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[Book Review] Facing the Other Way: The History of 4AD

Facing The Other Way - The Story of 4AD
Facing the Other Way: The History of 4AD

Though this book took me forever to finish, I did appreciate its thoroughness. It’s rare that I pick up a book well over 600 pages and manage to finish it. (Even if it’s been over the course of 3 years!) There were parts that dragged and I dozed off a few times. That’s not a bad thing when you occasionally deal with insomnia. The stories were still interesting, though music is tough to describe in general. The best way to appreciate music is to listen to it and see it played live.

Some details from Amazon (only $4.99 for the Kindle edition!):

This Mortal Coil, Birthday Party, Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins, Pixies, Throwing Muses, Breeders, Dead Can Dance, Lisa Germano, Kristin Hersh, Belly, Red House Painters.

Just a handful of the bands and artists who started out recording for 4AD, a record label founded by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent in 1979, a label which went on to be one of the most influential of the modern era.

Combining the unique tastes of Watts-Russell and the striking design aesthetic of Vaughan Oliver, 4AD records were recognisable by their look as much their sound. In this comprehensive account concentrating on the label’s first two decades (up to the point that Watts-Russell left), music journalist Martin Aston explores the fascinating story with unique access to all the key players and pretty much every artist who released a record on 4AD during that time, and to its notoriously reclusive founder.

With a cover designed by Vaughan Oliver this is an essential book for all 4AD fans and anyone who loved the music of that time.

I’m mostly familiar with the artists on 4AD, though I wasn’t as familiar with This Mortal Coil’s “Song to the Siren” – the flagship song of the label. It’s a magnificent cover of a Tim Buckley song with Elizabeth Fraser (vocals) and Robin Guthrie (guitar) of the Cocteau Twins. I hadn’t heard it before and it is a gorgeous track. The book starts off describing the song as “an exquisite ballad… in homage to the ancient Greek poet Homer’s epic The Odyssey.”  It’s supposedly about “the inevitable damage that love causes.”

In this song, Martin Aston likened Liz Fraser to the siren of The Odyssey who lured “sailors/lovers to a watery grave.” And with an angelic voice like that, it’s very likely to have lured many to that grave. The voices are often what distinguished these artists from the rest and who knows how they got to be like that? They did their vocal training after they were signed, so I guess it was just an otherworldly gift from birth.

The graphic design side of 4AD was always a unique thing, with 23 envelope’s creative direction and Vaughan Oliver. It gave the label and artists a unique and unified identity. That’s important in presenting them to their audience (and public). The eventual split from 23 envelope was troubling, though the label’s parting with founder Ivo Watts-Russell seemed worse. He sort of lived a dream I’ve had to run a label, though finding artists he worked with was probably amazing luck.

Martin Aston, the writer of this extensive label history, didn’t quite explain how they found such talented people, but I guess that’s just part of the allure and mystery of the label. This book actually is slightly more focused on the business side of dealing with those dealing with artists than the artists themselves. If you ever found yourself wanting to run a label (which I thought seemed like fun) – this is an interesting read (at times). Self-promotion is a difficult thing for most artists, so the necessity for a label and promotion machine is often a necessary evil.

Also, running a business can be very difficult in general, particularly a creative one. These days, hype is hard to believe or live up to and it’s probably not the best way to promote artists. This is less a how to manual than a look what happens when great indie labels implode and are forced to change with new technology and changing audiences. Working with other labels seems to be the way to go, especially when they larger ones have existing sources of distribution (like Rough Trade and Sire, which is what happened when The Smiths broke into the mainstream).

Also, here’s a link to ThoughtCo’s list of the top 30 4AD albums. It gives you an idea of the high level of talent and artistry the label is known for.

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Copyright 2017 Liane Chan