While Rose McDowall is best known for her work with early ’80s crossover indie pop act Strawberry Switchblade, she’s made many cult solo recordings over the years.
Starting out as a stand-up drummer in Glasgow proto-avant-garde punk trio The Poems -taking a leaf out of Moe Tucker’s Velvet book – she went on to enjoy five years with Strawberry Switchblade, and has remained busy ever since. Yet somehow she’s never played Preston, Lancashire, something she’s remedying this Friday, January 20th, topping a bill at The Continental with a full band, my excuse for tracking her down on the phone at home in Oxfordshire.
The Poems were borne out of a lightbulb moment when teenager Rose Porter and husband-to-be Drew McDowall witnessed the Ramones at Glasgow Apollo in late ’77, on a bill that also included Edinburgh art school punks The Rezillos, if I’ve done my research right.
While The Poems made an album, the acetates were lost and it never saw the light of day. But as friends of Orange Juice the band were soon party to the emergence of the Postcard Records scene, and through that link came a fresh project for Rose in 1981, alongside art student Jill Bryson in Strawberry Switchblade. That new band quickly took off, with help from two prominent BBC Radio 1 DJs, soon signing to the Warner Music Group via the Korova division, these guitar-based flower punk icons going on to become one of Scotland’s biggest mid-‘80s pop exports. Yet they are chiefly remembered for just one top-five hit single, 1984’s Since Yesterday, with the story soon over and the girls going their separate ways after one album.
From there, Jill moved towards a career as an artist, while Rose delved into the post-industrial neo-folk underground, collaborations following with the likes of Boyd Rice, Coil, Current 93, Death in June, Felt, Alex Fergusson, Into a Circle, Megas, Nature and Organisation, Nurse with Wound, Ornamental (involving members of an Icelandic scene that also brought us The Sugarcubes), The Pastels, Psychic TV, and Rosa Mundi.
There was further work with Boyd Rice in Spell in 1993, a duo signed to the Mute label, before Rose formed neo-folk experimental outfit Sorrow the same year with second husband Robert Lee, two acclaimed albums and European and US tours following in an eight-year spell taking her into the new millennium.
From there, Rose – best known as a vocalist but who also plays guitar, keyboards, melodica and drums – has continued her adventures in music, performing under her own name since 2005. And more recently she linked with Glasgow’s Night School Records, first reissuing Cut with the Cake Knife, a set of songs recorded in the post-Switchblade era with various musicians.
You might not believe it from her strong Glaswegian accent, but Rose has lived in Oxfordshire for nearly a quarter of a century, after spending the previous decade in London, having initially moved to the capital when Strawberry Switchblade took off. And rural living seems to suit her.
“There’s only so much of London you can take. The countryside is nice and tranquil for me. It’s my natural valium, I guess.”
Amid a less frantic pace of life, Rose continues to write songs, with new material on its way. But first we travelled back in time to her first John Peel radio session in 1982. How was her first recording experience in Maida Vale?
“It was brilliant, and a real shock because John Peel called me personally. Usually that was the producer’s call. He asked if I was interested in doing a session, and I said, ‘Well …yeah!’ I didn’t have to think twice about that one. David Jensen phoned us as well, also wanting a session. But Peel was the man, although we did both and they were both good enough to get in touch.”
It seemed to take a long time from those initial sessions to the self-titled Strawberry Switchblade album coming out in 1985, getting on for three years later. Was that a frustrating period?
“No, because we were just so busy. I don’t think we realised it was that long. We moved to London in ’83 and were doing radio sessions and lots of recording and gigs. If the public don’t hear about you, they think you don’t exist, but if anything when you’re not appearing in the papers and so on you’re probably working harder.”
Was it soon after those first sessions that management duo Bill Drummond and Dave Balfe, who had already seen success working with Echo and the Bunnymen (their 1980 debut album Crocodiles was the first released on Korova) and The Teardrop Explodes – came to her?
“Very soon after that. We had loads of interest. It was Orange Juice who said, ‘Look out for Strawberry Switchblade’, and everything happened really fast. It was pretty exciting. We were very young, but I was married with a child, which meant a wee bit of extra work, as opposed to being a footloose, fancy-free teenager. When you’ve a child who’s already started school, it’s way more of an upheaval. But it was all good. I moved to London about two months before my daughter and husband moved down for definite, until we’d found a place to live.”
Let’s go back a little further, to that seminal Ramones gig in Glasgow and all the other gigs that set Rose on the path to a career in music. Did punk help this introverted teen out of her shell?
“It totally did. I was this shy little kid, then punk happened and I thought that really opened the gates of life for me. When I saw the Ramones I just turned to Drew and said, if they can do it, we can do it! They made it look easy, and also fun. They were one of my favourite bands.”
I was only 10 at the time of that Rocket to Russia tour, but can at least say I saw the Ramones on their Too Tough to Die visit in early ’85, incidentally while Strawberry Switchblade’s Since Yesterday was still hanging around the UK charts. As I told Rose, we only realised on the way into the Lyceum in London’s West End that we’d subconsciously got smarter at gigs, contemplating ripping our jeans on the spot to try and fit in better with the rest of the clientele. She laughs at this, while thinking back to an earlier era when punk shook the world … not least Scotland.
“The thing about punk in Glasgow, was that it soon got banned, so you’d have to go to Edinburgh or the Silver Thread Hotel in Paisley, where you’d see all walks of life. There wasn’t anywhere else for them to go. They weren’t necessarily punks. One guy I used to dance with wore a dress and make-up, and was into drag, No one felt anyone was better than anyone else.
“I was in The Poems at the time with Drew and his friend Ian, and we saw that big Stiff Records tour and lots of other bands. I was pregnant and my child was constantly beating and kicking me to the rhythm of the bass drum when Siouxsie and the Banshees were playing. That was awesome. She’s got rhythm! I was still playing drums when I was seven months pregnant, with my belly bigger than the drum-kit!”
Rose, who plays 12-string acoustic guitar, six-string electric guitar and electric harmonium live, also told me more about that early friendship with Orange Juice.
“We played with them a few times. At one gig we joined each other, swapping instruments, with James Kirk on drums, me on keyboards, and so on, messing about doing a few songs. That was really good fun.”
Was that right that James came up with your band name?
“It was. He was just going to use it in a fanzine he was doing. I told him he had to use it, to which he said, ‘You have it’. That was on a bus coming out to my house, practicing for that gig. Strawberry Switchblade came directly off the back of that. It was a name too good not to use.”
It may have been an idea that came off the back of a bus, but seemed to sum up a lot of Rose’s material, then and since – that mix of sweet and, shall we say, not so sweet.
“Yeah, it’s all part of the person I am, and the not so sweet came out yesterday when I had to return a faulty car.”
Your Glasgow roots came to the fore, did they?
“Honestly, I’m as sweet as anything, but just don’t push my buttons too hard!”
At that point, we talk about James Kirk also being the inspiration behind the naming of Manchester outfit James, who were big fans of Orange Juice when they started out (as related last year in an interview here with Jim Glennie, with a link here).
“Really? Ah, fantastic. I bought my first electric guitar from James, a limited-edition Fender Coronado, which I’ve still got.”
Getting back to Strawberry Switchblade, I reminded myself of how it all ended in 1986, that dreaded word ‘acrimonious’ popping up in their online biography. Will she elucidate? Well, not a right lot, as it turns out, not keen to re-open old wounds.
“Well, it always starts out pleasant and ends out that way. But I’m just keeping out of all that nonsense. Life’s dramatic enough without all the other little dramas. And it’s nice to be nice!”
I’m guessing the songs featured on the second John Peel session in 1985 were destined for a follow-up Strawberry Switchblade LP. But that never happened, and several tunes from that period subsequently walked with Rose.
“Some of the songs were going to be on the second album, but I wrote a lot on the Cut with the Cake Knife album after we split. The title track (on that Peel session) had been put forward as the next single though.”
Jill and Rose used the term ‘pop pastiche’ back then, and it seems to me, listening to those sessions now, they were more raw than on the rather polished pop records. Yet there was always more going on beneath the veneer and chart-friendly hooks, with lots of melancholic themes, as hinted at on tracks like the lovely Trees and Flowers and 10 James Orr Street. But while there’s a more dated ‘80s sound in places in David Motion’s production – maybe partly down to the technology of the day – those songs still stand up.
“Yeah, it was like, ‘Let’s try this producer’, and he was a lovely guy, really good, but when you’ve put x-amount of pounds into an album, try turning around and saying to someone you want to re-record! That wouldn’t have gone down very well. But in retrospect I don’t actually mind. I love the album and I’m not one of those people who listens to modern music all the time. Often, when I’m going through the writing process, it’s like a release, going back. Sometimes it’s nice to leave something for a while before you hear it again.”
Was Rose – like Jill – from an art school background?
“I was into my art, and still paint a bit, but didn’t go to art school. I left school when I was 16 and went straight into working. I came from a poor working-class family, so it was all about getting out there. My art teacher said he’d give me a letter of recommendation for art school and felt I would get in. But I didn’t, getting into music instead. That was a bigger passion. Besides, life is an education in itself, and as the eldest of seven children I lived a lot growing up.”
Strawberry Switchblade were certainly fashion trailblazers, renowned for that ‘flower punk’ look, involving lots of polka dots and ribbons. In fact, as it turns out, Jill and Rose was even accused of copying their own iconic look.
“That was hilarious. It was in London, with two teenage girls stood at a bus stop on Tottenham Court Road, outside McDonald’s. I’ll never forget it. One girl said, ‘Hey, you dress like Strawberry Switchblade!’ I just smiled and walked away. They then followed me up the road. But I’d rather them think that than know who we were. The stalkers came later … which was not a lot of fun.”
Indeed. She’s been through it all, in that respect, with a few of those tales told in Ben Graham’s interview with Rose in September 2015 for The Quietus, linked here.
“Yes. I wouldn’t change a thing, but … well, apart from a few wee things!”
Has Rose kept in touch with any of those old friends they worked with at the time, from the Glasgow scene bands through to later collaborators from elsewhere like Echo and the Bunnymen?
“I haven’t heard anything from the Bunnymen for a long time, but tend to see a lot from the Glasgow scene. I’m up there quite often. I keep in touch with some via social media, but I’m a bit of a recluse.”
Moving a little further on, there’s a faded 1988 video interview with Rose tucked away on the internet, recorded at the Reverb in London when she was working on a new line-up of Strawberry Switchblade. That was with the so-called Creation All-Stars, including Laurence (Hayward) from Felt and members of Primal Scream and The Weather Prophets. In the clip they’re playing Crystal Nights, and it sounds right up my street. It’s a shame I missed them, not least as I was around and about the capital a lot then.
“We did that gig, and a few days before we did one in Brighton. That was awesome – just the best, with really good reviews. It was such fun playing with all those guys, who were all my mates anyway.”
I wish you’d had the chance to make an album with them.
“That would have been great. I still talk to Pete (Astor). He wasn’t on stage then, but his rhythm section were with me.”
I can see and hear that, not least as a big fan of their Mayflower album, recorded in late ’86. They make Crystal Nights sound like a Weather Prophets song in that respect.
“Ah, cool! And someone at the time reviewed it as being the best pop band ever!”
I imagine she got fed up of talking about this at the time, but hope the passing of time means I can ask about the similarity of the big hit, Since Yesterday, and its ripped ‘riff’ from Sibelius’s fifth symphony. Was that ‘nick’ down to osmosis, and if so was that through absorbing Jean Sibelius, The Murmaids’ Popsicles and Icicles (1963) or First Class’s Beach Baby (1974)?
“I didn’t write that introduction. That was something the producer put on, and we had no idea what it was from. That wasn’t a conscience thing.”
I have to say there are elements of The Velvet Underground on Since Yesterday too, not least Rose’s ‘And as we sit here alone, looking for a reason to go on’ line, the wondrous Nico-led Sunday Morning springing to mind, a song she now plays in her own live set.
Seeing as we mentioned past collaborations and friendships, did Rose keep in touch with Bjork after their collaborations in Iceland all those years ago?
“Recently I felt I should get in touch again. I haven’t spoken to her in years, not since Virgin was on Oxford Street. I speak to Einar (Örn Benediktsson) on Facebook though. I was meant to go on tour with Bjork, but at that time one of my best friends died and I was too broken to do anything like that. She proposed to me, you know.”
At first I wasn’t sure I heard that right, but Rose soon elaborated.
“She should have been Mrs McDowall! I think that was just before Switchblade split up, when I was doing the Ornamental stuff in Iceland. That’s also where I wrote Soldier and Crystal Nights.
“Bjork and I are very childlike in a way, very playful, and got on really well. I guess really we weren’t typical girls, to quote The Slits! That’s probably why I have quite a large gay following as well. I think I was always a wee bit different, but it was never always a wonderful thing. It was like, ‘Take this child to the psychiatrist!’”
But she found a kindred spirit in Bjork?
“Yeah, she was just as mad as I was! That was nice. We just laughed all the time, and I’d like to get back in touch. We had a lot in common, such as thoughts on how children should be brought up. She had a son when she was in The Sugarcubes, who’ll be a young man now.”
Did Rose play Preston with any of her previous bands?
“I don’t remember playing Preston. We played Liverpool and Manchester. Actually, I have two brothers who live in Blackpool, and while one may be abroad I’m hoping the other can make it along.”
Talking of family, there’s an 11-year gap between Rose’s older daughter Keri – the one who was a big Banshees fan in her pre-natal era – and son Bobi, 26. Then there’s youngest daughter Velocity, 20. Is that as in Velocity Girl, the first song on the NME C86 cassette (after which I also re-named my first car, a metallic blue Ford Escort Mk. I, I tell her)?
“Yes. It was a choice between Velocity and Epithany. I thought I’d wait to see what she’d sound like – and she was definitely a Velocity!”
So did oldest daughter Keri – after such a promising start – follow her into music?
“No, she’s the one who hasn’t. But my other two kids are very musical, especially Bobi, who plays live with me sometimes.”
Bobi may even be in the band at Preston. Is that right that Rose has bands in Scottish and down South?
“It is. I need to work with a pool of musicians. It’s easier that way. Everyone’s involved in other things. But I have a band based in London and another in Glasgow.”
It’s the latter who are set to call at the Conti, not least as that date is followed by one in Glasgow the following night. How many players will she have in the band at The Conti and The Hug and Pint?
“If my son comes, it will be six. There will be an abundance of people coming from Glasgow!”
And will it be a set including music from throughout her career?
“Yeah, a bit of new, a bit of old. Before the last gig we played in Glasgow we hadn’t played Since Yesterday in years. We’d left that out, but everyone wants to hear that. People get disappointed if you don’t. I was tired of playing it, and felt it time to do something else. But it is a bit of an iconic song – a career song!”
With thanks to Sin Bozkurt for the Double R Club photos (with a link to more here) and to Michael Kasparis of Night School Records (with a link here). And for more on Rose McDowall, head to her Facebook page.
Also on the bill at The Continental on Friday, January 20 (doors 8pm) are North Yorkshire outfit Drahla, a happening band ‘channelling Pixies, Giant Drag and Life Without Buildings’, and Zvilnik, described as the region’s ‘premier sci-fi prog surf cabaret rock band’, drawing ‘influences from eastern Europe, the West End and low grade horror movies to create a sound like no other’. For more on Drahla and a preview of two great songs, try their bandcamp page. And for more on ‘sinister yet welcoming’ five-piece Zvilnik, their ‘complex knots of guitar strangeness, stomping bass and beefy beats, try them via Facebook.
Tickets for The Continental show are £10 advance (£12 on the door), available online from WeGotTickets, SEE Tickets & Skiddle or in person from the Continental (01772 499 425) and Action Records (01772 884 772). For more details head to event promoter Tufflife Boogie’s Facebook gig link.
You can find details of tickets for the Celtic Connections show at Glasgow’s The Hug and Pint (Saturday, January 21st, 7.30pm, with support from Duglas T. Stewart – ex-BMX Bandits – and Katrell Keineg) here.