How Soon is Now?: The Madmen and Mavericks who made Independent Music 1975-2005

BOOK: How Soon is Now?: The Madmen and Mavericks who made Independent Music 1975-2005
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How Soon is Now?: The Madmen and Mavericks who made Independent Music 1975-2005
King, Richard
Faber and Faber (2012)
HOW SOON IS NOW?
 

The Madmen and Mavericks
Who Made Independent Music 1975–2005

 

Richard King

 
 
 

For my parents
and
my wife and son, Sarah and Elijah

 
Acknowledgements
 
 

M
y heartfelt thanks to the following for agreeing to talk to me for this book, some of whom had to put up with my interview technique more than once: Tim Abbot, Mike Alway, Tom Atencio, Dave Barker, Jeff Barrett, Steve Beckett, Dave Bedford, Laurence Bell, Richard Boon, Rebecca Boulton, Mark Bowen, Cally Calloman, Cerne Canning, Chris Carter, Jimmy Cauty, Andy Childs, Edwyn Collins, Nick Currie, Dai Davies, Pete Donne, Bill Drummond, John Dyer, James Endeacott, Joe Foster, Marc Geiger, Lesley Gilbert, Dave Harper, Simon Harper, James Horrocks, Mick Hougton, Robin Hurley, Gareth Jones, Nicki Kefalis, Martin Kelly, James Kyllo, Bob Last, Andrew Lauder, Jeannette Lee, Jason Macphail, Johnny Marr, Grace Maxwell, Alan McGee, Nathan McGough, Stephen McRobbie, Daniel Miller, Martin Mills, Mark Mitchell, Paul Morley, Stephen Morris, Joe Moss, Liz Naylor, Vaughan Oliver, Mike Pickering, Judith Riley, Malcolm Ross, Ivo Watts-Russell, Richard Russell, Jon Savage, Peter Saville, Richard Scott, Tina Simmonds, Paul Smith, Mike Smith, Seymour Stein, Alexis Taylor, Richard Thomas, Peter Thompson, Geoff Travis, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Gary Walker, Colin Wallace, Russell Warby, Ben Wardle

All interviews were conducted with the author apart from those with Tony Wilson and Martin Hannett, which are from the archive of Jon Savage.

For other quoted material the sources were: page 79 ‘Major developments are afoot at Glasgow’s Postcard Records …’ Ian Cranna,
The Face
issue 19, November, 1981; page 112 ‘beatbox business sense’ Cynthia Rose,
Design After Dark: The Story of Dancefloor Style
Thames & Hudson, 1991; page 123 ‘First we had no intention of sneaking out’ Claude Bessy,
Slash
, editorial, vol. 3 #5 (final issue) summer 1980; page 165 ‘Nothing spurs you on like anger …’ Morrissey interviewed by Bill Black,
Sounds
, 19 November 1983; page 152. ‘We introduced them as an antidote …’ Morrissey interviewed by Dave McCullough,
Sounds
, 4 June 1983

My thanks to the following websites: http://cerysmaticfactory.info/ for its peerless index of Factory catalogue numbers; http://www.passionsjustlikemine.com/ for its Smiths gigography; http://caughtbytheriver.net/ for providing me with an anecdotal infrastructure and so much else.

I am grateful to staff at the British Library, particularly in the collection of music newspapers which proved indispensable in my research.

Thanks to my agent Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown for his advice, patience and encouragement.

Thanks to my editor Lee Brackstone, whose understanding and enjoyment of the subject, along with his energy and enthusiasm, has been a constant support.

Thanks to everyone at Faber and Faber, especially David Watkins, Paula Turner, Ruth Atkins, Sarah Christie, Lisa Baker, Hannah Griffiths and Stephen Page.

Special thanks to Jon Savage for his morale-boosting phone technique and for kindly allowing me access to his archive, which allowed the voices of some of those who are no longer with us to be heard.

A series of (often rather one-way) dialogues and conversations with the following proved invaluable in helping me organise my thoughts: Sarah Chilvers, Sam Davies, Owen Hatherley, Robin Turner, Ben Thompson, Alexis Petridis and Steve Yates.

Thanks to Domino Records for teaching me about the highs and lows of independence, especially Laurence Bell, Jacqui Rice, John Dyer, Harry Martin, Bart Mcdonagh, Jonathan Bradshaw, Fiona Ghobrial, Colleen Maloney, Mark Mitchell, Paul Esposito and Dan Papps.

Thanks to everyone who dreamed the dreams of Planet Records and the Revolver Records shop, Bristol.

My warmest thanks to Anne Hardy, Angus Mill, Anna Jebb, John Wilcox and Barbara Budd, for providing me with a series of base camps.

And most of all thank you to my family, to my parents Edgar and Joan, who heard much of the music in this book being played in my teenage bedroom, and to my wife Sarah and my son Elijah (who was born somewhere around page 176) for their unending support, confidence, humour and love.

What was the shell doing, on the shore?

An ear endlessly drinking?

What? Sound? Silence?

Which came first?

Listen.

                  
R. S. THOMAS,
‘Questions’

 
Introduction
 
 

Set list from The Smiths concert at the ICA London, 5 October 1983, the night that Seymour Stein first saw the band and was hit on the head by a gladiolus flower (
Matthew Cooper archive
)

 
 

 

Each generation, to put it another way, rescues a new area from what its predecessors arrogantly and snobbishly dismissed as ‘the lunatic fringe.’

 

CHRISTOPHER HILL
The World Turned Upside Down

 

T
oday the word ‘indie’ has a myriad of meanings, as likely to refer to the cut of a band’s trousers as to their music. ‘Indie’, originally used as an abbreviation of the word independent, has become a catch-all term. ‘Indie’ music is a genre, a type of music played by four or five white young men. An ‘indie’ band’s songs document their passage into adulthood with the odd jarring chord sequence, a sense that no one has been through this kind of thing before, vague or confused lyrics and an underfed look in their video. Away from music there are such things as ‘indie’ real estate, ‘indie’ rom-coms and even ‘indie’ pizza.

Though ‘indie’, both literally and metaphorically, likes to hide behind its fringe, for the major record companies it is big business. In 2007 a leaked memo from one major label VP to another outlined how important their priority breakthrough act’s image of scruffy hair and leather jackets was in securing the right demographic. As the executive noted in his email: ‘That aspirational indie vibe is pretty important when reeling the 25–35s in.’ The etymology of ‘indie’, from a definition of means of production and distribution to a meaningless adjective, colours our story. But the word ‘indie’ itself, ubiquitous as it is today, was long ago dispensed with by the independent music business.

Independent record labels have been around since music started being recorded. Self-financing, artist-friendly and the product of a music fan’s desire to engage directly with his or her obsession, the independent label usually started with zero financial planning in the bedroom, garage or shed. Many, if not all, of the world’s greatest record companies began in such inauspicious circumstances: Sun, Chess, Atlantic, Elektra, Virgin and Island were all the product of one person’s visionary moments and spare time. The independent label prides itself on its autonomy. Nurturing talent, financing, marketing, releasing and distributing music solely on its own terms, the independent label operates in splendid isolation. Or, as Geoff Travis, founder and director of Rough Trade and, more or less, the
éminence grise
and architect of the independent industry succinctly puts it, ‘Independence means not having to answer to anyone, really – that’s what it means in my mind.’

According to Alan McGee, forever ‘the man who discovered Oasis’, and whose colourful exploits and releases on his label Creation illuminated and invigorated the independent industry in the Eighties and Nineties, the inspiration for running a record company is clear: ‘Atlantic is the blueprint for every great indie label there has ever been – even if they don’t know it. Ahmet [Ertegun] invented the first one in 1947.’ Ertegun, who died in 2006, was a music business legend. Urbane, multilingual and a natural bon viveur, Ertegun was happiest cutting deals at the ball game or in a bar, anywhere that an artist would feel they were being treated to a level playing field in an atmosphere of informal largesse. Ertegun counted Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones among his signings, and he was as erudite and fluent discussing the harmonies in a gospel arrangement as he was the contents of Truman Capote’s bathroom cabinet.

Charming, generous with anecdotes both salacious and musical, and immaculately turned out, best of all he was a music fan. McGee was always in thrall: ‘I loved Ahmet – he was a legend. He knew every genre of music back to front. When I met him he told me so many great stories. I said, “Ahmet, you should write a book,” and he replied, “Alan, it would get me killed.”’ In 2006 Ertegun, now in his eighties, entertained Laurence Bell, founder of Domino Records, to dinner at Elaine’s in New York. During the proceedings he expressed an interest in buying the American rights to one of Bell’s newest signings, the Arctic Monkeys. In his pitch Ertegun referred to each of the band members by their full name, ran through the album’s tracklisting and paused to reflect on just how good their drummer was. Having heard that the band were not keen on releasing singles from their albums, Ertegun was able to point out that he’d been through all that with Led Zeppelin and added, with a twinkle in his eye, that he’d made it work out all right for
them
. ‘I hung on his every word,’ remembers Bell. ‘He drank me under the table.’

To aspiring moguls like McGee or Bell, Atlantic, with their care and attention to detail in the recording process and the depth of colour and feel of their artwork, shone as a romantic archetype of how to succeed in the music business. But by 1969 the harsher realities of running an independent label had impacted on Atlantic. In the Warner Brothers entertainment conglomerate WEA, Atlantic now represented the ‘A’, with ‘W’ for the Warner group itself and the ‘E’ for Elektra. Founded in his Boston college dorm by Jac Holzman in 1950 to record the nascent folk music coffee-house scene, Elektra went on to sign the cream of the late Sixties counter-culture: Love, the Stooges, MC5, The Doors and Tim Buckley all added lustre to the label’s stellar roster. However, by that time Holzman, as many before and many more after, found himself in the impossible position of trying to square critical and cult success with the market realities of the entertainment industry. Holzman sold out to the major, consoling himself with financial stability and the fact that he found himself in good company next to Ertegun, the likes of whom, in the Warner Brothers corporate structure and its parent company, the Kinney Corporation, were thin on the ground – a situation that according to McGee persists to this day: ‘The people who run the music business now are yes men and accountants. Very few people in the higher regions of the business are there for the music, but Ahmet Ertegun and Jac Holzman were two of them.’

In the UK at the end of the Sixties, while Ertegun and Holzman were shoring up their balance sheets with Warners in the USA, two of the world’s greatest independent labels emerged out of the counter-culture miasma: Virgin and Island. Both companies provided the soundtrack to the ongoing long-format late-night sessions as the Sixties turned into the Seventies. Their founders, Richard Branson and, to a less public extent, Chris Blackwell, would go on to become paragons of liberal entrepreneurship. Before diversifying into aviation, finance and mobile communication Branson was releasing records by Faust, Captain Beefheart, Gong and Henry Cow on Virgin – pure
pass-the-
bong-head music. While masterminding the superstardom of Bob Marley, Chris Blackwell and Island were promoting bucolic Albion Arcadia in the form of Joe Boyd’s Witchseason Productions imprint. Witchseason albums were intensely recorded affairs, full of reflective, personal, folk-edged music by the likes of Fairport Convention, John Martyn and the then
little-regarded
Nick Drake.

Island and Virgin were both maverick independents developing a catalogue of artfully created albums by Roxy Music, Van Der Graaf Generator, Robert Wyatt, Brian Eno, Kevin Ayers and John Cale – a frontline of artists that would have far more of an influence on punk than the impending confrontational politics of 1976 would allow.

Despite the waywardness and envelope-pushing of their acts, according to punk’s scorched-earth cultural dictates, the loose denims and salon beards marked Branson and his generation out as hip capitalists; pioneers of the double-album statement, the lowest of the low.

Punk’s impact as a transfigurative force was instant and extremely powerful. Overnight, hair was cut, clothes were torn and a newly empowered noise started exploring individual, anarchic freedoms. One of the most tangible aftershocks of punk, both in its immediate aftermath and in its wider impact on pop culture, was its urgency to prompt individuals into action. Document your reality: do it yourself.

The Sex Pistols and Malcolm McLaren had run riot through the British music industry. The scale of their project, which, in McLaren’s eyes at least, was the subversion of commodity capitalism, meant they had to start their witch-hunts in the corporate boardroom. Self-releasing the band’s records held no interest to McLaren, as its impact would be limited. The band needed the recording facilities, marketing departments, and distribution and promotion divisions of a major label to maximise their impact. Ironically, once the band had been handsomely financed and quickly dropped by both EMI and A&M, the Sex Pistols ended up on Virgin. Unlike the majors, Richard Branson had no board members in Home Counties suburbia for McLaren to vilify and wind up.

What Branson and Virgin did have, however, were strong distribution channels via the majors and, despite being outsiders, the wiliness to play the market on its own terms. Branson also recognised a chancer when he met one and was able to react quickly and instinctively to whatever McLaren, realising he had met his match, threw at him. Irrespective of which company released the Sex Pistols records, in the first rush of punk’s acceleration, the message was clear. The major labels, if not the record industry at large, had been either hoodwinked or caught napping by a far more seductive riot of noise, energy, confusion and ideas. ‘Cash from Chaos’ was the retrospective soubriquet McLaren gave his hoodlum carnival-ride through the record industry, and it caught on. The message he had screen-printed on to one of his Sex boutique T-shirts, ‘Demand the Impossible’, proved equally seductive.

McLaren had shown that the heady combination of theory, design, philosophy, bullshit and hucksterism could generate front-page headlines, notoriety and financial reward. Most importantly, however, the Sex Pistols had made music accessible, dangerous and exciting again. The result was emancipation: anything was possible and off you go. McLaren’s tactics were to exert a great influence on the fanzine writers, bedroom dreamers and cultural theorists who were about to unwittingly configure the independent record industry. Whether through Tony Wilson and Factory Records’ continual referencing of the Situationists or through Alan McGee’s tabloidesque attempts to capitalise on the riots the Jesus and Mary Chain started at their early concerts, McLaren’s ability to provide a running commentary on culture just as it was mutating and contracting would remain a touchstone of independence.

Empowered and awake to the index of possibilities punk had thrown up, a generation of young men (and it was sadly, nearly always men, although today, in Jeannette Lee, Rough Trade now has one of the most respected and influential label owners in the music business) would start mapping their own physical and mental space where they could carry forward their own set of outlandish and impossible criteria, waywardly walking across the hot coals of punk’s embers, to create their own reality. Their names were Geoff Travis, Tony Wilson, Daniel Miller, Martin Mills, Ivo Watts-Russell, Alan Horne and Alan McGee. They would later be joined by a younger generation of backroom entrepreneurs: Steve Beckett, Richard Russell, and Laurence Bell. This book, with an additional cast of bands, artists,
co-conspirators
, miscreants, drug dealers, DJs and other visionary chancers and con men, is their story.

Remembering his contemporaries, Daniel Miller reflects on their similarities: ‘If you look at all those people – we were all roughly the same age, in our mid-twenties, when we started, which meant we were old enough to remember the whole ’68 thing. We were all involved with the protest movement in some way or other. We were all young, but we were also old militant hippie types turned on by punk.’ A lack of music industry experience was a benefit not a hindrance. ‘Everybody was in the same boat – OK, Geoff had owned a shop for a little bit, Martin Mills had owned a shop for a little bit and Tony had had a TV show. But nobody had a clue about running a record company and that was the best thing about it … and I try to know as little about running a record company today.’

The labels this generation started: Factory, Rough Trade, Mute, 4AD, Beggars Banquet and Creation, would trade on an ethos and identity no brand consultant would now dare dream of. Their releases enabled a fierce loyalty from their fans, resulting in a confidence on the part of the consumer to buy whatever the label released. As well as the music recorded, the distinctive logos and typefaces found on releases by Factory, Mute and 4AD were signposts to a secret knowledge. The sleeves celebrated the sense of artefact inherent in a 12-inch record cover and stretched its design possibilities to an almost ecstatic breaking point.

Factory, in particular, under the guidance of graphic designer Peter Saville, who favoured mixed media card and die-cut or fold-out designs, revolutionised the concept of what a record sleeve could be.

Between them Miller, McGee and Wilson, along with Travis, Watts-Russell, Mills and the labels that followed their lead, discovered and released music by artists who represent the DNA of popular culture: Orange Juice, The Smiths, Depeche Mode, Joy Division, The Fall, New Order, Cabaret Voltaire, Cocteau Twins, Happy Mondays, Sonic Youth, Primal Scream, Aphex Twin, Teenage Fanclub, Pixies, the Strokes, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, My Bloody Valentine, Autechre, White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand, Antony and the Johnsons, and Arctic Monkeys to name but a handful. The above bands barely scratch the surface of the independent catalogue but they represent the spine, if not the centrifugal force, of any record collection, etched as they are into the musical consciousness of generations. The independent catalogue has provided the soundtrack to self-discovery, teenage kicks and every other type of hedonism; it can be viewed almost as a contemporary art collection, but functions just as easily as a backdrop to everyday life. Above all, it’s the sound of musicians and artists being not only allowed, but actively encouraged, to do whatever the hell they want and damn the consequences.

In today’s climate of demograph-dictated consumerism and the corporate desire to access the ‘reputation economy’, it is ironic that the independent music industry was birthed, and chaotically nurtured, in a scruffy anonymous shop in down at heel, if not downright knackered, Ladbroke Grove. In February 1976 Geoff Travis opened a record shop at 202 Kensington Park Road, Ladbroke Grove, London. The cheap rent and the premises’ former role as a head shop reinforced the area’s reputation as an ashtray for the burnt-out remnants of laissez-faire hippie lifestyle experimentation. In the back room Travis would set up a desk and, phone in hand, start fielding calls and making decisions that fell well beyond the remit of buying and selling records. Within a year of its opening, any surface not occupied by the shopfront activities of 202 Kensington Park Road was used to start organising and negotiating a new kind of ad hoc business.

BOOK: How Soon is Now?: The Madmen and Mavericks who made Independent Music 1975-2005
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