On the eve of a package tour celebrating the independent but ambitious ethic that gave birth to an inspirational force within UK music, Neil Cooper charts the highs and lows of Rough Trade Records
Five months before Margaret Thatcher’s landslide 1979 victory, and with Britain’s city streets still retaining the air of a depressed bombsite, 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 the west London record emporium that had become the 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 be a testament to surviving the lean years and coming of age, in public or otherwise, disgracefully.
The Rough Trade story is a rough trail: from smash hit success with The Smiths and 1980s boom years over-expansion, to bankruptcy, the subsequent loss of the label’s catalogue and name, and a split from the shop which sired it. There’s also the triumphal 21st century rebirth with The Strokes, more big business strife, a 2005 Mercury Music Prize win with Antony and the Johnsons’ 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 things happen, and we found ourselves in the middle of this big explosion.’
‘Geoff always had good ears,’ says 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 high point was C-81, a cassette distributed free with the NME (after you collected six tokens, then waited 28 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, when the glory of huge crossover success turned out to be a poisoned chalice.
‘There were very dark days in the late 80s,’ Travis admits now. ‘We grew way too big, and when the distribution arm went bankrupt 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 debut solo album, Jarvis in 2006. By this time, supported by Sanctuary Records, the relaunched label was riding the crest of a typically eclectic musical wave, releasing 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. In 2007, they severed their ties with Sanctuary, and, under the auspices of the Beggars Group are themselves fully independent once again. While Mercury Music Prizes and the plethora of cottage industry labels that have sprung up in their wake show that the world has caught up with Rough Trade, but as a barometer of changing times, they’re still a prime example of the alternative’s alternative.
‘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 recalls the winters of discontent of the late 1970s when Rough Trade rose. The label itself is booming, though; 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.
‘We’re still trying to be the best,’ says Travis. ‘ 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. 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, Fri 28 Nov.
‘Nag Nag Nag’
Genius primitive electro-squelch, now a staple of electro-clash dancefloors.
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.
‘At Last I Am Free’
This cover of a Chic number transcended an song into something even lovelier.
Young Marble Giants
Spooky minimalism from the recently reformed trio, possibly the oddest, most disembodied break-up song ever.
Mark E Smith never liked Rough Trade’s co-operative ethics, but this pop-eyed anthem remains one of their greatest early singles.
‘How Soon Is Now’
Johnny Marr’s layered guitars turn Morrissey’s forlorn lyrics into a complex blues of depth and feeling.
‘Can’t Be Sure’
Harriet Wheeler was briefly every sappy student boy’s pin-up. Her soaring vocals on this indie classic prove why.
‘The Modern Age’
A blast of laconic cool from back when Julian Casablancas was vital and dangerous.
Belle & Sebastian
‘Piazza, New York Catcher’
Stuart Murdoch’s skilled wordsmithery is perfectly captured in this understated gem.
‘Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)’
The beautiful bluster that opened arguably one of the best albums of the last ten years, Funeral.
The song that started it all, a molotov of rambunctious, messy wit and energy.
British Sea Power
A tense, fragile blast of eccentric indie rock fresh air blasted from the pebbles of Brighton beach.
Antony and the Johnsons
‘You are My Sister’
Could have picked pretty much anything from I am a Bird Now, it’s that compelling.
The Hold Steady
‘Sequestered in Memphis’
Big, fat, teary indie boy anthems return to RT with America’s most poetic punks.