‘Songs In The Key of Fife’ by Vic Galloway is undoubtedly one of the rock books of the year. And, having launched it in the East Neuk in late summer, Vic is bringing the book back to Fife at Rothes Halls this Friday (29th November) as part of Book Week Scotland in Fife, hosting a show which will feature readings from the book as well as musical accompaniment from Kid Canaveral and Withered Hand (solo).
‘Songs’ documents the lives and careers of a disparate group of musicians, including Kenny Anderson (King Creosote), James Yorkston, KT Tunstall and the Beta Band, whose principal connection is geographical but who share a restless and inquisitive musical nature. Many of those featured in the book were to develop strong links with Fence Records founded by Kenny Anderson.
One of the dangers in including so many stories in the one book would be to leave the individual tales feeling under cooked. Fortunately for me, albeit as someone with a limited knowledge of the individuals concerned, that didn’t prove to be the case at all.
What ‘Songs’ is extremely good at is conveying the life of the musician, more often the struggling muso busking on the streets but stretching all the way to the rock’n’roll excess of the Beta Band in their pomp. Much of the time, the artists are somewhere in between those two extremes and Vic brings out one of the key themes of the book extremely well – the value of independent working relying on no-one but yourself and your friends.
What did surprise me was how dark some of the stories got. But more of that later.
Ahead of Friday’s show Vic took some time out to discuss the book with MPT and he started off talking about the inspiration for the book.
“It was a combination of things. I was looking at 40 on the horizon and having done TV and radio for so long, I wanted to do something a bit more meaty than soundbites on the radio and that transpired to be doing a book.
“I approached a friend of mine who works for Creative Scotland and he introduced me to an agent. We hit it off talking about music and pop culture, and he took me on.”
Having grown up with the likes of James Yorkston and Steve Mason and having played in bands with the likes of Kenny Anderson, the notion of a book about this group of Fife musicians began to take hold.
“I had various other ideas as well but he said ‘THAT’S your first book. You know all the protagonists, you’ve been in some way involved having played in bands with them, you’ll be able to get interviews that no-one else can get. Make that your first book’.”
Vic felt that his unique perspective would be critical to telling these stories.
“I just thought I was the best person to tell this story. As I say in the book every person can or should tell their own story but as someone who is connected to them all personally, and in some cases musically as well, why not take this opportunity? And when they all went yes, some more enthusiastically than others, I got the green light from my agent.”
If the personal connection helped set up the book, there was also a downside – given the dark nature of some of the stories with depression and mental illness.
“I’ve had Steve Mason, James Yorkston and Kenny saying they enjoyed the book and giving the thumbs up and saying well done. But I’ve had almost all of them saying ‘I can’t believe you said that, that’s wrong’.
“A couple have been a little bit miffed but not about it in general just one or two lines. So Steve challenged a line, but once I challenged him on it he went, ‘Well, fair enough’. James was the same but when I said from my point of view, yada yada, he went ‘ Fair enough’.
“In many ways it would have been easier for me to write a book about Syd Barrett, Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain because they’re dead. But these guys are still alive and they know where I live! They could come and get me if they wanted!
“But I wrote the book as compassionately and sensitively as possible. There’s no way that I was trying to stitch anyone up but you can’t please everyone. If I’d left them out they would have been pissed off.
“What I wanted to do was write a book from a friend’s or a fan’s point of view but I just thought that if I don’t do it warts and all it would just be a fake. There has to be light and dark.”
Much of the book’s later stories centre around Fence Records and Vic is keen to emphasise the impact that Fence has had on the wider music scene,
“Initially Fence was quite influenced by the Beta Band, the fact that a band that was mainly Fife based made it and they made it off their own backs, doing their own thing.
“Kenny just decided ‘screw the whole music industry, I’m just doing it for me and my friends in a remote part of Scotland’. And slowly but surely people started paying attention to it. Across the UK and the world people started to realise that you can do your own thing, put your own stuff out, put on your own gigs, make your own artwork and eventually create your own community. In terms of the aesthetics and philosophy behind Fence it’s been incredibly influential.
“I think Fence came on the radar at the right time when people were becoming disillusioned with the music industry a little bit and looking for something different. Maybe it was a little punk-esque philosophy, do it yourself, and these movements happen every now and again in music.
“Also home recording is the big revolution that’s allowed Fence to happen. When you’ve got a home recording set-up one of the things that sounds best is a voice and an acoustic guitar. You can usually get a decent sound out of that. So that’s in many ways the benchmark for Fence even though there’s rock bands , indie bands, electronic acts, it’s largely singer/songwriters that dominate.”
Of course the book was published just as news emerged of the split between long term partners in Fence, Kenny Anderson and Johnny Lynch.
“I knew towards the end of the writing that Johnny and Kenny were having disagreements on the way that they wanted to do things but at that point I didn’t know exactly how it was going to manifest itself. You can read in the afterword that I’m hinting at that.
“But what’s happened is that Kenny’s going to keep Fence small and local and Fife based. A little community that’s ultimately going to be an East Neuk thing centred around King Creosote and his pals with a few out of towners.
“Johnny’s set up his own thing with Lost Map which already has a great roster of bands previously on the Fence label.
“I’m caught between a rock and a hard place but I do honestly think that we will get twice as many events and twice as many good records. It’s a shame when people can’t agree on stuff and go their separate ways but it’s usually for the best. I hope that the community of fans out there will not take sides, so that people will go to Lost Map events and go to Fence events.
“I would be sad if people were partisan but I’m optimistic. I’m going to be connected to both and help both.”
‘Songs In The Key of Fife’ is available now from all good bookshops.
Vic Galloway, Kid Canaveral and Withered Hand are appearing at the Rothes Halls on Friday 29th November, tickets and more information here.