‘A Kind of Art Kamikaze Mission’ Mike Alway on el Records
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.