If you look back on the Scottish music scene and beyond over the past few decades there are few who have made as long a lasting impact and impression as Bruce Findlay. From working in the family record shop to establishing Bruce’s in the late 1960s, which went on to become the largest independent record chain in Scotland and possibly the U.K. If that wasn’t enough, Bruce then managed a young and upcoming band called Simple Minds through to international fame and stardom. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, Bruce has also been involved in putting on gigs, running a record label, producing a fanzine, DJing and providing sage advice to those in the industry and much more besides.
So when Bruce agreed to an interview as part of our Into Scottish Creatives series, we were stoked and more than a little giddy with excitement. So sit back and enjoy this exclusive insight into Bruce’s life in the music industry.
John: Hi Bruce. You’ve spent most of your life working in the music industry. But how did it all start?
Bruce: On Saturdays I’d work in a record shop in Falkirk which my mum opened and managed called McDougalls. It really expanded in the 1950s and that’s how I started in music.
Simply, I had a love of music. Loving music isn’t necessarily enough to get a job but in the 50s when I was 10 or 11, my mum took a job with Angus McDougall in Falkirk, doing part-time book keeping. She suggested to Angus in 1953 I think, to get into the record industry. There was a little gramophone record business which had went bust and my mum suggested buying up all their stock and opening up. McDougall found a site and gave it a year to see how it goes. Of course, it was an instant success, pre rock’n’roll as well. I was coming through on a Saturday and we’d get to do odd jobs in the back shop. It was brilliant, a great experience and of course you began to fall in love with music. These were the days of Guy Mitchell, Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray and Frankie Vaughan.
And then rock’n’roll happened. I’m now aged 12 or 13, the right age just when it began. Little Richard, Buddy Holly & the Crickets and Elvis, even though I wasn’t a fan but I liked his stuff (he seemed weird to me)! I liked Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Ray Charles. I could also identify , if I was looking in the mirror posing with Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Eddie Cochrane.
For the next few years I began to get serious about it. In those days record shops were mostly departments of big stores such as Woolworths. There were some stand alone record shops but not very many and they were quite old fashioned selling sheet music and 78s. I grew through the transition from 78s to 45s and the beginning of long playing LPs by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. The music became a love affair. Again, I never imagined and nor did my mother that I’d get a job in music.
I left school at 15 and the shop in Falkirk expanded around that time with a flat above it. Myself, my brother Brian and my mum moved through from Edinburgh to Falkirk in 1959 when I was 15. I worked in several different jobs as I had to make a living. First and foremost we were a working class family so you had to make a living. I delivered milk, worked in a sawmill and a whole bunch of things including the Clydesdale Bank and in the office of a foundry in High Bonnybridge. One of the office workers was a Teddy Boy and he used to get tickets for gigs at the Empire in Glasgow. I was going through to great concerts including Roy Orbison, Eddie Cochrane, Gene Vincent, Cliff Richard & the Drifters which helped me fall more in love with the music business even though I was still not working full time in it.
Then I went off on a trip of self-discovery, hitch-hiking after two of my best pals were killed in a motor bike crash in Falkirk and it devastated me. I thought, I have to get out of town, got to go as I was really broken-hearted. So me and a pal, when I was 17 in 1961 went off to hitch-hike around the world! We got as far as Morocco. On the way I worked in a vineyard, did a bit of au pairing in France, hitch-hiked down through Spain and into Gibraltar and then over to Morocco.
By this time I was running out of money so tried to smuggle myself onto a ship to Hong Kong but got caught! I was told it was a great way to get across to the other side of the world as a stowaway as they wouldn’t throw you overboard or turn the ship back. They’d probably give you a job if you got out of port and into international waters.
I then decided to come home and started hitch-hiking back before I got a job in a farm in North France. The farmer taught me a few things including how to round up the cattle on horseback, it was a great summer (1963). At this point my mum was sending me records over including The Beatles and Ray Charles. I’d heard of The Beatles but hadn’t seen them at this point though I loved the name B.E.A.T. rather than B.E.E.T. These were the days of the beat generation and beatniks which I absolutely identified with. I was also getting copies of the NME and Melody Maker sent over, reading about this explosion of music back in the U.K. and I knew I had to get back.
I got back and immediately my mum got me a job in Patrick Thomson’s record shop in Edinburgh. This was me properly starting in the music business as it was full time. I also worked for my mum for a couple of years in Falkirk and then I opened up my own record shop in Lothian Road, Edinburgh at the back of a cafe bar which was importing soul music mostly, like Otis Redding, The Miracles, Tamla, Atlantic records. These were the days of mods and rockers and the mods were really into soul music. The shop though was not a big success and it lost money.
Angus McDougall then bought a beach bar in Calla Millor, Majorca and asked me if I wanted to run it. Of course I took the job, it was so exciting. I was 21 when I went to Majorca along with my brother Brian who helped set it up as he could speak Spanish. What a summer! The Animals were hanging out there and they were huge (1966), though they were beginning to fall out a wee bit. They were taking a bit of a sabbatical at the time and had bought a night club in Majorca but during the day they would hang out at my beach bar and I got pretty pally with them. I remember Chas Chandler went away to America for a week and when he came back he mentioned he’d discovered this guy and he’s going to bring him to London, describing him as brilliant, plays the guitar with his teeth and loves Bob Dylan and The Beatles. He’s got a mixture of soul, blues and an underground vibe of John Lennon/Bob Dylan and his name………Jimi Hendrix!
Later that year I’m back in Falkirk but I fell out with Angus McDougall big time so decided to hitch-hike down to London. I walked into a record shop and said “can you give me a job”? They gave me a job as a buyer (late 1966) and by early 1967 me and my girlfriend decided to get married on the q.t. I’d kept in touch with Chas Chandler and he offered us 2 tickets to see Jimi Hendrix at the Saville Theatre as a wedding gift. Chas said this was going to be his biggest show yet and all the beautiful people were going. “Fucking great” I said. We went and he opened with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band which had only just come out that week! At this point having met and hung out with The Animals and then Jimi Hendrix I’m thinking “I love all this” and it’s getting better.
The shop in London was doing well then my wife became pregnant so we decided to come back to Scotland where I got a job in Graham & Morton in Stirling where I ran the record department for a few months. They were toiling and the record department was crap so I came in to refurb and do it up which I did. This was in 1967 which was the year the University opened. An influx of 10,000 hippy students all receiving their student grants and wanting to spend their money. I was importing records from London as I had some great contacts and the shop did really well.
Meantime, my brother wanted to open up a record shop in Falkirk and asked me to help which of course I did in my days off or in the evening, doing all the buying. When it opened in late 1967 it was an instant success with people coming from Edinburgh and Glasgow to it. Within a couple of months I said to the people at Graham & Morton that my brother wanted me to join him in partnership and they totally understood it, as they were a family business as well. So I joined my brother full time. The rest is history, we had 10 to 12 years of great success with the shops, first expanding into Edinburgh. We had “Brian’s” in Falkirk and opened “Bruce’s” in Edinburgh
I came up with the slogan “I found it at Bruce’s” for the red carrier bags, which was a marketing dream which really took off. That’s how it all began!
Talking about “I found it at Bruce’s”. What’s the story behind it?
I’d seen the slogan on a record shop bag. I’d won a holiday to Bermuda through the record companies when I was working at Graham & Morton and it was a record company trip so there were people in the industry which was great. At the airport in Bermuda I saw a guy with a carrier bag with Colony Records on it and in small print “I found it at the Colony” and I thought that’s a great slogan.
I never thought much more about it but it was in my head. The year before when I was in Majorca I’d seen a shop called Man Trap and they had a crimson red carrier bag but it didn’t say what the shop was which I liked. I eventually found it a few weeks later and it was a cool wee boutique.
So when we opened the second shop, I said to my brother Brian why don’t we get red crimson carrier bags with “I found it at Bruce’s” and in tiny print “record shop”. From a bus, people would just see “I found it at Bruce’s” and I wanted them to think “what is Bruce’s”? It would create a bit of a buzz. It worked a treat, in fact it was so successful with 2 or 3 weeks we had University and College art students coming in to say we love your bag but maybe we could do a better design for you as it doesn’t say record shop. What? I said it’s obviously a record shop, you just need to see the shape of the bag and the fact you’re talking about it shows it’s doing exactly as it’s meant to do!
Music was clearly a passion but you also had to manage the business side of things. Were you able to separate the two easily?
No, one really dovetailed the other. The great thing about owning a record shop was that all the reps loved you! So anytime a big name came to play in Scotland, we would get offered free tickets to go to concerts. All my favourite artists, gigs that would sell out, I’d get tickets. Also, white labels sent a month or two before release.
We became the favourite shop outside of London of some of the hip labels, Island Records for example were brilliant through my London contacts in helping us get established. I was also friendly with a guy who wrote the music column in International Times which was a really hip underground magazine and they helped plug us to people north of the border who can’t find the records they’d mention, check out Brian Findlay’s record emporium in Falkirk. As a result, we’d get all these cool students coming through from Edinburgh and Glasgow to our shop in Falkirk to buy records because there was nothing like our shop elsewhere.
That’s why we expanded into Edinburgh in 1969, Glasgow in 1970 then to Kirkcaldy and spread out. I think we were the largest independent record store chain in the U.K. at one point but certainly were in Scotland.
Other shops and new people came along and caught up with us within a few years, like Richard Branson, Listen Records in Glasgow, The Other Record Shop in Edinburgh. So in Scotland the competition increased and they were as good as us but we were the original, having invented the template. The Moody Blues were one of the first bands to do a PA, we had bands doing signings, we had Tom Petty, The Ramones and in the pre punk era acts like Denny Laine, Rod Stewart, Billy Connolly and others.
Record shops before us tended to be part of department stores or were stand alone stores run by very straight people. Assistants would be doing the job on a short term basis but not as a full time career opportunity. When people came into my shop, the assistants were students, maybe stoners but always really smart and really knowledgeable.
When the other shops began to catch up, we began to struggle, we had over-expanded and it began to hurt in the mid to late 70s. We nearly went bust but Guinness, the drinks company came in with an offer to take us over or to buy their way in with a majority shareholding in the company to save us, which they did. In many ways it was great as everyone kept their job but it wasn’t the same as I now had bosses, which was ridiculous. At Bruce’s I was my own guy, you know.
Coincidentally, punk rock happened and I was inspired, it completely rejuvenated me. I thought “wow, this is great”. I was inspired by Stiff and Chiswick Records.
A few years earlier Island Records said to me “you guys should start your own label, you’re always recommending people to us and we never take them on”! Later on they became big artists, like Billy Connolly (I told them previously they should go for this band The Humblebums) and The Vikings (who included Alan Gorrie of Average White Band fame). I was going to a lot of gigs and any new band I saw that I liked I’d recommend to Island Records, who always tended to turn them down. But they recognized I had something and suggested I start my own record label which they would help fund. This was in 1974 and they’d helped fund labels such as Virgin, Chrysalis, Charisma and others. I thought brilliant!
A found a band called Cafe Jacques who Island said they didn’t like, to which I replied “that’s the point”! It’s my label therefore my taste, you’ve turned down Billy Connolly, you’ve turned down the Average White Band, the Incredible String Band (although ultimately they signed them). I thought “fuck it”, I’ll manage this band, I just can’t discard them. So I became their manager and I got them a deal with CBS Records. They were quite sophisticated, like Little Feat, Steely Dan, Robert Palmer type sound, funky, jazzy, soulful music, but not punk, which happened at the time and just before the band had the chance to take off. Punk wiped the floor with everything for a while with the exception of the big acts like the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Elton John, killing off any little new bands coming through as they looked dated.
I was buying records, bopping up and down to London from Stiff Records, getting exclusives early so I could sell them in the shops. There was a lot of controversy over punk with a lot of shops not stocking it as it was too wild. The Sex Pistols were banned in most shops but that was great for us. I saw it a bit like the mid 60s, a new revolution, punk was the new underground.
I was speaking to a pal Lenny who was a rep for Island and Stiff Records and he was looking to start a label too and had found a new band called The Rezillos. I offered him some money to help sign them and release a single which he did (and paid me back). I signed a band called The Valves and that’s how I started the label Zoom which became an instant success.
Midge Ure came through to see me with his band Slik. They were kind of washed up at the time and seen as dated due to punk. He’d made a record called Put You In The Picture and had a spoof name called PVC2. Kenny Hyslop did the artwork for the sleeve which was quite punky. It was a brilliant record and told Midge to release it but he said they’d been dropped by the record label and didn’t want to release it as Slik as people would think they were jumping on the bandwagon. It was like power pop and Midge asked if I’d bring it out on my label. I said “sure”, so that was our second single and it was a monster, selling 10-12,000 copies and went into the indie charts, as did The Valves before who sold about 15,000.
So were we doing well and our philosophy was to make singles with local bands and allow yourself to be used as a stepping stone for them to go on and sign for a big label – a bit like a junior football club, you can’t compete with Rangers or Celtic, I was Stenhousemuir, you know! It didn’t stop us being super cool, we had a great name, made some money and I thought, in my foolish dreamlike way, this was the start of a proper music business revolution, where the majors would get put to one side and be major distributors for the independent labels, where every town would have one or two small labels, with 200, 500 labels across the U.K. all friendly, a network of people with local knowledge who would be involved with the local bands, nightclubs, fanzines.
In Part Two, Bruce talks about setting up the Edinburgh Pop Festival, taking Simple Minds from a residency at the Mars Bar to international stardom, seeing Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochrane in concert and much, much more. Click link HERE for part two.