Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Artist In Residence – Jenny Sturgeon – Releases Two New Films

We’re so excited to share the release of two pieces made by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Artist in Residence Jenny Sturgeon on a project she led with 30 participants. The films – which you can watch below – feature music, words and field recordings as well as archive recordings from the National Library of Scotland sound archives. 

These residencies are made possible thanks to the support of the National Library of Scotland, British Library Sound Heritage and National Lottery Heritage Fund.

As Far North as Anything Grows

You can download the sound for this piece on Bandcamp here.

Pushing, Reaching, Falling, Replacing

You can download the sound for this pieces on Bandcamp here.

Jenny has made the audio pieces free to download, however if you’d like to pay for the track, all profits will go to highland rewilding charity Trees For Life.

The Work-Ins of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, 1971-1972: Hearing the Voices of the Protests

By Cara Melissa Evans 

Almost fifty years have passed since the events of the ship worker protests against the liquidation of UCS in Glasgow. This blog focuses on the audio recordings from the sound collection at the University of Glasgow, from those involved in the protests, along with news coverage and interviews. My name is Cara Melissa Evans and I have had the opportunity to work on this project alongside the National Library as part of my MSc course with the University of Strathclyde. I have analysed and listened to the collection to summarise and discuss the contents in this blog, as part of this project. 

When we talk about history, we always think of physical history – books, museums, historical sites. We think to learn from history we have to read or see it, but another great way of historical learning sometimes goes overlooked: sound history. Instead of reading the words of historical people, we can hear them instead, from the preservation of technology and records. Sound engineering and recording has come a long way during the 20th and 21st centuries, but in doing so has allowed the preservation of audio history. We can now listen to the voices of the historical figures we read about, hear the emotion and the meaning within their voices. It connects us with a deeper meaning, and in the case of this collection, lets us connect with the people that felt so passionate about their jobs and livelihoods. 

A protest meeting regarding the closure of the Shipyards Photo by the Morning Star 

The stories of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and workers are ones ingrained in modern Glaswegian history. While the years have gone by, it is hard to deny the impact of these men and women upon working-class society in the area. Many Glaswegians will know someone or be related to someone involved, or even be someone involved in these events. Following the collapse of the company which had come to be known as UCS (Upper Clyde Shipbuilders), the threat of over 6,000 job losses loomed following the government’s refusal to subsidise the company. This sparked mass protests from the workers who stood to lose their jobs – If this went ahead, then many of them would be unemployed and unable to provide for their families and themselves. The shipbuilding in Glasgow had deep history that stood to be lost also, and so the fight for the Upper Clyde began. 

Protests automatically were the go-to to show resistance and upset at the decision. However, the trade unions involved feared that to simply protest would lead to the government closing the shipyards for good, rather than allowing other companies to purchase them. The answer was revolutionary: a work-in. The workers would not refuse to work, but instead would be the only ones working and operating the shipyards until a change in the policies were made. Within the collection, opinions are voiced on this topic and it is clear to see how controversial the decision to work-in was. To those against it, the workers were reckless. To those involved and for it, it showed the government what the people of Glasgow were made of. 

The collection presents a mass of different opinions on the work-ins. Some recordings are less than 1 minute long, and others run up to 20 minutes discussing the events. Background noise can often be heard, due to the equipment being used to record these interviews and clips. There are many names in the collection that are intrinsically linked to these work-ins. Expect to hear from the likes of Jimmy Reid, the spokesperson of the work-ins, and John Davies, the Conservative government Secretary of State for Trade and Industry at the time. Much of the collection talks in professional terms, discussing the policies and difficulties of the back and forth between the government and workers. While listening, the story of the protests and the passion of those affected by the policies can be heard – With rousing speeches, loud marches, and thunderous applause in response. The heart and passion of the working-class people involved in the work-ins is loud throughout, speaking of revolution and unity. The phrases and terminology used in speeches were to reflect on these issues, with an example being a speaker stating: “What a colossal uprising this is!”. 

Spokesperson Jimmy Reid addressing a crowd in 1971. Photo by smn archive 

Throughout these audio recordings, the working-class sense of unity is a theme consistent in the voices of the protestors. What these people were enduring came to resonate not only with the rest of Scotland, but many areas of Wales and England wherein the working-class people were suffering hardships under the Conservative government. The movement started to become about more than the shipbuilders, but about galvanising the people to seek better livelihoods and incomes for themselves, and better working conditions. The UCS work-ins were recognised around the world, and the response especially from within the UK began to grow sympathetic and supportive. It highlighted multiple issues that Scotland, as a heavily Labour-minded country at this time, held with the Conservative government regarding working-class people and their treatment. The passion can be heard clearly in the speakers, those who viewed the work-ins as a way to better conditions and situations for the working-class of not only Scotland, but Britain too. The UCS workers gained support from celebrities too, including John Lennon, Billy Connolly, and Tony Benn. 

Signs at a protest voicing opinions and desires. Photo by Barrykade   

In February 1972, the efforts paid off and the government gave in to the workers’ demands. Two new companies were established (Govan Shipbuilders and Scotstoun Marine LTD) and the workers had won out with their work-ins. After listening to the hardships discussed on the audio records, it must have been an overwhelming sensation of relief and pride that their efforts had led them to victory.  

This collection is involved in a project called Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, in which the National Library of Scotland is working alongside multiple other institutions to preserve sound history. The project is run by the British Library and its 10 hubs across the UK, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The hope for the 3-year project is to digitise and preserve over 5,000 collections with the help from volunteers and collaboration partners. With the current climate and technology moving forward so rapidly, digitisation of these collections will keep them from getting lost and allow access to future generations to a special area of history. You can keep up to date with the project’s progression over at @ScotlandsSounds and with the hashtag #saveoursounds to be involved! Read more about the project here.

With thanks to Hub Project Manager Jeni Park for her supervision and coordination, and for allowing myself and others to undertake roles in this important and intriguing project. 

Further Reading: 

For a broader history surrounding the protests and shipbuilding, see Crisis on the Clyde the story of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders by Jack McGill. London Davis-Poynter, 1973. 

For a more general history of shipbuilding within the UK, see “Labour in the British Shipbuilding and Ship Repairing Industries in the Twentieth Century” in Shipbuilding and Ship Repair Workers around the World: Case Studies 1950-2010, edited by Murphy Hugh, Varela Raquel, and Van Der Linden Marcel. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017) 47-116 

Reflection for UOSH Placement. Reflections on Connecting Stories

by Rachel Gladstone, UOSH Volunteer

Having spent the vast majority of the first COVID-19 lockdown transcribing mountains of old family letters whose contents danced from stories of an all-girls Edinburgh boarding school, flew over Paris in 1815 before the Battle of Waterloo and sailed across the Suez Canal at the turn of the twentieth century, I thought that I was ready for my placement with the National Library of Scotland. 

Little did I know that I would be thrown back, headfirst, into a University of Glasgow lecture theatre, listening to the poets of the Scottish Poetry Renaissance, reminding me why I decided to take Scottish Literature and Language as an undergraduate degree. I have dived headfirst into searching for poems charting the emigrant experience of the Scots diaspora in Canada with Malcolm Ferguson. I have walked the streets of Glasgow with William McIlvanney, consider life, love and sexuality with Edwin Morgan and that wide, wild expanse of Hebridean soundscape that encapsulates Sorley Maclean’s Gaelic poems- haunted though they are by the rise of fascism in the 1930s, Guernica and the Spanish Civil War. 

Little did I know that I would become intimately acquainted with Discogs and the BBC Radio Genome; particularly when the poetry reading or oral history had been taped over by a CD of Al Stewart songs, snippets of church services, or the end of a radio programme debating Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection! Walking the streets of old St Andrews and Leith, dropping into a meeting held by the Scottish Council of Tenants pulls the political and social struggles that Scotland faced throughout the 20th century into sharp relief as the ship building that held so much of Scotland’s economy together crumbled under Margaret Thatcher’s government. Hours of frantic searching later and I find myself listening to discussions on the power of steam railways, sitting as a fly on the wall on oral history meetings with the men who still remembered with fondness the days of steam railways.  

Coming into this placement in the middle of an ILS MSc with the University of Strathclyde gave me some inclination of how the metadata gleaned from the recordings can be used to develop the British Library Sound and Moving Image Archive. What I wasn’t expecting were the head scratching moments when the cohort were introduced to (shock horror!) a different format of cataloguing than the one we are learning in class. Sitting on these discussions and listening to the ever-patient Rob Smith talk about the reasons why the traditional FRBR model is not suitable for archiving audio collections and why, when you get out of library school you have to use all of your knowledge of MARC fields and RDA formatting to essentially wing it the way the British Library wants you to, were fascinating. As an aside, Rob and Jenni both deserve medals for answering all of the e-mails that have been sent over the last few weeks in such a calm, patient, unflappable way. Can that be arranged? 

The thing that I want to take away from this placement is the importance of stitching together stories in order to create a soundscape of Scottish history and culture. The oral histories, poems and memories of yesterday’s Scotland that are locked away on compact cassettes and minidiscs, need to be told. They need to be told because they tell a story of another time, of the joys and sorrows of communities remembering a culture and a time that goes beyond the occasional gremlin attack on the National Library of Scotland’s One Drive and the frustration of uncooperative Excel spreadsheets. They tell a story of a place, a time and a people who owe it to us to remember them with dignity and respect. 

Volunteer Reflections

by Richard James, UOSH Volunteer

Before starting my university work placement cataloguing sound recordings for the National Library of Scotland as part of their ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ initiative, I wasn’t sure what to expect to hear on my first week’s recordings. As I approach the end of the placement, I’m still just as unsure what I’ll hear on my final weeks’ recordings – and therein lies both the fun and the challenge of what I’ve been doing for the last two months.

A given week’s recordings may feature readings given at the Scottish Poetry Library by poets both well-known and amateur alike, or they may chronicle the shop stewards’ meetings of Clydeside ship builders as they discuss the events leading to their famous industrial action, or they may simply recount the warm and humorous tales of former steam-engine drivers reminiscing about their days working on the railways in Fife. (Or, now and then, they may play random snippets of pop music with no explanation.) The exciting thing about this placement is, you never know until you hit play.

During the two months of the placement, I’ve learned a lot of useful and practical information regarding how to catalogue audio recordings: I’ve learned what sub-fields are and how to use them, I’ve learned how to find and choose subject headings, I’ve gained experience chasing elusive snippets of information down rabbit holes and various tips and tricks to ensure you don’t return from these warrens empty-handed.

More than anything else, however, I’ve learned how rich and interesting our sound heritage can be. I’ve heard stories of mobs of impoverished miners descending on the more affluent town of Thornton to raid the local shops, I’ve become invested in the surprisingly cloak-and-dagger politics surrounding the building of a leisure centre in St Andrews and I’ve found myself, to my own surprise as much as anyone’s, becoming entranced by Finnish poetry being read in the centre of Edinburgh.

I still have two weeks’ worth of recordings to get through before finishing and, although we know this last batch features oral histories gathered from residents of Leith in Edinburgh, who knows what stories will be revealed when I actually get the headphones on and listen to them. I know one thing, though: I can’t wait to hit play and find out.

Bedroom Basement Tapes and Demonstration Tapes: Demo recordings by Kevin Low and Fiona Carlin

by Fraser Linklater, UOSH Volunteer

Every year, ​Basement Tapes Day ​ offers the public the opportunity to listen to unearthed analogue recording formats found at home, through the use of audio playback devices that would otherwise be difficult to access. This year Adam Low, a Glasgow-based DJ, promoter and producer, took the opportunity, afforded by the ​National Library of Scotland Moving Image and Sound team, to digitise recordings created by his father, Kevin Low, along with his musical collaborator Fiona Carlin.

The recordings, which comprise mainly of demo tapes from across a number of years, were digitised in-house by Conor Walker, the Audio Preservation Engineer at Kelvin Hall. Some were produced professionally at what was Wilf’s Planet recording studio on Broughton Street, Edinburgh, while others employ the basic technology of a 4-track portastudio, both producing equally rich and blissful results. The demos feature a plethora of unique and interesting compositions, ranging from feedback laden early-post punk, embellished with soaring alto saxophone lines, all the way to stripped back electronic numbers that utilise early drum machine and bass sequencing technologies. They stand as fascinating encapsulations of a time in Scottish music in which innovation and creativity met head on with the emergence of complex digital instruments, resulting in a synthesis of perfect pop music and computer-world experimentation. Interested to hear more about the context of the recordings, I met up virtually with Kevin for a chat about these tapes.

Kevin Low and his guitar

I kick off our discussion by talking about Kevin’s entry into the world of music. While working as a freelance photographer for the music press, Kevin attended numerous gigs in Edinburgh at the beginning of the punk scene. He describes seeing a number of bands such as The Clash, The Ramones and The Cramps perform in Edinburgh during the late-1970s. In particular, he recalls the feeling of rebellion and new-beginnings in the air, “it was incredible. It was the beginning of everything. It was the reset. It was the pull-the-plug-out-and-put-it-back-in-again moment.” We go on to discuss the formation of his band, a post-punk outfit with singer Fiona Carlin on vocals and himself on guitar. “We had never played any instruments, but we were really excited by the post-punk bands performing in Edinburgh at the time, the likes of Josef K and especially the Fire Engines … We went and bought instruments and knew somebody that was in a band, so they let us use their practice room. And then, we learnt how to play. I use the word ‘learnt’, but we really didn’t even know a chord. So I bought Bert Weedon’s ‘Play in a Day’, and learnt a couple of chords.”

Shortly after, the band were offered a slot supporting the Edinburgh outfit Visitors, a group Kevin insists to this day were a lost gem of Scotland’s post-punk scene. Thereafter, the band went on to release two singles, ​Penniless ​ and ​Love of My Life, ​ and perform a number of live gigs at venues across the city, refining their style of playing to an unmistakably classy sound representative of the time, awash with saccharine guitars and emotional vocal melodies that float through the simplistically arranged compositions.

After a fond reminiscence of rambunctious gigs at Clouds in Tollcross and the Picturehouse, Kevin explains the group’s evolution and eventual shift away from syncopated guitars towards a more club-inspired sound. He credits the nightclub scene in Edinburgh and the emergence of
the 12 inch single as catalysts for his change in musical approach. “We were getting excited by dance music and techno, and a bit jaded by the jangly sound of a lot of independent music… We started off wanting to sound like The Fire Engines, and then ended up wanting to sound like The System. Not the kind of sound you’d expect a boy from Montrose to want to sound like!” On the topic of nightclubs, Kevin goes on to name a number of Edinburgh haunts from days-gone-by; The Hoochie-Coochie club, Coasters, and Tiffany’s in Stockbridge. Concerning clubbing’s bearing on the sensibilities of musical groups at the time, he points out that “it just got into the bloodstream of the bands that were going to the clubs. It was a gradual thing, but it was a natural thing. It made sense when you think about it.”

Excited by the emergence of drum machines and bass sequencing, he sold his collection of punk 7 inch records in order to afford these new and expensive technologies. As a group, they began navigating the world of digital instruments without any formal knowledge of their workings. “You had to sort of shuffle through and learn. We didn’t know how to play guitars, just as we didn’t know how to programme sequencers – so it actually took months, through trial and error. And, going back to any of the musical notes or chords that are on these tapes – it’s all trial and error.” If it was trial and error, it must have been a lucky bit of trial, as throughout the more electronic recordings in question, notes from bass sequencers and synthesizers seem to bounce off carefully programmed drums with sparkling effect. Piecing together Kevin’s reflections with the audio from the tapes, it is impossible to tell the level of intuition that is channelled through the instruments. It doesn’t sound naive and elementary; rather deliberately paired back, sophisticated and stylish, with lively bass lines bringing form and momentum to sweeping melodies.

When the topic of conversation segways to tapes, he explains their role in facilitating a kind of music sharing that was until then difficult. “There was a lot of passing over and sharing music via that format. Some things would get passed about that you wouldn’t have found otherwise – I remember listening to Gil Scott Heron for the first time via a friends mixtape… Sharing demo’s was also big. You would get a demo of another group and then swap it for one of your own. The funny thing about that is that you don’t know where any of those tapes have ended up. One of our tracks ended up on some compilation cassette in Germany. I dread it because it says in brackets ‘live’ next to one of our tracks. That will sound horrendous!”

Demo Tape ‘Mixed Down’

We close off the interview by talking about Kevin’s experiences sending music to John Peel, a hero for many music lovers of that time and beyond. He discusses waiting outside the BBC studio in central London, asking Peel to play a recording of their second single ​Penniless ​ . “He was a really important figure for a lot of people. He also gave money to a lot of bands, telling them to put a record out.”

Throughout the conversation, Kevin is passionate to discuss his time making music and being immersed within Edinburgh’s rich artistic scene. He concludes by insisting that he never wanted to ‘become a musician’, he simply ‘wanted to create things’. To this day, Kevin still holds this passion, creating expressive art, portraiture and otherwise, through the medium of paints. Reflecting on the conversations as a whole, a common theme seems to be a strict dedication to making and ‘trying out’ within the artistic process, without which none of these recordings would be quite as timeless in their appeal. After all, without the digitisation of these tapes, I probably would never have heard them see the light of day. Happily, I have, and it excites me for any future encounter I might have with a mystery collection of tapes such as this.

Kevin Low now works as a visual artist, having shown his work throughout the UK and, most recently, in Australia. To find more about his art, find him on Instagram at @mrkevinlow or via his website ​ https://www.kevinlow.net/ ​ .
Adam Low is a Glasgow-based DJ, producer and promoter, running club nights under the banner of Partial and producing music through the alias Pigeon Steve.


I would like to extend a massive thank you to Kevin Low and Adam Low for allowing me to discuss the topic with them and listen to these recordings. Additionally, a special thank you is required for Conor Walker, without whom none of this would have been possible.

The excitement gleaned from little stories

by Rob Smith, Cataloguing Co-ordinator, UOSH

The following is part of series for World Audiovisual Heritage Day 2020, where people were given the opportunity by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team at National Library of Scotland to listen to recordings that they had not been able to listen to for a long time, asking them to reflect on listening in to the past.

Instantaneous disc “Revolutionary Study” Chopin and Part of Waltz in Ab by “Margaret McGeoch (over 92)”

Hidden amongst old vinyl and shellac records are usually some special and very unique audio gems. ‘Instantaneous’ discs offered people a means of making a recording instantly and taking it home with them (https://obsoletemedia.org/acetate/). While they resemble 78rpm shellac records, they are much more fragile and it was not unusual for these discs to only get played a handful of times. In fact, they might not be played for decades as the technology to play them fell out of fashion and then into obsolescence.

Fiona Petrie and her mother, Caroline Campbell, have two of these discs in their possession. One of these discs contains recordings of Caroline’s grandmother, Margaret McGeoch, playing piano at age 92.

Fiona and Caroline joined me for an interview to talk about this disc and what it was like to listen to the recordings found on it. Caroline was “totally impressed” by her grandmother’s piano playing and her ability to play these complex classical pieces from memory. Fiona never had the chance to meet her great-grandmother. She found the anecdotes and “little stories” told by Caroline, which were evoked by listening to the recordings, exciting to hear as it allowed her to connect with her family’s past.

Listen to Margaret at the piano while I talk to Fiona and Caroline about these recordings below. Many thanks to Fiona and Caroline (and Margaret) for taking part!

Speaking to Fiona and Caroline about the recording with clips of the recording

A family’s Christmas message, 1950

by Jeni Park, UOSH Project Manager

The following is part of series for World Audiovisual Heritage Day 2020, where people were given the opportunity by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team at National Library of Scotland to listen to recordings that they had not been able to listen to for a long time, asking them to reflect on listening in to the past.

In the 21st century it seems almost run of the mill to send a voice clip from your phone, however 70 years ago the opportunity to visit a recording studio and record sound to send to distant relatives was an exciting prospect.

Today I have had the opportunity to speak to Margaret* about her experience of doing just that, and the associated reminiscences the recording prompted.

Instantaneous disc Side 1
Instantaneous disc Side 2

The year was 1950 and Margaret’s Aunt Agnes was part of a teacher exchange programme and went to live and work in Bermuda for a year, which was later extended to three years.  In the run up to Christmas, the family decided to make their own record at Larg’s in Dundee. Margaret thinks they may have seen an advert about it in the local newspaper.

Instantaneous disc from Larg’s, Dundee.
Photo courtesy of Margaret

Larg’s was primarily a music shop, selling new and second-hand instruments, accessories, sheet music and records. It is fondly remembered by Dundonians as the place to be, whether you were a musician, aspiring to be one or just liked music. In the 1950’s they set up a studio for the recording of instantaneous discs.

An instantaneous disc was intended to be a quick method of recording and replaying sound for radio or as the initial recording that would then be mastered into a vinyl disc. Although the recording equipment was quite bulky, it quickly became popular for the general public and could be seen at the fair or on the pier. This allowed ordinary people to record a kind of audio postcard, a song for your sweetheart or, as in Margaret’s case, Christmas Greetings to be sent to a family member on the other side of the world.

Most of the family arrived in the family car ‘Suzie’, Margaret recalls her mother joking that Suzie’s bigger successor should be named ‘Susan’.

Jim, Ethel, Granny and Agnes.
Photo Courtesy of Margaret.

When they arrived at Larg’s they were shown into the recording studio. They stood in a circle around the microphone, which hung from the ceiling and to 5-year-old Margaret it seemed very high up. Margaret thinks that everyone else in the family had written scripts and perhaps read from them on the day, but she hadn’t started school yet, so she had to learn hers off by heart. Because of this Ethel and Winnie sound much more formal than she remembers them sounding, and she thinks that perhaps Granny might have said less than she meant to.

Margaret explains that she felt both excited and a little nervous at the prospect of doing the recording, as they only had one attempt to get it right and everyone had to say their piece within a short time limit. Here she explains the pressure and the relief

Margaret talks about recording onto the disc

I asked about Aunt Ethel and her attendance of the Angus Ball and  Margaret recalls that though the women in the  family enjoyed  Scottish Country Dancing, it wouldn’t have been Aunt Ethel’s usual scene and that it was probablya special memory for her to have mentioned it in the recording.

When they took the record home, they were not able to listen to it before sending it away as they didn’t have a gramophone.

When Aunt Agnes received the record, which took many weeks to make the journey from Dundee to Bermuda, she was only able to listen to it once because it made her feel homesick. It was only after Aunt Agnes had passed away that the recording was found again. Margaret believes she understood how her aunt felt as she had some trepidation about hearing the voices of those no longer with us.

Recorded sound can be an emotional medium but hearing everyone start to laugh at the end of the recording made her smile, making it a happy memory.

Margaret reflects on being able to hear the recording back

Margaret is looking forward to playing the recording for her granddaughters who think it is cool to be able to hear their granny’s granny. The experience has made her want to tell her grandchildren the importance of recording people rather than just snapping a photograph. There is something far more tangible and memory-inducing about being able to hear someone’s voice and it brings back many memories.

*Margaret’s family wished to withhold their surname.

Tenement Tapes: An interview with Keith McIvor

by Conor Walker, Audio Preservation Engineer, UOSH 

The following is part of series for World Audiovisual Heritage Day 2020, where people were given the opportunity by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team at National Library of Scotland to listen to recordings that they had not been able to listen to for a long time, asking them to reflect on listening in to the past.


As a recent Glasgow blow-in I first saw Keith McIvor (JD Twitch) between sets at the Old Hairdressers during a Zoviet France and O Yuki Conjugate night in 2019. He played a Frank Harris & Maria Marquez avant-pop rendition of the Venezuelan traditional “Canto del Pílon” (1985). Uncannily fitting to the title, although a reference to the conical pílonof sugarMarquez’ reinterpretation – accompanied by Harris’ synclavier escapades – evokes the pylon of an Egyptian temple leading through time, until a sequence of electricity pylons dot over the horizon. I mention this specific song because Keith has a knack for placing recordings into a space, which no matter how out of place they may seem to whatever else is occurring – in this case moments before the seminal industrialists Zoviet France took the stage – the contrasts break through as arrivals rather than disjunctures.   

Keith was at the forefront of two luminary club nights in Scotland. Pure, which for a decade throttled the techno-addled Edinburgh scene out of Thatcherism down a close lined with ecstasy (1990-2000). And Optimo (Espacio) (1997-2010), which has left an imprint on Glasgow’s underground that still informs the city’s multifaceted scenes.     

Keith also runs Optimo Music. As JD Twitch he has remixed the likes of Liquid Liquid, Konono No. 1, Charles Hayward of This Heat, Indoor Life, Harald Grosskopf and Steve Poindexter.   

For this interview, which we’re reclaiming as Tenement Tapes Day (known otherwise as Basement Tapes Day), Keith and I met in a park, where he handed-over a pair of cassette recordings from Freestyle with Twitch, his Subcity radio show in the 1990s, and an ostensibly random acetate disc pressed by Dubplates & Mastering in Berlin. As Keith no longer has a cassette player and acetate discs degrade effortlessly with each playback; and in lieu of being able to listen back to the material together at the National Library of Scotland’s magnetic tape and fragile disc studios in Kelvin Hall, I took the tapes and disc back to the studio for digitisation so Keith could have a listen back at home.  

This discussion is about Keith listening back to these recordings, but more broadly speaking, about listening back in general – how it engages and transforms memory in fashioning how we experience our surroundings, the agency we may or may not have, where archives fit in, and how the act of listening throws a much-needed spanner into the cadence determined by more rigid clocks in exposing deeper avenues of the self and our respect for the wider community as we move within it across time.   

Mid-1990s cassette recording of Keith’s Subcity radio show Freestyle with Twitch (aka Keep Those Dreams Burning).

Conor (C): Dance culture and the underground music scenes it sips from have been both a stalwart of inclusivity and praxis for developing diverse communities, and yet we also see capital and cultural capital siphoned to ensure power and influence remain in white, male and Global North hands. Many of us, myself included, learned about radical politics and lifestyles from outer jazz, Detroit techno, dub, and post-punk; and from going to raves and experiencing a diversity unavailable elsewhere. As someone who has spent your entire life in underground music, what are your thoughts on how dance culture navigates this struggle and how do we move forward to ensure histories aren’t appropriated, misrepresented and that marginalised communities have a seat at the table they created and have sustained for generations?  

Keith (K): I think ‘dance culture’ is too broad a church to be able to navigate this struggle. There are in fact multiple dance cultures that have as much in common with each other as, for example free jazz does to muzak. I feel people often expect them to act as a unified, united whole when in fact, this is an impossibility. The mainstream of dance culture is a machine designed to generate money and fame. It doesn’t and won’t care about anything beyond this, as it is capitalism incarnate and capitalism doesn’t care about diversity nor does it relinquish power unless it is of economic benefit. Mainstream dance culture may make a few vague concessions to diversity but only because it may be expedient to do so.  

Despite this, the so-called underground gets upset by this, when I feel they should expect nothing from mainstream dance culture, ignore it and come to the realisation it is a separate world. I also think the sooner the underground stops aspiring to embrace the tropes of mainstream dance culture the better. So-called undergrounds are much, much better at navigating all this when they devote less energy to trying to make the mainstream change and stop seeing the mainstream as some sort of mirror image.  

Then perhaps the underground can focus more clearly on the massive amount of work needing to be done.  

C: Since 1662 UK book publishers are required under Legal Deposit to entrust their publications to six UK and Irish libraries, but these laws don’t extend to audio-visual content. When we first spoke, you mentioned you’re a ‘shit archivist’. How do you envision the music scenes you’ve participated in being preserved for future generations? Will this occur organically, due in large to collective memory, or do institutions need to step in to protect the legacy?  

K: Part of the reason I am a ‘shit archivist’ is I don’t think everything should be preserved. We live in an era of over documentation. Sometimes live music and the club experience are best not preserved, as recordings can only document part of the story. Most of my gigs weren’t recorded – whereas there have been gigs that were recorded, which have been very special, but that I have then declined to make available online because they only made sense in the moment. People listening back to them might notice and focus on technical imperfections that in the moment went unnoticed and didn’t matter, or musical juxtapositions that seem to not make sense, but as it occurred was exactly the right thing for the energy in the space.   

Of course, there are untold numbers of great and worthy documented live recordings, but not all will have that special x factor, and sometimes just the knowledge a set is being recorded will impact the outcome. I have long been a champion of the idea of collective memory, but as scenes I participated in stretch back several decades, I have concluded collective memory often forgets, mis-remembers or completely fades away.   

Perhaps institutions really do need to step in and protect the legacy. The issue then is what to preserve as there is such a vast amount of material and who is the judge of what is worthy of documentation?  

C: Because of its unyielding power and dynamism I have Sonny & Linda Sharrock’s Black Woman (1969) in my head. Falling in love with underground, outsider, experimental and counter-hegemonic recordings circulates an agency that feels inert across other societal paradigms, particularly in uncovering escape routes away from the status quo. Receiving that agency – and I suppose I’m even getting spiritual here – is the only mechanism I’ve found to cut through the alienation of how we’ve ordered our surroundings. During the pandemic our listening experience has become unhealthily private – we have the recorded past to dip into, it’s a restorative period for new music and we can experience live music through streams, but without gathering publicly, without the release of dancing and listening together, we are tormented and dismembered. I know we must wait for a time when it’s safe to reconvene, but what are your thoughts on this purgatorial period, especially in how it’s forcing the collective expression of music into dormancy?    

K: I have found it extremely challenging. It feels as if part of my soul has been ripped out. I first started going to gigs at twelve and am pretty sure from fifteen onwards I haven’t gone more than a couple of weeks without immersing into live music. I’ve played approximately 3000 DJ gigs over the years and two weeks is probably the longest I have gone without performing in three decades. Recently I was privileged to get a little taste of what I and many others have been missing when we did a very controlled, socially distanced event in Glasgow. Even though the audience had to remain seated and there was no dancing, no mingling and low volume, the atmosphere was palpable and we all got a vivid reminder of that communal, shared cultural experience when human beings gather, which we are so desperately missing. ‘Tormented’ is a good way to describe what life is like without the release of dancing and listening together. I am really struggling without it. I feel drained of energy; drained of life force. My passion in this life is sharing music and of course this can be done online, but it is nowhere near the same. And so yes, listening to music at home in these times can absolutely feel unhealthily private.  

C: You dropped off an unaccounted-for acetate disc. As you mentioned, you didn’t want to play it at home to find out what’s on it because the disc deteriorates each time the stylus graces its surface. The recordings may have gathered dust for a reason, in this case plasticiser (a white discharge that looks like mould), but it could also be something impeccable and crucial. Now that you’ve listened back to it, was it lost in the heap for a reason or is it an example of the necessity to preserve recordings?   

K: It remains a mystery. I already have all four tracks on vinyl; it makes no sense to then have them pressed on an acetate. Usually I would have at least a vague memory of something like this, but in this case the memory banks are blank. It was in the sleeve of another record, so it is not as if I knowingly kept it either.   

Keith’s mysterious acetate disc, pressed at Dubplates & Mastering in Berlin

C: The disc features four seemingly unrelated cuts; Miroslav Vitous’ “New York City”, 20th Century Steel Band’s “Heaven & Hell Is On Earth”, Cameo’s “Money (Reese mix)” and Medium Medium’s Adrian Sherwood produced “Hungry So Angry”. Even though the final cut is about tensions in a relationship (maybe between Yoko and John?), it’s also a bright red brick into the window of Thatcher’s Britain. When I first heard it as a teenager, its beautifully punchy angst really struck a chord that still vibrates today. While listening back to the disc as it was transferred, I was again filled with this angst, but rather than feeling like it was a misplaced echo from youth, it felt utterly at home in this broken time of quicksand we are stuck in. Even though the disc turned out to be four seemingly random and published tracks, I’ve always appreciated how music follows us, catches backup and allows us to continue threads that keep haunting as we age. What are your feelings after relistening to these four cuts or maybe one of them stands out?  

K: Three of the four mean something significant to me. The Cameo track was played at Optimo, but was a really big anthem at Pure, and is definitely a track the regular attendees would feel as synonymous with me. Medium Medium was a teenage favourite of mine. I discovered them through being a Sherwood acolyte and I revived it at Optimo, while 20th Century Steel Band was one of the defining songs of the early Optimo era. Miroslav Vitous was to an extent a track played at Optimo and indeed was included on our first mix CD, but it’s a bit of an outlier here and just deepens the whole mystery behind this disc’s existence.  

Twitch DJ’ing at Pure in Edinburgh (c. 1996)

C: What memories surfaced while listening back to the cassettes from your Keep Your Dreams Burning radio show, which broadcasted on Subcity in the ‘90s?  

K: They have brought back vivid memories of the two locations on Park Circus where I did the show from. Most of the shows were out of a mews building behind what was then the original Glasgow University Maclay Halls of Residence. My show was at night, I think maybe 10:00 pm until whenever I wanted to stop. A friend of mine made some jingles and there was a machine to play these, but otherwise the set up was very basic. I never knew if anyone was listening but learned from friends at local record shops that quite a few people would come in to ask for records I played on the show. Since those years I have heard from a lot of people who said they listened. It is worth noting that Subcity had a temporary license to broadcast, and the transmitter could be picked up quite far outside Glasgow.  

The other location, a year later, in 1997/8 was a top floor flat on Park Circus, which Glasgow Uni must have owned. I think I only did one show from that location as I accidentally got locked in and despite making appeals on-air nobody came to let me out until late the next morning. I think that put me off continuing, but it was also around the time Optimo started and all my attention was redirected into it.  

I do remember a great sense of freedom to do whatever I wanted, and it was doing this that helped formulate the notion that a club night could feature all sorts of music – way beyond the sphere of what was generally perceived ‘club music’. Part of the inspiration for the genesis of the Optimo club night definitely came out of these radio shows.  

C: A lot of the content in these tapes, alongside more obscure material, are now canonised underground classics; New Order, Suicide, Television, The Stooges, Spiritualized, Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra, Can, etc. With the incredible access to our recorded past unleashed by the internet, we now have a tendency to rewrite music history, determining something as a classic, for example, even though at the time of its release it may have sunk into obscurity. The list of artists are all seminal in their own right, many of whom were also massive successes in their day, but now we can very easily delve into the most forgotten and neglected material. I am guilty of this, as are many DJs. After listening back to these cassettes, what are your thoughts around this abrupt acceleration in access and experiencing recorded music?  

K: It was quite unusual to hear this music at the time. I think my show was a bit different to anything else on Subcity. Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997 Dedicated) was just released – but Suicide, Television, The Stooges, Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra – they were mostly forgotten and felt quite out of fashion at that point. Most of my club audience would probably not have been familiar with any of them. At that time Can records were next to impossible to find in Glasgow. It’s around when I think I found my first Neu! album in Glasgow. I was looking for one for over a decade. Neu! were this mythical band that I had no way of hearing; I used to imagine what they might actually be like. It was such a different time from today. It is hard to get over just how difficult it was to hear and access lots of music; a lot of patience was required – It took fifteen years from when I first read about Fela Kuti until I finally heard a Fela Kuti album. I was going to say it might as well have been in the previous millennium, but of course it really was!  

Now almost the entirety of recorded music is at our fingertips, if you know where to look. I would never suggest that people don’t appreciate music as much today, but it is easy not to cherish it as much and to constantly be seeking out the next obscure record that would just never have been on anyone’s radar back then. Despite playing some artists that are now regarded as canonical on my show, in general I have always had quite an anti-canonical stance, but today there are many music freaks who don’t even know what the canon is, which is perhaps as it should be. A canon only exists because it is decreed to be so, often by self-appointed gatekeepers. I know experts on, let’s say, Latvian samizdat 80s synth pop or Indonesian Rock In Opposition (RIO) cassettes, who have never heard Pink Floyd. I’m not making a judgement, just noting this acceleration in access throws up previously unimaginable ways of approaching, discovering, judging and appreciating music from literally every corner of the planet.   

C: I appreciate when people know when to end something they love – whether it’s a band, a label or a club night. Regarding mortality, there is something genuine and biologically relatable to the acute awareness of lifecycles. Why did Optimo (Espacio) come to an end?  

K: It was time. We were travelling almost every weekend to play all over the world, but almost without exception we would find a way to get back to play every Sunday in Glasgow. Once we even played in Tokyo on a Saturday night, until 7:00 am, went straight to the airport and due to the time difference made it back to play Optimo at the Sub Club. But it started to get too much and one of the things about the weekly club was that we put so much love and energy into it and the ability to devote that on the level required was starting to diminish with all the touring. I also wanted to do other things, such as run a label, and it was important for the club to end on a high, rather than dwindling away. It was incredible it lasted over twelve years, and that each week, it was still the best club I had ever been to. It felt like it was only a matter of time before the odds had to stack up against it.