Rose McDowall interview

29 Jan 02

Rose McDowall was all I expected her to be. She lives far from towns, among big old trees befitting her pagan instincts. Her cottage is painted in bold black and deep red, and is littered with gaudy Catholic art. She has a big cloud of black hair, boots with huge heels and an air of vibrant sparkle tempered with an earnestness and dynamic emotional drive.

She talks freely, vivaciously pouring out her feelings and memories in such a disarmingly engaged way. Friendly, wilful, radiant, magical, she talks until I run out of tapes.

Generally, how does it feel looking back at Strawberry Switchblade?

Brilliant. I think it was a totally fantastic exciting period of my life. We were just kids really. I mean, OK, we were twenty-something, but we were really just kids, and it just snowballed out of nothing, just wanting to form a band and have fun. And suddenly we'd got John Peel sessions and we only had eight songs, and we had to finish the eighth for the session cos we had a Kid Jensen session as well. We were getting these gigs, and then we were to do an album and we STILL only had eight songs! It was fun and it was really exciting, to the point that we had no clue what was going on because things went SO fast.

Once things started to snowball it went really really quickly, which was also the demise of Strawberry Switchblade, because the more that's going on the less control you have over what you're doing, and the more other people are making decisions for you. Inevitably it ends up being not what you started out for it to be, so I didn't think it was worth continuing because it wasn't fun any more. It was arguing with the record company about everything, and I thought 'this was not what I wanted'.

What started you in music? What music did you grow up with?

The stuff I grew up with was a lot of sixties stuff, like The Byrds, The Beatles, Tommy James and the Shondells, I really loved stuff like that. I was really into the Velvet Underground. I liked Roy Wood [giggles] from the seventies. Not a lot I liked from the seventies apart from punk, when punk set me free from my chains. So I grew up with a lot of that [sixties stuff] cos my dad was really into music and he liked Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly and all that sort of stuff as well. Mamas and Papas, Simon and Garfunkel. I had three sisters and they all liked different kinds of sixties music so I got to hear quite a wide range of stuff and picked out the things I liked the best, which tended to have lots of harmonies which were a bit psychedelic or the Velvet Underground - Lou Reed was just a total genius songwriter. He is god!

When did you start writing yourself?

There was a big concert in Glasgow at the Apollo Theatre, which doesn't exist any more, I think it was a Stiff tour or something. There was loads of different bands playing, and the Ramones were playing. I was there with my boyfriend at the time and we just looked at each other and thought 'if they can do it we can do it!'. They were really trashy but really really good cos they had a real pop sensibility, and I just love melody. So we formed a band and he was the singer, I was the drummer, and we had a guitarist and someone else who would occasionally play violin.

Is that The Poems?

The Poems, yeah. We released a single and we recorded an album, we even mastered the album, but before the pressing the master went missing.

Are there any copies anywhere?

I must have a cassette copy somewhere, but I've got sooo many cassettes. I'm going to go through them all and see if there's anything salvageable on that cos it would be interesting for me to listen to it again. The music was quite interesting, the instruments we used were quite interesting, so I'd quite like to hear what it sounded like now.

Strawberry Switchblade and The Poems did gigs together, cos I used to organise a lot of the gigs in those days.

So you'd be playing in both bands?

Aye, and I'd get paid twice so it was quite good! And a quick change of outfits from The Poems to Strawberry Switchblade, which weren't really that different anyway; black lace frilly things for The Poems and then polka dots for Switchblade.

That was good fun, but then The Poems fell apart basically cos Switchblade got busy.

So when did Strawberry Switchblade get formed? How come one band wasn't enough for you?

I was sitting on a bus with James Kirk from Orange Juice. He was coming out to my house and he'd done this fanzine called Strawberry Switchblade. He said he wasn't going to continue doing the fanzine, I said that's a fantastic name, it can't just die, and he said 'have it'. I went 'really?' and he said yes, have it. So I went, that's it, and basically I had the name Strawberry Switchblade so I had to form a band cos it was such a good name!

There's so much in this story that's the other way around from normal - having a Peel session without sending in a demo, having sessions booked without having the songs, having a name but no band.

I know! And then I said to Jill 'I'm going to form a band' and she says 'can I be in it?', I said, 'yeah, what do you want to do?'. She said 'sing', I said , 'nah, I'm going to sing'

You'd been playing drums with The Poems hadn't you?

I'd been playing drums, yeah. So I bought myself a 12 string guitar and taught myself to play a few chords - which is all you need to do to write a song - and Jill bought a guitar. So she was going to be the guitarist and I was going to be the singer. I'd do rhythm guitar and she'd do frilly bits.

Who were the other two?

The other two were Janice who played the bass and Carol who was a drummer, her brother taught her to play drums. She had two rhythms she could play, one was for the slow songs and one was for the fast songs. Which was OK, cos if you've only got eight songs it means you don't have time to get bored!

Where did you know the other three from?

Jill I met through her boyfriend, I used to hang about with him before she went out with him. The bass player I got through meeting her in clubs and stuff, I didn't know her that well. And Jill knew the drummer a little bit, so we got together that way. We didn't know them that much when we came together but we thought we'd try it out anyway.

Were you close to Jill before that?

Oh yeah, Jill and I were really good friends, and we were pretty notorious around Glasgow for going around all dressed up. Not really so much in the early days, but when I was in The Poems I used to be overdressed, outrageously dressed all the time.

A lot of people forget what that meant THEN. Nowadays you can work in offices with multi-coloured hair and eyebrow piercings, people forget what it was like up until the eighties.

It was, like, dangerous! It was actually dangerous, we got beat up sometimes and stuff like that. Bikers beat me, my best friend, my boyfriend and her boyfriend up pretty severely. We all ended up in hospital just because we were punks and we were quite outrageously dressed. Some guy wanted to dance with me and tried to pull me off in a corner, I pushed him out the way, and he went off and told all his biker friends. I was five foot nothing and wearing flat shoes and these great big bikers come up. One had my boyfriend and put him against the wall and he was going to put a glass in his face, and I jumped on his back and was hanging on to his shoulders to try and pull him away, and another biker punched me on the nose and I was out for the count. Then I woke up and bouncers came and threw US out.

It's a really weird thing, that rigidity of fashion at that time, how scared people were of anything that was different. It was something the eighties really broke down and gave individualism the chance to come through. It's got to be emphasised that almost everyone was NOT a punk on the late 70s, and those who were ran real risks.

Exactly. And especially in a place like Glasgow which can be a bit violent anyway. I suppose if you were in a little village you'd probably get talked about and whispered about but probably not beaten up so much. But if you're in a big city like Glasgow you have to watch where you go. There were certain pubs you wouldn't even dare walk into. I couldn't really go into pubs anyway cos I was always thrown out cos they didn't believe I was old enough. Being thrown out of pubs when I was 27, that was quite funny!

But it was a really big deal being a punk then.

Jill said you had to go out to Paisley to find somewhere where someone would play the records.

That's right, yeah.

A city the size of Glasgow and nowhere would play the records, it was THAT MUCH of an outsider thing.

Right at the very beginning there was a couple of little clubs. There was one on Buchanan Street - there's a big centre built there now - and the DJ had two albums, one was the Damned and I think one was the Stranglers, and a few singles and he just played them over and over again all night. But that closed down because nobody wanted to put punk things on, it was an affront to society.

When punk happened it totally saved my life. I was a really fucked up teenager who really did not want to conform to the norm, never had even when I was a kid. I didn't want to be like everybody else because I didn't respect them. But I was at that age where I felt 'what am I supposed to do?', and then punk happened. 'THAT'S what I'm supposed to do! I'm supposed to be me!'. Punk allowed me to be me without feeling like a fake. It totally liberated me. I didn't have to be a girly girl and it wasn't expected of me, or if it was it didn't matter. I would probably have done the same thing anyway but been really outcast or locked up for being a nut. My mum was always telling me I was a bit crazy. Punk really was my saviour. It sounds like an extreme thing to say, but for a pubescent teenage girl who's totally fucked up about life, it was really really really my saviour.

When did The Poems get together?

The Poems got together in 79, I think. My first daughter was born in 79 and I played a gig when I was pregnant, so it must've been 78 or 79. Strawberry Switchblade got together in 80...I don't remember awfully well!

There's a tape of one of the really early gigs and there's a reference to being there and missing the World Cup on TV, which would make that summer 1982. How long did Strawberry Switchblade last as a four-piece?

God, not very long at all. Until Strawberry Switchblade started getting really busy actually. We became a two-piece when we started doing the Peel sessions. I was still going to do Poems things but it was getting a bit silly cos I was practising all the time with Strawberry Switchblade. And also I had a daughter so Drew, my partner at the time, he would be babysitting while I was doing Strawberry Switchblade things.

Eventually The Poems thing just kind of fell away, cos also the guitarist got married and stuff and it just dissipated really. Drew had wanted to carry it on but it just didn't work, we wouldn't have had enough time to do it all. Didn't have time to do all the Strawberry Switchblade, never mind anything else!