Monday, March 16, 2009

Balance of Trade

On Friday night BBC4 devoted two and a half hours to the history of Rough Trade Records in the form of an At The BBC compilation and chiefly a documentary (both links UK only, active until Friday night) 150 minutes? One of their artists managed it in less than two.

Firstly, full credit for the Rough Trade At The BBC programme, which does its job admirably in seclusion, in that it reveals there was once a time when bands who sounded like Young Marble Giants, or the Raincoats, or Delta 5, or the Violent Femmes, or even Ivor Cutler, would get attention and live performance on TV exposure. We'd never even heard Weekend, Alison Statton's post-YMG project, before. The one caveat is that the Strokes performance is Last Nite on Top Of The Pops when the documentary features clips of New York City Cops, recorded on the same set but we're fairly certain never before shown on the BBC. Unlike, say, Australian television.

The documentary opens with that totem of independent thought and the triumph of the will of DIY in music... Duffy. Managed by Geoff Travis' current assistant Jeannette Lee, but as an A&M/Polydor artist not actually part of this story. And this isn't some prime-time for terrestrial dumbing down either, people will have been attracted towards watching this for stories of the shop and the first incarnation of the label. Don't throw us a bone we'll reject. It also makes no sense as the narrative hurtles straight back to the dawn of punk and Marc Warren's voiceover talks of "radical idealists and maverick musicians". So there seems to be your tale - once Rough Trade was a home for the waifs and strays, then they saw sense and started working with musicians who would sell records to a predetermined gap in the mass market ("after three decades of defiant independence (they) finally made it to number one"), and we all lived happily ever after. (They pull the same extension of brand trick in both programmes with Polygram/Island's Pulp)

Obviously it's not like that for the majority, but the story of Rough Trade doesn't have the linear storytelling quality of an Factory or even a Postcard - so many strands have to be pulled together and there's not a media friendly svengali at the back of it, just an idealist who initially got lucky, opening just before punk broke in the middle of the back streets and squats of Ladbroke Grove, although it does cover how the locale in the Jamaican community helped them bridge the gap between punk and reggae (although Don Letts might have something to say about the amount of crossover influence).

Then the documentary lands on The Desperate Bicycles, Green Gartside shows up to refer to its anti-waiting for the man influence, and then some actual documentary footage of squat era Scritti Politti is edited in, and suddenly you feel on safer grounds.

So we get onto the distribution arm and the way it spread the Rough Trade ethos across the country, and then took the leap to forming the label with an open ended, learning as they went along - "we weren't interested in building an empire" - attitude. Time may be against it, but the documentary does give it a good go trying to lump everything into some sort of coherent narrative, with good screen time for the Raincoats and Robert Wyatt discussing the political approach in the face of Thatcher's election, but when trying to uphold the idea of Rough Trade as being the little man against the big corporations it then flakes out and admits most of its artists went off to sign for majors anyway.

The Scritti Politti thing proves to be something of a milestone, as Gartside explains the change from jerky post-punk collective to solitary soul boy and hence from home-made to slick studio. Commercial, then, that the RT collective saw as the great satan. Now we're fully conversant with our favourite bands being licenced to adverts and Skins, which makes the whole "selling out" debate that once raged freely seem distant, especially when the subject is "band on label makes different style of music that ordinary people might like." Richard Scott still calls it "a cancer". (And this, by the way, is about The Sweetest Girl, which as far as pop as commercialism in 1981 goes was hardly Prince Charming) David Thomas of Pere Ubu claims this was when the label were starting to look for hitmakers; Travis counters "I don't think I've ever gone looking for a hit" as Aztec Camera are introduced by Russell Harty. Er, when on a major label. As were Scritti Politti when they finally had proper hits. Their top forty breakthrough turns out to be Wyatt's Shipbuilding. This isn't exactly Creation Records 1996, but things looked different then.

And they looked very different when the Smiths turned up. Things have already changed and there's clearly a lot of residual bitterness between Travis and Scott when the shop has to be sold and distribution and label fall out, third parties suggesting this is when it stops being a bit of fun. Did The Smiths really invent 'indie'? It's an opinion that could only have formed recently - they sold records and had guitars while seeming independent, see. (Bernard Butler states here that the Smiths arrived as an opposition to Wet Wet Wet, whose first hit came three months before Johnny Marr left) Success only breeds more contempt, albeit internal this time around, and Marr notes that the democratic model as it was couldn't survive what was happening with his band. Richard Scott notes with disenchantment that Travis thought that Morrissey could be another Boy George just before it's noted that Scott later secured the lease on a warehouse property that moved the label physically from its beginnings, let alone spiritually. That new structure led to all-out conflict between the two halves of the organisation, and carry on past the end of the Smiths' period on the label. Very unglamorously, the label falls apart due to straight up bad cashflow during a high point for the independent label spirit they commandeered. After managing Pulp to success, they decide to restart the label and go straight up for hitmakers. We finish, again, with Duffy and her "development deal", which is presented as a great achievement for RT despite being common practice for new artists on those dastardly major labels (Which she was actually on, of course.) She gets more screen time than anyone actually on the label since 1991. Although her not being on the label isn't mentioned, and neither is RT's long time position under the Sanctuary arm, it's almost a moral for the industry war written by the winners. Don't get big ideas about independence, kids, you'll fail.

Mind you, this is a documentary that at one point suggests the Woodentops were commercial hitmakers.


Anonymous said...

Duffy didn't sign with Polydor until the summer of 2007, so her development deal was down to Rough Trade

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