. Usually those running the labels were quite a bit older. They knew the music business, and how it worked. Music Law is complicated, with roots going way back to when music was published on paper before any recordings were possible. Rights and ownership easily become a minefield. Much of it is labyrinthine and can at least seem deliberately so. Even if you just look at someone else's guitar you probably owe them something via some right or another. For the outsider, the only way to be on relatively safe ground is to write all you own music and lyrics, pay for and own all the recordings of your music, play all the instruments yourself and distribute it yourself. That's what I do these days, though I've stopped short of actually buying and reviewing my own music too. I reckon there are loads of artists who spend a great part of their latter years having to mess about trying to sort out rights and ownership of their back catalogue. Then there are the re-releases to do, the compilations, the licensing, the live show recordings, that '50 years in the business' retrospective album etc etc. I think that some of the impresarios and managers behind some of the punk and post punk bands were actually quite a bit older than the band members. When you are a teenager, an age difference of a couple of years makes far more difference at that age than it does later. A classic example of this is Malcolm McLaren. He was no less than ten years older than John Lydon. McLaren was 30 years old when Anarchy In The Uk was released. Sid Vicious was only 19 at that time. The idea some of the smaller labels had was, I think, just like the major labels, to have something of a scatter gun approach. In other words, they wanted to sign up lots of bands knowing that the chances were that by doing so their odds of owning a 'hit' would be enhanced. Sorry, but I just don't buy that stuff about the indy thing being some kind of a revolution. I reckon that many bands starting out at that time and place sent demo tapes to the established record labels. Rejected, they went on to get their own records pressed, but had they not been rejected I doubt they would have turned down an offer of a record deal out of the principal that it was better to do it themselves. They made their own records because no one else would, and not from the lofty principal that it was better to do it yourself A few years after Metropak I was offered such a deal from a chic Belgium label. The terms were horrific. I'd to sign away world rights for 25 years for a pittance that realistically I knew I would never be paid. After many phone calls, they conceded America! The rest of the world was theirs. I was told later that by being difficult I had 'blown it'. I was told that 'it was only three songs'. I was told this by others who later went on to claim an inability to compromise! But of course the clever thing about such artists who hold this 'can't compromise' line is that they can have it both ways. If they are not successful they can say (to themselves) that it is because they have not compromised, and can thereby indulge in their moral high ground. On the other hand, if by some fluke, they are successful they can say it is because they have not compromised! This belief in their own inability to compromise comes in handy too when it comes to managing expectations or avoiding the awful truth that actually their material may not really be all that great. Alright, it depends on what you think success is, but if you think such artists do not, even if secretly, want commercial success then you will believe anything.
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. 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.
An issue I have with it all is that I rarely listen to the actual music. There are bands from that time in Edinburgh that I have never even managed to listen to through a whole song. I know, that sounds awful, no pun intended. It all has its place alright, as does nearly everything. Out of context I'm not sure if much of it really bears repeated listening to, in the way that, for example, an artist like Joni Mitchel does, in whose music can be found a depth that changes as you yourself change and one whose music you can enjoy without needing to know anything at all about the context in which it came about. Men sometimes seek to place the bands of that Edinburgh era into some kind of socio political context to enhance relevance, either of the music or of their own socio political constructs. Fair enough, I accept that can valuable, but only as far as it goes. Using the music by bands from Scotland to promote and strengthen the cause for Scottish Independence is pushing it a bit far I think but, wary as I am of the dangers of unbridled Nationalism itself, I am currently in favour of Scottish Independence. I have spent the entirety of my adult life in Scotland, and have made it my home, and believe it is a very fine country with very fine people. I am grateful to Scotland for making me feel welcome. The only time I personally encountered anti English sentiment that was at all serious was when I was at Art College of all places. When the men attacked it was relatively mild as these things go, so I can't really complain about it, though I did find it shocking at the time as I was wholly unprepared for it. It wasn't as if I had been mulling over the concept of Nationality. But that's no excuse I suppose. I had been born in England and that was that. I subscribe to the view that human nature is a constant throughout the world, so I am uncomfortable saying that there are inherent differences in the people of different nations, but that is what men do sometimes. I was born in England, my mother was English and my father Canadian. I am uncomfortable saying I belong to a particular nation, for example, England, Scotland, Canada. In his book 'Rip It Up' published in 2019 I think Vic Galloway argues that if only Scotland been 'put down' even more, 'ignored' even more, then the music produced in Scotland would have been better. That kind of 'if only' argument is one of the dangers and follies inherent in nationalism. Mercifully, the current leaders of the SNP do not indulge in such folly. However, I agree that Scotland has been 'put down' and 'ignored'. To me, the classic example of this is how the 'embarrassment of riches' McCrone Report, 1974, was classified as secret by both Conservative and Labour governments. At the time of writing this, the problem is one of democratic accountability. For example, it is held that Scotland is being taken out of the EU against her will, whilst at the same time, it is held that Scotland voted to remain part of the UK in 2014. Thus a very difficult and unhappy situation has arisen. A very significant shift in the opinion polls in favour of Scottish Independence would, I think, put the Westminster based politicians in an impossible situation should they continue to disallow another independence referendum. I believe they know this, but have to hold the union line for appearances sake. The SNP must wait until a referendum result in favour of Independence really is a sure thing, for to lose a second time would be disaster. It is not Independence that is desired, it it to be an independent nation alongside other independent nations within the EU that is desired, and that is not the same thing at all. This requires a deep belief that the EU is and will remain benign. It requires faith that human nature is benign It requires faith that input from an independent Scotland sitting at the EU 'table' will significantly contribute to the concepts of the EU remaining benign. Things get a little sticky when it comes to the nuclear shield, and faith is required again to believe that such weapons will never actually be used. The SNP must have the result first, then a referendum to seal it. If a referendum were allowed now, it would be ironic if it ended up being the SNP who would disallow the electorate a vote because victory would not be a sure thing. Therefore perhaps the strongest hand that could be played by Westminster Unionists in this time of great upheaval as we leave the EU would be to allow a referendum now. A dangerous strategy for them but one that I doubt is even being considered, simply due to the usual lack of interest in the south for Scotland. The SNP must be careful when they bait Westminster for, by the same token, such a strategy is also dangerous unless or until they know they are onto a sure thing. The interest in misalignment in Art I wrote of earlier is not really possible in politics. Labour and Conservatives seem to concede that a referendum could be allowed, once a generation has passed since the last referendum, as it is mainly the contentious 'once in a generation' argument that is being made against another referendum. That is hardly a strong argument, dependent as it is, solely on how one defines the word generation. It is not really an argument of principal. Five years have already passed. A word of warning though : If someone like me, one of the most unpopular people I know, thinks Scottish Independence is a good thing, it is likely to be a lost cause. One difficulty I have with it all is that there are good people on both sides of the argument. Unionists in Scotland will resent the result of one referendum being set in stone while the results of an earlier one are not. A very significant shift in opinion on the merits for or against Independence might go some way to mitigate that, but at the moment it seems that such a shift has not materialised.
I think it's fine that vinyl enthusiasts seek to collect the records. You might be a completist and want to have every record that was ever made in that era. Maybe I'm an incompletist. I often liken it all to collecting Staffordshire Pottery for example, or any other antiques, or stamps, whereby a collector places great value on even damaged artefacts not because of the quality alone, but because of the rarity. Maybe one day you'll see a Metropak record on the Antiques Roadshow. Copies of the first single were all numbered by the way, on the inside of the sleeves. I've got number 00290. What number have you got? I know - a ledger should be created. What fun we could all have.
Who's got number one?
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. Updated December 2019 and January 2020.
'The Singles Collection' released in 2010, is a compilation album of all seven songs from the three singles.
Live Performance Archive of Metropak:
27th January 1979. The Netherbow Theatre, Royal Mile, Edinburgh with It's Over It's Over It's Over and Jaqui And All The Ones.
2nd March 1979. Edinburgh College Of Art.
16th March 1979. Transport Halls (LRT), Annandale Street, Edinburgh. Rock Against Racism concert. The Deleted, Insect Bites and RAF also played.
May 1979. Hill Street, Edinburgh with The Angelic Upstarts.
2nd May 1979. Meadows Festival, Edinburgh.
20th August 1979. Grangemouth, with The Freeze.
3rd September 1979. Tiffany's Edinburgh with The Rezillos.
9th October 1979. Aquarius, Grindley Street, Edinburgh with The Freeze and Megahertz.
17th November 1979. Kings Buildings, Edinburgh, with T.V. Art .
20th November 1979. Glenrothes Arms. Glenrothes. Fife.
22nd November 1979. Edinburgh College Of Art.
24th November 1979. Grindlay Street, Edinburgh.
6th December 1979. George Square Theatre, Edinburgh, with The Colour Group and Strange Daze. 14th December 1979. YMCA, Edinburgh.
1980 - John Peel roadshow, Edinburgh.
19th January, 1980 - The Odeon, Edinburgh with The Clash.
1980 - Stirling University.
1980 - Glasgow Art School, with Orange Juice 1980.
1980 - Birmingham. RAR 1980.
1980 - Perth
1980. -New York, U.S.A. Tier Three, The Mud Club, The UK Club.obe -
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