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Can Week – Day 3: Alan Warner on Record Collecting in the Scottish Highlands

To celebrate the upcoming release of our 101st 33 1/3 on Tago Mago by Alan Warner, we bring you the third installment of Can week – – an excerpt from the book about Warner’s young adulthood in the Scottish highlands. 

I first came across Alan Warner’s writing in a short novel called Morvern Callar. Its protagonist is a Scottish woman who experiences something so traumatic that she becomes like a ghost, moving through her shitty existence just trying to survive. Meanwhile, Alan tells us exactly what she’s listening to. She’s always got a tape in her Walkman and it usually has a song by Can. When I found myself in Edinburgh on a work trip, I tracked Alan down, invited him to lunch and we talked about the possibility of him participating in the series. It had to be about Can, we both agreed. Less than a year later I had a manuscript. -Ally Jane

Here is a short excerpt from Alan Warner’s 33 1/3 on Tago Mago, available now in the US and Canada.

“My destination that day was our small town’s little record shop. This was a small community music shop like so many thousands of others which have long since vanished. A cramped downstairs area contained alphabetical racks of vinyl albums, the cassettes were locked higher up against one wall, in turning frames. On wheels there were some upright revolving carousels of miscellaneous albums. The 45 rpm singles of the Top 40 charts were kept behind the till and small counter. High up and fixed to the wall, well out of reach behind the till, there was one solitary copy of the 45 rpm single ‘J’taime’ by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg sealed in a clear plastic envelope – the record cover displayed a risqué photo of disrobed Jane’s elongated thigh and derriere.

Up the steep stairs was the sheet music ‘department’, but with disappointingly few musical instruments: boring flutes and horrible, glamour-less recorders – those school
instruments of hard plastic which you blow into. There was absolutely never anything as exciting as an electric or even acoustic guitar – but there were always metal music
stands which seemed to be good sellers for some reason. Perhaps to do with the pipe band and bagpipe traditions of our town?

Looking back, it seems quite a culturally diverse shop compared to the bland standardization of today’s fast-vanishing HMV or Tower Records. There was sheet music of fiddle and bagpipe tunes upstairs while downstairs there were Uriah Heep and Scorpions albums.

Quite weird. In that traditional manner, every inch of the walls and the slanted ceilings was plastered with glossy promotional posters for bands and album releases. In those days, small independent regional music stores still accounted for a large degree of vinyl record and tape sales in Britain, so the place was nearly always lively, especially at weekends with the weekly sheet of the Top 100 promptly put up in front of the till. People would lean forward there, surveying the chart positions of records as if reading from some strange horoscope of grave consequence. The shop was run by a gentle, very young man who always seemed stylish as he wore both jeans and a pinstriped jacket all of the time.

Or at least every Saturday when we saw him. We all hugely envied his job which, from our point of view at least, seemed to only involve being able to play whatever albums and singles you wished – all day long – and to take stock of your choice home and play it there too.

Such was my excitement at the delights which might await me in Douglas’s Records & Tapes – to this day, once every few years, I still dream a warped version of the shop and more specifically of the delicious feeling of anticipation with which I would approach it on Saturdays – the musical possibilities contained therein.

Its actual stock was another issue. The records mostly leaned towards what was popular: heavy metal and heavy rock rather than New Wave and what sold in a Scottish Highland town orientated to seasonal tourism in the late 1970s. That meant quite a lot of ‘Scottish’ music was stocked. This doesn’t necessarily mean traditional instrumental folk music, Gaelic song, the fiddle, the pibroch of the solo bagpipe or the martial music of the marching pipe band, or even ceilidh band of ‘traditional’ Scottish ‘folk’ music. ‘Scottish Music’ actually meant a great deal of native crooners, like Kenneth McKellar and The Alexander Brothers, Moira Anderson and The Corries.

The cover art of these long-playing records inevitably displayed a Highland landscape – loch, mountain, blooming heather and kilted artiste, astride the verdure and ever-smiling. I don’t want to appear too cynical; some of those ballads sung by these fine singers, such as the ‘The Dark Island’ – which a girl once privately sang to me in Gaelic as we waited in her parents’ car – hold a great beauty, envermeiled with bitter nostalgia as they are.

In some ways this music was and is a quite bizarre subculture. Many Scottish people did listen to it – probably far less do so now – especially working-class visitors up from Glasgow and the (then) industrialized central belt of Scotland. However the main market was the English tourist and the continental foreigner who attended the Corran Halls in August to listen to many of these singers in kitschy, tartan-draped shows. It is music slightly aligned to Scottish Country dance music – that dreaded sound of the accordion and of the light lilting snare drum beat – for prescribed and approved Highland dances, such as we were taught and forced into and traumatized by at our high school.”

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