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MONO - Going off the rails in a place where nothing's ever black and white

Onstage there's a young woman in a white jump-suit having her head
shaved by a young man in a leopardskin dress. David Bowie's Rebel Rebel blares
out the speakers while a young audience looks on. Even by the standards of the
vegetarian cafe/bar/venue that is Mono, this Thursday teatime performance is an
eccentric spectacle. The haircut/performance marks the launch of the 2013
edition of live art festival, Buzzcut, which has moved into Mono's speak-easy
environs for the first time. If ever proof was needed, Buzzcut's plethora of
similarly off-the-wall events demonstrates that the venue's open-minded and
inclusive policy goes miles beyond its left-field musical
constituency.

Seated at a table over snacks, someone is opening up the
gatefold sleeve of the vinyl edition of Bowie's new surprise album, The Next
Day. The album has just been purchased from Monorail Music, the impeccably
stocked record shop housed next to the bar and lovingly co-owned and run by
Glasgow music legend Stephen McRobbie, aka Stephen Pastel, in association with
Dep Downie, who also runs the watts of Goodwill record label.

McRobbie's
band, The Pastels, has ploughed a wilfully individual furrow for some 30 years
and has left its mark on least two generations of Glasgow bands. Tucked away at
the back of the room, the Good Press emporium sells limited-run zines, comics
and artsy books – all as appealingly tactile as the vinyl on sale in
Monorail.

One of those records is the last-but-one copy of Some Songs Side by
Side, a 2x12” box-set compilation of eight Glasgow bands released in a
collaboration between three micro-labels (RE:Peater Records, Watts of Goodwill
and Stereo, run by Mono's sister venue of the same name). Whether any of the
bands featured on the compilation are still with us by the time you're reading
this remains to be seen, so fast-movingly fluid is the Glasgow scene. But for
the record, at time of writing, Tut Vu Vu, Palms, Organs of Love, Gummy Stumps,
Sacred Paws, The Rosy Crucifixion, Muscles of Joy and Jacob Yates and the Pearly
Gate Lock Pickers are still very much alive at the time of writing – although
one or all of them could cross-fertilise and morph into a new entity any
minute.

All of which goes some way to illustrating the fecund hub of activity
that centres around Mono. The venue has roots tracing back through a welter of
independently-minded initiatives in Glasgow – including the original 13th Note,
the music department of John Smith's Bookshop on Byres Road and the 1980s Sunday
night club night Splash 1. These tentacles reach right back to Postcard Records
and the Third Eye Centre, Glasgow's multi-purpose arts lab that existed in
Sauchiehall Street from 1972 to the early 1990s when it morphed into the more
corporate-feeling Centre of Contemporary Arts.

As Glasgow's first
multiple-arts space, the Third Eye fostered an environment where artforms
crossed over in an open-minded spirit of collaboration and co-operation. Under
its influence, a spate of independent, co-operatively-run art spaces such as
Transmission and Street Level developed throughout the 1980s, with Glasgow's
music and art scene co-existing to the point of intimacy. Many visual artists
formed bands or used music and sound as a key part of their practice. (It's no
coincidence that the artwork that accompanies the Some Songs Side By Side
box-set are by the likes of Turner Prize winner Richard Wright, Turner nominee
David Shrigley and Tony Swain, all of whom have strong musical connections.). As
the CCA has gradually stripped itself back to a rougher aesthetic, so Mono
carries the Third Eye flame in a continuum of DIY artistic action.

Since the
early 2000s, Mono, in conjunction with its sister bar Stereo, has become one of
the most significant venues in the city. Sitting on the edge of the Trongate in
the network of converted railway arches that make up King's Court – vintage
clothes shops, t-shirt printers and
musical instrument sellers with a working
railway track above – Mono hosts a regular stream of left-field artists without
ever feeling like a workaday touring circuit. Special events are the norm. Take,
for example, 2013's International Record Store Day, which saw hordes of music
obsessives queueing from early morning, all intent on snapping up a limited
edition purchase from Monorail Music.

With such congestion, shoppers also
had a chance to cast an eye over Seven Inch, an exhibition of seven-inch singles
by imaginary bands dreamt up by 21 Glasgow-based artists.  curated by Chris
Biddlecombe and Janie Nicoll, (aka Obstacle Soup). These exquisitely realised
one-offs included platters that matter from such non-existent acts as Sensitive
Girls, The Alcoholics, dreamt up by artist and former Soup Dragons drummer Ross
Sinclair, and Three Day Week, the fictional 1970s Glam band imagined by Douglas
Morland.

Three Day Week's contribution was a double 'A' side of Baader
Meinhoff Baby and British Leyland Sex Party. What they sound like we'll never
know, while the fact that Morland plays guitar with another Glasgow band, Big
Ned, a real one this time who recently supported The Fall on their May 2013
Glasgow gig, and has occasionally played live guitar with Muscles of Joy
probably won't help much either.

Mono's live programme for the day culminated
in a collaboration between Vic Godard and The Sexual Objects. Godard was the man
whose band Subway Sect supported The Clash at the Edinburgh Playhouse during the
Scottish leg of the May 1977 White Riot tour. At the time Glasgow's concerned
city fathers had banned all 'punk' gigs, so audience members at that Edinburgh
show included Alan Horne, who would go on to found Postcard Records, and Horne's
co-conspirator, Edwyn Collins, who would form Postcard's premier artistes Orange
Juice.

Also in attendance that night was Davy Henderson, who in 1980 formed
Fire Engines, arguably Scotland's most abrasively daring art-pop act. Henderson
would later form the glossier Win, then the Nectarine No 9, before briefly
regrouping Fire Engines to support The Magic Band, Sun Ra's Arkestra and Franz
Ferdinand. The latter owe much to Fire Engines, as well as to the 'Sound of
Young Scotland' that Alan Horne branded across his Postcard acts. Henderson
nowadays fires on all cylinders as frontman of The Sexual Objects; putting him
on stage with Godard to play under the name Sectual Objects – as Mono did on
International Record Day 2013 – was an inspired move. Their set of Velvet
Underground covers mixed and-matched several generations of influences and
progeny in a way that typified Mono's ethos.

All of this is a far cry to how
Glasgow used to be, when the only available small-scale venues were either
spit-and-sawdust dives with unsympathetic landlords and the very real prospect
of getting a kicking, or chrome-lined nightclubs more used to hosting weekend
stag crowds than a radical new music community in search of somewhere safe to
land. One such co-opted after-hours emporium was Daddy Warbucks. Located just
around the corner from Queen Street Station on West George Street, an indie club
night called Splash 1 started taking over the glossy disco on Sunday nights in
the mid 1980s.

Splash 1 aspired to be Andy Warhol's Factory, and put on
bands like The Pastels, The Shop Assistants, Primal Scream, The Soup Dragons and
The Jesus and Mary Chain between a relentless 1960s psych/post-punk soundtrack.
As far as the club owners were concerned, it was just another hire – not the
social movement signalling a nascent state of independence that it in fact was.
A new model was needed.

Enter one Craig Tannock. A Glasgow music scene
stalwart, Tannock had played in bands and run rehearsal studios including Tower
Studios in Park Circus. Tannock had a knack of attracting good people around
him, and Tower was run on a much friendlier basis than more commercially-minded
operations. At Tower, the music and musicians came first – an ethos that Tannock
took with him when he opened The Apollo, a small club space close to the site of
the legendary Glasgow venue of the same name. Part rehearsal room, part venue,
Tannock's Apollo allowed bands the luxury of practice rooms next door to a gig
rather than in another part of the city.

The Apollo closed after the
building above it flooded, but Tannock's egalitarian approach had already
fostered a community spirit that helped sow the seeds for his next venture, the
fancifully-named 13th Note. Originally on Glassford Street, the 13th Note opened
to an already thriving indie scene that – true to the term – was increasingly
operating on its own terms. Labels like Chemikal Underground and Creeping Bent
had inherited Postcard's mantle, while numerous micro-labels released a spate of
limited-edition 7 inch singles.

At the 13th Note, bands such as Urusei
Yatsura, Bis and Mogwai were finding a natural home. Some of 13th's booking was
handled by Alex Huntly, who at various points was singer with The Blisters and
The Karelia. As Alex Kapranos – lead singer of Franz Ferdinand – he would go on
to take that band's brand of art-pop into the mainstream via a coup of pop
entryism in excelsis.

For a time, the 13th Note was the centre of Glasgow's
independent musical universe, with Tannock once again attracting a core of
like-minded individuals to the cause. But eventually problems with the Glassford
Street lease and structural faults in the building made it necessary for him to
move out. The 13th Note shifted to King Street, close to Transmission and Street
Level, and a second venue, the larger 13th Note club, opened on Clyde Street. As
the venue moved and split in two, so too did some of the personnel and the vibe
that went with the original 13th Note.

Sustaining two venues proved
difficult, and operations were eventually wound up. The Clyde Street club was
taken over by the UK-wide Barfly chain, while the King Street premises were
adopted by new management who recognised a good thing and retain the 13th Note
name to this day. Tannock opened West 13th on Kelvinhaugh Street in the West
End, a small bar space that morphed into the first incarnation of Stereo before
becoming The 78'' in February 2007. Tannock also managed to get back into the
building that had housed his Apollo, which currently operates as the Flying
Duck.

Stereo eventually moved to its current city-centre base in Renfield
Lane. The two-floor space it occupies was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh,
who also designed Glasgow School of Art. As a symbol of the criss-crossing
between Glasgow's artistic endeavours it couldn't be more perfect. This has
become even more so since Tannock opened The Old Hairdresser's in June 2011
directly opposite Stereo. The bijou space has become a hub for pop-up DIY gigs
and live art events – yet again highlighting the promiscuous nature of the
city's art and music scenes.

While all this was going on, Stephen McRobbie
was working in the music department of the now-closed John Smith's bookshop next
to Hillhead Underground on Byres Road. Although managed by Simon Black, Smith's,
like Monorail Music later, was manned by a team of like-minded spirits brought
together by a love of what they were selling and a loose-knit but instinctive
affiliation with an independent ethos. The records stocked in the shop made up a
treasure trove of free-thinking music past and present, local and international,
and the shop attracted a core custom base of those in the know – as well as the
odd starstruck Pastels pilgrim from Japan, where they and so many other Scottish
bands have a lucrative following.

When it closed at the end of the twentieth
century to become one more branch of Starbucks, John smith's left a musical
void, and McRobbie, alongside kindred spirit John Williamson, decreed to find a
new place to sell the sort of records that regular shops didn't stock.  Like
Tannock, Williamson was a Glasgow music scene stalwart who has variously been a
journalist, a promoter, the manager of Belle and Sebastian and an academic. In
time he would become the quietly pragmatic Yang to Tannock's more mercurial Yin,
as well as the obvious choice to provide the introductory text for Some Songs
Side By Side.

With Tannock also on the hunt for a new venue in order to
expand his existing operations beyond Stereo and the 78'', the synergies between
the two ventures proved irresistible. As soon as Tannock scouted the King's
Court site – previously it had housed a Mexican restaurant – it was clear that a
new era of grass-roots music activity was about to begin. Mono opened as a bar
and cafe in October 2002, with Monorail Music launching in the same premises in
December that same year.

While Stereo was initially the main focus for gigs,
Mono eventually developed just as much of a focus for live music and is now on
equal footing with its sister venue. In its first decade of existence, the
musical landscape has shifted dramatically, so that a whole new generation of
musicians, artists and – crucially – promoters have embraced a DIY ethos and a
community-based ideology like never before. Nowhere is this captured better than
in Mono.

All those involved in Mono and the assorted ventures that it houses
are clearly kindred spirits. Their activities overlap and inspire each other,
even as their businesses are kept separate, which helps to create a looser, less
defined and more fluid relationship. Mono as a whole gets on well with its
neighbours and hosts an annual exhibition by Project Ability, the Glasgow-based
charity that enables adults and children with learning disabilities or mental
health issues to create their own art.
Other exhibitions have included a very
telling show of posters and flyers from Splash 1.

a dynasty of sorts has
grown out of Mono. While young promoters such as Cry Parrot put on a series of
small but imperfectly formed events there, it's telling that former personnel of
West 13th, Stereo and Mono now run Saramango, the vegetarian cafe at the CCA
that's done much to recapture the atmosphere of the old Third Eye Centre.
Altogether it adds up to something akin to a – whisper it – Socialist spirit
that's been ingrained in the Glaswegian sensibility since the days of Red
Clydeside.

For Mono's tenth anniversary in November 2012, the venue hosted a
party featuring three acts. Muscles of Joy opened, followed by RM Hubbert, who
would go on to win the 2013 Scottish Album of the Year award. While both have
multiple links with Glasgow's art and music scenes, it was headliners Franz
Ferdinand's first home-town appearance for four years that was most significant.
They could have sold out the nearby Barrowlands several times over, so the fact
that they were playing in a cafe/bar to a couple of hundred of their peers spoke
volumes. In the songs, attitude and aesthetic that lived and breathed from
Postcard Records onwards, here was a crucial umbilical link with Glasgow's
musical past, present and future. The state of independence has been
accomplished, and its living embodiment occupies a republic called Mono.

With thanks to Dep Downie and Stephen McRobbie.

Commissioned by Kate Molleson for a book to celebrate Glasgow's status as a UNESCO city of Music, this was originally written in July 2013, and appeared in Dear Green Sounds - Glasgow's Music Through Time and Buildings,  published by Waverley Books, in March 2015

ends


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