Thursday, 24 December, 2020 in Culture, Features, Music

Into Scottish Creatives: Interview with Bruce Findlay – Part Two

In part one of our Into Scottish Creatives interview which you can read HERE Bruce chatted about his early life working a number of jobs, hitch-hiking around Europe through to establishing the biggest independent record shop chain in Scotland, if not the U.K. The back story to the famous “I found it at Bruce’s“, Zoom Records and far more besides. In part two we pick up with Bruce on the Edinburgh Pop Festival, Simple Minds and the vagaries of the music industry below…

Thinking back to Bruce’s, there was no social media in those days so how did you get the word out on what was happening musically?

We started a fanzine through Bruce’s called Cripes which was really a newsletter. By the time the mid 1970s had come along, I’d effectively been in the business 20 years, a veteran, albeit still only in my mid 30s. The contacts I’d made from my London and Majorcan excursions and the experience I had by the time of punk was pretty phenomenal. I’d even ran the first Edinburgh Pop Festival, even though I am not a promoter and I vowed never to do it again. It did though give me a taste for back stage in 1973 after the Lord Provost Jack Kane asked if I would do it. There was no budget but it was part of the official Edinburgh Festival so it had some prestige. The Grateful Dead wanted to do it and said they would do it for free, but they wanted to do it in the garden (Princes Street) in front of Edinburgh Castle. The council though, wouldn’t allow it as it would mean hundreds and thousands of hippies camping in the Queen’s park to which I replied “well, that would be great”!!

I did though put on the concert at what is now the Edinburgh Festival Theatre over 14 nights including Can, John Martyn, the Incredible String Band, Planxty, Lindisfarne and so on. It gave me a lot of contacts in addition to those through the little record label and the record shops. I knew John Peel and he played my records on the radio, such a cool DJ. I also had friends at The Old Grey Whistle Test so when I signed Simple Minds, the record company couldn’t get them on, but I did.

When punk happened I was seen as a veteran, an old guy but it did rejuvenate me and I saw it as an evolution. My dreams for the record label never quite came to fruition as the major labels took over the business again and they would get the cheque book out so young bands would sign to them direct. The Waterboys were a good example, I was pals with Mike Scott and I helped fund a whole bunch of demos with a view to signing him to Zoom. But then Virgin came sniffing around and while I wanted to do a license deal, Mike commented that you wouldn’t blame me if I signed a direct deal rather than have a middle man and of course I wouldn’t blame him at all, fair enough. Of course, they were only on the label a couple of months and they then fell out with them. They then went to Ensign and the rest is history, they became huge.

When you were involved with Zoom Records, were there any bands you missed out on that you wanted to sign?

I didn’t want to sign the Skids but I could have signed the Skids. They came to me but I’d only just released the Valves single, our first single. I said to them there would be an explosion of labels all over the country and I suggested they should go and see Sandy Muir. We hadn’t opened in Dunfermline as they already had a great record shop and I wouldn’t open in towns where they had a good record shop. I’d open in towns where they only had a Woolworths or John Menzies as I thought they were fair game. The band went to see Sandy and he phoned me up saying they were brilliant and that he loved them but asked why I hadn’t signed them. I said I couldn’t afford to at the time but I would place an order for 500 copies in advance of their first single, which I paid for up front just to prove I really liked them and that my intensions were sound. Sandy asked what was in it for me to which I replied, a good price with a little bit of discount and secondly, it makes me a good guy and maybe you’ll do the same for me some time. Sandy said, great, I’ll do it and he started No Bad Records and the first Skids release came out on that label before they eventually signed for Virgin.

I also tried to sign a band called The Jolt but they signed for Polydor and were considered one of the first punk Scottish bands.

Up until then I was a fan of bands, I wasn’t necessarily looking to sign bands. When you start looking for bands who might sell records, it’s funny how your judgement and opinion changes slightly, not in terms of taste but commercial appeal as it’s got to pay back the money you invest in them, so it becomes a business.

I signed a band called The Questions who were still at school at the time in Edinburgh. I had to go meet their mums and dads and the headmaster of the school and we made a couple of singles with them though they didn’t sell. Paul Weller signed them after me and Paul Barry of the band went on to become possibly Scotland’s most successful songwriter, writing for the likes of Enrique Iglesias and wrote Believe for Cher.

I had a lot of success with Zoom and many of the artists went on to big success though not all of them. It was only an independent for the first 4 singles and then I did a licensing deal with Arista which was a big mistake but that did allow me to sign Simple Minds to Zoom. The label was a bit like what Alan McGee eventually did with Creation Records, he did a licensing deal with Sony so he got funded and more cleverly than me, he held on to the artist copyright. I was naive and I was learning the game but it was all part of the experience.

Simple Minds and I fell in love with each other and although they were signed to my record label they were insistent on me being their manager.

How did you become aware of Simple Minds?

They came to see me. Jim Kerr made an appointment, the band had been on the go for about 3 months and they’d made a 5 track demo which was brilliant. They were playing in Edinburgh that night and asked if I could go to the gig. Unfortunately I couldn’t go to the gig as I had other plans but I was delighted to see them beforehand. I asked them what it was they were after and they wanted my opinion as a “go to guy”. Zoom was too small for them as they wanted an album deal. Brian Hogg who was working for me at the time was aware of them and was actually going to their gig that night anyway. Brian got in touch with me the following morning and said they were fantastic, one of the best things he’d ever seen. They had a residency at the Mars Bar in Glasgow and were playing on the Sunday night so we arranged to go through.

I also thought Jim was the coolest Scottish guy I’d met in a long time, since the beatnik days, he was like a young Marlon Brando. He was very cool, very serious although a very funny guy too with a great sense of humour. He was 19 at the time, very dedicated and had a clear vision for the band. I was very impressed with him as a person as well as the music, so we became pals.

I effectively just hung out with them for the next two or three months and the buzz began to build with the band. We’d talk about record deals, what the band wanted, we got inside each others head, talking about the revolution!

Record labels began to sniff around but they’d say stupid things like “when are you coming to London”? The band would say to them to speak to Bruce, I wasn’t managing them at this point but I was their confidante. I used to love winding up the London record companies saying “we are not coming to London, when are you coming to Glasgow or Edinburgh”? They’d say it was a hell of a long way to come to see a band! I’d say “what, don’t insult us”! “Right enough, it was shorter to come from Glasgow to London for a 5 piece band plus 2 roadies than it is for you to come from London”….”Fuck off”!!!!

We knew later when we did finally sign, we stayed at the Colombia Hotel in London which became famous because we stayed there and all the bands from out of town, Manchester, Liverpool would all hang out there. We got to know all these other kinda new wave bands and they all had something in common that they all hated the London-centric thing. We vowed not to play in England until we had a deal, and we didn’t.

Jim said he’d love to be on an independent label because of the close contact, you have artistic freedom but he’d love the clout and power of a major for distribution and funding so we could go full time with a PA system, lights, a van. Jim and I worked on all the costs to run the business, sitting up talking to all hours, we knew exactly what we wanted for the band. When Arista showed interest I said to them they won’t sign to you, as you are all about Barry Manilow and Showaddywaddy but they might sign to me if I can get the money. So Arista gave me the money and we made the first album within a couple of months of signing.

Is it fair to say that commercial success took a bit longer for the band?

On record yes, but the band were instantly popular with the underground. The first album was kind of divided, mostly by themselves when it was finally recorded. On the initial listen back it wasn’t quite what they’d imagined it would be. I thought it was brilliant, what a debut album and remember they were still only 19, 20 or so. They were kids but they were making this really serious and brilliant music. I thought Life In A Day should have been a hit as should Chelsea Girl. I was disappointed it didn’t succeed but it did nudge the charts and was released the same week as Gary Numan who was a couple of places higher. He got to play Top Of The Pops and we didn’t!

The next album Real To Real Cacophony got all the praise that we should have got for Life In A Day from the likes of John Peel, Peter Powell, Paul Morley, the newspapers, and a lot of the cool, hip journalists and writers. Again, not a commercial success but it did sell a lot of copies. But it’s not what you need when you have that kind of investment, you need to go top 20, top 10 at least. We weren’t even scraping the top 40.

Live, the band were beginning to build a following so by the time the 3rd album came out, Empires And Dance, which I thought married the first two albums through the maturity of the second album and the experimentation and also more of the commercial catchier tunes of the first album. In my opinion, it should have been a smash and Peter Gabriel fell in love with it, asking if we would tour with him in Europe.

Other acts were beginning to break through and it looked like we might get left behind. The NME in January 1980 had a list of bands from the 70s who were in/out – the in column had the likes of Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Cure and the out column had the likes of U2 and Simple Minds – how wrong were they?

We’d made 3 albums in 2 years and you begin to get treated like you are washed up. The business can be very cruel. However, we had sold about 100,000 copies across the 3 albums and we were pulling crowds, selling out venues all over the country. We were the darlings of the college/ university circuit at the time.

In Scotland, Regular Music were our promoters and were really pushing us so we were beginning to headline places like Tiffany’s in Edinburgh. We were pulling crowds similar to what big bands were doing but not selling records on the same scale. I fell out with Arista after the 3rd LP and I managed to get them to drop us but they were insistent we pay back the debt so while we got a new deal elsewhere we had to redirect the royalties to pay the old debt off and it was fully paid off within one record.

I signed them direct to Virgin at this stage and we made Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call which was a hit, not massive, but it sold records and we began to make money. It was a commercial breakthrough though no big top 20 single. That came on the next album when Promised You A Miracle made the top 20. Love Song was a hit in Canada and Australia and other countries. We toured our first round the world tour at this time, going to America, Canada and Australia.

We were in Australia for 2 weeks supporting Icehouse and we extended our stay by 3 weeks, playing the clubs, selling them out. We had arrived as unknowns and left as superstars which was amazing, a really good vibe.

Things then started to take off in a big way. Can you tell us about that time?

New Gold Dream was a top 5 hit and was album of the year in many end of year listings in 1982, it was a smash. The next album Sparkle In The Rain went to number one as did the rest of the albums during the rest of the 80s. At that point we were definitely one of the biggest bands in the world of our type.

When Sparkle In The Rain came out we were number one in Australia and New Zealand and we did a co-headlining tour with Talking Heads, Pretenders and Eurythmics, what a bill that was!

Don’t You Forget About Me was the first USA hit and they treated us like a new band when that came out. America was quite like Britain in as much as before we had a top 10 hit in America, we were unknown on commercial daytime radio which was the same in Britain until Promised You A Miracle was out, we were only played on John Peel and late night shows. In America, college radio loved Simple Minds, we had a great promoters and a great agent there and we were selling out venues there before Don’t You Forget About Me was a hit. We went from being a major group to a super group and then you get ready for the knocking. The trouble was, it was a hit not written by the band, from a big movie. The follow up album, Once Upon A Time was a more bombastic album with the likes of Alive And Kicking and Sanctify Yourself. It was made in America and is an American album with an American producer. It changed the sound and the whole dynamic of the band, which was fine, the likes of the Beatles and David Bowie did similar to progress. I positively encouraged that evolvement, we never got stuck doing the same as they’d done previously. That huge success in the mid 80s with Don’t You Forget About Me and Alive And Kicking probably did influence the band to try and replicate that sound as that’s what the new fans wanted, whereas the old audience wanted the old stuff.

The last couple of years I was with them they wouldn’t do the old stuff like Love Song and I Travel and then about 10 years ago they did a compilation album called 5×5 which was five tracks off each of the first 5 albums reworked. They did a tour at the time and the crowd went nuts for the old songs, they really got their mojo back and I was pleased for them as I still keep in touch with them, even though I don’t manage them anymore.

How did you adapt to the change in success Simple Minds had during the mid to later 80s?

I didn’t enjoy it as much as the early days, those were undoubtedly the most enjoyable and the best. It was us against the world if you like, whereas once you hit the big time, the top becomes bigger, almost like a military operation, 40 truck tours needing loads of organisation and quite crazy. We went from myself, the band and maybe a couple of others, say a soundman and a driver to having upwards of 30 people on the tour and another 20 or 30 people at the venue itself. The band had 2 PA systems, one for the weekend stadium gig and another getting set up for the next venue. It was crazy, manic and I didn’t enjoy it as much but it’s one of those things, you know.

You also had your own management company, Schoolhouse Management which helped manage The Silencers and China Crisis. 

Chine Crisis were on Virgin and had fallen out with their management so Virgin asked me to manage them. So I asked the band (Simple Minds) about how they would feel if I took another band on and they were fine, saying “no problem, we love these guys”. I naturally spoke to China Crisis and they were encouraged by Virgin to go with me so we formed a relationship and manage them for 10 years.

Joe Donnelly of The Silencers was almost like a step-brother to Jim Kerr, they grew up in the same high rise in Toryglen and were good pals. They’d made a demo with Jimme O’Neill and Joe played it to Jim who loved it. He then played it to me (Jim was like me A&R man) and I loved it, it was fabulous (Painted Moon). Jimme is a brilliant songwriter, really clever. It was a no brainer to take them on.

The trouble with all that is, I’m suddenly managing 3 bands all who did well and all have gold discs so you have to expand the management and take on partners. There’s a lot more book-keeping and we had 12 people working in the office.

I also managed Muriel Gray for 10 years and Callum Malcolm, the producer of the Blue Nile, Prefab Sprout and others. I took on too much to be honest, similar to the record shops, we over expanded the management company. You can then take your eye of the ball and while I enjoyed the success I didn’t particularly enjoy some of the shenanigans.

Lastly, thinking back to all the gigs you’ve attended, which one stands out the most as really memorable and why?

I don’t think I’ve got one in particular but probably there are a couple which stick out. Simple Minds at The Edge club in Toronto, a small pub. It is one of my all time favourite gigs although there were a lot of great Simple Minds gigs which were memorable.

Probably before that it would possibly be Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochrane at the Empire in Glasgow in 1960. Gene was fantastic and Eddie was cool as fuck though sadly died a few weeks later in a car crash.

These are stick out gigs but I’ve been to so many. If you ask me another time I’d probably change my mind, maybe Primal Scream at the Barrowland on their Screamadelica tour. Or Patti Smith just 2 years ago at the Kelvingrove Bandstand or it could be Echo & The Bunnymen, David Bowie, Rolling Stones, so many that have blown my mind.

Into Creative would like to thank Bruce for his patience, time and candour.

John Welsh


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