That Rough Trade Scene (1978)

When I first visited Rough Trade as one of Swell Maps in 1978, I was impressed by the creative atmosphere, the camaraderie and the commitment to independent anti-corporate ideals.  RT was then based at the original premises at Kensington Park Road, next to Portobello Market, and the area was still somewhat down at heel but exciting – well before that “Notting Hill” film was made, and before developers moved in to “posh-up” the neighbourhood.   This was still the Westway of songs by The Clash, and reggae sound-systems and squatted Victorian villas.

After our first single, Swell Maps were offered a manufacturing/distribution deal with RT, whereby we would deliver the master tape of a record plus artwork; RT would get it made and handle the distribution to wholesalers and shops.  The best of all possible worlds!  We had total command over the sound and appearance of the record, and they would handle the burden of the practicalities.

The RT shop was at the front of the modest premises, and the distribution /mail order office at the back.  One would encounter Jeff Travis, Richard Scott, Sue Scott, and Peter Walmesley, at the centre of all the frenetic activity.  They were directors, and made all the crucial decisions. There was a constant flow of stocks of records and fanzines from small labels and producers, with the musicians usually delivering stock themselves, and meeting each other in a haphazard, serendipitous way.  Sue Donne attended to the mail-order deliveries and dispensed her own brand of anarchic wisdom.  Upstairs on the first floor, there was a front room which was gradually taken over by an rapidly expanding business: sisters Sue and Barbara Grogan booking gigs and handling publishing rights, Scott Pierring handling radio promotion, and various people running the label accounts.

Daniel Miller had a tiny corner to run his Mute Records Label; later he would need a large team of workers and an entire building, of course!   He earned great respect with his own ominously awesome single ”Warm Leatherette”/”TVOD” under the name The Normal, before producing some innocent synth-pop discs under the name of the Silicone Teens. A man of excellent taste and judgement, he also released records by Fad Gadget and DAF, then discovered Depeche Mode and Yazoo and Erasure, to achieve enormous success world-wide.  In the 1990s, Mute re-released the Swell Maps albums on CD, perhaps as an acknowledgement of their roots.

Musicians would tend to hang out at the back of RT in the tiny first floor kitchen, many of them rolling up spliffs and getting stoned there.  I recall with embarrassment the occasion that I went to borrow a power adapter from that kitchen for a Swell Maps gig around the corner at Aklam Hall, because there were not enough sockets for the amplifiers’ power supply.  In my haste, I had forgotten to plug the fridge supply back, so the thing de-frosted overnight.  Alas, this caused a flood which spread to the room below, damaging boxes of other bands’ records.

Swell Maps would often crash out at night in the second-floor flat as a guest of Sue Donne and her collection of ska, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley singles.  One night, I turned up unexpectedly, and the place was empty – no-one home!  I knew no-one else in London, alas.  I had to furtively crash in the multi-story car-park opposite, on a cold night with only one old discarded blanket to keep me warm.

My friends in Swell Maps, Epic and Nikki, would sometimes work in the shop at the counter, as I did once or twice myself.  I recall them telling me excitedly that they had sold a copy of our first Swell Maps LP to David Bowie, who was checking out the new releases in person, bless him!  We soon found ourselves rubbing shoulders with amazing musicians and kindred spirits.  The Raincoats, Kleenex, Doctor Mix & the Remix, Scritti Politti and Television Personalities come to mind.   Those bands all had similar deals with RT and we would share bills at concerts and hang out together.  We were particularly close to The Raincoats, and we would sometimes jam with Gina and Ana on that Television Personalities song “Part Time Punks”, or one of their tunes, like “Fairy Tale in the Supermarket”.  It was particularly inspiring to observe the rise of a female voice in “alternative music”, which was virtually unknown before, and at best seen as a novelty in rock music circles before.

We also met up with our old pal from Solihull, Spizz, who had some success on RT with his Spizzenergi single ”Where’s Captain Kirk?”  We also met Mark Stewart and The Pop Group, who along with The Slits had escaped to RT from deals with other, larger, labels.  On the other hand, Stiff Little Fingers left RT to get a more lucrative deal with Chrysalis – a major label.  They explained in the press at the time that they would rather be associated with “real musicians” like Billy Idol rather than “the likes of Swell Maps”.  Despite having dug their early RT records, which were marvelous raw bursts of energy, I couldn’t help thinking “good riddance!”  They didn’t surpass those efforts at Chrysalis.

After RT had earned some modest early successes and media attention, Epic and myself suggested rather cheekily that RT would turn into the “new Virgin”, and Travis might become the “new Richard Branson”.  It was only a joke, but there was a germ of truth there.  In those days Virgin actually still had some credibility as an “alternative” label; after all, they brought Faust, Henry Cow and Gong to the world!   But after years of being thought of as a “hippy” label, then taking the risk of signing the Sex Pistols, Virgin latched onto that “new wave” sound and milked it, because none of the major labels seemed to be very interested in punk and it’s offshoots at first.  Branson saw the commercial potential, and after Virgin’s commercial success with Sex Pistols, they were all greedily snapping up any cute band with tight trousers and spiky hair, if they could come up with some catchy tunes.

In contrast, RT started out as the definitively underground operation.  In the late 1970s, the RT image was one of asceticism, of having a stance of anti-sexism and anti-rock and roll, of being politically charged and against corporate decadence and any glamorous frippery.  Later, when Travis signed The Smiths, there was a discernible change in their approach.  RT strove for success in the “mainstream”, but there was a certain crusading zeal involved. – the sense of an intellectual elite attempting to educate the masses. The people at RT seemed to project a crusading zeal about bringing “independent values” into the mainstream, and waging a war on the major record companies’ bourgeois reactionary grip on our culture.  Selling as many records as possible was part of the deal, though!

Ironically, it was the arrival of a refugee from Virgin that personified the radical stance at RT: Robert Wyatt.  Following the shift in A&R policy to punk and new wave at Virgin, it seemed that he was unwanted there. Jeff Travis – in one of his many inspired signings – brought him to RT.  Wyatt acted, it seemed to me, as a catalyst for the left-wing ideology of RT at the time.  I remember him appearing on Epic’s solo single for RT, and I was happy to give him a lift home with his wheelchair to Richmond.  He was in a hurry, and I found out why when we arrived; his wife Alfreda gave him a real roasting for nearly missing the chance to vote in the local election!  I think that one can safely assume that he was being urged to vote for the local Communist candidate.

The RT work-force originally ran itself as a co-operative.  Apparently, even the directors earned the same wages as some spotty newcomer stacking shelves. Jeff Travis and the other directors had to do some of the more humdrum activities like packing boxes in the beginning, before they each got their own office.  Policies and record releases were discussed at meetings, and debates raged into the night about whether some releases were ideologically sound.  “Sense of Belonging”, the single by Television Personalities, was the subject of a protracted, bitter, debate regarding the cover, that of the face of a battered child. Many interesting characters came and went.  Most, but not all of them, musicians: Barbara Grogan’s lover Keith Allen worked as driver at RT while trying to get his comedy career underway.  He also drove Swell Maps to gigs for a sideline to make a bit more dosh.  He was enormous fun to have around, and more than a bit naughty!

Red Crayola arrived in the UK in 1978, and played some blinding shows as an aggressive, spell-binding hard-core duo – Mayo Thompson and drummer Jesse. Mayo was an active member of the Art and Music movement, and his obtuse, fragmented style of music and lyric composition seems to be a product of this. The first Red Crayola album from 1967 came out of the hard-core Texan psychedelic scene that also produced the Thirteenth Floor Elevators.  I had never heard this music before, so hearing the re-issue of these albums was a real revelation.  Myself and other kindred spirits had been on something of a “scorched earth” trip before then, scorning anything that was produced before the Sex Pistols came along. Hard-core psychedelia produced by “hippies” such as Red Crayola and the Thirteenth Floor Elevators was very illuminating and inspiring.

Mayo then came to RT as a sort of cause celebre, and made a great Crayola album called “Kangaroo?”, featuring our Epic on drums, plus Gina from the Raincoats and Laura Logic on sax.  Mayo went on to be a resident producer at RT, showing excellent taste and discipline. Mayo’s rise in the RT hierarchy seemed to coincide with RT releases starting to sound more “professional” and overtly commercial.

The success of “The Sweetest Girl” by Scritti Politti, and the arrival of Aztec Camera and The Smiths also significant.  These were all clever musicians who could rely on their inventive, intellectual lyrics to impress the cool brainy youths, while winning over the radio producers and wider public with their retro cultural references, catchy tunes and sophisticated production values.  Green Gartside of Scritti could talk about Jacques Derrida and post-structuralism in interviews with NME, but his cute androgenous voice and coy lyrics got him coverage in Smash Hits and gave him a breakthrough into that hitherto unexplored territory – day-time national radio!  The rest of us were content to try and get played on John Peel’s Top Gear radio show at night, which was much more of a minority niche.

After the demise of Swell Maps in 1980, Epic and myself made a single called “Rain, Rain, Rain” for RT under the name Soundtracks and Head, featuring the beautifully gritty, soulful voice of my friend from Manchester, Carmel McCourt, who was starting to perform in a trio called simply Carmel with her man Jim who played bass and was briefly with me in a band called Beevamp.  Soundtracks and Head made an album as well, but this was deemed too experimental even for RT, and we didn’t work with RT, separately or together, ever again.

Eventually, the label and wholesale/distribution business became such a prosperous, self-important operation, that the directors felt that the shop had become rather surplus to their needs, so the two businesses separated in 1982.  The shop continued to be managed by Pete Donne, Jude and Nigel around the corner at Talbot Street, and still prospers there to this day, with two more London branches.  Ironically, their distribution empire became too large and unwieldy, eventually falling to bankruptcy in 1991, and dragging the label down with it.  Happily Jeff Travis relaunched the label in 2000, and flourishes to this day, with that man Travis still discovering exciting new talents to share with the world.