Thirty years on, 4AD still the label to beat for indie excellence
REVOLVER:IF ANY label could throw out 30 quality albums from its back catalogue to celebrate its 30th anniversary, it’s 4AD. But there won’t be any such “look at us!” nonsense from the best indie label that has ever been. In keeping with 4AD’s rather austere ethos, it is ignoring the landmark, aside from adding a “3X” to the numbering scheme on releases.
It is by no means a stretch to put 4AD up there with Columbia and Atlantic as labels that had not just a golden era but also managed to reshape the musical landscape. The Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, The Pixies and now Bon Iver and The National – this must represent the highest strike rate of any label anywhere.
4AD was formed at the end of the 1970s, when punk had calcified and musically there was No Future. Label founder Ivo Watts-Russell, who was working at the Beggars Banquet record shop at the time, wanted something worlds away from punk’s faux-nihilism and, though he would stridently dispute it, patented an early form of Emo music.
“I remember being young and hearing music and thinking, I didn’t know music could do that. And that can be a feeling of a release, of pent-up tension or aggression, or just being transported through a beautiful moment or an emotional setting,” Watts-Russell once said about his musical lodestar.
He originally intended to call the label 1980AD, but changed it to the Orwellian 1984AD, before finally just using the last three characters from the latter. The idea was that his brainchild would function as a feeding label for the bigger Beggars Banquet. But early signings Bauhaus and The Birthday Party began formulating an art-Goth sound that soon attracted fellow travellers.
The big breakthrough came with the arrival of The Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance, still two of the best bands you’ll ever hear. And there was even an in-house act, This Mortal Coil, who, on 1984’s It’ll End in Tears, produced the best 4AD moment ever: Cocteaus singer Elizabeth Fraser’s version of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren. The track spent more than 100 weeks in the independent charts, beaten only by Joy’s Divisions Love Will Tear Us Apart and New Order’s Blue Monday.
The signing of Throwing Muses may not have been a significant move in itself, but they were so impressed by 4AD’s “musicality” that they recommended it to their good friends The Pixies. Frank Black’s band remain the label’s biggest seller, but 4AD’s first No 1 came from an unexpected source: MARRS, an early dance/house band whose Pump Up the Volume(which is rubbish, but never mind) became the first indie No 1 single.
This success was the label’s downfall. There was a big, nasty legal row with Stock, Aitken and Waterman, whose Roadblockwas sampled on Pump Up the Volume. Disillusioned by what he saw happening around him, Watts-Russell just walked away.
The body of work released between 1980 and 1999 (when Ivo officially left) is, in a word, stunning, and Vaughan Oliver’s artwork for the label has now become a cultural artifact in its own right.
Now part of the Beggars family, 4AD remains perhaps the only label where fans will willingly buy a new release blind simply because of its imprimatur on the record sleeve. And its commitment to the “slow burn” (only releasing about eight albums a year and working them on a 18-month cycle) means an act such as Bon Iver sells the same amount of albums per week one year on as they did in the first week of release.
The next big 4AD release is Halcyon Digestby Deerhunter in September. It’s a record you can safely pre-order now, thanks to the trust and loyalty 4AD has earned.