REGARDLESS OF ANY DIFFERENCES IN THE SOUNDS THEY CREATED, THERE ARE CERTAIN BANDS THAT HISTORY SEEMS TO HUDDLE TOGETHER SO MEANINGFULLY WITHIN A LABEL’S IDENTITY THEY COULD BE CONSIDERED A FAMILY.
Any number of the acts signed with iconic independents Mute, Stiff, Postcard, Factory, Creation, Rough Trade or Kitchenware during the highest-watermark eras of each could be (perhaps lazily) bundled together to (perhaps loosely) illustrate a distinct personality.
Though M/A/R/R/S was light years away from Pixies, Cocteau Twins sounded nothing like Clan Of Xymox, and Throwing Muses had little in common with Dead Can Dance, this was certainly also the case at ‘arty outsiders’ 4AD during the two-decades covered across 600 pages in Martin Aston’s riveting book FACING THE OTHER WAY.
Such an exhaustive piecing-together couldn’t really be any other way, but Aston’s analysis of neurotic pater familias Ivo Watts-Russell’s blurrily grand and disparate brood lays painfully bare the fact that – like all families – dysfunction loitered not too far behind the curtain.
For a label that often issued such spectral and other-worldly music, FACING THE OTHER WAY mostly reads as a very human story – albeit one suffering heightened compression from the music industry. 4AD’s complex labyrinth of agendas, shynesses, disturbances, quirks, fragilities, needs, mistakes and misunderstandings is thoroughly explored.
So too, though, are its considerable aesthetic triumphs. Matt Johnson’s 1981 debut BURNING BLUE SOUL, for example, highlights Watts-Russell’s instinct for seeking out and supporting talents not only special but potentially transcendant: “Ivo went where others would eventually go,” as 4AD’s PR Chris Carr puts it. Johnson, of course, later signed to a major as The The.
Aston checks in with almost everyone who issued a record on the label during the 1980s and 1990s, so FACING THE OTHER WAY is a mine of detail and new anecdote for those interested enough to take note of even the most minor of players. It also gains unprecedented access to 4AD’s previously impenetrable key figures; designer Vaughan Oliver (as 23 Envelope, responsible for the label’s unforgettable visual identity – also creator of this book’s in-keeping cover); and most notably a candid Watts-Russell, who suffered a breakdown, sold his founding interest in the company in 1999 and retired to a remote home in New Mexico.
Watts-Russell’s own shorthand was sometimes “It’s kind of like a David Lynch movie”. There are, expectedly for a story this convoluted and intense, absentees. Reclusive Liz Fraser declined to be interviewed but “cheerful and broody” Robin Guthrie talks with sincerity about their time as socially awkward Cocteau Twins. The account of Aston’s recent visit to his home near Rennes in the North of France, Guthrie proudly digging out a box of old memorabilia only for it to lay incremental waste to his confidence and clarity, is quietly heartbreaking.
Similarly poignant is the moment Watts-Russell departs a Cocteau Twins concert in tears, his relationship with his friends damaged by communication breakdown and requiring emotional surgery of which he admits himself – as label head and man – to have not been capable.
Ultimately Aston’s obsessive love affair with 4AD results in FACING THE OTHER WAY’s greatest triumph. As it should do, the conviction of his storytelling blows dust off the needle so that those records and their often magical beauties are dragged out to be admired once again. Even re-evaluated, perhaps. Certainly, now, they can be heard with a little less of the listener projected in and more of the creators delivered out. Compelling stuff.
FACING THE OTHER WAY: THE STORY OF 4AD
by Martin Aston, 650 pages
Published by The Friday Project (an imprint of Harper Collins)
ISBN-10: 0007489617 / ISBN-13: 978-0007489619