A basement bar on a cold Monday evening and I’m with my oldest friend as we retrace some familiar steps. On any given Friday, Waterloo Street in Glasgow is a bustling centre of rebranded bars and restaurants filled with office block fodder, catching a wee taste of something before heading back home to dream of DIY and a weekend shopping for footstools. But this is Monday and the street is as dead as the hopes of those ‘nine to five’ lab rats. From the exterior, the Admiral Bar looks as if it’s located a little too far from the busier Hope Street to attract passing trade but the lights are on and we head inside and down.
‘Invitation only, gents’
‘I’m on the guest list…and so is he.’
My friend smiles. The venue promoter – doubling up as wary security custodian – sighs and for a second I was expecting the old heartbreaker, ‘Not with those shoes, son.’
But we’re heading towards the third decade of the 21st century and brightly coloured sneakers are more acceptable footwear for men of our age than the cowboy boots of old. We are here for Hipsway. Not to bury them but to witness a surprising and welcome rebirth. There are many faces I recognise. Older, more worn and though I’ve been away since the last note rang out on their initial swansong, I know many here. The omnipresent Billy Sloan and Bobby Bluebell, a two headed, gig hungry Janus, gazing in the direction of the past while they herald the future. The cultural gatekeepers of this city are in the house and on the decks. Let us rock.
The next two hours simply fly…
So, what was it about Hipsway that stood them apart from their contemporaries and brought us out on this chilly night, when we could be at home, bingeing on box sets and biscuits… ?
Of all the bands on the ‘scene’ back in the 80’s, Hipsway were the ones I saw most. A girl I was seeing was friends with either Pim or Harry. I’m not sure which but our connection got me past the burly doormen and the queueing public and into the Mayfair. Around October 1985, just as they were about to release their eponymous debut and they were the hottest ticket in town. Now, I was in a band at this time but Hipsway were cool. Not Blue Nile cool – who is? – and definitely more approachable and accessible than Lloyd Cole and the Commotions but too cool for a wannabe like me to do anything other than nod approvingly in their direction. They looked precisely how a band from mid eighties Glasgow should look. I was wearing fucking make up and hairspray at the time in attempt to channel a Jim Morrison from the scheme kind of thing whereas they looked as if they’d walked straight from the set of a Nicholas Ray film, four abreast as evidenced in their gritty promo for ‘Ask The Lord‘ the following year, more of which later. They even had a uniform, of sorts. Black shirt, buttoned up to the collar, Levi jeans, turned up, naturally and Dr Marten shoes. They had the gear, the look and the hair. But so did every other band who leant against the wooden bar of the Rock Garden, eagerly waiting their turn. What Hipsway had, what separated them from the other Glasgow hopefuls was THAT sound.
The jangle and the voice. That’s what gave them a 20 yard start. The alpha and omega of Scottish funky pop, Orange Juice, had those qualities in abundance but their poetic playfulness eventually burned like a Chinese lantern before scattering to the wind in a hundred different directions. So it was left to Hipsway to pick up the flick comb and grease that quiff.
I bought their eponymous debut album back in early 1986 and the simplicity and effectiveness of the cover still impresses me today. I lost that album, along with my entire collection – angry ex with pyro tendencies – but I’ve always loved those tunes. I may have gone years without playing them but when we all got together to reflect on our youth and influences, their name always came up. Their second album? I’m ashamed to say that I’ve not heard a single note from it but that debut? Let’s get it on, again.
It opens with a reverse fade sample, sliding into. Of its time, undoubtedly but effective none the less. The brass stabs and the opening riff trading blows with the straight rhythm section. Welcome to Hipsway. Animal and religious imagery pepper the lyric of The Honeythief. At the Admiral Bar, singer Grahame ‘Skin’ Skinner talked about this song being a particular favourite because of its unconventional structure. Makes sense now. The second chorus and bridge lift the song to another level before it’s brought back to the original chorus. Like The Bluebells’ ‘I’m Falling‘, this song appears to be comprised of about 5 or 6 different and distinctive motifs. All of them funky as fuck. Good start.
The faint cry of a bluesman on a chain gang – or is it a call to prayer? – opens up track two. There’s a hint of menace in Skin’s vocal, channelling Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, perhaps. Harry Travers’ economic stick work crashes in to great effect as
Ask The Lord ploughs on. Give me strength, give me patience…suffering, baptise me with fire…the theme is bleak, the mood is heavy, darker and a more threatening currency than anything their contemporaries were trading in. Imagine Duran Duran with the sonorous voice of an angry deity and JG Ballard on lyric duty. The groove however, remains sacrosanct. An excellent start. Why was this not a massive hit in a land in the process of selling its soul for the promise of some minor capital gains? Do yourself a favour and watch the aforementioned promo video for the song. The one where Skin appears to drive around some New York style docks in what appears to be the KLF’s modified cop car, looking briefly like a prototype Wolverine before the whole band square up against Erasure and Bronski Beat to win the hand of a fair maiden. The best bits of the 80’s in one moody four minute clip. The end of the song turns the statement into the question. I don’t need it? I think you’ll find that you do.
After such a mighty start, it’s no surprise that songs 3 and 4 struggle to keep the pace. That’s not to say that they’re not without their moments but even back then I found them to be identikit fillers with the obligatory 80’s sounds and female backing vocals to hide the paucity of the material. They’d be career highlights for lesser bands but for these guys, we need better. And boy did we get it over the next three songs.
Track 5 is Long White Car, arguably their most accomplished composition from that first incarnation. A fine lead vocal from Skin, sees him stretch his range from the deep baritone to a higher register to great effect. The melodic and rhythmic solo perhaps hints at where they might have went next, had the fates allowed. It’s a much warmer, softer song and performance than the earlier, more portentous tracks and is comfortably more soulful than anything other popsters west of the Anniesland Gap had to offer back then. The jewel at the heart of this record.
Following Long White Car is the elastic guitar, call and response of live favourite, The Broken Years. Another track which inexplicably skirted around the periphery of the top 50 without doing too much damage. A cracking tune, Skin spins around the rhythm created by Harry and Johnny, like a sullen dervish, creating enough energy to power a small, dimly lit basement bar for a weekend. More notable guitar work from the young Mr Jones, able beyond his years, driving this from the turntable to the dance floor with ease. A sneaky wee steal from David Byrne takes the track home just after the 3 minute mark and we’re all going mad at the officials for blowing the whistle too early.
Somethings never leave you. I recall seeing the band – might have been at the Pavilion – and I remember the roar of approval which emanated from the crowd when they struck up the opening notes of the next song. It must have convinced them that they had nailed this pop star lark, especially when the song was attached to a slick, Hollywood style ad for a rather pish Scottish lager. This track, the mighty Tinder, contains the best lyric on the album and a contender for most Glasgow line of all time. We’ve all been there. And I probably lived it in the hours which followed that performance.
‘Seven in the morning
Tinder all my money
On the Great Western Road
Feel the wind in my face
Take a look in my eyes…’
The memory might be fading but some things never leave you.
Forbidden comes in at number 8 and despite the slightly rambling, non-descript start – compared to the previous three songs – the backing vocals, the keyboard/clarinet piece and a fine minor to major chorus moves it from being a Ferry style filler to a sophisticated grower. The unfairly overlooked track on the album, in my book.
The album ends with marimbas, wailing backing vocals and some definitive 1986 sounds. Set This Day Apart touches all of this and again, leaves tantalising clues as to where they may have been heading next.
The album itself became a staple of parties and get togethers for years afterwards. One of the definitive Glasgow albums of the era, it has aged remarkably well. Very few of the heavily dated sounds which permeate collections of the age appear here and when they do, they are subtle rather than blatantly obvious. And I guess that’s what Hipsway always were. Understated yet effective. They knew what they had but didn’t need to shout about it. We did though. And after decades away, they wondered if they were still remembered and dared to ask themselves the big ‘what if?’ question. Sell out shows at the ABC and an emotional homecoming at Kelvingrove showed them that they were still part of our collective musical subconscious and our hearts. Discard 1989’s fuck you to the record company ‘Scratch the Surface – they already do – and fast forward three decades to 2018 to their latest offering, ‘Smoke and Dreams’. THIS is the true successor to that enduring debut. ‘Smoke and Dreams’ is a fully formed, three dimensional record made by men who recognise the mistakes of the boys who once tindered all their money on the Great Western Road. Listening to the playback of the album, it’s clear that there’s enough for both the new and the old listeners, like those familiar faces at the Admiral.
Older, wiser but more importantly, they’ve still got the soul and that’ll do for me.
Ask The Lord