Monday, May 08, 2017

Little Earthquakes... Independent Records Labels & SE London

The joint Independent Label Market/London Brewers Market in Greenwich on Friday night (5/5/2017) was good and busy, with music, food and drink stalls and Lewisham's Unit 137 Sound System shaking the rafters of the indoor market.

I wrote the following piece for the programme giving a quick overview of independent labels associated with SE London, in particular New Cross/Deptford/Lewisham. I say 'associated with' because you can't necessarily pin down the label based on an office/mailing address. So for instance, I included Stay Up Forever, arguably an East London label, on the basis of tracks being recorded in Deptford (the Punishment Farm studio mentioned was originally upstairs in the now closed Harp of Erin pub, then known as Round the Bend, on New King Street). Similarly I mention No Hats, No Hoods on basis of association with Lewisham artists, though its address is in E2.

Little Earthquakes that changed the world

In 40 years of  vinyl, cassettes, CDs and digital downloads, the independent labels and artists of South East London have helped launch and popularise whole genres of music. Some of these little earthquakes have ended up shaking the world, at least those parts of the world ready to be shaken by a guitar riff or a bass wobble.

The punk period saw the first big explosion of DIY music and independent labels.  Miles Copeland named his label  Deptford Fun City because, according to Jools Holland, ‘he had been so amused by Deptford High Street, never having seen or heard anything like it before’.  A major aim was to release early tracks by Greenwich’s Squeeze, who included the young Jools on keyboards. Squeeze were soon to be recognised as some of the best songwriters of the New Wave period but as well as their sweet melodies Deptford Fun City released some of the more experimental sounds of the post-punk period by Alternative TV, the band founded by Deptford’s Mark Perry , the sometime editor of legendary punk zine Sniffin’ Glue.

Reggae sound system culture was another key ingredient of the SE London social/sonic mix in this period, and this too found expression through influential independent labels.  Dennis Harris’s Eve Records in Upper Brockley Road was to give birth to the Lovers Rock label in this period, popularising a new style mix of reggae rhythms and soulful vocals that remains part of the palette board of pop down to the present.

In the early 1980s, a new industrial sound began to emerge that included  noise made from bashing metal and other found objects.  The pioneers of this in the UK were Test Dept; like many bands at this time, they self released early material on cassette, before moving on to vinyl and releasing records on their own Ministry of Power imprint on Some Bizarre records.

The Band of Holy Joy started out in similar milieu – some of them even sharing a house with members of Test Dept in New Cross -  but their songs of love, despair and the city took them in a different direction. Their breakthrough record  was the 10” EP ‘The Big Ship Sails’ released on Flim Flam records in 1986. Flim Flam was an independent label  as well as a club of the same name that took place at the Harp Club in New Cross – later to become The Venue.  It was started by BOHJ and Beloved manager Robert Lancaster with each record given a ‘Harp’ serial number presumably in reference to the New Cross club.

Back in the late 1970s, Counterpoint record shop in Forest Hill was the main local outlet for punk and new wave records. Owner Andy Ross was in band Disco Zombies who released their 'Drums Over London' single on their own South Circular Records in 1979. Fast forward ten years and Andy Ross was working for indie label Food Records when he went to check out a band called Seymour featuring a couple of students from Goldsmiths in New Cross. He persuaded them to change their name and signed them - you might have heard of Blur.

In the 1990s electronic music explosion, a specifically London contribution  was the Acid Techno sound pioneered by the Liberator DJs  - the 303 drenched banging soundtrack to London free parties. Many of the classic tracks were released on Stay Up Forever  records, and recorded at D.A.V.E. the Drummer’s Punishment Farm studios in Deptford. International techno/speedcore label Praxis Records also sold records for a while from a shop on New Cross Road in that period.

The early noughties saw a revival of intelligent guitar based  bands and a key label was Angular Recording Corporation, founded by ex-Goldsmiths students Joe  Margetts  and Joe Daniel.

The release of the  ‘The New Cross’ compilation CD album in 2003 by Angular Recording Corporaton and associated nights at the Paradise Bar (now Royal  Albert pub)  led the music press to talk of the ‘New Cross Scene’ .  While not all the bands were actually from the area it was through Angular’s New Cross portal that bands like Bloc Party, Art Brut, These New Puritans, The Long Blondes and Klaxons had their first releases.

Following in Angular’s footsteps, No Pain in Pop  was founded by Tom King and Tom Oldham in New Cross in 2008, putting on nights in local pubs before releasing a diverse range of material from indie pop to post-dubstep – and the UK release of the 1st album by Grimes,  Geidi Primes.

A recording studio on the Juno Way industrial estate in New Cross helped launch another new sound on the world, with Defenders Entertainment releasing Crazy Cousins’ ‘UK Funky’ tracks  including their highly influential remix of Kyla’s Do You Mind (2008) – later covered by The XX and sampled  by Drake on ‘One Dance’ (2016). Also from New Cross,  Andy Blake’s disco/house label  Dissident Distribution released a critically acclaimed series of  limited issue 12" singles from 2007 to 2009.

The spirit of Dissident and Andy Blake’s ‘World Unknown’ clubnights have informed the most recent wave of ex-Goldsmiths upstarts known as The Rising Sun Collective. Along with labels such as Squareglass they are carrying the torch for S.E. D.I.Y. with a series of parties, mixtapes, and vinyl releases spearheaded by artists such as A House In The Trees and Semi-Precious.

The recent upsurge in 2nd wave grime is giving birth to may new independent labels as artists seek to take control of their careers. Brockley’s finest Novelist has launched his own Mmmyeh Records,  having first come to prominence as part of grime collective The Square with their famous Lewisham McDeez track released on No Hats, No Hoods.  Independent labels have come a long way since the first punk and reggae 7 inch singles, but the DIY spirit lives on.

You can check out tracks from some of these on the accompanying Spotify playlist here:

1. Alternative TV – Action Time Vision (Deptford Fun City, 1978)
2. Brown Sugar - I’m in love with a dreadlock (Lovers Rock, 1977)
3. Test Dept - Fuckhead (Ministry of Power, 1986)
4. Band of Holy Joy - Rosemary Smith (Flim Flam, 1986)
5. Star Power  – Nothing can save us London (Stay up Forever, 1994)
6.  Long Blondes - Autonomy Boy (Angular, 2004)
7.  Veronica Falls – Beachy Head (No Pain in Pop, 2010)
8.  Kyla – Do you Mind, Crazy Cousinz remix (Defenders Ent, 2008)
9.  Cage & Aviary - Giorgio Carpenter(D‎issident,  2007)
10. The Square - Lewisham Mcdeez  (No Hats, No Hoods, 2015)
11. Semi Precious - No Distractions (Squareglass, 2017)

Limited for time and space for this article,  there's a lot more that could have been included. Johny Brown  from Band of Holy Joy has asked me about Desperate Bicycles, arguably the DIY label pioneers of the punk period. I did consider them but wasn't sure about extent of their SE London connection. Think first single was recorded in Dalston, but their 1978 'New Cross, New Cross' EP on their own Reflex label apparently followed a period rehearsing in New Cross. He also mentioned Bastard Haircut records, associated with Brain of Morbius. 

As covered at this blog before, there were other New Cross reggae labels in late 1970s/early 1980s, including Fay Music, Studio 16  and Sound City Records. 

In wider SE London beyond Lewisham, there's lots more to consider, perhaps most significantly on the punk front Conflict's Mortarhate label, starting out in Eltham, and One Little Indian which started out with Flux of Pink Indians in Forest Hill

Loads of dance labels out there of course, could have mentioned Controlled Weirdness' Unearthly records (including his great South London Bass track).

Who would you add to the list of SE London independent labels?

1 comment:

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