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In Conversation

Bring The Ruckus: Indies And Majors Slug It Out
Alex Ogg , November 18th, 2009 08:39

Alex Ogg, author of Independence Days: The Story of UK Independent Labels gets involved in some vicious close quarters combat with Marcus Gray, author of Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling, before escalating to nukes


"They say true talent will always emerge in time
When Lightning hits Small Wonder
It's Fast Rough Factory Trade
No expense accounts or lunch discounts
Or hyping up the charts…"
(The Clash 'Hitsville UK')

Alex Ogg: Punk died the day the Clash signed to CBS, Mark Perry of Sniffin' Glue famously opined. It was an axiomatic moment in the debate over selling out, over DIY self-sustenance versus 'getting the message across'. The Clash went on to become one of rock & roll's most storied acts, while the immediate impact of punk led to the independent label boom of the late 70s. The Clash were the one band that managed to translate punk to American audiences – ironically through an album whose title invoked the English capital's famous radio call sign and had but trace elements of the withering aggression of punk's first wave. But as their complaints about corporate hosts grew, the new breed of independents such as Stiff, Fast, Rough Trade, Mute, Factory et al proved that success could be achieved and sustained without recourse to major labels.

The first and most obvious question has to be, why another Clash book? There's a big pile already and for some of us, bluntly put, that's totally out of scale with their importance.

Marcus Gray: There's been a slew of Clash-related books recently, true, but over the 30 years since the band formed, only three in-depth critical biographies that really tried to get to grips with the big picture. Mine, Last Gang In Town, was the first by nearly a decade. Part of that book's premise was, let's judge The Clash's own career by the punk purist standards they helped establish. Coming 14 years later, Route 19 Revisited is a very different beast. It accepts that The Clash - however world-shaking - was a piece of conceptual art inspired largely by band manager Bernie Rhodes, whereas London Calling gave the band the opportunity to pool their various influences and discover their own true voice. A good half of the book is devoted to the back-stories of the individual songs on the album, invoking everything from the Black Death to Three Mile Island, murder ballads to lovers rock.

The Clash had a cultural impact far greater than their record sales. Many of the artists and labels in your book were quite clearly inspired, influenced or otherwise hot-wired by the band. The very name Crass is a 'pun' on Clash: GSOH evidently not a requirement at Dial House. In short, if any pop, rock or avant-garde musical outfit can be deemed 'important', then it's hard to overstate the case for the Clash.

I'm not going to turn your provocation around on you, though, because the late 70s independent label scene was also hugely influential on the wider music scene of the day - its driving force, even - and Independence Days is both a long-overdue document of that fact and a great read. But I challenge you to back up what you imply above: that The Clash themselves could have experienced comparable sustained success on an indie had they gone that route in January 1977.

Alex: I'd point to the disparity between The Clash's real ambitions and the rhetoric they espoused. And incidentally, I'd cite The Raven [by The Stranglers] as a major label album I prefer to London Calling from that period. I don't suggest that The Clash would have become the force they were without CBS. But that those choices framed how the band evolved. I would also point out that within a year UB40 had reached number two in the charts on a completely unknown independent, a far higher chart placing than London Calling achieved. But even before then Lightning had a number 2 in early '78 with 'Uptown Top Ranking' [Althea and Donna], and Numan has his first number one album on Beggars (albeit with Warners support).

One of the most interesting observations in your book is that the perceived rifts that opened up between CBS, in the UK at least, and the band, were so heavily spun. You make a good case for saying that their treatment at the hands of their record label, and Maurice Oberstein in particular, stopped little short of favouritism and indulgence rather than censure or impediment. And yet the 'us and them' myth had to be maintained.

What you say about independents is true, in terms of being the engine of so much that came later. But there were so many factors involved – in terms of personalities and motives – that I'm actually cautious about making any over-arching statements that suggest 'independence' in any way conferred ethical superiority. It was too often used as lip service justification for inept or exploitative business practices by chancers or crooks. That said, there was a core 'top table' of practitioners who, in terms of knowledge and appreciation of music and A&R skills, began to build a spirit that we can perhaps recognise intuitively when we think of the 'independent' period. I guess it helps, in terms of what's been said elsewhere about the overlapping parameters of post-punk, that it had a firm and logical definition (handily side-stepping notions of musical disciplines).

Marcus: Route 19 Revisited isn't about "an album I like". It's about an album by the most celebrated and most castigated band of their era, which has gone on to be poll-rated as the best album of the 70s (and 80s) and one of the 20-or-so most popular and influential albums of all time. Like your last opus, No More Heroes, your new book is essentially anti-canonical. Mine obviously isn't. While I do have mixed feelings about the idea of an unchallenged pantheon of Great Albums, some records do lodge themselves in the public consciousness, and acquire a certain extra weight from that. I'd maintain that London Calling is one such record, while The Raven isn't.

UB40's first hit on Graduate [Signing Off] was January 1980, which is three years later than the date I stipulated: a bad example, because the situation was very different by then, the independent scene having had the opportunity to establish and assert itself. That said, the Yubs felt they had to sign to Virgin to sustain their success. 'Up Town Top Ranking' was a one hit wonder: no sustain. And with Numan you can't hide 'albeit with Warners support' away in parentheses as though it's a minor point: if a major assists, you lose your pure independent label status.

The Clash's independent options as of January 1977 were Chiswick, Stiff, or their own version of the Buzzcocks' New Hormones. Chiswick lacked the funds to launch a substantial artist. Stiff released 'New Rose' by The Damned but had to bring in muscle from the majors - United Artists and EMI - to manufacture and distribute it, and it still failed to chart. As did the Buzzcocks' EP, prompting them to sign to the major UA for their subsequent recordings. After making their supposed devil's bargain with CBS, The Clash got their first single AND album out within a month, and charted with both despite radio's refusal to play 'em and their own refusal to appear on TOTP. They then had a platform from which they could inspire others.

I agree with you absolutely that a state of pure independence was not in itself enough to stake a claim to the moral high ground: at one end of the scale it was the vanity publishing of outsider artists' doodles or barely coherent ranters' tracts, and at the other it was naked and often rapacious entrepreneurialism by Mini Me versions of the majors. What revelation thrown up by your research disillusioned you most?

Alex: Most celebrated and most castigated? On so many levels I'd say that was the Pistols. We agree that polls are wank, don't we? An unchallenged pantheon of Great Albums? I'm glad you have mixed feelings; the thought horrifies me. And I'm extremely partial to outsider artists' doodles and barely coherent ranters' tracts.

What disillusioned me the most? Well, the fact that things were changed in the book against my will to make the story reflect better on the publisher, Cherry Red. I fought very hard for some kind of distance in that chapter, but I was forced under contract to withdraw material deemed to be controversial. I remember an email from the MD complaining of insufficient flattery - like I was meant to be writing it by committee. So, from my point of view, it seemed like a label such as Cherry Red didn't have a concept of independence. In this case at least it was just a flag of convenience for old-school mill-owner capitalism.

I stand by the rest of the book though, and there were some really fascinating people with formidable intellects and real insight into how the thing played out. I don't think anyone reading it will be in much doubt about which parts of the story deserve to be celebrated. Ted & Roger (Ace), Ivo (4AD), Travis (RT) and Miller (Mute) are all immensely knowledgeable about and genuine custodians of their respective musical traditions.

Marcus: If I came back at each of your comebacks in detail we'd be here forever, but: The Clash outlasted the Pistols by many years and consequently got more of the kudos and more of the stick; and polls can be useful indicators of general tastes, just like sales charts. When I used the terms doodles and rants, I was referring to the more unlistenable no-hoper independent efforts. Just because anyone could make a record didn't mean that everyone should.

But forget all that pub argument tosh... I know they say some of the brightest light is cast by burning bridges, but, to mix metaphors, I applaud your bravery in biting the hand that fed you – I think it has to be past tense now – over a point of principle. I did notice that the Cherry Red chapter seemed a bit... let's say disengaged. But then, more than a few the more successful supposedly independent organisations you cover seem to have a few skeletons in the closet and to be headed up by egomaniacs with piss-poor self-awareness. (That is, after all, the usual recipe for success.) It's funny how that whole scene began with The Desperate Bicycles printing the tuppence ha'penny costs on the sleeve in order to demythologise the process of making records, and a decade or so later it was questionable six-and-seven-figure business deals and heavy corporate spin. But yes, there were saints as well as sinners, and a lot of fantastic music was produced along the way.

I suppose there's a certain poetic symmetry to the fact that your book is published by an independent, while mine is published by Jonathan Cape, part of Random House, which in publishing terms would have to be classified as an established major; albeit an atypical one, as it's perhaps the last major publisher to be driven by editorial taste rather than sales and marketing reports. There was no problem with me delivering a book later and longer than agreed; support was given over a tricky legal issue; extra funds were provided for illustrations; and everyone I dealt with was friendly and went that extra yard for me. In my book, Muff Winwood, former CBS Head of A&R UK, maintains that - despite the band's claims to the contrary - CBS did much the same for the Clash.

Alex: We'll call a halt on the point scoring while noses are mutually blooded but kneecaps remain intact (and our readership hasn't fucked off to find something more interesting to do). Not all independents were headed up by egomaniacs - some are incredibly modest and unpretentious individuals and committed to best practice. Brave? I wasn't beyond reproach. I should have abandoned the project when it became clear I was going to be censored.

But yes, there's a kind of strange inversion in terms of my book. It's published by an independent, who nevertheless deliberately breached their contract and denied my right to authorial independence. Their 'patronage' of the endeavour was unhelpful in other ways. Penny from Crass was gracious in not ending our interview when he found out who the book was being published by as he has his own issues with the label. They also recently sent out an email in an effort to get me pulled from a speaking engagement. So yes, boy, do I regret Independence Days not being on a 'major'. Ain't that funny?

Marcus: No, it's a bit depressing, really. Sorry things turned out that way: you deserve better. More importantly, though… does it mean I win?