Record Label Spotlight: 4AD

Factory Records. Mute. Rough Trade. 4AD. These record labels defined UK independent music in the 1980s. Post-punk is about as useless of a description as new wave (and later, alternative), but each label showcased the era’s best music, and each one had a distinctive sound and feel. I’m going to talk about 4AD, whose influence on music in the 80s and 90s cannot be overstated.

4AD is generally defined by Ivo Watts-Russell, who along with Peter Kent, formed the label under Beggars Banquet in order to test-release promising new artists. They quickly gained their independence, and Kent left a year later. Ivo became the visionary force behind 4AD, starting in 1981. Dark and personal, emphasizing the relationship between listener and album rather than live experiences, 4AD eventually won the respect of the UK music press, and the label’s art for art’s sake esthetic earned passionate fans. Ivo cared about the bands he signed, and he tended to form long-lasting bonds with his artists. He had a fondness for female-fronted bands, and gravitated toward ethereal imagery. 4AD has often been described as a family, and the small number of bands signed meant that each received Ivo’s guidance and attention. Most bands utilized the art direction from the label’s design partners 23 Envelope, so 4AD releases had a unified look and feel, which added to their collectability. One of the limited run of 100 of 1987’s compilation Lonely Is An Eyesore is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, a testament to their importance in British design.

Among the first crop of 4AD discoveries were stars like Bauhaus and Modern English, as well as relatively unknown acts like Colourbox and Rema-Rema. Do you need to hear “I Melt With You” one more time? No, you’ve heard it a million times. How about this catchy, noisy, driving bass gem from Rema-Rema, whose members later went on to form Renegade Soundwave and Wolfgang Press.

Colourbox’s “Tarantula” was so well-loved by Ivo, he had his studio collective This Mortal Coil cover it.

4AD also signed The Birthday Party, who toured in support of Bauhaus. They wrote “Release the Bats” as a jab at the goth sensibilities on full display at the time. From my man Nick Cave, have two tracks.

Bauhaus and The Birthday Party had more ambition than Ivo could accommodate, and they moved on to larger labels. However, softer, dreamier bands that needed careful cultivation found a home, and thrived like hothouse flowers under Ivo’s attention. Cocteau Twins, who came to define 4AD for much of the 80s, were an early discovery, and almost seemed a template for future signings – delicate female singer, emotionally rich yet beguilingly vague. They were more than 4AD’s signature band, they became Ivo’s close friends, and he asked Elizabeth Fraser to record an a cappella cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren.” Robin Guthrie and Fraser were inseparable, so he brought his guitar to accompany her. You’ve heard this one a million times, too, but none of us can resist hearing it again.

This was the start of Ivo’s This Mortal Coil, a rotating collective of 4AD artists. What a way to start. “Song to the Siren” spent 101 weeks on the UK independent charts, the fourth longest run in history. David Lynch wanted to use it in Blue Velvet, but couldn’t afford the licensing. He and Isabella Rossellini listened to it on set constantly, and Angelo Badalamenti was asked to mirror the sound, which led to Julee Cruise and “Mysteries of Love.” Lynch eventually used “Song to the Siren” to great effect in Lost Highway.

I’m not huge on the Cocteau Twins, so here’s a collaboration they did with ambient pianist Harold Budd (I am huge on Budd, check him out sometime) for the album “The Moon and the Melodies.”

“Hitherto” appeared on a couple of different Cocteau Twins’ releases, and I have to admit it’s pretty powerful.

Robin Guthrie’s ego and drug abuse, and negativity surrounding his deep resentment related to royalties and control led to Ivo dropping the Cocteau Twins after 1990’s Heaven or Las Vegas. The breakdown of this relationship was the first blow that eventually drove Ivo from 4AD, but all of that comes later.

In the early 1980s 4AD was focused on singles and EPs, working with Matt Johnson (The The), a side project of Wire’s core members, Xmal Deutschland, Clan of Xymox, and Dif Juz. Never heard of Dif Juz? Me neither, until I started researching 4AD, and now I can’t believe I ever lived without these gorgeous instrumental experimentations.

4AD developed a reputation for signing bands that didn’t fit elsewhere. It was the perfect home for Dead Can Dance. A partnership between Australian Lisa Gerrard and Irish Brendan Perry, another introverted duo, Dead Can Dance needed a label that would help them find their voices. Although their name implied goth, they’re a mélange of world music styles, grand and eloquent, more about sound than traditional song construction.
“Fatal Impact” from their debut album was one of the demos that hooked Ivo.

When working together on Peter Murphy’s first solo album, Murphy would play Ivo tapes he’d been given of the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir. Ivo tracked down the originals and released them, helping to usher in the world music movement.

Ivo had been trying to get Colourbox back in the studio, and had them to produce and work with new signing A.R. Kane. The two groups released a single track as M/A/R/R/S. At the forefront of sample-based dance music, “Pump Up the Volume” was a massive hit for 4AD. M/A/R/R/S were also the first people to be Rickrolled, as rival producers of Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” issued an injunction against M/A/R/R/S for unauthorized sampling of their music in what was obviously a ploy to keep “Pump Up the Volume” from taking the number one spot on the charts away from Astley.

In 1986, Ivo did something unusual, and signed a band from Rhode Island. 4AD was a UK label, and imports to America were treasured things for collectors in the states. But, the label wasn’t well-known enough for US bands to seek them out. The Muses manager was a big fan of the label, and thought it would be their ideal home. Throwing Muses were part of a chain reaction that would change 4AD, opening up the label to US influence. Their debut album was the best-reviewed album 4AD had yet released, and sisters Kristen Hersh and Tanya Donelly would go on to have success with and without other band members. Anchored by Hersh’s songwriting (Hersh wrote compulsively after being hit by a car), the intimate, angular music helped define alternative rock in its nascent stage.

Donelly was more pop-oriented than Hersh, as her classic contribution to The Real Ramona indicates.

Boston-based Pixies didn’t want to be released by a US label, and a mutual friend of Throwing Muses pointed them to 4AD. Ivo was undecided about their more overt rock sound, as alluring as it was, but others at the label encouraged him to sign them. I think we all know enough about the tensions between Black Francis and Kim Deal, and the eventual breakup of the Pixies, as well as their lasting influence. Instead of rehashing all of that, let’s relax and listen to a couple of my favorite tracks.

One major upshot of the Pixies’ troubled path was that Kim Deal was encouraged to strike out on her own. Having bonded with Tanya Donelly when they toured with Throwing Muses, she found a perfect partner for her first solo effort as The Breeders. Pod was an alternative pop confection, but Last Splash yielded one of the defining songs of alternative nation.

Donelly also had more mainstream success with her band Belly.

Kristen Hersh continued with a three-piece Throwing Muses, as well as with solo work. Her song “Your Ghost” was a surprise hit for her and for 4AD.

4AD had achieved so much success that they entered into a partnership with a major label for US distribution. The relationship with Warner Brothers was a big culture shock for Ivo and for the bands accustomed to his dedication. There was still a certain preciousness about some newer 4AD acts, and they weren’t as inclined as their contemporaries to tour and get out in front of the press. 4AD had never followed the traditional formula of single-then-album, and they didn’t know how to pick radio-friendly singles, much less guide their artists to produce them. Warners had numerous bands to prioritize, and some of 4AD’s groups fell by the wayside. Wolfgang Press was one that should’ve, but wasn’t able to get mainstream traction. A funky avant-dance group whose members were some of 4AD’s oldest relationships, Wolfgang Press was hard to sell to the public. They were perfect for 4AD, but Warner didn’t know what to do with them. I love the song and the video for “Kansas.” It pre-dates the Warner deal, but not by much, and typifies what the Wolfies are about.

Ivo’s ongoing bouts of depression were worsened by a trail of broken relationships at 4AD, as well as the pressures of running a growing record company with a gigantic partner that sought chart placement over artistic integrity. Disillusioned, no longer seeking out new music, Ivo relocated to the US, and eventually sold 4AD to Beggars Banquet. The heyday was over. Bands do continue to thrive on 4AD, but it’s not the same. I’m not turning up my nose at TV on the Radio, Beirut, Iron & Wine, St. Vincent, and numerous other excellent indie bands. My fond affections lie with Ivo’s vision and commitment to pure artistry, and the beautifully naïve disregard for commercial appeal.