I only met Dale Barclay once, but I doubt I’ll ever forget it. It was a sweaty afternoon at Reading Festival and I was due to interview his band, The Amazing Snakeheads, backstage in the press area. Barclay was glugging Buckfast from the bottle like it was water, his tongue stained purple, his eyes flashing with glee. Seeing as I’d never tasted the notorious tonic wine before, I asked him what it was like. Rather than describing it, he thrust the bottle in my direction and insisted – in the politest possible way – that I take a gulp. I remember being pleasantly surprised, in much the same way I was when seeing Barclay play later that day, as he systematically dismantled the new music stage with his ferocious energy and riotous punkabilly assault.
With his red quiff, fondness for patterned polyester shirts and perpetual sneer, Barclay was a rockstar, through and through. New BBC documentary All On Black treats him as nothing less, looking back at the short life of a game-changing, uncompromising artist whose death at the age of 32 in 2018 was a brutal loss. “There was something genuinely dangerous about them,” remembers Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos of his former Domino labelmates. “Something very Glasgow.” Formed in 2010, Barclay and the first incarnation of his band – backed by William Coombe and Jordan Hutchinson – quickly found themselves in the pages of NME, praised for their menace, humour and stagecraft. At gigs all eyes were on the unpredictable Barclay, a former stonemason and Hank Williams obsessive who twisted his hero’s high and lonesome country sound into something fierce and on fire.
Barclay knew the importance of style too, often found swaggering about in Elvis style gold lame shirts and cowboy hats like a camp, crazed Kenneth Anger super villain. That he found firm friends in fellow reprobates Fat White Family on NME’s 2013 Radar tour was no surprise.
Yet the Snakeheads’ reign was to be short and sweet. Not long after releasing their debut album ‘Amphetamine Ballads‘ in 2014, they imploded. Of course, it happens to almost every band, it just happened to the Amazing Snakeheads sooner than most. One broken leg and a missed slot on Jools Holland later and Barclay fired his drummer and bass player, recruiting two new Snakeheads. But without that original chemistry, things weren’t the same. The band soon parted ways with Domino and Barclay moved on, relocating to East Berlin and founding the experimental performance rockers And Yet It Moves.
Though his wife Laura reveals he was at his happiest while in Germany, one night during soundcheck for his new band, Barclay collapsed. After another seizure he returned to the UK for a check up and was told he had a grade 4 glioblastoma. The brain cancer diagnosis was terminal.
All On Black deals sensitivity with Barclay’s illness, including interviews with the artist filmed in the last five months of his life, but rather than linger on the tragedy, the film focuses on his power, talent and legacy. We strongly recommend that you put the exceptional ‘Amphetamine Ballads’ on right now and do the same.
- Director: Billy Hill
- Release date: April 28 (BBC iPlayer)