In 1993 the first Domino 'office' was little more than a ground floor shop front the size of a cupboard.
At one desk sat Laurence Bell, at the other sat a figure with wild stawberry blonde curls that I instantly recognised from the sleeve of 'Heaven's End' by Loop.
When I first met James he was managing Tindersticks, or 'The Tindersticks' as they are sometimes affectionately known.
As well as negotiating with tailors about trouser length for his charges, James was providing non-stop joie de vivre among the rambling boxes of Sebadoh 7"s and Palace artwork. A few months later I was promoting a concert in an industrial unit in Bristol that featured a network of windowless corridors in a self-consciously underground style.
I was after a Prague '68 vibe and the evening was technically illegal. To add to the atmosphere I asked a swarthy South Bristolian postman to run the door for me; he was on strict advice to keep an eye out for possible troublemakers.
I had neglected to put James's name down on the guest list.
Undeterred he started reasoning with the doorman.
"I'm the manager of Tindersticks' said James
"Don't come to me with your problems' said the postman-cum-doorman in a thick Bristolian accent.
'You keep turning up like the proverbial bad penny Richard' James once had the temerity to say to me in an exemplar of the pot calling the kettle black.
James is now turning his...colourful... life story as an A&R man into a book: 'The Fat White Duke'.
The full details are here.
I urge you to support this rock'n'roller, one whose lineage includes Loop, 'The' Tindersticks, The Strokes, The Libertines, Creation, Rough Trade, 1965 Records and all, if not every, conceivable point between.
As well as containing insights, anecdotes and complicated stories about how to avoid US customs, this book will make the reader really *really* laugh.
I first met The Pastels on Friday 2nd December 1994. I know the exact date as it’s written on two separate flyers for a concert that I promoted. The handbill featuring a still photograph was my own creation.
It places my abilities and vulnerabilities as a concert organiser in Bristol during the early to mid 1990s into sharp relief. Instead of writing the venue's actual name - The Fleece & Firkin - I wrote 'Baa Baa' as a rather knowing and, at least in terms of ticket sales, self-destructive in-joke (with myself).
The superciliousness inherent in the phrase ‘8pm prompt’ instead of say, ‘first band on-stage 8pm’ also makes me simultaneously wince and wonder at the breathless confidence of youth.
Fortunately the headline act provided bespoke flyers for the evening. I had been promoting for a little over year and had never come across a band that was so willing to help spread the word about a concert as The Pastels.
Katrina telephoned a few weeks in advance of the show to talk through the arrangements, and such was their attention to detail that when the night of the show arrived, the evening felt like a partnership.
Unless they have a persuasive reason to be at the venue, anyone who has spent a life around bands learns to avoid the dead few hours between load-in and performance. Few things seem to flatten time to such an extent as the repetitive sound of a floor tom being brought up to level, or the treble hiss of a guitar amp fading into the numb silence of an empty club. Nevertheless, the most memorable part of Friday 2nd December 1994 at The Fleece occurred during the sound check.
The Pastels’ guitarist that night was Gerry Love of Teenage Fanclub, who plays with the band today. When the time came to mic up his guitar something extraordinary happened. Instead of strumming chords or adjusting the tone control, Gerry played an unexpected and note perfect version of Big Star’s ‘Ballad of El Goodo’. A frisson spread around the room as everyone broke off from laying out effects pedals or tidying away guitar cases and stopped to listen to the gentle intensity of the performance.
In the years to come I’d spend more than a few such moments with The Pastels. As we loitered in draughty venues with the house lights up and the scent of disinfectant still lingering, there was always the sense that later there might be magic in the air.
The 8pm start proved unnecessary as Comet Gain had to cancel their appearance, and despite my shortcomings as an impresario the evening was carried off with infectious warmth. Movietone played an aggressive, atmospheric set and afterwards started an enduring and reciprocal friendship with The Pastels; although as I write this, I realise all friendships with The Pastels are likely to be reciprocal. Al Larsen performed a one-man show involving a harmonica, an acoustic guitar and tape loops. A slacker MC, he roamed the stage with an air of committed uncertainty as he went in search of objects that might be appropriated as temporary beat boxes. The performance was so unique and engrossing that it made me wonder whether Beck Hansen had been taking notes while in Olympia recording One Foot In The Grave.
The following morning we all met up for breakfast and Katrina handed me a copy of Pamfletti, a smartly printed fanzine the band had produced along with Stereolab for a recent joint Scottish tour. It featured a Michael Polnareff profile by Bob Stanley, Tim Gane’s guide to buying vinyl at a car boot sale or a charity shop and a story by Aggi (now known as Annabel Wright) about a Glasgow deli that had been forced to shut due to the capriciousness of it’s owner, Paul:
‘In his heyday he bought a large cheese for his otherwise empty Refrigerated Display, and spent the next few days cutting it into small pieces in an attempt to look busy – it made a change from washing his hands.’
Pamfletti read like a prototype for a Franco-Caledonian equivalent to Grand Royale, one that had been written by and for a generation that had come of age since C86 and was now refining its increasingly sophisticated tastes. There was another quality to Pamfletti. It had a strong sense of purpose and a muted but distinct stylishness, above all it had an openness and willingness to share and spread the word. In time I became conscious of the fact that these qualities where the hallmarks of what the band and their friends called Pastelism. Originally a name for an earlier fanzine, it had been developed into a code of practice.
My first encounter with a nascent form of Pastelism had been at school in Oxford in 1986. On a weekday afternoon I walked into Our Price on Cornmarket and saw an in-store display for ‘Steaming Train’ and ‘Beatnik Boy’ the debut singles by a local band, Talulah Gosh, which had latterly been released on the same day. Although record shop managers were in charge of their own marketing and promotions in the 1980s, the sight of dozens of purple and green seven-inch records repetitively stacked in prominent rows looked incongruous; particularly as the Talulah Gosh point of sale display was neighboured by promotional posters for Cutting Crew and Jermaine Stewart. I turned one of the singles over, the name of the record label was 53rd&3rd Records and printed alongside was an Edinburgh address and phone number. I also recognised one of the band members in the picture. I had often seen him working behind the shop counter.
In a fanzine I had read somewhere that the people behind 53rd&3rd included one of the Shop Assistants, one of The Pastels, and a friend. At the time this seemed highly significant, as I gradually started to understand that to some people the world of independent music felt like a calling. Some school friends became immersed in this incipient world of fanzines, flexi discs and the culture that became characterised as anorak pop. One of them, John Jervis of WIAIWYA, continues to spend a great deal of his spare time ensuring its on-going popularity. I made a cassette of the ‘Truck Train Tractor’ 12” and Up For A Bit With The Pastels, before my attention and late teenage metabolism became overwhelmed by American underground guitar music, and my fanzine budget was limited to overpriced imports of Forced Exposure.
At the turn of the decade I began to realise what many American bands had always known - that The Pastels existed outside the adjectival confines of ‘twee’ or ‘indiepop’. Instead the most relevant definition of The Pastels and Pastelism is the one that is currently in use as their twitter bio: ‘Pastels, The. Independent Music Group’.
I finally bought ‘Speeding Motorcycle’- my first Pastels record - on the day it was released. By the time Truckload of Trouble arrived in 1994 I was working in a record shop and tried to sell as many copies of the compilation as possible. Although it proved effective, my sales technique leant heavily on a customer’s ability to cope with my newfound Pastels evangelism. This was a skill I would later adapt when dealing with international record distributors and licensees, or anyone who wasn’t quite with the program.
The night at the Fleece and Firkin coincided with the release of ‘Yoga’ the band’s first single for Domino.
(This is the Matador version, from an era when the provenance of a 7” could easily be determined by the thickness of the sleeve).
I had met The Pastels at a point when they had regrouped and signed to a new label. They had worked with Laurence Bell while he had been an A&R at Fire Records and had discovered in one another a mutual sense of self-belief that was highly infectious to be around, especially in Glasgow. For a band signed to an independent label there were and are few places as exciting to play as Glasgow. There is always a sense as you turn off the M74 that the audience will be larger, more self-aware, have better taste in music and be generally more engaged than anywhere else you might play in the UK. Another highlight of playing in the city is the architecture of the West End and the high ceilings and wide windows of its tenements, the floors of which I often stayed on.
One weekend in 1995 King Tut’s hosted a Domino-centric event. Laurence, Mark Mitchell (now a very senior executive at Warners) and I stayed on in the city for an extra day or so. Stephen organised an am-am table tennis tournament for us at Kelvin Hall, and that evening we watched a collection of Jacques Tati short films and drank large amounts of whisky together. Over the years I’ve heard many bands I admire, particularly American ones, recount similar stories of Pastels-style hospitality and that an after after-show involving Stephen and Katrina’s record collection had been a highlight of their tour.
On another visit to Glasgow Katrina drew me a city guide.
The legend is as follows: ‘A’ and ‘K’ are Aggi and Katrina’s houses, the pie chart-esque circle denotes the Botanic Gardens on Great Western Road and the ‘S’ is John Smiths Byres Rd where Stephen worked.
At the time it was the only record shop in Britain to hang Steve Keene paintings on its walls.
(I have no idea who later added ‘RK OK” in pink letters enclosed in a heart. One morning I arrived at my desk and noticed it had appeared on the drawing overnight.
Throughout the long hot summer of 1997, friends and colleagues would often spend the small hours in the office. Occasionally messages would be left on the answer phone confirming that a nocturnal visitor had arrived home safely after dawn. To transcribe these somewhat discursive recordings was an early highlight of the working day; their woozy, philosophical tone was a change of pace to the highly professional-sounding messages that had been phoned in during American record company office hours.)
During the daylight hours of 1997 Domino released two Pastels singles taken from the Illumination album that followed in the early autumn.
The first single was ‘Unfair Kind of Fame’, a tribute to Ed Wood. The second was ‘The Hits Hurt’ a record that has a perfect reverse sleeve.
Not only are the band looking particularly nouvelle vague, it also includes a detail from Aggi’s portrait of Mingus.
It was around this time that I joined the select number of people who have held the exalted position of Pastels Tour Manager (previous incumbents had included – literally - a speedway star). The tour consisted of several support slots with Yo La Tengo in Germany interspersed with club headline shows. Yo La Tengo had previously been on City Slang, a German label, and played to fairly large audiences. I remember them closing their set at the Markthalle in Hamburg with an encore of ‘Prisoners of Love’ from The Producers. The preceding night The Pastels had played at a makeshift but bohemian venue called Heinz Karmers Tanzcafe where the jeunesse doree of the city came out to dance and get drunk.
During an interview that afternoon Katrina had made a flyer for the evening’s performance.
I recently found a picture from that night. Stephen is DJing and Aggi has a beer. My recollection is that the club was swelteringly hot, although Stephen looks composed in his sweater.
The band did quite a few interviews on that tour, I’m fairly sure Aggi even did an interview for the German equivalent of Bass Guitar Monthly (the tag line for the Illumination campaign was ‘The Pastels – Modern and Pro’). My tour management style was a little less pro, so my memories are mainly of late arrivals and brutally early mornings (like most tours). I do though remember the band running through the closing bars of Galaxie 500’s version of ‘Isn’t It A Pity?’ during sound check in a Munich club. Katrina sang the ‘What a pity’ refrain while hammering out rolls on the snare. That night we all stayed in a well-appointed apartment with a floor to ceiling record collection and I heard ‘If I Could Write Poetry I Would’ for the first time. Mummy Your Not Watching Me was the first record I bought once we returned home. A day or so later the band played a version of ‘Part Time Punks’ during sound check in a gleamingly new sports hall. James McNew was standing next to me and air-punched along.
Illuminati-Pastels Music Remixed followed Illumination. Its commission and compilation was an insight into, and a celebration of, the global network of Pastelism. For a few weeks the Domino office became a key locus in the International Pop Underground and its affiliates. A cassette arrived featuring the Make Up’s reworking of ‘Rough Riders’ accompanied by a hand written correspondence from Ian Svenonius. He explained that he had re-contextualised the song’s lyrics to an occupied Vietnam of the mind. He assumed, the letter continued, that this counter move against the Military Industrial Complex would meet with record company approval. On more than one occasion I negotiated Calvin Johnson’s naïf yet highly assertive phone technique. Our conversations consisted of little more than me indicating that he may have to be put on hold. That said, I still have a lingering feeling that our exchanges may have been a contributing factor in his inability to deliver a Dub Narcotic Sound System remix that he felt happy with.
Jim O’Rourke dropped off his string quartet enhanced remix of ‘Leaving This Island’ in person. As he looked around the office he couldn’t quite hide his disbelief that we didn’t have the necessary equipment with which to play a DAT.
(The office hi-fi system at that point consisted of a portable CD / cassette player).
Towards the end of last year I received an advance copy of the new Pastels album Slow Summits, their first full-length release since Illumination. I’ve listened to it a great deal in recent weeks. I first heard it before Christmas but wanted to immerse myself in its warm tones once I knew the days were getting longer. Slow Summits evokes the confidence and surfaces of Byres Road, the warm authority of Monorail and of staying up late listening to music - the second song on the albumis called ‘Night Time Made Us’. Most people I know often feel as if they are in a foreign country when visiting Glasgow. Perhaps talking about records long into the night in the West End is the city’s real lingua franca. There are instrumental passages on Slow Summits that sound like the soundtrack to found footage of long walks, of outdoor exterior sequences that jump cut to the horizon. Even by Pastels standards, the album has a depth of field that can only be achieved through a love of detail and an immeasurable love of music. Slow Summits also contains some remarkable Pastels pop songs, especially the first single: ‘Check My Heart’. Its sleeve features a painting by Annabel Wright.
To hold and then place a Pastels single on a turntable today is a different experience to twenty years ago, for me it is certainly a richer one.
Every time I listen to their new record, I realise I have never known a group, or a group of people, like The Pastels.
I'm currently writing about Bristol, record shop dust, bass bins and telling the time of day by the length of a side of vinyl.
I recently came accross this 1980 hand-typed inventory from Revolver Records, a shop that also acted as a distributor and became a member of The Cartel.
The amount of reggae they were carrying says a great deal about the space and atmosphere of the shop and the city: two Postcard 7"s, the Upsetters, Horace Andy, Jackie Mittoo on import pre-release and nearly all of the early Greensleeves catalogue.
The one label I regret not covering in 'How Soon Is Now?' is On-U Sound (although someone at a national newspaper did query the omission of Marc Riley's In Tape).
I spoke to Adrian Sherwood on the phone briefly but meeting up for an interview never worked out. This is the insert from 'Staggering Heights' the third Singers & Players album and one of the very best from the early On-U era, although the quality control across the label's first fifty album releases is extraordinarily high.
This On-U Sound News & Facts Bulletin is bristling with the love of music, hustling and sense of irreverence that made the label so completely, definitively, independent
The writer (presumably Adrian Sherwood or Pete Holdsworth, his On-U business and bizness partner) is prepared to state that the second Congos LP is 'dodgy' and replaces the 'Scratch' in Lee Perry with the words 'one of the few sane men left'.
The first Singers & Players album ‘War Of Words’ was originally released on Ed Bahlam's 99 Records, the label which for an all to brief moment captured the essence of early eighties New York after dark. Singers & Players and 99 were a good fit; the bass on ‘War of Words’ is particularly strong, almost brutal and the overall sound of the record inhabits a heavy, heavy, space.
99 had earlier released a 12" credited simply to ‘Congo’ seen here on the insert here from the 'War of Words' LP
One of the tracks on the 12" is a Lee Perry production and is rumoured to have been from the ‘Heart of The Congos’ sessions. There is a strong chance that this release came about as a result of Bahlam and Sherwood's growing friendship and their shared affinity with Jamaican music business practice, an unwritten code of behaviour that they clearly drew inspiration from.
The Singers & Players albums almost certainly had an effect on another of Sherwood's acquaintances: Grant Marshall, or as he is more usually known, Daddy G. Marshall worked in Revolver Records in Bristol a shop that specialised in reggae and which took its stock straight from the source, which was a white van usually driven by either Sherwood or Holdsworth. Sherwood would pass many hours in the shop’s back room with another friend and collaborator: Mark Stewart. There, in almost the perfect environment for such activity they would sift through the latest Jamaican dub plates in a haze of blue smoke.
In many ways Massive Attack’s Blue Lines is a start-of-the-nineties-state-of-the-art take on the Singers & Players format, wherein a series of venerated featured vocalists let their expertise shine over rolling bass lines while the mixing desk works its own alchemy. There are further On-U / Massive connections, ‘Blue Lines’ was recorded in part at former New Age Stepper Neneh Cherry’s studio.
On-U’s biggest commercial success occured around the same time as 'Blue Lines' and was a result of Sherwood's collaboration with another Bristolian: Gary Clail.
Here’s a picture of Clail and Sherwood running the sound desk at an On-U show at the Mean Fiddler c.87. Nodding along alongside them is a certain Mr James Endeacott
This photo is by James Finch and used with his kind permission. Someone needs to do a book of his incomparable archive.
Ivo Watts-Russell had a fruitful working relationship with John Peel. The 4AD boss would often send the DJ a test pressing or acetate of a new signing, it was usually the first time anyone outside the 4AD office would hear the labels's new releases.
'John Peel was so supportive' Watts-Russell told me 'he even read out a letter I wrote to him saying it reminded him of the enthusiasm he had had when he was doing Dandelion. I had the first two songs the Cocteau Twins recorded for us pressed onto an acetate just for him. It took him forever to listen to it but when he did he liked it and we got invited to do a session. Later on he played the whole of Head Over Heels - side 1 one night, side 2 the next.'
A few years later Watts-Russell was convinced Peel would be equally supportive of his latest signing Throwing Muses, a band he had signed on the strength of their demo tape.
'Throwing Muses re-recorded the demo with Gil Norton, that's how I met Gil and we signed them for one album. Kristin was full on pregnant recording the LP with what became Dylan, she was seventeen and a gorgeous person and so smart, scary smart – they were all all such gorgeous people. I don’t like to leave this house, I'm always in a hurry to get back to the house. If I was out of the office I was always in a hurry to get back to check everything was getting taken care of, and then when I had people there to take care of everything I kind of lost the plot. The first time I met any member of the band was when David Narcizo came over with Gil with the tapes to master the LP. Then the band came over to do this little show at the …it was a bookshop with a balcony...people didn’t play there very often, wherever it was they played there and it was fantastic. England took Throwing Muses to their hearts. That first album got incredible press.
John Peel, I knew he was in the bag. I knew he was going to love them as much as he loved The Fall…..I sent him a test pressing …..nothing.....eventually I got through to him.
He said 'Oh dear.. I was listening to the record and I was getting into it perfectly well, then someone came into the office – I later found out it was John Walters - and said 'Who's that then, Melanie?'
Apparently John Peel was ill once in hospital and Melanie was sent along by her record company to visit him in hospital and play him some songs to cheer him up. That was it, end of fucking story.'
It was unsurprisingly a very great pleasure to interview Johnny Marr for HSIN? This is an extract from the transcript and contains material which wasn’t included in the book.
rk: ......this perplexing word ‘indie’…
jm: I had a kind of expertise through the study of records like a lot of people, you can be a 13 or 14 year old connoisseur if you like, just by reading the back of a record sleeve and I’m not unusual in that regard, but record labels did send out, the label sent out a message about the band, as you know. So Wire being on Harvest sent out a very interesting message because you liked the music and you liked the band and then there was this other dimension to it that was slightly unexpected and in that particular case, was all the more intriguing.
I wondered why I was drawn to it because I was too young for it to be a political decision against the majors. The idea of independence was almost like a given to me really ‘cause as a person it’s always been very, very, important to me. My parents thought it would be a good thing for me, I cooked for myself, I fixed my clothes, I had part time jobs and travelled about on my own. I was given a lot of freedom and responsibility and was very independent as a kid and I still am and I think it’s terribly important. Major organisations seemed to be a bit of a non option really when I was starting to put bands together, just subconsciously you felt like you were…the times were all about people like Factory and for a start, I came out of post punk and everybody around me was older than me and they’d been through punk …. but I liked the idea of the independents perhaps more.
With the record labels from around the punk days and my early teenage life that I understood, I rightly or wrongly made a connection between that and something about the 60s, the records and the movements as well as figures like Andrew Oldham and Phil Spector and Warhol. There was something in the sounds, a maverick quality and an attitude, you could say it was almost what the 60s represented at that time - I’m talking about in the mid 70s -what the 60s then started to represent after all that bland mid 70s culture. To a 12 or 13 year old people like Brian Epstein appeared to be very maverick…even if it’s only on a personal level, he was definitely an outsider whether he liked it or not. And you started to learn more about figures like Joe Orton, anyway that quality definitely resurfaced during the late 70s. It was that interesting idea that Jon Savage pointed out in Englands Dreaming that you saw, the older, more intellectual people who were like the more radical of the 60s guys, who stuck around, making the connection with the switched on younger people and obviously that really caught fire during punk but the post punk moment in Manchester was just the greatest. It’s fascinating ‘cause Factory was still about to define itself really and in some ways it was the only game in town.
rk: Richard Boon and New Hormones, did that feel like it had slightly run its course ?
jm: I think what had happened was that by that time the Buzzcocks had this air of regality about them which by no means meant that they were written off, far from it, and I don’t want to use the word establishment either, but I’ve always said that punk, for my generation, was like the letter ‘z’ in the old alphabet and not the letter ‘a’ in the new one.
Punk was the last word in the old lexicon. That’s what it felt like for my generation anyway… everything felt about reduction …in clothes, in music,…it manifested itself in my guitar sound, even…distortion, no delays, no reverb, no solos…the philosophy of the time was entirely diy, that was a given…we weren’t calling it post-punk that was one of the great things about it. Punk was such a big label, no-one was ready to stick another one on it. You couldn’t even stick a name on what was to follow …all you had was either a suffix or a prefix…but yeah, totally diy you wouldn’t even want to be part of a major organisation of any kind, and that meant mainstream products.
It’s very interesting that indie thing because everything was getting set in place through the punk singles and cementing the image and therefore the philosophy of different people and different labels. For example if we’d have been asked to sign to Postcard, we couldn’t have signed to Postcard because it was so regional. It wouldn’t have happened…a more on the money example is had we been asked by Stevo to sign to Some Bizarre…once again it wouldn’t have happened because we were too Mancunian, but at the same time we didn’t want to sign to Factory…but we’re not just talking about the culture of independent records here, it was all the second hand shops, all the bands, all the people involved in management.
I can’t speak for everybody else but when I think back on it, into that mix, partly because the Hacienda just opening its doors in ‘82, all the new things from New York would be totally off the street too. So you got this …so that glamorous mecca that very few of us had actually been to was available second hand through New Order or our friends that were either roadieing for New Order or ACR for example. ACR went over to New York, and they came back with a load of Latin records and they made that little movie called Tribeca have you seen that ?
rk: yes I have, it’s basically an old school loft percussion session isn’t it?
jm: exactly, so if you got to see that, sat up stoned one night, somewhere, you sort of, second hand, you got this connection between Manchester and New York, and going right into that mix is Electro. So Andrew Berry who had told you when you were having your hair cut by him the day before that he was going to play J. Walter Negro or Nona Hendryx would then play it and he would’ve told the other eight people whose hair he’d cut for a quid, and so everybody liked that record, myself included. And that mix of everything was one of the crucial things going into The Smiths.
rk: So when you were in Blenheim Crescent looking round the shelves of the Rough Trade warehouse it probably didn’t seem as happening a place as a Manchester record shop for example, although it was obviuosly the kind of place that stacked a lot of records…
jm: That’s a really interesting question… …all of those boxes and boxes of records that you were skipping over, were full of records that I probably wouldn’t have bought anyway…so in that respect, my friends’ record shops in Manchester were a better place for me to hang out in…particularly the music I was liking then because I was liking a lot of old stuff…but anyway, that didn’t stop us sampling their wares. I think I’ve still got about 5 boxes of Rank and File albums in my basement now! The ones that I did get from Rough Trade that I really liked at the time were I think Rain Parade, Dream Syndicate…the stuff that was on Slash…and everybody knows I was a Gun Club freak…so it was definitely a different kind of scenario to what was going on in Manchester and obviously not as provincial.
rk: Did playing Glastonbury in ’84 feel like a Rough Trade thing to do ?
jm: Yeah, we played Glastonbury probably somewhat reluctantly and I probably enjoyed the gig in St Austell the night before much more and the one in Blackpool before that even more. We were steered towards Glastonbury by the people in Rough Trade.
I’d say the same would probably be true, say of New Order and maybe even the Bunnymen who had older people around them, with maybe radical hippie leanings…because Glastonbury was a million miles away from what it means now, but I’m so glad that we did it because it was… subconsciously it was one of the last opportunities to get together in the community and be political.
For someone like myself and I suspect someone like Bernard Sumner at that time…to go and play at a festival like that, aesthetically it was painted with the old hippie kind of idea. It was really tainted by the bad films of the Isle of Wight, it seemed very much out of time. I spoke to this kid doing his dissertation about Glastonbury and he was asking me about how The Smiths had put in an appearance there, and he really, he was horrified by what I was saying. He really wanted me to say ‘oh yeah yeah it was like an incredible big turning point in our career and we looked over and there was 100,000 people there’, in his mind, all he’s seeing is Coldplay at Glastonbury, or …it was a legendary night on the Pyramid Stage or on the nokia stage, whatever…I had to explain, it was a political act. I didn’t think we were a festival band, cause festivals just meant…it was a dying idea really…not really what we were about…our songs were very short, it was when we played Glastonbury I realised how quirky and short our songs were!
I have been reading from the KLF chapter of HSIN? fairly frequently recently.
One of the first questions that often gets asked afterwards is whether the duo actually burned a million pounds. I spoke to Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty about the K Foundation as well as the KLF but none of the K Foundation material made it into HSIN? I’m thinking of possibly using the K Foundation transcripts in another book.
This is a picture taken by Kevin Westerburg at Kings Cross Station in August 1994. Cauty and Drummond had just returned from the Isle of Jura where they may have burned a million pounds. The suitcase that Drummond’s hand is resting on labeled ‘Abandoned’ may even contain the ashes of the burned banknotes.
If ever a picture told a story….
I had asked Jimmy about the period between the final KLF performance at The Brits in 1992 and their initial conceptions and thoughts for the K Foundation.
‘After The Brits, about six months later I took my Brit award down to Stonehenge in the middle of the night and buried it in the stones, then about two months later somebody found it and handed it in to the police. I don't know how....they sent it back to Scott Piering, so Scott was going, 'The police have just given me your Brit, they found it at Stonehenge.’ Brit awards have got the winner’s names on them.
And so I said to Bill, 'Let's both go down together this time and bury it again'.
So we both went down together, and we were just driving away, we were sitting in the back of the truck, driving away from Stonehenge and we just decided to have an art foundation, cause we had all this money and didn't know what to do with it.
I had had the Brit on my mantlepiece and it was just making me feel really sick. It's a really ugly thing anyway...and the whole thing....i've always hated the idea of having gold discs on the wall or awards stuff. So i was just sitting there looking at it and i just thought 'no, i can't stand this anymore' and just jumped in the car, and it's still there now, they haven't found it.
There was a big archeological dig there, and i was thinking 'oh it would be great it they found it' ....they didn't. We buried it much deeper. The first time, it was only literally that far under the turf really, it was right in amongst the stones. It's like sort of gravel, underneath, it's really hard, and you have to be quite careful cause there's guards around so i could only just peel the turf back to get it in there, so it wasn't very good. But then the second time when Bill came we put it much deeper, so, for me it was a way of finishing it all off in my head and putting the Brit somewhere sort of symbolic really, in the sort of spiritual epicentre of whatever.
In those days the internet wasn't really happening so Bill and I used to fax each other all the time, so we've just got reams and reams of these faxes going back and forwards trying to work out, you know all those adverts and stuff.
Obviously if you've been in a hugely successful band, the aftermath of that is quite extreme, so you're in a funny space anyway, so yeah we were in a funny place at that point. An interesting place, but then obviously it got more and more weird as we thought through the K Foundation. And then after the K Foundation, I was in an even weirder place. I though the K Foundation would really level me out, but in fact it didn't it just made me more weird.
We just had this terrible amount of cash burning a hole in our pocket...a million quid, tax paid on it, just sitting in the bank, and we'd already bought a house each. I mean we were never really into having a lot of money to spend,...although actually we did spend quite a lot of money thinking about it now but we never had fast cars or anything like that...swimming pools...although i did actually have a swimming pool in one of my houses....so anyway, we got our houses. So this was just like work money really, the million pounds. And we tried loads of things to do with it, you know trying to give it away to artists, none of it really worked out. We tried to set up a charity but we couldn't really pin down what it was we were trying to do, so it didn't really work.
You end up doing really mad things, cause nobody'll say 'no, don't do that'. And I remember when I went in to meet Bill in this cafe i said 'I've got this idea of something we can do with the money' I was sort of half hoping that the guy at the bar would lean over and go 'no, you can't do that', but there was nobody to say that. We were very on the edge at that point, of I don't know what. Not insanity, but I don't know, we were just in our own bubble our own strange bubble, our own reality and everything so yeah, it was interesting, interesting times.
I don't think we really understood the way the art world was working, I think if we'd researched the art world a bit more we would have found that we should have done more research and development before just steaming in, really brashly, trying to change art history, which is what our intention was.
I was at this school thing the other night and i picked up this book by Matthew Collings, it was from years ago I'd never seen it though, and it was the K Foundation, and he just you know, really, 'the K Foundation, it's just this bloke who did a Lord of the Rings poster in the 70s and made loads of money from it, and his friend' and that was all he put, you know. Lucky i didn't see that at the time because i would've been really cross. But that kind of put down, was pretty typical of the art world actually and those sort of people who are the movers and shakers, the people who know a lot about art, they didn't like the K Foundation at all.'
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.