The business of music

December 6th 2010

Sufjan Stevens…..More.

In 1978 a girlfriend invited me to a Peter Gabriel concert at the London Hammersmith Odeon. This was just after Peter had left Genesis, and around the time of “Solsbury Hill”. I don’t recall much about the music that night, I was not a fan of Genesis, but I was very interested in Sally, so I happily accepted the invitation. What I do recall that night though, is seeing for the very first time a show with Big Production. The stage featured various props and built sets, including if I remember rightly, trees and a house.   Peter would appear in various costumes in the oddest of places, singing from some ledge 15 feet in the air. This was all new to me, and over time in the wrong hands  the “show” aspect of live music went on to become overblown and pompous. Rick Wakeman’s “King Arthur and the Knights Of The Round Table” (abbreviated title) performed on ice no less, comes to mind.  I was used to seeing The Faces stumble around a stage with no props except scattered bottles of wine and beer, plus the occasional football kicked into the crowd. Nick Lowe, Elvis, and Graham Parker at The Nashville, Hope and Anchor or Dingwalls also didn’t carry the same pomp and circumstance. It was all about the music and drink -in- hand- having a good time. Standing up to see  a show in a pub does not indicate the same experience as taking your seat in a splendid renovated theater for a couple of hours, as was the case at The Beacon Theater Nov 15th where I was fortunate enough to see Sufjan Stevens finish his US tour. Sufjan is part of the new wave of younger artists that think hard about how to present a show  that the audience can emotionally participate in rather than just observe, and the emphasis is very much on music staging rather than props. So..I saw a wonderfully tight band, backing singers / dancers, projections both front and back stage, and 2 hours of glorious modern indie pop opera.  At times choreographed, at other times appearing to just wing it, above everything it was joyous music performed with artistic abandon; Sufjan infectiously laying his soul out on the stage in what amounted to a homecoming finale to the “Adz” tour. There were a few folks that cried out for just the banjo, but it seemed reductive to deny this show as a testament to how far Sufjan has come as a songwriter, singer, entertainer and performer.

It’s been 35 years since  I slept on the floor of Paddington Station having made the trip to Reading to see Wishbone Ash and missing the train home. And it’s 35 years ago since I took a day off work to take the train down to London to see Rod Stewart at Olympia, catching the night train home, arriving in Sheffield at 5am to go home and get to work for 9. The Sufjan Stevens show at The Beacon reminded me of what it’s like to be a fan all over again.

Sufjan Stevens : “Djohariah” from the ep “All Delighted People”

It opens up like a Leonard Cohen song poem, with a choir of grieving angels repeatedly harmonising “wuuu who”, before it states the main theme. The song progresses through various levels of ascending grief, still repeating the main theme, the mantra “Djohariah Djohariah”, and bridged with the wailing voice of treated guitar solos. It’s an 11 1/2 minute intro before the angels grieving calms, and Sufjan begins his  tender  bitter vocal. This is modern indie opera. Incredibly brave and emotional music. If I was Pink Floyd, I’d give Sufjan my entire body of work with carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. Instead, we get Roger Waters asking  “Is there anybody out there”. Again….

http://sufjanstevens.bandcamp.com/album/all-delighted-people-ep

All Delighted People EP, by Sufjan Stevens
sufjanstevens.bandcamp.com
8 track album

Rough Trade (as in…a Group of Companies)

Neil Taylor has just written a book about Rough Trade called “Document and Eyewitness”. As far as I can tell, it’s only published in the UK right now: bit.ly/98CTqt

The book is written in an oral history style, including interviews with most of the major Rough Trade personnel throughout the years. I worked at RT from 1986-89, and Neil interviewed me extensively. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of my own remembrances, but I’m reading common themes of disappointment, anger and bitterness about how the story unfolded.  Of more interest though, there’s also a tone of bewilderment. This tone not only betrays the extent of the influence the experience had on employees lives, but it leaves a lasting imprint on how special the company really was. The internal  conflicts are well documented and understandable. Filled with a range of idealistic people that could either express themselves very well, or not at all, the fluid ‘outsider’ culture was all pervading and at times contradictory. Aaron Rose’s documentary “The Beautiful losers” could just as well have cast half the RT staff in the role of  the awkward outsiders he refers to. One employee being banned from entering Production because he “confused” staff, warehouse workers going on strike, welfare meetings discussing someone’s coat that had been ripped on a door handle,  this was all part of the internal workings. The weight of it all ultimately dragged me down, but in retrospect the manifesto was always valuable. I’d like to think that given time,  and in a new era of communications, the company would have developed a more refined approach.

Despite the disappointing ending of RT, I’d like to echo the tone of Neil’s foreword and use this opportunity to acknowledge what the company achieved and stood for. I’m proud of my time at RT. At one point I remember saying to Simon Edwards ,my closest compadre, “we’re the best at what we do. no one understands or comes close to our approach”. This was 1987, not 2010 where “tradition” is routinely being dismantled. I just can never imagine that many unique characters converging together again, at that young time in their lives and at such a marvelous period in music history. RT was not just a company of it’s time but a prototype in considering the very definition of “independent”. It reflected a culture and spirit that started with a love of music (not in itself enough to warrant specialness)  but an idealism that contradicted music business motives. A belief that things could and should be done differently. It was not about singular gain, and for that  I acknowledge the founders, especially Geoff and Richard Scott, who allowed that seed to grow.

Rough Trade (ie: the group of companies)  lifespan was too short and it ended badly, not simply because many of it’s supporters lost money, but it signaled the end of a collective culture. It’s competitors feasted on it’s demise, saying all along that the company had no “real” managerial expertise and operated fecklessly. Most or all of these Companies have since gone on to declare bankruptcy or have been salvaged by a large corporation.

I’m bouyed by the motives of artists like Jack Johnson, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, and others that are showing remarkable conscience in what they do and the sense of new values that say “not just for profit”. So while I believe we will never see another Rough Trade again the way it was, I do think we will see elevated consciousness from folks wanting to create their own legacies which are not simply about how much money has been made and how many records have been sold. I think we will see it in niches, independently minded spirits who take control of their destiny and shape their own values.

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2 responses to “The business of music

  1. Salient points Dave. I was a bit disappointed that there was very little joy in the book – I remember my time at RT as one of constant excitement; bouncing out of bed and eager to get into work. Its a cracking read on the early part though and one is always too close to one’s own period. The chance to be that idealistic at that particular period in London was a gift that I cherish along with the camaraderie – so let’s hear it for Richard Scott and Geoff Travis (and Daniel Miller and Anthony H Wilson)!

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