When indie music was truly independent

Death to Trad Rock, John Robb’s splendid recollection of the noisenik experimentalism of the Eighties and early-Nineties indie music scene, is not just nostalgia for fortysomethings – it’s a timely reminder of less sanitised, conformist times.

Neil Davenport

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Ten years ago, a rumour was circulating around Manchester’s pubs and clubs: a film based on Tony Wilson and his label, Factory Records, was going to be made. John Robb, frontman of Manchester outfit Goldblade, journalist, author, record producer and broadcaster, was incredulous. ‘How many people in Britain will really want to see a film based on Tony Wilson’s life?’ he said, laughing. He had a commercial point. After all, while Factory Records had enjoyed some success with New Order and Happy Mondays, it hardly seemed a story designed to smash box-office records.

As it turned out, the film in question – Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People – was a critical success and a modest money spinner. More pertinently, it was the shape of things to come on both the big and small screens. This sprawling, comically embellished story helped pioneer a niche market in what can politely be called Eighties Indie nostalgia. Since 24 Hour Party People, there have been two more films on Joy Division, Control, a biopic about the band’s frontman, Ian Curtis, and the documentary Joy Division. BBC4 has also produced programmes about Manchester’s music scene, punk and early hip-hop, as well as devoting entire evenings to the output of the British labels Rough Trade and Stiff Records. More recently, there have been well-received films dramatising the lives of rock singer Ian Dury (Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll) and Dr Feelgood and Wilko Johnson (Oil City Confidential). There’s even a forthcoming film on Creation Records, arguably the last great eccentric British indie label.

Partly this is all happening because indie fans from the Eighties and early Nineties are now in their forties, and those in good media positions can indulge their nostalgic passions. Apparently, there is a market for such films and documentaries, both amongst those who followed these bands when they were popular and amongst younger generations who’ve latched on to them. But there is more going on here than lazy, time-wasting nostalgia. The overall experimental and combative mood of the Eighties, which went way beyond the music scene, is perhaps a more important reason for this period’s appeal – especially in the way that it contrasts with today’s culture.

In fact, there’s an often uncomfortable, and sometimes quite angry, recognition that Britain has had all of its rough and belligerent charms sandblasted and sanitised out of existence. After several deadening years of risk-averse, security-seeking, liberty-bashing, no smoking, health-and-fucking-safety culture, the grey old Eighties at times appear positively free and gloriously wild by comparison.

From the late Seventies through to the Eighties a steady stream of genuine mavericks, free spirits and substantial upstarts emerged: Ian Curtis, Tony Wilson, Adam Ant, Kevin Rowland, Julian Cope, Ian McCulloch, Pete Wylie, Viv Albertine, Bill Drummond, Mark E Smith, Alan McGee, John Cooper Clarke, to name just a tiny few. Alongside all of these semi-well-known names, the Eighties also spawned rafts of abrasive, amp-rupturing, post-punk bands up and down provincial Britain. Big Flame, Bogshed, The Creepers, The Nightingales, The Wolfhounds et al drew on the righteous fury of punk, but supplemented it with a battered amalgam of trebly surface noise, heavy duty snarling bass and clattering, improvised jazz. Outside of the 10pm Radio One week-night programme, the John Peel Show, these intractable misfits would barely even register on the NME’s radar, let alone commercial radio, the charts or Top of the Pops.

It is this largely forgotten alternative universe that John Robb explores in his latest book, Death To Trad Rock. The title is borrowed from a song by Robb’s old band, The Membranes, who should take a lot of credit for assisting the development of the dynamic scene which initially had no name. Robb is ideally placed to document this scene which was barely written about when it actually took place. Indeed, for metropolitan music and style mag journalists faced with the Inca Babies, AC Temple and The Janitors, all these ‘provincial’ noiseniks were a minor irritant in-between waiting for new releases by Blue Rondo à la Turk, Hue & Cry and Billy Bragg.

Some of the more inept outfits featured in Robb’s book have not stood the test of time, but still, what’s important about Death To Trad Rock is how it captures a unique and quite startling period in recent British history. Robb rightly points out that these bands operated in the shadow of the miners’ strike and that creators of youth culture, too, were forced to ‘take sides’ in the politics of what was simply known as ‘Thatcher’s Britain’. Superficially at least, noisy and experimental bands were seen as the antithesis of the apparent ‘go getting’ careerist spirit of the age (although the yuppie culture was always more of a myth than a reality). True, some of the bands had strong left-wing and anarchist commitments, but that was never the main attraction for either players or punters on the rough-and-ready noisenik scene. Rather, the main attraction here was the simple fact that outlandish experimentalism was open to anyone prepared to take it on.

The polarising dimension of Thatcher’s Britain meant that there was an awkward relationship to all this noisy stuff. While the BBC was the only media outlet to play such music, it was also under pressure to keep the apparent cultural alternative to Thatcherism at bay. This is why the two biggest independent/alternative bands of the period, The Smiths and New Order, were treated as unwelcome outsiders by mainstream radio. In 1984, the then controller of Radio One, Derek Chinnery, justified cutting back John Peel’s show from four to three nights a week on the basis that licence fee payers shouldn’t be subsidising ‘scruffy revolutionary bands’. Even harmless alt.punk bands were caught in the polarising slipstream.

While many journalists cite Thatcher in particular as responsible for galvanising all sorts of political and cultural dissent, the initial catalyst was actually the implosion of the postwar consensus. The punk era’s key motif – DIY individualism – was itself a rejection of the Labour Party’s statist politics and a judgement on the consensus era’s creative bankruptcy. As Robb points out, ‘The DIY networks thrown up by punk perfectly encouraged a wider freeform music and culture’.

An edgy sense that anything could happen reverberated throughout much of the Seventies and Eighties. It was this keenly felt sense of openness and possibilities that resulted in all sorts of new and experimental avenues being explored: bands were promoted, club nights were kick-started, galleries and exhibitions were opened, fanzines, magazines were launched, clothing lines were created, record shops and labels sprung up, and new political organisations and campaigns were established. Some individuals – like James Brown, who launched Loaded, and Alan McGee who discovered Oasis – went on to far bigger things than their tiny DIY origins would ever suggest.

Of course such frenzied activity was mostly restricted to youth ‘counter culture’. Yet at the same thime there’s no denying the great extent to which the demise of the postwar consensus unleashed a general heightened sense of subjectivity. Many felt that they were active agents, who wanted to, and could, shape their immediate environments, even if it was in a rather limited way. Even if some of these individuals were on state benefits, few were prepared to cash in their subjectivity for a life of incapacity and daytime-TV idleness. It’s true that young people are still creative today, but there doesn’t exist the all-embracing energy and spirit that could transform, say, a provincial backwater into something comparatively exciting, and to transform individuals in the process, too.

And this is another reason why Death To Trad Rock is such an enjoyable document of this rather hidden period. The vast majority of the bands featured and interviewed here are from such cosmopolitan enclaves as Stockport, Mexborough, Macclesfield, Hebden Bridge, Preston, Bearsden, Hull, Llanfair Caereinon and Shrewsbury. Each small town had at least one great run-down, battered club venue where you could see the likes of Dog Faced Hermans for a couple of quid and buy the local fanzine run by the town’s Fall obsessive. Indeed, for gig goers of the period, small towns were forever associated with these mysterious gig venues – The Adelphi in Hull, Princess Charlotte in Leicester, JB’s in Dudley, the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen – in the way football stadiums are for supporters. The more serious point, however, is that it’s almost impossible to find provincial towns which stand out for their homegrown ‘scenes’ and identities any more. As local pubs and venues have rapidly dwindled over the past 15 years, and with them any proper sense of a public life in the provinces, the idea of a small town’s ‘music scene’ seems as quaint and bizarre as an old clip from Ready, Steady, Go.

Death To Trad Rock also evokes a vast sea change in youthful living arrangements. Back then many of the musicians and entrepreneurs thought nothing of living in dingy bedsits and damp, shared housing in pursuit of artistic dreams. Of course, this type of accommodation was hardly ideal, but it was still far better than living at home with mum and dad, as a vast number of twenty-somethings do today. Like the records purchased, independence was also highly valued and definitely not worth sacrificing for central heating and a full fridge with the folks.

There was always gallows humour aplenty in shared housing (at least retrospectively): jokes about the landlords who insisted you didn’t need a fridge in winter; the housemate with the carnally noisy girlfriend; the indoor colony of ants and nocturnal slugs… You also learnt to get on with all sorts of people. Terence’s motto, ‘nothing that is human is alien to me’, made sense when sharing a house with eccentrics and weirdoes. So even one’s living arrangements crackled with a sense of youthful freedom and its possibilities as the bands in Death To Trad Rock would tell you. It probably explains why the government is attempting to stop landlords from offering shared housing to ‘non-family-related’ individuals. Forcing young people to live with their parents – how grimly twenty-first century.

All of this, however, doesn’t mean that Death To Trad Rock is a cranky, middle-aged lament for the ‘good old days’ of funny-haircut yoof. In many ways the period Robb documents was also one of never-ending poverty, and all the miseries and restrictions that involves. Today’s galaxy of cheap food, cheap flights and cheap consumer goods is a materialist nirvana compared to the hand-me-down, half-a-pint and rolled-cig existence of those times. Nevertheless, the joyful, fearless, experimental and above all unregulated spirit that Death To Trad Rock evokes is a reminder – and, yes, an angry one – of just how sanitised, privatised, fearful and health-obsessed life in contemporary Britain has become. When all is said and done, just what kind of example is this to give to young people?

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

Death to Trad Rock, by John Robb, is published by Cherry Red Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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