How Soon Is Now?: The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music, 1975–2005
London: Faber & Faber, 2012
Richard King’s How Soon is Now? is subtitled “The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975–2005,” and that is an accurate description of the book’s contents. The idea of charting the history of indie music from the perspective of the record companies and distribution networks, rather than the bands, is an interesting and novel one. Unfortunately, it does lessen the appeal of that story, and, in this telling at least, it creates some insuperable obstacles.
The term “indie” was coined in the aftermath of punk and referred to the “do it yourself” nature of the small record companies and distribution networks that came into existence in the late 70s. In the early parts of the book King is very good at teasing out some of the less fêted elements of punk and showing how they achieved a disproportionate influence. For instance, he describes how the young members of the Nu Sonics saw Subway Sect perform in Glasgow and were inspired to change their name to Orange Juice and take a new musical direction. And when he writes of the Orange Juice lead singer, “mixing the wistfulness of Noël Coward with the assertiveness of Lou Reed . . . For the rest of the decade anyone with a tousled fringe and second-hand guitar would rehearse this combination of the lovelorn and the preoccupied,” (p. 69) it is an astute and wholly plausible observation. Looking at punk from the point of view of the birth of indie allows the focus to shift from the likes of Malcolm McLaren and The Sex Pistols to some of the lesser known but more interesting characters.
Most important for the story of indie is Geoff Travis who started the Rough Trade distribution network from the back of his London record shop. This network consisted of certain record stores around the country acting as regional distribution points in a national network, an organization that came to be known as The Cartel. The significance of this stems from the fact that it was possible for anyone to get national distribution for a self-made single without the need to approach a record company. It is certain that most of the originality and creativity found in this type of music throughout the ’80s would never have emerged if this distribution network had not existed, and if music could have only been produced at the say so of music executives and A&R men.
Some of the better known labels covered in How Soon is Now? are Factory (Joy Division and New Order), Rough Trade (The Smiths), 4AD (Cocteau Twins), and Mute (Depeche Mode). As the parentheses indicate, indie labels tend to be associated with one big name, and this association is often the difference between survival and bankruptcy. King charts the story of each label in some detail but the similarity of each of these stories to the others leads to a feeling of repetition. By the time we get to the sixth or seventh musically passionate but financially naïve “madman” it feels like déjà vu all over again.
And this structural problem of the narrative is accompanied with other problems. For a publisher like Faber & Faber, who were associated with T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, to produce a book with so many spelling mistakes and other careless errors is shocking. In places the text appears never to have been read by an editor prior to publication. Worse still, King relies heavily on many interviews he conducted for this book and he quotes from them liberally. While this might seem like a good idea, it quickly becomes apparent that these madmen and mavericks, with some notable exceptions, are not the most articulate kids on the block. As the reminiscences pile up so too do the insights at the level of, “I just wanted to ram one right up their arse, so it was just war, class warfare, for me, so I didn’t really give a fuck how I achieved my ends, as long as I beat them” (p. 227) and “It was, ‘Let’s fucking have it,’ big time, that was the vibe of them and that was the vibe of me and in the middle of it all I went into drug rehabilitation” (p. 461). These interviews might be great in a TV documentary but on the printed page they become tiresome and, sadly, the sound of mutual back-slapping becomes almost audible.
Another problem with the book is the absence of any discussion of the association of indie with white youths. The third sentence of the book is, “’Indie’ music is a genre, a type of music played by four or five white young men.” But nothing more is said on the matter. This is a shame because it is hardly necessary to take a particularly controversial stance on the issue; indie music was clearly made by young white men, and it would be interesting to consider why this particular form of subcultural music emerged from white British youths. Surely something of interest could be said about the reflective and often self-critical nature of this music and the wider self-doubt of the white British population? Arguably, indie music was an instinctive self-ostracism from the philistine banalities of Thatcherite economics, an attempt to show that things of artistic beauty could still be made despite the emergent triumph of consumerism.
A different sort of response to Thatcherism is discussed in How Soon is Now? For most of the bands on the labels under discussion it seems to have been a natural default position to adopt Left-wing political stances of some form or other. The Glastonbury Festival (which used to be a fundraiser for CND) and a GLC (Greater London Council) Jobs for Change festival are mentioned as examples of the political ambience of the times. What is interesting is how these sorts of political positions were virtually synonymous with being political at all. It was simply unthinkable that there could be a valid political position outside of a broadly Marxist one. The pop music that was made from within a nationalist position at that time was didactic and somewhat limited in scope. The message was all that seemed to matter. The Left had retained a veneer of effortless radicalism that allowed it to be a natural, instinctive home for youthful rebellion. It is interesting in this regard that Morrissey seems to be held in high regard by many nationalists, and not just because he has made numerous politically incorrect statements. There is a stubborn urge to authenticity within indie music that is entirely in keeping with the mind-set that can lead one to forbidden political places.
For me most enjoyable chapter of How Soon is Now? was the one dealing with Bill Drummond and The KLF. Part of the reason for this is that the art terrorism practised by KLF was a singular project; their records were released on their own label and they were incredibly popular, so they had great freedom. The meshing of glam/kitsch hooks with acid house beats under the slightly cultish symbolism of Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! was only the beginning. In 1991, at the peak of their success, they played a live version of “3a.m. Eternal“ with Extreme Noise Terror at the Brit Awards, which is a self-congratulatory corporate affair. Apparently, Drummond had acquired a dead sheep on the morning of the broadcast and intended to shower its blood over the audience during their performance, but he was persuaded not to. Instead he fired blanks from a machine gun at them. At the end of the performance it was announced that, “the KLF have now left the music business,” and that was the end of that. They did return under the name the K Foundation and ruined the Turner Prize in 1992 by awarding £40,000 (twice the Turner Prize money) to the Turner’s winner, for being the worst artist of the year. Rachel Whiteread, the hapless recipient, felt compelled to accept the prize as the K Foundation had threatened to publicly burn the money otherwise. This was no idle threat. In 1994 the K Foundation were filmed burning one million pounds in cash as an art action. Sadly, this chapter is significantly more interesting than the others.
Another limitation of How Soon is Now? is that by focussing on certain labels that produced a roster of bands, other bespoke labels that were created just for one band are not discussed. Thus, The Cure (Fiction Records) and The Sisters of Mercy (Merciful Release) do not feature. The book is overlong anyway so one doesn’t lament the omission. But actually, the subject of Goth and its manifestation as an implicitly white subculture could be fascinating. Someone should write about it.
If you have any involvement with the record industry How Soon is Now? will no doubt be a fascinating read. Otherwise, despite some interesting anecdotes and observations, you would be better off reacquainting yourself with the music.