How Soon Is Now? The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music (1975-2005) - review

A chronicle of the indies that transformed popular music.

Geoff Travis
Left of the dial: Geoff Travis (right) at Rough Trade

How Soon Is Now? The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music (1975-2005)
Richard King
Faber & Faber, 624pp, £17.99

Does the word "indie" mean anything now? Richard King offers a contemporary definition: "Music played by four or five white young men, documenting their passage into adulthood with the odd jarring chord sequence, vague or confused lyrics and an underfed look in their video."

It used to mean something else, however. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a handful of independent record labels emerged, inspired by the do-it-yourself ethos of punk. The bands those labels launched - the Smiths, My Bloody Valentine, New Order and Joy Division, to name but a few - transformed popular music.

Rough Trade, Mute, Factory, 4AD and Creation were fiercely energetic little music hubs, founded on principles of complete artistic involvement, characterised by highly unsound finances, and small enough to retain the imprint of the men who started them. Those pioneers - Geoff Travis, Daniel Miller, Tony Wilson, Ivo Watts-Russell and Alan McGee - are the backbone of the story told by King.

As for the author, he's an insider, a back-room boy from Domino Records, home to Arctic Monkeys. His relative youth places him just outside the golden era, making this account of "madmen and mavericks" as romantic as it is scholarly.

We meet Watts-Russell, head of 4AD and mentor to the Cocteau Twins, a man so diffident that his publicity shots often focused on his cat or the back of his head. He was drawn to musicians with whom he "shared a shyness" and became completely obsessive about them, sequencing records himself, supervising the mastering, recording in a converted church and storing his tapes in the belfry. He recalls slithering into the studio on his stomach so he could listen, unseen, to the Cocteaus' Elizabeth Fraser singing.

The label's album sleeves took so long to design that they often held up the releases. There's a lot of that in this book - the sense that the real world, the demands of scheduling and so on, was a bit of an inconvenience. When Travis started Rough Trade in Ladbroke Grove ("an ashtray for the burnt-out remnants of laissez-faire hippie lifestyle experimentation"), his leftist ethos was so strong that there was no boss and everyone shared in a cooking rota.

Rough Trade's finances were always perilous (the label lost money on Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" because it couldn't bear to distribute it at the import price) but Travis was still a businessman - he wanted hits. King performs great dialectical feats in order to reconcile this desire for chart success with the label's original left-wing ideals. Scritti Politti, he suggests, "overhauled their ideas about collectivity and were firmly interested in engaging with the popular". We see Green Gartside "engaging" with the top ten while Richard Scott of Rough Trade cries: "Has it really come to this?"

It seems almost impossibly quaint now, this fear of commercial success. Yet King passionately defends the punk principles of his forebears. A gallery of very different individuals emerges from his portraits. Mike Alway of Blanco y Negro hates going to gigs and would rather get his inspiration for new records by "staying home and watching The Avengers".

Wilson of Factory Records runs what King calls an "absurdist" project, summoning board meetings just to amuse himself - because he has no board. When someone points out that his artists need a contract, he spends all his energies designing a swanky perspex frame. Visionary and chaotic, Factory ended up needing its main act - New Order - more than the band needed the label.

King's prose isn't flawless. There's a hefty draught of muso journalese here - all "cutting-edge aesthetics" and "ultra-hip" rosters, while Matt Johnson's records are said to feature "discordant rhythmic textures". The slow demise of these labels is announced with mournful, song-title chapters such as "Cold-Blooded Old Times" and "Is This It?"

But for a man who started working in the music industry in the 1990s, King is refreshingly unsentimental about Britpop, bemoaning its "perky ordinariness" and "empty triumphalism". This, it would seem, was the point at which "indie" became a marketing tool, an empty word, with that carefully staged battle between between Oasis and Blur and the emergence of the "mandies" - imprints of major labels dressed up to look like small independents. The employees of one of these, Hut Records, which was part of the Virgin empire, apparently kept a sticker on their office door that read "Corporate rock sucks".

When Rough Trade opened in the late 1970s, there were 14 major record labels. Today, there are just three. King doesn't tackle the chang­-
ing mechanics of music consumption, the internet and other forces that, while threatening his beloved renegades, also toppled many of the big guys.

With hindsight, the indies haven't had a bad innings. As Martin Mills, head of Beggars Banquet, explains, the business model wasn't meant to last. "If you're doing this and you haven't got money problems, then you're doing something wrong."

Kate Mossman is reviews editor for the Word magazine and the New Statesman's pop music critic