Interview: Grant McPhee
Over at Intro Creative towers we’ve been beavering away in recent months and from a general discussion in a well known pub in the west end of Glasgow, we came up with an idea. An idea to showcase the best of Scottish creative culture.
We have plans to bring you updates, interviews, reviews and discussions with the cream of Scottish talent over the coming months.
But where to start? Well, there really was only one choice for that, Grant McPhee, the man behind the wonderful music documentaries that pinpoint the sound of young Scotland’s music from the punk scene in the 70s through to the creative explosion of post-punk bands that emerged in the 80s and 90s.
Grant is one of Scotland’s foremost film directors and has worked with such luminaries as Ken Loach, Danny Boyle and Steven Soderbergh.
Teenage Superstars, which Grant directed, is free to air this weekend which we highlighted in our article here and also led to the 5 CD box set release, ‘Big Gold Dreams’ – A Story Of Scottish Independent Music 1977-1989, which was reviewed here.
We very much hope you enjoy the article and we are indebted to Grant for taking the time out for the interview. Enjoy!
You directed and produced the music documentaries Big Gold Dream (2015) and Teenage Superstars (2017). Can you tell us a little bit about how you became involved in these projects, what your hopes were at the start and do you feel you accomplished what you set out to do?
Big Gold Dream started life in around 2005/6. I’d watched a film the previous year called Made in Sheffield about their indie/post-punk scene. I’ve always been a big believer in the significance of the DIY mindset and attitude on our culture. Britain has always had issues relating to authority – often to do with its class system – where people are taught to believe they can/can’t or are allowed/not allowed to do something. It doesn’t really exist to the same level anywhere else and when those ‘rules of society’ are challenged really interesting things start to happen. As the cliché goes, ‘after punk happened’ our society changed with very far reaching cultural significance. I’d always been aware that Postcard Records in Glasgow was important in the story of independent music but at that time, outside of Glasgow this seemed to have been largely forgotten. That’s quite ironic as it was such an important influence on Creation which mostly birthed BritPop – and that had resulted in this underground music becoming incredibly successful and lucrative. I thought there was an injustice and a hugely important part of Scotland’s culture that needed to be documented. I’d been working with Mani from Win who one day randomly asked me what I’d make if I could make a documentary, so with Made in Sheffield in mind I just said I’d like to make a documentary on Postcard Records.
It really was an off-the-cuff question with an off-the-cuff answer which I expected to end there. Instead, Mani said ‘ Great, I know Malcolm and proceeded to phone him’. It was Malcolm Ross.
I’m quite reserved by nature and certainly then had the ‘I can’t possibly do that as I’m not allowed to’ attitude. Mani’s drive and enthusiasm was so infectious that I ended up meeting up with Malcolm the next day, who became a fantastic supporter and opened up many doors. My expectations were again challenged when much of our time was spent talking about the Edinburgh bands from that period rather than just Postcard. I’d been aware of Fast Product via Joy Division on Earcom 2 but was stunned to learn it was an Edinburgh record label. And that was the start I was told about so many bands I’d never heard about before. Shortly after, the Postcard OJ singles were compiled and released on The Glasgow School and Orange Juice were beginning to be re-appraised. It seemed a fantastic and perfect time to make a film about these bands . That’s how the films started though they had a fairly bumpy crisis-crisis road however before release.
My hopes for them were pretty humble. Probably at best a DVD for those involved and then put on YouTube. I was aware of the need to licence music and archive which resulted in the film being very detailed and talk heavy – mainly because we had no money – so there was no intention of festivals and beyond. The lack of money became a big issue. I’d tried to pay those involved but I really wasn’t earning enough so the film just fizzled out with only very sporadic attempts to finish it over the next few years.
By 2013 my day job in the feature film industry camera department had become more successful. I’d never been able to get rid of the itch this film was giving me. It really felt like a duty so from a vantagepoint of being slightly more mature and with a slightly better income I decided to give it another go. Having Erik Sandberg and Innes Reekie on board gave the project a completely fresh and new energy which was desperately needed, and later, with Angela Slaven and Wendy we managed to finish not just one film but two.
I’m still not sure how we managed it. Along with sound recordists Dougie Fairgrieve and Paul Hartmann; Martin Parry and Garry Torrence on camera and fitting around my 80-hour a week day job we somehow crammed 100s of hours of interview across the UK into that very short time frame. It was probably only manageable down to the enthusiasm of the interviewees and more so, the inspiring stories they told. To be honest, I think the making of the film became symbiotic with the subject matter and I subconsciously projected questions and answers as a means of coping and completing the film with some semblance of sanity left. Everyone needs something to keep them going, for me it’s stories about Factory Records, Zoo and Fast Product. If I’m feeling I need some motivation I’ll stick on something like Blue Boy and that’s enough to keep me carrying on.
There really was never any plan for either film so I can’t say if they succeeded or failed. Of course, I was completely stunned by what they went on to achieve. Other than the fantastic music and personalities within, I think the lack of a plan is a reason why they became (relatively speaking) successful and people picked up on them. They don’t patronize you. They were never, ever intended to be about making money (luckily) and they were never intended as a light introduction to Scottish Independent music. They were made by people who like music for people who like music and they go straight into the good and obscure from the off. There was no commercial intent, only ‘are they an interesting character?, did they make interesting music? and are they part of the story we want to tell? It was irrelevant if they sold just 20 records, or had even made a record.
It wasn’t about including household celebrities or limiting music to help with profits, it was about telling a story with the very limited means we had and relying on primary sources as much as we could. The only reason why we don’t have some tracks or archive is they were not available to us. We wanted to make a point of it not feeling like one of those Beatles documentaries which don’t feature The Beatles or their music, which actually would have been a better business move. We made huge, huge losses, thousands and thousands.
When we were aware it was selected for the Edinburgh Festival I just made the choice to grasp it and worry about the tens of thousands of pounds it would cost later. The screening was quite special with some fantastic audience interaction – a bit like a really drunken Christmas panto. There was even a stage invasion!
I suppose with this in mind we did achieve what could be seen as setting out to do something and make a film that did not compromise. It screened at at nearly all of the UK’s major film festivals later, was released on DVD and appeared on TV. It was pretty amazing to see Boots for Dancing and hear Singing in the Showers on BBC2.
The music was always there but we hoped that along with great online resources as Mike O’Connor’s Scottish Post-Punk music it has helped bring some of the more obscure bands to those who’d been unaware or had forgotten.
Post-Punk has continually been re-evaluated over the years – with much of the thanks to Simon Reynolds – and it still is, and our film is just a part of this continual re-evaluation. The press generated and the fantastic online support we received has part-led to, symbiotically with technology my much hoped for partial spotlight from the mainstream powers on how significant this music was for Scotland culturally. While many of the bands never received mainstream success those they inspired have done – and not just in Scotland. It goes far beyond. The Scottish Post-Punk pages have more fans from outside of Scotland than in and I get emails from folk across the world asking about the films.
I still maintain that the music – and the reasons why the music was created in this timeframe, has great importance that has not been fully tapped into and properly analysed by the cultural elite. It’s not enough for the Culture Secretary to say they enjoyed the film. They need to be listening to what the people in the film are actually saying and why. I wanted to put a mirror in front of audiences so they could say ‘these people are just like me’ and go out and form a band, or be creative in another way. Our society still rarely works on the principle of positive encouragement and it should do. It’s a fantastic feeling to get an email from a teenage girl who see’s the film as a blueprint for her own non-music art. It’s not the film but the message those in the film have that is important.
There wasn’t a plan for the film back in 2005 but there was a hope that a lot more of this music and culture would be documented. Due to resources, time and film running-time we could only achieve a very small part and I was hopeful that after showing there was a real audience, the larger powers-that-be would unearth a wealth of cultural riches but this sadly did not happen to any great extent. After the BGD premiere we were approached by the National Museum as they were interested in basing an exhibition around the films subject. I was part of the initial steering committee but the scope widened to be much more general. They did a fantastic job but it was such a shame that the huge audience generated could not appreciate some of the smaller details that make up the greater whole, and often a more interesting one. The DIY stories of some of the less well known BGD characters are some of the ones which often resonate and inspire audiences most. It was even more of a shame when the BBC stepped in with their television take on it. Despite the vast resources available and a once in a generation opportunity they treated their audience with contempt and little understanding of the people who make music. The best episodes were just a lighter retelling of what we’d already told. It felt lazy and uninspired which is the exact opposite of what it should be and the public and society as a whole lose. We’re small and can’t do more but there are people who can and should.
Scotland’s independent music scene is ever changing and evolving. There are vast amounts of untold stories – historic, modern and those which have not yet even happened which need to be told. Even those whose stories are currently being written need to have them documented. We can learn so much from history which will later enrich us and it is simple to see that even a band knowing they have been played on the radio (thanks Vic Galloway for being one of the good guys) is enough to give them the encouragement needed to keep on going and evolving. Someone at home hearing a new and small band on the radio and especially seeing one on TV can be just enough for them to be inspired to go off and do something interesting themselves. This is how scenes, culture and history are created. And great music and art.
Scotland’s culture department and large media organisations have to take make their contribution and it shouldn’t be left up to the independents to do so. There are some fantastic cultural musical archives about to be released or completed – Chris Brickley’s 16 years book and Carla Easton’s film on females in music. All of these should have been publicly funded and not fought for. It’s not always about what is big or sells, the small parts of our heritage are often the most rewarding for us and future generations.
How did you get “buy-in” from the various bands, artists and those involved in the industry when you started out?
As I’d mentioned, Mani and Malcolm Ross were the starting point. I’ve been incredibly lucky on this journey and met some of the most amazing and encouraging people I could have encountered. I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere that there’s a very important difference between the film industry and the music industry.
The film industry want to see CV’s, evidence and so on whereas the musicians just seemed to go ‘OK, lets give it a go’. Perhaps that’s why Scotland has a much more interesting music than film industry. From my experience in the film industry I’d been used to working with some fairly well known actors as a crew member so was never daunted in anyway with the musicians as it was already something I was used to. I think that some people were intrigued by receiving a random email or message asking if they wanted to be in a film rather than a more conventional approach. It’s a big ask and a big responsibility to represent someone’s life onscreen , especially when – as often happens within bands – their experience may have ended acrimoniously. We always were incredibly respectful about presenting everyone well and any vaguely controversial topic was discussed in length with Angela, our fantastic editor.
There are so many people who have helped get these films made that it would be an incredibly long list. I’m always wary of forgetting people (so apologies if I do) but obviously Innes and Erik were crucial in engaging with the Edinburgh and Glasgow folk, respectfully. Duglas Stewart, Kle Savidge, Francis MacDonald, Douglas MacIntyre and so many others were incredibly helpful moving things on and making suggestions. There were so many people in front and behind the camera with licencing, photos and archive who really went above and beyond the call of duty.
If I’m being honest I don’t really see my role in this as a director in the traditional sense. Angela our editor was hugely important in the story telling. I suppose my main role was just keeping the project going and gathering the right folk together. It’s very much a socialist film in terms of how it was really a product of a lot of people. It just could not have happened without everybody chipping in because everyone loved the music and saw how important it was to have this story told and made available. All I did was say yes or no.
Following on from the documentaries, you were involved in the Cherry Red 5 CD boxset, Big Gold Dreams. The end result is fantastic and clearly well thought out, including the artwork, informative booklet, band profiles, photos and of course the songs.
At what point was the CD release first discussed and did you envisage it would lead to such a substantial piece of work (115 songs)?
I’d spoken to John Reid from CR regarding licencing some footage and music for Teenage Superstars. We’d sent him a rough cut as he was a big fan of some of the bands and we got on really well and had a few chats on the phone. He was very keen to release a soundtrack for both films. Unfortunately there are some incredibly complicated licences and contracts relating to the film which meant that this was not simple so a compromise was made where a single box-set was planned which covered the era spanning both films and took the partial title of the first film. This actually worked out perfectly as it allowed the box set to cover far more than the films could, and as I mentioned earlier, one of my hopes was for the film to open up much more of this music to an audience. It’s a soundtrack to an extent but only semi officially.
The project was really led by John as he’s so good at doing this and has a very strong track record with his previous box-sets, one of the reasons I was so keen to be involved. A lot of work goes into these.
It’s certainly not just my work; there were many people involved in coming up with the final track listing. Excitingly for me this led to me discovering some bands I’d never heard before. The earlier time period also allowed us to cover the pre Big Gold Dream era which was always a hope for another film project.
As everyone who’s seen the track listing knows there are some notable omissions which were in Big Gold Dream. It’s important to understand that both the film and the CDs have different functions which means the negotiations required to licence tracks have different outcomes. Really though, obviously OJ is the big white elephant but a copy of The Glasgow School is cheap and simple enough to obtain and you end up with an even better 6-disc set!
They did well getting some Fast Product material which is incredibly difficult to obtain for CD release and there’s so much great material that’s never been released on CD before. Bob has always been good to us, despite never having seen the film still.
I think it took well over a year to gain all the permissions. John dealt with this himself. It’s such a different process to licence for a musical release than a film and he has years of experience. It was fairly traumatic doing this work for our films so I’m glad he took this on for the CD box set. I did as best as I could for some of the tracks which were proving tricky that we’d used in the film but it really was mostly all John. It is a tough job. It’s not always a case of speaking to whoever wrote or performed the music. Over the 40+ years most of the small DIY labels and publishers have been swallowed up by much larger labels and publishers. This is actually a common and evolving situation. Even some of the tracks from the films had moved on to new homes when the box set was being finalised.
The initial listing was made from 5 or so lists and John and CR combined them into a proposed final tracklist. This track listing evolved until the very final moment. Everyone involved had their ‘definites’ and luckily most of them were in the final box.
Of course nobody will be really happy and you will be inundated with ‘what about this, what about that?’. It’s the nature of peoples tastes. Nothing can be definitive or please everyone. It can act as a launch pad to search out some more great music.
There are important distinctions, other than just rights as to what appears in a film and what appears on a box set. Our film charts a chronological story and the evolution of many bands. For a film this means that we could hear early demo’s, alternative versions, live performances and so on – all would be fine for a single CD of extras for a particular band. For an entire CD Box Set there are different considerations – obviously Cherry Red have released other wider ranging sets so it would not make sense to repeat those same tracks here which means some of the better known tracks are not available. The box set also has to cover the entire period dictated – and changing scenes – equally which means that if space only allows 5 songs from Edinburgh’s 1979 period then you are going to miss out some great music. Tough decisions have to be made. Most importantly though, the tracks have to be good. It’s very easy to go for some track or band that has historical significance but if it’s not a good track then it just can’t be on the CD. As I said, this would be fine for extra tracks on a classic album but not on a CD intended to showcase Scotland’s best. Despite all these restrictions I think it is an incredible testament to the vast amount of quality music which came out of Scotland in such a short period.
It was fantastic that Neil Cooper did the track notes. He’s been a massive, massive supporter of Big Gold Dream and has an incredible encyclopedic knowledge of that era. Tim Barr did a fantastic essay and I rambled on about the films in mine.
The cover seemed to cause some controversy. CR have a fantastic graphic designer, really great. The two proposed final versions were what currently appears and what is on page one – the record shop. I thought the map was perfect the second I saw it. Ties in very much with Postcard and is importantly something that will annoy people.
Lastly, can you tell us what you are currently working on or have in the pipeline?
There are some projects bubbling away but it really is incredibly tough to get anything made. We don’t have people knocking on our door and making these films has not made that any easier. I think people are surprised that we never made any money despite it appearing on TV and DVD. The festival screenings were not ours, despite selling out 6 screens we never made a penny from them. We later got some folk who sadly fleeced us and we ended up having to buy a film back from a dodgy distributor. The effort and time required is tremendous and every stage is a fight so you can only really do it once or twice in a lifetime. I don’t mean that to sound negative, it’s not and I’m far from bitter about it all. It’s all part of the process.
We were incredibly lucky to have such a great story to tell, some great music and a whole lot of people who supported us doing it. And we’ve been delighted to go on this journey with it. It’s been some of the greatest fun I’ve had. Imagine just taking to the people in some of your favourite bands about their bands. But I think the next films should be from someone else. There’s so much to be told and so many great new bands. Despite now being far from the music centre of Scotland, Edinburgh in particular has some incredibly exciting female led punk inspired bands. The BBC should just give them a camera, document it and led them screen what they produce. It would be fantastic.