How Soon is Now? The Madmen and Mavericks who made Independent Music, by Richard King, Faber, RRP£17.99, 624 pages
When it comes to ranking music’s most influential bands, Bogshed are not near the top of many lists. According to Richard King in How Soon Is Now?, audiences at their gigs could be counted in tens rather than thousands and most of those tended to work for the record label. And yet for a brief period in the mid-1980s this band and others like them – typically white, male, ungainly – emerged from bedrooms all over Britain to be interviewed and earnestly debated in the music papers of the time. They even had their own independent chart, an alternative to the mainstream top 40.
Bogshed’s particular brand of “indie” music, known for a time as C86 after a cover-mounted compilation cassette (remember them?) in the New Musical Express, seems even more puzzling in retrospect. For many it probably encapsulates what they think of the indie phenomenon as a whole – that is, anti-glamour, low-fidelity, guitar-based rock. Yet, as the music journalist and industry veteran King shows in this exhaustive, occasionally exhausting, 600-page corrective, the story is infinitely richer than this.
Most entertaining are the ideological oddities of a time when creativity would always trump business strategy; in a chapter on the early days of 4AD, later home to the Pixies, we learn how a particularly perfectionist graphic designer dictated the rather slow speed of the label’s release schedule. Indie legends such as Depeche Mode and Cocteau Twins have walk-on parts but the real “mavericks” of the book’s subtitle are the men who signed them – Daniel Miller at Mute and Ivo Watts-Russell at 4AD – and those who created the “independent” environment in which they would flourish.
Two in particular stood out. In pre-punk west London Geoff Travis, an Afro-sporting Cambridge graduate, opened a record shop called Rough Trade that became a focal point for punk’s do-it-yourself fanzine culture. As these record buyers were inspired to start their own bands, Travis saw an opportunity not only to sell but to make and distribute records. For Rough Trade, “independent” represented an economic model as much as an alternative lifestyle statement, though with its macrobiotic canteen food and cleaning rotas, the company was undoubtedly a product of its right-on early 1980s times.
In Manchester, a local television journalist named Tony Wilson was behind Factory, a studiedly austere northern collective that eschewed the word “Records” in its name for fear of being considered just an indie label. Already far away from the London-based record industry, the idealistic Wilson also determined on a unique business model – though high production costs meant that even a big crossover hit such as New Order’s “Blue Monday” could lose Factory money.
The book occasionally feels too long, particularly when the author starts along one narrative path only to take such a lengthy diversion that you wonder if he will ever come back. But its undoubted value lies in the way it reflects the period’s vibrant creativity and thrilling crush of ideas – even if King’s use of language can be as hard on the ears as a My Bloody Valentine gig.
In the end idealism was not enough for the independent labels. The Smiths grew too big for Rough Trade just as New Order did for Factory, exposing further, catastrophic limitations in business strategy. And following the demise of Rough Trade in 1991 and Factory’s bankruptcy the year after, reality finally sunk in. Soon new “indie” bands such as Nirvana and Sonic Youth were actually being funded by major labels, which had picked up on the popularity of so-called alternative music.
Ten years after C86’s brief moment, the “Battle of Britpop” saw two of the scene’s biggest bands, Oasis and Blur, compete for the number one spot in the mainstream top 40 in a way that would once have been unthinkable. Independent music had been marginalised as a business but there was no escaping its legacy.
Neil O’Sullivan is deputy editor of FT Life & Arts