Music » Music Stories

A new book explores the history of the influential U.K. label Rough Trade — but does it get history right?

Plus, a sidebar detailing some of the label's essential releases.


For all the early punks' Year Zero rhetoric about destroying the music business, most of them were pretty serious music scholars. John Lydon, we now know, was a huge fan of Can and Hawkwind; Joe Strummer's first band was the pub-rockish 101ers; and you were more likely to hear dub reggae than punk between bands at the Roxy. And so it shouldn't be surprising that when punks grew tired of three-chord thrash, they began latching onto other influences: funk, reggae, soul, Krautrock, Eno, Roxy, Bowie.

Almost immediately, weirdo seven-inch singles — such as the Buzzcocks' "Spiral Scratch" and Alternative TV's "Love Lies Limp" — brought wit and inventiveness to punk's insolence. They weren't "punk" per se, but punk made them happen. "Post-punk" is the agreed-upon term; it was as awkward a label then as it was now, but it's as close as anyone's gotten to describing the low-budget, fascinating and strange music that grew from punk's Big Bang.

Rough Trade Records was in a unique position to both benefit from and nurture this growing scene. Beginning as a London record shop in 1976, it quickly became the place to hear the newest releases, pick up copies of Sniffin' Glue fanzine and meet likeminded souls. Shop owner Geoff Travis started a label in 1978 when a French band, Métal Urbain, brought in some of its demo tapes. What followed over the next four years was easily one of the all-time great catalogues. Between 1978 and 1982, Rough Trade Records released singles and albums by the likes of the Raincoats, the Slits, Cabaret Voltaire, Scritti Politti, Young Marble Giants, the Pop Group, Liliput, Essential Logic and the Feelies. None of these bands sounded even remotely alike, but they did share a common DIY aesthetic that was often political in its approach — sometimes overtly, but more often subtly. Robert Wyatt and Red Krayola appeared as well, as if to connect the label to an earlier experimental period.

From the beginning, Travis attempted to run Rough Trade like a collective. Before opening the shop, he had lived on an Israeli kibbutz and studied Marxism. He owned the label, but all creative decisions had to be unanimously approved. It was not uncommon to have hours-long meetings regarding questionable lyrics or album sleeves (which apparently drove the Fall's Mark E. Smith absolutely insane). Nonetheless, it worked for a few years: Band members often worked at the shop or stuffed envelopes — and for awhile there was even a vegetarian buffet in the lobby.

And then, as with so many utopian movements, the realities of commerce complicated things. At the same time Rough Trade was strengthening as a label, it was also venturing further into distribution, necessitating a quick surge in production and management. There were cash-flow problems. Travis sold the shop to his employees. The label needed a hit and found it in the Smiths, but by this point the company's structure was irrevocably changed.

Since then, Rough Trade has had innumerable ups and downs. The company went bankrupt in 1991, but Travis continued with the Trade 2 label and band management. One Little Indian later bought the label for a brief, not very fruitful period. Today Travis once again owns the Rough Trade name, and his label survives as a branch of the Sanctuary Music Group in the U.K. (although Sanctuary recently dissolved the U.S. branch of the label — an entity that actually had been operating separately from Rough Trade U.K.). The shop, however, survives as one of London's best record stores.

It's a fascinating story, and Rob Young's book, Rough Trade: Labels Unlimited, covers much of it in great detail. We see the very first Rough Trade storefront, whose logo looks amusingly like something from a Yes album. We see the early record sleeves, drool over show flyers that read like fantasy bills (the Raincoats and Scritti Politti upstairs in a pub — oh man!), and hear from the likes of the Red Krayola's Mayo Thompson and Raincoats member Shirley O'Loughlin. Up until the Smiths era, Unlimited is a satisfying read and a thorough examination of the business and political philosophies of Travis and Rough Trade.

From that point on, however, Young loses focus. He makes a crucial error in downplaying Rough Trade's American branch. It was the San Francisco office that released the 1981 label compilation Wanna Buy A Bridge? Now rare and highly collectible, Bridge remains a key influence on such torchbearers as the Gossip and the Rapture — but curiously, Young never even mentions it in his book. And in the early 1990s, the American label was proving itself a serious contender, releasing well-received albums by Miracle Legion (one of Radiohead's prime influences), Opal, Two Nice Girls, Straitjacket Fits and even Lucinda Williams. But other than a few pages on Galaxie 500, Camper Van Beethoven and Beat Happening, we hear almost nothing about this time period.

Rough Trade: Labels Unlimited ends with a Q&A between Travis and co-owner Jeannette Lee. They share interesting trivia and lament lost signings — if Travis had had his way, Run-D.M.C.'s first album and De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising would have been Rough Trade releases. Ultimately, Travis and Lee express satisfaction that Rough Trade remains a place where artists can meet and cross-pollinate. It's no more or less utopian than it was in 1982. But it's hard to think of another label that's been able to weather its lean times so successfully, and which continues to inspire new generations of listeners.

Rough & Ready

Not sure where to start within Rough Trade's vast catalog? Here's a subjective guide to five of the label's essential releases.

Belle & Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)
Coming off a difficult period of subpar releases and changing personnel, Belle & Sebastian entered the studio with Trevor Horn and emerged with its most cohesive and ambitious album to date. Bookish lyrics and intricately crafted melodies place it in the fine label tradition of the Go-Betweens, Robert Wyatt and Aztec Camera.

The Smiths, Hatful of Hollow (1984)
Some would rate The Queen Is Dead as the Smiths' best, but this collection finds the band at the absolute peak of its abilities. Hatful of Hollow is a first-album-era collection of BBC sessions and seven-inch tracks. Many of the BBC tapes are superior to the official versions; the original "Hand In Glove" still stuns from fade-in to fade-out.

The Raincoats, The Raincoats (1979)
The Raincoats' 1979 debut found the perfect ground between the Slits and White Light/White Heat with its John Cale-ish violin, discordant but oddly gorgeous vocals, clattering stream-of-consciousness percussion and cachet of unpredictable songs. It still sounds like absolutely nothing else; in fact, its forthright and often witty approach to gender politics (including a killer cover of the Kinks' "Lola") makes it feel utterly contemporary.

Scritti Politti, Early (2005)
In its original incarnation, Scritti Politti was a gang of genuine ex-art students, squatters and political theorists. They were out to deconstruct and demystify the very act of record production. (Record sleeves famously even included itemized cost breakdowns and contact numbers.) Early collects these first few singles and twelve-inches, trailing off just before lead singer Green Gartside jettisoned this lineup and made an unexpected move into the commercial mainstream.

Young Marble Giants, Colossal Youth (1980)
With the absolute minimum required instrumentation — one guitar, one bass, a metronomic drum machine and a stylophone — this Cardiff trio created an album of lullabies and laments for the day after the apocalypse. Today Colossal Youth sounds enigmatic, mysterious and hushed, but it was actually an unlikely best-seller: the second highest-selling Rough Trade album, in fact, until the Smiths joined. Domino Records is planning a deluxe CD reissue for later in 2007. — Mike Appelstein

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