In 1978 the world was a very different place. Punk was in ashes, Elvis was not long dead and John Lennon was yet to be assassinated. Music came in analogue form, unsullied by a digital age which was still a hazy blur on the thought horizon. It was in this year that the Rough Trade record label began.
The label grew, quite literally, out of the record shop Geoff Travis had opened in West London in February 1976. The shop was trailblazing, farsighted, welcoming, radical – even revolutionary – and it was brimming over with wonderful things: seven-inch picture sleeves whose market was about to exponentially explode, reggae LPs, punk fanzines, badges. By 1978, it had a distribution system and was taking and selling records from bands benefiting from an emerging DIY culture. It was logical, then, that they should start a record label.
‘Paris Maquis’ ( RT001 )1 by French punk rock band Metal Urbaine has the distinction of being the first Rough Trade release and was swiftly followed that year by an eclectic further eleven singles, many of which stand today as classics of their genre. Reggae – reflecting the label’s location in the heart of the west Indian community – punk and a healthy slice of electronic music were presented. Cabaret Voltaire, Augustus Pablo, Swell Maps, Electric Eels and Subway Sect were amongst the first artists.
By the end of 1979, a number of bands now commonly associated with Rough Trade had started to release records on the label, including Scritti Politti and The Raincoats. Such was the label’s recognised importance that a television programme the South Bank Show was devoted to it. When its first album, Stiff Little Fingers’ ‘Inflammable Material’, was released later in the year, it became the first independent record in history to sell over 100,000 copies and charted at number 14.
With the turn of the decade and the emergence of post punk, Rough Trade had grown far too large for its legendary but relatively tiny premises. The growth of the label and the success of its distribution arm, which by then distributed product by many hundreds of independent record labels, meant that larger premises needed to be found and in December 1980, the label and distribution moved to Blenheim Crescent.
The move coincided with what is often regarded as a golden period for the label. Innovative, emboldened by its success and as ever drawn inexorably towards the maverick, Rough Trade released over the next few years some of the finest independent music ever committed to vinyl. New acts to the roster included The Fall, Pere Ubu, Young Marble Giants, This Heat, Robert Wyatt, Television Personalities, Aztec Camera and James Blood Ulmer. Classic LP releases include The Fall’s ‘Grotesque’, This Heat’s ‘Deceit’, Pere Ubu’s ‘The Modern Dance’, Young Marble Giants’ ‘Colossal Youth’, Scritti Politti’s ‘Songs To Remember’ and James Blood Ulmer’s ‘Are You Glad To Be In America?’, all totems of that era from 1980 to 1983.
The signing of The Smiths in 1983 drew Rough Trade into new territory. A stifled independent music scene was gradually giving way to what would go on to be recognised as ‘indie’ and The Smiths, although not entirely foursquare with the genre, found themselves at the forefront of the emerging scene. The intensity with which the media embraced them, and the ensuing parallel success of their records meant that the label had to learn how to promote a band in a way it had never had to do before.
The outcome was an unprecedented run of sixteen chart singles beginning with ‘This Charming Man’ in 1984 and culminating in ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’ in 1987. All four studio albums reached the top two.
By 1984, Rough Trade was successful and on the move again, this time to larger premises in Kings Cross. In spite of its growth it had shed none of its principles and those characteristics that defined the company early on – egalitarianism, inclusivity, leftfield vision – were evident at the time of the Miners struggle against Margaret Thatcher’s government. Rough Trade released ‘Strike’ by The Enemy Within and distributed records to help support miners’ families.2 They also donated records to the children of the miners.3
In 1987, Jeannette Lee joined Rough Trade and would go on to co-develop the Rough Trade record label as we know it today. A former member of Public Image Ltd and former employee of the legendary punk clothing outlet Acme Attractions, Jeannette would initially be influential in steering some of the bigger successes of late 80-s Rough Trade, including The Sundays whose album ‘Reading, Writing & Arithmetic’ was a top five hit in 1990. Jeannette’s arrival coincided with a new influx of guitar bands that looked set to reinvigorate the label, bands like Galaxie 500 and Mazzy Star.
But it was not to be, and, after an ill-fated move to Finsbury Park, in early 1991, following a series of unfortunate business decisions and credit issues affecting distribution, Rough Trade International, the parent company, went into Administration. All of the assets, including the record company and the rights to the Rough Trade name itself, were sold off in an attempt to cover Distribution’s debts. The Rough Trade story, at least for the moment, was over.
It would be the best part of a decade before Geoff Travis and Jeannette Lee could reacquire the rights to the Rough Trade name and begin again as a record company with the help of trading partner Sanctuary. Once again the old Rough Trade ethos came to the fore – an openness of mind, a willingness to be moved and an unswerving belief in the vision of the artists. They were back in west London, too, which has always seemed the spiritual homeland of Rough Trade. In Spring 2001, Geoff and Jeannette DJ’d at the V&A for the 25th anniversary party of the Rough Trade shop and the good faith elicited convinced them that they were absolutely right to re-launch the label. They had already released a trickle of albums and singles but it was an unsolicited tape from New York they had received a few months earlier that would spectacularly give them they ammunition they needed.
The Strokes first release ‘The Modern Age’ – the title almost says it all – galvanised both the revitalised Rough Trade and the British music industry, which was sorely in need of a lift post Brit-Pop. Geoff’s and Jeannette’s peripatetic foray to a New Jersey bar in search of the band they would bring back and promote before attending to the small detail of signing them to a contract paid off. Subsequent releases by The Strokes through 2001/2 and beyond would give their label its biggest commercial success since The Smiths.
Releases during the early- to mid- part of the 2000s by important artists like The Libertines, Eddi Reader, British Sea Power, Low, Emiliana Torrini, Arcade Fire, Belle & Sebastian, Sufjan Stevens and Antony & The Johnsons reflected the refreshing eclecticism of the co-founders, but by 2005 the label had hit a vintage vein of credible and commercial form. Antony & The Johnsons were the unexpected yet deserved winners of the Mercury Prize for the outstanding ‘I Am A Bird Now’ and Arcade Fire’s ‘Funeral’ album had become a worldwide hit, eliciting breathless praise from the likes of David Bowie and David Byrne.
By 2006, some old friends had returned, too. Scritti Politti’s ‘White Bread, Black Beer’ suggested they’d never been away and made it all the way to the Mercury shortlist, whilst Jarvis Cocker, whom Rough Trade had managed for nearly fifteen years, released his first post-Pulp album, ‘Jarvis’.
Over the last few years the record industry has not escaped the economic downturn and one result of that has been the severing of ways between Rough Trade and Sanctuary in July 2007 when the label entered an equal partnership with the Beggars Group. A perhaps more appropriate fit, the Beggars deal ensured ‘stability, dynamism and expertise to grow on a worldwide basis’.4Rough Trade now has a stronger US presence, one that will continue to grow and serve rising artists like Basia Bulat who can benefit from local as well as transatlantic guidance.
With British Sea Power taking ‘Do You Like Rock Music?’ into the Top Ten and onto the Mercury Prize shortlist in 2008 and with groups like The Hold Steady, ‘the band that set out to do nothing’5 finding themselves rising global stars, for the moment Rough Trade heads in the right direction. Important new releases for 2009 by Antony & The Johnsons and The Veils underline the fact that the future is promising. ‘It’s flattering that people are interested in the past,’ Geoff Travis has said, ‘but… the most important thing is what happens now, what happens next.’6
Watch this space.
Selected Further Reading
- Ian Penman: ‘Beat, Activity & Conversation’, NME 10/2/79
- Ian Birch: ‘Rough Trade: The Humane Sell’, Melody Maker, 1979
- Pete Douglas: ‘Rough Trade: A DIY Alternative to The Record Biz? Or Just Punk Rip Off?’, Musicians Only, 3/10/79
- Greil Marcus: ‘Wake Up!’, Rolling Stone 24/7/80
- Rough Trade – Rob Young ( Black Dog, 2006 )
Selected Further Viewing
- South Bank Show, LWT, 27/5/79
- ‘DIY: The Story OF Rough Trade’, BBC 4, 17/10/08
1Records were catalogued ‘Rough’ for seven-inch singles, ‘RTT’ for 12”s and ‘RT’ for LPs
2Emphatically supportive of the Miners, Rough Trade conceived a plan to get the record into the charts by supplying the NUM with the address of every chart-return shop in Britain and asking them to ask their members to go in to the shops and buy the record at the same time on the same day. But when a Rough Trade member turned up for the early morning meeting to discuss this, the senior NUM representative was so spectacularly drunk that the meeting fell apart and the scheme was never fully realised