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This Is Memorial Device by David Keenan

An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986

Faber and Faber, 2017, 302 p.

 This Is Memorial Device cover

To say this is an imaginary history of the music scene in the Airdrie area in the post-Punk era would be true. It would also be a bit like saying War and Peace is about domestic affairs in Moscow during the Napoleonic era. It is a picture of Airdrie and its music at the time but is also much more. The line on the back cover (also found in the text) “It’s not easy being Iggy Pop in Airdrie,” stands in for all those towns in the West of Scotland – and I dare say beyond – where expectations were/are crabbed, hopes frustrated, ambitions crushed – and all before the attempts to overcome that deficit were made. “… back then anything seemed possible, … back then being … the glory years. ….But really that would be untrue because back then everything seemed impossible.”

The text is made up of twenty-six different reminiscences, interviews, letters, conversations, emails, transcripts of telephone calls (in other words various forms of device encapsulating memory) from people either involved in or connected, however tangentially, to the legendary band around which the novel revolves, a band which captured the sound of Airdrie. But, “The thing about Memorial Device was that you always had the feeling that it was their last gig ever, like they could fall apart at any moment.”

Keenan’s tale builds up as a mosaic of all these contributions. (Among them is a wonderful rant about the extreme shortcomings of Kilmarnock as a town which is all the funnier for being written by someone from Airdrie.) Keenan is himself using the mosaic as a device for chronicling life in a Scottish industrial town in the mid-1980s. In the book’s first line the supposed assembler of these testimonials – one Ross Raymond – tells us that in compiling the book he “did it for Airdrie.” He “did it because later on everyone went off and became social workers and did courses on how to teach English as a foreign language or got a job in Greggs.” Because then, of those crushed hopes, those impossible dreams, because of the compromises people make with their younger selves as they grow older. If you like, this is Albert Hammond’s Free Electric Band in reverse. But what a glorious reversal it is. The line, “I would talk about the new groups and encourage people to drop out and go see the world, all the while living at my mum’s house in Airdrie,” sums up the contrast between the aspiration and the reality.

The conceit that this is an actual set of true reminiscences is bolstered by no less than four Appendices: A; a Memorial Device Discography (- self explanatory,) B; A Necessarily Incomplete Attempt to Map the Extent of the Post-Punk Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986 – relating the interconnections between the various bands mentioned in the book (the names of the wheelchair bound members of the group calling themselves The Spazzers are brilliant,) C; This is Memorial Device (- short descriptions of the characters in the book,) and D; A Navigational Aid (ie an index.)

There are some longueurs but Keenan ventriloquises the voices of his “contributors” well; each of the twenty-six chapters is internally consistent. (One is excessively fond of brackets.) Another, in a vigorous West of Scotland demotic – the only piece that isn’t rendered in a kind of “standard” English – explores philosophy, “ma existence wus closer tae a state o suspended animation, a series a frozen gestures caught between the impossibility uv the future and the improbability uv the past,” creativity, “Ah became obsessed wae the idea o automating, o inventing a form o music that wid play itsel and wid form its inspiration fae itsel … a form o spontaneous birth that held within itsel the DNA that wid facilitate endless versions and restatements o itsel,” and a disquisition on the amniotic night, “wur just seeing things the wrang way roon, the fervent dream that we ur, but then I began to see the dream as a computation, the specifics o the dream as distinct variables what could be slotted intae reality, as intae a circuit board that would then send the whole thing aff on a different trajectory althegether.” A third asks of The Who, “Has there ever been a more depressing vaudeville take on rock n roll to this day?” The personal interests the contributions reveal are many and varied. I particularly enjoyed the aside on the lack of merit of a certain translation of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (Michael Karpelson’s) as compared to another (that of Diana Burgin and Katherine O’Connor.) Others celebrate their existence, “thank God we have many headcases in Scotland, many headcases in Airdrie,” others their universality, “We all live out our unhappiness on different scales,” a metaphor which manages to be both dimensional and musical.

Then we have, “I had grown up in the sternest, most backwards, illiterate, repressed motherfucking viper pit in the west of Scotland.” (There’s competition for that title I can assure you.) “I fell in with the music scene. The art scene was up itself. The fashion scene was vacuous. The book scene was going on behind closed doors.” (The book scene always does.) “You have to understand that when you’re talking about a local scene you’re talking about an international scene in microcosm….It fostered belief. It encouraged you to take the music and lifestyle at its word.” An invitation to disappointment.

Though there is not really much about music in it (music and its emotional effects are of course notoriously difficult to describe in prose) This is Memorial Device is by turns funny, mordant, poignant, profound and elegiac; an attempt to convey the elusive. It is a hymn to music and youth, a threnody for the passing of time, a celebration of a spirit as relevant to the world as it is to Airdrie – and Scotland.

Pedant’s corner:- burglarising (the book is not set in the US. The word is burgling,) ass (ditto, the British usage is arse,) lip-syncers (lip-synchers surely?) “the first summer after I graduated from high school” (there is no graduation ceremony in Scottish schools and therefore no graduating; if they are old enough and wish to leave pupils just get their teachers to sign their leavers’ forms – and go,) a wee tin solider (soldier methinks,) no siree (sirree,) ambiances (ambiences.)

Reelin’ In The Years 32: Rock And Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)

In my mind this is a kind of companion piece to Albert Hammond’s The Free Electric Band which also dealt with the attractions of a popular music career but this one is more about the frustrated dream.

Kevin Johnson: Rock And Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)

Reelin’ In The Years 1: Reelin’ In The Years

Last year I started my Friday On My Mind ramblings as a result of a competition at my workplace for best song of the Nineteen Sixties. Well, the year has rolled round and this time it was the Nineteen Seventies. The same rules applied – a hit single in either the UK or the USA.

Given the tweeness of last year’s winner, Daydream Believer, there was quite a bit of discussion about what the equivalent 70s song might be. The great fear was it would be Eurovision winner, Save Your Kisses For Me. Thankfully it wasn’t. It turns out the judging panel went for overblown bombast instead. Second place went to Free’s All Right Now and the winner was Bruce Springsteen with Born To Run.

Well, that may have been a hit in the States but it certainly wasn’t in Britain.

It was a second winner in a row from the US, though. So much for British pop!

To try to sum up a whole decade with one song is impossible of course but for most pervasive 1970s song Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody must be up there practically unchallenged.

There is an argument that (much like sexual intercourse) the 60s didn’t begin in musical terms until the arrival of The Beatles. In the same way the musical decade could be said to linger until the advent of glam rock which I would date to Marc Bolan’s selling out and the release of Hot Love in 1971. The musical 70s then only spanned the brief time from 1971 to 1977, when punk came along.

Also, the 70s – certainly in its early years – was actually more the decade of the album than the single (by and large the two were aimed at different markets and barely talked to each other) so that fact alone automatically rules out a lot of good stuff.

Still, to my mind there are many, many better 70s singles than Born To Run to choose from. A lot of them will have been album tracks first I suppose.

I’ve featured elsewhere Albert Hammond’s Free Electric Band, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Ohio and The Beach Boys’ Student Demonstration Time.

After toying with Al Stewart’s Time Passages, I thought either Do It Again or Reelin’ In The Years, both by Steely Dan, would be a good umbrella term for a selection from the 70s. I settled on Reelin’ In The Years.

So here’s the not overblown and far from bombastic Steely Dan. (They’re still from the US though.)

Steely Dan: Reelin’ In The Years

The Free Electric Band

I heard this on the radio the other day and it took me back.

So. To all of you who, like me, never gave up anything or anyone for rock and roll but instead have spent their lives working for the man, here’s Albert Hammond.

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