Borders break-in yielded big break for punk-rock veterans the Mekons
It's now over four decades since a group of wayward youths broke into a quiet Galashiels cottage, earning themselves a footnote in Borders musical history.
In the 1970s, there was nothing unusual about housebreaking sadly, unemployment being high and there being little in the way of entertainment for the disenfranchised young.
This break-in was unusual, however.
Nothing was stolen, but these youths, in the eyes of some, were more dangerous to society than mere petty criminals as these were punk rockers, regarded by many as a threat to the old order, and they were here to record one of the most pivotal punk records of the 1970s, having travelled all the way up from Leeds to do so.
Their recording would become the first 7in release on the influential Edinburgh label Fast Product.
It was not only set to create a blueprint for the emerging post-punk genre but also to inspire a generation of misfit Scottish youths to believe they too, regardless of ability or class could become pop stars, albeit in their own unique way.
The Mekons, the unkempt bunch of Leeds University art students responsible for that single, Never Been in a Riot, being reissued next month, are now regarded as one of the most visionary groups of their era and would later combine punk with politics, country and folk.
The Fast Product label was later to gain international success by giving the world 1981’s Christmas No 1 single, Don’t You Want Me by the Human League.
In late 1977, though, that was all still a dream, and it was being dreamy up in the small Edinburgh flat from which impresarios Bob Last and Hilary Morrison ran their fledgling record label.
Reality arrived while they were assisting Edinburgh band the Rezillos during a tour of northern England.
Bob, inspired after Hilary had given him a self-financed Buzzcocks EP, was looking to find a suitable band to record their label’s first release.
He knew he had found them as soon as the Rezillos’ support act got on stage. They were the Mekons, named after an evil alien in the Eagle comic.
“I just thought ‘well, this is something that can cut through the crap’, to put it simply,” recalled Bob.
Singer Mark White said: “The Mekons’ unique selling point was that we couldn’t play, but we could haphazardly break down the barriers between audience and band because we were the audience.”
Playing despite not being able to play was one thing. Making a record, however, was another.
Drummer John Langford said: “It wasn’t like any of us had the faintest idea how to make a record, but Bob was quite confident and assertive so we kind of went along with his plans.”
Bob arranged a meeting with his manager at the Bank of Scotland and asked for £400 to record and release the single, and, much to his surprise, he got it.
All they needed now was a quiet place to record it.
The Rezillos’ then soundman, Tim Pearce, had an uncle who lived in the Borders, and that would be the perfect place to record a punk record, they all agreed.
Gathering a cheap two-track recorder, they then set off for Galashiels.
On arrival, to their horror, they discovered that Tim’s uncle was away for the weekend.
It was decided that their quickest and simplest solution would be to post Hilary through a small window so she could let everyone in.
Mark remembered: “It was effing cold. It was fairly intense and busy and done very quickly.”
On hearing the recording back, John was horrified.
“I thought it would magically sound like a real record once it reached vinyl form, but it just sounded like us banging around in a cottage in Scotland,” he said.
Bob, though, believed they had made a hit record.
Unfortunately, Rough Trade, then the most important distributor of all things punk, thought it was the worst recorded single it had heard and refused to stock it.
Without Rough Trade’s support, the single was destined to flop.
Salvation came from the New Musical Express, back then a weekly music bible for teenagers and a far cry from its current incarnation.
It declared Never Been in a Riot, backed up by 32 Weeks and also Heart and Soul, its single of the week’ – lofty praise indeed, changing everything for both band and label.
BBC Radio One disc jockey John Peel gave it his thumbs-up too, and soon after the band would sign to Virgin Records.
It was a decision they would come to regret, but that is another story.
After that inaugural release, Fast Product was inundated with tapes from hopeful young bands from around the world, releasing the first recordings by Gang of Four, Joy Division, Dead Kennedys and the Human League.
Today, the Mekons, currently based in the US, still tour and have released more than 30 records.
The act might not have sold very many of them, having failed to trouble the charts since their formation in 1977, but they have none the less influenced numerous bands, especially within the US alt-country movement, that went on to sell millions – and it all began with a break-in in Galashiels.
Never Been in a Riot – a satire of the Clash’s first single, White Riot, released in March 1977 – is being reissued next month, in limited-edition clear-vinyl format, to mark this year’s Record Store Day, being held on Saturday, April 21, as is the Mekons’ second single, Where were You?, in yellow vinyl. The nearest shops taking part in this year’s event, the 11th, are at the northern end of the Borders Railway line in Edinburgh, namely Assai Records, Coda Music, VoxBox Music and Underground Solu’shn. For details, go to recordstoreday.co.uk