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Book review: How Soon Is Now? by Richard King

  • by Doug Johnstone
 

TO READERS of a certain vintage the phrase “indie music” summons up images of pasty, thin boys with jangly guitars.

This remarkable and hugely enjoyable history of the British independent music scene over the past 30 years reveals a much more diverse, influential and successful picture.

A glance at the back cover is enough to demonstrate the importance that independent record companies have had on the shape of modern music. Among a dizzying list of artists discussed are names like The Smiths, New Order, Depeche Mode, Sonic Youth, Primal Scream, Pixies, Oasis, Prodigy, The Strokes, The White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys and dozens more.

The story starts in London in the mid-seventies, when Geoff Travis established the Rough Trade record shop around the same time that punk, with its ethos of DIY music making and production, was making inroads into popular culture. As more bands brought in self-released stock to sell in the shop, Rough Trade expanded to effectively become an alternative distribution company, then a record label.

At roughly the same time, Tony Wilson was creating Factory in Manchester, and other visionaries were setting up small labels such as Mute, Beggars Banquet and 4AD. In Scotland, Alan Horne was doing a similar thing with Postcard, while a few years later Alan McGee established Creation Records, the label that discovered Oasis. And that rolling revolution of independent labels continues today with the likes of XL and Domino, responsible for Prodigy and Arctic Monkeys respectively.

The one thing all these music business mavericks had in common is that they were music fans first, and businessmen very much second. The history of independent music as portrayed here is one long battle with cash flow and debt problems, despite occasional commercial successes, thanks largely to inept management and a distinct lack of business acumen.

Richard King does an amazing job of portraying the ramshackle yet exhilarating vibe of the times. The label staff and bosses were just as into the excesses of rock ’n’ roll as the bands, and the amount of drugs consumed within these pages is mind-boggling, something else which probably didn’t help those precarious balance sheets. King has extracted interviews from all the major players and orchestrated a shambolic and chaotic world into a coherent and compelling historical narrative. If only all music books were this good.

• Faber & Faber, £17.99

 

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