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BMX Bandits and Cheeky Monkey.

By Jonathan Perry

MARCH 2, 1998:  Great pop -- the kind that in the span of three minutes can conjure whole worlds of Technicolor dreams, pastel memories, and the euphoric ache of a first crush -- is never as simple as it seems. It remains hard to find and even more difficult to create Otherwise, everybody would be doing it, and the secret of its glorious power would be neither glorious nor secret.

That's what makes both the BMX Bandits' new disc, Theme Park, and Cheeky Monkey's Four Arms To Hold You (both on Big Deal) such delectable sweet-and-sour treats. Each serves as a textbook example of classic pop songcraft. Cheeky Monkey take the squeezably soft folk-pop route (think Evan Dando); the BMX Bandits survey the vintage pop spectrum, from brisk bubblegum ("Nuclear Summertime") to Flamin' Groovies-style garage growl ("We're Gonna Shake You Down") to starry-eyed balladry ("I Wanna Fall in Love"). If imitation is indeed the highest form of flattery, then somewhere Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach are blushing crimson.

Theme Park was produced by legendary weirdo-pop avatar Kim Fowley, whom BMX Bandits main man Duglas Stewart describes as a thoroughly intimidating, thoroughly compelling personality. "He looks like a cross between Boris Karloff and Klaus Kinski," Stewart explained when the Bandits were in town a couple weeks ago for a show at T.T. the Bear's Place. "You just never know what he's going to do." Fowley wound up co-writing seven of the disc's 18 tracks.

Both the BMX Bandits and Cheeky Monkey are joined at the hip by Francis Macdonald, who used to drum for Glasgow's biggest Big Star devotees, Teenage Fanclub. Macdonald authored the lion's share of tunes on Theme Park and co-wrote much of the material on Four Arms To Hold You as one-half of Cheeky Monkey. The other half is Michael Shelley, a New York-based songwriter whose engaging debut, Half Empty, was released on Big Deal last year. As a DJ at New Jersey's WFMU, Shelley had come across a batch of singles that Macdonald had issued on his own Glasgow-based ShoeShine Records label. And he got an idea.

"I asked Francis whether I should send him a tape of my album and he said no, so I sent him one anyway," recalls Shelley, who opened for the Bandits at T.T.'s. "He lives with his mum, and when he played the tape I had sent him, his mum thought I was him -- that's how much alike we sounded."

Macdonald then called Shelley and asked whether he'd be interested in releasing a single or two on ShoeShine. Before long the two were exchanging tapes in the mail and composing lyrics over the phone between Scotland and New York. "We were thinking of putting copies of the phone bills on the album -- they were that ridiculous," says Shelley.

Macdonald, seated at the table across from his overseas collaborator, remembers bracing for their first face-to-face meeting last June in New York City. "We could have gotten on each other's nerves -- or Michael could have been an ax murderer. Thankfully, this was not the case."

Shelley flew to Glasgow, writing more songs with Macdonald and hanging out with musicians like Duglas Stewart. Which makes sense, since it seems most every musician in Glasgow has, at one point or another, hung out with Stewart. Pick a band, any band: Teenage Fanclub, the Soup Dragons, Superstar, Eugenius. At various times, they were all BMX Bandits with Stewart at the helm, scattering LPs, EPs, and picture-perfect singles like "Kylie's Got a Crush on Us" and the gold-star fizz of "Serious Drugs." Music critic Ira Robbins went so far as to compare Stewart's influence to bandleader John Mayall's reign over the British blues revival of the 1960s. Stewart smiles sheepishly at the comparison.

"I think it was more the case that I had lots of ideas but was musically illiterate, so was dependent upon people who were very generous with their time," he says with the same shy self-depreciation he brings to the stage. "I've never felt like a schoolteacher. A lot of people have come through this band and put their own stamp on the songs."

The Glasgow pop community is a closely knit one, according to Stewart, because its inhabitants share a particular outlook and mutual respect. More often than not, that perspective gets reflected on BMX Bandits albums. "I still feel very much that I'm a big kid," Stewart acknowledges. "I'll spat with my wife and know I've got to pay my rent, but I still feel like a teenager. And I think folks who are attracted to music keep that life a little bit closer to them. They might tend to notice a sunset more than they worry about paying their taxes."


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