Allegedly formed in the west-end area of Edinburgh in the late 1980s, this mysterious indy rock band has eluded both publicity and commercial success. The Bletherin, while trying to focus on a uniquely Scottish sound, often appeared too reckless, unstable or distracted to develop beyond gigs in the Edinburgh pub and club scene. For this reason their back catalogue, while being varied and a high-standard, remains relatively unknown.
To my knowledge, this is the first time anyone has attempted to unpick the band’s evolution. That said, tracking down the founding members Ben Smile and Gus Williams proved to be a quest of some disappointment.
My investigative trail started surprisingly in Central Scotland, where the Bletherin’s original bass player Colin Boyle is based. Colin is a very difficult character. With a background in mixed martial arts and lumberjacking, Colin is more suited to being outside, alone and free from the annoyance of people, especially anyone who asks about his personal life and past. I warmed him up by offering him a swig from my flask of Springbank 15 year old malt, and this helped. He made me a cup of tea (rock n’ roll!) and we talked frankly, albeit with lots of awkward silences.
Colin spoke fondly about back in the day, when he first met Ben Smile and Gus Williams, while they were attending Napier College of Commerce and Technology, in Edinburgh. They wrote their first three songs in the Students’ Union there and recorded them in Colin’s mum’s kitchen in Chesser, Edinburgh. The band used an analogue four-track tape machine, playing among various family members’ cooking, chatting and generally making everyday noises as they walked in and out. Probably the worst studio environment possible. That said, it is actually amazing that their first track ‘Two of a Kind‘ was produced at all. Indeed the song has a live feel to it and Colin’s steady bass lines keep it together. He told me that the guitar parts were played by Ben Smile and original drummer Andy ‘ToeCutter’ Sutton, who programmed the drums in an early Roland drum machine. The track is a single take, with no overdubs. This ‘live’ recording method became the norm for the band.
Around this time, Cornish songwriter and producer Scamp Eadie joined Ben and Gus to provide keyboards and vocals on ‘Once Bitten’, ‘Caught in a Dream,’and ‘Destiny’ (Retrospectively, Eadie revisited the Smile and Williams track ‘Always Will‘ in 2018, and gave the song an updated vibe). Eadie was clearly too talented to hang out with these guys for any sustained period. Colin Boyle called this music ‘mince.’
The band became regulars in pubs in Edinburgh, where they honed their sound and tightened their playing. Tracks such as ‘The Strangers‘, ‘Future’, and ‘Throw it Away’ were regular on the set list, as was the band’s popular cover of the China Crisis track ‘Black Man Ray.’ Gigging to audiences who never listened and spoke over them, was unrewarding.
By the end of the 1990s, the band were tired and weary. The millenium seemed like a time where the members reflected on their futures. Gus Williams had become disillusioned with the pub rock sound that was preferred by Toecutter and Ben Smile. Williams was quite a traditionalist and preferred a musical genre, with big sounds. An early example of this is ‘Caught in a Dream‘, which is a rock ballad, with musical theatre influences. Williams, with no words, quietly drifted away from the Bletherin’s inner circle. Caught in a Dream was covered by Midlands singer-songwriter Jordan Adams ad appears on his 2002 album release ‘Like a Lifetime.’ Boyle could not have been less interested in these developments.
A turning point for the band was the lead up to the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland. Ben and Colin were strong supporters of an independent Scotland and several songs emerged around that theme, namely ‘Saltire Rock‘, ‘Nae Union‘, ‘We are Scotland‘, ‘Freedom Bell‘ and the cover of Lisa Hill’s excellent song ‘Gimme the 45.’ The latter being an underplayed indy classic, which I hope gets the recognition it deserves soon.
The band, with diminished capacity, exists with the very secretive and socially evasive Ben Smile, as the only original member. Ben runs Etihad Towers Studios and despite dabbling in the music business for several decades has made not a single penny of income from it.
In recent months, the Bletherin have completed new tracks for their imminent album ‘Gien it Laldy‘, including: ‘Scarlett Smile‘, ‘Particles of Love‘, and ‘Cinderella Rockerfella‘, which features Ben’s wife Sara Smile on backing vocals.
I tracked Ben down online and he is as energetic and full of ideas as ever. Ben sounds remarkably similar to Colin Boyle, guess that’s because they both grew up in Gorgie, Edinburgh. We kicked things off by speaking about the excellent track ‘Cinderella Rockerfella‘, which details his friends’ times in the west-end of Edinburgh. We reminisced on good times in the bars and clubs around that period and realized that we had several mutual friends and associates. Ben explained to me that ‘Cinderella Rockerfella‘ has a darker side as it touched on Ben’s struggles with his own health in the 1990s.
Ben is today a strong family man. ‘Scarlett Smile‘ is a forward-looking tribute to his teenage daughter Scaz, whom he is immensely proud of, while ‘Particles of Love‘ chronicles Ben and Sara’s long-term relationship and marriage. Ben spoke fondly of his old songwriting partner Gus, who sadly passed away a few years back. Ben and Gus partied hard and rumours imply they were often seen in the west-end, in varying states!
The fate of their mate and Bletherin drummer ‘Toecutter’ is dark and unclear. Some say he left the music business to pursue his passion for serious and organized crime, others state he was simply replaced by superior and less argumentative drum software programmes. Who knows the truth, regardless, he is untraceable to this day. My own view is that there is no evidence he existed.
I asked Ben what projects he has in the works and he told me a bit about ‘Freedom Bell‘, a track he dedicates to all Scots, especially those activists in the Yes Movement. Freedom Bell has been gifted to anyone who wants to cover or develop it, so the song belongs to Scots. It may well form part of Indy instigator Mike Fenwick’s plans to build and forge a ‘Freedom Bell‘ out of aluminum cans from around Scotland. The intention is that the bell is sounded on the anniversary of Scottish independence, annually. I personally hope this project is a success, and a success soon. Mike Fenwick has this in hand as a live project.
The Bletherin will soon, quite legitimately, become a forgotten part of Scottish music history, which is a shame for Ben, as they produced some very good tunes, which in themselves are timeless. I encourage indy supporters and activists to get behind this hapless band and either buy the album some tracks or donate directly to www.indylive.radio to help ensure this excellent volunteer service continues and grows.
To commemorate five years since the Scottish Independence Referendum, the Blethirin ‘Gien it Laldy‘ album will be released by www.distrokid.com internationally on 18 September, and is available at all good download sites and most rubbish ones.
Please note that any proceeds from this new and exciting album will be donated directly to the team at IndyLive.Radio
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