Independence, that’s the thing. When Glasgow group The Delgados found that no one fancied releasing their debut single, they simply did it themselves – sparking the curious, unwieldy, and still advancing story of Chemikal Underground.
Giving the music scene of both Glasgow and broader Scotland a point to coalesce around, the label launched in 1994, a year dominated by Kurt Cobain’s suicide and the rise of Britpop, a genre that was so incorrigibly, unfathomably English it may as well have tied a hanky on its head and went for a weekend break in Margate.
Scotland, though, was a different matter. Still reeling from the economic shock of the Thatcher years, it was – in the media’s myopic gaze, anyway – a place dominated by statistics for unemployment, teenage pregnancy, and drug addiction.
Somewhere in all this, the youthful members of Mogwai were busy finding one another. Kids clued up on everything from primordial metal to the latest advancements in the American underground, their dissonant, quiteLOUD compositions – the word ‘song’ hardly covers it – billowed out past any barrier placed in their way; playfully groundbreaking, humorously inventive, the band’s completely unpretentious approach to wilfully obtuse music continues to have an extremely Glaswegian streak running through it.
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Flushed with cash from the Top 40 success of a Bis EP, Chemikal Underground took the band under their wing, helping them gain access to the MCM Studios in Hamilton – not too far at all from the site of the former Ravenscraig steelworks, one of the most notable causalities in the wholesale demolition of Scottish heavy industry.
Spending the summer of ‘97 shuttling in and out of the studio, Mogwai allowed their imaginations to run wild. The results were astonishing: debut album ‘Young Team’ still sounds like little else around, from the rambling spoken word of ‘Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home’ right up to cataclysmic finale ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’.
Oddly for such a potent live band, all but three of the songs on ‘Young Team’ were constructed in the studio, the sparse musical palette augmented by only the faintest of flourishes of glockenspiel, piano, or flute. It’s a record in which the standard definitions of a rock band are hurled into a rock pool and left to fester.
The music is structured with a rare degree of independence, matching the skeletal paranoia of Slint to the mathematical experimentation of Chicago groups such as Tortoise. Unhooking themselves from their influences, Mogwai let their ship drift out into darkened waters, resulting in the barely-there-vocal of ‘Katrien’ and the sheer grandeur of ‘Radar Maker’.
Yet it’s all delivered with this strange, wry grin. Song title ‘A Cheery Wave From Stranded Youngsters’ essentially gives this music a manifesto, while the album’s own name – a reference to Glasgow street gangs – was natural, unpretentious, and a marked break from the way Scottish working class culture had traditionally been treated in the arts.
Chemikal Underground cohort Aidan Moffat – then of Arab Strap – appears on ‘R U Still In 2 It’, the only track with anything approaching a standard vocal part. Looking back from a vantage point of two decades, it’s easy to pinpoint the impact of both groups, the manner in which they broadened the lexicon both of what music could achieve, and also of what could be said about Scotland itself.
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While it would be wrong to ascribe a political power to ‘Mogwai Young Team’ - the band’s involvement in that sphere came much later – the context within which it was crafted supplies the record with additional resonance. The demise of Thatcherism and the rise of New Labour sparked the re-opening of the Scottish parliament, but it also resulted in repressive youth curfews in Scottish cities, something Mogwai themselves would protest on the 1998 EP ‘No Education = No Future (Fuck The Curfew)’.
‘Young Team’ is a record marked by a state of flux, by the continual search for new ideas, for new possibilities. It’s a stunning record, an album of vast invention and emotional suckerpunch after emotional suckerpunch. Wilfully uncommercial and released on a small label in a regional city, it probably should have sank without a trace; instead, it sold more than 30,000 copies and has never been out of print, even gaining a lavish re-issue in 2008.
Of course, by that point Mogwai had launched their own Rock Action imprint, with Scotland itself fresh from placing an SNP administration in power for the very first time. Aye independence, that’s the thing.
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