Do It Yourself: The Story Of Rough Trade Documentary Reviewed
, March 10th, 2009 12:19
Quietus scribe Alex Ogg, who's currently writing a book on the history of the independent label, makes a brew and settles down in front of the telly to watch a new documentary on the history of Rough Trade Records
Of all the storied independent labels of the punk and post-punk era, Rough Trade’s narrative is arguably the richest in terms of impact and great records – with a helpful skein of politics, both personal and ideological. Given the span of the label’s activities, any 90-minute feature was always going to be a cram exercise. Yet within those limitations Do It Yourself does an effective job of conjuring up the spirit of the times; a combination of financial brinkmanship, stumbling naiveté and an enduring belief in music’s innate value completely in opposition to the conventional music industry’s priorities. It’s largely very accurate, and features a good blend of contemporary interviews and fascinating archive footage. A good primer, in short, on what was once dubbed ‘the historical debt’ we owe to the record shop cum record label cum distributor from West London.
All the right boxes are ticked; the chronology of landmark records that shaped the independent era (‘Spiral Scratch’, the Desperate Bicycles, Scritti Politti; the scant coverage of the second named understandable given the participants’ steadfast reluctance to comment beyond their recorded legacy). It also rightly acknowledges the significance of Stiff Little Fingers’ debut album, rather than any number of more esoteric (or perhaps ‘cool’) releases on the label. This was the point at which independence became a truly viable alternative (interesting to note how the ‘fleet of taxis’ pulling up outside the shop on Inflammable Material’s release has grown down the years from ‘three’ to many times that figure...). The documentary makers also do a good job of unravelling the complex strands within Rough Trade; the label, shop and distribution network are all discrete but allied components and each gets a fair-ish shake of the stick.
The programme goes on to relate the competing viewpoints on the demise of Rough Trade; the schism between distribution and record label personified by Richard Scott and Geoff Travis. The real truth is elusive and the accounts (both oral and fiscal) so oppositional you can’t blame the documentary makers for simply recording the more divisive viewpoints and shuffling quietly away. An understanding of what happened and why is canonical to any serious study of the independent era but requires a book of its own (which, I hear, may currently be in preparation).
Yet those participants are both utterly key to what is now widely recognised as a golden era for British music. Travis can lay fair claim to having the most consistent A&R antennae of the period (with Daniel Miller and Ivo Watts-Russell sharing the podium). Scott built Rough Trade Distribution and The Cartel, which, for a decade or more provided a broadly socialist backbone to the growth of independent labels (and shops) throughout the UK. Their achievements are remarkable, though sadly the protagonists are never likely to be reconciled in their version of events.
Scott, though he doesn’t say it here, never liked The Smiths. For Travis, after both Scritti and Aztec Camera waltzed off to majors, they represented the moment when Rough Trade had to shape up its act. In came the sales teams, out went at least some of the rhetoric. It didn’t sit comfortably with many; but Travis’s rationale was that he couldn’t be seen to be second best working with a first-rate act. In the process, the Smiths/Travis axis broke forever the maxim that independent music was pop’s scratchy, malnourished poor cousin (though not acknowledged here, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, UB40’s Signing On and Mute’s Depeche Mode/Yazoo had already forcibly made the point). Even if The Smiths would take EMI’s shilling in the final analysis (and Travis is spared Morrissey’s undeserved contemporaneous mockery in the programme) they were a spent force. The voiceover talks about the Smiths’ breakthrough as being the moment when ‘indie’ was born – I’m not quite so sure of that, or even if it’s a particularly attractive plaudit to lay at anyone’s door. And it might have been nice to at least touch on Travis’s dalliance with Warners’ Blanco y Negro during this period, which similarly isolated him within the fast expanding Rough Trade universe. Rough Trade Distribution and Wholesale was roughly ten times the size of the label at this stage in terms of both personnel and turnover.
It’s perhaps understandable documentary makers Prospect linger a fair amount on The Smiths story rather than some of the label’s less celebrated acts. But there’s way too much footage of The Specials, who should have nothing more than footnote status within this context. When I think of Rough Trade, it’s the era of the Raincoats, The Fall, Cabaret Voltaire (whose ‘Nag Nag Nag’ still sounds fantastic on the soundtrack), Monochrome Set, Kleenex, Swell Maps, Delta Five, Girls At Our Best, Zounds, Pop Group etc that springs most readily to mind. But that’s just me showing my age; and Travis has always been at pains to express his constant belief in moving forward, and takes the opportunity to do so again here.
Thus the likes of Jarvis Cocker, The Strokes and Duffy round out the final third of the programme, which is principally about Travis and partner Jeanette Lee’s considerable successes as Rough Trade management. It undoubtedly produces a neat hook - the RT brand enjoying a number one single after 30 years in the trenches. Regardless, it’s a compelling story as ably told as you could expect within the format.
Alex Ogg will continue wibbling about Rough Trade and the Cartel as part of his new book Independence Days, released in May. Hopefully. Do It Yourself: The Story of Rough Trade will be broadcast at the following dates and times this week: March 13th 21:00, March 14th 22.00 and 01.10, March 15th 02.30