This article originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on December 30, 2015
In 1986, indie magazine Sounds reviewed the debut single from BMX Bandits. “Indigestably sickly sweet,” they wrote of the Bellshill sunshine-pop rabble’s inaugural seven-inch, E102. “These BMX Bandits present the absolute personification of everything that could possibly go wrong with the traditionally sturdy Scottish youth.” And lest such barbs seem ambiguous, they concluded: “This is without doubt the worst single of all time.”
Their affable frontman and chief songwriter Duglas T Stewart was delighted. “I went about with a copy of that review in my pocket, stopping people I only vaguely knew in the street and showing them,” he says with a laugh, over fizzy pop (well, it would be), in Glasgow indie paradise Mono. He’s looking back on 30 years, and counting, of BMX Bandits – the group who put the groove in the Bellshill Beat, who’ve influenced three decades of Scottish indie-pop, and who have two albums planned for next year alone. They took Oasis out on their first UK tour, starred in a lovely documentary by Jim Burns (Serious Drugs), and prompted Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain to say, “If I could be in any other band, it would be BMX Bandits”.
They’ve crafted some of our brightest, most inventive pop songs, and left unwitting – and unlikely – chaos in their wake.
Indeed, BMX Bandits’ aforementioned calling card – released on Stephen Pastel’s fabled 53rd and 3rd imprint – went on to provoke further consternation when it was debated on BBC Radio 1’s weekly singles review show. “E102 caused an argument between Janice Long, Neil Tennant [Pet Shop Boys] and Nick Heyward [Haircut 100] that lasted over 20 minutes,” Stewart recalls with glee. “Both Neil and Nick were going, ‘This is absolutely awful’, but Janice was the host, and she was a big fan, and she just would not let it go.”
BMX Bandits formed in the aftermath of The Pretty Flowers, but their origins can be traced to Stewart’s high-school pop exploits with a boy in the year below him called Norman Blake. “We’d improvise melodies and lyrics – Duglas would sing and I’d hit margarine tubs with kitchen utensils,” remembers Blake, also of The Pretty Flowers and The Boy Hairdressers, but now perhaps best-known and loved as part of Teenage Fanclub. “We could put together an album a night. The songs were kind of ridiculous but it was a lot of fun, and it was a start,” he says. “Duglas has always been a bit of an eccentric. When everyone else was smoking roll-ups behind the bike shed at school, Duglas would be smoking a pipe and wearing a deerstalker.” He called himself Nancy.
Stewart and Blake were soon joined by another Bellshill ally, Sean Dickson (The Pretty Flowers, The Soup Dragons), and an early incarnation of BMX Bandits was born. “We became this gang of three,” Stewart remembers. “We all had a notion about being dissatisfied with the world that we found ourselves in, and in our own way we refused to be part of it.”
If their modus operandi – kitchen-sink rebellion, creative freedom – sounded punk in spirit if not execution, then so too did their live appearances. “I remember there being something like six shop windows smashed in Motherwell after one BMX bandits gig,” says Stewart. “If you heard that story, you’d think we were playing really aggressive music, but we were singing – you know – [waves hands, Playschool-style] ‘I’m so happy, love has come to town!’ That seemed to really wind people up.”
Bedlam ensued wherever BMX Bandits unleashed their insatiably romantic (albeit bittersweet) songs, as musicians like Jim McCulloch, Joe McAlinden, Francis Macdonald, Finlay MacDonald and Sushil K Dade variously joined the ranks. “I met a guy a few months ago and he told me he saw us years ago in Aberdeen he threw a pint glass at me,” Stewart recalls. “He was really embarrassed about it, but he said he’d never seen men behaving like I did on stage – smiling, waving, playing a kazoo, singing about love and being happy all that – and he was so confused. He didn’t know what else to do.” Laughter, again. “Or someone will go, ‘I saw you play live and you were eating an apple! On stage! I couldn’t believe it!’” he says. “Of course, eating an apple doesn’t sound threatening at all, but in the context of that time, guys in bands tended to be playing out the hedonistic alpha male type, strutting and posturing. It wasn’t that long before us that guys like Orange Juice, The Pastels, The Television Personalities, and Jonathan Richman, started to break that mould, and people found it all weirdly subversive.”
Glasgow’s legendary mid-80s Splash One club – as recently documented in a Dazed film, The Outsiders – also impacted on the Central Belt’s (counter-)cultural imagination, with Primal Scream, Jim Lambie, The Pastels and many more frequenting its dance-floor. “We hit Glasgow at a really good time, and we discovered a whole other bunch of like-minded misfits at Splash One,” Stewart nods. “A lot of people went there and exchanged ideas. And of course then everybody goes off and does their own thing.”
And so they did. “I think people maybe saw BMX Bandits as being indie-pop’s Toy Dolls or something, this kind of novelty comedy band,” Stewart says. “But then they started writing nice things, comparing us to people who weren’t such common reference points for indie guitar pop at that time – Serge Gainsbourg, Brian Wilson. And I think they maybe started to see that our music was – it still is – a combination of humour and pathos. A lot of the time when I’m at my very, very saddest, and closest to walking off the edge of a cliff, I can still see humour in it. That doesn’t mean it’s not painful, but I can usually see the absurdity too. It’s that tragicomic thing, like in Serious Drugs.”
Serious Drugs bagged them a glorious signature song, and a 1990s record deal with indie empire Creation, while BMX Bandits’ anti-macho stance and guitar-pop re-animations of girl-groups, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Chic won them fans in Nirvana and the US rock underground (there’s an enduring kinship between bands like BMX Bandits, Teenage Fanclub and The Vaselines – whose Frances McKee also played in The Pretty Flowers – and the Seattle and Olympia DIY scenes).
Since then, they’ve issue myriad classic, off-kilter pop delights – 2006’s My Chain; 2007’s Bee Stings; 2012’S BMX Bandits In Space – and recent personnel include co-vocalist Chloe Philip (TeenCanteen) and The Pearlfishers’ David Scott. “I always wanted to be in the BMX Bandits,” Scott recalls. “There’s a story I love about Duglas. He attended a guitar group as a kid and he was so bad on guitar that he was eventually demoted to tambourine. But he was so bad on tambourine he was eventually even taken off that,” he says with a laugh. “And yet Duglas is one of the best musicians I’ve met in my life. He’s not shackled by theory, he’s got a great imagination, and he’s got a fantastic non-formal musical language.”
Stewart elaborates. “We’ll be in the recording studio and I’ll say to the band – ‘This is the bit where she’s walking to the wishing well, with her bucket and all of her animal friends are following her!’ – because certain films have their wishing well moment, from Grease to Snow White. And I can say that to David Scott or Stuart Kidd or Jim McCulloch or Francis Macdonald and they’ll say, ‘Okay – got you!’ And they’ll make it work. Being surrounded by people like that is part of my identity, that’s part of being a BMX Bandit. There have been so many members, but that doesn’t mean they’ve ever been interchangeable.”
Norman Blake officially left BMX Bandits in 1991, but he’s been a recurring presence since. “You never really leave the band completely,” offers Blake. “It’s always a fun experience, Duglas isn’t afraid to take risks, and that’s always been quite inspiring to me. His life has been told chronologically through his songs, and he’s very open and frank about his personal life. Not many songwriters are like that.”
Stewart, despite his effervescent, infectious charms, sometimes takes convincing. “In the last little while, I’ve found it harder to know who I am,” Stewart admits. “I’ve struggled a bit with that. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I think I’m becoming more and more like Bagpuss. If I wake up and do BMX Bandits, and I’m in that world with those people, then I know who I am. But a lot of the other time, I feel completely lost. It’s a strange thing, to get to my age, and to not really know what’s going on.”
Perhaps that is just the condition of getting older, though: of realising we know very little, and fear more than ever, where we once felt invincible and knew it all. And Stewart is a man, for all that, who never aspired to be anyone else. “I just always wanted to be the best Duglas that I could be,” smiles the technicolour North Lanarkshire bard, whose life is devoted to sound-tracking the most important, the most beautiful, the most magical things in our grey Scottish days and nights. Wake up, be bright, be golden and light. And oh, hear what he sings.
BMX Bandits play a special 30th Anniversary show at Glasgow CCA on May 14th, 2016.