blog for The Guardian, 23rd March 2009
by Simon Reynolds
I had some issues with 24 Hour Party People, the Tony Wilson/Factory Records biopic, but there was one touch I found rather lovely. It's 1976 and Anthony H Wilson and crew have returned home after the Sex Pistols' Manchester debut. So what do Tony and his future Fac-heads do after witnessing this insurrectionary performance? Put Funhouse or Horses on the turntable? No, they roll spliffs and get stoned to the dreamy drift of Solid Air by John Martyn.
A lovely touch, I thought, and an acute one. First because it communicated, subtly, the fact that Factory's founders were actually hippy-ish sorts (think of Martin Hannett's long hair and drugginess) who were associated with Manchester's bohemian milieu of Didsbury. And also because it conveyed another truth: the majority of hip listeners in the pre-punk period weren't pining for the back-to-basics barbarianism of the Pistols, they were quite contentedly listening to a diffuse, eclectic array of "progressive" (as opposed to prog) music. Virtuosity, sensitivity, maturity — all these were at a premium until punk reversed the rules.
A UK hipster's musical diet from 1973 to 1976 would have included bearded folky-bluesy minstrels like Martyn, Roy Harper and Richard Thompson, post-Soft Machine sorts like Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers, some krautrock, a bit of reggae, and from America figures like Little Feat, Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell (the emphasis here being less "progressive" and more "sophisticated", maybe). This audience wasn't waiting for punk. Which is precisely why it came as such a surprise. A nasty one, for many; for others (the Anthony H Wilson types), a revelation.
I thought of the Solid Air moment in the film not because Martyn has been on my mind (although I am still in mourning and playing his music a lot), but because it's Island Records' 50th birthday this year. All kinds of celebrations are planned for May and already there's been some commemorative coverage.
Inevitably with Island, the first impressions are of Bob Marley and the label's historic relationship with Jamaican music. The second thing, typically, is U2 and how the biggest rock band of the last three decades made Island their home (until 2006). What tends to get passed over (sometimes sidelined altogether) is the basis of Island's cult reputation: that late-60s/early-70s period when it was the world's leading label for progressive music. John Martyn, the first white solo artist to sign to Island, kicked off this era with 1967's London Conversation. And in a strange sort of way he bookended it with One World, which may actually be even better than Solid Air, but whose oceanic funk and ambient ethereality was gloriously out of step with the UK rock scene in 1977. ('Small Hours', funnily enough, anticipates Durutti Column, so maybe Factory's hippy-dippy side crept back in soon after the rupture of punk).
Even though I've long since jettisoned my punk-reared prejudice against all things prog, when it comes to this era of Island — the Pink years, they're sometimes called, after the pink labels around which their platters revolved — it's still the case that a fair amount of the label's output eludes me. I'm not sure I'll ever fully understand why Traffic were so highly rated in their day (psychedelic ditties like Hole In My Shoe are lovely, but the John Barleycorn-type stuff?!) or Spooky Tooth (although admittedly the riff on 'Lost In My Dream' rocks mightily). Nonetheless the breadth of the music released on Island during its heyday is breathtaking: from Fairport Convention to Free, Mott the Hoople to Sparks, Blodwyn Pig to Roxy Music, Quintessence to John Cale.
Island's big Five-O got me thinking about what makes certain record labels iconic. It's clearly something to do with a flexible A&R policy that still manages to be coherent, held together by a certain hard-to-tag sensibility. Another crucial factor to label "aura" is the record design, the packaging and the way promotional campaigns are conducted. This kind of thing is now retrospectively sullied by the coinage of "branding" as a concept, such that it's difficult to recall how fresh and innovative "hip(py) capitalism" of this sort was in its original context (i.e. an unbelievably square, corny, and clumsy record industry). Beyond these specifics of aesthetics and market positioning, though, what we're really talking about here is a larger issue: the knack that certain entrepreneurs have for reconciling the opposed agendas of art and business (for a while, at least). After all, there are loads of labels who just do the pure art-for-art's thing but never make an impact; it's the easiest thing in the world to be uncommercial and obscure. (We're back to my first blogpost here, on the cultural function and value of "middlebrow" as an inbetween space).
When it comes to balancing the bottom line with an arts council-like indulgence of maverick creativity, Island's only peers were Elektra and the early Virgin. (I'm not suggesting, by the way, that any of these companies were especially enlightened when it came to deals and contracts, just that they did, at that point, treat their artists like… artists). Later on, you'd consider Rough Trade and Mute and, yes, Factory; later still, Warp (who coincidentally are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year).
Another thing that makes labels achieve legendary status is a degree of longevity. They need to have survived at least one major upheaval or musical "all change!", as opposed to being tied to a single trend or period. The Bob Marley story and U2 overshadow Island's "Pink era", but then again, isn't it impressive that a single record label has several claims to fame, several successive and overlapping phases of being relevant? One way that Island kept its cool for so long was by forming alliances with other labels or production/management companies. Label founder Chris Blackwell never relied entirely on his own ears or sense of what was happening. That started in the Pink years with Chrysalis (originally part of the Island family, they brought acts like Jethro Tull and Steeleye Span), Witchseason (Joe Boyd's folk-rock production company) and E.G. (who brought King Crimson and Roxy Music, which in turn led to Eno's solo career and experimental imprint Obscure being launched through Island). Effectively, Blackwell was outsourcing taste and aesthetic judgment to others, and a highly effective strategy it proved to be. In the 80s there were fruitful partnerships with New York mutant disco label ZE and ZTT.
By the late 80s, though, the Island "brand" had lost some of its lustre. Attempts to do with African music what the label had achieved with reggae were admirable but not nearly as successful. There was a misguided attempt to pull off a similar trick with Washington DC's go go, with the movie Good To Go (starring Troublefunk and… Art Garfunkel!). The steady erosion of identity continued after Blackwell sold Island to Polygram for £272m in 1989 (even though he stayed on as CEO for another eight years). But when Polygram was in turn bought by Universal, Island was dispersed amid a corporate welter of amalgamations and restructurings. In the UK, it merged with Mercury; in America, it became Island Def Jam; in Germany, Polydor Island. Which is not to say that today's Island isn't successful in record-industry terms. But it's hard to connect the emptied-out signifier of its name with the legendary Island of the pink-labelled progressives. Then again, you could trace a line that connects John Martyn to Amy Winehouse: that archetypal British projection towards the music of Black America, that hunger for "the real stuff" to satisfy our hollow souls. That, and a monstrous appetite for intoxicants.
Thinking about record labels also got me wondering about this decade: which were the Noughties labels that really mattered, that contributed to defining our time? Was there anybody operating at the same level as Island? Not really. But that may fundamentally be a structural issue, the withering of that threshold between underground and mainstream. The closest counterpart today might be Domino, who started out in the early 90s largely linked to lo-fi indie, but really came into their own when they signed some of the biggest bands in the land while continuing to produce esoteric music (they are currently the home of Animal Collective). Other labels that have a certain "aura" seem to be more boutique-like and niche-oriented, like DFA, Kompakt or (in a different, archive-raiding way) Soul Jazz. I'm sure we all have our favourites. One of mine is Ghost Box, with their merging of record design and sound, their guiding vision, their close-to-flawless discography. But then Ghost Box operates on the remote periphery of the mainstream. They can tightly control their output and release records as infrequently as they wish, because it's simply not a business for them (the label is not how its founders or artists earn their living). Small is beautiful, but it's rarely bountiful. Making bohemia pay, which is what Island in its heyday managed and other "large independents" (like Factory) also pulled off, is a whole different game.