The Skids were one of the brilliant bands celebrated in Mojo's 1978 New Wave Special 30th Anniversary Collectors Edition. For fans who did not get this edition, sit back and enjoy the fascinating write up on The Skids by Pat Gilbert.
THE SAINTS ARE COMING
Fired up by punk rock and Jean Paul Sartre, The Skids made music that sounded like revolutionaries on the march. Pat Gilbert investigates the New Waves greatest anthem band.
Summer of 1979 and the living is easy. At Rockfield Studios, set in farmland near Monmouth in Wales, The Skids are recording their second album, Days In Europa. Their original drummer, Tom Kellichan, has left, uncomfortable with the pressure that their To 10 hit, Into The Valley, has brought them.
His replacement is Rusty Egan, one time sticksman for The Clash and Rich Kids, and everyone’s favourite west London dandy. At weekends, Egan would drive back to the capital to moonlight with synth act Visage and hang around Soho with New Romantic pioneers like Boy George and Steve Strange.
During one of his absences, The Skids’ song writing partners, Richard Jobson and Stuart Adamson, decided to have some fun with the sartorially ostentatious drummer’s expense.
“They booby trapped his room,” laughs Bill Nelson, the Be Bop Deluxe guitarist engaged to produce the sessions. “Stuart hollowed out a loaf of bread and filled it with insects so they’d fly out when it was sliced. Then they stitched up one of Rusty’s trouser legs. They took ages figuring out which leg he’d put on first, so he’d fall over when he put them on.”
This tale of intra-band sabotage suggests that Jobson and Adamson, the two young men at The Skids’ core, were brothers in arms, deeply bonded by their working class Scottish roots and a healthy scepticism about anything too outré.
Yet that was only part of the story. The truth was that the band’s cannon of stirring New Wave hymns – from The Saints Are Coming through to Into The Valley, to the haunting Woman In Winter- were conceived by a partnership frequently on the brink of collapse, due to Richard and Stuart’s starkly polarised personalities, ambitions and musical visions.
The result was a litany of flare ups, sackings and reinstatements that eventually lead to the group’s untimely demise in 1981.
Adding to the poignancy of the story is Adamson’s death in 2001, which revealed that the apparently solid, steely songwriter – who enjoyed a hugely successful second career with Big Country in the’80’s – was haunted, in Jobson’s words, by “many secrets, many horrors we didn’t know about.”
The Skids were, it seems, just as mysterious, confounding and fascinating as their jagged Scots rock suggested.
On a crisp January evening, Mojo is sitting in a Covent Garden café with Richard Jobson. The Skids’ singer, long-time fixture on TV and radio as a presenter and movie critic, has just emerged from a pre-production meeting for his second film, a follow up to his 2003 directorial debut, 16 Years Of Alcohol.
Jobson’s lyrics for The Skids, often laden with symbolism and self- consciously poetic, created an impression that the frontman was steeped in art school tradition that underpinned many of punk’s pioneering heroes, but the reality, hinted at in the semi-autobiographical 16 Years Of Alcohol, was very different.
The son of a coal miner, ‘Jobbo’ was born in 1960 into a staunchly Catholic family in the mining village of Ballingry, north of Dunfermline.
He was, according to bandmate Willie Simpson, “ a toughnut , you learnt how to look after yourself where he came from.”
In his last years at school he joined the AV Toi, , a gang based around the Abbey View council estate in Dunfermline. To the 15 year old Jobson, the AV Toi offered Clockwork Orange style glamour and purpose.
“They were pretty stylish, they bought their clothes in particular places,” recalls Jobson. “It was exciting and sub-cultural.”
Richard was an avid reader, devouring Philip K Dick novels, Jean-Paul Sartre and Marvel comics. Together, this literature created a violent existentialist fantasy that would mould Jobson’s worldview.
To the intellectually rapacious miner’s boy, his preferred literature seemed entirely consistent with life on the street. “Twenty guys fighting twenty other guys , then going home to read a Batman comic didn’t seem strange to me. It was dark and extraordinary. It made perfect sense.”
Meanwhile, down the road in Crossgates, another satellite village of Dunfermline and Cowdenbeath, Stuart Adamson was sitting in his bedroom honing tricky guitar figures, Led Zeppelin, Bowie, Be Bop Deluxe, on a Flying V guitar he’d bought with the wages from his job with the local council.
Two years Jobson’s senior, in 1975 he’d formed a band called Tattoo with schoolmates, including bassist Willie Simpson, which played cover versions in local pubs and workingmen’s clubs.
In the summer of’76, sensing the straitjacket of adulthood looming, Stuart, Willie and another pal jacked in their jobs and buggered off to Amsterdam.
“We wanted to see Europe before settling down,” explains Simpson of their curiously old fashioned perspective on reaching your late teens. “We thought we’d be getting married soon.”
The trip would prove to be prescient: after just two weeks, a homesick Adamson decided the draw of Dunfermline was too strong, and booked a ferry back home, leaving Willie to the relatively innocent vices of Holland’s hippy Mecca.
The guitarist landed back home just as the music papers were fanfaring a bunch of mainly London based groups that traded under the umbrella of ‘punk rock’.
In March 1977, with Simpson long returned home, the remnants of Tattoo saw The Damned perform at Edinburgh’s Tiffany’s. Adamson was overawed: he parked the notion of growing up for a while and began auditioning for a frontman to sing his batch of new, punk inspired songs: one, titled Charles, was about a guy consumed by the machinery at his factory job; another, Sweet Suburbia, directly satirised bourgeois life.
Essentially, Stuart’s songs were identikit New Wave fare, railing at the social status quo, but all that would soon change with the arrival of Jobson in early summer 1977. After a chance meeting in the street, he was invited along to an audition at a workingmen’s club in Cowdenbeath.
“He was one of the very few punks in the Dunfermline area,” recalls Simpson. “He was quite a tall character, with dyed black and white hair, like a skunk, and was wearing a long trenchcoat. It was like, who’s that? He was brash, confident, some would say slightly arrogant, but perfect for the frontman in a punk band.”
Jobson remembers the afternoon vividly. “I was the last guy to audition, I think I did The Stooges Raw Power. I wasn’t very good but that wasn’t the point. I had black and white hair and a black girlfriend whose father was based with the Royal Navy in Rosyth. I made an impression.”
Snaring drummer Tom Kellichan via a local newspaper ad, The Skids played their first gig on August 19th, 1977 at a local bikers’ haunt in Dunfermline called The Belleville Hotel, supporting a certain Matt Vinyl & The Decorators.
The following day, in a local park, they played a benefit gig for victims of Pinochet’s coup in Chile, which was inaugurated The Skids’ uncomfortable relationship with political correctness – Stuart announced they’d never be allowed to perform such a gig in a Communist controlled country, to jeers from the leftie crowd.
Within six months, however, the group had won enough local support to facilitate the release of an indie EP. The record won them the patronage of John Peel, and coveted local support slots with The Clash and Stranglers.
When the group opened for The Clash at the Dunfermline Kinema, Mick Jones watched in amazement as Adamson teased ringing, open string riffs from a guitar tuned down a tone to give it an even chunkier sound.
When Virgin snapped up The Skids in April 1978, Jobson was just 17and Adamson was barely 20. It was their teenage fantasy come true. But within a year their dreams of pop stardom would already be disintegrating.
Around the time they signed to Virgin, the velocity of their charge towards fame – by mid-1978, they were already being heralded as New Wave prodigies by Sound’s Garry Bushell – had the effect of nullifying the group’s creative tensions.
Adamson was, by dint of his age and musical gifts, the engine of the band and its emotional anchor. Richard, in contrast, and by his own admission, was intoxicated and gladly seduced by the opportunities that life as a bona fide rock star had to offer.
“Stuart was the leader and the talent,” Jobson explains, “and I was young and on a journey. I behaved in a way Stuart felt was inconsistent with how The Skids should be. I wanted to sample as much as possible, then move on to the next thing.”
Everyone involved in The Skids, however, understands why the Adamson/Jobson partnership was carefully preserved and nurtured. Together, the two men had created an armoury of songs that were powerful and original. Richard’s lyrics, arcane and rich in symbolism, often about war and death, had a stirring semi-religious feel to them.
“Richard’s lyrics impressed Stuart,” recalls Simpson. “You had to analyse them to find a meaning for yourself. Stuart saw a lot in them, and as a skilful songwriter shaped them into something extraordinary.”
In November 1978, the group released a second single for Virgin, The Saints Are Coming, the first truly brilliant fusion of Adamson’s gift for anthemic choruses and Jobson’s flair for wordsmithery, all underplayed by a snap tight rhythm section.
The fact the 7” stalled at Number 48, was according to Simpson, evidence it was released before The Skids had the chance to properly establish themselves. “We were moving quickly, perhaps too quickly.”
That winter, the group began work on their debut album, Scared To Dance, at Air Studios on London’s Oxford Street.
The producer, David Batchelor, chose to drench the tracks in reverb and effects, creating a thick, mysterious sound perfectly suiting The Skids’ epic, Caledonian art punk feel.
But Adamson baulked at recording what he felt were superfluous overdubs. Determined the group should maintain their punk authenticity, he told others he was quitting and returned to Scotland in a funk. The album was completed with the help of session guitarist Chris Jenkins.
It was an omen of the troubles to come. “There was a lot going on in Stuart’s head,” says Jobson. “He wanted everything to be more straightforward.”
Simpson, on the other hand, suggests the reason for Adamson’s departure wasn’t entirely musical, but seated in the same impulses that had pulled the guitarist back to Dunfermline during their trip to Holland.
“Stuart was a home-bird,” he says. “He liked to go back to his roots, to his girlfriend and parents, to Scotland. We were four young lads in the big city, away from home for a period of time. He wanted to go home and gather his thoughts.”
The flare up was eventually smoothed over, and buried amid the hectic day-to-day responsibilities of being a major-label act. But it left an indelible stain.
“After Stuart walked out the first time, we knew something had gone,” explains Jobson. “We never really got that friendship back that we had before. It was a death knell in a way.”To viewers tuning into Top Of The Pops in March 1979, there was little to hint that The Skids were unravelling. The promo video for Into The Valley, an oblique anti-war song built around one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time, saw Jobbo, in black shirt and skinny white tie, scissor kicking like a hopped up boxer, while Adamson, in natty mohair jumper, chugged away at his trademark Yamaha guitar with a natural, athletic grace.
It was immensely exciting stuff, oozing an intoxicating tartan weave of youth, power and passion.
By early April, Into The Valley had reached the Top 10.
But as the demands of pop success took a grip, divisions within the group widened. Married drummer Tom Kellichan recognised that the rock n roll lifestyle wasn’t for him and quit.
Meanwhile, Jobbo was being sucked into the thrilling underbelly of the capital. He’d palled up with Rusty Egan, who was now pioneering the New Romantic movement and DJ-ing at the Blitz club in Soho. The clubs environment proved an eye opener for the earthy, red blooded Scots.
“They loved Bowie, Lou Reed and The Stooges but the poof stuff was a no go area,” explains Rusty. “They were boys of, 19 – 21, and good looking. Jobbo met Boy George and Phil Lynott, so it was ok, he felt safe there.”
But Stuart seemed happiest at home in Dunfermline, living above a chip shop with his soon to be wife, Sandra. Jobson interpreted his bandmate’s behaviour as unacceptably dull and tweedy.
“He was retreating into himself. I just wanted to go to New York and London and talk to people. He found me absolutely impossible and, in the end, I found him really boring, but his talent was unquestionable.”
Jobson reveals that, in the months ahead, Adamson would sack him no fewer than three times, only to contritely welcome him back into the fold the following day. Jobbo responded by appearing evermore carefree and oblivious. Miraculously, the pair managed to contain a cordial working relationship, promoting two successful follow up singles, Masquerade and Charade.
It was into this strained atmosphere that the next critical figure in The Skids’ story, Bill Nelson, descended. Formerly the guitarist of mid ‘70s Yorkshire art rockers Be Bop Deluxe, Nelson was Adamson’s first choice as producer for the bands second album-chiefly because he was unashamedly hero worshipped him.
Nelson first became aware of The Skids when Stuart had referred to him in an early music press interview as “one of the most underrated artists in British rock.” Adamson’s musical debt to him was patently clear: check out Be Bop Deluxe’s Old Grey Whistle Test performance of Ships In The Night, and you’ll get the drift.
After he successfully produced the Charade single, Virgin contracted Nelson to oversee the album session at Rockfield.
“They were all very shy and sweet,” smiles Nelson, “which was a relief because they looked like a bunch of hoodlums.” Naturally Adamson was thrilled to be working with his muse.
“We sat there, with Stuart saying, ‘Can you show me the riff to this song or that song?” adds the producer. “I realised we had to get over that before we could move on. There was a definite quote from Be Bop Deluxe’s Sister Seagull in one song. I said, You don’t have to put that in, but Stuart wanted to. I said, ok, then I’d better show you the proper harmony part that goes with it.”
If Adamson thought that employing Bill Nelson would create a sympathetic environment for his original but rootsy musical vision, he would be disappointed.
Fuelled by Blue Nun wine and cheap lager, the sessions again saw a clash of personalities and ideas. According to Jobson, “We were trying to do something new musically. Bill was taking us somewhere else and I went with it, and so did Rusty, but Stuart was fighting it.”
Once again, the notion of authenticity became an issue. “Stuart had more of a roots rock n roll sense, while being disparaging of clichés,” adds Nelson. “He was always on about ‘keeping things real’. Their sound was great, it didn’t need much technology, but my approach was the studio offered so much more. Rusty had just discovered Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra, so there was an electronic element coming in.”
The producer remembers “a lot of tension at times,” but also a group which was still incredibly enthusiastic and positive, and not above indulging in a little mischief, as the infamous trouser stitching illustrated.“They thought, ‘How can your clothes be so important?’” says Egan. “I was always, like, I have to iron this or get this shirt for this gig. When they fucked about with my stuff when I was away, they cracked up laughing. I lost it, I wouldn’t talk to them.”
As tracks such as the sharp, angular Animation and playful Working For The Yankee Dollar took shape, so did the idea of an album that had an epic, historical sweep, probing at the evolution of late 20th century world order.
Jobson’s lyrics touched on WW1 poetry, Nazi Germany, Vietnam, the Roman Empire and French Revolution. For the sleeve, Jobbo chose a poster from the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, an image entirely in keeping with the prevailing fascination with Nazi symbolism (Joy Division, The Banshees etc).
Yet on its release in October 1979, Days In Europa caused a mini outrage, with accusations that Jobbo was a pro-Nazi sympathiser. It hardly helped that, in a Sounds interview around that time, he claimed to be “indifferent to The National Front.”
Today, the singer is keen to stress he was merely “playing with imagery.” A natural irreverence came with the territory, but anyone who knew the band would have known we played Anti- Nazi League benefits. I was 18 or 19, and found myself being asked profound questions.”
Days In Europa peaked at a disappointing Number 32, but stood as testament to The Skids ability to channel their internal conflicts into creating extraordinary art.
Tellingly, Simpson would leave within weeks of the album’s release, unhappy with the split of publishing royalties.
Meanwhile, Richard and Stuart would manage to hold it together for another album, 1980’s The Absolute Game, by far their biggest selling.
Ultimately, though, theirs was a classic partnership that was destroyed by the very ingredients that made it special.
“Stuart recognised my energy, and I recognised his talent,” waxes Jobson, who lost touch with his bandmate when the group split. “The difference was that Stuart saw music as a career, I saw it as a daily event.”
There is of course a tragic coda to The Skids’ story. In December 2001, Stuart Adamson was found dead in a Honolulu hotel room, having gone missing during a period of heavy drinking that coincided with a divorce from his second wife.
He appeared to have hung himself from a cord attached to a wardrobe, though it was never established whether or not he intended to take his own life.
His death was commemorated the following year with an emotional Skids reunion gig at Glasgow Barrowlands, followed last year by a performance at T In The Park.
At that time, the group were enjoying the added kudos of U2 and Green Day covering The Saints Are Coming to raise money for the New Orleans victims of Hurricane Katrina. It seemed finally one of New Wave’s finest groups were getting their proper dues.
“When I heard The Skids I was blown away,” explained U2’s The Edge at an awards ceremony. “Their songwriting was amazing. The first Skids song I heard was Into The Valley, I just immediately wanted to go home and write something as good.”