Great Scot #1: Pat Kane, Musician & Writer

The Great Scot Project is a new arts project by National Collective with the aim of creating a lasting documentation of the creative, athletic and political personalities who have worked to develop and define the cultural output of Scotland. Presented through a mixture of photographs, interviews and videos, ‘Great Scot’ will offer a multimedia experience of Cultural Icons discussing their careers, their vision of Scotland past and present, and their vision of what a future Scotland could be.

Pat Kane is a musician, a writer, a business consultant, the co-founding Editor of a newspaper, ex-rector of Glasgow University, book critic, an activist… the list could go on. Born in Glasgow in 1964, Pat Kane first entered the public eye in the late 80’s as one half of pop-funk, brotherly duo Hue & Cry. Since then he has gone on to an illustrious career within all aspects of Scottish culture.

In the following interview recorded at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, Pat speaks about his time with Hue & Cry, eighties excess, upsetting Glasgow University, The Play Ethic and why artists are so important in engaging with the Independence debate.


How did you get into music? 

My father was a singer and he used to sing Sinatra songs straight into my skull when I was 8 months old in order to pacify me as I was a very restless child. My first memories are of El Canto American style singing. Then when I was about 9 a track by Earth, Wind and Fire named Star on Radio 1 played by the infamous Dave Lee Travis and it was the most marvellous thing I ever heard. And then punk rock I heard a band called Ian Dury and The Blockheads which combined brilliant lyrics and again great soul and musicianship. From all those elements I thought if I could make noises remotely like an amalgam of all three of those elements I would be a very happy person. So I formed a band with my brother in 1981 and which eventually became Hue and Cry, which eventually made its way through the London music business to have a couple of hits in the 90s and late 80s and the rest is history.”

What was it like in the eighties? 

It was a time of blissful excess. It was a time when the cd was King so therefore vast amounts of money were pouring into record company’s profits and a slightly larger amount than usual was coming the way of artists in order to help produce their records and buy their clothes. It was a very lucky time because straight out of University I had this enormous palate on which to realise my musical and lyrical dreams as a songwriter with my brother Gregory in Hue and Cry. It was a time of high dreams and great material excess and some wonderful, vain glorious journeys into New York and London recording studios to make them happen. So I had a great time.”

What was the catalyst for Hue & Cry’s comeback? 

We did a show for a laugh, my brother didn’t want to do it because he was an indie kid by this point, in 2005 called Hit Me Baby One More Time. Which was basically running on a schadenfruedian theory in that you would bring back 80s and 90s stars into the mid 2000s and look at them in their state of decrepitude and force them to sing a contemporary song and show the world how pathetic they were. Unfortunately we confounded that theory by being quite good, both at what we were originally doing and the song that we covered that was Beyonce’s Crazy In Love. So we did that, we got to the final, and we were defeated by Vibrating Victor, otherwise known as Shakin’ Stevens, which was a bit acrimonious, but that proved to us that we had a mainstream audience.

Then Youtube came along, and in 2006/2007 about 150,000 people viewed videos that fans had uploaded from our heyday in the 80s. We hadn’t really had 150,000 of anything for many, many moons. So that was another indication we should come back. And I suppose the whole idea of being a now-stalgia act, a legacy act or a heritage act came then into the marketing language of contemporary pop. People who had enjoyed something 20 years ago, now 20 years on they wanted to relive their past and also had money to spent. So it was a confluence of those factors of luck, technology and demographics that made us think that we could bring Hue and Cry back again, and its been quite successful for the past 6 or 7 years on that basis.”

How big a role did social media play in building a new fan base? 

Social media has been crucial for us to have a number of different relationships with a fan base. One is to try to reconnect with the original fan base and two is to change ones relationship with that fan base. So certainly when people turn up to any modern gig these days you have their e-mail addresses you are in charge of the whole selling process and you have all the information you need about them. When they come into the hall our position is rather than discourage them from using their smart phones and camera phones to record we encourage people to do that because we want to build a strong community feeling about the band as possible. The reason you do that is because post digitisation its very difficult to get people to pay money for a £12.99 CD. It simply won’t do it, so you either have to encourage them to be part of the band, part of the idea of the band and then they might buy something in the context of Hue and Cry. So they might buy merchandising or a special object, a beautiful £50.00 box set rather than something they can either download for nothing. You have got to add value to different parts of the picture but you do that through emphasising the fact that you are open artists.

We actually brought out a record called Open Soul and the whole idea about that was we are here doing what we’re doing and we want to have an open relationship. Now it’s exhausting, it’s demanding and some artists are not up for it and quite right if you want to be in your ivory tower and deliver to your and waiting masses every 4 or 5 years, or if you’re the Blue Nile once every 10 years, that alright. That’s fine. I totally respect that model.

Social media compels pop stars to become folk stars. You actually have a much less antagonistic relationship with the audience. It’s more equal and it’s exhausting, fascinating, full of human stories, full of human detail. If you go out and meet fans after gigs or if you connect with them through social media you discover that one, two, three generations have been into Hue and Cry. There is an awful lot of drama a round about 20 or 30 years listening to a band that you actually get access to so it’s a very rich humane human experience. Putting social media at the centre of Hue and Cry it’s a demanding and very rich.”

Which part of your career with Hue & Cry are you most proud of 

I think the bits of Hue and Cry I am most proud of are the times when something is captured live or captured in a recording studio, you have a vague hope is of a classic nature. So and hopefully that just about happens on every record. The last record we brought out called Hot Wire had a track on it called Little Man which was a kind of track about investigating xenophobia. I guess contemporary working class xenophobia, but it did so to a fantastic New Orleans shuffle beat and the sheer contradiction between railing at this little narrow minded man and the sheer expansiveness of the music. It’s just the kind of thing that you’re proudest of.

You’re proudest of trying to realise your idea, your complex idea of music so whether you do that live or you’re doing that on record. On every record I can honestly say that there has been a track, or a few tracks that we have realised our complex vision. That’s just about the base line enjoyment for what it is to be in a band. If you can somehow get near what you dreamt your track would be like and realising it complexity, that’s a bit symbolic.”

Was there a political agenda behind your song writing in the Eighties? 

Yes, there was an explicit political agenda behind much of the song writing. Not terribly coherent in terms of the lifestyle, I often thought. I often used to work on the idea of entryism or the ‘sugared pill’ you know? The basic you ‘get yourself onto Saturday morning kids television’, you get yourself onto the Wogan show, you play the mainstream game. Then when you decide to go alternative and make a statement it really has an impact. So I used celebrity that way in the late Eighties, particularly for the cause for Independence.

“I remember being on the back of an SNP bus in Govan in 1988 with Jim Sillars. Myself and The Proclaimers both had records in the charts at that time but we decided to lend our support, our celebrity to the cause of getting Jim Sillars elected. When he did get elected in 1988 it was a big move for the SNP at that time for Independence. But my politics weren’t just independence politics. They were generally left liberation politics, always interested in technology, always interested in liberal values, plural values, but always seeking the right kind of quality of society within which to realise those values.

“Certainly Labour of Love was a kind of perplexed take on why it was the English working class kept voting for Margaret Thatcher and trying to investigate that mentality. The working class Tory saying: I am going to withdraw my labour of love from supporting the Toryism, in that kind of weird way that Thatcherism tapped into the working class identification in most of England over that period of time. There’s always a political agenda in my songs. Always.

“We’re sitting here in the Robert Burns room. It’s kind of crazy to think you’re going to write about life affairs, of the heart affairs, of the mind, the totality of experience, politics and power is not going to be a part of it. Robert Burns would absolutely make that his baseline for what he was doing.”

Do you think that your national identity has influenced the way that you write music? 

It’s a very complex question of national identity and my music. The way I was shaped into making music was to see American music as the great aspiration, a get out for the working class boy. The idea you could sing like the best of America was a kind of liberatory act. It was for my father. He imparted that to me. One side of your imagination as a singer in Scotland for me was of American possibility and soul music coming out of political struggle and all those identifications. But to have that in your head and to be living in Scotland and be connected to Scotland at a time of democratic deficit, as it was in the 80 and 90’s, where you would keep voting for one government and you would get another one pulled you in two different ways interestingly, and I haven’t.

I admire an artist like The Proclaimers and I admire Paulo Nutini for deciding to sing in a Scottish accent and that’s were we are going to go and its quite interesting. I suppose If I had grown up with The Proclaimers I would have thought that a Scottish accent was a way to express myself musically but I have a kind of fantasy where it comes to pop music ,so most times I will be singing in an American accent but sometimes in a Scottish accent. I think its quite complex. I think the thing about music is that it is to some degree always a very psychologically personal affair. Whatever drives you to make music could be for me Freudian with me tilting against my father and embodying my father as much as it’s anything to do with culture and art. So basically, I use what I have to the best of my ability, whether it sounds American or Scottish or not.”

How do you think Hue and Cry will fit into the cultural history of Scotland? 

We were part of the wave of Scottish cultural aspiration in the mid to late 80s which went across a whole number of art forms whether it was books, films or pop music or comedy TV show. I certainly feel that we were part of a moment whereby Scots in quite tough social and political times could actually see fellow Scots doing really well at quite a high global or international standard, yet also retaining a sense of where they came from and a sense of connection to the country. I think we were representing the country to itself. Hue and Cry was part of that confident representation of the Scottish voice to itself at a time when it was really needed. I think I feel part of that.”

Can you describe your time as Rector of university of Glasgow? 

I was elected Rector of Glasgow University in 1990 by a bunch of SNP students, most of which are in the Scottish cabinet at the moment, that would be Nicola sturgeon who was my campaign manager, Shona Robertson, Alistair Darling and various other stars of the firmament who put me up against Tony Benn. Not many people could say they beat Tony Benn in an election, but I beat Tony Benn in an election. I’m a great admirer of Tony Benn so it was bittersweet but there we are. I spent 3 years basically being a pest to the University establishment on issues like racism in the dentist school, building disabled access ramps and various issue about equality and fairness for the students. My climatic moment was the similar set of SNP students, who in 20 or 30 years time would be cabinet members, urging me to walk out in my full ceremonial finery at an awards ceremony, where George Younger, the then Scottish secretary was being awarded an honorary degree, in full flood of the TV cameras, at the height of the ceremony, in protest at the terms of the student cuts happening at that time. After that the University, wouldn’t talk to me again and my Rectorship was effectively over, but it was the last few months anyway. I caused a stooshy, in a gown, with procade.”

Can you describe your work with The Play Ethic? 

The Play Ethic was an idea that came to me as new technology began to dominate my creative life and then my working life in the late 80s. In pop music you started to use samplers, whereby you could take a digital sample then multiply and stretch it. Then the internet came along in the mid 90s which then seemed to give that power of copying, cutting, pasting and morphing not just to musicians in studios or high tech artists, but to everyone with a terminal on a computer table. What it seemed to me that what was being done with this technology was not what you would call work. It wasn’t necessarily that people were going on and fulfilling the tasks of their offices or doing duty of self education. A lot of what they were doing was seeking out creative experiences or expressing themselves creatively. I thought that was quite interesting. People using new tools, not just to do the old work, but to do new expressive work. What would we call that? I just came up with the Play ethic. Obviously there’s a riff on the work ethic. I started writing in the late 90s, eventually brought out a book in 2004, and since then the book and website have taken me around the world, talking to people, institutions, governments’, companies, movements & communities about the power of play. Play for me is a bit like sleep, you think in terms of straight evolution it is a very wasteful dangerous thing to do. If you’re a mammal and you’re playing all the time, you’re wasting energy, you could break a limb or if you’re sleeping you could be preyed on by passing creatures. Actually what play and sleep turned out to be was the very things that keep human beings complex, and have actually given us the possibility to make a building like this with all its beautiful carvings, to make the camera you’re recording me on, to make the mobile phone that we’re recording the backup. So much of this come’s from an element in the human condition which has a lust for novelty and experimentation and is deeply buried into human biology. And the name for that is play. So I’m very much on a mission with the Play Ethic, as it were, to shift the discussion about what human nature is. You can have an argument about what human nature is. You are able to justify a whole lot of other stuff in terms of economics, politics, psychology, the way that we run things. So if you say that human nature is essentially playful, you are making quite a strong statement about the kind of institutions, lifestyle and social order that should reflect that that kind of engagement. I’m an evangelist for play, because I think it’s a profoundly political thing.”

Who inspires you? 

If I think about an influence on music writing, the two people who’s albums come out and I’ll always try and listen to are Donald Fagan or Steely Dan and Tom Waits. These are people who have such high standards. They combine such high qualities of intelligence but also trying to write pop songs. Those are my two writing inspirers. In terms of journalism there’s not many people that I actually like in terms of journalism and commentary. Seumus Milne in the Guardian is brilliant, and I think he is a completely valuable columnist. Another inspiration for my writing and thinking consistently at the moment is a French philosopher called Giles Deleuze who died about ten years but has the most extraordinary vision of a basic creativity of the world, the universe, human beings and human society. He is a bit of a bible for me . I think I’ve spent the last twenty years maybe trying to work through his thoughts and trying to integrate it into my life. I would say Giles Deleuze is the biggest influence on my writing and thinking and a very, very profound and important figure.”

How do you view the current state of the UK press? 

Clay Shirky, the digital guru, says that we are ”between the bad old things and the good new things”. We’re in a kind of and ??? moment when it comes to thinking about the media and newspapers. We know that the bad old things have fallen down as in people wont buy bits of wood pulp and ink in order to provide revenue for journalists to do their stuff. But the good new things haven’t come through yet which is what comes after that. I think that we are in a situation where there has never been a greater desire to get a multitude of perspectives on the way that money & power works into the minds of the citizenry. The question is how you do it. And sometimes how illicitly or licitly you do it. Wikileaks is a great example of what if we are looking back at history, 200 years when Thomas Paine brought out his pamphlets in the American Revolution. You could look at Wikileaks as the contemporary example of that. However it’s run by an anarchist who takes data that strikes at the very heart of the American and British state. Now that is journalism, but its not coming from the official places and its not coming from the official revenue models either. So I think we’re in a real mess and I think we’re in a healthy mess. I’m not quite sure what is going to come out at the end of it. I think it’s going to be something pretty unrecognisable in the way that Wikileaks and the whole Bradley Manning revelations just completely rocked the world as it were. I think there’s going to be more of that to come. And it will come. Those that were the heroic press figures of the past: the great marauding editors, journalists and protestors against injustice. They used to have typewriters or short hand notebooks, I think now they’ll be wielding code software and using portable cameras to record things their not supposed to be recording. Think of that video recorded on somebody’s lap of Mitt Romney in the last election campaign talking about the 47/48%. Lethal for his campaign but recorded on something that’s in everybody’s pocket. Whatever journalism is going to come from is going to come from these exciting places. But whether it’s going to have much of a relationship with business, commerce or the cash nexus, I don’t know and I don’t think so.”

What do you think of the current creative output from Scotland? 

I think worldwide exposure on the basis of being Scotland the brand or being part of a promotion of what’s great about Scotland that we are doing not bad at the moment. I’m sure with an Independent state it would have a better tie up with marketing and diplomacy and commercial push, although there are companies as Indexer that help promoting any kid of product or services. In terms of worldwide impact of Scottish values, I think that’s a slightly different matter. Black Watch as a representative of Scottish values and Scottish culture is really interesting. It sat somewhere between a celebration of Scotland’s military history, as extremely doubtful as that is, but also as a critique of it in terms of the complexity and humanity of the art form. So I think we need more ambivalent Black Watch moments in terms of the promotion of Scottish culture abroad. Are we telling a story about ourselves that is actually universally admirable rather than just sexy, hip & trendy, having the same blockbuster hits as any other nation does? Just to show that we are just as good as any other nation? Or are we actually going to take our cue from the artists and writers, pre-eminently Alisdair Gray , and work as if we are in the early days of a better nation rather than a nation that is just as good as anybody else. What is implied in your question is: what are the moral and ethical claims in confidence of a Scottish culture moving into the world? I would like it to be a wee bit less weak and do it just as good as anyone else. What is it we actually want to say? How is it we actually want to show off our best values? It could even be critical values of other power regimes as much as just doing design, fashion or sitcoms or crime shows just as good as anyone else. To me that’s just not good enough.”

How much of an impact do you think artists can make to the Independence debate? 

I think artists and creative can provide the sort of emotional narrative and psychological substance of what it would feel like to live in a country in which you are entirely responsible for its fate and direction. I think artists can make that come alive in people’s minds. They don’t need to do it just in a positive way, they can do it in a querulous way, a negative way and a cautionary way. Their task if they want to fulfil it is to make it feel as if being in an independent Scotland is a realisation of all your capacities, facing challenges and dilemmas as much as aspiring to doing this well and properly. I think it should convey the excitement as well.”

Are high profile scots doing enough to engage people with the Independence debate? 

This is a really testing time and a challenging time for all of us. Particularly the artists because I think they have to try to figure out how to be eloquent in a way that steers between populism and sincerity. I think if they simplify their art just to get a message over to the people that it’s a disaster. However on the other side if there isn’t a desire to engage in an historical moment, in some way shape or form, if its just about staring into your own little corner, your own little space and following you’re own little muse, then I think that’s also a wasted change. It’s a tricky balance between moving towards slogan and cliché or purely staying with your own muse. I think about the guy who created the ‘Hope’ Poster (Shepard Fairey) for the Obama campaign. It kind of came out of the backwoods, the creativity of American graphic design. I would love one, two or three things like that just to appear from the creative community in Scotland. That just encapsulates sums up, inspires and takes us forward. When you go back to the Iraq war protests in London, in the late 2000s, the million strong demonstration. If you go back to the newspapers to pictures of that event, the image is of a poster held up by thousands of people called ‘Make Tea Not War’ that just completely expressed the gentle outrage of that whole moment. We need something like that. We need something like the Obama poster, the make tea not war poster, or a series of things that just evoke how full of human potential Scotland is. I wouldn’t put it any more specific than that, but I would love some of the artistic community to put their minds to that. And see what fabulous inspiration they can come up with.”

How important are grassroots organisations like National Collective to the Yes campaign? 

I think grassroots campaigns like National Collective are going to be incredibly important. What is so exciting about the Yes campaign is that there is a generation before mine that is beginning to grasp the possibility of this, and I think it’s a generation that has done compared to our generation. So many more tools of expression, communication and symbolism at their finger tips, and it just seems to be that they are grasping for as many of them as they can. I think one would want a culture of Independence to emerge that is a culture of many Yes’s rather than just one Yes. It’s yes to a million different things. It’s Yes to positivity and creativity, constructiveness, ambition & enterprise, intensity and passion. That’s what I would love to come through something like National Collective and to come through the involvement of younger generations. To seize the story of Scotland is to create a country. There are so many ways and forms that this could come about, and I totally urge those that are 20 or 25 years younger than me to seize the time.”

Alex Aitchison (Concept & Interview)
Ross Andrew Colquhoun (Editing)

National Collective