The Sound of Edinburgh: 15 tracks that define the city’s musical spirit
idlewild in 2002

Here we take a look at Auld Reekie’s musical past – and where it is now.  Listen to our playlist at the end of the post.

Edinburgh is a city that has one foot rooted in the past and the other firmly planted in the future. History and innovation collide in the most dramatic of ways in the Scottish capital.

While the Edinburgh music scene is often talked down in comparison to Glasgow, below its austere surface there is and has long been a grassroots culture – one that may ebb and flow but ultimately survives beyond the media glare of August – even without the support and hype found elsewhere.

The Post-Punk Years

During the ’70 the music coming out of Scotland was very… well, tartan. The Bay City Rollers were centre stage with their high platform heels, signature flares and five-mile smiles.

But in a city full of sceptical art students this would not float. Punk was reaching its sweaty peak, and Edinburgh found itself producing high quality acts to rival those from south of the border.

Then came the sheer force and aggression of The Exploited. Tearing onto the scene like Edinburgh’s answer to The Sex Pistols, they shook the foundations of Scottish punk rock.

Pushing through to the ’80 bands like The Rezillos, with their clown-like technicolour outfits and meta performance of ‘Top of the Pops’ on Top of the Pops began to throw the gauntlet back at the feet of the mainstream bands like The Clash and The Jam.

At the centre of the city’s post-punk movement was Fast Product, one of the original DIY labels that played an integral part in the success of some of the era’s most definitive bands, putting out a series of singles by English acts like Gang of Four, The Human League and The Mekons.

But another group Bob Last and Hilary Morrison’s pioneering label fostered was Edinburgh’s own Scars, who were subsequently supported by John Peel. They put out their one and only album Author! Author! on Fast in 1981, which was a melodic progression from their noisier roots.

Another band which found a champion in the burgeoning DIY scene was Josef K. Like Scars, they never broke into the mainstream, but their intelligent, jittery post-punk would be cited as an influence decades later by the likes of Franz Ferdinand and The Rapture.

Time moved on and pop was on the offensive, flanking punk on its blindside. The Waterboys, formed by Edinburgh-born Mike Scott, stepped up, combining a number of sounds to produce a blend of folk and pop-rock sounds.

But still fighting in the post punks’ corner were the manic Dog Faced Hermans. They were the very definition of avant garde, post-punk lunacy, incorporating manic bursts of vocal and percussive energy into their live performances.

Clubbing and Electronica Takes Over

Electronica and dance came to the fore in the late ’80s and early ’90s in Edinburgh as it did elsewhere else in the UK, as clubbing became a weekly ritual for the masses.

Splitting away from its moody punk past, Edinburgh was filled with the sound of eardrum perforating basslines and genre-defining tunes. And with nights like Pure (run by Optimo’s JD Twitch and DJ Brainstorm), the city could legitimately lay a claim to playing host to some of the most legendary parties of a famously hedonistic era.

What’s more, the pounding beat of Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ provided the signature track for Edinburgh-set ’90s classic Trainspotting.

A little outside of the city, at their mysterious Hexagon Sun studio, sibling duo Boards of Canada made one of the most influential electronic records of the decade for Warp, with their 1998 LP Music Has the Right to Children providing a weird, otherworldly soundtrack for post-club, late night listening.

Although they formed over in Fife, The Beta Band were an equally influential melange of folktronica and hip hop, who were closely associated with the Scottish capital. Over the course of three albums between 1999 and 2004 they made some of the most forward-thinking music of the largely lamentable post-Britpop era.

Indie-Folk to the Fore

Britpop had ensured that guitar bands made a return in the mid-90s, and in Edinburgh it was Idlewild who led the charge. Starting life as a fiercely energetic punk band on their Captain EP/short album in 1998, they soon matured into a folk-tinged indie band with radio-friendly hits like ‘You Held the World in Your Arms’.

Building on the success of indie, a new wave of bands brought a certain geek chic to the scene. Aberfeldy’s cutesy lyrics and light sound brought out the pastel wearing nerd in a lot of us, while We Were Promised Jetpacks took their sound down a different, more abrasive route.

In recent years the city’s alt-folk scene gained some wider exposure when bands of the calibre of Withered Hand, Meursault and Broken Records emerged, singing heartfelt, searingly honest lyrics over rousing guitars and pianos.

The city’s art school was also the meeting point ford Django Django, who have gone on to become one of the UK’s most idiosyncratic guitar pop outfits.

The Here and Now

Edinburgh’s most recent musical success story is undoubtedly the slightly enigmatic Young Fathers. They stormed to success after winning the Mercury Prize in 2014, but the trio had forged their indefinable sound (and dance moves) at gigs and parties in the city since getting together in 2008.

They represent a new chapter in the capital’s musical story and, having already followed up the prize-winning Dead with the equally essential White Men Are Black Men Too, they have the potential to be the city’s biggest musical export in decades – even if their success has had little to do with their famously prohibitive hometown.

“Its only influence has been that it hasn’t had any,” they told us last year when we asked them about how Edinburgh and Scotland has shaped their music.

While the city’s council has been criticised for their draconian policies on gig venues, and Glasgow continues to attract the bigger touring acts, Edinburgh can still boast talented musicians and passionate promoters.

Just look at the energy and discerning quality displayed by the likes of DIY label Song By Toad, gig night Nothing Ever Happens Here or frequently packed venue Sneaky Pete’s for proof.

Listen to our Edinburgh playlist:

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Main image: Idlewild pictured in 2002 / TSPL