We’ve been around the world in our Stay True Journeys with Ballantine’s Scotch Whisky – to Mexico, Chile, Germany, Poland, South Africa and Russia – and each time been introduced to unique 21st century cultures and their roots. This is a special one, though, for a different reason. It’s a journey home for Ballantine’s: to Edinburgh, the city where the distiller has been based since 1827.
When Boiler Room goes to Scotland, we know that the results are going to be incendiary, but this is set to be the greatest party we’ve thrown to date. With four venues streamed simultaneously and the cream of local and global talent playing, in fact, this might just be the greatest global showcase ever for Scotland’s uniquely passionate relationship with house and techno.
With that in mind, we got regular BR contributor Ian McQuaid to dig deep into the history of techno in Scotland. It’s a long and wild ride, full of one-off characters and coruscating Scottish wit, and we can’t recommend it enough as a way of rekindling your own love affair with techno in advance of our Stay True party.
Dancing is as Scottish as whisky and rain. Wind back to the 1920s, and there were more dancehalls to be found in Glasgow than anywhere else in Britain. Generation after generation have spent weekends stepping away their troubles on the floor; it’s in the blood. So perhaps it was always inevitable that this small land at the Northern tip of Europe should embrace techno, that mystical future formulated somewhere between Antwerp, Munich and Detroit, with a passion that has never faltered.
As with all rave history, the story of techno’s progress through Scotland is a chaotic scramble of wild nights, blurry anecdotes and heroic memories, supported by a clutch of timeless artefacts – a Soma 12” here, a crumpled flyer there. Trying to force all of this into a smooth narrative is an uphill struggle – ask three different DJs where techno started in Scotland and you can expect three different answers. Still, there is a rough consensus: if there is some Year Zero to be found, it’s when this rigid machine music was first heard splintering the soul and funk sets of the discothèques of the late 80s.
“One night he played this weird, strange record which later became this anthem. It was Nude Photo by Derrick May. I ran up to the DJ booth and was like ‘What the fuck is this record man!?’ Looking back retrospectively that was a light bulb moment.”
Stuart McMillan, half of the pioneering Glaswegian production/DJ duo Slam, vividly remembers how Derrick May cut through: “I was in a soul club that was on where the Sub Club is now. There was a DJ called Graham Wilson, he used to play, like, Luther Vandross records, and funk, and some hip hop stuff, pretty much what was going on in London at that point, or anywhere. And one night he played this weird, strange record which later became this anthem. It was Nude Photo by Derrick May. I ran up to the DJ booth and was like ‘What the fuck is this record man!?’ Looking back retrospectively that was a light bulb moment.”
Around this time McMillan met Orde Meikle, “the only other guy who was buying Chicago acid tracks and early Transmat.” Like Stuart, Orde had fallen for “the anonymity of it, this raw, almost rudimentary music that was quite unexplained.” Having bonded, Meikle and McMillan took their first steps running a night called Black Market. They played a solid, if unexceptional mix of hip hop, soul, and early house, and learnt how to mix. Then the duo decided to tighten focus.
In 1988 they found a perfect space – the 200 capacity basement of a club called Tin Pan Alley. Calling the night Slam, they dedicated themselves to this inexplicable new acid house magic, “because,” as Orde notes, “no one else was playing it.” The delight this new night bought a handful of like-minded Glaswegians was equally matched by the utter bemusement of the wrong ‘uns who frequented the upstairs bar.
“These gangsters would wander in and be blasted by what, to them, must have been bizarre music.” McMillan laughs. “The place had two lights; a red light and a strobe lamp, and loads of smoke. So they‘d walk in, hear this really crazy music and think ‘I’m fucking outta here!’ Usually they didn’t last too long.” Orde interrupts gleefully – “But six months later these same people were probably right on one matey!”
Glasgow – like much of Britain – was a hard place in the late 80s. The word often used to describe it is bleak, as Orde reiterates, “the heart of the city had been ripped out, the industry had disappeared, there were high amounts of unemployment. To use an American term, it’s a blue collar town, it’s a working town, and weekends are everything, people like to work hard and play hard.”
When this desire for hedonism and release was mixed with music precision tooled to deliver both, it’s little surprise that word of Slam spread fast. Other small scale events sprang up – including UFO (later called The Orb – though nothing to do with the ambient pioneers), another techno do at Tin Pan Alley that played the raucous Euro stompers smashing out from Belgium and Holland – but Slam had bigger ideas. Soon they decided to push the sound to an audience far beyond 200 sweaty punters and some confused crooks.
“We did an event in ’89 at the Tramway Theatre which has gone down in local history,” remembers McMillan. “A couple of Hacienda DJs came up, Inner City came and played, 808 State played live and we DJed. We didn’t even know if we were gonna fill it – it was 1000 people, and with 3 weeks to go we put up all these posters, and it was in the local papers, people saying “what the hell’s going on here?” On the actual night I think 5000 people turned up. There was a road block in the street. I remember thinking shortly after that, we’ve blown it! We’ve upset a lot of people. But doing that made us realise quite quickly that all the people who wanted to get involved but hadn’t got in, wanted to be involved even more…”
One of the people who had been lucky enough to get a ticket was Keith McIvor. A fanatic for futurist music, McIvor had been DJing electronica – synth pop, EBM, proto house – since around 1987, holding down a residency at an Edinburgh club called The Backroom. Although, as he fondly recalls, his sonic explorations didn’t win any fans amongst the regulars: “People hated it! They used to constantly come up to me and say ‘why are you playing this drum machine shit!’ They were really hostile to the idea of drum machines and electronic music.” (It’s deeply ironic that people should dislike his weird “drum machine shit” as at the time the poppier, fizzier, but still electronic sound of hi-NRG was huge in the Scottish mainstream, with Man 2 Man vs Man Parrish’s “Male Stripper” apparently the biggest selling 12” in Scottish history.)
McIvor wasn’t the only DJ playing electronic dance records in Edinburgh – but he was probably the only one trying to play them to goths. Had he been involved in the funk and soul scene he might have had more success. Yogi Haughton, a big Mancunian with a serious passion for the dance music of black America was resident at the Hoochie Coochie Club. “I’d always been into synth music,” remembers Stephen Brown, a producer who has since released on techno benchmark labels including Djax-Up Beats and Transmat. “But I started making house and techno after I went to the Hoochie Coochie club in Edinburgh. Yogi would play jazz and funk, then move on to Chicago house and Detroit techno records- it was really the only venue of its kind playing that kind of music.”
McIvor, meanwhile, was getting no such love – “Eventually it died because the crowd just hated it, and I thought, well that’s my little foray into DJing over, it’s not going to happen, I’ll concentrate on Uni.” In another universe, that would have been the end of that. But, then another promoter reached out to Keith. There was a night starting in Edinburgh called UFO (a great example of the kind of synchronicity that seems to swell around scenes about to blow – the UFO clubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh were unaware of each-others existence when they started), and they needed some DJs.
McIvor, along with his DJ partner Andy Watson, were booked to provide a soundtrack around the Madchester-era live bands who would play. Having accepted, the duo found themselves searching for a happy medium between Primal Scream records that they hated and Transmat imports that they loved. When, half a year into UFO’s existence, a horde of football casuals came down and kicked off a mini riot, the police shut the club down for good. Keith and Andy decided it was time to go it alone – this time without the fights, without the Madchester bands, and without the compromise. They’d seen how successful Slam’s ‘89 all-nighter was, and were determined not to be out manoeuvred. It was 1990, and Pure was born.
“Pure was absolutely pivotal,” says producer Neil Landstrumm, a regular at the club as both a raver and a performer. “It was in a venue called ‘The Venue’, round the back of the train station. It was quite gloomy, in the centre of town. Edinburgh’s very ancient and there’s lots of huge high curved places, so it felt quite subterranean. It was this big wooden fronted building, and my enduring memory of it was, as you walked up to it – and you had to get there early to get in – you’d hear this kinda BRRRRRMMM! BRRRRRMMM! ‘cos all the wood was vibrating from where they’d be testing out the PA.
“All the smoke would start coming out of the vents, and it just had this incredible magnetic quality to it. It just had this hype about it. I’ve played in millions of clubs, and there was something different about Pure.” Running from 1990 to 1997 Pure became an institution. Whilst it’s remembered as a techno club, Pure took in everything from hyper speed UK breakbeats to nosebleed Dutch bangers. It’s goal was to pursue hard music that was still funky, positioning itself against the glammed up house nights that ran in Edinburgh, offering something dirtier, artier and crazier. It was a place of tight mixing and wild dancing.
“The buzz went out that there was this new club playing all this mad music, it just drew all these counter culture groups into the mix, it had this edgy mix, you’d get football casuals in there, you’d get bikers, you’d get students, you’d get ravers…
“I was still at school when I started going,” Landstrumm enthuses “I was from a market town, and there was a fair crew of us who went from there, and it felt like you were entering this melting pot of sub-cultures. That was when, in Edinburgh, people were scared of the football casuals, you had these shitty fights kicking out. And the buzz went out that there was this new club playing all this mad music, it just drew all these counter culture groups into the mix, it had this edgy mix, you’d get football casuals in there, you’d get bikers, you’d get students, you’d get ravers, you’d even get these older people there – I mean in their late 30s, which when you’re 18 seems pretty old. It was a real eclectic feel, the excitement was absolutely about the music. Of course there was the drugs and all that, but every week you’d go to hear a different thing. It had this vibe.”
Pure quickly established itself as the foremost techno party in Scotland. They scored serious coups, having the nous and wherewithal to book American legends, not only before anyone else in Scotland, but often before anyone else in Europe. Richie Hawtin and Jeff Mills both had their UK debut at Pure, and other live acts passing through this grimey, smoked out old building included Aphex Twin, Orbital, and Green Velvet. “People ask if it was better then –“ Twitch says, “it wasn’t that it was better, it was just so new, people had never heard powerful electronic music through a soundsystem, so for a lot of people it was revolutionary, it was like music from another planet, it was special and seductive from the very beginning.”
So seductive, in fact, that the weirdest of celebrities turned up and lost control. Both Twitch and Landstrumm crack up remembering the time a legendary snooker player turned up, got given membership, tried to pick up loads of unwilling girls, and then soiled himself in the toilets. “I think it only adds to the legend of the man” Twitch laughs. But grim as the story is, it kind of illustrates the world that Pure created – a land of gleeful abandon that had no time for celebrity culture.
Over in Glasgow, Slam were also running with the momentum they’d generated. In ’89 they’d been head hunted by Greg McCloud, owner of the Sub Club. He offered them the chance to play in the venue four nights a week, from Thursday through til Sunday. They were young and keen and jumped at the chance. In a stroke of serendipity that may well have made their careers, Glasgow was then awarded the status of European City of Culture. Suddenly archaic British licensing was out the window, and merry hell could (and would) break loose.
“In 1990, all the clubs were given a 5 am license,” McMillan says, “a year of 5 am licenses so we spent half of our life in this club. The year of culture had a major impact at consolidating the city as a serious clubbing place, especially at that club at that particular time. It was right bang at the peak of things – all of a sudden you had this British city that had European club licensing laws, which you didn’t have anywhere in Britain at that point.” “It was phenomenal,” Orde adds, “the club packed every night. The Sub Club was a kind of basement cellar with a low roof, holds between 4 and 500 people, but during that time you’d have more than that. Everyone shoulder to shoulder, it was a complete sweatbox, very few lights, lots of smoke.”
The Slam duo teamed up with Harri, another local who’d made a name as a versatile house and techno DJ. The three of them started the weekly Saturday party Atlantis, probably the most popular of their ventures at Sub Club. Having made some forays into production, Slam used this event to road test their first experiments in techno. By 1991 they were ready to set up their own label, Soma Quality Recordings, kicking off with a split A-side that saw Slam deliver the lush progressive techno of “Eterna”, and Rejuvenation drop the similarly confident “I.B.O.”
Rejuvenation are the somewhat unsung duo of Glen Gibbons and Jim Muotone, who helped set up Soma and went on to engineer and co-write some of Slam’s biggest club hits. In fact, one of those biggest hits had its first hearing at Atlantis, as McMillan remembers: “When we did Atlantis, we had these drapes made for the wall, they were ultraviolet drapes, and when you walked into the club it was all ultraviolet. At that point we played quite a lot of house alongside Carl Craig records or whatever. So early on we’d keep it quite deep, up until about 1 o’clock, and then when the club was full there was a signal, and these UV lights would go off at this time and then BANG, when the lights went off the place erupted! Every week you’d choose a new record for that moment. At that time it was me Orde and Harri, so we’d fight to see who’d do it, cos that was the best set. I remember playing ‘Positive Education’ at that point before anyone had heard it. That was a moment. From the first time it was played off acetate it was shivers up your spine. The whole place exploded.”
This moment in 1993 marked a sea change. Scotland had been raving to techno for 3 or 4 years – now they were making it, and with “Positive Education,” making it on an international level. “The early Soma records travelled very well,” Orde notes, “so people became aware of the label, and would contact it and send demos and stuff – it became global very quickly.” Other artists began to come to the fore – “What happened,” says Neil Landstrumm, “was that all this finding and sharing of music spawned a generation of producers.”
The previously mentioned Stephen Brown, a techno purist who had chosen to pursue a unique vision of Detroit soul from his Edinburgh bedroom, got signed to Djax Up Beats. Landstrumm made a huge mark by signing first to Peacefrog, then to Tresor, the Berlin based label who were arguably the biggest thing in techno in the 90s. Landstrumm had cut his teeth DJing at an Edinburgh club that had started up in 1991, perhaps inspired in part by Pure; Sativa. “Sativa was the heavier end,” he says, “very acid orientated, huge crowds of 600, 800 people.” Sativa was closer to the free party side of things, less football casual, more punks and dreads. By ’94, the night had set up its own label, Sativae Records, and began releasing Scottish based productions from the likes of Tobias Schmidt and Sativa resident Dave Tarrida, alongside tracks from international acts such as DJ Hell.
This combination of the homegrown and international is a defining feature of the Scottish techno scene. Rather than an isolated, incestuous movement tucked away at the edge of a continent, the producers have always looked outward, from the early days of flying in American and European artists, to the eagerness to release a great record no matter where it came from. Soma proved the wisdom of that approach beyond doubt when they kick started the career of dance music’s biggest stars, releasing Daft Punk’s breakthrough classic Da Funk in 1995.
Unsurprisingly this explosion of activity, with labels, club nights and producers springing up between the axis of Glasgow and Edinburgh inspired Slam to go bigger. In the mid 90s, they switched from the intense weekly confines of the Sub Club to new venue The Arches, taking on a space double the size for a monthly party, Pressure. Here they drew in a wider range of artists, and by the early 00s, local boys Funk D’Void and Silicon Soul had joined the label, creating huge dance hits that were regularly shifting over ten thousand copies. The sound was a particularly melodic take on techno, denser and more commercially accessible than the spikey acid bombs emanating from Edinburgh. It was a halcyon period, and Pressure was to prove pivotal for a younger generation, as producer Gary Beck points out.
“I was aged 17 at the turn of the millenium, and the place that everybody was talking about was The Arches, and it was really about getting my arse there and checking it out – after I’d be to my first Pressure at The Arches I was completely blown away – I was hooked. You just felt part of something, every weekend was amazing, and the people you were meeting along the way made you feel something special, that this was something really close to the heart of Scottish people. We’ve always been on the ball with underground music – Scottish people love to party, they love energy, it’s a real escape for them. It’s very hard to describe; it’s magical. I knew I had to break through here, guys like Soma, Silicon Soul, they were right at the top when I started, you couldn’t touch those guys, it was so strong, this was where I needed to establish myself.”
This was the start of Glasgow’s reigning period. If Pure and Sativa had let Edinburgh claim the techno crown in the 90s, the 00s saw the focus switch. Sativa had closed by ’96, and Twitch and Brainstorm finished up Pure in 2000, with Twitch deciding that “techno had become really masculine and monotonous, everyone was trying to produce records like Jeff Mills.” From 1997 he had famously been finding new success over at the Sub Club with the anything goes music policy of Optimo – a legendary Sunday night party where the hedonism of rave was applied to anything from post punk obscurities to 60s ballads. The closure of Pure left a gap in Edinburgh that wasn’t too be filled for some time.
The Sativa residents, Dave Terrida and Shandy, and their regular live guests Neil Landstrumm, and Tobias Schmidt had also decamped to Glasgow, starting a night called TEST in the late 90s – and ironically, this night was to inadvertently breathe life back into the Edinburgh scene. A Glasgow student, Adam Richardson, recalls stumbling upon it: “Other nights had the A-list international techno guests, the big budgets, coverage and crowds. But TEST had a sound of its very own, a swagger, an edge at times and some of the best club flyers ever made… There really is hardly any trace online, the website having long since been taken down and it pre-dating social media etc. An institution for many.”
And again the baton was passed on. Richardson was inspired to start up the Substance night in his native Edinburgh in 2006 – “a tough time” to start a techno night- paying tribute to the legend of the town by bringing back Jeff Mills for his first set in Scotland since the days of Pure. Now Substance is approaching a decade of existence, “pushing on at the front of what is definitely a much healthier scene again in the capital.” At the time Substance started, the minimal sound pushed by labels such as Kompakt and Perlon had flooded the clubs with its cold, brittle tap-tap, and the scene in general seemed at a lull. Gary Beck, who, by this point had started on a production career that has seen him release on Soma, DrumCode and his own B.E.K. Audio, maintains that the minimal aesthetic fundamentally went against the Scottish temperament.
“In 2007 I wasn’t as keen on what was going on in Glasgow, there was a real burst of minimal music that was going on, I personally didn’t really like it too much – I’d go to the Arches and it’d be guys like Villalobos and Richie Hawtin, who at the time was playing really blip-blop kind of stuff, and I just didn’t get the same feeling I got in the late nineties, early two thousands. The Scottish love energy, they just want to dance hard, and I had a feeling that the crowds weren’t enjoying it as much – they couldn’t really let themselves go as much with the minimal thing, and I do think they were looking for that harder edged sound to come back – and after 2009 it started to come back.”
This brings it up to now. The scene is as healthy as it’s ever been – possibly even more so – producer-wise, with established names such as Alex Smoke sharing flyer space with new kids like the Turbo Recordings-backed Clouds. There are links to the wildly successful Numbers crew: Numbers co-founder Jackmaster learnt his trade at Rubadub, the Glasgow record shop responsible for importing most of the techno that made the playlist at Atlantis and Pure, and this lineage can be heard in his recent four-four heavy sets. Slam have put together a compilation of new Glasgow talent, describing the sound as “deep, dark, tracky, bass driven, and recognisably Glaswegian.” Crucially there are the parties every weekend where the sound of techno is defined and redefined and people still speak of nights out in mystical tones.
“I don’t know why techno is big in Scotland.” Twitch ruminates. “I don’t think people are very purist about it, but the love has been going for so many years, you always think it’s going to be over, then another generation comes along and gets into it. When we play other places people do this thing were they kind of don’t really dance, they just stand there, jigging about a bit – in Glasgow people really like to dance, to leap about the energy is what they like, they can really let loose, push their fist in the air in the Sub Club, or pound the roof.”
“I get asked ‘where’s the best place to play?’,” he continues, “and people think I’m going to say New York or Tokyo or Berlin, but the best places to play in my experience have always been around Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland. Perhaps you could argue that there’s some sort of Celtic spirit or energy and people really like to let loose. It’s deeply rooted in the psyche here…” “I think it’s the energy we fell in love with,” offers Slam’s Stuart McMillan, before finishing with a line that should be used by the Scottish Tourist Board, “I remember Richie Hawtin turning round to me and saying ‘this is fucking crazy here!’ Someone asked Laurent Garnier what his favourite place in England to play was and he said, well it’s actually not England, it’s Scotland, it’s the Arches.”
Our broadcast from Edinburgh with Ballantine’s Scotch Whisky takes place on Thursday 4th June with 16 artists spread across four venues. All streamed live, simultaneously on BRTV. Find out more here.
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