IT could be a tough crossword clue guaranteed to have puzzle aficionados biting the end of their pens in sheer frustration. 1 ACROSS: Scottish rock band whose lyrics were inspired by The Herald crossword (3 – 5 – 3 – 8).
Who would have guessed that The Trash Can Sinatras credit this newspaper’s notorious Wee Stinker – compiled by the late John McKie – as a force behind their greatest album?
Strange, but true according to singer Frank Reader.
“On, I’ve Seen Everything, our lyrics got a little bit more adult, for want of a better word. There was a lot of clever-clever going on, but not just for the sake of it,” he recalled.
“We loved good word play and were always swapping puns and stuff. We were also big crossword do-ers. The ones in The Herald were our favourites. But we could never work out more than two or three clues in The Wee Stinker every Monday. It was absolutely impossible.
“You could win a Wee Stinker T-shirt which had the crossword printed on the front. We never came anywhere close to actually finishing it.”
They did eventually take ownership of a coveted T-shirt, but not due to a sudden burst of intellectual stimulation.
“We found a Wee Stinker T-shirt on sale in a charity shop. It looked so cool. It was our Charlie And The Chocolate Factory moment,” said Frank.
“We’d dreamt about owning one for years. So we hung it up our studio almost as a kind of talisman. It gave us a bit of inspiration.”
Next month, I’ve Seen Everything is being re-released on indie label, Last Night From Glasgow, accompanied by a new book about the making of the record.
It was recorded at the band’s former Shabby Road Studios in Kilmarnock with producer Ray Schulman. It followed their 1990 debut, Cake, released on Go! Discs, which featured the singles, Obscurity Knocks, Only Tongue Can Tell and Circling The Circumference.
“Cake had not been universally well received by any stretch of the imagination, and you tend to focus on the negatives. I don’t know if that’s a Scottish thing or not,” said Frank.
“It wasn’t good enough. Not what we’d set out to make. It was just so piecemeal with too many versions of songs and a lot of debate about what we were using in the studio. We felt … we can’t do that again. Songwise I thought, what have we got? The answer was nothing, really. We were starting from scratch.
“So any self doubt wasn’t too hard to find. I think it had been there all the time.”
The period leading into I’ve Seen Everything was extremely difficult.
“We had five new songs and only two were worthy of being B-sides at best,” he said.
“We didn’t have a manager so we were pretty much adrift. We also weren’t doing things with any great urgency.”
The band received a boost when bassist Davy Hughes re-joined the existing line-up of Paul Livingston and John Douglas on guitars and Stephen Douglas on drums.
“He’d been in an early version of the band and was working on the Edinburgh music scene with Davy Henderson of The Fire Engines and Jock Scott,” revealed Frank.
“He was an amazing songwriter and we’d always loved his shtick. We assumed he’d never want to join our band again. But he brought great lyrics and song ideas. We needed someone to galvanise us. So we really lucked out.”
The band booked into The Mill Studio in Berkshire with producer Steve Lillywhite, whose reputation preceded him with a string of albums by U2, Simple Minds, The La’s, The Psychedelic Furs and Peter Gabriel on his C.V.
“Unfortunately, we got Steve at a time when he was moving away from production and into A & R,” recalled Frank. “We didn’t have any songs. It was a real struggle. We also weren’t that diligent about what we were trying to do. When I think back, I’m red faced about it all.
“There were a few substances being taken and a lot of paddling about on the Thames. We were enjoying that more.”
The band laid down tracks for five songs, but it was a painful experience.
“We were supposed to be coming up with new material but weren’t really doing it,” admitted Frank.
“I don’t know if our confidence was shot. Working with Steve wasn’t great. I don’t know if he was really that into us.
“We were mixing in London and he just stopped turning up. To use a modern phrase, he ghosted us. We were really clowning around and going out a lot. I think he got fed up with it.”
They retreated to Shabby Road, and Schulman – an ex-member of prog-rockers, Gentle Giant – was drafted in. Musically it seemed an odd fit.
But his work with The Sugarcubes, Ian McCulloch and The Sundays had impressed the band. “I’d never heard of Gentle Giant and you didn’t have YouTube to look back,” said Frank. “But Ray was a guy we liked and he’d produced these grand-sounding records we were really into.”
The band turned a creative corner and songs like Easy Read, Hayfever, Orange Fell and Worked A Miracle began to take shape.
“Slowly but surely all that previous self-doubt evaporated,” recalled Frank.
“Ray had us sit around with a brilliant engineer called Larry Primrose, and set us in different situations, whether it was using percussion instruments or guitar parts. He kept the momentum going and for the first time we felt like a real band. We had, dare I say it, some real musical power to get across.”
I’m Immortal, a song about redemption couched in footballing terms, was outstanding.
“Davy is one of my all-time favourite lyricists and he’d gathered football phrases like ‘goalkeeper’s graveyard’ and ‘I picked a rug out the dug-out’,” said Frank.
“In its first form, he’d called the song Nil-Nil Firhill. It had a real poeticism on his part, touching on a fair amount of the romantic side of the west of Scotland general male.
“We were always trying to bring that out. And we did, but dressed up in football speak.”
I’ve Seen Everything hit record stores in May 1993, flanked by singles, Hayfever and the title track. The cover artwork was painted by guitarist Douglas on the back of a Cornflakes box.
“We had an idea of the album having a kind of darkness to it. It was almost like having a duvet thrown over it and we were underneath,” revealed Frank.
“His picture seemed to fit perfectly with the atmosphere of the music.”
But the band faced a last-minute hiccup. “The original title was Spooktime because of the general evening glow the album seemed to have,” said Frank.
“But Andy MacDonald, head of Go! Discs, said: ‘You can’t use that’.
“Our US label had pointed out that ‘spook’ was a racial epithet, although it was one rarely heard in Irvine. It registered that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. There was no debate. We used the name of one of the songs instead.”
The album paved the way for four more – A Happy Pocket (1996), Weightlifting (2004), In The Music (2009) and Wild Pendulum (2016). A new record is scheduled for 2022.
“Is I’ve Seen Everything our best album? It all depends on what hat you’ve got on when you’re asked the question,” Frank said.
“When making an album I sometimes think of the recording as the process which gets in the way. Trying to translate that into something more physical can go in a million different directions. You have so many opportunities to fall off the beam. But I think back to what a joy it was.
“I remember walking in the rain down the Old Kent Road in London – where we were mixing it – and feeling really light on my feet.
“It was a great time in my life. The harmony in the band was lovely to experience. Everyone was contributing great ideas. I don’t get to listen to our albums as records. I have to do it with other people’s to enjoy that.
“So if we’re parcelling up the album like that, it would be right at the top.”
THE Billy Sloan Show is on BBC Radio Scotland every Saturday at 10pm.