There have been no greater champions of Scottish music in the last 20 years than Vic Galloway. More than any other broadcaster, or writer, I can think of he has spread the word beyond Scotland’s borders (and other now-defunct music retail outlets) to make sure that the great indie/pop/rock/just plain good music being made in Scotland at least has a chance to find its way to ears around the world. So who better to write a book on the most important and influential music scene in Scotland of the last 20 years? No one; but it turns out he is even more qualified than I realised.
Galloway was born and raised in Fife, in a village near St Andrews where he went to school. In everyone’s history, being in the right time and place are key, and it was Galloway’s luck that he was in this part of the world just at the time certain like-minded souls were beginning to fall in love with music, and, most importantly, beginning to inspire each other. In a short space of time discerning music lovers would come to know and love The Beta Band, King Creosote, James Yorkston, and the rest of the music that seemed to be pouring forth from Fife, often, but not always, under the banner of The Fence Collective. Not since Postcard Records in the early ’80s had so many influential musicians been so closely linked together, and in Vic Galloway they have the perfect chronicler.
His book, the brilliantly titled Songs In The Key Of Fife, is a biography of that music scene, and it is an insider’s guide. Galloway’s presence in the book is key as he forms bands with various of the central figures, and befriends most of the others. While it is a celebration of the music and those who make it, it’s also an incredibly honest book, one which doesn’t shy away from drug use, heavy drinking, driving ambition, family fall outs and mental health problems, and it is all the better for it, bringing a humanity that is often missing from such books. I’m sure there were parts of these stories which Galloway must have thought long and hard about including, and perhaps there are other stories which hit the cutting room floor (the original draft was 35,000 words longer, which suggests that must be the case), but this is as far away from a sensational expose as you can imagine.
What Galloway does is put the music, and the perceived success and failure of those who made it, into context. He offers some possible answers as to why King Creosote is better known than Lone Pigeon or Pip Dylan, or why The Beta Band weren’t the global superstars that everyone expected them to be. It is a book which is about the author searching for answers as much as anything else, and what shines throughout is that Galloway not only loves this music, but the musicians as well. He really cares about what happens, and what has happened, to everyone on these pages, and when he implores his readers to “now search out the recordings and see these guys perform live…” at the end of the book, you know that is his ultimate reason for writing it, to continue to spread the word.
I was going to say that one of the best things about Songs In The Key Of Fife is that it avoids nostalgia because this is a story that has yet to end, and that is still mostly true. However, I read in the paper this morning that the schism which Galloway hints at in his ‘Afterword’ between Kenny Anderson and Johnny Lynch (and if you’re not sure who they are, then the book is the perfect place to find out) as to the future of Fence, seems to be playing out. If Songs In The Key Of Fife is to be a final word for a certain time and place then it is a fitting one, but great music is still coming from Fife, and going to Fife, and this shows no sign of stopping. It will be interesting to see how things move on from here. As I was reading, my soundtrack was mainly James Yorkston, King Creosote, The Pictish Trail, and Steve Mason, but it could have been dozens of others, and when you consider the bands and musicians who have been involved with, and influenced by, the central characters in the book, and Galloway himself, you realise what an astonishing time and place it was.
You may think you know this story, or you may feel you don’t need to as the music is enough, but if you’re like me you crave to know more about your heroes, to find out what it is which makes them who they are and what they do. But there is a bigger story being told here. What happened in the East Neuk of Fife may come to symbolise the progression of most musical movements of recent times, from a DIY, folk, ethos, the integration of an electronic influence, sometimes fame (if not always fortune), and then dealing with the problems of coming to terms with making music, and a living, in the digital age. What happens next? Who knows, but as long as there are people like Vic Galloway, the musicians in his book, and you, and me, who love music more than almost anything else, then I’ve got the feeling that everything is going to be just fine.
Here’s some great music from some of those mentioned in Vic’s book to whet your appetite, a purely personal selection from the thousands of songs I could have chosen. The first is The Beta Band, followed by James Yorkston and The Athletes, and finishing with Pip Dylan himself: