from when indie meant independent- the Rough Trade story
from when indie meant independent- the Rough Trade story

from when indie meant independent- the Rough Trade story
from when indie meant independent- the Rough Trade story
Rough Trade is one of the key independent labels who changed the way we listened to music. Neil Taylor’s book perfectly captures the chaos and the magic of the eternal label that gave us bands as diverse as the Smiths, Stiff Little Fingers, the Monochrome Set and Alabama Shakes…

Book Extract extracted/Adapted from Document & Eyewitness: An Intimate History of Rough Trade by Neil Taylor, published by Orion Books in mass-market paperback 22 April 2012.

The book is available from all good bookshops, online retail sites, the Rough Trade group of stores and at Amazon: Neil Taylor can be contacted here…



Rough Trade first opened its doors at 202 Kensington Park Road in West London in February, 1976, almost to the day that the Sex Pistols first appeared in th national music press (NME, 20/02/76). By 1978 it was expanding at a phenomenal rate, largely due to the Punk and DIY boom, and decided to start a record label. Early releases included signature works by , Stiff Little Fingers, Cabaret Voltaire, Subway Sect, The Fall, The Pop Group, Scritti Politti, Essential Logic, Young Marble Giants, The Blue Orchids and The Raincoats. The company had also begun setting up a formidable Distribution arm, which would go on to serve the independent sector up until the company’s collapse in 1991, handling artists and labels as diverse as Joy Division, Greensleeves, Orange Juice, Crass, The Specials, Mute, Crass and The KLF.

In the extracts below, the reader is introduced to one seminal band’s arrival on the label (The Raincoats) and another’s departure (The Smiths).

GINA BIRCH (The Raincoats): Before moving to London, I’d been at Trent Poly doing a Foundation Course and while I was there I got involved with what you might call a conceptual art tribe, people involved in Art & Language. It was very political because there were always lots of factions, but it was also very exciting. When I moved to London, though, and started studying at Hornsey Art College, although the course I was on was interesting, and it had some interesting fellow students ”“ like Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter who painted horses, and Anish Kapoor ”“ there was no core to it, no tribe like there had been in Nottingham, so I became lonely. I was living with a bunch of drug dealers in Islington when Neil from The Tesco Bombers, said I could move into his squat in West London. This was a squat within a group of squats and this became my new tribe. Richard Dudanski, who played drums in the 101’ers was there with his partner Esperanta, whose sister Palmolive played in The Slits.

There was this great community of punks and hippies and everyone joined in. We all used the Tea Room, which was a kind of local café and food co-op in a squat where for 20p you could get brown rice and vegetables, a pudding and a glass of sarsaparilla. The punks and the hippies really joined at this point and in some ways the DIY ethic chimed with many of the Hippie ideals. I suppose that’s what we were really ”“ middle class punk hippies.

Even by the time I’d left Nottingham in 1976, I already had a kind of proto-Punk look. Fine artists had then been going for a look loosely based on Abstract Expressionists and Conceptualists, drainpipe trousers, jumpers with holes in, a look which when I trawled the charity shops of London was augmented with mohair, spotty dresses gathered up with old ties for a belt, funny old boots, in fact anything that looked peculiar. We had lots of discussion about punk, heated arguments: Neil and Richard were ambivalent at first, but Palmolive was into it straight away.

ANA DA SILVA (The Raincoats): I knew Gina from college and she hung out in the house I lived in with my cousin Manuel. I’d been to the Patti Smith gig at the Roundhouse and as a result of that I had cut my hair like hers but it was a long while before we thought about forming a band. By 1978 there were a few all-female bands and we put the Slits on at our college but it wasn’t until we were sitting in the pub one day that we just decided to form a band. At the beginning, there wasn’t a conscious desire to make it all-women, in fact I felt initially it would be better to have a mix of the sexes.

GINA BIRCH: It was after I’d seen The Slits at Harlesden that I became aware of what I wanted to do for the first time. Previously, I’d been a consumer of music, a supporter, without really feeling I could be involved. But after I saw The Slits, I thought, ”˜Why aren’t I doing this?’

I went out and bought a bass guitar ”“ a bass because it had four strings and I thought it would be easier to play ”“ and two spray cans of bright blue paint. I took all the knobs off the guitar and spray-painted it. Nick Turner came to play drums and Ross Crighton, who was working at Rough Trade, came and played guitar. Tymon Dogg gave us a support slot. Within three weeks, somewhat bizarrely, we did a tour in Poland. All the posters used the words Punk Rock and the locals would tear out those words and pin them to their clothes. People threw eggs and tomatoes at us, whether through love or disgust I don’t know. The reviews described us as ”˜whores escaped from prison’.

After Ross left, Jeremie Frank joined. She had these wonderful green high-heel snakeskin boots and it all gave us a bit of a Runaways feel, but it wasn’t going to last, fun though it was. Then Patrick Keiller briefly joined and that was when Geoff gave us some demo time.

PATRICK KEILLER (Temporary Raincoat, later Film Maker): I was teaching an afternoon a week up at North East London Polytechnic, where Richard Scott (Rough Trade Distribution) had taught, and had a friend who introduced me to Gina and Ana. I think Gina might have heard me play at the 1978 Degree Show. Anyway, I went to some practise sessions and played a gig with The Raincoats at the Cryptic One Club and then we spent a day in Spaceworld recording some demos. These were not considered suitable for release. I remember (perhaps wrongly) that Gina told me that Geoff thought one of the tracks sounded too much like Them’s Here Comes The Night, and I worried that this was probably a result of my contribution.

ANA DA SILVA: I think essentially that was all Patrick could play. People would hear the tapes and say, ”˜It’s good, but it sounds like Here Comes The Night”¦’

After Palmolive got kicked out of The Slits and joined The Raincoats, we made a decision to go all female. It was Palmolive who put the advert in Compendium Books in Camden ”“ “Wanted Female ”“ Strength Not Skill”. Rock is very male in its outlook and we were often judged by the fact that we were women. So, it was important to us to try to be prominent so that we could be an inspiration to other women, to help them get the courage to go out and do things like be in bands themselves.

SHIRLEY O’LOUGHLIN (The Raincoats): That was such an important moment when they decided to make the band all female. Histories of music ”“ well, of course they are always the writers’ histories in the end. It is often the male experience. They are often written from the writer’s record collection. For me, seeing Patti Smith or The Slits play was far more exciting than watching The Clash.

GINA BIRCH: Vicky Aspinall joined after seeing the ad. Vicky came to see us with her friend Caroline and Vicky thought we were terrible but her friend thought we were good and talked her into joining us. Vicky was a classically trained violinist and had been involved in feminist politics, which was a whole different world to us. We were more grounded in art, language and philosophy, but not politics I suppose. So when Vicky came into the band this whole other agenda was forced upon us, the idea that politics couldn’t be ignored. Once the Feminist word got out the bag we were asked about it all the time. It was good and bad. I’m quite proud of what we did. But at that time there was such a dreary aspect to Feminism. Were you allowed to wear lipstick? What exactly were you allowed to do? The Raincoats were perceived as dreary and humourless, which was ridiculous, really. I thought we were vibrant, funny and fun people.

GEOFF TRAVIS: I loved them for their spirit and their sheer nerve, just the aliveness of it all. I think Ana’s singing is a fabulous foil to Gina’s bass playing. Ana has this great, emphatic delivery: Gina’s bass is much smoother. They made a lovely, glorious noise together, especially when they had Palmolive in the group. Palmolive was one of the best drummers and had a style that was just unique. She wasn’t trying to be Keith Moon. And I loved it that she played with such a big smile on her face.

There weren’t many bands around at that time, either, who were prepared to write about the things The Raincoats wrote about ”“ things like supermarkets.

GINA BIRCH: Mayo Thompson was going to produce the single Fairytale In The Supermarket and came to see us rehearse. We talked about things. Mayo told us about drones and how we could adapt them to Vicky’s violin playing which we were nervous about fitting into what was essentially a rock framework. He explained to us how John Cale used the violin in unusual ways. The less Vicky played, and the longer the note became, the more we loved it. Mayo was a very good producer for us because he helped us get character out of that sound. Geoff was more a pair of ears, someone who would suddenly leap up and shout, ”˜That’s it!’

SHIRLEY O’LOUGHLIN: That first single, which came out in May, did incredibly well and I think they sold about 25,000 copies in total. It made it to number 99 in the charts!

**********

By 1985 Rough Trade was riding high on the success of The Smiths, but a dispute over the band’s masterwork .

JOHNNY MARR: The story of what happened is simple and sadly not as interesting as people think it is. We’d been together with Rough Trade for a long time, very tight. The band had had no manager so the two principal members of the group were dealing with the label and, like any relationship when you are very close and you are spending a lot of time together, things got blown out of proportion from both sides.

We had a couple of people around us who had given us bad and negative advice and had told us that we were out of contract. To be fair to us, and maybe to those people, what you tend to do when you have success is think you need to expand. Maybe that was also at the back of our minds. We’d put all these records out on Rough Trade, maybe now we could have a relationship with EMI which would be the same. We’d still put records out with integrity, we’d still do our own sleeves, blah, blah, blah, we wouldn’t turn into a majors band, we would be exactly as we were.

I don’t remember specific thoughts, I just remember the negativity towards Rough Trade which was basically the band throwing a fit and this lawyer shopping for a deal for us, which we didn’t have the right to do and then Rough Trade saying we owed them a couple more albums. We were in the middle of making The Queen Is Dead when it all blew up and I don’t know how Rough Trade found out about what we were doing but it caused a standoff.

We had, of course, never said that we were going to take The Queen Is Dead to EMI, so serving an injunction on the album… I don’t know where they thought they were going to take that one. If you ask them, people at Rough Trade would talk about in much more sombre tones; but it was a serious situation.

I remember we had a rare weekend break and I went back up to Manchester on the Friday. On the Saturday, I was sitting with my guitar technician, who used to live with us, and we were getting pretty laid and enjoying some refreshment. It got to about one o’clock in the morning when I just got myself so wound up I said to him, Right, come on, we’ll go and get the master tapes, we’ll go and liberate our soon-to-be-classic album from the clutches of the mad.

So, we got in the car and set out for Guilford in a blizzard of snow. It was already hazardous before we even got out of Manchester and it took us about seven hours to get to Surrey. We got there about nine o’clock in the morning. Luckily, the kitchen door of the studio was open so in I went, having said to my guitar technician to leave the engine running for a speedy getaway. I rummaged around trying to find the tape cupboard.

I think someone had seen us and phoned up the owner, who turned up, so I just came clean to him and told him that Rough Trade had injuncted the album, which I couldn’t accept, and that I would just get the tapes and be out of his face. He told me he would have to speak to the label and I told him if he did that then I wouldn’t work at the studio again. He stood his ground. I was lucky really that he turned up and not the cops. That was the end of my pirate adventure. I had to drive back up to Manchester for the next five or six hours. What felt like a good idea at one o’clock in the morning didn’t come to anything. I’m glad it didn’t really.

JO SLEE (Rough Trade Record Label): The lawyers argued for four months while we got more and more desperate. We knew from the injunction that we had some right on our side, so it was a case of us grinding our teeth and standing by while lawyers made lots of money. I was talking to Morrissey at this time, in fact I’d tell him where we were up to on our side, and he would tell me about where they were up to on theirs. A further frustration was that Geoff was very proprietary about it all and we were only allowed to find out legal information through him. It did feel sometimes as if Geoff deferred to the lawyers in the most aggravating way. On one occasion when Geoff was away on business, Peter Walmsley, who had trained as a lawyer and knew that lawyers worked for you and not the other way around, rang up our lawyers and gave them hell. When Geoff found out about this he accused Peter of being ungracious, but I knew that if Peter was on the case something would happen, because Peter tended not to take no for an answer. The opportunity arose when Geoff went to America.

Every time we were close to reaching agreement it seemed The Smiths lawyer would raise further objections – a smokescreen. That seemed to be a tactic. So, at about 9pm one night, while Geoff was in America, when we thought we were finally close to a resolution, Will (Keen, Rough Trade Records), Peter and I were looking over yet more objections sent in at the eleventh hour. Will was always very good at demystifying the substance of the various disputes. We were desperate. I asked Will if the current niggles were material to the contract and he said he didn’t think that they were; they were things that could be sorted out later. I said, would I be justified in ringing Morrissey up and telling him this.

Morrissey was, I imagine, pretty desperate himself at this point. When he finished a record he wanted it released the next day and we were approaching a very long time without a Smiths record out. If the dispute dragged on too much longer it would mean the release date for the album would get pushed near the Christmas period and might get lost in the glut of releases.

I phoned Morrissey and told him about the further objections and he said that he appreciated all we had done and that my calls had helped keep him sane in the bad times. I gave him all the reasons why The Smiths and Rough Trade would be the only losers if the thing dragged on. I was always completely, even compulsively, frank with him. We all went home and about eleven o’clock that night Morrissey rang back very angry and very determined: ”˜Please can someone, preferably Peter, bring the contract over tomorrow morning and we’ll sign’.

PETER WALMSLEY (Rough Trade Record Label): I went to see them with the contract and it was the probably the first time Morrissey had properly acknowledged me. The whole thing had been a really silly argument. It was not only soul destroying but it put the whole company at risk. It always amused me, though, that they were able to release singles while proclaiming to the world how awful we were.

The problem Geoff had over the matter was that to an extent his head had to be turned two ways. He didn’t like confrontation, anyway. But he had to be a friend of the band without being seen to be their lackey ”“ he was, after all, their voice to the record label, and at the same time he had a responsibility to the record label to act in the right way.

JO SLEE: The agreement was signed by Morrissey, Johnny and Peter Walmsley. We hit the ground running and had a single out, Big Mouth Strikes Again, and the album all within about eight weeks. I was happily able to go and take the tapes to the CBS cutting room where, several months earlier I had prematurely placed an order for The Queen Is Dead to be cut. The engineer, Tim Young, pointed to a mangy cup of coffee which had been made for me and had been sitting on the side for about three months. They certainly hadn’t been holding their breath on the job. Tim said to me, ”˜I just put it in the microwave once a week in case you show up.’



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