Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD
London: The Friday Project, 2013
Towards the end of Martin Aston’s monumental history of the 4AD record label he claims that one of the label’s later signings was “guilty of lacking transcendence” (p. 550). It seems an odd charge to lay at the door of a rock band, but in the strange world of 4AD it stands as a damning indictment. Aston’s book does an excellent job of explaining how and why such an aesthetic of purity and a contempt for commercial considerations led to 4AD becoming arguably the most distinctive label in 1980s Britain.
At the heart of this story is Ivo Watts-Russell. Born into the last fading light of English aristocracy, Ivo developed a lifelong love for esoteric Americana (Tim Buckley, Spirit) and for England’s hidden Albion (Nick Drake, Pink Floyd). 4AD began as a small imprint of Beggar’s Banquet, itself funded by Warners, and quickly obtained a reputation for its goth sensibility, best represented by Bauhaus (who were soon promoted to Beggar’s).
But 4AD was never limited to a particular genre and its most famous signing, Cocteau Twins, soon grew from their Siouxsie-like beginnings to become one of the most original voices in popular music ever. With song titles verging on (and falling over) the edge of incomprehensibility (“Sugar Hiccup,” “Ella Megalast Burls Forever,” “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops,” etc.) the Cocteau Twins’ singer Elizabeth Fraser also provided lyrics that seemed to consist of made up words delivered in a faux operatic style. This gave their entire output a feeling of pure musicality.
Fraser was also the vocalist on This Mortal Coil’s cover version of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren.” One of 4AD’s most enduring moments, the song runs through Aston’s book like Ariadne’s thread, casting light and darkness onto those who come into contact with it. David Lynch was besotted with “Song to the Siren” and wanted to use it in Blue Velvet but Buckley’s estate demanded too much money for its use. A few years later Lynch could afford it and the song was used in the haunting (and haunted) Lost Highway. Aston also points out that Buckley’s son, Jeff Buckley, died by drowning, as though the dark power of the Siren, once evoked, could not be contained.
This Mortal Coil was Ivo’s pet project and he was able to call on an impressive roster of musicians to create the twilight songs that cast such a lunar chill on their first album, It’ll End In Tears. It’ll End In Tearsis a truly great record combining a weird set of cover versions with a range of ambient sound effects. The result is a work of dark beauty, simultaneously rich and austere, despondent and redemptive. Ivo’s role in This Mortal Coil was effectively curator rather than musician and the album is a testament to his impeccable taste.
Further notable artists on 4AD’s roster included Thowing Muses and the Pixies, both of whom helped to dispel some of the lingering dry ice. Throwing Muses emerged from nowhere with a perfect combination of rhythmic muscularity and melodic sweetness that can sometimes put you in mind of early Talking Heads but mostly sounds like no one else. When combined with singer Kristin Hersch’s lyrics, many of which display Plath-like tendencies towards psychotic animism, the Muses become a truly singular proposition. Hate My Way demonstrates how this bipolar poetry was perfectly complemented by the music, shifting from violent anger to tenderness and back again.
I could be a smack freak
And hate society
I could hate God
And blame Dad
I might be in a Holocaust
Might not have a child
And hate school
I could be a sad lover
And hate death
I could be a neuro
And hate sweat
I hate my way
I make you in to a song
I can’t rise above the church
I’m caught in a jungle
Vines tangle my hands
I’m always so hot and it’s hot in here
I say it’s all right
My pillow screams too
But so does my kitchen
And my shoes
And the road
I have a gun in my head
I can’t find the ice
A boy, he was tangled in his bike forever
A girl was missing two fingers
Gerry Ann was confused
Had a gun in his head
So I sit up late in the morning
And ask myself again
How do they kill children?
And why do I want to die?
They can no longer move
I can no longer be still
The Pixies sounded very different but were equally remarkable, despite being guilty of inventing Nirvana. The Pixies created a honed-down and gritty sound that encompassed references from surf music to the Velvet Underground. They were a different proposition to the other 4AD bands but their addition to the label only served to freshen and invigorate it. The Muses and the Pixies represented a peak of sorts for 4AD and the inevitable decline set in when Ivo stepped down from his central role in the company due to a debilitating depression.
During the next phase of 4AD’s evolution there were fewer highlights. With Ivo gone the trajectory of 4AD’s development became less sure footed. Whereas a band like the Pixies was a surprising but enlivening signing, some of the subsequent artists on 4AD just seem out of place. Aston cites the case of Thievery Corporation, and he comments wryly on the disjunction between their songs and the overriding aesthetic of 4AD: “The ugly sentiment of the line, ‘We come annihilate the bloodclot nation’–using derogatory Jamaican patois for menstruation–was also new for 4AD” (p. 549). The reason for the change in emphasis was not just Ivo’s retirement but also the realisation that money was becoming an issue. The economic situation for record labels in the late 1990s was very different from the late 1970s and early ’80s and it was only going to become more challenging with the emergence of MP3. Whilst the reality of economic difficulties could only ever result in significant change at 4AD, it still remains baffling how derogatory Jamaican patois for menstruation could have been seen as part of the solution.
Like all popular musicians, most of 4AD’s personnel descended into drug and alcohol problems and personal animosities began to flourish. What is interesting is how so few of these conflicts were openly acknowledged at the time. Several of those involved appear to only hear the full story of past resentments when being interviewed for the book. As 4AD was a label by and for introverts this might not be too surprising, but it does seem remarkable that they were able to accomplish anything at all. Of course, the reason why great things happened around 4AD was Ivo and his ability to draw out something uniquely beautiful from his artists: the transcendent quality of higher-level communication that the best music achieves. It is a tribute to him that everyone who contributed to Facing the Other Way still holds him in high regard.
Another significant element to 4AD’s success was the creation of an incredibly distinctive series of record covers. Like Peter Saville’s work with Factory, Vaughan Oliver and Nigel Grierson’s work for 4AD led to an expectation that the packaging housing the vinyl disc would be an art object in itself. Like the music, yet intensely unique, Oliver and Grierson’s work (under the imprint “23 Envelope”) is layered and rich with imagery but it defies simple interpretations. 4AD records were released in good quality, sturdy sleeves with well-designed inners. A copy of the limited, deluxe version of the Lonely Is an Eyesore compilation is held in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert museum. Inevitably, the cost of running such a high quality design studio in the service of an independent record label would contribute to 4AD’s financial difficulties. And looking back now, those days when records of this calibre, packaged with such high standards by the likes of 4AD, Factory and others, were taken for granted seem distant and halcyon.
The standard criticism of 4AD is that they turned the pretentiousness dial up to 11. I have always felt that this is a shallow and petty criticism stemming more from the resentment of dull social realists than from fact. He who mocks artists for being pretentious simply wants to drag them down to his own level of mundanity, listening to The Jam in an attic somewhere. Certainly, there was a seriousness to 4AD’s output and an ambiguity to their symbolism that rubbed people up the wrong way. In my view, certain people need to be rubbed up the wrong way, and their horror of art which might possibly exist beyond Brechtian strictures of consciousness-raising should be enjoyed.
Reading Facing the Other Way alerted me to some music I had never heard before. In particular the album Labour of Love by Mass is an amazingly intense piece of work crossing Joy Division with early Psychic TV. Also, Rema-Rema’s EP, Wheel in the Roses, from which the song Fond Affections was covered by This Mortal Coil on It’ll End in Tears. The later, post-Pixies phase of 4AD interests me much less, and some of the bands I actively dislike.
Facing the Other Way manages to be sufficiently compendious to please 4AD obsessives whilst still constructing an interesting and engaging narrative that holds the interest of those less knowledgeable about the label, like me. Martin Aston brings to life a period when it still seemed possible to redeem the world through pure art, and to transcend both the didactics of socialism and the vulgarity of capitalism. The world would be a duller place without these songs.