The British blues scene had John Mayall for a prep-school headmaster; similarly, to become somebody in the downtown New York noise-art world, you first had to play with Glenn Branca. For the past decade or so, Scottish youth preparing to move out into the real music world have pledged their temporary troth to the unsteady musical vision of Duglas T. Stewart, the fair-haired singer/songwriter at the center of the fringes of Glasgow indie-pop. Members of Teenage Fanclub, the Soup Dragons, Superstar and Eugenius have all played a co-dependent role in the loosely configured wry on the rocks known as the BMX Bandits. More than just a crucial genealogical Scot-pop locus and overseas counterpart to such outfits as Luna, Velvet Crush, Beat Happening and the Gigolo Aunts, the band has introduced an inconsistently likable body of music to the international pop underground.
Initially conceived as a one-off by Stewart (ex-Pretty Flowers) and Sean Dickson (pre-Soup Dragons), the group soon settled into the formless state of permanence that has sustained it ever since. The BMX Bandits began releasing charming lighter-than-air pop singles in 1986, finally reaching full-length form on C86 four years later. Written and recorded by Stewart, future Fanclubbers Francis Macdonald (drums) and Norman Blake (guitar), future Eugenius guitarist Gordon Keen and future Superstar leader Joe McAlinden on bass, the album is whimsical, simple, romantic and catchy — very much the sum of its parts. (“Whirlpool” is an unmistakable blueprint for early Teenage Fanclub.) Plucky enough to make fun of an entire musical movement and unselfconscious enough to include the love song “Disco Girl” in two dinky versions, C86 is less a revolutionary scene-setter than an engaging love-rock ground-clearer.
Recorded and played presentably well (but no more) at a Scottish hotel in January 1989, Totally Groovy Live Experience! draws songs from the first album (“Disco Girl,” “Your Class,” “Whirlpool”) and early singles (“E102,” “The Day Before Tomorrow”), adding noisy covers of Neil Young (“Like a Hurricane”), the Dead Kennedys (“Nazi Punks Fuck Off”) and head Television Personality Daniel Treacy (“Girl at the Bus Stop”) as well as winning stage patter to the effort.
“Come Clean” not only appears twice on the EP named for it, the mildly diverting number does the same again on the succeeding album. (The EP is rounded out by the acoustic “Retitled,” also on Star Wars, and C86‘s “Let Mother Nature Be Your Guide.”) With Macdonald free of his Fanclub commitments and Blake doing double duty here, Star Wars adds Eugene Kelly (ex-Vaselines, in the process of getting Captain America, later renamed Eugenius, off the ground) to the creative porridge. In addition, the album takes a decidedly more refined, semi-mature tone. Between the finespun production, careful (but sometimes inept) harmony vocals, restrained energy (no “Nazi Punks” raves here), piano, strings and things, Star Wars is a handsome enough affair, but the songwriting and playing are short on sparkle. Luna-like electricity makes “Think Tank” notable, and an enthusiastic cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Do You Really Love Me?” leaps right out; otherwise, Star Wars is a fairly forgettable skirmish.
Gordon Keen and His BMX Bandits is a nifty/silly seven-track studio detour, with two versions of “Girl at the Bus Stop,” a reincarnation of C86‘s wonderful “Your Class,” a raw cover of Badfinger’s “Come and Get It,” the giddy “Kylie’s Got a Crush on Us” (written by Gerry Love of the Fanclub, who also plays on the novelty track), an a cappella gospel throwdown (“King of the Fools”) and “Hot Bandito No. 1” (which owes only the inspiration of its title to Gram Parsons).
Following the Fanclub to Creation, the BMX Bandits made “Serious Drugs,” the best single of the band’s career. In this perfectly shaped romantic ode phrased for deadpan eyebrow elevation, pharmaceutical imperatives are evenly invoked without significance; the deadpan provocation is just part of a desperate romantic campaign. “I’d cut off my hair if you want me to/I’d cut off a finger if it’d get me you/Serious love.” Other than a demo of the song, the rest of the EP built around it doesn’t give “Drugs” any competition.
The cleaned-up remake of “Kylie’s Got a Crush on Us” is a solid also-ran in the group’s upper echelons; the four-song EP also contains a very pretty rendition of Brian Wilson’s “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You Baby,” a dissenting parodic original entitled “My Generation” and a hoarse demo of “Hole in My Heart.” That last song also appears in finished form on Life Goes On, the first BMX Bandits album recorded as a full-time band — Stewart, Francis Macdonald, bassist Finlay Macdonald and guitarist John Hogarty — free of moonlighters. (It’s also the band’s sole US release to date.) Life Goes On gets a rise from “Serious Drugs,” “Kylie’s Got a Crush on Us” and a sweet cover of Beat Happening’s “Cast a Shadow,” but too many of the new originals are smoothed down and gussied up to a pristine pop breeze blowing sweetly between Haircut One Hundred and Aztec Camera. The familiar melody and trumpet make “Space Girl” call to mind Herb Alpert’s 1968 hit, “This Guy’s in Love With You”; like the whole quiet album, the song could be taken for camp if it weren’t so studiously serious. When’s the fun begin?