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Looking Rough at 30 - Rough Trade Records Come of Age

Five months before Margaret Thatcher’s landslide 1979 victory, and with Britain’s city streets still retaining the air of a depressed bomb-site, highbrow arts programme The South Bank Show appeared to have been hi-jacked by a cell of musical terrorists. Their mission in such dark times seemed to be to corrupt the nation’s already restless youth. Among the grainy live footage of earnest punk polemicists Stiff Little Fingers, the sax-led free-form skronk wail of Essential Logic, the scratchy squat-rock of The Raincoats and the disturbing synthesiser throb of Robert Rental, serious theorists discussed manifestos in clandestine fashion, seizing the means of production to create a samizdat cultural underground and, ultimately, a state of independence. It was called Rough Trade, and it was going to change your world.

Shadowy and intense, Rough Trade, founded on a punk-hippy ethic and then just a year old, was as far away from the filth and the fury of the tabloidisation of ‘Punk Rock’ as was possible. In the normal world, where the bunny-fixated schmaltz of Art Garfunkel’s ‘Bright Eyes’ had just spent six weeks at the top of the singles chart, it was shockingly clear that Rough Trade, based in its west London record emporium that had become the musical neighbourhood’s Liberty Hall, wasn’t so much a record label as a wake-up call to an alternative way of life.

Thirty years on, things may not have quite worked out as planned, but Rough Trade is still with us, still independent and still at the forefront of a permanent musical revolution. To celebrate, the label is about to embark on a package tour which, in spirit at least, resembles the one that appeared on our three-channel TV sets late one Sunday night in 1979. Headlined by Jarvis Cocker, himself an embodiment of DIY aesthetics, with Jeffrey Lewis bringing up the rear, Looking Rough at 30, which stops off at Edinburgh’s Picture House, should, after early idealism, lost teenage years and a messy twenties, be a testament to surviving the lean years to come of age and grow old, in public or otherwise, disgracefully.

Somewhere in-between all this, however, lays a trail of smash hit success with The Smiths, 1980s boom years over-expansion, bankruptcy and the subsequent loss of the label’s catalogue and name, and a split from the shop which sired it. There’s also been a triumphal twenty-first century rebirth with The Strokes, more big business strife, a 2005 Mercury Music Prize win with Antony and the Johnson’s ‘I Am A Bird Now’ album, and, in Rough Trade’s current state, a glorious return to its independent roots.

For label founder Geoff Travis, whose white-boy afro as witnessed in The South Bank Show film is sadly no longer with us, it’s serious vindication for the faith he and business partner Jeanette Lee (formerly of John Lydon’s Public Image Limited) have put into the Rough Trade ideal.

“It’s kind of a miracle we’re here, Travis reflects. “It’s been a very bumpy road. I was a kid growing up in the 60s during a time of real musical revolution. Rough Trade were a collective, and it was a really exciting time in London, when, through punk, there came this DIY approach and the idea that you didn’t need a corporation to make thngs happen, and we found ourselves in the middle of this big explosion.”

“Geoff always had good ears,” according to music writer, chair of the Mercury Music Prize and Edinburgh University lecturer Simon Frith, who presented the South Bank Show film. “The shop became a focal point for a lot of things, and he cut 50/50 deals with artists, which gave access to people who might not necessarily know where they were going. But Geoff gets on with musicians, which means he’s always had the respect of the industry.”

An early turning point came with C-81, a cassette free with the NME (after you collected six tokens, then waited twenty-eight days for delivery), which took stock of Rough Trade’s roster, from the Ornette Coleman inspired ‘harmelodic’ guitar of James ‘Blood’ Ulmer and the avant-fits of Pere Ubu, to the lover’s rock of Scritti Politti’s ‘The ‘Sweetest’ Girl,’ the label’s poppiest moment to date. After the label became distributor for the Glasgow-based Postcard Records, East Kilbride troubadour Roddy Frame’s Aztec Camera album, ‘High Land, Hard Rain’ was similarly bright. This was nothing, though, to what happened when Rough Trade signed The Smiths, and crossover success became a blessing in disguise.

“There were very dark days in the late 80s,” Travis admits now, “We grew way too big, and when the distribution arm went bankrupt and we lost the Smiths entire catalogue. But sometimes that can be healthy. You burn your house to the ground, go and live in a tent, then remind yourself why you do what you do. I’m kind of odd, because I live day to day, and all I really do is encourage the people who do interesting things, and act as a conduit.”

Jarvis Cocker is one such fruit of this approach. During the 1990s, with Travis divorced from Rough Trade entirely, he managed Pulp through the band’s commercial glory days and beyond. A revitalised Rough Trade also released Cocker’s Jarvis album in 2006. By this time, the relaunched label, supported by Sanctuary, was riding the crest of a typically eclectic musical wave, with records by Sufjan Stevens, British Sea Power, Belle and Sebastian, Eddi Reader, Antony and the Johnsons and The Libertines all in the thick of things. Even Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, whose own peripatetic career went from DIY, through the airbrushed 80s and back again, returned to the fold with his first album for a decade.

In 2007, Rough Trade severed their ties with Sanctuary, and, under the auspices of the Beggar’s group, are themselves fully independent once again. As a barometer of changing times, Rough Trade is still the alternative’s alternative. While the world has clearly caught up with it via Mercury Music Prizes and the plethora of cottage industry labels that exist today, in the wider world, things have come full circle.

“Geoff’s always stayed true to his original vision,” says Frith, “which is that you could put something out that was interesting for its own sake, but which you could sell well. That DIY culture is the essence of the British music industry. In times like these, a DIY scene doesn’t so much emerge as all the other stuff on top disappears.”

The major economic recession about to bite deep recalls the winters of discontent of the late 1970s when Rough Trade rose from its ashes. On the plus side, a new ninety minute TV documentary on Rough Trade, featuring archive clips from the South Bank show film, is currently being produced by the BBC. For the label itself, the title of Robert Wyatt’s 1982 album, ‘Nothing Can Stop Us,’ springs to mind.

“We’re still trying to be the best,” says Travis. “We’re still a long way from where we want to be. It sounds like a cliché, but we want to be more successful. You don’t get better than The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys, who were hugely successful, but most importantly made great music. That’s where Rough Trade is always aiming. We’ve got a lot of competition, from Domino and XL and all the rest. It’s a good time to be independent, but we’re not complete yet.”

Looking Rough At 30, with Jarvis Cocker and Jeffrey Lewis, The Picture House, Edinburgh, 28 November

Rough Trade Classics – The Early Years

Cabaret Voltaire – Nag Nag Nag
Primitive electro-squealch now a staple of electro-clash dance-floors

Subway Sect – Ambition
Vic Godard’s defining post-punk statement

The Raincoats – Fairytale In The Supermarket
Rad-fem squat rock in exelcis from one of Rough Trade’s earliest signings

The TV Personalities – Part Time Punks
Dan Treacy’s hilarious DIY paean to the Kings Road scene that may or may not have spawned a movement.

Scritti Politti – The ‘Sweetest’ Girl
Green Gartside’s honeyed vocal applies high theory to love and romance via sublime lovers rock. To this day, it should be number one, if only for the final verse’s couplet, ‘And politics is prior to the vagaries of science/She left because she understood the value of defiance.’ Note the conceptual inverted commas from a band who went on to have a hit named after post-modern philosopher Jacques Derrida.

Robert Wyatt – At Last I Am Free
A year before Wyatt’s cover of Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding stormed the charts, this cover of a Chic number transcended another unlikely song into something even lovelier.

Young Marble Giants – N.I.T.A.
Spooky organ-led minimalism from the recently reformed Cardiff trio, and possibly the oddest, most disembodied break-up song ever.

The Fall – Totally Wired
Mark E Smith never liked Rough Trade’s co-operative ethics much, but this pop-eyed amphetamine anthem remains one of their greatest early singles.

The Smiths – How Soon Is Now
Originally a B-side, Johnny Marr’s layered guitars turns Morrissey’s forlorn lyrics into a complex blues of depth and feeling

The Sundays – Can’t Be Sure
For a brief period Harriet Wheeler became every sappy student boy’s pin-up. Her soaring vocals prove why on this indie guitar classic.

Mazzy Star – Fade Into You
Far, far darker, Hope Sandoval sounded like she was on Mogodon on this hauntingly beautiful ballad of regret.

The List, November 2008

ends

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