Algebra

Tramway

Issue 2

The Window Of The Melody Centre

by Alastair McKay

Alastair McKay

Mr Stenhouse was quite clear. The word “fuck” was fine, as long as the context justified it.

We were 15 years old, and my favourite teacher was giving us permission to swear.

He looked around the classroom. “For instance,” he said. “I’m about to retire, but often I get the urge…”

He walked to the corridor, opened the door, and flicked a Harvey Smith.

“I often get the urge to go to the headmaster and say, ‘Fuck your pension!”

He was paraphrasing Philip Larkin’s ‘Toads’, in which the poet imagined throwing off the anura of work and living like the lispers, losers, loblolly-men and louts, who did as they pleased, without starving.

Looking back, I can see there was a bit of Larkin in Mr Stenhouse. Nothing loblolly, but he used to talk about standing outside Bus Stop – a women’s boutique in Edinburgh - in a way that reminded me of Larkin watching a disco through the condensation on a Scout hut window. He cultivated the idea that youth was a party to which he was not invited. Once, he asked us to define the concept of love. Being 15, and Scottish, we were not good at this. “You know nothing about love,” he concluded, without cruelty. Occasionally, he’d examine our Barathea lapels for badges, and ask us to explain the meaning of Thin Lizzy. Then, with an expression of intense bafflement, he would observe that some of the modern groups had taken to smashing their guitars. “Now, why would they do that?” he’d demand. “If they didn’t want to play the guitar, surely they could have given it to someone who did.”

Mr Stenhouse had another routine, which makes sense now, but didn’t then. “Who can tell me the most beautiful city in Europe?” he would say. The answer was Edinburgh, though none of us could understand why. At 15, my experience of Edinburgh was C&A, where they had Kubrick-style surveillance cameras on the ceiling; Easter Road, where Hibernian toiled; and the multi-storey car park at Castle Terrace - the first place I ever saw the phrase “no loitering”.

But I was beginning to appreciate the city’s natural geography. Specifically, this meant a circuit from Waverley, south to Hot Licks in Cockburn Street, up the close to Phoenix in the High Street, down to the Other Record Shop in St Mary’s Street, and across town to the Ezy Ryder record exchange, which reeked of denim. Then it was back to Bruce’s in Rose Street, and on to Hell in Thistle Street. I favoured Hell, because their carrier bag said “I got it in Hell.” But it was at the Other Record Shop that I bought my first punk record: Neat Neat Neat, by The Damned.

It’s fair to say that North Berwick was not the epicentre of punk. I have a photograph taken by accident from the window of my teenage bedroom. It’s the free shot, the blank you shoot when you wind the film into the camera, so it’s blurry. It shows the new houses in what we used to call The Field, their windows blazing in the winter dusk. There are spindles of hedge, not yet knitted, and an apologetic tree. The road is blue.

Our house was a new-build, detached, on the edge of town. I remember visiting the site before it was built. Our future home was string, pegged on damp earth, and we walked through the rooms, imagining. When we moved in, my brother set up his portable stereo on the living room floor and played ‘5.15’ by The Who, loud. We danced on bare boards. It was as if we were trying to paint the emptiness with noise.

North Berwick itself was a peaceful place, with occasional ruptures. Witches were burned on the seafront in 1590. Robert Louis Stevenson had a holiday home in The Quadrant, which inspired his novel Catriona in 1893. Brigitte Bardot made a film on the East Beach in 1966, near the site of the witch pyre. For a week in the early 1970s, the Law – the 600ft volcanic frown on the South horizon – smouldered, after being set alight by vandals. Later, the lookout post at the Law’s summit, next to the whale’s jawbone, was daubed with the letters MRS, short for Midnight Riot Squad. It was the MRS who assaulted my brother in the Lodge Grounds, one Friday after Scouts. They wore Clockwork Orange boiler suits, and politely asked my brother his age before kicking him in the balls. I was 11, and small, so I was allowed to pass.

Mostly, life was safe. North Berwick had been a seaside resort, but the advent of foreign travel was turning it into a retirement village. It had become a beautiful place to die.

*

On June 6, 1977, I rode my mail-order racing bike to the Harbour Pavilion. The Piv was a sad building, next to the swimming pool. It had once hosted seaside variety shows; now the main hall was dark. The corridors were filled with puggies and table football. On that day, the day of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, I scored three cherries on a one-armed bandit. As the machine spewed its jackpot, the manager of the Piv ejected me from the premises. Winning was verboten.

The streets were quiet and the sun was out, as I cycled from the harbour to the High Street, to stare at the Melody Centre. The record shop was run by Mr Stewart, a patient soul who, seven months earlier, had refused to sell me a Bonnie Tyler record on the grounds that it wasn’t the sort of thing I liked.

Mr Stewart wasn’t keen on punk, but he knew what sold, so he arranged the picture sleeves of the punk singles around the bottom of his shop window. I got Sick of You by The Users in there, on the basis of its cover. That was good. I also got a 45 by The Depressions, which was bad. On Jubilee Day, God Save The Queen was in the middle of the window, but the Jamie Reid sleeve was reversed, so the image of the Queen with a safety pin through her nose was hidden from public view. It was quite satisfying, this half-censorship.

That same June, I bought a copy of Sniffin’ Glue from Bruce’s in Edinburgh. Sniffin’ Glue was the punk fanzine. It was half-literate, urgent and passionate. In that issue there was an editorial by Danny Baker, whose career would later stretch from being the NME’s disco correspondent to selling Daz. “Have you noticed how amused the other press is to find out punks like other types of music?” he wrote. “Look sunshine, we don’t need mum, dad or Sniffin’ Glue to let us know what to dance to, BUT the new wave is more than music to you and me, it’s our megaphone for Youth. Positive Youth. Spelt P-U-N-K and put over as rock’n’roll.”

Not long after that, I made my own fanzine, Blow Your Nose On This. It was a montage of crap, Xeroxed by a friend’s mother during her lunch hour at the golf club factory. On page two of issue two, I reprinted the East Lothian Courier’s review of The Sex Pistols LP. “So what if all the tracks sound more or less the same?” the review moaned. “It’s still the ideal Christmas gift for the punk rocker in your life.” Next to that I had pasted the famous image, taken from Sideburns fanzine, of three guitar chords, A, E, and G, alongside the legend, "This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band.”

I became the singer of The Instant Whips. I couldn’t sing, so I wore a hat. While the Scottish country dance group, The Rowan Trio, had a cigarette break at the Seniors Dance, I retched through Ging Gang Goolie, I’m A Believer and The Worm Song. It was a high concept show. A cardboard pig was suspended above the stage and at the end of our cover of The Goodies’ version of Wild Thing, I kicked a Chad Valley drum kit into the crowd, causing a small wound on the breast of a popular fourth year girl. The girl’s boyfriend was the captain of the rugby team. He was known as Square Bum, though not to his face. He was not impressed.

If that performance was a cry for help, the next was a letter to Social Services. The show took place in the function room of the Nether Abbey, a hotel favoured by rugby players, the owner of which was reputed to be Rod Stewart’s cousin. Musically, we were marginally more competent, and the repertoire had expanded to include The Ramones’ Rockaway Beach. We had assumed punk names. I was Captain Pugwash, the guitarist was James Bondage, and the half-Danish drummer was Bjorn Hope. Band practices took place at Bjorn Hope’s house, using a biscuit tin for a drum kit, unless Bjorn’s mum was baking pastries.

I had written a song. I must have liked it, because I had the lyrics run off on the school’s Fordigraph machine, and handed out at the door. The purple ink smelled like victory.

The song was called Smoke Signals. This was the chorus: “You narrow-minded sycophant/I’d rather be a rubber plant/Than be like you.” If there were easier ways to make friends, I hadn’t discovered them.

The Instant Whips didn’t last long. The guitarist, James Bondage, liberated himself and went to play with The Whips. Some of them came from Haddington, which was almost the same as coming from Glasgow. The Whips were popular with the local motorcycle gang, The Baader-Meinhof.

I slid through various groups, some of which never amounted to more than a name. I don’t think God’s Golfballs ever played, but The Creatures Of Doom did. We had a song about existence. It was called Futility. Another was titled The New Prometheans – it likened life to endlessly pushing a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down again.

These were our Salad Days.

I think, now, that punk was a way of joining the wider world. At first, the messages went out, and came back, by post. I still have letters from Irate Kate at Rock Against Racism headquarters in London, suggesting I form a cell, and enquiring whether I had met any like-minded souls at the Tundra Wolf concert at Aberlady Community Hall. She enclosed dayglo badges, one of which celebrated the reggae group The Cimarons, and had the slogan, “Racism is a Dirty, Mucky Schism” printed over a red, gold and green RAR star. (The Rastafarian colours matched the stripy jumper my grandma had knitted me.) Miss Dodd, my Modern Studies teacher, took a dislike to this badge and was visibly peeved when I was able to explain the meaning of the word “schism”.

I did my best for Irate Kate. I pasted Anti-Nazi League stickers along the lampposts of Old Abbey Road. To my knowledge there was only one black person in North Berwick, and he stayed in the Redcroft old people’s home, singing to himself on an untuned guitar. I did know a Nazi, but he lived in Gullane. His nickname was Fash, short for “Fascist”. He was a decent soul. He joined the Navy.

*

Punk ended many times, and keeps on ending. Last year, I cycled behind the coffin of the Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren as it was transported by horse-drawn carriage to Highgate Cemetery. The wreaths and the souvenir T-shirts read: “Cash From Chaos”.

I remember another ending. It was a Thursday, in January 1978. The weather was cloudy, with the threat of snow. I had walked home from school for my dinner. My dad melted the white cap on the mince, and told me that my “friend” Johnny Rotten had left the Sex Pistols. I couldn’t quite believe it, but confirmation came on the front page of the Evening News, with a picture of the singer, and the headline, “Sex Pistols Come To A Rotten End.”

That wasn’t the main headline. The front page splash was about the appearance in Haddington Sheriff Court of Michael Anthony Kitto (39) “following the discovery in North Berwick on January 16 of a motor car containing a deceased body”.

Something had happened in North Berwick. It was almost time to get out of Dodge.

Alastair McKay

After the implosion of the Instant Whips, Alastair McKay joined The Commercials, who were described by Dave McCullough of Sounds as one of the bands most likely to be “big in 81”. They weren’t, but did appear on Messthetics #105, a recent compilation of post-punk music on the US label Hyped-To-Death. Alastair won several awards for journalism while working for The Scotsman, and now writes about music, and the arts, for Uncut, The Sunday Times, and the London Evening Standard. He lives in London, but pines for North Berwick. He is writing a children’s book.