First, a question: what is the point of rock’n’roll? There are as many answers as there are people to ask, but surely one essential tenet is that great rock affirms life. Which brings us to ‘Stabbed’, one of the most unsettling moments on Glasvegas’ astounding debut. In it, James Allan recounts a flight from a tooled-up gang in a half-dead monotone, muttering, “No cavalry could ever save me/I’m gonna get stabbed”, over reverb-ghostly piano. How many people are hunched knit-browed over notebooks right now, trying to write songs about ‘broken Britain and knife culture and that’? Well, they’ve all been rendered pointless by this, which knowingly echoes The Shangri-Las’ ‘Past, Present And Future’ in its borrowing of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’. A piece written by the world’s most famous composer while he was slowly going deaf, appropriated by a bunch of rough-edged dreamgirls to make a teenage melodrama of crushed hearts, reappropriated by a 20-something Glaswegian for a topical-yet-timeless evocation of terror that, in its humanisation of a social problem, somehow offers hope. That, my friends, is pop music at work.
And that’s nowhere near the best song on the album. From the off, ‘Flowers & Football Tops’ grabs you by the throat: huge space and reverb lend power to spare instrumentation, stock “wooah wooah”s and “baby”s twisted to fit the raw and real pain of a mother deprived of her son by violence. Then there’s ‘Go Square Go’, the artery-pumping surge of guitar perfectly conjuring the adrenaline rush of an imminent childhood kicking. ‘Perfect’ is a word that keeps springing to mind, yet one of Glasvegas’ great strengths is that they’re forged from imperfection. Rather than seek out the tightest drummer on the Glasgow scene and the most seasoned guitarist, James Allan chose a girl he met in a shop and his cousin.
As a result, they have the do-or-die gang mentality of all great bands. That knack of using the near-to-hand and commonplace to fashion a watertight aesthetic also feeds into Allan’s lyrics. At first, his repeated use of nursery-rhyme motifs jars, but on further listening you realise each is tightly woven into its context. Most heartbreakingly so in ‘Flowers & Football Tops’, where the refrain from ‘You Are My Sunshine’ lingers, subtly wrenching, on the “sun” syllable. ‘It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry’, meanwhile, deftly threads in a lyric from fellow working-class romantics Oasis as the narrator goes about his conquests. “It’s all about going out and getting pissed with eagle eyes/And sincerity bottom on my list/What’s the story morning glory?/I feel so low and worthless”, howls Allan, before the torrential finale cleanses his self-disgust. But unlike Oasis, Glasvegas are a social band: they sing about their city’s troubles, tour prisons and dedicate their first award to the murdered local teen who inspired ‘Flowers…’.
Their most socially aware songs, ‘Geraldine’ and ‘Daddy’s Gone’, remain as astounding as at first listen. The former rips through a classic indie-rock template to the raw guts underneath by the sheer force of Allan’s retching-up-his-soul delivery and its genius subject matter: who else could write a song about a social worker and make it sound like your soul ascending to heaven? ‘Daddy’s Gone’ similarly still stuns with its frank but never mawkish sense of abandonment. That Allan keeps it out of the melodramatic mire it could be (at risk of a hack-lynching, compare it with Lennon’s ‘Mother’) is to his credit.
What makes the album so sonically perfect is the contrast between the grandeur of Rich Costey’s big New York production, the simplicity of the songs and the immediacy of their Dion & The Belmonts-via-Dalmarnock inflections. Of course, they’re hardly the first to take doo-wop and girl-group sounds and add a bit of noise and echo. What sets them apart from bands ploughing similar furrows (like The Raveonettes) is their resistance to stylised retro references in favour of something much more human.
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So believe it: this is the real thing, no-one’s crying wolf, not even Alan McGee. There’s not enough hype in the world for Glasvegas. They are an important, amazing, real band that won’t let you down. Not because they play real instruments and sing real songs about real people (they’d be just as genuine if they wrote noise collages about interstellar seahorses on MacBooks); they’re real because they put their entire hearts and souls and brains into it. And that is rock’n’roll.