Review: Facing the Other Way

Within the first paragraph of Facing the Other Way, Martin Aston comments upon the challenge of telling a story for a record label whose sound and image was defined by art-damaged introverts. He opens with an anecdote from a fan who asked him, “[i]s there much drama in the 4AD story?” (xiii) He then sets up a rivalry between the outfit and Factory Records, claiming that 4AD’s history “may be less sensational and populist” than the Manchester indie and its charismatic founder, Tony Wilson, before hinting that “[s]ometimes it’s the quiet ones you have to look out for…” (xv).

As a veteran music journalist whose career dovetailed with the label’s trajectory, Aston produces a dense history out of enviable resources. Among the hundreds of people he interviewed for the book, he was able to talk extensively with reclusive co-founder Ivo Watts-Russell, who relocated to California in the mid-1990s and sold the label by the end of the decade to its distributors, Beggars Banquet, after a protracted bout with depression. Aston also puts his on-the-ground reporting skills to good use by capably situating a multitude of characters and initiatives within a panorama of rock history.

After offering a brief sketch of Watts-Russell’s youth in Northamptonshire and his stint working for Beggars Banquet when it was a record store before launching 4AD with Peter Kent in 1980 (first as Axis—a nod to Jimi Hendrix—before discovering that a German imprint had already claimed it), Aston’s book documents the first nineteen years in the pioneer label’s life in exhaustive detail. He structures the chapters by year, a somewhat perfunctory organizational strategy that nonetheless allows him to toggle between the various artists, initiatives, and projects that defined each period. Admirably, he tries to give equal consideration for every act of the roster, thus allowing the Birthday Party to co-exist with Rema Rema and the Cocteau Twins to brush against Clan of Xymox.

Aston never loses the thread. For example, Facing reaches its half-way point in 1990. It’s a pivotal, messy year for the label. Cocteau Twins release Heaven or Las Vegas, their gorgeous 4AD swan song, two months before Watts-Russell drops them due to a long-term feud with guitarist/producer Robin Guthrie, himself in the throes of cocaine addiction. That same year, Nigel Grierson severs professional ties with the label’s in-house graphic designer Vaughan Oliver. The label recovers from their fluke success with M/A/R/R/S’ lone hit “Pump Up the Volume” by readying the market for work from veterans Dead Can Dance and new recruits Lush, Pale Saints, His Name Is Alive, Ultra Vivid Scene, and the Breeders, a group which originated as a side project for Pixies’ bassist Kim Deal and Throwing Muses’ guitarist Tanya Donnelly and ultimately resulted in the label’s biggest commercial success of the decade.

Apart from effectively weaving a series of chronological instances into a coherent document, Aston offers a few key interventions to 4AD’s history. Foremost, he persuasively argues that Oliver’s dreamy surrealism is as foundational to the label’s identity as, say, This Mortal Coil’s back catalog. Paratexts matter. 4AD was a haven for art-damaged post-punk. This has as much to do with the Pixies’ reference to Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou in “Debaser” as it does with Oliver’s decision to create a two-foot structure for the band’s 2009 Minotaur box set and stuff it with gold-plated compact discs and a 54-page booklet.

In making such claims, Aston recognizes this period of British indie rock as a movement for innovative design in its own right and not simply a reaction against arena rock’s indulgence and punk’s constraints. He puts Oliver in dialogue with peers like Peter Saville and Central Station Design. The latter referenced their work with the Happy Mondays by contributing the psychedelic credit sequences and title cards to Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 Factory biopic 24 Hour Party People. Similarly, Oliver produced the cover for Facing the Other Way, which recalls the abstract, post-modern aesthetic he brought to Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance’s sleeves (dig that Scotch tape). Aston also prioritizes collaborators like Grierson, Simon Larbalestier, and Chris Bigg by integrating their quotes and recollections into the book. Finally, he observes that Oliver’s sensibility could both inspire and limit 4AD’s bands.

Facing offers rich detail about the music industry’s complex inner workings. Aston avoids easy reductions of 4AD’s relationship to peer labels by noting that Mute allowed 4AD to add the Birthday Party’s Mutiny EP to the CD reissue of The Bad Seed so that they could claim to have released all of the output from Nick Cave’s former band. He also does a remarkable job navigating the label’s various international distribution deals. In particular, he crystallizes invaluable industrial and legal analysis of 4AD’s five-year licensing deal with Warner Bros. Records between 1992 and 1997. Such contributions are essential, particularly for music nerds and media scholars who do not have immediate access to such information for our own research.

Aston also treats protagonist Watts-Russell’s harrowing struggle with depression and decision to sell the label back to Beggars in 1999 so that he could live a quiet life without judgment. This development in the label’s story is particularly compelling toward the end of 4AD’s licensing arrangement with Warner Bros., when Watts-Russell’s interest in folk acts like Tarnation clashed with A&R representative Lewis Jamieson’s commitment to shepherding dance acts like GusGus and Thievery Corporation.

Aston misses a few opportunities for critique. He notes that working-class artists like Guthrie perceived management’s packaging and signing decisions to be undergirded by middle-class snobbery. He observes that label personnel’s white privilege clashed with East London’s A.R. Kane, who briefly signed with the label. He makes several passing references the label’s many female musicians. However, beyond noting Lush’s sexist treatment in the press and the embedded critique of band names like Lush, The Breeders, and Belly, he merely gives the nod to feminism. Aston acknowledges. He should interrogate.

Fraser’s inability to participate is also an unfortunate absence. Aston attempted to reach out to the reclusive singer, but must rely upon past interviews and memory. But given her formidable presence in this label’s story—Aretha Franklin was to Atlantic in 1968 what Elizabeth Fraser was to 4AD in 1985—I wish Aston didn’t implicitly privilege Guthrie, Watts-Russell, and Cocteau Twins’ member Simon Raymonde’s recollections of the label’s most influential band.

Finally, given the book’s exhaustive focus on 4AD’s first two decades, it’s disappointing that Aston only offers a comparatively scant 46 pages to the label’s history following Watts-Russell’s departure. Sure, the book is over 600 pages long. But Aston yada-yadas about fourteen years of 4AD’s history. He also relies heavily on interviews with Beggars’ managerial personnel. Perhaps he did not have the same access to tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, Ariel Pink, or Purity Ring that he had with Guthrie, Kristin Hersh, and Miki Berenyi. He also disconnects some artists from the label’s past or minimizes their distinct contributions. But Gang Gang Dance owes a debt to Dead Can Dance while Grimes’ inventive repurposing of Mariah Carey and K-pop make her more than another Fraser disciple. And Beggars’ distribution deals with other talent—particularly Matador’s EMA and Perfume Genius—suggest that 4AD’s goth-kid influence persists elsewhere. 4AD is still releasing some of the most exciting contemporary music on its own terms; it doesn’t need to live in its own shadow.

Facing the Other Way is a valuable history of an important British independent label. Its sensitive packaging and staggering reportage honors generations of creative and managerial talent who made 4AD possible. But its absences also remind readers that the tome on the shelf was made by people. That’s okay. The Sistine Chapel had cracks in the ceiling. Visions are imperfect. 4AD pursue beauty. Its best records find it not in an ideal but out of the silence, violence, and detritus of being alive. Aston’s book promises a comprehensive overview. It also suggests new stories yet untold.

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