By Orla Brady
This week, we caught up with Ken McCluskey, the lead singer of 80s indie new wave band, The Bluebells to discuss the re-release of the 1984 Bluebells album Sisters, working alongside Elvis Costello and running the Electric Honey Record Label at Glasgow Kelvin College…
1. The record label Last Night From Glasgow are re-releasing the 1984 Bluebells album ‘Sisters’ on vinyl in November of this year. Can you tell us a bit about the album and why you think LNFG have chosen to re-release it?
The “Sisters” album was originally on vinyl only when it was initially released by London Records, an imprint of Polygram Records in 1984, and it was deleted around 1988. It never came out on CD (apart from Japan) and has not been released digitally since. We were constantly being asked why it was not available. We did a bit of research and started looking into the copyright which remained with London Records. London was bought by Universal music, which was then bought by Warner Brothers who then sold it to a French label name Because in 1997.
I went down to a meeting in the summer of 1999 and asked Because if they had any intention of releasing it? The outcome was that they were really more interested in the digital release but if we wanted, we could release it physically on another label of our choice. We spoke first to the team at Last Night From Glasgow as we were very impressed by their artist friendly record label model. During the initial conversation, Ian Smith at the label discussed an idea that had been brewing regarding a sister label specialising in re-releasing favoured deleted material, “Past Night From Glasgow”. This, we agreed, would be a great way of collaborating with a local label with a good working ethos.
2. What can you tell us about the two bonus tracks, produced by Elvis Costello, that will be featured on the re-release?
The two bonus tracks “Aim in Life” and “Some Sweet Day” were favourites of ours at the time but London Records marketing team and A&R decisions led to these tracks being emitted from the original release. I don’t think the London records executives really knew what to do with us and were a bit unsure what to do with the Elvis Costello produced sessions. They tried to bland us out a bit, as everything was being pushed towards “Smash Hits” as opposed to the NME or Sounds, but at that time everything was turning from black and white to colour, and videos were more important for the newly established MTV and even the Record Mirror went from black and white broadsheet to colourful magazine targeting mostly teenage girls.
The recording sessions with Elvis Costello hold great memories for us as he was a really great teacher and helped get us to feel comfortable in a recording studio and really helped me personally with microphone technique and how to use different mics. He also asked us individually to make up compilation tapes of music that had influenced us and we had good communication from that. He then made us tapes of his favourites and suggested sounds that we could use. Elvis was going through a country stage at that point so his tape was like Gram Parsons , Creedance Clear Water revival, The Byrds and Big Star as well as more traditional country artists. He also had a guitar collection to die for and would bring a whole bunch of Gretch’s and Gibsons to the studio for us to use. We toured with Elvis and the Attractions which again was a joy each night, playing to a more mature audience.
3. So, who were the primary influences for The Bluebells back in the day?
We all met through Punk Rock and hanging about gigs and record shops such a Listen, Bloggs and Bruces in Glasgow City Centre. David (McCluskey) and I had a Punk Band called Raw Deal and we played in The Bandstand at Custom House Quay and The Mars Bar and places like that. That’s really where we first met Russell Irvine and Bobby Bluebell, who interviewed us at The Mars Bar after supporting Altered images for his fanzine “Ten Commandments”. At that point we were all into Buzzcocks, The Clash, The Damned and Reggae and Ska, but we started getting in to more 60’s music as Punk waned. The Byrds, Velvet Underground, Loving Spoonful, Bob Dylan, Buffallo Springfield, Big Star. I loved the Two Tone ska revival as well, as it was exiting and you could dance to it . I loved a dance and still do. Bobby then introduced us to the Postcard record guys, Alan Horn , Edwyn Collins and Orange Juice who were a bit older. We knew Aztec Camera as they were the same age and from Lanarkshire and we had bumped into them before. This just continued the really great DIY attitude that prevailed, then morphed into Indie. Anyone could do it, plus we were all on the dole or the Enterprise allowance scheme which meant we had plenty time to rehearse and no pressure from parents as there was zero work to chase and it was healthier and more fun than joining the army.
4. “Sisters” is going to be released on vinyl in a variety of colours, with updated liner notes and art. Why do you think there has been such a surge in popularity towards vinyl in recent years?
It looks good, smells good and sounds good. It’s tactile and you can own it. You can’t own a digital download in the same way. Bobby Bluebell is a bit of a designer so he is updating the original artwork with one or two wee tweeks, and we have the great Peter Paphides onboard who has written really top drawer sleevenotes to accompany the release . We are also planning a lyric sheet with chords to play along to.
5. Do you think streaming platforms, such as Spotify and Youtube, have exposed bands from the 1980s and 1990s to larger audiences and increased their popularity?
Yes to a certain extent and these platforms are great for researching old and new. When we were releasing records in the early eighties there were loads of TV programmes that new acts could gain useful exposure. Top of the Pops, The Old Grey Whistle Test , The Tube, The Switch, and kids TV, Saturday Superstore, The Multicoloured Swapshop, Tiswas, Run a round, Cheggers Plays Pop and we did them all. It’s much harder to get council tele these days as its seen as too expensive to pay Musicians Union rates to artists in a time of fractionalised and falling TV audiences, so I think Youtube and Spotify are good, but they would be even better if they paid artists properly. Theres a huge increase in all the nostalgia festivals such as Rewind and Lets Rock Scotland, but the audience are not youngsters. It’s for your Mum in a tutu, devil horns and a glass of prosecco.
6. What Scottish artists are you listening to at the moment?
I like all sorts of stuff but I really enjoy Scottish Artists Like King Creosote, Cloth, Snow Goose, Lavinia Blackwall and Stilton, Boots for Dancing, Port Sulpher, Annie Booth, Mark Georgeson, Docken Leaf, Sister John, Eugene Kelly, The Fannies, Edwyn Collins, Roddy Frame, Dick Gaughan, John McCusker, Sacred Paws. My favourite DJ is Harri from The Sub Club. Although I’ve not been for quite a few years, I still like his music taste. I also really like Pronto Mama, Man of Moon and Mogwai.
7. You currently teach a music business course at Glasgow Kelvin College, and run the record label Electric Honey. What impact has the coronavirus outbreak, and lockdown, had upon new, up and coming artists and how would you encourage artists to remain creative in lockdown?
We have had to postpone some gigs which is shame as a couple of them were record launches for young acts Wylde, Forglow and Daniel Fiado. I’m still taking classes via zoom, but some of the practical assessments have had to become hypothetical which isn’t quite the same as putting on a gig or releasing a record for real. Although some of the gigs are becoming streamed house concerts which is the next best thing.
The main thing for students and acts at this time is to keep positive, write new and better songs, read books, research, listen to music and try and help in some way, even if it’s just a smile or a kind word.