Saturday 20 January 2018

Review: Document and Eyewitness: An Intimate history of Rough Trade by Neil Taylor

(Orion, £14.99)

Record companies don't get a good rep from bands or the record buying public. They are perceived as soulless organisations bent on milking as much money as possible from their artists and screwing the fans while they are at it.

Rough Trade has never been thought of in this most unflattering and simplistic light. Since its origins in 1976, it has come to be seen as a bastion of independent music, one that puts the music first. Only a handful of labels -- Domino, Sub Pop and Secretly Canadian -- have enjoyed such slavish devotion.

And there's good reason too, as a cursory glance at Rough Trade's signings over the years so clearly demonstrates: The Smiths and Pulp, plus the politicised Scritti Politti and Robert Wyatt helped burnish the legend, while more recent additions, New York cool-strutters The Strokes and Duffy (pictured) ensured its continued acclaim.

This book -- the first comprehensive account of the label -- tells the story of how eccentric music obsessive Geoff Travis started, in the true punk spirit of the times, an independent record shop that punched way above its weight, and then, as the fledgling label, had the vision to spot greatness in embryonic versions of Buzzcocks, The Fall and, of course, The Smiths.

They later, under the leadership of the mercurial Morrissey, would dominate intelligent British music in the 1980s and the band's startling success would highlight Travis's ability to handle fragile egos, nurture innate talent and promote often uncommercial music at the expense of a quick buck.

Written by Neil Taylor -- who was an NME staffer during its 1980s heyday -- this significant tome features contributions from Travis and most of the key players in the Rough Trade story, including Pulp's ever-quotable frontman Jarvis Cocker.

The story is told chronologically, with key players advancing the account in their own voices. It helps that the protagonists are frank, none more so than Travis himself, but this dialogue approach wears so thin in places that you wish Taylor would have written the book more conventionally. Sometimes, even interesting people's reminiscences can be yawn-inducing.

As one might expect from a book sanctioned by Rough Trade, there's a slight touch of back-slapping, yet at no point does Travis come across as anything other than a romantic soul still in love with three chords and the truth. In an age typified by Jedward and the get-rich-quick machinations of the X Factor franchise, it's encouraging to see people like Travis get their due.

His taste, incidentally, remains impeccable. It was he who saw the astonishing promise of Arcade Fire back in 2004, with Rough Trade distributing their debut album, Funeral. Their latest album, The Suburbs, is currently sitting atop the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

John Meagher is Rock Critic of the Irish Independent

Irish Independent

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