Mike Baillie was a Skids fan from the start, and as a drummer with fellow Fife outfit Insect Bites, he proved the perfect candidate to join the band when the opportunity arose in 1979.
They formed two years earlier in their hometown, Dunfermline, lead singer Richard Jobson and guitarist Stuart Adamson joined by Bill Simpson (bass) and Tom Kellichan (drums), with their debut independent ‘Charles’ EP picked up by influential BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, soon landing a prestigious support with The Clash at the Kinema Ballroom in town, their stock continuing to rise, a deal with Virgin Records following.
Quickly they made a wider impact through singles like ‘Sweet Surburbia’, ‘The Saints are Coming’ and ‘Into the Valley’, the latter reaching the UK top-10 in late March, 1979, a month after the release of debut album Scared to Dance. And there were three further hits that year, ‘Masquerade’, ‘Charade’ and ‘Working for the Yankee Dollar’, all produced by Be-Bop Deluxe’s Bill Nelson, the latter two included on second LP, Days in Europa.
By then, Rusty Egan of Rich Kids and Visage fame had taken over from Tom Kellichan on drums, but it soon became apparent it wasn’t working. And that’s when Mike entered the story.
“I was a huge fan of the music before I had the opportunity to join. I was always completely beguiled by Stuart’s presence and his ability as a musician.”
Richard Jobson told me in May 2017 Mike were already part of the extended network when he joined, ‘a friend of ours … a fan of the band, hanging around with us as a kid … it was a close-knit community and we kind of grew up together through music, which pulled us all together.’ But how did he end up on board?
“I was rehearsing with another band in Dunfermline, and outside the rehearsal room we were listening to them, thinking, ‘My God, what is all this about?’ We were buzzing.
“I was at the first gig, the Chilean benefit, and a lot of the early gigs, really lucky to see so many. They then went off and became famous, and I played with a band called Matt Vinyl and the Decorators, an iconic sort of Edinburgh early punk band, my first proper full-on band, which kind of mutated into Insect Bites.”
I’ve read about that benefit show, a summer ’78 Fife Chile Defence gig on the outside stage of the Glen Pavilion in aid of Chilean refugees that led to near-riot, halted by police after organisers misunderstood and objected to the song ‘Contusion’, scuffles breaking out between cops and fans as plugs were pulled, police stopping Stuart playing, proceedings coming to an abrupt end. Anyway, I digress. Carry on, Mike.
“Then they just happened to be back in Dunfermline and I happened to be in the right pub at the right time. Richard and Stuart had spoken with the panel responsible for organising the band at the very start of their career, and Mike Douglas, their very first manager, said to me word was it was pretty obvious Rusty and Stuart weren’t getting on very well.
“So I just went up to then and said, ‘I hear you’re looking for a drummer. Here I am, give me a gig!’ Next day, I went back to the rehearsal room and played a bunch of songs with them, and that was basically my audition. Then I had to just kind of follow them around for ages before I got the opportunity to take over from Rusty at the end of the tour. It was great fun though, that Days of Europa tour.”
When I last spoke to Richard, I enquired as to when there would be a blue plaque erected outside the Pilmuir Street venue where that first Skids gig was staged in mid-August ’77.
“Well, it’s ironic that the Belleville Hotel, where that first gig was, belongs to my brother-in-law. He ran it as a club for the last 20-odd years, and actually it’s just closed down. But that’s how close that community is.”
And what do you remember as a fan about that momentous Clash/Skids bill at the Kinema Ballroom?
“It was amazing, and I just remember the whole chaos and this rush of energy, the whole place going absolutely crazy. Richard still talks about it to this day, and how important it was to be accepted by your idols. And it was completely surreal that this could happen in your little town … your grubby little grey town. It was an amazing experience.”
First for Mike as part of the Skids inner circle was that second album tie-in tour, and soon he was in the studio with them for 1980’s The Absolute Game. I’m guessing the making of that album, at The Manor and Audio International with Mick Glossop for Virgin, was his first proper experience of top-end recording, I put to him.
“Yeah, that’s right. It was literally a case of going from playing in punk bands around the pubs in Edinburgh and further afield in Scotland to joining the Skids.”
Living the dream?
“Basically, yeah. It was an incredible experience. And at the time we were aware of something pretty special going on, not just with us and our music, but being part of a whole movement. And having the exposure we did was just tremendous, meeting all these iconic people.”
But both Mike and Stuart were off before 1981’s Joy, the latter going on to worldwide success with new band Big Country. Yet, as it turned out, it was Stuart’s death in December 2001, aged just 43, that brought the band back together again.
After a tribute show in 2002, they reformed in 2007 to celebrate the band’s 30th anniversary with concerts at the iconic T in the Park festival then back in Dunfermline. And a decade later there was a new LP, ‘Burning Cities’, following a ‘Live In London’ album.
In the current line-up Mike, Richard Jobson and Bill Simpson are joined by father and son guitarists Bruce and Jamie Watson, who feature in both bands on the night, Bruce having been there with Stuart from day one in Big Country. And there’s a great dynamic all round, right?
“That’s right. Kindred spirits and all that, y’know. Bruce and Jamie obviously put in a huge effort to pull off two sets in one night, but they can cope with that sort of pressure.”
Is that right Jamie’s been longer in the Skids than Big Country now?
“That’s right, and its quite a thing to go out on the road with your son, do all this touring malarkey. But they have a fantastic relationship, and it definitely works. From Jamie’s perspective it was in 2007 when he stepped up to the plate and first came and played with us. And he’s such an experienced musician himself now. Yeah, those guys put in the miles.”
So is it a case of old boys talking about shared memories when you’re together again?
“Oh God, aye! Our kids are all about Jamie’s age, so there is a bit of a ‘them and us’ kind of thing when we travel together. But it’s great and Jamie’s an incredible talent. I see him picking up a mandolin and it’s just mesmerizing – such a skilful player.”
Any chance of your own children joining the band?
“Ha! My son does play drums – surprise, surprise! Although he’s not playing so much now.”
It turns out that his son, now 29, was part of the Skids crew at one stage. Was it a surprise to his children – he has a 34-year-old daughter too – when the band got back together again, seeing just how much love there was still out there for them?
“When we first got back together in 2002 for Stuart’s tribute concert it was a great occasion but also a very sad and emotional one, but my family were all there.”
It still shocks me that Stuart’s no longer with us. Did you stay in touch?
“We run into each other a few times. I moved to Edinburgh and my family came along, but we did bump into each other a couple of times. Last time must have been around ‘95/’96. I was walking along in the West End of Edinburgh and we met by accident, and it was great. We had a really nice chat. We sat down, had coffee, and half an hour or so together.
“At that time I was working as a wine buyer. He was at that point really disillusioned with the way he was being treated by the press, and at that point in his career felt he’d been completely scunnered by the business.”
So he might have taken your lead and followed you into the wine industry.
“Ha! No, I don’t think so. He was a born musician!”
When you stepped away from the Skids, did you stay in music?
“I joined a band in Edinburgh, having been in London when the band broke up. But I still worked as a musician, and played here and there in various bands, ending up becoming a really cynical young man, completely disillusioned by the music business.
“My family had come along at that point. I didn’t really miss it at first. I’d gone through the process of developing with a group of musicians, putting a set together, getting a grass roots following, putting recordings together, and then the band break up, because for whatever reason people didn’t really have the same level of commitment as I did.
“By the late ‘80s and during the whole of the ’90s I didn’t really consider myself a musician anymore. My kit was in storage somewhere, and my focus of attention was far away from music and a lot of music coming out at that point didn’t interest me much, even though I’m sure there was a lot of worthwhile music out there, I’m sure.”
What had changed by the dawn of the new century for you to think about rejoining?
“Well, I got my son into playing, by the time he was around 12, and it was around that time, with Stuart’s tribute, that it sparked off his interest in learning to play. I bought him a kit and that kind of sparked my interest again. Then, wanting to keep my chops up, around 2002, knowing a network of musicians around Edinburgh, I began to play quite a lot, then of course 2007 came along. But we were all in different places and doing different things at the time.”
The idea certainly proved to have legs though, and a decade later came that well-received return album, Burning Cities, good enough to suggest there’s a fair bit ahead of the band from here.
“That’s it, and we’re very lucky to have the chance. I hate the word privilege, that’s the wrong word, but there was that chance to reform and put ourselves back out there. And it’s just absolutely incredible. The initial response we got was very strange to describe. We honestly had no idea so many promoters wanted to book us, and all the rest of it. And before long there was a tour on the cards. But as a musician I’m just so happy to have the opportunity to bring myself back up to speed, so to speak.”
“Yeah, it’s a bit like that analogy of a football manager having a 12th man on the pitch. It’s very much like that with the response we get with the crowd. And it’s not easy doing all this when you’re in your late 50s.”
While Mike moved to Edinburgh in 1981, he relocated back to his native Fife in July 2018, his bandmates all living nearby except for Richard, based in Bedfordshire these days. And are they all a little easier to get on with now? I get the impression there were a few tensions between you all back in the day.
“Ha! That was a very well-put question! Of course, we’re all very much more rounded individuals nowadays, with plenty of life experience and all the rest of it. When you think back to your experiences as a 19 or 20-year-old, there was a nervous energy that went into the performance.
“Your approach to your work was completely different back then – there was a fear of failure and spirit of competition, and the critics might want to cut you down. You’re always aware of the fact that you’re also likely to get bad press. That kind of energy we managed to channel into our music and was a big part of it, giving us that energy to pull it off. And it does require a lot of effort. It’s not something you can casually waltz into. It represents hours and hours of practice and hard work and effort to get to that level of performance.”
Now it seems you’re doing it for the right reasons – love of the job, and that old pressure is no longer there to succeed and sell records, please the record company, and so on.
“Yeah, we’re generally doing it because people respond so well to us. And we absolutely thrive on it. If your driver takes the wrong turn on the way to your hotel at two o’clock in the morning, your sense of humour could easily evaporate. But even through the tough times of touring, it still’s fun now, living for the moment.”
Footnote: During this interview, talking about Mike’s links to Edinburgh and time in the city, I mentioned another outfit who went on to the big time after being initially inspired by the punk years, having had a conversation about that scene with Charlie Reid of The Proclaimers not long before. And that prompted Mike to tell me a great story about his own early recollections of Charlie and twin Craig Reid.
“D’you know, at the very genesis of The Proclaimers … I was playing in a band in Edinburgh, and the front-man was an amazing artist called Harry Horse (real name Richard Horne, an English author, illustrator and cartoonist who moved to Edinburgh in 1978, later leading late ’80s bluegrass/psychobilly outfit Swampthrash) and we were managed by a man called Kenny MacDonald …”
Ah, that name rings a bell from reading up on and speaking to The Proclaimers.
“Well, Kenny was at that time a restaurateur at a place in Victoria Street, Leith, where we always used to hang out. It was great, and he was a really cool guy. We were in the bar there after a rehearsal once and he showed us a cassette tape and told us, ‘I’ll play you this band. I think you’ll like it.’ He put it on and we heard these bedroom recordings of those iconic early Proclaimers songs they’d written.
“Kenny said they were playing across the road, so 10 minutes later we went to see them. We traipsed across the road, down to this little club, and there was Craig and Charlie standing there with bongos and an acoustic guitar, playing ‘Letter From America’ and what have you. And we just looked at each other, collectively went, ‘Oh, my God! These guys are amazing!’
“It was one of those moments. I’ve bumped into Kenny here and there quite regularly since, and it’s great to see how they went from their bedroom to worldwide global fame, yet still remain so humble.”
And I think it’s fair to say that can be said about Mike Baillie too, on the evidence of our conversation. Long may he rock and roll.
For this website’s May 2017 feature/interview with Richard Jobson, head here. There are also two more Big Country and Skids-related feature/ interviews on this site, with Bruce Watson from October 2014 and Mark Brzezicki from September 2016. And you can also follow this link for a Skids appreciation from Michael Martin for the splendid Toppermost music fans’ website.
The Skids and Big Country play Preston Guild Hall’s Grand Hall on Saturday, January 19 (tickets £27 via 01772 80 44 44 and online here).
Further UK dates (without Big Country): Friday, January 18 – Swindon Meca (with Charred Hearts and Slagerij); Friday, January 25 – Oxford Town Hall; Saturday, January 26 – Coventry Empire; Friday, February 1 – Cambridge Junction; Saturday, February 2 – Norwich Waterfront; Thursday, February 7 – Cottingham Civic Hall; Friday, February 8 – Northampton Roadmender; Saturday, February 9 – Derby The Venue; Friday, February 15 – Swansea Sin City; Saturday, February 16 – Southampton The Brook; Friday, February 22 – Southend Chinnerys; Saturday, February 23 – Gloucester Guildhall.
For details of these and further late May and June 2019 dates in Manchester, Edinburgh, Leeds, Newcastle and Aberdeen, head to the band’s Facebook page. Skids were also on the bill with headliners Buzzcocks and also Penetration at the Royal Albert Hall in London on June 21st. What will become of that show is yet to be revealed, in light of Pete Shelley’s death late in 2018, but Penetration lead singer Pauline Murray is the subject of a WriteWyattUK interview next week.