Stuart Braithwaite - Spaceships Over Glasgow (review)

I haven’t written a book review in probably a year or so now, but Mogwai are one of my favourite bands. Counting the sheer length of fandom, they are number one. I was there when Young Team came out and blew my socks off (my friend Graham’s Vauxhall Cavalier sound system was shite, but that didn’t stop us hotboxing and blasting Like Herod at full volume from it); likewise I was there when Come on Die Young disappointed my socks off (at first, naively - I was 19, over half my life ago when it came out; too quiet after YT, too tense; too much build up; and what’s with the American football commentary? But screw all that noise - after all these long years, it’s actually now my favourite Mogwai album); and I was there at Glastonbury in 98 or 99 when Stuart Braithwaite made some incendiary comments about the then Queen of England while the band played on a bonkers set up of an Other Stage (guitar left - guitar right), which marked the first of (at best reckoning) the 14 times I’ve seen them live. I’ve had my ears blown out by that kick-in on Mogwai Fear Satan more than I’ve had girlfriends. Yep. All this to say, there are few bands I’ve been a fan of since their near inception to the present day (and there are probably few bands who’ve lasted so long).

Stuart’s book, then, for me is a no-brainer of a read. Born just a wee bit before me, his musical discovery escapades (as covered in the first quarter-ish of the book) mirror my own quite closely. While reading, I can’t count the amount of times I nodded and smiled knowing he had been up to (roughly) the same daft shite I had been. There were a few bands I hadn’t got into as he did (13th Floor Elevators being the best example of a band I discovered only thanks to Spaceships Over Glasgow), but largely, his love of guitars and decadence very closely mirrored my own (I grew up in northern Cumbria, a few miles shy of Carlisle, for geographical comparison. Not Scotland, but near enough to pop over for a pint whenever we fancied).

However, Stuart is not a writer, and it shows. This is not (NOT!) necessarily a bad thing - it’s not like I bought the book and went into this thinking I’d get the same literary shivers as with Tolstoy, FFS - it’s an (I hope) honest and straightforward account of his growing up, musical formation, and subsequent adventures. I started reading on the basis of wanting to know more about the (by his own admission) wee fella, the one who’d slammed his pedals into my lug holes and sang straight into my heart on Cody. There’s still something untouchably poignant about the verse:

When I drive alone at night
I see the streetlights as fairgrounds
And I tried a hundred times
To see the road signs as day-glo

Which is as oblique as they come, and for all I know is as meaningless as anything sung by (for example) David Byrne or Bowie (there’s certainly no explanation forthcoming in Spacehsips Over Glasgow, nor did I expect one), but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that verse (played as I walked home from many house parties, stoned or otherwise, invariably, in the UK, below orange sodium) strikes me deep, and for all the best reasons - an unexplainable snapshot of something I can latch onto. It has soundtracked more comedowns than I can count. Thanks Stuart.

But yes, he’s not a writer, and nor would you expect him to be. He’s a fucking awesome guitar player. But also, be damned if he didn’t put pen to paper and whack out a tale as addictive and as eminently readable as he has. Many writers bang on about the book they want to write, but with nothing material to show for it, but Stuart Braithwaite has. And even more admirably, he fucking remembered enough to write it down. Because yes, Stuart likes (probably liked, but I can’t be 100% sure) his intoxication; who doesn’t. Some of the most telling tales (for me anyway) in the book were focused on his ability/inability to play because of certain substances, and are wonderfully described. As someone who has never stood on a stage other than to act (as part of a cast greater than 5), I can only judge this with the utmost respect. Wandering on a stage to play guitar with a band while fucked out of my skull on acid is unthinkable; most of the time I can barely bang two skins together into a (half decent) spliff.

Criticisms: it ends too soon. The last chapter is a beautiful and touching elegy to his dad (kudos), but the book doesn’t end in the present, and doesn’t touch on any album after Hardcore Will Never Die, but You Will, which is strange, as that album came out over 10 years ago. Does this mean there’ll be a second volume bringing us up to the UK number one album, As the Love Continues? I hope so; I’d buy it in a heart beat.

Also (disclaimer: I’m not a musician), there is little elaboration on the recording process beyond: with Young Team we made some mistakes (I’m being slightly unfair here, but I seriously would have liked to know more about those recording sessions, for reason I’ll explain below); we corrected them with CODY; we wanted to do something different with Rock Action; any album after this gets very little page real estate. Compared with the descriptions of emotion and inebriation during (sometimes pivotal) live performances, I thought the telling of the album recordings were lacking. And how could he leave out the story of what actually happened for Dominic to punch him during the recording of Young Team (as is relayed over the phone by - I think - Martin on Tracy)? I’d pay for another volume just to hear that tale. The camaraderie as relayed by Stuart between him and Dominic is lovely, and I’ve often wondered (during gigs) about the big stoic bass player; he looks like an ace chap. Again, I would love to know why he planted Stuart, and why the band felt it was such a good thing to relay on the album. It does beg the question why someone was even recording that call in the first place, though.

Criticisms: there are repetitions and ellipsis. By repetitions I refer to phrases and language alone; Stuart has a narrow palette when describing experiences, but I put it down to inexperience, (perhaps) sloppy editing, and (again perhaps) the need to get down what happened as quickly and concisely as possible (such is the nature of recall). I can’t be arsed looking up examples of this, but I felt while reading there could be more variation in the language used; a decent editor should have / could have picked up on this.

By ellipsis, there are distinct gaps (perhaps intentional); Stuart seems like a diplomatic sort, and is careful not to say too much about other people (and I can see why this would be intentional). I am the furthest thing from a gossip-monger I can imagine, so I do not here refer to a lack of (deep breath) ‘celebrity gossip’ (and I daresay Stuart, being as down-to-earth as he is, would even consider himself a celebrity in this sense; but it has to be said he knows people). No thank you. But John leaving the band is barely touched upon, and apart from Barry being nervous at the start in photo shoots and Martin’s health problems, we don’t learn much about the other band members. Again, this is probably intentional. I follow Stuart on Twitter, and while that means fuck all in the long run, he comes across as a really nice person. Diplomatic, sympathetic, considerate and thoughtful. So I assume he really wanted to protect his (band)mate’s privacy, and only tell the story of his involvement with them. As a fanboy, it’s a slight loss. As a fellow human being, it’s totally understandable.

In all, I tore through Spaceships Over Glasgow in three days. While I have somewhat criticised his writing, he has an easy-going style which is akin to having a good crack with an old pal; albeit one who’s been to some far out edges, and plays his guitar louder than anyone I’ve ever seen (bar, maybe, Kevin Shields). The music world is all the better of this book in it, and I thank you, Stuart.

CODA: one of my friends, not from the UK, only a few weeks ago (while sipping warm up beers before a Sigur Ros gig) admitted to have listened, but never really got into, Mogwai. I took this not only as a big gap in his musical knowledge that needed correcting, but I also felt a bit affronted personally. Such is (I always assume) the ubiquity of Mogwai among those with musical taste, and my own love for the band, I couldn’t fathom this from someone A) I’ve known for 10 years; and B) has a great taste in music; I honestly took it personally. In his book, Stuart is really at his best when he talks about his love for the bands that formed him, and the lengths he went to to get their records and see them live. This review is my reply to that; I have been with Mogwai their entire life, and I can’t honestly fucking wait for Mogwai Fear Satan to blast my socks off again. Here’s to the 15th gig.