I first met Mike Alway when he came into the cramped Domino office in the summer of 1998. He was looking for a deal for whatever project had recently fired his vivid imagination. His charisma filled the room and his plus fours were a breath of fresh air in a musical landscape in which things like Urban Hymns were felt worthy of gravitas.
This is the transcript from the interview I did with Mike for How Soon Is Now? and contains the material that I sadly couldn’t find room for in the final text.
(I lifted this pic of Mike from a blog who lifted it from The Guardian, thanks to all concerned)
rk. On the sleeve of The Soft Boys Underwater Moonlight is the credit ‘Side Effects: Mike Alway’
ma. Oh well researched! I was talking to Robyn only last week, for the first time in 25 years.I was involved in the local scene here in the late 70s, we ran clubs on Richmond Bridge which initially were local groups that were literally coming out of the woodwork in ’77, ‘78 ’79. That’s how I first met Ben Watt and it was so successful that we then started getting independent smaller names. Some of Ivo’s groups came down and played, we combined that with compatible local talent…suddenly it’s gone from Thursday night one group to five nights a week, five bands a night sort of thing, it’s like San Francisco in 1966 or something it’s extraordinary. As a result of that and as a result of being somebody whose imagination was completely captured by post punk, I was completely inspired. I played cricket seriously in ’76. I was quite successful in club cricket, and I gave it up totally, when music grabbed me in ‘77, and I didn’t play a game of cricket again…never wanted to.
When I wasn’t putting on stuff in Richmond we’d venture up to the Nashville and one of the groups that was playing regularly there was the Soft Boys. One night they were supported by the Gang of Four and the Gang of Four brought four thousand people from Leeds and absolutely were impossible to follow, or so it seemed. I think out of sympathy I ended up in the dressing room, trying to offer some sort of balm or something to the Soft Boys and somehow I just started doing things for them. When the Can of Bees LP came out, to simply shocking reviews, I think Robyn wrote a song, ‘The Lonesome Death of Ian Penman’…
rk. Because they were seen as being revivalist?
ma. I think so, I think they were just seen as being just square really. When I came into it they’d already been dropped by Radar having attempted to record a debut album at Mill St studios in Gloucester, at Spacewood in Cambridge and probably in London as well. They made various attempts to record and they weren’t that successful, if you go back to those tapes now you’ll think they’re absolutely incredibly good, and Robyn’s still sitting on them…but there was that long grey mac sort of attitude really and Robyn was more…it was more outgoing, which is strange to say about Robyn but the between song surrealistic banter and that sort of thing really did agitate people. They didn’t understand it, they were intimidated by it.
rk. Was Pillows & Prayers borne out of frustration?
ma. Very much so….the thing is the growth of the label (Cherry Red), the establishment of the label was quite fractured and discombobulated to me, it was taking a long time. When records like ‘Night and Day’ were released they were released to absolutely no interest whatsoever, individually, but there was also a feeling that they were in the right time. So what I tried to do with Pillows and Prayers was just to kind of…form a focal point where people could see what this was, very cheaply and very easily, and access that, and judge the label’s progress from that piece of material, basically.
rk. Did you have things like You Can All Join In at the back of your mind do you think?
ma. To some extent yeah, The Rock Machine Turns You On and those type of things, it’s strange though because compilations mean nothing artistically now, they’re just online and everything’s a copy…and it’s so odd that it was so much of its time in the sense that you could do that then, what it probably amounts to is a successful marketing idea.
I always thought that it sold about three quarters of a million copies, I don’t think it was quite as many as that. I meet people three decades later who bought three copies…it’s remarkable. There should have been some sort of campaign to sell individual albums from the catalogue off the back of it I daresay that that happened to some degree, and I was a young man at the time and all this was happening and I just let my enthusiasm and my ambition get the better of me.
rk. You tried to sign Vic Godard to Blanco, did that come from a love of Subway Sect?
ma. Oh yes certainly because Subway Sect, for me it was always the groups at the art school end of punk which Subway Sect were, to me they were profoundly punk. If you talk about being in a bubble…. Vic didn’t…you would talk to Vic and it was as if he didn’t know anything about what any of this stuff was…and I thought, ‘he’s putting me on’ but I think that he only really would have rated the Buzzcocks, outside of Subway Sect, the only kind of sister group who had similar aims would’ve been the Buzzcocks I think…I think he would only have heard bad music in a lot of the other ones…Vic’s ear was basically based on Frank Sinatra even at that time.
rk. Is that the kind of record you envisaged making down at Olympic studios in Barnes?
ma. Well yes, I mean the record in Olympic …that wasn’t that well conceived really that was my Waterloo in a sort of a way really because it was quite expensive to make. I think that basically Warners should’ve backed the record positively and we would’ve done pretty well with it. With Vic I thought that ‘Ambition’ and I have to say, ‘Stop That Girl’, I thought they were just phenomenal records and those were the records I wanted to get and I didn’t get them in Olympic. I’d be the first one to admit it, but Vic…I’ve got to choose my words, but Vic had his sort of demons at the time, I’m sure you’re aware, and that’s one reason why it ended up being recorded at Olympic because it was 200 yards down the road from his house and that’s where I knew I could get him, at 10 o clock in the morning. It was like that…but what an individual! I remember saying to him, I bought the MCA album, did you ever hear that? the album that Subway Sect made on MCA and there’s him on with a sweater on the front cover against a maroon background?
rk. What’s The Matter Boy?
ma. Yes! and I said, ‘Vic, I like this song ‘Enclave’ there’s a song on the record ‘Enclave’… ‘Enclave?’ he goes…I said ‘yeah it’s called ‘Enclave’… ‘no, never recorded a song called ‘Enclave’, never heard of it’ he said….and it was like…and he was dead serious, he had never heard of it…I thought, what was his manager called at the time, Bernie Rhodes, I thought maybe Bernie retitled all the songs. It was all very strange, very, very odd sort of thing…I remember years later he went to japan with Edwyn and I ran into Vic and he was out doing his postman thing, around here, one day. I dropped my daughter at school and I ran into him and he said ‘oh I just got back from Japan…incredible’ cause he’d discovered techno…and he goes ‘makes all my music seem like punk pub rock’ he goes… ‘everything I’ve done is crap’….i said ‘no no believe me it isn’t crap’ but he’d taken off on all that Japanese cartoonish clubby sort of stuff sort of thing.
rk. Did Blanco y Negro anticipate the changes coming in the 1980s music business?
ma. The real truth about this, now, is the fact that everybody wanted The Smiths…when they saw Geoff and I coming with Blanco y Negro we may have had Everything But The Girl, it may have been Felt or Sudden Sway or The Monochrome Set or whatever and they would have tolerated all of those things and maybe even have done very, very, well with them. But what they were after was The Smiths…if anybody offered us or gave us a label for Blanco it was in order to give Geoff the facility to insert The Smiths into that when the inevitable happened at Rough Trade.
Geoff and I would walk into a meeting and there’d be a few pleasantries and then people would say ‘So, what’s the situation with The Smiths?’ …all the time…all the time. Things became more money oriented and I found myself becoming less of a collaborator and more of a servant…and I didn’t want to do that really…no specific names in mind but just generally…I wasn’t enjoying.…and so I just did what I thought was the only logical thing which was to apologise and back away…I gave back shares, everything, and I didn’t have a second’s hesitation about that, not at all. I wanted to reverse time really I had no patience at all, I thought I could walk on water. I can remember after I left Blanco y Negro I expected ten record companies to offer me deals…I thought everybody would do this. I was amazed that they didn’t, cause I had Shockheaded Peters, Vic Godard, Momus …I’d got all the best songwriters, I could get Robyn as well…I’m going to conquer the world…nobody was interested.
rk. So …el….
ma. I tended to look at things, Ben and Tracey will confirm this, I tended to look at things from the record perspective. I was really interested in records, and I was interested in the sort of things that people like Phil Spector and people like Ivor Raymonde even had done in creating really marvellous records out of nowhere as productions and then anything was possible.
And that was the great thing about Britain and the industry at the time, because you couldn’t do it anywhere else in the world, not even in america…too big…in England you could be…you and I could meet today, we could be in the studio next week, the thing could be out in a month and you could be an international star in two months, literally. And there’s no other place in the world that you can sow a seed like that is there? So exciting that was the thing and ….i wanted to …and that really gained full expression with el and that’s why when I did el I did it in that way.
rk. With el there was so much wonderful style and conceit, did you feel that you were almost setting yourself up to be not taken seriously?
ma. Oh definitely. I thought it was like a kind of art kamikaze mission really. I realised that any day could be my last, and the thing is, let’s be fair here about Iain McNay (Cherry Red MD) he didn’t have a clue what I was doing, to be fair to him he let me do it. I began to look at records in terms of what the finished thing would be and then work backwards…and then start to put that together. I’d have musicians come in who could play all the right notes in a second with the right amount of style, really good people, really really good people and that was it, you didn’t need to have bands who were upset and confused and they didn’t understand this and all the rest. You know the spirit of el was, I would say to the protaganist ‘let’s do this, it’s a bit of fun. If you want to do twenty five albums over there, Simon (Simon Fisher-Turner) if you want to make albums with Daniel at Mute, do it. I don’t want any part of that business’ sort of thing. ‘This is a bit of fun that we’re having together here, it’s an experiment and what have we got to lose,’ and that was the spirit in which everybody did it so you were saying up front ‘this is not a democracy, this is an experiment, do what you want to it, but I have the right to do this and blah blah blah so that’s how we do it.’
I was in a bit of a bubble with el really, it was no less independent or no less idiosyncratic to contemporary labels, but it was different because the combination of aesthetics that were inspiring me were a much wider palate. I probably thought that Creation was narrow whereas with el I thought, to me it was like I’d got Eames furniture and Ravi Shankar and beat poetry and you can do anything and I thought I’d found a completely new way of making records and I was going to spend the rest of my life doing it that way.
rk. You did sell quite a lot of el in Japan..
ma. There’s no question about it without the Japanese el would not have lasted, it could not have lasted, it was subsidised by Japanese support
rk. And when you saw things like Pizzicatto 5 and Cornelius a decade later did you see el running through it?
ma. A little bit, but they reciprocated because they financed quite a lot of the projects I did later and there was a bit of a relationship there…there was never enough continuity to build anything though, and of course by the mid 90s all of the language that I’d been using that was original with el, was commonplace. In the mid 80s people didn’t write songs about fruit salads and boyfriends in the city and things like that, but by the mid 90s it was out there. El records would get these reviews and they were quite often derided, but in a nice way…even people that didn’t like them would say ‘but there’s something warm about this at the centre of it that’s good’ …and you’d see all this kind of Kim Wilde stuff being put out at the time and it all looked so soulless so utterly…and you thought ‘well I’m quite proud of this and how long can we hold on for ?’ So we carried on but at the end of the day I can remember when el stopped…Iain was away a lot at the time, this may be something you would have to ask him about but he was with his guru..
rk. He was with the Bogwan out at Rajneeshpuram in Oregon wasn’t he? John Leckie was there at the same time, just before he produced the first Stone Roses album, which I always like to think was somehow a factor in that record….
ma. That’s right! That really was the signal of the end for el because he wasn’t there really to protect me…and so …but I can remember seeing sales print out sheets of el and it was…you’ve never seen so many zeros on a piece of paper…I think it was a Spanish sales figure of minus three or something….the thing is the reputation for not selling records does get around and it does scare people off a little bit.
In the Geoff Travis’ small West London office hangs a framed artwork rough for a single, RT 215. The catalogue number has an entry in the Rough Trade discography but the artist and title information are blank. (RT215 CD was later used as a CD single for a Smiths live single). Although a rough, the artwork has the distinctive swirls and markings of its creator John Squire. RT 215 was the number Travis had assigned for Elephant Stone by The Stone Roses, a band he thought he had signed in 1988 and was sure would be one of the great Rough Trade guitar groups. Sadly it was not to be.
Here’s an excerpt from one of the interviews I conducted with Geoff Travis for HSIN? in which he explains how The Stone Roses fell though his fingertips. I didn’t include much on the band in HSIN? as their story doesn’t really involve a relationship with any of the labels in the book, although the band crossed paths with many of the characters in the narrative. Tony Wilson always took great delight in saying he was never interested in the band. He did though book them onto The Other Side of Midnight where Jeff Barrett watched them while standing behind a cameraman.
“The Stone Roses are one of the great tragedies of the Rough Trade story. We really, really, were on the verge of signing the Stone Roses. It was down to Lindsay Reid (the ex-wife of Tony Wilson). Lindsay called us up – ‘I’m co-managing this band, and you’ve got to come and see them’. We knew Lindsay and that was an unusual call for her to make so we went to see them in Manchester at the international Two and they were just unbelievable. And we talked to them and they came down on the train from Manchester and we had a meeting with them. We spent two hours with them in the pub talking about music. As far as we were concerned and they were concerned in our minds we’d signed them. When they got on the train back to Manchester they had a deal with Rough Trade
Then three things happened. One was their other manager Gareth Evans and he had his own agenda and secondly, because Rough Trade Distribution was falling apart it was a period of tension between the record label and distribution. And the lawyer for the Rough Trade label and Distribution was the same person and he just did not get it organised to send the contract.
And then the third thing that happened was that they wanted Peter Hook to produce them and we said ‘fine’. We paid for Elephant Stone and Peter, God bless him, did a pretty poor job and it needed a total remix. It was remixed down at Zomba Studios in Willesden, and if that hadn’t happened they wouldn’t have needed a remix in Zomba and the engineer in Zomba wouldn’t have alerted his bosses that an amazing group had just walked in, and they would have signed to Rough Trade.
Without being too arrogant it would have been better for them to be on Rough Trade and they wouldn’t have had to go through all they went to on Zomba, but on the other hand Rough Trade was going through a terrible period and had to sell the label’s assets. It is absolutely one of my biggest regrets.
They are the great band that got away and these things haunt you but you can’t be too greedy.”
Having signed to Zomba Gareth Evans took over the management of the band completely. Zomba had asked Andrew Lauder and his partner Judith Riley to run an imprint for them that Lauder called Silvertone. Silvertone's office was a Portakabin adjacent to the Zomba building and it was from here that Lauder and Riley ran The Stone Roses career while on Silvertone
Lauder & Riley told me some very funny stories about The Stone Roses and especially Gareth Evans that I’ll post soon, subject to the beak.
This Friday, April 13th I'll be at the excellent Laugharne Weekend in West Wales, at the Millenium Hall at 5pm.
I'll be doing a short reading then hosting a HSIN? themed panel with Gillian Gilbert & Stephen Morris from New Order and Richard Boon, erstwhile Buzzcocks manager, Rough Trade er...executive and the person behind Spiral Scratch, the record which more or less got things going.
Here's a clip of Stephen and Richard in conversation from 1983 (around 4.45) It's from the wonderful New Order Play At Home documentary. They are discussing the newly built Hacienda which Stephen calls the 'Ponderosa.'
The reason the camera is a little shaky is because the rest of New Order and their manager, Rob Gretton, are bouncing the car Richard and Stephen are sitting in out of view.
The whole documenatry is well worth watching, it's a fascinating insight into how much fun Factory had between Blue Monday and the Acid House-era Hacienda (which was fun too of course, but of a different kind)
One of the most poignant stories I heard while researching HSIN? was not about a person but a record. Such was the lack of interest in Arthur Russell’s World Of Echo on release in 1987 that within a week or two, as the boxes of vinyl resolutely refused to move from the warehouse, the Rough Trade Distribution staff started to use copies as a frisbee. In a crowded field of unwanted vinyl, and RTD had untold amounts of unloved records taking up floor space, World of Echo’s fate seems exceptionally cruel. Last week was the twentieth anniversary of Russell’s death and I found myself wondering why his work has such resonance today. It’s quite a journey for a record to take: from an improvised toy used to kill some dead time to a hallowed masterpiece.
Artists who find their audience posthumously tend to produce deep emotional connections with their listeners. In the same manner that Tim Buckley, Albert Ayler or Nick Drake are the subject of great reverence, Russell’s music elicits an intense relationship from his audience, one that evaded him during his lifetime but one that is a fitting tribute to his memory and his talent. Russell’s more meditative songs, particularly the acoustic based ones, are occasionally compared to Nick Drake. Both artists have a lower register voice that can weave around a single note, a vocal style that creates a powerful and intimate cadence. I suppose Drake’s ‘Cello Song’ is also one of the handful of songs that bears comparison to the material Russell put together for Another Thought (another companion piece to Another Thought is Henri Texier’s incredible Varech – although Texier’s instrument is the double bass not the ‘cello).
It’s hard not to conclude that the main driving force behind Drake’s posthumous discovery in the 1990s was the endless repackaging of his catalogue. A more nuanced explanation is that a generation that had grown up listening to their parents’ Neil Young and Joni Mitchell records had found a lost voice from the same era that they could now claim as their own.
Something similar happened when Russell’s recordings were rediscovered this millennium, although it was revered by many of his friends and contemporaries Russell’s work was little known. The timing of the revelatory series of Audika / Rough Trade / Soul Jazz reissues was prescient - they were released at around the time MP3s and iPods started to become ubiquitous and our listening habits were changing and opening a space in which Russell’s shape-shifting methods made perfect sense. When not composing, rehearsing or recording, Russell spent many of his daylight hours walking in Manhattan listening to his music on headphones. As he navigated the flow of the grid, Russell would be submerged in his tapes, wondering around with a professional Walkman that allowed him to hear his material at first remove from the studio and setting his ideas in counterpoint to the rhythms of the city, its traffic, its sidewalks and its stop start logic. The urban headphone drift is a much more widespread experience today, it’s also the way in which many of us listen to Russell’s music. We scroll through our iPods just as Russell filtered and changed his ideas about sounds. Our listening habits have finally caught up with Russell’s approach to making music; place and sensory experience are more important than genre, we shuffle through tracks and styles in the way Russell’s muse could lead him to explore the ecstasy of The Loft and its Klipschorn speakers, or just as likely, set him off into the fragmentary introspection that produced pieces like 'Tone Bone Kone'.
Throughout his life Russell’s changes in style meant he struggled to find an audience or settle on a fixed position from which he could build a career, although the idea of a ‘career’ would surely seem like an empty gesture to him. Russell lived and worked at a time when his multidisciplinary instincts and experiments left people confused, today they make perfect sense
I once heard the author Simon Reynolds suggest another reason why Russell’s music works so well in a contemporary context - he suggested* that Russell had a permanently temporary grasp on his situation and lived his life in perpetual flux. Perhaps this reflects Russell’s Buddhist sensibilities or perhaps that’s the just the kind of person he was. Either way that sense of flux is something most of us are all now familiar with, it reflects the situation in which many of us find ourselves living and working. Russell’s ever-shifting sensibilities, reliant on fluid and occasionally indeterminate resources, suit these precarious times. Listening to his music, on headphones, at home or in the middle of the dance floor turns that sense of flux into a state of grace as we get caught in the moment with him: the cello break in 'Kiss Me Again', the few minutes it takes for 'In The Light Of The Miracle' to reach transcendence, the chorus of 'That’s Us' / 'Wild Combination' or the almost unbearably poignant high note in the chorus of 'Losing My Taste For The Nightlife'. In everything he did Russell found a sound for every feeling and a space for every thought.
*you can hear the discussion Simon & I had which included this observation here
There'll be a further panel discussion between Gillian Gilbert & Stephen Morris from New Order, Richard Boon & myself (I'd like to think we are temporarily rebuilding The Gay Traitor on the West Wales Coast)
*21st April, Record Store Day,
Like everyone else I'll be at my local independent record shop. Mine is Tangled Parrot in Carmarthen where I'll be reading and doing a Q&A at 2pm
Thanks in advance to anyone who might attend any of the above and, especially, to all those who have agreed to take part in proceedings.
In Dan Charnas' excellent The Big Payback there is a very interesting passage about Rick Rubin’s split with Russell Simmons and his subsequent departure from Def Jam. About to relocate to Los Angeles to launch his new label Def American Recordings, Rubin’s last gesture in New York is to make a short film in his apartment with a friend called Ric Menello. As the camera rolls Menello reads a written statement and Rubin stands behind him nodding silently in agreement. The statement asserts that Def American will ‘take back rock’n’roll from the British,’ given that Rubin had a year earlier produced one of the very best British rock’n’roll records - Electric by The Cult – the sentiment is suitably self-reflexive.
This episode reminded me of a film Bill Drummond made two years earlier with his friend Bill Butt. In the film, entitled ‘The Manager,’ Drummond pushes a dust cart up a hill and bemoans the state of the music business. As he stoops down in his donkey jacket to pick up litter, Drummond laments that all that new groups want to do is sound like old groups and asks a question he would repeat a year later in 1987: ‘What’s going on?’ The film was made to coincide with Drummond’s ‘retirement’ from the music business at the symbolic age of 33 and a 1/3rd and was released to the press along with a written statement.
Within a few months Drummond had written, recorded and released The Man on Creation, one of the label’s best albums. Just as the record was going on sale Drummond got in touch with Jimmy Cauty about making a record using a sampler. ‘The Manager’ catches Drummond at the exact moment he stopped being something of an industry player and became an artist. Sadly I can’t find either the Rubin or Drummond films online, although I’ve seen them both somewhere on the internet before.
Given the totemic shadow he has cast over a certain section of British cultural life as writer, provocateur and thinker, it’s easy to forget Drummond’s first job - other than as a set designer - was to start Zoo with Dave Balfe; a partnership that included the management of the Teardrop Explodes and Echo & The Bunnymen and the production and release of their records.
This is a photograph of Drummond and Balfe with members of the Teardrops and the Bunnymen. It’s from 1979 and was taken by the photographer Paul Slattery for Sounds. The location is the Zoo office in India Buildings on Walter Street in Liverpool.
Before ‘retiring’ Drummond had been appointed as an A&R consultant for WEA at the behest of its young chairman Rob Dickins. Although Drummond had relinquished his management of the Bunnymen Dickins had wanted to keep Drummond close at hand. As the head of Warner’s publishing arm, Warner Music, Dickins and Seymour Stein had jointly created the Korova imprint within WEA to release the Bunnymen. One of Korova’s few other signings were Strawberry Switchblade who Drummond and Balfe had also managed. In his own esoteric way Drummond had delivered hits to Korova, so Dickins must have anticipated more success around the corner.
This is part of one of the interviews I did with Bill Drummond for HSIN? which didn’t make it into the final draft. (I think he may have included part of this story in his book 17 as well.)
‘The Bunnymen, used to use a sound engineer called Harry de Mack and the Bunnymen and the Teardrops were getting bigger, and what he'd got, his pa was no longer the right size. But we all got on well and he had managed the thing, so he came to me and said 'look Bill, if we go into partnership, I can get a new pa'. So I’d bought a house in Liverpool so I was able to get a loan of £10,000 on that house which then went to pay for this pa. He builds the pa, both Bunnymen and Teardrops are getting bigger, I have to have another sound engineer cause Harry can't do both.
So we get this other guy in who was good, I’d heard him, he just says 'this pa's shit, I can't use this' and I think, my job as a manager has to be what is good for the band. And this guy's saying ‘I wanna use my mate down in Birmingham’, his pa, so suddenly half the revenue, to try and earn the money back, to pay for this pa, has gone and then...it happens with the Bunnymen, I don't know we stop working together and...anyway Harry and I fall out, and I’m left with, a debt of £10,000. So when Rob Dickins lands the job as MD of WEA from being at Warner Music, he offers me a job as A&R which I take.
I learnt a lot from Rob at Warner Music and I sort of did at WEA as well. I learnt how a mainstream record company works from the inside. They had big American acts, they had Madonna, ZZ Top, Prince, Van Halen so I could see how all that worked but I was useless. I had no....I was shit, I was rubbish, and became rubbish, but I learnt that, whatever it was I was supposed to be doing, I couldn't do it.
But...I tell you what I also learnt...I had to go over to Los Angeles to take a band that I hadn't signed but a band signed by WEA, they said well Bill you may as well A&R this band. It was a rock act and they got Mike Chapman of Chinn / Chapman who did all that in the 70s then did Blondie and that. Anyway he had a bit of a breakdown and had a bit of a break from producing and they got him in to produce this band. So he's living in LA then, and watching him work and how he worked with the band was fantastic. Cause Dave Balfe and I, as I said earlier, had no idea how to produce records, we were just producing our own mates records and trying to make them as best we can and learning on the job. And then I was seeing him work with a completely different take on it.
All he did, was sit in his chair, he had a pa, a gorgeous looking Californian, a notebook, and he'd just sit in his chair and by then he'd got a transatlantic accent, and he looked the part, he looked like a successful west coast producer. And this band are a rock band, AOR type rock band from Essex. And he'd get them in, and they were all good players, and he'd just get them playing and he'd just say 'that's fantastic boys, that's absolutely brilliant, can I just hear it again', and they'd play it better, and it'd just get better and better and better. I'd think 'how is he doing this, how does this work?'
We'd been in the studio with the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes and we'd just say 'Fucking hell Will that was rubbish, you can fuckin...surely you can do it better than that? We'll arrange the song for you, ok? Ok, I know you haven't got a keyboard player in the band, but, we're gonna put a keyboard on this, Balfey’s gonna play keyboard because that's what it needs, cause without a keyboard, it's rubbish.'
And that's how we produced.
Mike Chapman took the opposite approach he said...'you're genius boys, you're fantastic, I don't think I’ve heard.... this is gonna be one of the best.... if not the best record ever made'. And it just got better and better and better, until they kicked out the singer or imploded and fell apart, but, I learnt...not learnt that you just lick someone's arse, but just encouragement, and that's what he gave.’
Chapman’s methods must have lingered with Drummond. As well as a demonstration of a positive mental attitude in the studio, Drummond and Cauty took musical inspiration from Chinn / Chapman. Before long they would be sharing a songwriting credit and royalty with the duo on a number one single, The Timelords 'Doctorin’ The Tardis' which sampled The Sweet’s 'Blockbuster!' a Chinn / Chapman composition.
Between the release of Nirvana’s Bleach and the global crossover of Nevermind, the UK had an interesting relationship with the American underground. The generation of bands Paul Smith had released on Blast First had either signed major deals or broken up. This left a space for regional independent labels like Sub Pop and K to fill. Beyond more celebrated artists like Mudhoney, Nirvana and Tad (celebrated initially at least because they toured together as a Sub Pop package) few of the bands on American independent labels were licensed to the UK and their releases usually appeared on import.
The 7” single was a format that was given a boost in its cultural cache by the innovative Sub Pop singles club. Consequently K and Sub Pop artists and their contemporaries would appear on split or one off singles on small run labels around the world. In the UK someone who was at the heart of this kind of activity was Dave - or to give him his full title - David E. Barker. Barker had started Glass Records in the mid eighties; his signings included The Walking Seeds, The Jazz Butcher, The Pastels and Spacemen 3. Very much an enthusiast with a lively ear and a capacity for a life-affirming musical bonhomie, Barker was in his element releasing records on the hop, in between jumping in a tour van with a band and trying to take full control of the stereo.
After Glass, Barker moved to Fire Records as an A&R where he was joined by Spaceman 3 and The Pastels, he was given his own imprint: Paperhouse. Fire’s owner Clive Solomon had a legendarily technical approach to the minutiae of deals and contracts. In many ways Solomon’s methods were the polar opposite of the 50 /50 lets-go-to-the-pub-then-see-what-happens deals with which the independent sector usually operated. Solomon treated the contract as an opportunity for strategy and endgame with managers and lawyers, Barker was used to signing whatever his radar told him too. It was little surprise that while at Fire Barker became frustrated.
Barker dealt with such hindrances of legalese by starting the Seminal Twang 7” series. Seminal Twang was one of the many 7” labels that took its cue from the Sub Pop singles club. Beginning in April 1991 Barker released a single a month for just over a year. The label’s releases give an interesting insight into the energy and connections between the US and UK at the time. The full Seminal Twang set can be found here.
Two people helped Barker in the co-ordination of Seminal Twang: Stephen Pastel and Don Fleming. My favourite two Twangs are both Pastels related.
Stephen produced The Vaselines 'Dying For It'
Melody Dog features Katrina from The Pastels, their three track Twang includes an incredible version of Primal Screams 'Movin’ On Up', this 7” is a record to lift the heaviest hearts
Fleming was (and still is) a producer and engineer who had been in several bands, the highest profile of which were Half Japanese and B.A.L.L. B.A.L.L. also included Shimmydisc’s owner Kramer in their line up, making B.A.L.L. something of an underground record producer super group. Among many other albums, Fleming would go on to produce the Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque. The Fanclub had been one of Barker’s most significant signings at Fire. The band had produced their debut A Catholic Education themselves in Glasgow and for its follow up single 'God Knows It’s True' the band recorded in New York with Don Fleming.
Here’s a picture of Don (L) & Dave (R) on that trip
Later on the band recorded a cover of Alex Chilton's 'Free Again' with Fleming which was released as a 7" on K
The following is part of the conversation I had with David E Barker. Dave is a garrulous, highly entertaining man who has had an influence on several people who have gone on to find multi platinum success. Like Mike Alway, Barker is the kind of character who was always at the heart of things, but was perhaps less interested than some of his contemporaries in turning such energy into six figure record sales. The musical world would be a far less interesting place without them.
‘A label that's important that people don't think about is Shimmydisc. The Walking Seeds records were produced by Kramer, and the story on that is they just sent him a tape and said, ‘We want you’. They loved Shockabilly, I'd never heard of half of it until they introduced me to it, I think that was how I first heard Daniel Johnston, I think it was cause of Shimmydisc actually. And Jad had done something with Half Japanese that Kramer had produced ...The Band Who Would Be King I think. Anyway, the Walking Seeds, they went and did that record in New York in ‘88 and then I became pals with Don Fleming because B.A.L.L., Kramer's band came and played over here with the Seeds.
We went back to New York in ‘89 and Kramer’s studio was something man, I mean he had the whole building. I don't think he owned it but he had the lease on this building and Don used to rent an apartment in the middle. It was like the studio was one floor then Don't apartment then Kramer's apartment. Just about then Robert de Niro opened the Tribeca Grill down there and all of a sudden the place jumped, Kramer was in there from probably ’84, ’85, it was the bottom of Manhattan, the low end right down the bottom, you could see the World Trade, just look up. There weren't much there. It was warehouses and stuff. It was such a cool place, you go in the door...Jon Zorn fucking walks out and like all of Sonic Youth's guitars are in the studio cause they're rehearsing there and stuff.
I hooked the Fanclub up with Don; they knew Don cause they loved Half Japanese, the Velvet Monkeys and all this stuff and B.A.L.L. as well actually. They were heavily into all that American underground stuff…a lot of Shimmydisc stuff, King Missile used to be the popular one. You know that one 'Steal Stuff From Work' and 'Cheesecake Truck'? All these kind of funny records and they were very into Daniel Johnston. These were all Teenage Fanclub bus hits you know what I mean?
I started doing Seminal Twang because I just wanted to do it. I think I was a bit frustrated at Fire in that there were a few records I wanted to do and Clive got fed up with me wanting to do these one-off things. I totally admit, it was totally based on the Sub Pop singles club, I think even Rough Trade were doing one soon after. I didn't want to do like a singles club but I put the dates on them. I wanted like a magazine, so 'this month's issue', that was really like the concept plus the idea of having all the sleeves done by Jad Fair. Except then you get a couple of them who play up, 'oh I don't want that fucking Jad Fair shit' you know. There were only a couple of them, the Red Kross was one.... I didn't care though man, cause I love the Red Kross.
Anyway, ‘91, so I started doing the Seminal Twang and it was easy the bands were up for it. Stephen got me a couple, Stephen got me Some Velvet Sidewalk, they were on K, the Vaselines one came through Eugene but I think Stephen organised it. And Don organised a couple in the States. Sonic Boom actually offered to do one.... and Jason. Well it was sketchy but I saw Jason.... when did Recurring come out, it must have been 91. They did a signing at the Rough Trade shop and I went down and no one else from Fire wanted to go cause like they weren’t flavour of the month with the Spacemen 3. The deal was, Sonic's gonna be signing them at 1 o'clock and Jason's gonna be signing them at 4 o'clock, cause they didn't want to see each other. So I went down, I see Pete and blah blah blah and then he'd said something on the phone before that, 'oh...if you wanna do a single I’ll do one’ cause he liked the Daniel Johnston stuff…anyway I went down that Rough Trade shop and I waited. I see Pete...about 2 hours to fucking wait, I wait around anyway, and Jason turned up and he offered to do one as well! They had a vibe that went so deep between them those two, like weird telepathy, even when they’d stopped speaking to each other.'
Halfway through Seminal Twang’s run Barker had signed Eugene Kelley from The Vaselines new band Captain America. They and another Twang alumnus, Shonen Knife, were the support for Nirvana’s Nevermind tour in the late autumn of 1991.
‘The end of 91 how can I forget, Nirvana...both the support groups on the fucking Nevermind UK tour, Shonen Knife and Captain America. That was just amazing times you know, to see that happening. Cause they were booked into venues that were too small and every night was wild.'
In the wake of Nevermind Kurt Cobain was inevitably asked by the media to list his favourite records. Here’s what he gave Melody Maker for their Rebellious Jukebox feature in August 1992 which was published to coincide with the band’s headline appearance at Reading:
1. The Breeders: Pod
2. The Pixies: Surfer Rosa
3. Leadbelly: Last Sessions
4. The Vaselines: "Dying For It"
5. Young Marble Giants: Colossal Youth
6. The Wipers: Is This Real?
7. Shonen Knife: Burning Farm
8. The Sex Pistols: Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols
9. Jad Fair: Great Expectations
10. The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World
The list includes three bands that had appeared on Seminal Twang. It’s also interesting to note that every record on the list was originally released on an independent label.
As you drive south along Interstate 25 towards Albuquerque the car sits low in the road. On either side the view is endless. To the right is long flat New Mexico shrub, which suddenly, on the horizon, gives way to the drama of the designated wilderness area of the Bandelier National Monument and its volcanic expanse of mesa. To the left is an arid landscape of desert vegetation that fades into an increasingly blurred middle distance. The road itself is flat and straight. It may technically be an interstate but it has all the mythic properties of a highway.
I pressed play on the car’s CD player and Randy California’s softly strummed guitar picked out the chords to ‘America The Beautiful’, the opening song to Spirit’s Spirit of ‘76. The song segues effortlessly into Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are a Changin’’, then back into the patriotic schoolroom sing-along; two cover versions blended into one song, one that celebrates a country while refuting its sense of destiny. In the expanse of the New Mexico desert America was certainly beautiful.
I had spent the last few days dwelling on the past. I’d been staying with Ivo Watts-Russell the man who founded 4AD, whose This Mortal Coil had covered Spirit’s ‘Nature’s Way’ on their 1991 album Blood and who now lives in the unique pueblo adobe atmosphere of New Mexico. The CD I was playing had been an unexpected present from Ivo. ‘I didn’t know which direction you’d be driving ’ he said as I was leaving ‘but I knew you’d need some music, so I made you this’. Something had been very clear from our time together, despite the ups and downs of the music business he had endured, Ivo was still as immersed and in love with music as he had been the day he started 4AD from behind the counter of a record shop almost thirty years earlier. The CD was an immaculately chosen compilation. It featured decades old album tracks by American singer songwriters and some more current music including a song by Electralane, a band that were signed to the label Ivo had so carefully nurtured and which still trades on the image which he created, but with which he no longer has any professional relationship. Listening through the CD it sounded, with a leap of imagination and wishful thinking, like a compilation of songs for future consideration on a hypothetical This Mortal Coil album.
My week had started in Santa Monica with Robin Hurley, a music business veteran and friend of Watts-Russell who had run the 4AD office in LA as Ivo’s involvement in the label had gradually come to an end. It was through his kind offer of an introduction that I had been able to ask Ivo if he would agree to an interview. To the astonishment of friends and former colleagues in London, Ivo had invited me over to talk. The journey from LA involved a flight from Burbank to Phoenix and then another flight to Albuquerque. To the average American domestic traveller it was doubtless as routine as changing trains at Didcot Parkway, but the tiny departure gates, the subtle shift in time zone and the view from the plane, of infinite and geometric farms with their enormous water towers and fleets of harvesters felt like a journey into the interior.
Ivo had given me instructions from the airport and on arriving at his house I was greeted by an advance party of his rescued dogs. Within an hour we had begun what was to be a days-long conversation. His patience was astonishing, as was, despite his frequent protestation to the contrary, his memory. We talked about 4AD from its beginnings, through its successes and to his eventual uncoupling from the label. If I’d forgotten to mention an artist or record he would interrupt and we’d be discussing the finer details of a recording session or the time it took for 23 Envelope to turn around a particular sleeve.
In Santa Monica I had asked Hurley if he thought that perhaps Ivo’s temperament was that of an artist rather than that of a music business mogul. I had an idea that the most dynamic labels were run by people whose creativity needed an outlet beyond running a record company: Daniel Miller had recorded as The Normal, Silicone Teens and was / is a record producer, throughout Factory Tony Wilson had remained a broadcaster and as Biff Bang Pow, Alan McGee and his co-conspirator Dick Green released more than six albums.
In This Mortal Coil albums there is an intensity and reverence for the source material in Ivo’s choice of cover versions that took the recordings beyond the status of studio project into a hallowed, meditative environment. I wondered if he was recreating the experience of hearing those songs for the first time. “I don’t think we improved on the originals on anything we covered’ he told me, although most people I know who grew up in the sound world of This Mortal Coil would disagree.
Our conversation inevitably digressed into favourite songs and albums and the contact high that certain records produce in their initiates: a smile at the mention of The Notorious Byrd Brothers and a wistful nodding at the hours lost in the spaces of If Only I Could Remember My Name.
My flight back to Burbank had been diverted to Las Vegas. I watched night fall across the Grand Canyon as the shadow of the plane bounced along its contours then faded into the dusk as we began our descent. I realised we were about to fly over the Las Vegas sands that Joni Mitchell had sung about on ‘This Flight Tonight’, a moment of happenstance that hours spent obsessively with records always rewards the listener, whether one likes it or not. It was the kind of detail that had coloured our conversation for the last few days and the kind of feeling that I had been reacquainted with by meeting and talking to Ivo, seeing each small incidental moment through the lens and sensitivity of a song.
However unlikely it seems given its annual attempts at being a family friendly cause célèbre, during the 1980s the Brit Awards were usually regarded by the independent sector as being part of The Other. These days the Brits are busily preoccupied with things like audience interactivity and across the board synergy, activities it’s had to come to terms with in its race against Saturday night talent shows to provide the definitive televised experience of a certain kind of pop life. The Brits journey from a rather insular music business awards ceremony to its conception of itself today, as a celebration of national street level talent and attitude, has been suitably colourful. One long process of Britpop cocaine spats, celebrity arrests and Spice Girl Union Jack micro dresses, if it all feels rather heavy handed and manufactured that’s because to a great extent it is.
For many years the producer of the awards was Jonathan King. According to his version of events it was King who coined the name Brits by shortening the name of the awards then sponsors, the Britannia Music Club. After the Sam Fox and Mick Fleetwood live on-air car crash of 1989, King revamped the production significantly. In an attempt to make the awards less redolent of the Live Aid aristocracy, in January 1991 he promoted a concert at Wembley Arena that celebrated the more music press friendly side of British music.
The bill featured bands like Ride, New Model Army and Jesus Jones and was headlined by The Cure. A fortnight later The Cure won the award for Best British Band and the process of decontaminating the awards from its black tie and rolled-up- jacket-sleeve image began in earnest. The push towards mainstream event status had begun two years previously in 1988, when the ceremony, then still known as the BPI – British Phonograph Industry - Awards, relocated from the Grosvenor Hotel to the marginally more happening Royal Albert Hall.
It was against this backdrop of the pre-attitude Brits that Factory released a single that year: ‘Stereo / Porno’ credited to Vermorel and accompanied by a promotional poster entitled ‘Bums for BPI.’
‘Vermorel’ were Fred & Judy Vermorel. In the late 1980s they were best known as a writer couple that had collaborated on the book Starlust. Fred Vermorel also published an infamous Kate Bush biography, was a friend of Malcolm McLaren and had been through similar experiences to The Sex Pistols manager at the Croydon and Hornsey Art College sit-ins of 1968. Vermorel’s connections with King Mob, The Sex Pistols and the Cash From Chaos narrative ensured he was certain to be indulged by Wilson, whom he approached in 1998 with the idea of running a campaign against the BPI.
The result was Fac198 ‘Stereo / Porno’ released on 7” and 12” vinyl.
Both versions bore the label copy ‘specially commissioned for the BPI Awards 1988.’
Here is the single
The suitably lavish fold-out sleeve contained a detail from the ‘Bums for BPI’ poster
It’s interesting to note that even in 1988, a year after the million selling success of New Order’s Substance, Wilson’s capriciousness still extended to such enjoyably futile gestures. Through its combination of indifference to London and the wider music business, to say nothing of its shaky grasp of paperwork, Factory was not a registered member of the BPI. This was a fact not lost on the trade body when, having perceived in the release a possible defamation of character, it started legal proceedings against the record company (the action came to nothing).
Things could have turned out far, far, worse for Factory however if Fred Vermorel’s promotional strategy for his campaign against the BPI had been fully realised. Dave Harper, one of the first PR people Factory employed and certainly the first to be based in London, handled the media for ‘Stereo / Porno’.
This is an unedited transcript from one of the interviews I conducted with Harper. Sadly there wasn’t room to include this story in the final draft. We had been talking about his early relationship with Factory and the label’s rather ambivalent attitude toward the press and PR in general. It’s a remarkable insight into the sense of absurdity that always ran through the label and, needless to say, it’s unthinkable of any record company doing anything similar today.
‘The best thing in terms of conceptualism and sheer stupidity was the Fred and Judy Vermorel single, which was one of Wilson’s Situationist moves. I knew of them, but didn’t really understand what Fred was, and Judy I can hardly remember. They had this fucking awful record that it was quite obvious they hadn’t played on, and I was struggling with the idea of trying to promote it.
One of the things Mike Alway used to say was ‘Make everything up. No one knows what you’re talking about anyway. Make up a story.’ Anyway, Fred Vermorel came with what would now be called a backstory. His Kate Bush fans book meant he was a slightly controversial figure. No one knew what the hell he was going on about and I didn’t know what he was going about, but he had a fucking brilliant, brilliant, idea.
It had nothing to do with selling records it didn’t make any financial sense at all.
At the time the BPI Awards were stagnant. It was the same nonsense every year Annie Lennox, Phil Collins just the same fucking rubbish. every fucking year, completely fucking boring. So Fred & Judy came in and said ‘This is what we want you to do’ – which was quite an interesting phrase – ‘This is what we want you to do, the BPI Awards are coming up in four months at the Albert Hall and we want you to get hold of some BPI Awards headed notepaper.’
Back then you could go round the offices of NME, Melody Maker & Sounds and journalists’ desks would be full of shit. There would be press releases from the BPI Awards and the PR doing them, detailing who was up for nominations etc. and you could just grab one and take it away. I had my own printed paper done round the corner from the office in Gray’s Inn Road at Prontaprint and put a lot of work their way. So I stole a handful of BPI press releases and said ‘Can I have five hundred of these please?’ I’d tippexed out everything but the official heading. The printer said ‘Come on, that’s dodgy, I cant do that.” I convinced him and said ‘It’ll be fun’ he said ‘Alright, but I'm not happy.’ So I had five hundred reams of official BPI Awards notepaper, blank.
So Fred would come round once a week with a new press release to send out and it started out innocuously, he’d written it all and I just had to type it up.
The first one was along the lines of ‘We can exclusively reveal that Phil Collins will be appearing live at the BPI Awards’ something obvious and anodyne. I’d print these things up, send them off to my mailing list and opened up the papers next week and everyone had printed it, but it was so bland nobody noticed. Gradually Fred began to rack up the pressure very subtly. So over the weeks these press releases were starting to stream out.
It was a brilliant critique of the whole ‘We’re really successful rock stars patronizing the plebs,’ basically. Fred said ‘I want you to send out a PR saying at this year’s BPI Awards, the grand finale at the Albert Hall will feature Annie Lennox, Chris de Burgh, Phil Collins etc. all singing ‘Jerusalem’. I thought this is getting good now, of course ‘Jerusalem’ we’re bringing the Proms in, and they printed it: ‘Balloons and Union Jacks at the Albert Hall for BPI Awards’.
And the next week was a PR to alert the head teachers of schools for handicapped children, both physically and mentally, that the BPI Awards committee had decided to make everybody feel wonderful. We invite the schools to bring a selection of your handicapped children to door D of the Royal Albert Hall, where Chris De Burgh and Annie Lennox will judge which ones are deemed worthy of taking part in ‘Jerusalem’, the singing of which was to be a marvellous thing.
I thought ‘This is where it’s going to get nasty.’
Anyway nevertheless I sent out a press release along those lines. Tony never really cared. He’d set it all up and he wasn’t really bothered, it wasn’t going to sell any records. The whole thing was fucking stupid, the fact it could happen was what appealed. At Lynne Franks PR, there was this guy Julian Henry, he now writes PR analysis for Media Guardian and has his own PR company and is a mature man, he was a mature man then, and he also did PR for the BPI.
So I sent out something about handicapped children at the BPI Awards. I knew Julian vaguely, we were talking about Miaow earlier and he’d been involved with them and he was in the band The Hit Parade with Cath Carroll. Stan who was working for me said ‘Julian Henry’s been on the phone’ I said ‘Oh really…… has he?’ as my bowels were going through the floor. ‘He wants you to ring him back.’
I rang him.
‘Look Harper, I don’t want you to say anything, I know what you’re doing, I just want you to fucking stop. You don’t have to admit it just stop.’
I had boxes of this headed notepaper, I’ve got to get rid of this shit. Fred Vermorel’s coming round in a minute with another wacky idea. I better stop doing this stuff now…. meanwhile Fred turns up.
‘I’ve been to the British Library and I’ve got a map of all the tunnels at the Albert Hall.