On May 1st this year, Scotland became the first country in the world to introduce minimum pricing legislation for alcohol, in attempt to curb the nation’s drink problem.
And while that meant that many beverages such as cider saw overnight price increases of upto £6 a bottle, for Buckfast Tonic Wine, at 15% abv for a 750ml bottle, it’s minimum price is lower than its usual retail price, so the price stayed put.
An interesting one to observers, given the drink’s status as a key motor of antisocial behaviour and a symbol of Scotland’s entrenched drinking problems. One labelled by The Guardian as having “almost supernatural powers of destruction”. Or, as Robert Young put it in his study of antisocial youth subculture in Scotland, “the quintessential marker of ‘Ned’ identity”.
While today the drink remains an agenda-hugging beverage high on Scottish politicians list of priorities, and with such arguments re antisocial behaviour containing certain truths, in the case of Glasgow, there’s an altogether separate reality that merits attention.
The reality that Buckfast forms an important and central role in the continuously shifting musical landscape of the city in the last two decades. That, in the right hands – or down the right throats – tonic wine animates, illuminates and ultimately lubricates the city’s musical spirit and an after-dark clubbing landscape that it’s renowned for.
It’s little surprise that on-point music magazine FACT in a 2013 article about tonic labelled the drink ‘arguably as important to electronic music as Optimo, LuckyMe and Numbers combined’.
It’s because there exists the suggestion that most good things in the city literally swim in it, from underground electronic act Junto Club’s music being described as “Andrew Weatherall and Suicide pouring Buckfast into their synths” to psych rockers The Cosmic Dead’s 2017 release ‘Psych is Dead’ being critiqued as “setting its controls for the heart of a planet beyond Hawkwind, beyond Can and located co-ordinates unknown, on a rickety spacecraft fuelled entirely by Buckfast”.
If the tech crowds of Berlin are seen to fuel their output thanks to office fridges filled with Club Matte, then so to the musically minded Glasgow public get their fill via the toenails of the Benedictine Monks from Devon who produce Buckfast.
A sound ‘bathed in Buckfast’ might sound a tad cliche, but it speaks to the truth of a drink that, as Vice noted in a 2016 article on the gentrification of Finnieston, “squats with semi-mythic omnipresence in the city’s collective psyche”.
Having long been associated with hooliganism in Glasgow and the West of Scotland, the media often attribute Buckfast’s increase in popularity to football, and, specifically, the (traditionally Catholic) fans of Scottish football club Celtic developing a taste for the drink as a pre-match tipple in the 1970s.
Yet music played an important part in both its surge in sales and popularity. A more convincing viewpoint stems from the little voiced belief that its transition from over-the-counter pharmacy medicinal wine to ubiquitous tipple went via the Glasgow, as well as Edinburgh, Glenrothes and Belfast punk scene in the late 80’s and early to mid 90’s.
This was a period when Buckfast was ruthlessly – and humorously – endorsed by bands such as ‘alcoholic folk punk’ band Ex Cathedra from Glasgow’s Southside (who released a song called Buckfast Happy in 1996) and Belfast’s Runnin’ Riot. Long before the iconic label was ‘hip’, punks in both cities could be seen with t-shirts and patches with the logo on it that proclaimed ” Made By Monks, Drunk By Punks”.
Cut to 2018, and you have events like ‘The Glasgow Buckaroo Ball’ at the world’s largest music showcase festival, SXSW, in Austin, Texas. Seven bands who ply their trade in Glasgow headed out to the USA to perform under a banner that pays homage to the city’s love affair with the drink and, thanks to Paisley band Catholic Action, a few bottles of tonic came into contact with the Texan air and dirt.
A year where Glasgow’s greatest musical export, Franz Ferdinand, releases an album featuring a song (Huck and Jim) with the lyric, “We’re going to America yeah/We’re gonna tell them about the NHS/When we get there we’ll all hang out/Sipping Buckie with the boys.”
Incidentally, it’s not the first time Buckfast has featured in one of their songs. Old B side ‘Drinking Wine In The Afternoon’ is loosely based on the drink – the 45 ” label even features the iconic Buckie label with the band’s name on it in the Buckie lettering.
Buckfast is, after all, Glasgow’s medicine. It’s medicine against the status quo and the lack of a clear stretch of London-esque temperatures in summer (save for May 2018) and constantly baltic, brutal winters spent in near total darkness.
The aperitif part of a menu that feeds the desires of music lovers across the world and is responsible for gifted DJs such Jackmaster, Mr TC, Sofay, Denis Sulta, Nightwave, Jasper James and Ribeka.
Even Optimo’s JD Twitch (who doesn’t drink it) runs a yearly, Jamaican music only night called ‘Bucky Skank’ that takes it name from the Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry song while paying certain homage to West of Scotland’s favourite fortified wine.
It also fuels the club scene for those on the other side of the decks – the folk themselves that make up the weekend numbers in spots like The Subbie, SWG3, The Berkeley Suite and La Cheetah.
And this in part, is thanks to Glasgow’s archaic, almost neanderthal- like licensing laws, where nights generally go between 11 till 3 with few exceptions. As such, unlike our brothers and sisters down south and on the European continent, folk here don’t have the luxury of late start to their night.
So they go hard and fast. And here is where Buckfast comes up trumps. There’s nothing like a half or full bottle will get you in the zone and give you the necessary ‘up’ as quickly as Buckfast does, prior to hitting the town.
Likewise, when the clubs empty at 3, having a bottle available will make sure you can stretch the night out long after after the music’s stopped in an after setting.
Yes, the argument remains by those who see Buckfast only as something of an icon of youthful recklessness that no good can come from it. That it stands for a certain bravado and that those who drink it in places other than schemes do so ‘ironically’, given its status in Glasgow and the city’s continuing problems with alcoholism.
Yet it’s clear not everyone who drinks it grabs a knife, settles a vendetta or smashes up a house. It isn’t Buckfast that causes poverty, or crime, or domestic violence. Others channel it to pull out a blinder of a bedroom mix, plug a guitar into an amp or plot their next party or musical exploit or to simply have a good night.
To quote James T Mckay, guitarist with the aforementioned The Cosmic Dead and Venue Entertainments Manager at popular live music haunt Nice and Sleazy, “The Glasgow music scene wouldn’t be the same without it, for better or worse. You have a DJ set 11.30pm – 3am on a Tuesday but did an eight hour shift at work during the day? A bottle of tonic will go a long way to making that shift all the more bearable.
“The Cosmic Dead is fuelled by it. Set times over the two hour mark at 3am in fields in Portugal have been mainly possible due to crates of tonic wine being bought and stored in the van for crucial nights on various tours.”
As far as I’m aware, places like Sleazy’s or the Art School don’t sell it behind the bar in the spirit of irony. Neither do bands from the city take it abroad with them for the same reason.
They do so because it’s a part of the fabric of the music and drinking culture in the city, and the two go hand in hand. One populated by people whose interest is to head out and have a good time and not be consumed by the ‘Bucky rage’ – the urge to hit the person nearest them.
And when bands from outside the city visit Glasgow, it’s natural for them to buy into this marriage that exists here between the two.
Bands like the Baltimore based Future Islands, who, when they played The Barrowlands back in April last year, made sure there were personalised bottles of it – with the band name on the label – to keep them going post-show. Or Sleaford Mods, one of which swapped his usual cans of lager for a bottle when they played the same venue as part of BBC 6 Music Festival.
Wide of the mark with respect to this is NME (as usual), who describe such occurrences as a “terrible cliche for touring bands to embrace” and one which, with respect to the later, generated “a few sarcastic cheers” from the hometown crowd. I doubt it was sarcasm, rather approval at outsiders endorsing the tonic culture that exists here, and nothing else.
One that provides a recipe for creativity, energy and fun to drive the music scene forward. Everyone knows the contribution Glasgow gives to the world of music and how important music is to the city.
A city less ‘woke’ more ‘wide awake’ on Buckie.
And I say that as someone who isn’t themselves a regular drinker and who, as a 12 year old, was attacked and hit over the head by a bottle of it by someone looking for violence after having just drank it dry.