5 weeks ago
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Chapter 6 AUTONOMY IN THE UK Independent Labels and the DIY movement
(Chapter 2 in the US edition)
Richard Boon: “The motive for Spiral Scratch was to make a record that recorded that moment, literally made a record of it, because it might never happen again. We didn’t think it was some entry into history. But it did seem important to stress the regionalism, and the opening up of possibility, and opening up of activity…. Demystification was a big part of it. And the Walter Benjamin joke of the polaroid on the cover related to that, the polaroid photo being an instant picture, but then when it comes to being on the cover it goes through all the reproduction processes the same as something more expensive would go through. And the song “Boredom” itself was almost like a Bonzo Dog Doodah Band take on punk, ‘oh god it’s another bloody song all about boredom so let’s do a really boring guitar solo’.”
For more on the New Hormones story check out this very detailed website created by Justin Toland -- http://newhormonesinfo.com/2008/02/17/a-note-on-using-this-site/
One of New Hormones later releases by The Tiller Boys, which was Pete Shelley + Eric Random; "Big Noise in the Jungle" was a John Peel favorite. A pun on the Tiller Girls I assume, although I also heard a story there was some kind of floppy-fringe subcult of that name in early Eighties Manchester
The label’s name suggests some kind of rad-feminist in-joke to do with the “third gender” or androgyny (as in the androgynous-looking Linder). Boon says it’s more to do with the whole Wilhelm Reich/sex-pol aspect as alluded to in the “orgone” catalog number joke.
>cultural landmark and portent
The independent label movement initially exploded as a post-Spiral Scratch fad-craze in 1977, with such key independents emerging as Small Wonder in London, Rabid in Manchester, Raw Records of Cambridge, and the Step Forward/Illegal/Deptford Fun City cluster of labels (all under the umbrella of Faulty Products, and funded by Miles Copeland, manager of the Police and later founder of IRS Records), as well innumerable tiny operations across the UK. Then the buzz and business dropped away quite sharply owing to a flood of inferior product, literally punk-Xerox music, and also the novelty of it all fading; the best punk bands meanwhile signed to major labels. By December of 1977, the independent punk/new wave business had dropped by about half from their highpoint, and in 1978 settled around an average of 4000 sales per release. Then things gradually built back up again as the music culture got stronger and more diverse and turned into a home for all kinds of eccentricity and misfit/mis-shapen music, i.e. stuff that would never find a home on major labels. Quality control returned and the labels got more business-like and long-term oriented; the distribution network began to fall into place to enable them to achieve a turnover sufficient to achieve sustainability as businesses. By 1979, in a September 1st NME feature special on the indie label revolution, Paul Morley and Adrian Thrills could conclude: "Punk of 1976 was almost a false start. The true concerted, subversive revolution, happened in late '78, early '79... and is still happening." By this point the key independents, according to the article, included Factory, Fast Product, Rough Trade, Good Vibrations (Belfast), Object (Manchester), Small Wonder (London), Zoo (Liverpool), along with many, many small one-band labels. Not mentioned in the piece but important: Industrial, Throbbing Gristle’s label, and Crass’s self-releases. The boom continued into 1980, with some ninety independent labels forming in the first six months of that year.
>idea of independently recording and releasing music… novel
David Toop: “Indie labels go back to the beginning of recorded history. If you look at the classical repertoire, it was indie labels that opened out the possibility of what you could record. All these people like Varese and so on, they were tending to appear first on small independent labels putting out classical music.”
Claims to be “probably the oldest independent record label in the world”. It’s been putting out recordings of traditional music and folk for over 65 years. Founded in 1939, it was an outgrowth of the Workers Music Association, an organization that believed “music should be used as a tool of revolution, in a cultural and educational sense, and that folk music, passed down through the generations, above all, gave ‘a voice to the people’.” Its early catalogue included releases by Ewan MacColl, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Woody Guthrie; by the 60s it was more associated with British folk, artists like Anne Briggs, Shirley & Dolly Collins and The Watersons, Martin Carthy, and the like; it also put out the landmark 20 volume anthology of traditional music from the British Isles, The Voice of The People. Nicknamed “that little red label” by a condescending major label, Topic is in some ways as much an ancestor for Rough Trade as say, Virgin, is.
More history and info at
Founded 1970 and has claims to be the first independent label actually run by the musicians themselves (conceived by Tony Oxley, co-directed by Derek Bailey and Evan Parker back when they were still comrades).
More information here
>Progressive independents like Virgin, Island, Chrysalis
Chrysalis started as a protégé/offshoot/subsidiary of Island, it was a production company that went through Island; although always a label, Virgin benefited from Island’s support and distribution muscle early on.
And let’s not forget Dandelion, the indie founded by John Peel, running from 1969 to ’72, and with a roster including Stackwaddy, Bridget St. John, Lox Coxhill and David Bedford. Although autonomous on the A&R/creative level, Dandelion's distribution went through a series--three in all--of major labels before expiring. So whether it was truly independent is moot.
Followed the standard indie label route of evolving out of a record store, albeit with a twist: it emerged out of a record stall in a Soho market, owned by one Ted Carroll, who specialized in old rock’n’roll and 1950s music. He had a similar stall in Golborne Road, and opened the proper store Rock On in Camden, summer 1975. Chiswick’s first release was the Count Bishops in November 1975; later did Johny Moped, Skrewdriver, and Johnny and the Self Abusers (who turned into Simple Minds). Eventually went to major label distribution in summer 1978.
The archetypal pub rock-turned-New Wave label, in some ways the antithesis of postpunk--beery, laddy, way too traddy, down-to-earthy and ordinary-joes-onstage-y, although it must be said that it was Ian Dury & The Blockheads who turned me onto funk and disco as much as PiL or Gang of Four. Stiff was formed in spring 1976 by Brinsley Schwarz manager Dave Robinson and Dr. Feelgood road manager Jake Riviera. The label did have a New Wavey vibe with quirky catalogue numbers (BUY ONE and so forth) and Barney Bubbles’ great artwork (although Bubbles had previously done the record design for Hawkwind). And they also put out the first UK punk record, “New Rose”, by The Damned, pipping ‘Anarchy in the UK’ by three weeks. That was in October 1976; very shortly after this they got their major label distribution and were romping into the charts with things like Lene Loviche’s “Lucky Number” (February 1979, #3) and Jona Lewie’s execrable “Stop the Cavalry’ (Xmas #1, 1980; preceded by an earlier novelty hit/late night Radio One fave “He’s Always In the Kitchen At Parties’), not forgetting Dury’s “What a Waste”, “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and “Reasons To Be Cheerful” and sundry hits for Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. Wreckless Eric, however, totally tanked.
> Entrepreneurially sussed insiders
Richard Boon: “They knew the industry, particularly around Stiff there was a helping hand through people like the Feelgoods and Andrew Lauder at United Artists. Back door pressings at EMI to get them going. It was like a covert operations among all those people, all record business veterans”.
>The Secret Public
Richard Boon: “It was later adopted as the name of the Buzzcocks fan club, which was as hamfistedly run as everything else around Buzzcocks. Everyone got a membership card which had the muted trumpet symbol from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, which is a book about an anarchist postal service. And people who joined would be sent--this is before the Data Protection Act--lists of other members in their area. So they could make friends.”
On the Fast Product anthology Rigour Discipline and Disgust, this slogan appears: "'professionalism' is often no more than the dead weight of history reaching out from the grave"
The label “started” in March 1977, but not necessarily as a music label; Last had been tinkering with films. It was a brand (and an ideology/sensibility) before it had any product. This where’s-the-product aspect kinda recurred with the SeXex project (see below), as explained by Last in an early NME piece (Jan 13 1979), where he described the release as "an advertising and promotional campaign for a totally imaginary corporation, but the advertising is the product! If you think of SeXex as a corporation, we've almost got round the problem of having to put out product at all."
>Quality of Life… SeXex
Text sent with the releases declared “information can only be disseminated via packaging.. the initial idea has to be moulded into a package. Fast Product, realizing that the packager/marketer makes as important a contribution to the communication as everybody else, decided this was a good thing, since it means more people can get in on the act”. The releases retailed at 75 p.
Earcom is short for “ear comics”, and the releases were meant to be instant compilations. Bob Last (September 1 1979, NME): “The tracks.. are not meant to be definitive statements but remarks and gestures. Soon all the bands will have developed into something different." Earcom 1 featured Scottish pre-teen punks The Prats (“we are the Prats/we live in high-rise flats”), Bob Last’s girlfriend Hilary Morrison’s band The Flowers, Preston’s The Blank Students, The Products, and Sheffield experimentalists Graph (whose Ian Burden would later join Human League and co-wrote some of their big hits) with “Drowning”. This maxi-EP came with a two-colour poster and the label slogan “’dare to struggle, dare to win’?/difficult fun”. Earcom 2 featured two Joy Division tracks, 'Autosuggestion' and 'From Safety To Where” alongside offerings from Middlesborough’s intriguingly named Basczax and others. A double 7 inch, Earcom 3 was a mixed bag of San Francisco punk (The Middle Class, Noh Mercy--Fast had also licensed for the UK the Dead Kennedies single “California Uber Alles”), German experimentalism (DAF), and sundry English nonentities.
Another Fast Product single, The Scars's "Horrowshow" b/w "Adultery" from 1979
An interview with Saville by James Nice (later of LTM reissue label fame) done in 1984
>A Factory Sample
The first single, ‘Smokescreen’, featured the title song and its B-side “Handlebars” appearing on both sides of the 7". This was to cut mastering costs in half: if you had both tracks adjacent to each other on the same side of the disc, you only needed a single master to press from. Why they even bothered to press anything on the second side, I do not know. (This idea has recently been revived on the grime scene with a spate of one-sided singles--sometimes with two tracks on one side, usually just the one tune--here the idea is clearly to increase the profit margins on these limited-run white label releases, which retail for more than the usual price of a 12 inch single anyway).
Excellent article on the Desps (and early Scritti) by Richard Mason
>”Don’t Back The Front”
The National Front obviously. Sample lyric: “you who trade on racist hate/better learn some dialectic/before it gets too late”
"It was The Desperate Bicycles that gave us the incentive. 'If you're thinking of making a tape why not go the whole way and make a record?' they said"-unidentified Scrit,
Sounds January 1979
Scritti up the ante on the Desps by including not just information re. the costs of their recording process but addresses and phone numbers for studios/mastering services/label printing etc. Plus details of their dealings with the BBC over their second session for John Peel, which would become this EP release
Data derived from Vivien Goldman’s profile of Miller in New Musical Express, 2nd May 1981: Formerly a DJ in Switzerland. Tried to learn guitar, but “was really frustrated… -"I couldn't express myself musically…. When I was 14 I used to play noise alone in my room, using metal objects to hit the guitar with.” Hates guitar: “The good guitarists now are the ones that have been listening to synthesizers…. Not to mention the sexual role of the guitar... I'm not clear on my ideas about this, but it's--the guitar as truncheon. Why women in bands play guitar, I think that's really strange. In many ways it's a very offensive male instrument..." Loves synths, but only when played in a non-proggy way: “The synthesiser's not a musician's instrument."
“I never… Klaus Schulze”--Miller. NME, 5/2/81.
>all kinds of odd records
Daniel Miller: “I couldn't believe it, it was very fucking strange. I got a really early Clock DVA tape, it was good. I got a tape from File Under Pop, they later did a single for Rough trade called 'Live at heathrow airport” [which actually had sounds of aircraft taking off and landing on it]. I met Frank Tovey [aka Fad Gadget] and hit it off and we decided to make a single 'Back to Nature'. Then met DAF, - put out their single, and then Boyd Rice [Non]. I met most of these people in the Rough Trade shop. Before I knew it I had all these singles out and no albums.”
> Thomas Leer
Not one of his total DIY releases but a later one for the pioneering Cherry Red label--4 Movements--one of the absolute must-hear classics of postpunk, a slinky jazz-inflected synth-funk sound of uncommon musicality and sensuality, betraying I think Leer's pre-punk roots in stuff like John Martyn, which becomes clearer still with the LP Contradictions.
>Robert Rental’s “Paralysis”
Rental made two further records of note, both collaborations. There was an album with Leer called The Bridge, released in 1979 on Industrial Records (Throbbing Gristle’s labels); the first side song-based, the second full of pioneering ambient noir soundscapes somewhere between Metal Machine Music and Music For Airport, using refrigerator drones and other eerie domestic sounds. Leer calls it “heavy metal ambience” with a “rough edge Eno didn’t have”. There was also the Robert Rental & The Normal EP, Live At West Runton Pavilion, 6-3-79, released by Rough Trade, 25 minutes of yammering synth punk.
More on Rental’s career in this Gutterbreakz profile http://gutterbreakz.blogspot.com/2004/09/post-punk-icons-1-robert-rental-in.html
Article by Richard Mason
“Swell map” is a term from oceanography/meteorology, something to do with forecasting wave height
swell maps, larking about
‘Then Poland’ is a Swell Maps instrumental inspired by the (apocryphal?) Hitler line ‘next we invade poland’. “Dresden Style” is not about the firebombing of picturesque german cities but a friend who used gloss paint on his wargaming soldiers, making them look like Dresden ceramic figurines
History, a lot of it, at http://www.televisionpersonalities.co.uk/history.htm, and check the rest of the site for just about everything and anything to do with the TVPs. Their great moment was “Part Time Punks”, on the Where’s Bill Grundy Now EP of 1978, which namechecks the Swell Maps (the New Wave bandwagon-jumpers come in to buy ‘Read About Seymour’ ‘cos they’ve read about it somewhere but settle for something fake instead like the Lurkers). The song expresses the idea that DIY of the Desperate Bicycles/Swell Maps/TVPs sort is the true punk and that everything else, from Oi!/real punk to anarcho to Adam and the Antz style proto-Goth to New Wave, has missed the point.
PART TIME PUNKS lyric
Walking down the Kings Road
I see so many faces
They come from many places
They come down for the day
They walk around together
And try and look trendy I think it's a shame
That they all look the same
Here they come
La la la la laaa la La la la la laaa la
The part time punks (repeat)
Then they go to Rough Trade
To buy Siouxsie & the Banshees
They heard John Peel play it
Just the other night
They like to buy the O Level single
Or "Read About Seymour"
But they're not pressed in red
So they but the Lurkers instead
They play their records very loud
They pogo in the bedroom
In front of the mirror
But only when their mum's gone out
They pay five pence on the buses
And they never use toothpaste
But they got two fifty
To go and see the Clash tonight
he Part-Time Punks The Part-Time Punks The Part-Time Punks Woooooo
The bulk of the TVPs material strikes me as either a bit too retro-Sixties-ironic or a bit too proto-indie/C86 to really count as postpunk as commonly understood, but thousands would disagree.
>amateurism with amateurishness
Massively detailed excavation of the UK do-it-yourself underground in this seminal piece by Johan Kugelberg. “It Was Easy It Was Cheap ? Go And Do It!”, originally published in the Ugly Things zine.
>"It took me two… six months”--Sudden. NME, 7/28/79.
>expansive and experimental
Swell Maps had a Faust-ian streak. “‘Big Mazz in the Country’, on Jane from Occupied Europe, involves a concrete mixer, organ, typewriter and an eiderdown.
>ideologically committed to … creative autonomy and self-realization
RT’s Richard Scott, source unknown, on the distribution network: “It worked as an access structure; people brought things in and they found their way around the system. We sent out information on how to do it; I sent booklets to everybody on how to press records, how to do something, to bring to us to sell, and there are certain resonances with the internet now, to that way of doing things."
Geoff Travis on the whys and wherefores, Melody Maker February 10th 1979:
“Traditionally [creative folk] just go into that very small funnel towards stardom. What’s important, obviously, is to get rid of the idea that it’s important to be a star, and to make the funnel wider, so as to include as many people and ideas as possible….” The shop (and then later the label) were about fostering “the kind of records we felt were worthwhile--not only aesthetically but also in the motivation that lay behind them. I don’t ever want to see or like to see music simply existing in some kind of artistic void. It’s always been to me part of a social relation.”
>a record store before it was a record label
Other examples: Beggars Banquet started from an Earl’s Court record store, doing new and used vinyl, opening branches in Ealing and elsewhere, and then developing into tour promotion; the label’s first releases were inauspicious (The Lurkers, Australian faux-punk Duffo) but then they got a superstar in the form of Gary Numan. Beggars also formed offshoot labels Situation 2 (The Associates) and 4AD (founder Ivo Watts started working out at the Ealing branch of Beggars Banquet). Red Rhino, Probe, Revolver: all these labels, lynchpins of the Cartel distribution network, began as record shops. Small Wonder, from Walthamstow, East London, was linked to a record shop run by label founder Peter Stennet; as well as Patrick Fitzgerald and Cockney Rejects, they had links with Crass and the Essex anarcho-punk cooperative XN-TRIX (Fatal Microbes, Poison Girls). In New York, 99 Records began as a record store/clothes store. The tradition continued into the Nineties with Warp, Suburban Base, De Underground, Locked On/Pure Groove, Eightball, Breakbeat Science, Basic Channel/Chain Reaction, Kompakt, etc etc, all spawned from or tied to specific record stores, and it will probably never die so long as geographically located record retail spots continue to be a gathering point/catalysis zone for new music.
Rough Trade the shop was initially run by Geoff Travis and Steve Montgomery (who later went to America to launch a Rough Trade store in San Francisco, the spiritual twin of Ladbroke Grove in many ways); other key people involved were Pete Donne and his sister Sue, Judith Creighton and Nigel House, who in 1982 (or was it 1983?) split)from Rough Trade the label and ran the shop as a separate enterprise. More involved on the label side of things was Richard Scott, formerly manager of Third World and an old friend of Island Records founder Chris Blackwell’s. Scott Piering joined in 1979 and was involved in promotion, a foreign concept to Rough Trade early on (they didn’t even sent records out for review initially!). Over time a divide developed between the label (headed by Travis) and the distribution business (headed by Richard Scott).
For vastly more information on the founding of Rough Trade and its activities during postpunk and afterwards, check out Rob Young’s Rough Trade: Labels Unlimited http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rough-Trade-Unlimited-Rob-Young/dp/1904772471
and/or Paul Cox’s DIY (Do It Yourself): The Rough Trade Story,
Richard Scott, source unknown: “People coming to Rough Trade in those early days wanted reggae, and they were young punks, partly as an anti-social connection. Kingston at that time, which is the size of Camden, was pumping out hundreds of records a week and several companies like Inferno in Birmingham were bringing it in. We'd just buy the whole lot off their van, £10,000 worth in cash, and we knew it was all 'sold'.”
>bridge between hippie and punk/Rough Trade
Travis’s hair, right through the early punk/postpunk days, remained that counterculture look, the Jewish variant of the Afro known as Isro.
Reputedly £8,000 per annum, which sounds quite decent dosh by 1979 standards, although perhaps more so if you’re the office cleaner than, say, the label CEO/head-of-A&R.
>constant meetings took place
Gina Birch has a different memory of these than Geoff Travis: “I remember going to one or two meetings where they decided that the meetings should have all the people who work [at Rough Trade] and all the bands. I remember crowding into this tiny room. Just nothing got discussed, nothing got done!”
>“It doesn’t matter how… nothing to say”--Travis. Marcus, Greil. Ranters & Crowd Pleasers (see bibliography), P. 121
>pragmatic, slightly dowdy vision… brown rice
According to Ed Ball of Television Personalities, (quoted in Cavanagh’s Magpie Eyes) they literally did have brown rice to eat at Rough Trade
>“Changing things… is nonsense”--Travis. Ibid, P. 120.
>The records used to sell
Travis says Delta 5's debut "Mind Your Own Business" sold 20,000 copies.
>fanzines... Joly McFie
Here's a 2009 piece I did for The Guardian on the fanzine resurgence that historical stuff on fanzines and quotes from Joly McFie
here's the full transcript of the interview with Joly
and here are two mid-Eighties pieces I did on fanzines, one critiquing the zine culture in the first issue of our own zine Monitor, and the other, more understanding and sympathetic (and better thought-through) (and less horribly over-written) for Melody Maker
see end of footnotes for a profile of Joly and Better Badges in the Face
>racist or sexist
this applied to recordings as well as fanzines -- Rough Trade refused to stock records by the band Raped such as their Pretty Paedophiles (see below) and eventually the group changed their name to Cuddly Toys. The Stranglers releases also had a tough time in the Rough Trade store I believe, and Nurse With Wound's debut with its S/M and bondage/fetish imagery on the front cover was also banned, the story goes.
>"I don't believe… struggle”. Last, NME 1/13/79.
>regional and city-based compilations
Street To Street: A Liverpool Album (Open Eye Records1979)
Norwich, A Fine City (1980), featuring the Higsons et al
Avon Calling" The Bristol Compilation 1979 (Heartbeat/Cherry Red
Hicks from the Sticks (Rockburgh 1980) – north/midlands
Bouquet of Steel (Aardvark), a document of the Sheffield scene;
Second City Statik: A Glasgow Compilation (Statik, 1980);
the Manchester Music Collective's Unzipping The Abstract…
Extensive website on New Hormones with interviews with all the main players
Piece on Cherry Red’s history, http://www.tunetribe.com/Article?article_id=248
FURTHER FURTHER READING
article from The Face, December 1980 on Joly McFie, Better Badges and the zine revolution
all non-pictorial contents copyright Simon Reynolds unless otherwise indicated