Triumph and tragedy.
Heart and soul.
Punk attitude and pop tunes.
Temptation and the Four Tops.
Girls like you and boys like me.
Falling and laughing.
Hope and despair.
L.O.V.E and love.
Edwyn Collins was born in 1959 in Edinburgh. It’s a beautiful city…did you know there’s a castle? But it wasn’t where Edwyn became Edwyn. That would only happen once he left the refined air of Auld Reekie behind and headed West to the rough and ready charms of Glasgow.
In the most Edinburgh-ish part of Scotland’s biggest city Edwyn found Alan Horne and together they founded the legendary Postcard Records with the principle purpose of releasing records by Orange Juice, the band that Edwyn had forged from the embers of the Nu-Sonics. Postcard was going to be Scotland’s answer to Motown…the sound of young Caledonia. It didn’t really work out that way…but its always better to dream big and fail than never to dream at all. Orange Juice released four singles on Postcard “Falling and Laughing“, “Blue Boy” and “Simply Thrilled Honey” and “Poor Old Soul”
Orange Juice were a soul band with indie aesthetics and values. They were never content to be just another Scottish band. Their eyes were set firmly on stardom. Those early singles on Postcard made an impression on the indie charts and gained them a following but Collins already knew that the songs buzzing around inside his foppish head deserved to be heard by a much wider audience. Polydor offered the chance to do exactly that and so Postcard became the past. The future looked bright, the future looked Orange.
The debut album “You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever” is, despite stiff competition from the myriad cracking, collections of songs by celtic collectives including the likes of Aztec Camera, Belle and Sebastian, Idlewild, Cocteau Twins, The Associates and more, the best debut album by any group of pasty faced young Scots of all time. It’s jingly, jangly, pop, soul and prototype indie arrived in 1982 before anyone even knew who The Smiths were or what a Morrissey was for. Much is made of how influential The Smiths were…rightly so…but Orange Juice were doing something just as significant, just as carefully crafted and just as fabulous many months before the world started to listen to those Mancunian indie-pop maestros. What Orange Juice did that The Smiths didn’t was incorporate the sound of soul into their own grooves…this album is the sound of Philly soul relocated to Bearsden.
The most obvious nod to the sound of young America is, of course, the cover of “L.O.V.E Love” by the Reverend Al Green. It lacks, it goes without saying, the finesse, shimmer and class of the original but it makes up for that with heart, desire, passion and r.e.s.p.e.c.t for the originator.
Thanks to the monumental evil of television talent shows like the “X-Factor” and “The Voice” many hundreds of young, mainly middle-class, kids from all across Britain have been told, after giving renditions of songs by people who have more talent in the muck trapped underneath their finger nails than they possess in their entire being, that they are “artists”. That these renditions substitute volume and screeching for the righteous blast of a tortured soul given audible form seems not to matter to the judges or, indeed, to the listening (or not listening) public. Should the young Edwyn have wandered into one of these audition rooms and given his version of this song he would have been forcibly removed from the venue…the love he has for the song, the care given to presenting a version that is genuinely his own, the desire to treat the song with the tenderness it deserves would all count for nothing.
In the immortal words of Steps…it’s a tragedy.
I know it’s a cover version, I’m not an idiot.
An older, cooler and more tuned in kid introduced me to Orange Juice at the start of my time at University. He let me borrow his copy of “You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever” and I took it home for a couple of days before returning it…unplayed. The front cover had conjured up an idea in my mind of what it would sound like…those images were not good.
Two dolphins leaping made me certain that what lay inside the grooves of this album was going to be some sort of hippy nightmare…whale song…chanting…mysticism. I often hear people saying that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and my response is always the same, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances“. I do that because I’m a bit pretentious and because I think it makes me sound like the sort of person who reads a lot of clever things…I live in hope that the person I’m saying it to hasn’t read any Oscar Wilde. I do think though that, more often than not, one can make a pretty good determination about whether or not one is going to enjoy a record based on the name of the band and the cover. That’s why I’ve never been able to give any love or attention to the Arctic Monkeys; terrible name and, frequently, awful artwork. In this instance though I got it terribly, terribly, wrong.
If “You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever” had been a slice, a sliver of post-punk, nu-soul, indie glories then the follow up was a bona fide classic. “Rip It Up” arrived in 1982 and the title track is a contender for best single released by a Scottish band of all time. The sound was recognisable from the first album but an added layer of proficiency and professionalism had been added as well as a dash of funk. Here was an indie record that could have been played at Studio 54. That’s not as mad as it sounds, just take a listen to Beverley Knight’s “In Your Shoes” and hear a MOBO Award winning act use it to create something superfly.
The rest of “Rip It Up” shows a band operating at the peak of their powers. “I Can’t Help Myself“, “Louise Louise“, “Flesh of my Flesh” and “Tenterhook” are all fabulous songs. Collins was beginning to sound like someone who had mastered the art of writing pop songs that had things to say about the things that matter. By the time anyone began to notice though the UK had been gripped by Smiths fever and the only person anyone wanted to talk about was Morrissey. That really is a tragedy because Collins deserved just as many NME front covers as Morrissey and, possibly, was a more interesting writer.
Following the high point of “Rip It Up” there was a mini-album, “Texas Fever” before the band called it a day following their third album proper “The Orange Juice” (a nod to The Velvet Underground” which was memorable for the magnificence of “What Presence?!” and “I Guess I’m Just a Little Too Sensitive” which Collins used to dedicate to Morrissey when it was played live. It felt like Orange Juice had simply diluted themselves out of existence…disappearing with a whimper, a sigh and not the grand statement they should have said goodbye with.
That could, maybe for some people should, have been that.
Goodbye Mr Collins.
It was 1984 and it looked like Collins had been consigned to Room 101. Five years of, almost literal, radio silence passed before the news arrived that he was back…a solo album was about to hit the shelves of record stores across the country. I was turning sixteen in 1989 and the album title summed up my adolescent state perfectly; “Hope and Despair“. The album failed to make a dent in the charts…it actually failed to chart at all here in the UK. That really is inexplicable because it features some beautiful songs, especially “You’re Better Than you Know”, “Hope and Despair” and “The Wheels of Love” which all highlighted an artist on the up, not in decline. Two singles were released from the album and I wonder about the impact that different choices may have made in terms of airplay and wider exposure for the album. “Coffee Table Song” and “50 Shades of Blue” may well be lovely songs but the three tracks I highlighted above were more likely to impact on the earholes of the people who put together radio playlists.
A year later and with the world in the grip of rave culture and the indie/dance crossover it looked very much as though time was up for artists like Collins. He was a man out of fashion and, maybe, out of time. His 1990 album “Hellbent on Compromise” offered further evidence of his talents as a songwriter but, once more, failed to bother the consciousness of the public. It was the second time in a row that he had released an album that hadn’t charted. What followed was a four year hiatus. The world turned to Seattle for its music…well, certain types of middle-class kids who enjoyed irritating their parents turned to Seattle for their music and, once again, it looked as though Collins and his kind were no longer required.
But what’s that coming over the hill?
It’s only bloody Britpop.
A music scene that cherished the idea of shimmering, jingling, jangling, rollicking, rumbling, shuddering guitar music that was soaked in melody and drowned in romance…there had to be a place in a scene like that for a boy like Edwyn. All he had to do was write a pop song so brilliant that nobody could ignore it. What were the chances of that happening though?
“A Girl Like You” sold over 200,000 copies in the United Kingdom. It went Gold in three other countries with combined sales of over 400,000 copies. It reached the top forty in 15 countries, including the USA, and went top ten in 11 of those…including number one in Belgium. It was a record that you couldn’t avoid hearing even if you wanted to. It was on every radio station for weeks, it was played in the background on episodes of “Neighbours”, it was on every compilation album released at that time and it trapped itself in the ears of everyone who heard it…which was pretty much everyone in the country. The album, “Gorgeous George”, could have filled the rest of its running time with the sounds of children crying and still been a huge hit. As it was it made its way to number 8 in the UK charts and made Edwyn a household name.
Collins wasn’t the only face from the eighties to make waves during Britpop of course, Morrissey released his masterpiece “Vauxhall and I”, Terry Hall released a wonderful solo album, “Home”, in 1994 and Stephen Duffy recorded one of the best singles of the era with “London Girls” in 1995. One of the defining characteristics of that era was that everyone was welcome…old faces and Ace faces alike were invited to the party.
“Gorgeous George” was to prove to be the last “hit” record of Collins career to date with the follow up “I’m Not Following You” failing to break the top 40 in the UK and only one of the singles, “The Magic Piper (of Love)” making a dent on the charts. None of that had anything to do with the quality of the music, once again Collins had put together a fine collection of songs, but had everything to do with when it was released…the curse of 1997 strikes again!
How many great bands and albums fell in that last year of Britpop?
Too many my friends.
In 2005 the world as Edwyn Collins had known it was flipped upside down, turned inside out, shook up, mixed up, muddled up and, very nearly, ended inside of a week. During an interview with 6 Music on the 18th of February he complained of feeling unwell and by the 25th of February he had suffered two cerebral haemorrhage’s.
44% of people who fall victim to this cranial bleeding die within a month.
Those are not good odds.
I can remember hearing about what had happened and being filled with a genuinely awful feeling of fear and dread. My interest in Collins and Orange Juice had never been obsessive but I was comfortable calling myself a fan. This was the first time that I was facing the prospect of losing a musical hero. It didn’t seem possible that at the tender age of 32 the people I had grown up with were going to be shrugging off this mortal coil.
A few years later, in 2009, I attended a concert at the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh. It was the night of Edwyn’s 50th birthday. The line to get into the venue snaked around the building, young people, old people, older people, bright young things, folks fraying at the edges…all gathered to say something they didn’t think they would ever get the chance to just four years earlier; happy birthday Edwyn.
It was a beautiful event.
“We love you Edwyn” shouted someone very early on in proceedings.
“I love you too” he replied.
Whoever shouted it out spoke for everyone in the room.
You could feel the love.
It was a tangible thing.
It floated between us, around us and thrust itself inside of us.
“You’ll Never Know My Love” was one of the songs from “Home Again” the album he had been recording prior to his illness but now everyone in that room did know his love and, more importantly, he knew ours.
One of the four things Edwyn could say in the days, weeks and months following the cerebral haemorrhage was; “…the possibilities are endless” and that is exactly how you feel when you listen to the very best moments from one of the finest songwriters ever to come from Scotland. He has the ability to make you feel again, to bring you home again, to make you believe you are better than you know, to give you hope, to guide you through despair, to give you more than a ghost of a chance, to provide everything and more, to lift you with music that takes you higher…I’m glad he’s still around.