November 19, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Martin Aston's Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD is an exhaustive history of the seminal indie record label.
In 4AD's first three years alone, between 1980 and 82, there were over 50 releases by over 30 artists, so writing Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD to a soundtrack of records was an overwhelming, immersive experience – luckily 4AD's strike rate has been unusually good over a 34 year stretch, while label skipper Ivo Watts-Russell did adopt a more restrictive policy – he disliked having more than six signings at any one time in case he couldn't devote enough care and attention to each. But that's still an endless Sophie's Choice when it comes to a Book Notes playlist. At least I could shave off the last 13 years, as my book concentrates on Watts-Russell's era, up to 1999, in which 4AD established a brand identity beyond its peers, as a result of one man's maverick, obsessive vision and his attention to packaging/production through in-house designer Vaughan Oliver's equally unique and innovative sleeve design. So I'm going to let the book decide: these are the songs that link to the chapter headings, all 25 of them…
Chapter 1: Did I Dream You Dreamed About Me?
The book opens with Watts-Russell talking to film director David Lynch, regarding the opening scene – set at a high school prom - of his forthcoming film, Blue Velvet. Lynch wanted to license "Song To The Siren", Watts-Russell's all-time favourite song, written by his all-time favourite singer, the late Tim Buckley, as covered by This Mortal Coil, a studio project spearheaded by Watts-Russell himself. The musicians were the inimitable Scots duo Cocteau Twins, Elizabeth Fraser and guitarist Robin Guthrie, whose sound nailed 4AD's core sensibilities: "beauty, mystery, dream logic and emotional fragility," reckoned UK newspaper The Guardian. Hearing Fraser sing "did I dream you dreamed about me?"is a shivery highlight. Buckley's estate scuppered the plan by demanding too much money, but the track lives on, having been covered over 20 times since TMC's version.
Chapter 2 - Piper At the Gates of Oundle
Watts-Russell's home town is Oundle, a rural enclave in the mid-England county of Northamptonshire. His musical epiphany, aged 12, was The Jimi Hendrix Experience's debut single "Hey Joe" on BBC TV's weekly flagship music show Top Of The Pops, in early 1967. Hendrix's sound – liquid, sensual, aching, unsettling, alien – was a subversive act in the confines of the family's farmhouse lounge. Watts-Russell immediately began listening for more signs - and Pink Floyd's equally lysergic debut album Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was one of the first two albums he bought, leaving the past toward a palpable future.
Chapter 3 - 1980: Forward
In 1980, Watts-Russell was an area manager for the London-based record retail chain Beggars Banquet, which had started a record label and soon funded Watts-Russell and co-worker Peter Kent to start an offshoot. They named Axis for its first batch of four singles, but an existing Axis complained, forcing them to think again. A flyer for Axis' launch had the words, "1980 FORWARD-1980 FWD-1984 AD-4AD"… and 1980 was the start of it all, when one of the Axis quartet, Bauhaus' "Dark Entries", instantly injected the necessary funds to allow 4AD to release a lot more records.
Chapter Four - Art Of Darkness
Bauhaus's secondary effect was instigating the 'gothic' tag that 4AD struggled to throw off early on, though Ivo says he was, "just responding to things I enjoyed, that I emotionally connected to, that had possibilities." Instrumental albums by ex-Wire singer Colin Newman and proto-post-rockers Dif Juz, as well as Matt 'The The' Johnson's first album Burning Blue Soul offered other tensions, debut albums by Bauhaus, The Birthday Party and Modern English mined a dark, troubled seam. Yet The Birthday Party's single "Release The Bats" rises above them all, a gleefully vitriolic and anger stew of humping guitars reinforcing singer Nick Cave's brattish authority.
Chapter 5 – The Other Otherness
The phrase was coined by 4AD fanatic Craig Roseberry, who grew up in 1970s New Jersey, a world/mindset apart from the UK music he was starting to fall for, such as Japan, Bauhaus and especially Cocteau Twins' startling debut album Garlands."It defied definition, but evoked an esoteric version of music like Siousxie and the Banshees, music to the left of what was already left of centre…I understood from 4AD artwork, which was just as left field, that 4AD was coming from an art aesthetic more than simply music. It was informing me how to see the world."
Chapter 6 – The Family That Plays Together
The title is a 1968 album by Spirit, one of Watts-Russell's favourite bands from his psychedelic teen years. But the reference is the communal spirit at 4AD bands, where bands supported each other on tour or played on each other's records, This Mortal Coil's album was drawn from Cocteau Twins, Modern English, Dead Can Dance, The Wolfgang Press and Xmal Deutschland.
Chapter 7 – Dreams Made Flesh, But It'll End In Tears
"Dreams Made Flesh" was one of two tracks from Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance that Watts-Russell chose for This Mortal Coil's debut album It'll End In Tears. To find one singer with an extraordinary gift like Fraser was lucky; to find two was proper A&R talent-spotting. Strangely, both voices were united in their love of the ‘speaking-in-tongues' style known as glossolalia. The album mixed originals with covers (Roy Harper, Alex Chilton, Colin Newman classic) but hindsight proved it right; the end of his relationship with 4AD staffer Deborah Edgley was just one romance that ended in tears, as did 4AD's relationship with Cocteau Twins.
Chapter 8 - The Art Shit Tour and Other Stories
In 1985, Dif Juz supported Cocteau Twins on a UK tour that culminated at Sadler's Wells Theatre, London's premier home of ballet. Dif Juz are one of 4AD's most unknown treasures, and their Extractions album, starting with the eight-minute "Crosswinds", pinpointed an exploratory fusion that pinpointed 4AD's habit of signing trailblazers and eschewing trends, allowing artists to exist in worlds of their own making, without compromising their vision.
Chapter 9 – Les Mystère De Delicate Cutters
1986 was the start of the great leap forward, via the discovery (via Bauhaus singer Pete Murphy) of Swiss musicologist Marcel Cellier's recording of more sublime female voices, namely the The Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir, released on his own Disques Cellier label in 1975 – hence the French name Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares on the record that 4AD licensed and turned into a worldwide hit and helped legitimise the 'world music' boom. The same year, 4AD signed its first US band, Throwing Muses, another unique and feverish (and three-quarters female) addition. My favourite album of the Eighties, Throwing Muses concludes with "Delicate Cutters", the first time the condition of self-harming had been addressed in a song, a devastating moment of emotional honesty and beauty.
Chapter 10 – Chains Changed
Chains Changed was the title of Throwing Muses' early 1987 EP, an equal to the band's debut album. But 1987 was the year 4AD went mainstream with the UK's independently distributed number one single "Pump Up The Volume" by M/A/R/R/S, a collaboration between the beats-driven Colourbox and proto-shoegazers A.R.Kane. It was meant to be 4AD's moment in the sun but the recrimination, lawsuits and splits that followed tarnished it for Watts-Russell, who also felt chained to expectations of success from bands, managers and critics alike.
Chapter 11 – To Suggest Is To Create; To Describe Is To Destroy
4AD is arguably the one record label whose artwork is as worshiped as the music, and this chapter devoted to 4AD's in-house designer Vaughan Oliver and photographer Nigel Grierson, collectively known as 23 Envelope, takes its name from Oliver's stated maxim (from French photographer Robert Doisneau), "to suggest is to create; to describe is to destroy." 4AD artwork certainly favoured the enigmatic and opaque. Oliver and Grierson's working relationship also ended in tears.
Chapter 12 – With Your Feet In The Air And Your Head On The Ground
The lyric from Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" from their 1988 debut album Surfer Rosa also describes the effect that they had on UK audiences and 4AD. The Boston band was 4AD's most significant long-term commercial success (and whose influence on Nirvana precipitated the shift of ‘alternative' music into the mainstream).
Chapter 13 – An Ultra Vivid Beautiful Noise
Following his usual line of avoiding trends, when Watts-Russell picked out British bands Lush and Pale Saints from a box of demos in 1989, the genre "shoegazing" hadn't even been applied to bands that relied (to) heavily on the effects pedals at their feet. But there was an element of bands following My Bloody Valentine's startling continuation of the "beautiful noise" originated by Cocteau Twins and The Jesus And Mary Chain. A rippling, swimming aesthetic also applied – albeit in a very different, New Yorkian fashion – to Kurt Ralske's alter ego Ultra Vivid Scene, whose self-titled debut album was full of its own strange currencies.
Chapter 14 – Heaven, Las Vegas And Bust
Cocteau Twins album Heaven Or Las Vegas is Watts-Russell's favourite 4AD album, and for good reason; it's simply fantastic, infused with the bliss of Fraser and Guthrie having had their first child during its gestation. But it was their last record for 4AD, as the ill-feeling between the band and label reached the point where Watts-Russell - he still asked them to leave 4AD, though the residue of their shattered friendship would have repercussions on Watts-Russell for years to come.
Chapter 15 – Fool The World
Pixies' final album Trompe Le Monde – as in Fool The World – was Pixies' last album, after an irrevocable clash between singer Charles Thompson and bassist Kim Deal. The band didn't tell the outside world for almost another year. All of 4AD's relationship woes were conducted behind closed doors, in this most emotionally introvert record labels. Watts-Russell was giving the impression he was on top of things when he was buckling under the strain of depression, a music industry enslaved to videos, remixes and singles formatting than music, plus tensions with various bands; Thompson was to leave 4AD himself. The last words on This Mortal Coil's third and last album were, "Now's the time to draw the line/ It's time to say goodbye." "Goodbye to who?" Ivo wonders. "Cocteau Twins, Deborah, 4AD, life?"
Chapter 16 – A Tiny Little Speck In A Brobdingnag World
1992's double CD compilation Lilliput marked a licensing deal with US major Warner Bros, taking its name from Jonathan Swift's 18th century novel Gulliver's Travels, whose shipwrecked hero is imprisoned by Lilliput's race of miniature people. "4AD was a tiny little speck next to Warners," says Watts-Russell. In Swift's satire, the next race Gulliver encountered were Brobdingnag's giants – it was a risk to work with an institution like Warners, but it was deemed the right time to consolidate US licensing under one roof, and provide bands and their managers with some semblance of security. He would rue this decision as Warners proved inflexible, and sidelined 4AD's less commercial acts.
Chapter 17 - America Dreaming, On Such A Winter's Day
Taken from the 1993 live album Toward The Within. "American Dreaming" was a gorgeous acoustic solo ballad from Brendan Perry, Lisa Gerrard's partner (and former lover) in Dead Can Dance. The couple had split, Perry had since fallen for an American woman, as had Watts-Russell, which was one reason why he moved to Los Angeles in 1993, and to kickstart a new life, and to nearer Warners' operations. Despite the weather and proximity to the desert that he was growing to love, the centre of the world's entertainment industry is a strange place to run away to. He consequently found success enjoyed by 4AD acts by Belly, Dead Can Dance and The Breeders impossible to enjoy.
Chapter 18 - All Virgos Are Mad, Some More Than Others
In 1993, 4AD staged a week-long live event in London, The 13 Year Itch, and the following year in LA, called All Virgos Are Mad, referring Watts-Russell and Vaughan Oliver's star sign. After Cocteau Twins and Charles Thompson's departure after Pixies' split, the CD compilation of the same name showed 4AD was in very rude health, with new folk arrivistes Red House Painters and Heidi Berry plus His Name Is Alive's haunted dream-pop and Lisa Germano's simultaneously precise and woozy confections.
Chapter 19 – Fuck You Tiger, We're Goin' South
Air Miami was - bar a change of drummer - formerly Unrest, another of Watts-Russell's sterling US signings. The name of their 1995 EP Fuck You Tiger was his suggestion, for reasons he can't remember, and the band were happy to accept his aggressive labelling. "Goin' South" turned out to be the last single by The Wolfgang Press, whose members Michael Allen and Mark Cox had been on 4AD since Rema-Rema in 1980, likewise Andrew Gray when part of In Camera. "Going South" means, "a worse or inferior position…a decreased value," and was arguably a comment on the band's internal disagreements, falling out just as they began, after 12 years, to sell records (Watts-Russell always stood by them). With The Breeders on hiatus and Belly's second album losing ground, 1995 was the first year 4AD didn't have a bona fide hit record, and it was downhill, commercially, from here.
Chapter 20 - Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway
In 1996, Lush were the first 4AD artists to appear on the BBC TV flagship music show Top Of The Pops (twice, with "Single Girl" and "Ladykillers"). Yet worn out by continual tours of America, pushed by successive managers thinking they had a money-machine on their hands, the band was dangerously adrift. In LA, guitarist Emma Anderson sought Ivo's advice, who gave her some self-help books. One was Susan Jeffers' Feel the Fear And Do It Anyway, Later that year, out of the blue, Lush's drummer Chris Acland killed himself. No artists signed to 4AD ever thrived on the rigours of success.
Chapter 21 – As Close As Two Coats Of Paint On A Windswept Wall
4AD began to shed staff as sales dropped. Watts-Russell's love of Americana – a genre still in its infancy, and another sign of being ahead of the curve – was still niche next to the prevailing trends of Grunge, Industrial Rock and Big Beat. Watts-Russell's new project The Hope Blister began recording an album comprising eight cover versions, but the only lyric printed on the sleeve was "Outer Skin" by New Zealander Chris Knox: "we're as close as two coats of paint on a windswept wall…‘self-obsessed on a crumbling couch for hours/ Quite alone as is usual for the things we are quite unable to go beyond what's ours."
Chapter 22 – Smile's OK, A Last Gasp
The Hope Blister album …smile's OK underlined the struggle of coping with depression. In 1998, Watts-Russell assembled one last compilation, Anakin, named after a dog that had been adopted by a 4AD's employee. The album's ballad and extremes (glacial music, melancholy vocals), he says, "was like a last gasp, a left turn when everyone was expecting a right." What became his last signing to 4AD, Vinny Miller (aka starry smooth hound) was a throwback to Watts-Russell's love of Tim Buckley, but Miller's own mental frailty ensured he didn't release an album for a further seven years.
Chapter 23 – Everything Must Go
In early 1999, 4AD's London office received an email from Watts-Russell that confessed, "We're trying to play a game we're not equipped to play." Weeks later, news arrived that he had left the label, and the staff was reduced to two people. 1999 was 4AD's spiritual and musical nadir, and as the label's great white hope, Icelandic dance collective GusGus, released a superb second album This Is Normal, there was barely a label left to promote it.
Chapter 24 – Full Of Dust And Guitars
In a 1971 interview, Pink Floyd's former lynchpin Syd Barrett said, "I'm full of dust and guitars. The only work I've done the last two years is interviews. I'm very good at it." 4AD in the Noughties is a saga of survival and then rebirth; one former US record label, Marc Geiger thinks "the current roster is as good as 4AD's heyday…I don't know how you get this many right, record for record, artist for artist." Watts-Russell, however, severed all ties with the music industry after 1999's Underarms, a set of instrumental Hope Blister outtakes until he repackaged a lavish box set of This Mortal Coil recordings with a bonus CD titled Dust And Guitars.
Chapter 25 - Facing The Other Way
In 2012, Cocteau Twin singer Elizabeth Fraser played her first solo concerts, 15 years after the band split, while Dead Can Dance released its first album since 1996. Pixies had reformed in 2004, lasting nine years with the original four until Kim Deal left this year after reconvening The Breeders' Last Splash line-up. So some relationships have mended. Watts-Russell also made progress after reading former Elle magazine editor Sally Brampton's Shoot The Damn Dog: A Memoir Of Depression. Another self-help book from years earlier, Dr Wayne Dyer's Your Sacred Self, had begun, "You have been facing the wrong way," but struck me that Watts-Russell was simply facing the other way, just as his label had done in relation to trends throughout his years in charge.
Martin Aston and Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD links:
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