Picture the scene. A rehearsal room near Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens. Six men squeezed into the tiny space. They are mostly middle-aged, a little pouchy round the eyes, paunchy round the middle. You would not mistake them for the Beatles in Hamburg. One of their songs seems to be about slippers. They look familiar, though, the singer most of all. He is Ian Rankin. The group is Best Picture.
“It’s a ‘dad band’,” he explains over a drink in the Oxford Bar. “We’re men of a certain age who should know better.”
Best Picture was formed last year by two newspaper columnists: Scotland On Sunday’s Euan McColm on guitar and Kenny Farquharson of The Times on drums. The latter has form when it comes to making music with a bestselling novelist; he and Ali Smith were at Aberdeen University together in the early 1980s and would busk in Union Street, he on the bongos, she on the moothie.
McColm and Farquharson were soon joined by Bobby Bluebell, formerly of The Bluebells, who had enjoyed a number one hit in 1993 with the rerelease of Young At Heart – a title that might serve as a motto for his new bandmates. This was music made across the barricades, Bluebell being a supporter of Scottish independence, the journalists having written against it.
“Bobby and I had become friends during the referendum,” McColm explains. “He used to torment me on Twitter about my columns, but he was always charming and funny rather than abusive like most people are … We bonded over music. Our shared love of the Velvet Underground and Sister Sledge was more important than arguing over the quality of the white paper on independence.”
Having been kept secret until now, Best Picture have released Isabelle, a limited-edition single – on pink vinyl – through Glasgow’s Oriel Records. The comedian Al Murray makes a guest appearance on backing vocals. “I’m not sure Rebus would approve of coloured vinyl,” says Rankin, “and he probably hasn’t bought a single since the 1970s. But he might find his toe tapping, head bobbing slightly, if the song came on in a pub and no one was watching.”
The members of Best Picture may be in their forties and fifties, but there is much giddy teenage excitement at having created that sacred pop artefact – a seven-inch. “The best bit of being in a band is the day your first bit of plastic comes through the post,” says Bobby Bluebell. “It’s like meeting your girlfriend for the first time. You are almost going to bed with it. I wanted these other guys to experience that buzz.”
Bluebell first found success in the 1980s as part of a wave of Scottish bands – including Aztec Camera and Altered Images – storming the UK charts. “I feel like the Zelig of Glasgow pop,” he says. “I’ve been around so many things without ever being the focal point.”
His entrée to showbiz came when Nick Heyward saw his photo in Melody Maker and wrote to ask whether the band would like to support Haircut 100 on tour. “It was addressed to ‘The Guy In The Bluebells, Glasgow.’ I’ve still got the envelope, man.”
His work as a songwriter-for-hire (Texas, Brian Wilson, Sinead O’Connor) has allowed him to move in rarefied circles – “But, as Jack Nicholson once told me: ‘Never name-drop.’” However, he seems not to have had a career plan as such. “I never thought for one second, at the start, that in 2017 I would be making money from music. I did it to hang about with Orange Juice and try to get off with girls.”
He was successful on both counts – the hanging out and the getting off. He wooed Bananarama’s Siobhan Fahey through the pages of Smash Hits, and co-wrote Young At Heart with her in their London flat. The song caught the ear of Paul McCartney who, by telegram, summoned its writers to a soirée in Mayfair. Knowing the form for house parties in Govan, Bluebell came prepared: “I turned up in a duffle coat with six cans of Skol and a quarter bottle of vodka. McCartney thought it was funny that the only guy who had come along with his own booze was a Glaswegian.”
Here, in the form of an inappropriate kerry-oot taken to the home of a Beatle, was a sort of vindication. “My mum was pulling my hair and hitting me when I chucked my job to be in the band. She’s going ‘You get back to work!’ I’m going, ‘No, I’m going to be on Top Of The Pops!’ It’s the sort of thing you’d say in some crappy sitcom. But we did it. Edwyn did it. Clare did it. Roddy did it. And when you got to Top Of The Pops, it was like playing in a European Cup Final.”
This was a lifestyle Ian Rankin might have envied. Would he rather have been a rock star than a bestselling author? “Yeah, of course,” he replies. “Almost every writer would rather have been in a successful band.”
Growing up in Fife, he was obsessed with music. “The first time I ever sang in public was my sister’s wedding in 1972 at the Masonic Lodge in Cardenden.” He was 12, performing an a cappella version of The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel. “And when I got to the line, ‘Just a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue,’ my aunty spat her advocaat across the room.”
He had an imaginary band, The Amoebas, for whom he would design album sleeves and arrange touring schedules. As their singer, he took the stage name Ian Kaput. Real life pop success seemed impossibly distant, except that the boy two years above him at Beath High – Stuart Adamson – seemed to be doing alright as a member of The Skids. “I used to go and see them all the time, at the Pogo-A-Gogo club in Kirkcaldy’s Station Hotel.”
Punk’s DIY ethos gave Rankin the self-belief that led him to fiction. “Punk said, ’You can do this. Don’t be shy. Be gallus.’” At uni, he fronted a short-lived new-wave outfit called the Dancing Pigs. “We had four fans. Two were Hells Angels and two were underage girls.”
There are no specific plans for Best Picture to play live. Rankin will not be giving up his day job as one of Britain’s leading crime writers, especially if it means a Jagger-style fitness regime. “I want to be one of those raddled frontmen who just stands there and looks kind of mean and moody. I don’t want to be eating mung beans and drinking energy drinks.”
What about those who would criticise Best Picture as being little more than a rich man’s hobby? “It’s a band, not an ego trip,” says Rankin. “None of our names appear anywhere on the record. There will be people out there who say it’s a vanity project. Well fuck them if they say that. All I know is I’ve got a stack of seven-inch singles to give to my friends for Christmas.”