December 20th, 2008


My missing trip to India

The other night I was watching the él Records Story on Cherry Red TV, an extended conversation between Iain McNay (who runs Cherry Red, the UK indie label I've been releasing with -- off and on -- since 1985, and which recently celebrated its 30th birthday) and Mike Alway, the A&R man who signed me.

él was not just a fantastic label, but a somewhat fantasist one. Mike put groups together, gave them names, got them to pretend they were bakers or school kids or postmen or whatever (anything but "musicians"), and even gave them lists of titles to make songs out of.

I remember him sending me off to write a short story about cricket, called The Ashes Regained, for instance. I knew nothing about cricket, and cared even less, but somehow Mike's eccentric charisma won out and I scurried off to write the story, which I ended up -- as you do -- reciting behind a curtain in the Limelight Club on Shaftesbury Avenue at an él Records showcase. I left the label shortly afterwards, abandoning the next él / Cherry Red Momus album, provisionally entitled BBC1. I was slightly alienated by Mike's increasing bossiness -- él was turning into a label where you existed to express Mike's vision rather than your own -- and Creation's more hard-nosed, worldly, ambitious approach was suddenly appealing, as was the fact that Creation had music paper editors slavering, whereas él had them slamming the phone down.

Mike and I would work again together (on, for instance, a 2002 Milky album for Siesta). I suppose I only have one regret about leaving él when I did; the fact that I missed the él Records 1987 tour of Japan, in which Mike, Louis Philippe and Simon Fisher Turner were accompanied by legendary gay filmmaker Derek Jarman (the Super 8s Derek shot are reputed to be in cans somewhere in Simon's family home). But I have to say that I never found anyone in the music industry as interesting or creative as Mike Alway again. He's a completely unique A&R man (did I mention he signed The Passage to Cherry Red?), an intelligent eccentric with an inspiring pantomime vision of a completely parallel world of pop brilliance. It's entirely unsurprising to me that only the Japanese really understood él Records, which became a catalyst for Shibuya-kei (Kahimi Karie, before I'd met her, had charted a catchy single entitled Mike Alway's Diary, and many of the songs I wrote for her in the mid-90s were designed as pastiches of the style signature of él Records -- a signature I'd helped create, but had abandoned when I signed to Creation).

Anyway, one thing stood out in Mike's account of our meeting and the recording of my first album, Circus Maximus. Here's Mike talking about how we first met -- in the pub on Hogarth Road where 4AD Records boss Ivo and the Beggar's Banquet people used to go after work. This would have been in 1982:

"[4AD had] released a single by The Happy Family, and then an album," Mike recalls. "Nick had gone then to India. I began to inquire then about his whereabouts. I enjoyed The Happy Family and I thought "This is somebody I'd like to work with." I thought, as a vocalist and as a lyricist he was extremely special. I found that he was in India, eventually returned to England and I invited him to get involved. We recorded an album, not at Olympic Studios, by now, because my involvement in Blanco had ended, and by now I was back under Waterloo Bridge with Pat Collier, previously of The Vibrators, in Alaska Studios on a much less hourly rate than I was on at Olympic Studios [where the Vic Godard album had been recorded], recording the first Momus album, and that is where I became connected back with you, because Theo Chalmers at Cherry Red Music heard the Momus album that I'd made."

Now, this is all impeccably factual, except for one detail. I've never been to India in my life. After The Happy Family stalled I went back to university in Aberdeen and finished my English Literature degree. Mike knows this, I'm sure, but he's chosen to say, instead, that I went to India. It may very well be that he thinks going back to university in Scotland is just too dull a detail to include. But it got me thinking about how easy it is to create rock myths -- how Keith Richards had his blood entirely replaced, how Ozzy bit the head off a bat, how Sebastien Tellier is son of a member of prog rock Magma, how David Bowie gave a Hitler salute at Victoria Station, how Lawrence from Felt won't use a toilet if someone's broken the hygienic seal.

I almost feel ready to capitulate to Mike's script, his edit of my CV. I'm tempted to say: "You know, that does read better. Scratch Aberdeen, insert India." The world in which I accept Mike's version of things, after all, is the world in which I first visit Japan in 1987 rather than 1992. But it's also the world in which I'm not only -- by about 1992 -- having to make a concept album about cricket, but do it in role as Osbert Sitwell, prancing in a pageboy costume under semi-ecclesiastical Op Art lime green lanterns. And suddenly I remember why I left él Records in 1986. This fantastic, fantastical record label made everything just too damned interesting. But I won't lie and say I'm not missing my missing trip to India.