Ross Sinclair and Iain Kettles - Vic Cafe toilets, Glasgow School of Art
1986 becomes the first (and probably only) entry in this series for which I do not have a photograph to accompany the artwork. Perhaps there are some in existence somewhere? If so then I suspect they may be in the private collection of one of the artists involved, but then again it’s a long shot for how many of us were so particular about recording all of our work when we were young back in the 1980s? There is something appealing about that too. Such a difference to 2016 when it sometimes feels as though every moment of meaningless existence is recorded and shared as though it were a momentous event. Warhol might have luxuriated in such a tsunami of mediated everydayism had he lived to experience it, but I feel even he might have tired of the wrong kind of boredom after a while.
I’m sure Warhol would have enjoyed the gents’ toilets in the Vic Cafe at the Glasgow School of Art in 1986 though. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. They were decorated in exuberant Pop style by students Iain Kettles and Ross Sinclair with Kettles supplying the stencilled visual motif of Oor Wullie sitting on his bucket and Sinclair providing accompanying similarly stencilled text (the details of which has long since escaped my memory but may well have been some of Wullie’s catchphrases). Sprayed in multi-hued tints across every flat surface, the installation was full of fun and frenzy, a psychedelic explosion of Pop playfulness like a peculiarly Scottish version of the cow wallpaper. I’m sure there was some kind of puerile toilet humour going on as well (a play on name and action) and whilst such amusement normally fails to make me smile much (I admit to being singularly dull and humourless in such respects) in the Vic Cafe toilets it worked a treat. Context and all that.
Everyone knew Oor Wullie of course. A comic institution in Scotland since the 1930s, I believe the strip still runs each week in The Sunday Post. Perhaps it, and its partner strip ‘The Broons’ retains the quality of its golden age in the 1950s and ‘60s? I have not seen an example of contemporary Wullie for many years but I understand it is now written by a former Dandy editor, which is hardly surprising of course, with The Post being a DC Thompson publication. Perhaps it is still amusing? I know that on occasion I still take down my collection of ‘Golden Years’ strips from the shelf and that they never fail to raise a smile. Is that nostalgia? Comfort? A genuine signifier of artistic class? All of these things or neither? I’ll let someone else work that out. Sinclair, who is now back at the Glasgow School of Art in the position of Reader in Contemporary Art Practice in the School of Fine Art, might want to write an essay on it. Perhaps he already has.
Back in 1986 and 1987 of course Sinclair was still drummer in The Soup Dragons. Being bona-fide Indie Popstars, I admit that as a fledgling Indiekid from the sticks I always got a tingle of thrill when passing the original artwork for the ‘Head Gone Astray’ single every morning on the way to our coffee break in the fine, brutalist Newbery Tower. There is something about that work that still pleases me too: the juxtaposition of found, discarded cultural artefacts re-purposed into new meaning. Collage as jigsaw puzzle of the jumble sale. Making meaning from the meaningless, the joke of which is that nothing means nothing and that everything and nothing is simultaneously real and not real. Simulacrums of simulacrums. Crivvens.
As for the Vic Cafe, well it lives on in name and still sits within the shell of its Glasgow stone walls (Steven Holl’s new Reid Building cups a hand around the old architecture in a protective gesture) but gone are the intimate booths and the general air of a 1950s coffee bar, replaced with an artful industrial aesthetic that I’m sure fits the needs of the twenty first century Art student admirably. For a fifty year old visiting with nostalgia-fuelled rose-tinted bi-focals however it leaves me cold, which probably means it has done its job. Jings.
As a fledgling Indiekid from the sticks my musical predilections were, by 1986, veering increasingly towards the type of thing later categorised broadly and lazily as Indie. Much has been written about the whole notion of the C86 so-called genre and I do not intend to bore either myself or any readers by re-treading that tired ground. Needless to say nothing is, was or ever will be as easy to categorise as the sounds that tempt, touch and thrill us. And anyway, in 1986 there were plenty of other records that one could certainly never call Indie that meant the world to me. Chief amongst these was ‘Baby The Stars Shine Bright’ by Everything But The Girl and particularly its lead single ‘Come On Home'.
Yes, EBTG had their roots in the post-punk Independent underground of the late seventies and early eighties, and yes, in another version of this series the likes of ‘A Distant Shore’ or ‘North Marine Drive’ would be prime candidates for song choices from 1982 and 1983 respectively. Yet by 1986 Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn had progressed to a gloriously technicolored and extravagantly orchestrated sound that simultaneously embraced Radio 2 middle of the road nostalgia and yet still sounded contemporary and far from lightweight. It sounded like Pop forged in the flames of torch songs and gaudy nightclubs; Pop that pulsed and swayed with the heartbeat of a Green Dragon. It was a sound that the Gilt Kid would have recognised. You certainly would never call it Indie.
It was a record that certainly caught me off-guard at the time, and brilliantly so. Apparently gone was Tracey’s infatuation with Morrissey’s Smiths that perhaps cast a shadow onto 1985’s ‘Love Not Money’, replaced with a sympathetic but entirely individual interpretation of the songwriting structures of the likes of Burt Bacharach, Hal David and Jimmy Webb. Names known but not known to me at the time. Nods. Pointers. "There is this, and there is that” these songs seemed to say. A world of possibilities stumbling into my light.
Never did the light shine so sweetly than on a blazing June afternoon when ‘Baby The Stars Shine Bright’ accompanied me on a five and a half mile walk from Kilmarnock to Dundonald. It was, in retrospect, a key moment on which my life hinged, for the Kilmarnock appointment of that afternoon meant that in October 1986 I would be able to get back to Art School and effectively start over. As such, the swelling strings and soaring vocals of ‘Come On Home’ now feel, in retrospect, to be so startlingly apposite. It was a moment of going back and heading forward; heading homeward to my past whilst glimpsing a tentatively unfurling future. The song was not about these things, but it was certainly about these feelings. Besides which, we each take ownership of art when it enter our lives. We each mould meaning to meet our needs, whatever they might be and however they might change in the heartbeat of an instant. If I close my eyes I can see that brilliant blueness still, can feel the uncommon heat of the sun burn through my patent shoes. Sounds cascade through my mind like seed heads tumbling in the breeze.
Of course in the thirty years since ‘Come On Home' both Tracey and Ben have created brilliant works, together and alone. Indeed their recent solo work (Tracey with soundtrack work for the wonderful ’The Falling’ and Ben with his terrific ‘Fever Dream’ set) is as fine as anything they have ever produced, but did they ever look and sound finer than in this 1986 incarnation of Everything But The Girl? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Ben in dapper suit and flat top with razored neckline, Tracey in flapper dress and Louise Brooks bob. Stunning twenties nightclub glamour under a glittering disco ball. Such poise. Such style. Way ahead. Still.