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Top 20 Best Scottish Indie Rock Bands of the 1980s

A personal account of a visit during my time spent on Lake Garda where I lived and worked for 6 months.


Here you'll find the inspiration for Kurt Cobain, Franz Ferdinand and The Rapture. A list of bands from Scotland who have not only scaled the heights in the UK but some of whom have conquered America in their time.

The 1980s weren't all about huge hairstyles, glammed-up rockers and New Romantics. Many bands were still keeping it less flamboyant with raw guitar licks and honest, down-to-earth lyrics.

Below, in alphabetical order are 20 of the best that Scotland produced in that decade and which have stood the test of time long after the hair lacquer had sprayed its last perfumed particles.

1. The Beltanes

A short-lived group from Glasgow who were active for only 5 years from 1987 to 1992. Initially influenced by the '60s music of The Rolling Stones the seductive effect of the new Indie Rock of The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays finally shaped their sound.

Unfortunately, they never secured a record deal even after an offer of management by Artist Connection in London. This they turned down due to the unacceptable demands of the contract.

Always acclaimed for their live performances as well as their principles they were a well-known outfit in Glasgow and around Scotland. In particular at the famous venue King Tut's Wah Wah Hut where they also showcased comedy talent rather than have supporting musicians.

2. Big Country

A phoenix that rose from the ashes of The Skids Punk Rock group. In 1981 guitarist Stuart Adamson, a native of Dunfermline in Fife, started up this new project.

They hit their mark in 1983 with a UK Top 10 single in 'Fields of Fire' and the album 'The Crossing' which remarkably also reached the Top 20 in the USA and went gold thanks to the single 'In a Big Country'. Their trademark motif was the bagpipe-sounding guitar of Adamson achieved by transposer effects.

Although the American fame of Big Country was short-lived they went from strength to strength in the UK and elsewhere. Their second album 'Steeltown' went straight to No.1 along with more hit singles and a further two Top 10 albums. The 1990s were less kind to the band and although still holding their own critically and commercially their best days were in the previous decade.

Stuart Adamson subsequently suffered from depression and alcoholism and went missing on more than one occasion. Sadly he committed suicide in a Hawaiin hotel in December 2001.

In 2010 other members of the band reformed under the Big Country banner and continue to play live and they released an original studio album 'The Journey' in 2013 with Mike Peters of The Alarm on vocals.

3. The Cocteau Twins

A sophisticated and original band that came from the oil town of Grangemouth in Stirlingshire. They began life in 1979 as a trio of singer Liz Fraser, guitarist Robin Guthrie and bassist Will Heggie.

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Their debut album 'Garlands' was an Indie Rock success and later releases would project them into the mainstream. Fraser's operatic and ethereal voice floating over atmospheric guitar sounds proved a spectacular combination.

Heggie was replaced by multi-instrumentalist Simon Raymonde in 1984 and the band went from strength to strength with Top 10 albums with 'Victorialand' in 1986 and 'Heaven or Las Vegas' in 1990.

Although their singles never reached the dizzy heights they consistently charted in respectable positions and occasionally made Top 40. Among their most popular were songs like 'The Spangle-Maker', 'Evangeline', 'Bluebeard' and 'Tishbite'.

The band finally split in 1998 during recording of what would have been their 9th studio album

4. Del Amitri

Begun in 1983 on the west side of Glasgow by Justin Currie who placed an ad in a shop window looking for band members. In 1984 they were signed by Chrysalis Records and their debut album 'Del Amitri' followed in 1985.

Success was still to come as the album and singles didn't sell well leading to them being dropped by the label. They were picked up again in 1987 by A&M and that brought the breakthrough into the mainstream.

Their second album 'Waking Hours' was a Top 10 hit in the UK with the single 'Nothing Ever Happens' reaching No.11. They have never enjoyed a Top 10 finish in the UK singles charts but have performed honourably with many great tunes.

Ironically their 1995 song 'Roll to Me' hit No.10 in the USA and then they had the honour of providing the official football song for the Scottish World Cup squad in 1998 with the overly-optimistic 'Don't Come Home Too Soon'.

They split up in 2002 but then reformed with a new line-up in 2013. The resulting tour produced a live album called 'Into the Mirror' in 2014 and they are still on the musical scene.

5. The Fire Engines

An Edinburgh combo called into action in 1979 in the so called post-Punk scene at the end of that decade. A very influential band who provided creative inspiration for the likes of Franz Ferdinand and US band The Rapture.

The Fire Engines comprised Davy Henderson, Murray Slade, Graham Main and Russell Burn and their first single, a double-A side 'Get Up and Use Me/Everything's Roses', came out in 1980.

Their early gigs were still imbued with a true Punk attitude as described by Henderson "It was very violent although no-one got hurt" and didn't get in the way of a record deal with Fast Product. They were also invited twice onto the prestigious John Peel sessions at BBC Radio 1.

Their debut album 'Lubricate Your Living Room' in 1981 was mostly instrumental and in the same year their most popular single 'Candyskin' sold well. But by the end of the year the band were no more and its members went to other successful projects.

However they had a brief and casual reformation of occasional gigs between 2004 and 2006 and are still not averse to the odd get-together on stage.

6. Goodbye Mr McKenzie

A West Lothian band formed in Bathgate near the capital city Edinburgh back in 1981. Included in their line-up was John Duncan who had already made his mark as a guitarist with Punk legends The Exploited and also Shirley Manson who would later gain international fame as the lead singer with Garbage.

They released two singles on an independent label before being signed by Capitol Records in 1987. The label helped the re-release of 'The Rattler' which reach No.37 in the UK charts in 1989 followed by their first album 'Good Deeds and Dirty Rags' which charted at No.26 in the same year.

The group's second album 'Hammer and Tongs' fared less well and the singles reached the lower end of the charts in a moderate but unspectacular performance. Throughout their career, the band suffered from changes of management and label as well as promotional let-downs.

But they were a band with a healthy cult following internationally and very popular in Scotland until their eventual demise in 1996.

7. Hipsway

A band of the New Wave in the '80s decade who were set up in Glasgow in 1984. A deal soon followed with Mercury Records leading to their eponymous first abum.

It was a moderate success but they are best known for the classic single 'The Honeythief' which was lifted from the album. It reached No.17 in the UK charts but also made the Top 20 in the USA.

They were also given a welcome boost of publicity when the album track 'Tinder' was used for a Tennents lager advert. Surprisingly it was never released as a single.

The follow-up album 'Scratch the Surface' in 1989 was less successful than their first and the resulting singles only reached the lower end of the UK Charts. The band split up soon after although they have reformed briefly to celebrate the old days on stage.

Bassist Johnny McElhone also seemed to have the Midas touch as either side of Hipsway he was a member of both hit bands Altered Images and Texas.

8. The Jesus and Mary Chain

A group from the town of East Kilbride near Glasgow who were set up in 1983 by brothers Jim and William Reid.

They started performing live the following year and so desperate were they for gigs that they would gatecrash a support slot, playing a quick set before anyone realised they hadn't actually been booked.

In 1984 they made the big move to London where the action always was in the music scene. This led to a management contract with Alan McGee. A successful single 'Upside Down' was the outcome followed by their debut album 'Psycho Candy' released through the Blanco y Negro label in 1985.

Despite being caught in a drug bust the band went from strength to strength although their live shows could be chaotic and fraught with danger. Smashing of instruments, missiles thrown by the audience, stage storming and near riots accompanied them on tour leading to controversy, town hall bans and endless publicity.

Things settled down and tours of Europe, Japan and the USA solidified their reputation of good music containing a blend of raw 70's Punk and soulful melody redolent of the '60s.

Despite their great success, they broke up in 1999 as tensions within the band became unbearable. However, they reformed in 2007 with a long-awaited album 'Damage and Joy' appearing in 2017.

9. Josef K

Taking their name from the main character of the Franz Kafka novel 'The Trial', Josef K were formed in Edinburgh in 1979. The band were singer/guitarist Paul Haig, multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Ross, bassist David Weddell and Ronnie Torrance on drums.

They were never really commercially driven and, after releasing several singles to moderate success, they actually scrubbed the release of their first album as they were unhappy with the production. Their first and only album came in 1981.

It was called 'The Only Fun in Town' and it never featured in the mainstream charts. However, they had a dedicated following in the Indie scene and were later to inspire future bands such as The Wedding Present, The June Brides, The Futureheads and Franz Ferdinand.

As for Josef K they were often compared to the likes of Talking Heads, Television and Joy Division and noted for their dark sound and downbeat lyrics. However, the band broke up in 1982 as Haig had decided to end on a high when they were at their creative peak.

10. The Pastels

A band from Glasgow who have been around for a very long time although with a sparse back catalogue they haven't worried about being prolific. They started up in 1981 and have been through more personnel than album releases.

The mainstay has been lead man Stephen McRobbie who has always been the writer-in-chief of their music. In the early 1980's they slowly developed a cult fan base and attracted interest from the musical press as well as influencing other young bands at that time.

Their debut album 'Up for a Bit with The Pastels' in 1987 was an interesting eclectic mix of raw garage and synthesiser. Their next album 'Sittin Pretty' in 1989 contained a harder edge.

After a line-up change they kept on going but have only released another three studio albums to date, 'Mobile Safari' in 1995, 'Illumination' in 1997 and after a sixteen year wait came 'Slow Summits' in 2013.

In between, they provided the soundtrack for the movie 'The Last Great Wilderness' in 2003. Today The Pastels are still lurking somewhere in the background of the musical scene and are still a well-respected band in the UK and Europe.

11. The Primevals

A Glasgow band who kicked off in 1983 and influenced by early US Garage Rock. A year later came their first single 'Where Are You' followed by a mini-LP and in 1985 a much-coveted appearance in a John Peel session for BBC Radio.

The original line-up was Michael Rooney on vocals, guitarists Tom Rafferty and Kevin Key, bassist Malcolm McDonald with Rhod Burnett on drums.

Stability wasn't a great feature of the band's make-up with many personnel changes over a short period of years. Nevertheless, the albums started coming with their debut 'Sound Hole' in 1986 and 'Live a Little' the following year.

However, the band broke up soon later and a posthumous live album called 'Neon Oven' came out in 1989 as their musical epitaph.

They had a couple of brief reformations in the 1990s but it wasn't until 2007 that they got serious about re-emerging and more new material actually appeared in a welcome return to the studio.

12. The Proclaimers

A brotherly duo born in Leith in Edinburgh and who formed their band in Fife in 1983. Craig and Charlie Reid had played Punk when they were teenagers but with their new project they took a brave direction.

Singing in their own Scottish accents went against the grain of the trans-Atlantic melange normally heard on Pop and Rock records.

But it didn't stop them from achieving spectacular success. After a 1986 tour supporting The Housemartins they soared to No.3 in the UK singles chart with 'Letter from America'.

Over the next few years they enjoyed a productive period of both moderate and smash hits, such as 'Sunshine on Leith', 'I'm on my Way', 'Let's Get Married', 'What Makes You Cry', plus a cover of 'King of the Road' and their classic anthem 'I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)' which gave them a No.3 hit in the USA after being used as the theme song for the movie Benny and Joon.

In 1994 they took a break but returned in 2001 with the album 'Persevere' and although no hit singles have been forthcoming their subsequent albums have performed healthily in the charts.

13. Runrig

A hugely popular band in Scotland who were formed in the Isle of Skye in 1973 as a dance band playing weddings. They sang in Gaelic for their first album 'Play Gaelic' in 1978 and although they also sing in English they will still record in the ancient tongue.

Their name derives from a system of landholding and the band's lyrics have reflected themes about the land, the people and the history of Scotland. Their first single in 1982, a cover of the traditional song 'Loch Lomond', exemplified this and it became a great favourite at their concerts.

National success was a long time coming, but between 1987 and 1997, Runrig enjoyed a string of both major and minor hits in the UK album and singles charts. In 1997 they lost their singer Donnie Munro who had decided to enter politics, but they continued with Canadian Bruce Guthro.

After over 40 years in the business, the band are still rocking the mountains, the lochs and the glens and are still a popular live attraction. In 2016 they announced that their 14th studio album 'The Story' would be their last, although they will still be playing live shows.

14. Scheme

Originally a pub covers band called Oliver's Army trailing around the East End of Glasgow these guys evolved into Scheme in 1980 and by then were playing their own material. Singer and guitarist Denny Oliver and lead guitar John Smith were the main protagonists of the group

It's reckoned that the content of their music may have held them back from securing the record deal that they surely deserved. Songs like 'C.N.D'. from their first E.P. in 1982 displayed the political edge to their songs.

But their musical reputation continued to grow in their native Glasgow and they progressed from small venues to headlining outdoor gigs. They even made history with a sell-out show at the Glasgow Apollo despite still being an unsigned band.

Their first album came out in 1986 and was entitled 'Black and Whites', a blend of Rock and Reggae Music. Another two albums followed called 'Late Again' and 'Non-Returnable' included some Blues style tunes.

Their music wasn't always protest songs but they were active in promoting issues such as the legalisation of marijuana and campaigning against Margaret Thatcher

15. The Shop Assistants

A group from Edinburgh who entered the music scene in 1984 as Buba & The Shop Assistants. With a female lead in Aggi (AKA Annabel Wright) followed by Karen Parker they only released one album and several singles.

Their first 45 was 'Something to Do' and then came an E.P. entitled 'Shopping Parade' in 1985. They came to the attention of John Peel and the band recorded a session for his BBC Radio 1 show.

The year 1987 saw that elusive first album appear thanks to a deal with the Blue Guitar record label. Their LP 'Will Anything Happen' was replied in the negative as it failed to chart, only reaching No.100 in the UK listings.

They broke up that same year and apart from a brief reunion and two singles in 1989-90 they have gone their separate ways. But they made their mark, however briefly, and deserve a mention in dispatches.

16. Simple Minds

A Glasgow band that started off as Johnny and the Self-Abusers playing Punk Rock. Thankfully the name change came in 1977 and the Simple Minds phenomenon began.

It took time to take hold with only moderate success from their first three albums. But 'Sons and Fascination' in 1981 saw them hit their stride although no big hits singles were forthcoming. It took the song 'Promised You a Miracle' in 1982 to break them into the UK Top 20 for the first time.

They enjoyed a string of hits in the 1980s and were the most commercially successful Scottish band of that decade. They even had a No.1 smash in the USA in 1985 with 'Don't You Forget About Me', the theme song from 'The Breakfast Club', the classic Brat-Pack movie.

In the UK they hit No.1 in 1989 with their beautiful version of the traditional song 'Belfast Child'. Not surprisingly any song that dealt with the Troubles in Northern Ireland would come in for controversy as Sting, Paul McCartney and John Lennon had found out.

The hits kept coming into the 1990s and although not selling as well in the new century they are still popular across the world, still recording and playing live to large crowds. Simple Minds have endured many line-up changes over the years with only singer Jim Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill being the original members.

17. The Soup Dragons

A band from the town of Bellshill in North Lanarkshire who breathed into life in 1985. Their initial lineup was guitarist and singer Sean Dickson, Ian Whitehall and Sushil Dade on guitar and bass respectively with Ross Sinclair on drums.

Apart from a US-release only compilation album their first proper LP was 'This is Our Art' which came out in 1988. They scored highly in the UK Indie Chart with their single releases but failed to make a dent in the mainstream classification for their first couple of years.

Ironically it took a cover version of The Rolling Stones song 'I'm Free' in 1990 which shot to No.5 in the UK. The follow-up 'Mother Universe' was also a success entering the Top 30.

Both these tracks came from their second album 'Lovegod'. In fact from their next album 'Hotwired' in 1992 they had a surprise hit in America with the dance-influenced song 'Divine Thing' which settled at No.35 in the US Hot 100. The accompanying video received a nomination for the MTV Awards that year.

Despite this reasonable success on both sides of the Atlantic The Soup Dragons broke up in 1995 with the various members moving on to other projects.

18. This Mortal Coil

An unusual concoction founded in 1983 as rather than being a band they were more of a collective of the 4AD record label. The group were named after a famous phrase taken from Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' via Monty Python's 'Dead Parrot Sketch'.

Although Ivo Watts-Russell and John Fryer were the leaders and permanent members all the other singers and musicians just flitted in and out making contributions throughout the years.

In a creative and productive environment, artists were encouraged to innovate and experiment with material including cover versions.

The most famous was their re-creation of Tim Buckley's 'Song to a Siren' with Elizabeth Fraser on vocals. This came from the first album 'It'll End in Tears' released in 1984 to critical acclaim.

Another two albums followed called 'Filigree & Shadow' in 1986 and 'Blood' in 1991 before things came to an end that same year. Watts and Russell then created another band called The Hope Blister later in the decade.

19. The Vaselines

A favourite band of Kurt Cobain, The Vaselines were formed in Glasgow in 1986 and were originally a duo of Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee. Later other band members were added and the group have undergone several line-up changes thereafter.

This is evident from the fractured chronology of their musical career as they have drifted in and out of the scene since the mid-'80s. Their first episode only lasted 3 years but after Nirvana famously covered their song 'Molly's Lips' they reformed for a one-off support slot for the Seattle rockers in 1990.

The latter helpfully covered more of their songs even after the phenomenal success of the album 'Nevermind' which brought more international exposure for the Scots. But it hasn't brought any mainstream success commercially as they have failed to make any impression on the charts either at home or abroad.

Nevertheless they have kept plugging away enjoying a cult status with three albums. 'Dum Dum' in 1989 and after yet another reformation in 2008 they finally released their second and third albums, 'Sex with an X' in 2010 and 'V for Vaselines' in 2014.

20. The Waterboys

A long-standing Celtic co-operative responsible for some of the best Folk Rock to have come out of modern Scotland. Formed in 1983 in Edinburgh by Mike Scott who is the genius behind it all. He is The Waterboys and they are he.

That's not to denigrate the important contributions of the many Scottish, Irish, Welsh and international members both past and present that have graced the soundtrack of their albums. Artists such as multi-instrumentalists Steve Wickham and Anthony Thistlethwaite amongst other notables.

Incredibly the list of participants since the '80s is creeping towards 100 artistes. A true collective indeed. But Mike Scott is still the main writer and inspiration who has been responsible for classic hits like 'Whole of the Moon', 'Fisherman's Blues', 'A Man is in Love', 'The Return of Pan', 'Glastonbury Song' and many other great tunes that deserved better mainstream acclaim.

But it's their albums that have maintained their reputation throughout the years. Top 10 UK hits in the 1980s and 1990s, such as 'Room to Roam' and 'Dream Harder' with a slight dip in fortunes in the 2000s. But they have come back strong with successful albums in recent years with 'Modern Blues' and 'Out of All This Blue'.

Just a slice of the great anthology of Scottish Rock music confined to one decade. It doesn't end there and through the Rock n' Roll years since the halcyon days of the 1950's you'll find many a tartan tinge in the generational jukebox.

You may be surprised at what you unearth from a whole host of Caledonian virtuosos, ranging from the midnight club bands of the underworld to the high-flying superstars of the stadia.

© 2017 Shinkicker

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