As a teenager growing up in the 1980s, I fell pretty much into what would become later known as the 'goth' subculture. I'd started getting into the music when I was 13 or 14, long before the 'goth' tag was applied, with bands like Play Dead and The Danse Society usually being referred to as 'alternative' or 'positive punk'. As well as hearing this music on John Peel's radio shows, I was a regular visitor to our local record lending library, often going two or three times a week, mining the shelves of well-packed vinyl. I was already a big fan of Cocteau Twins by this time, and on my regular library trips, I started to notice records with similar artwork to the Cocteau Twins', which upon further investigation, seemed to possess something of a common musical sensibility in addition to the shared visual aesthetic. This is how I discovered bands like Xmal Deutschland, The Wolfgang Press and Modern English. The shared aesthetic was largely due to the fact that the records were all on the same record label, 4AD, and that they shared the same sleeve designer in Vaughan Oliver/23 Envelope.
Friends, meanwhile, had made similar lineal discoveries: for some, it was the wealth of excellent electronic music on Mute Records - Depeche Mode, Fad Gadget, The Normal and so on; for others, it was the releases on the enigmatic and 'arty' Manchester label Factory, home to New Order, The Durutti Column and A Certain Ratio. Although we listened to music from across a fairly broad spectrum, many of us had an allegiance to, and fascination for, one label's output.
This was a surprisingly common occurrence at the time, at least among young, white, single males. In his book, "How Soon Is Now? The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975-2005", Richard King notes that this 'brand loyalty' was a key factor:
"The labels this generation started: Factory, Rough Trade, Mute, 4AD, Beggars Banquet and Creation, would trade on an ethos and identity no brand consultant would now dare dream of. Their releases enabled a fierce loyalty from their fans, resulting in confidence on the part of the consumer to buy whatever the label released. As well as the music recorded, the distinctive logos and typefaces found on releases by Factory, Mute and 4AD were signposts to a secret knowledge."
The story of 4AD's rise and fall under founder/owner Ivo Watts-Russell has already been well documented and will no doubt be further examined in Martin Aston's forthcoming book "Facing the Other Way". But suffice to say, by the early 90s, although still a fan of much of the label's output, it was evident that Ivo had started to lose his enthusiasm and that the label was starting to lose its Midas touch. Ivo eventually sold the label to the Beggars Banquet group in 1998 and whilst it continues to exist to this day, 4AD is now a greatly expanded and far less focused concern. However, for me, and many others, the name 4AD is synonymous with much of the best and most imaginative music of the 1980s and early 1990s, when the label was truly a beacon of excellence. The 'golden years' of 4AD continue to be held in high esteem and inspire considerable devotion, with the result that many of the label's releases and associated promotional materials (posters, t-shirts, catalogues, postcards), admittedly very fine works of art in themselves, fetch high prices on eBay.
Anyway, here's a selection of some of my favourite moments from those years:
Richard King (2012) "How Soon Is Now? The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975-2005" London: Faber and Faber Ltd
Martin Aston - "Facing the Other Way"
Lengthy interview with Ivo
Excellent fansite detailing the 4AD discography from 1980-1999