In an act of shameless self-publicity:
My new book on independent labels is finally out, a press release and some quotes extracted from the text below.
Independence Days, even by the standards of author Alex Ogg’s previous work (The Hip Hop Years, No More Heroes etc) is an exhaustive undertaking. Collating more than 150 interviews, it traces the story of the UK independent record label boom of the late 70s to mid-80s. While most of the punk bands were co-opted by major labels, a new generation of independent spirits took the baton and revolutionised the course of popular music.
Discrete chapters cover Chiswick/Ace, Stiff, Rough Trade, Beggars Banquet/4AD, Crass, Factory, Cherry Red and Mute. There is also extensive coverage of Fast Product, Zoo, Clay, Small Wonder, CNT, Industrial, Good Vibrations, Postcard and myriad others. The smaller labels and their unique stories are also rigorously explored, alongside those of the Cartel distribution system. Fresh eyes are cast over familiar territory (and myths exploded in the process) and wholly new perspectives emerge as a fabulous cast of characters is profiled and their achievements weighed. From the budget DIY of Buzzcocks and The Desperate Bicycles to the grandiose packaging of Factory and 4AD and eventual chart dominance of Depeche Mode and New Order, all the key moments are documented through painstaking research, analysis and eyewitness accounts. Scheming and rivalries and fiscal brinkmanship contrast with the optimism and opportunism – and incredible diversity and quality of music – of a decade when anything seemed possible.
Published by Cherry Red
Interviewees include: Geoff Travis, Daniel Miller, Ivo Watts-Russell, Dave Robinson, Ted Carroll, Bill Drummond, Roger Armstrong, Penny Rimbaud, Richard Boon, Martin Mills, Richard Scott, Iain McNay, Mike Stone, Mike Alway, Bob Last, Terri Hooley, Bill Gilliam, Charlie Gillett, Miles Copeland, Seymour Stein, Geoff Davies etc
Roger Armstrong, Chiswick: What took time was finding a band. Even though we were inspired by the Chess brothers, and Sun and so on, we couldn’t go outside our front door and find Elvis Presley or Muddy Waters or Etta James or BB King. Obviously we were doing what they were doing, in the sense that we were recording what was on our doorstep. And that was pub bands in those days. Punk was only vaguely in the air. We wandered round looking for bands. The Feelgoods were big, so that was the sort of band we were looking for.
Ted Carroll, Chiswick: I think it was easier in a way to start an American independent label, because there was a heritage there of independent labels. There were quite a few independent labels in England, but they were quite low-level and insignificant compared to the five or six majors. There was a sense that you couldn’t do an independent label, it just wasn’t a possibility
Dave Robinson, Stiff: The whole basis of the majors is that they would be distributors and manufacturers. Because they had factories, they signed up their own groups. That’s how they started. Originally they were manufacturers and distributors. And essentially that’s all they were ever fucking good for, in my book. Even to this day, look at the chaos they’ve caused in the music industry – the fact that people are downloading for nothing and feel that music is free is all down to the attitude of the majors. They’ve buggered up everybody’s game here in the record industry.
Richard Boon, New Hormones (on Buzzcocks’ ‘Spiral Scratch’ EP): The main motivation, really, was to document this funny little activity. Howard [Devoto] was going to go back to college, so it was just to document it – a souvenir of a small group of people through a short period of time. We had no real knowledge of what we were doing.
Geoff Travis, Rough Trade: We were just living in the frenzy of each day. It was so busy. We weren’t thinking ahead at all – thinking about building an empire, or thinking about building a catalogue. We didn’t have any knowledge of that kind of thing. We were very much living in the moment. We weren’t thinking about the future at all, or missed opportunities. We were thinking – it’s really exciting to do this now.
Martin Mills, Beggars Banquet: For a long time [music] was just a hobby. When I left university I wrote to every record company asking if I could sweep the floor – and no-one answered.
Daniel Miller, Mute: I fell in love with pop music when I was zero. So I got to this point, and I thought, fuck it, I’m going to put out a record, buy a synthesizer and a tape machine. I think in the back of my mind, I thought I’d get those, and whatever happens, I’ll have a lot of fun with it. And if I think it’s any good, I’ll put a record out. Nobody will buy it, nobody will be interested, but I just want the experience of doing it, then I can get along with my life!
Bob Last, Fast Product: We always stated that we never claimed to be an independent label – we were more dependent, because we didn’t have any money. The idea that independent is better – it’s a much more complex picture. There was a certain moment where a gap opened up in the media world where you could get attention for things you were doing. For a while, the major companies lost the plot and lost control.
Ivo Watts-Russell, 4AD: What really inspired me far more than punk itself was ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ on Ork and Pere Ubu. Those were the first signs of – what is this? Really, punk in England was gobbled up by the majors. Extraordinarily so. Ninety-nine per cent of it was just taken by the majors, because there weren’t labels and a system to deal with it independently. And it was the onslaught of music that was inspired by the attitude of punk and the journalism and the change of fashion of the time – a system to take care of that HAD to be created.
Steve Shy, Shy Talk Fanzine, on Factory (and the late Tony Wilson): Tony, as everyone will tell you – everyone loves him to death, but no-one will tell him to his face. Everyone tells him how much they hate him. He’s done so much for Manchester, but you must never, ever let him know. I can remember once, they were filming for So It Goes, either a Clash or Magazine show, and he said, ‘Do you want a drink?’ ‘Yeah.’ There were about three of us. He went to the bar and went straight to the front. The woman said, ‘I don’t give a shit who you are, you get to the back of the queue’. So he went to the back of the queue. By the time he got to the front, I think he was buying a round for about 30 people. Nobody says thank you to Tony, everyone just takes.
Bill Drummond, Zoo: We folded because of finances. Tony Wilson told me, ‘Bill, don’t do that’, when I was about to sign the Bunnymen to a record label in London. I had this conversation. ‘Look, you’ve got a well-paid job at Granada TV, you can do this financially.’ We couldn’t. We didn’t have the finances he had, or the confidence and media savvy. He was already a major figure in the media in the north-west. We were still on the dole. To get off the dole, we had to sign to a major record company.
Terri Hooley, Good Vibrations: It was a chance for me to relive my youth – and I haven’t stopped. It was all good fun at the time. Nothing had happened in Belfast since the 60s with Them. There was no recording industry here as such. It just seemed, from everything I’d learned before, that I was waiting for this moment in my life.”
Seymour Stein, on signing the Undertones: Paul McNally was working for me at the time, and we’re listening to John Peel. All of a sudden this record comes on. And I screamed, ‘Pull over, pull over, stop the car!’ He thought it was something to do with my headache. ‘Are you all right? Do you want to go to the hospital?” He turned white as a ghost. I said ‘No, it’s this record, it’s fantastic!’ God bless him, John Peel played it over and over that night. And he gave out all the details. And I said, ‘I’ve got to sign this band, they are fucking amazing!’ I said to Paul, ‘Look, my name is Stein, yours is McNally. Don’t you think it’s better that you go to Northern Ireland?’
Mike Alway, Cherry Red: The records that had the influence on me to go in a ‘light’ music direction that ran contrary to the way things were going? They were ‘Ambition’ by Vic Godard, the first Durutti Column album on Factory and the Young Marble Giants album on Rough Trade. All those things said to me that ‘light’ music has a place in this revolution. I saw a role, a place for Cherry Red.
Richard Scott, The Cartel/Rough Trade: The Cartel started because there wasn’t sufficient room in the back room of Rough Trade to service everyone. The only way to deal with it was to box up stuff to send out to the good regional shops so they could deal with the other shops in their area. I also thought it was important to try to set up centres where labels and shops could focus regionally rather than be in London – that was politically important. I saw London as being over-important.
Penny Rimbaud, Crass: The anarchist thing wasn’t because we wanted to be seen as anarchists, it was because we were trying to say, to both right and left, fuck off, we don’t want to be identified with you. We’re not part of any Trotyskyite scheme or some capitalist heist. We’re individuals doing what we want to do. Actually, we then had to learn classical anarchism very quickly. We’d always lived as anarchist individuals, but we didn’t have any history – it was a crash course. We hoisted ourselves on our own petard in that sense.