Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD by Martin Aston

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<i>Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD</i> by Martin Aston

“If the 2002 fictionalized film about Factory Records was called 24 Hour Party People, what might a film about 4AD be titled—Eight Hours Chilling, and Then Bed?”

Martin Aston poses this question near the beginning of Facing the Other Way, his detailed, blow-by-blow account of the independent record label 4AD (originally named Axis), started in 1979. In contrast with the more club-friendly leanings of bands on another big English indie label, Factory, we know 4AD for seminal ‘80s groups—Bauhaus, Birthday Party, the Cocteau Twins, Throwing Muses—who eschewed the dance floor in favor of, as Aston puts it, “dark dreams and hidden depths.”

Aston’s story of 4AD revolves around co-founder Ivo Watts-Russell. The book comes chock full of names, recording sessions, Aston’s thoughts on various releases (plus the press reaction), and comments from everyone the author can get his hands on. The pool seems to include anyone able or willing to return calls or emails: Vaughan Oliver, who helped create the label’s distinctive artwork; business collaborators like Peter Kent and Martin Mills; assorted musicians who had varying degrees of success.

It all comes back to Ivo in the end. In the late ‘70s, he wasn’t entirely sold on punk: “I liked some of the Clash’s singles but their debut album was so badly recorded, it didn’t interest me at all…I’d been listening to what people saw as embarrassing and obscure country rock—no one was interested in Emmylou Harris or Gram Parsons back then. But I just loved voices…”

Not long after founding Axis, Ivo changed the label’s name—a German label already claimed the moniker. But change is good: “What I loved about 4AD,” Ivo said, “was that it meant nothing… No ideology, no polemic, no attitude. In other words, just music.”

Just music represents Ivo’s strength, and his weakness. He was “content to put out records that were committed, passionate and uncompromising.” He ignored trends. More importantly, he pursued avenues other labels didn’t even see. Still, a record label is by definition a business—art intersects commerce the instant it goes up for sale. Ivo’s consistent failure to understand this … or his willful ability to ignore it … plagued 4AD.

Ivo notes, “One album a year did pretty well and allowed us to keep going.” Bauhaus funded the label’s operations during 1981. Birthday Party—Nick Cave’s band—took care of 1982.

The label created a 4AD look and an organizational system. The special art wing gave visual continuity to the album covers, and a unique cataloguing scheme encouraged a culture of collection: AD meant a 7” single; BAD indicated an EP; CAD an LP.

Nick Currie, a member of early 4AD group the Happy Family, suggested, “Indie labels were not so well known or established at that time, yet labels like 4AD and Factory were already so refined, in a new hyper-glossy manner, with top-flight art direction… it felt distinct from what had come before.”

The success of the Modern English single “Melt With You” greatly raised the label’s profile, as did the signing of the Cocteau Twins, who quickly attracted critical adoration due to Elizabeth Fraser’s distinctive vocals (one writer famously dubbed her the voice of God) and Robin Guthrie’s shimmering, reverb-laden swathes of guitar. The famous producer Brian Eno once told Guthrie that he would “never have had the courage to use the size of reverb that you used on Head Over Heels.”

Later in the ‘80s, the label added Throwing Muses as its first U.S. band, then the Pixies after that. Both groups released important indie-rock records.

Aston writes, though, that “one man’s 4AD is another man’s indulgence.” The label’s decision-makers “held their ground over what they believed and they didn’t follow any trend other than personal taste.”

Personal taste proved a fickle muse. Bauhaus became “too rock ‘n’ roll for the label, and not obscure enough.” The group moved on. Aston suggests that, “Ivo ‘didn’t give a damn’ if anyone found Dead Can Dance [a long-time 4AD act] pompous, pretentious, or aloof.” The Pixies actually made Ivo a bit uncomfortable. They “were, frankly, quite rock ‘n’ roll,” Aston claims, “a total aberration for 4AD.”

This attitude, combined with success, brought trouble. “4AD was a business as well, sustainable only through making a profit. Guthrie’s view, whether deeply cynical or simply realistic, was that ‘Ivo and Martin Mills had sewn everything up and were making a shitload of money, exploiting bands because there was a premium to being on 4AD, so the deals were shit…What pissed me off even more was that they hid behind the art of the whole thing. It was business.’”

The list of grievances against this art business began to pile high. Guthrie felt unfairly compensated for his guitar work on a cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song To The Siren,” put out under the name of an Ivo-helmed 4AD musical collective, “This Mortal Coil.” A bigger battle ensued over the credit for “Pump Up The Volume,” a dance hit. Once the Pixies came into play, the Cocteau Twins felt neglected, and Pixies frontman Black Francis suggests that Ivo may have pushed the group too hard to make albums, increasing the tension in his band. (As likely, the troubled relationship between Francis and bassist Kim Deal, who later formed the Breeders, another popular 4AD act, contributed to the band’s dissolution.)

Major labels started forming indie offshoots of their own to tap into the popularity of the alternative scene. This, of course, made Ivo’s world even more business-heavy. He remained uncompromising, suggesting in the book that even in dire straits, “I’d rather have fired everyone than cut back on the quality of production.” And he still lacked a business sense that might allow him to fund the more experimental side of the label—he did not believe in the movie maxim, “one for me, one for them.” He had the opportunity to sign Belle & Sebastian, but passed, saying “It sounds like the Smiths, I still hate the Smiths…”

Ivo also struggled with depression, making it harder for him to deal with the sides of music that he didn’t like. He eventually moved to America, and he sold his half of the label in 1999. Facing the Other Way mainly focuses on 4AD during Ivo’s tenure, so the book comes to a close soon after he exits. (Today we find 4AD still going strong, with indie royalty like St. Vincent, The National and Deerhunter, as well as new, more adventurous additions: Grimes, tUnE-yArDs, Spaceghostpurrp.)

We’ve seen label histories more frequently in the last few years: Sean Wilentz wrote a history of Columbia; Harold Bronson published The Rhino Records Story; Robert Gordon documented Stax. As the industry becomes increasingly fragmented and struggles to find a way forward in the world of Spotify streaming and YouTube licensing, the temptation to look back grows strong—partly a longing for the old days, partly a search for some lessons that might be applied to the present. Many things have changed, but we find continuity too, especially in the battle for control of music against a market that may put you out of business.

One of these lessons: “just music” may be a noble concept, but it’s a fantasy, a siren that lures labels into dangerous waters. A successful record label needs to navigate between Scylla on one side and Charybdis on the other. It must recognize the dangers of doing business … as well as the impossibility of existing without it.

Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Splice Today and Popmatters. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and he can be found at signothetimesblog.