A new book explores the history of the influential U.K. label Rough Trade — but does it get history right?

Plus, a sidebar detailing some of the label's essential releases.

For all the early punks' Year Zero rhetoric about destroying the music business, most of them were pretty serious music scholars. John Lydon, we now know, was a huge fan of Can and Hawkwind; Joe Strummer's first band was the pub-rockish 101ers; and you were more likely to hear dub reggae than punk between bands at the Roxy. And so it shouldn't be surprising that when punks grew tired of three-chord thrash, they began latching onto other influences: funk, reggae, soul, Krautrock, Eno, Roxy, Bowie.

Almost immediately, weirdo seven-inch singles — such as the Buzzcocks' "Spiral Scratch" and Alternative TV's "Love Lies Limp" — brought wit and inventiveness to punk's insolence. They weren't "punk" per se, but punk made them happen. "Post-punk" is the agreed-upon term; it was as awkward a label then as it was now, but it's as close as anyone's gotten to describing the low-budget, fascinating and strange music that grew from punk's Big Bang.

Rough Trade Records was in a unique position to both benefit from and nurture this growing scene. Beginning as a London record shop in 1976, it quickly became the place to hear the newest releases, pick up copies of Sniffin' Glue fanzine and meet likeminded souls. Shop owner Geoff Travis started a label in 1978 when a French band, Métal Urbain, brought in some of its demo tapes. What followed over the next four years was easily one of the all-time great catalogues. Between 1978 and 1982, Rough Trade Records released singles and albums by the likes of the Raincoats, the Slits, Cabaret Voltaire, Scritti Politti, Young Marble Giants, the Pop Group, Liliput, Essential Logic and the Feelies. None of these bands sounded even remotely alike, but they did share a common DIY aesthetic that was often political in its approach — sometimes overtly, but more often subtly. Robert Wyatt and Red Krayola appeared as well, as if to connect the label to an earlier experimental period.

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Early Rough Trade act Cabaret Voltaire.
Early Rough Trade act Cabaret Voltaire.

From the beginning, Travis attempted to run Rough Trade like a collective. Before opening the shop, he had lived on an Israeli kibbutz and studied Marxism. He owned the label, but all creative decisions had to be unanimously approved. It was not uncommon to have hours-long meetings regarding questionable lyrics or album sleeves (which apparently drove the Fall's Mark E. Smith absolutely insane). Nonetheless, it worked for a few years: Band members often worked at the shop or stuffed envelopes — and for awhile there was even a vegetarian buffet in the lobby.

And then, as with so many utopian movements, the realities of commerce complicated things. At the same time Rough Trade was strengthening as a label, it was also venturing further into distribution, necessitating a quick surge in production and management. There were cash-flow problems. Travis sold the shop to his employees. The label needed a hit and found it in the Smiths, but by this point the company's structure was irrevocably changed.

Since then, Rough Trade has had innumerable ups and downs. The company went bankrupt in 1991, but Travis continued with the Trade 2 label and band management. One Little Indian later bought the label for a brief, not very fruitful period. Today Travis once again owns the Rough Trade name, and his label survives as a branch of the Sanctuary Music Group in the U.K. (although Sanctuary recently dissolved the U.S. branch of the label — an entity that actually had been operating separately from Rough Trade U.K.). The shop, however, survives as one of London's best record stores.

It's a fascinating story, and Rob Young's book, Rough Trade: Labels Unlimited, covers much of it in great detail. We see the very first Rough Trade storefront, whose logo looks amusingly like something from a Yes album. We see the early record sleeves, drool over show flyers that read like fantasy bills (the Raincoats and Scritti Politti upstairs in a pub — oh man!), and hear from the likes of the Red Krayola's Mayo Thompson and Raincoats member Shirley O'Loughlin. Up until the Smiths era, Unlimited is a satisfying read and a thorough examination of the business and political philosophies of Travis and Rough Trade.

From that point on, however, Young loses focus. He makes a crucial error in downplaying Rough Trade's American branch. It was the San Francisco office that released the 1981 label compilation Wanna Buy A Bridge? Now rare and highly collectible, Bridge remains a key influence on such torchbearers as the Gossip and the Rapture — but curiously, Young never even mentions it in his book. And in the early 1990s, the American label was proving itself a serious contender, releasing well-received albums by Miracle Legion (one of Radiohead's prime influences), Opal, Two Nice Girls, Straitjacket Fits and even Lucinda Williams. But other than a few pages on Galaxie 500, Camper Van Beethoven and Beat Happening, we hear almost nothing about this time period.

Rough Trade: Labels Unlimited ends with a Q&A between Travis and co-owner Jeannette Lee. They share interesting trivia and lament lost signings — if Travis had had his way, Run-D.M.C.'s first album and De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising would have been Rough Trade releases. Ultimately, Travis and Lee express satisfaction that Rough Trade remains a place where artists can meet and cross-pollinate. It's no more or less utopian than it was in 1982. But it's hard to think of another label that's been able to weather its lean times so successfully, and which continues to inspire new generations of listeners.

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