“The Lowest of the Low” Thoughts on ‘Trainspotting’ and Scottishness


I’m currently working with a class on the Geography of Europe, focusing primarily on the self-proclaimed continent since 1945, the year author Ian Baruma famously touted as ‘Year Zero‘ in that part of the globe. Interesting enough, the United Kingdom, having been one of the decisive victors in WWII, have shied away from any real leadership role (at least, within Europe) since then. The Brits have always had a knack for getting in spats (on whatever scale) with their neighbors, often overshadowing Great Britain’s internal spats. In 2005, I had a conversation with my Londoner friend Dominic about what social and political life over there was like, as I had yet to visit.

“The Scottish don’t particularly like us,” he said, “but we really just don’t care.”

Considering how I had only lived, at this point in my life, well above the Mason-Dixon line, I likened this to a strange Antebellum-philia many American Southerners (and elsewhere, in whatever cases) feel, coupled with antagonism toward the North and allegedly analogous federal government. Of course, to compare the American Civil War with a Millennium of shifting feudal allegiances and stirring political stew in Northern Europe would be disingenuous. I would be interested in seeing the existing parallels drawn out, though.

At any rate, our work in the European Geography course inspired me to revisit one of my favorite movies of all time “Trainspotting.” For the uninitiated, WATCH IT. (Sorry… let me try this again:) For the uninitiated, it’s a screen adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel about a pack of junkies and their sociopathic mates trying to maintain in late-1980s Edinburgh. The dialogue is fantastic, Danny Boyle’s inventive film-making never fails to impress, and we get to see Ewan MacGregor (whose career it kick-started) deliver one of the most iconic speeches on the grim realities of Scottishness that the sunny 80’s pop of Altered Images and Orange Juice did not dig up. (NSFW)

It also has one of my favorite endings, replete with gritty morals about drug use. I am not going to include too many spoilers here, but for your own good, if you have not seen it yet, do NOT watch it while eating.

Here’s the part about music as conduit of “scottishness.” While ‘Trainspotting’ may be one of the great European films of the 1990’s due to excellent acting, writing, and directing, what really set this film apart culturally was the soundtrack. Madchester and Britpop had already leaked across the Atlantic by the time of the Soundtrack’s release (most presciently, randomly enough, in the forms of EMF’s song “Unbelievable” and Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” respectively), but this soundtrack was what crystallized the aesthetic that had developed over British popular music over the previous twenty years. It even included a couple of 70’s gems by American artists that nonetheless fit into the film perfectly (the scene where Renton overdoses to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” gets more harrowing upon every viewing). 

I wish I had more time to write and research about this, but for now, the album (which user ‘Hayley Mills’ has uploaded) should make a great soundtrack for this Monday afternoon. In case anybody is wondering, New Order’s “Temptation” remains my favorite song used in the film, though there are so many classics here.

Tune in later this week for a massive post about Eastern Tennessee and Country Music with special guest Shane Rhyne.

If They Follow You, Don’t Look Back

When our parents were growing up, the person who knew about all the “cool” bands was a neighborhood celebrity (at least, according to my parents). Today, the moment you start extrapolating on the state of indie music and drop a reference to meeting Stephen Malkmus, you’re a putrid hipster and an elitist snob*. My theory is that people dismiss those who obsess over new bands and old vinyl because of the infinite catalog of music reference built into most people’s phones; anybody has access, so those who actively digest and regurgitate the information are clearly doing it to outclass their friends, right?

Seriously, though, as the literature says (especially when Foucault has anything to do with it), every single person you meet has a unique set of experiences that have informed their relationship with every place, space, and situation in which you encounter them. And instead of criticizing somebody for daring to enjoy a band that some influential website also enjoys, maybe take a moment and consider that they reason that a band becomes popular (on a certain level) could maybe, just maybe, be because they are genuinely good at making music and produce great songs.

On a related note, this documentary is absolutely wonderful, and you should take an hour to watch through this if you can. If not, then the first few minutes beautifully illustrate how pop music functionally romanticizes place.

This is wonderful, for so many reasons. Not only is Belle & Sebastian’s music great almost across the board (Sarah Martin is their secret weapon… and Stuart Murdoch doesn’t age, somehow), but their entire aesthetic paints their hometown of Glasgow in such a nostalgic, romantic light that you can’t help but associate the entire country of Scotland with happiness. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my buddy Jim a long time ago about Scotland. His then-girlfriend (now wife) was Irish and lived in the United Kingdom at the time, so he spent a lot of time traveling around in the North. When I told him about my preconceived notions of Scotland, he snapped back, “Dude, the Scottish need to sound happy…they need something. That place is like Newark [New Jersey] on a rainy day.” Hearing his account made me no less curious about visiting Glasgow, but it reminded me that no matter how hard “Act of the Apostle” (and many, many others**) unintentionally worked to mold this fantastic Glasgow in my brain, the reality was not much different than any social issue-plagued urban center in 21st century Europe.

The original “Blue Boy” 7″ single b/w “Love Sick.” Considering how much Postcard Records has done since 1980 to generate a glossy ideal of Glasgow, it’s weird that they’d go with an American wild west motif on their dust sleeves. I wonder why this was. To the internet!

One of the band’s greatest local influences, Orange Juice, provided me a crucial example of how music glues emotions together with places, even imagined. An old promo video for their “Blue Boy” single featured grainily-filmed Scottish teenagers gallivanting  gallivanting  gallivanting  Who’s to say that gallivanting was ever a thing, but damned if the “Blue Boy” video doesn’t make me want to gallivant through the Glasgow suburbs. Now, I’ve never once been to Glasgow, but I can’t help but smile when I think about it. For this, you can blame equal parts Edwyn Collins, Stuart Murdoch, Roddy Frame, and I suppose Jim Kerr (the 80’s movie fans just woke up).

The singer Martin Denny gave a great interview with V. Vale and Andrea Juno for their 1993 book Incredibly Strange Music Vol. 1 (Re/Search) about his Hawaiian Music records. They were hits across the board during the 50’s, predominantly with mainland listeners, who were unaware of how much of his music was conceived and produced in New York. The best sales tactic was to keep listeners’ imaginations flowing, which is clearly still true now as much as ever, even if novice listeners can pull more information than they’d ever want about an artist from the internet in seconds. Granted, Vale and Juno had no way of knowing that this would be the case twenty years ago when they released the (amazing) book, but their points and observations about this bizarre interplay between popular music and the human psyche are just as relevant as ever.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to “Lazy Line Painter Jane” and think about riding around Madrid on city buses, because I have no choice when that song plays, for some reason.

– Ty

* This is a general statement, for any of my friends reading this. I’ve never met Stephen Malkmus, and like most twenty-something social scientists (who probably love Pavement), I wouldn’t know what to say if I met him… maybe something along the lines of “durrrrr.”

** “What others?” you may be asking. Even if you’re not, this is my website and here are my ten favorite Belle & Sebastian songs. For the record, I think their three best albums are  “If You’re Feeling Sinister,” “The Life Pursuit,” and “The Boy with the Arab Strap.” Their singles compilation is also essential.

  1. Sleep the Clock Around
  2. A Century of Fakers
  3. The Loneliness of a Middle-Distance Runner
  4. Expectations
  5. Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying
  6. Big John Shaft
  7. There’s Too Much Love
  8. Dress Up In You
  9. Seymour Stein
  10. The Rollercoaster Ride