Call him Edwyn Collins, consumer advocate.
As argued by "The Campaign For Real Rock," the opening track from his last album, these days real rock, or anything "real," is in relatively short supply. "The song is about so-called rock authenticity," he says. "It wasn't particularly about Kurt Cobain, but when you have so many Nirvanas, you think they're quite suspect and opportunist. And the idea of rock authenticity, by any rate—'Born In The U.S.A.' was concocted by Jon Landau and Bruce Springsteen to seem like the ultimate blue collar, sweaty, Telecaster-driven rock, and you imagine whatever-he's-called Max behind the drums. In actual fact all the backing tracks were done on the Fairlight, this Australian sampling system which was state of the art at the time. So people are imagining that they're hearing the ultimate blue collar rock band, but in fact they're hearing what is now called electronica. [laughs] What's authentic about that? That's just a for instance of how people are duped by marketing."
Edwyn doesn't feel anyone was duped, though, into making his 1995 single "A Girl Like You" the rather unexpected worldwide hit it became. "I think it's a good song," he admits. "Of course I still like it. It sounds like a truism, but I think there's something undeniably important about a song that can even be in the Cantonese charts where the competition is things like The Four Kings, and very few western groups get in these charts. And it became number one in Hong Kong. So it's a kind of an Esperanto, if you like, and I suppose that's what every musician wants to do. Of course, there are some people like the King of Pop who do it with every single record. Not everyone gets the opportunity. There are so many groups that only exist within the U.K. on a commercial level, likewise here. They don't travel—Hootie never travels. You know—Blues Traveller didn't."
The amiable Scottish musician, eager to speak and punning with the best of them, has to chuckle at his own clever comment as we chat in the Manhattan offices of Epic Records, the big-time company which has picked up his new record's U.S. distribution in the wake of his unexpected 1995 hit. The new record in question is I'm Not Following You, another 12-song collection of fine studio pop proving that the brilliant Gorgeous George, which spawned that "Girl" unlike any we've known before was no fluke.
Collins' recording career began in 1980, when his band Orange Juice released their first independent single. Though some of their U.K. contemporaries from Haircut 100 to Adam And The Ants managed varying levels of U.S. success in the early days of MTV, O.J. never broke through in the states, and in fact the group only scored one legitimate U.K. hit, the infectious lost pop classic "Rip It Up." [See Edwyn's brief history of Orange Juice at the end of this story.]
Frustrated, the group disbanded in 1984. "It was completely different times, politically," says Edwyn. "The independent distribution was completely ineffectual, and they thought to use hyping companies was a total sell-out. So, at the time that we left Rough Trade Distribution, people were selling records at Rough Trade, but they weren't having hits.
Collins intermittently cut a few solo singles over the next few years, but didn't release another album until 1989's Hope And Despair. That album and its 1990 follow-up, Hellbent On Compromise, were universally ignored. His real renaissance began in 1992, when he began producing other people like Vic Godard, The Rockingbirds, and Paul Quinn And The Independent Group. With money earned from production work as well as a successful Orange Juice reissue program in Japan, Edwyn began investing in equipment for a home studio. "I became partners with a vintage audio dealer," he says. "In '93 he found me this Neve desk in Goldcrest Film Studios that was used for things like Time Bandits and Brazil. I reconfigured it into a rock and roll console. And I very selfishly put everything into this studio near Alexandra Palace in North London. I say selfishly because until last year I was living in a single-bedroom house with my son, who was five at the time. But luckily it paid off."
Edwyn could not fully enjoy his studio immediately, though. Gorgeous George "had to be recorded in a nine-week period because of the nature of my partnership, and financial necessity," he says. "Gorgeous George was kind of a live album with studio embellishments. It was basically me, [ex-Sex Pistols drummer] Paul Cook, and Clare [bassist Clare Kenny] thrashing down these backing tracks with the exception of 'A Girl Like You' and 'If You Could Love Me.' And then I would play crude keyboards and tart them up."
The singer's sudden international success may have created pressure for a successful follow-up, but it also gave him the luxury to enjoy the workings of his own studio for the new album. "This album was recorded from June of last year and completed in February of this year. Obviously, we went on holiday and I did several other projects. It wasn't that intensive, really. It allowed me to really stretch the equipment I had sonically. The studio's very important to this record. Of course there are some live tracks, but it's not really a representation of Edwyn Collins live. In fact, it's one of the problems we have at the moment with incorporating a guy to operate sequencers and samplers for the live show."
That live show, which has hit select U.S. clubs in the early days of the I'm Not Following You tour, has featured faves from all facets of the singer's recording career, including a few Orange Juice numbers each night, as well as the bulk of the new album. The shows have highlighted the varied emotions which come through in his songs.
Edwyn sees his songs in this varied light, though some peg him as the angry type, noting his lyrics' abundant cynicism and sarcasm, particularly about the state of music today.
"I'm not really angry at all," he says—not defensively, just matter-of-factly, and with a slight laugh. "That's just one facet of my personality. All my personalities are represented on the album—all 12 of them. I think everyone, to a certain extent, is kind of schizophrenic.
"On the first song 'It's a Steal,' that's really about deconstructing the creative process and that John Lennon thing—you better watch what you wish for, you might just get it." An additional Fab Four tie-in with the opening track is its slow opening groove, which in the live show becomes a full-throttle cover of the first 30 seconds of "Band On The Run."
"Then," continues Edwyn, "it goes into 'The Magic Piper' which is kind of a sleazy number, [laughs] and again it's kind of ironic." This bouncy '60s-flavored treat replete with flute and a Velvets guitar riff fit just perfectly as a theme song of sorts for Mike Myers' Austin Powers; the song's video, featuring a quintet of glam-outfitted Edwyns dancing in unison, has also quickly become something of an MTV favorite. "The Spitting Image people made a prosthetic mask of my face," he recalls with a smile. "And then the Take That choreographer put some Jackson Five moves in, some moves from Tavares, and bits like this."
On album, "Piper" is followed by "Seventies Night," a dance-like groove populated by shouted non sequiturs from the mouth of Mark E. Smith, friend of Edwyn's and lead singer of The Fall. "I don't know completely what Mark's on about. You get this kind of bile coming across, this real guttural thing. We were thinking, the seventies was not all Saturday Night Fever and Chic and Sister Sledge and all the rest. Mark mentions things like 'Aqualung' by Jethro Tull, 'cause we're talking about how kids used to walk about. You know, in these days there were no designer labels. You had Ben Sherman and Levi's still, but nobody paid much attention to them. So the signifier of where you were at was carrying albums about at school. That was our fashion statement. And that kind of inspired the lyric.
"I think maybe there's anger only on the title track, really. Although I'm not a punk musician, for my generation, punk was my rock and roll, and everything about punk was eccentric and negative. And I suppose I still have that in me. And I love the perversity of punk, and the punk polemic. I love that."
The title track in question ends the album on a rather jarring note, with the sound of machine gun fire silencing the bleating of a flock of sheep—the sheep guilty, of course, of being followers. Edwyn defends it as "black humor, if you like." The song "I'm Not Following You" is "a bit of a psychodrama," as he describes it. "A lot of the lyrics were just flow of consciousness. If I start to analyze what I'm actually saying, I suppose it's man's inhumanity to man and all the rest." Edwyn affirms that no animals were harmed in the making of this recording, though; the sheep noises were taken from a Dutch sound effects album. "I hope there's no Dutch people reading your fanzine, or I'll be sued," he quips.
Ultimately, I'm Not Following You encompasses all these different Edwyns, much like the "Piper" video. Among tracks later in the record's sequence, a highlight is the punkish anti-advertising rant "Adidas World," which the singer—assuming his consumer advocate role again—says is both a protest against the ubiquitous three-striped t-shirt, as well as "an analogy for Britpop, if you like." There's also the admittedly autobiographical tune "For The Rest Of My Life," in which the singer sounds contented, perhaps almost stoic, and takes satisfaction in watching his young son act similarly. "In some ways, I think it's quite schmaltzy," he says, again chuckling. "Sometimes I think it's overly sentimental, but I think it's good to have that kind of contrast."
Such contrast is one of the elements that, to Edwyn Collins, can make rock truly great, or truly real. Given the scarcity of real rock and all things "real," it seems crucial that Edwyn's campaign goes on.
A Brief History Of Orange Juice
By Edwyn Collins, as told to me
We were all kind of schoolboys in 1977—in the U.K. we say "'77—the year that punk broke." [laughs] We don't say '91 or whatever Sonic Youth said. And so we were all very excited about punk rock, 'cause effectively, in Britain, it was like the skiffle boom of the '50s and early '60s with Lonnie Donegan. And we suddenly realized that anyone could do it. We just bought guitars in pawn shops for like $30, $30 amplifiers, 15-watt amplifiers, and we formed a group when we were still at school called the Nu-Sonics. And that kind of evolved into Orange Juice.
We did things like we supported Steel Pulse—the U.K. reggae group—and Simple Minds when they were Johnny and the Self-Abusers. We did our own fanzine which was called No Variety—it had the Variety magazine logo with the No in front. In the immediate post-punk period it was very much a feeling of DIY, and the pivotal single was "Spiral Scratch" by the Buzzcocks. It had a breakdown of the recording costs on the sleeve, and it was on their own label New Hormones. And that made us realize, well, that kind of thing was possible.
So all these things inspired us to form Postcard Records. This would be 1979. By 1980, we put out the first Orange Juice single, "Falling And Laughing." And we realized, at this time, being Glasgow-based, that it was going to be kind of hard to get the attention of the London media because there wasn't any kind of Scottish underground. And there'd only been a few groups that had any kind of profile, things like Stone & The Crows, or Simple Minds were just beginning to kick in. So we went down to London, I would be 19, 20, this would be 1980, and we just went into the BBC at Portland Place and demanded to see John Peel. Just the arrogance of youth. Just started saying: "We are fantastic. We are the next big thing." And we went down to Covent Garden, to the NME offices, the Melody Maker offices, and the Smash Hits offices, did our own PR. Even went to Cosmopolitan magazine and demanded to see the music editor.
And that's what you did then. There was no PR, nothing like that. We'd go to Rough Trade, they'd take 300 "Falling And Laughing," and we'd go to Small Wonder, they'd take a hundred, and the way back up to Scotland we went to Red Rhino in York in North England and they'd take a hundred. And that's how we did our first single. And then Rough Trade kind of took over distribution-wise. These people at Rough Trade had come from the New Left in the U.K. and were very principled radical hippies, and that's what they liked about punk. They were kind of an older generation. And so [then-head of Rough Trade] Jeff Travis had to kind of wise up if they were to compete in the market. The independent distribution was completely ineffectual.
By this time, the first single got the Melody Maker single of the week, and the press was very important in these days for independent records. And by our fourth single "Poor Old Soul" we signed to Polydor Records. We made four albums which were top 40 in the U.K., never really toured internationally, and we only had one bona fide hit, which was "Rip It Up." We were constantly going through lineup changes as well, but that's another story.
Really, part of the early Postcard manifesto was that [label head] Alan Horne wanted it to be like a Motown or something like this. And it seemed pretty pathetic when we were only getting on the independent charts. I suppose Orange Juice were what Americans called New Pop. We were kind of transitional between the punk ethic, the DIY ethic and the New Pop with the kind of funk influences, and influences that sequencers and the Linn drum had, and the influences that proto-electronica had on that scene.
YEAH YEAH YEAH, 1997