social anthropologist Leopoldo Concupisetti identified six essential
characteristics of Englishness: snobbism, eccentricity, a love of amateurism,
voluntary service, the gentlemanly code of sportsmanship and a kind of eternal
boyishness. No better definition of the spirit of él Records could be desired.
Odd, then, that by and large Mike Alway's label was spurned by all but a few
fanatical Japanese. Or maybe not so odd now that England is better defined by
Loaded magazine than Concupisetti's charming formulae."
(From the el webstie)
I’m amazed where this zine has taken me since I began. I thought I would write a big article about Mike Alway and his labels – el, if… and Reverie. If I got any interviews with some of the artists, well that would be great but not very likely. I underestimated this by far. I especially didn’t expect to get in touch with Mr. Always himself. Matt Jacobson (head of Le Grand Magistery) was very helpful in this matter, getting me a number and informing Mike of my intentions. As soon as I got off the phone with Mr. Alway he made arrangements to have the Jet Set label send me “Songs for the Jet Set 2”. He wrote me a wonderfully long letter via e-mail. In so many ways he was much more enigmatic and friendly than I ever imagined. If there was an ideal image of Alway in my mind he surpassed that image.
Now that I’ve alienated most of my faithful (ha) readers with
this issue, I suppose I should offer an explanation. It’s just
that this music makes me very happy. When I listen to it I get that
magical Christmas morning feeling of wonder and discovery. I became a
fan of Alway’s records at a time when I was used to listening to
hard-core negative music like SPK, NON, Revolting Cocks and Throbbing
Gristle. To me el was somehow more extreme. “Difficult”
bands had their fans but the el label was so outside the mainstream
that the easy pop sounds were all the more difficult. At first I
thought it was all irony and tongue in cheek. Eventually I just found
it all comforting and lovely. The next decade would find my life
changed and permanently affected by el and the artists. Now when people
are looking back again for pop heroes like Bacarach, Gainsbourg and
Jobim, Alway’s labels are the most criminally underrated and
every bit as brilliant.
Now I’m finding the same fulfillment with the if… and Reverie labels, ran by Mr. Alway currently. This is the impetus for this issue. Before it may have been a good article for my “Retro-speck” column, but the sound is continuing today on these fine new labels and carried through Spain’s Siesta label and America’s Jet Set. Many of the el alumni can also be found on the Le Grand Magistery label.
Mike Alway called early morning London time. He was concerned that he had awoken me but called almost an hour early so I would not have to stay up so late. It was around 11 PM in British Columbia. We began talking about Matt Jacobson and his Le Grand Magistery label.
Alway: I think (Matt’s) tastes, his sensibilities and aesthetics was more individualistic in America about 5 years ago when I first heard of him. Back then I think it was far less common to be into this… lighter side of things, or at least advertise the fact, than it is now. Isn’t that true? Is that true?
Bleek: Oh, I believe it is. I lived in Seattle during the whole grunge boom and at the time Nirvana was just getting big and I was excited about my new el records compilations, so…
Well that must have ostracized you.
Quite a bit, but I enjoyed that. I felt a bit smug about that really.
Absolutely. I think the consistent line that runs through el records, even starting with those lighter Cherry Red records in the 80s, is that, in a way, from a man’s perspective… I’m trying to show something… I mean in England, and maybe it’s an English perspective, but in England there’s quite a lot of surliness. I mean every other person seems to be a builder or driving a lorry, you know. And even if you just happen to be under 180 pounds or something like that, it’s to the point where if you’re not all of those typical things, you must be gay, right? You know what I mean?
Oh, I’ve been there, though now I’m over 180 now.
Hahahaha. Well, I had an experience at Blanco Y Negro in the mid 80s, that was with Warner Bros., that completely changed my life. It was in shambles at the time, of my own making. And it was encouraged by the despicable behaviour of the groups, not Everything But The Girl, but some of the other people that were signed and some the people that were not signed. Because when people perceive you have money their attitude toward you, of course, changes enormously. So when you work with, or have some sort of alliance with a big record company, people won’t work with you anymore, do you know what I mean? They kind of will gesture that they will work with you but in fact not at all. And you end up really working for them and we lost that kind of camaraderie, all the Spirit that we had at Cherry Red, it went out the window immediately. I stopped enjoying it. All that happened was that I stopped answering the phone for 6 months, you know, and the whole thing just completely fell apart.
So with your deal with Warner Bros. And the attitude ensued, that got, uh…
That made el. That’s why we have el and if…, in the way that they are.
And so then came along el, which you could do in an indie sort of environment, and then that really spurred quite a lot after that, didn’t it?
It did. The latter stages of el really are the significant ones because with the latter stages of el we got into the idea of actually completely simulating the artefact, you see what I mean? Because el was two different labels really. When it began it was really a very individual indie – Shockheaded Peters, Momus, Vic Godard, real artists. Eventually, and it began to change about a year in, it moved further and further away from real artists… this is the point I’m making, this is the reaction to Blanco, you see. I just had enough with dealing with other people’s careers basically, and finding at no time having a conversation with anybody for 6 months. All you’ve discussed is money and I don’t think that was a very healthy situation.
So you eventually got into some “characters” in el? The King of Luxembourg, and Louis Philippe, would that be part of that?
Exactly. The characters are just based on real facets of the people. In other words, they take the basic ingredients which actually real and then you emphasize them disproportionately to reality. These roles are not at all interchangeable because what the King of Luxembourg is what Simon Turner really is, do you know what I mean? It’s just like that similarly with the Would-Be-Goods and Bad Dream, Fancy Dress, and so on and so forth. We were only getting into our stride with el when that was stopped in ’88.
You began in ’85?
Yeah. Late ’85, that’s right. Quite a lot of records released in a short amount of time really.
But then I had a backer. I wasn’t in the independent position that Matt is in, for instance. In other words, it wasn’t just a matter of having a lot of ideas and putting out a couple of records over a couple years, I was required to provide, to build a castle up quite quickly, which I was happy to do. The down side was that when… I think that people…. Because the company I was with, which of course was Cherry Red, which is a fairly straight record company and they were listening to these things (I was presenting)… not too much the Louis Philippe or the King of Luxembourg, they could sympathize with those, but when we started making things like (Bad Dream, Fancy Dress’) “Choirboy’s Gas” and (The Would-Be-Goods’) “The Camera Loves Me” I think people really thought “how can this be rationalized.”
It’s funny, I know what you’re talking about, when I had the
experience of hearing an EL show in 1986 on a Seattle station playing an hour of
And I had been taping it at that moment, and at the time I was into the… indie… rock type thing and I listened to the tape and said to myself ‘what in the world is this?’
It did at the time, I mean at the time it was just so…, it was just that the timing was so bizarre.
Let me ask you then, given that we’ve now had Lounge, which EL never was by the way of course.
Yeah, there was something more to it….
Where should we be now?
Yes. Where should I be stylistically, ‘cause do I look like someone who’s just basically run out of ideas?
It’s hard to for me to say because I have no objectivity there. I love what you’ve done and what you are doing now.
It’s shaped a lot of the way I am.
Well that’s fantastic.
It’s been that way for the last decade or so.
So now I’m looking at… especially with the zine… looking at a lot more indie-pop.
Yes, what are you calling the zine?
The zine is called Speck and the subtitle on this one will be ‘Mike Always Charm School’.
Good gawd! That’s… good gawd, well, the thing is you must let me contribute some good exclusive stuff to this. We ought to be able to export a few of these to Japan or something like that as well.
I was in contact with Nick (Momus) Currie. I interviewed him a couple of times.
How’d you find that?
Oh, he’s very cordial. I really enjoyed talking to him at the Seattle show. ‘Gave him a couple of gifts. It was rather fun.
Yeah. I think you’ll find that Nick is… how shall I put this?… a little more seriously educated than I am, to be honest.
He’s a little more educated than most of us.
Yeah, I mean he really has read the books that people think I’ve read, you know. I think that if you have such a serious education you don’t make labels like EL or IF…, ‘cause if you know all those things they’re no longer interesting. They’re only interesting when they’re a…a…
When they’re a mystery.
It’s been a constant source of frustration to me that I haven’t been able to build up anything like the amount of intensity with IF… that I had with EL.
Not the intensity eh?
No, I don’t think so. I mean look at the evidence. It took me two years to get ‘Songs For The Jet Set’ together.
Oh, gosh yes.
I had no idea. I would assume that people would be clamouring to
get their hands on it.
Not a bit. Not a bit.
Now the EL stuff is quite collectable. How rare are those things?
Oh, extremely rare, but you see in England it is collectable but to so few people that it just doesn’t… it’s like… I have never seen (outside of Rough Trade , a specialty shop), I have never seen any EL or IF… records in any shop in England.
Yep, that’s an absolute fact, and I think that we’re respected amongst that generation of people that are now running record companies, but I think its true today that their attitude is one of respect and not necessarily one of wanting to work with you. Because we’re not associated… despite the fact that I, after all, in the same way that I constructed EL or IF… I constructed Everything But the Girl and had a number one hit in America. I mean I didn’t have that number one hit an America but it’s evidence that I can… there is a commercial potential.
Well I consider it brilliant and I still don’t know what the problem is. A lot of people just can’t get that…
Because it’s peers, you see. The English people would say the peer group type of thing because it’s obviously for people that want to be more individual. That’s my absolute first intention and not everybody wants to be individual. Again, at Christmas in Oregon (where Always’s wife is from –ed.), from time to time we had to take the bus, and taking the bus in America is very different from taking it in Britain. Taking the bus in America you really realize (how) people are very stereotypes, you know. I mean they are in England. In England there’s a little bit more eccentricity.
Yes, a little bit more. Its not exclusively.
I’ve heard that before.
Yeah, it’s not exclusively an English thing but it’s more pervasive in England. You can look at Nick Currie and you can see a genius artist on one level, and in fact he’s really eccentric in his intellectualism, you know? It’s not about books and maps and pouring over old documents. He uses his intellectualism in a very subversive way.
I suppose that’s why I’ve been into Momus for some time.
Yeah, you know, a remarkable writer. I mean look at that, you know, EL Records when we started off, look at the quality of writers that I had; Vic Godard, Nick Currie, Carl Blake (Shockheaded Peters, The Underneath –ed.)….
Vic Godard, what else did he do? I mean there was the single with “Nice on the Ice” and “Holiday Hymn” and then beyond that I don’t know what…
No, that’s right. Well you see, what happened was that I’d made those records for Blanco (Y Negro) and those tracks came from an album that was eventually released on Rough Trade, because part of the reason I was leaving Blanco was because I was spending all the company’s money making, what I thought, was all these fantastic records and my partners – once I made those records and spent all that money making those records – they told me that all those records, in their estimation, were not up to standard. That forced me to resign. Those were the first Momus album, Shockheaded Peters’ “I Bloodbrother Be”, Vic Godard and all that. Alan McGee (ex-head of Creation Records, now of Poptones –ed) takes the (position) that it was a completely planned, constructed way to get me out, you know. I don’t completely subscribe to that view because I’m not satisfied with my performance at Blanco at that time. I lost heart, you see. It’s the first time that’s ever happened to me in my adult life. I just lost heart… because, you know, it’s the objective thing. Warner’s objective, of course, is very obvious. When the spirit goes out of it – not necessarily the camaraderie – but the theme and the purpose goes out of it and you’re suddenly left with a bunch of sales figures.
Look at it this way. I’m going to continue down this line of melody and lightness for as long as it takes me. People say ‘Well that’s not what the kids want’ and maybe it is what the kids want and maybe it isn’t. I’m sure it isn’t. My point is that the kids will take whatever the record companies dress up.
Well we know that.
That’s definitely the nature of it. What I’m saying is… It’s not that I approve of that, I don’t approve of that, but what I’m saying is… It irritates me when people say ‘Mike, it’s wacko. It’s too eccentric. It can’t work’ because in the right context it will work. It’s not necessarily the cost of the recording that makes the difference, it’s the amount of money spent on promotion.
(Later I asked Mike if he happened to have the EL manifesto that I had heard part of on the radio years ago, some of which went like “Take my hand and I’ll take you to heaven, and liking EL you’ll stay there”. He wrote:
With regard to the ‘manifestos’, I regrettably don’t have them at hand, though now that you mention them I will keep my eyes peeled on your behalf in hope that they will eventually transpire. So many of the original issues were deleted long ago and you will be perhaps surprised, disgusted even, to know that, for one reason or another, and often for good reasons, I have almost none of my own records, though intend to rectify this. Slowly, I am reassembling my works which I am determined to renovate even though many of them are scarce in the UK today.
rising from the ashes of my ill-fated involvement with blanco y negro, el's first objective was to establish a highly individualistic reputation that would also charm potential backers into investing in our plan.
those startlingly different, deliberately obtuse first records still sound really exciting. and shp's anthemic "I, bloodbrother be" remarkably achieved "single of the week" in all four national british music papers. though even this outstanding record was ignored by a lethargic radio one to whom the single appeared both offensive and incomprehensible (a reaction that would come to be their pathetic stock response to any el record).
cherry red proved to be the only people with the courage and imagination to finance the label, though I remember taking care not to give too many of the more colourful aspects of our strategy away to their accounts department as we set out to make EL a mirage and an exercise in continuity that would stand or fall by virtue of its individuality. I was determined to make records that were spontaneous and imaginative with people of character and often regardless of their musical ability.
in direct contrast to the dreary mediocrity of the prevailing scene, the theme of el records would be escapism into a pop fantasy world which would always be optimism and sunshine. a world oblivious to sordid realities and pre-occupied with life's finer pursuits. so armed with a paintbrush, a map of southern spain, a bottle of chianti, a copy of "pandora & the flying dutchman" and luis bunuel's "my last breath", we set out to confuse, enchant and antagonise as many people as possible.
having been brought up on surrealist sixties fantasies like "the prisoner" "the singing ringing tree" and "the avengers", I thought, how splendid it would be to recreate this meeting of strangeness and dry humour in the context of a record label. a label that I like to imagine was being run by john steed and mrs peel (with the monkees and jackson pollock hovering somewhere in the background!) in an industry that had forgotten artistry and humour our maxim would be "replace money with imagination"
so teenybop idol of my acquaintance, simon turner became this peter pan type figure, the king of luxembourg, jessica griffin, an elegant lyricist who actually worked in the city of london, would be the would-be-goods (a kind of shangri las expelled from roedean) whilst bad dream fancy dress made a psychedelic racket that was akin to the shaggs meeting stanley kubrick over a hot madrass. entering into this spirit of play, one critic described EL as "pop that can spell it's name backwards".
we never feared or contemplated failure. though with every record we risked our security to progress-often adopting completely unconventional styles in complete defiance of the eighties - flirting with disaster as we tilted at windmills.
if in england we were treated with suspicion or totally ignored, the reaction of the more cultured japanese was more accommodating as they identified strongly with our vivid, artifactual style. what was seen in the west as pretentious indulgence of "overgrown public school boys" was in japan a funny disposable pop product of beauty and considered thoroughly indispensable. we subsequently made a successful promotion with (unusually for us) live performances in tokyo in october of 1988. almost exactly ten years to the day . . .
but despite international regard for albums of the class of "royal bastard" "the camera loves me" "choirboys gas" "cadaquez" "appointment with venus" and "the red shoes" ; (records which have subsequently come to be regarded as masterpieces in some quarters) we would now be asked by an increasingly intolerant cherry red to account for our commercial failure.
whilst they shared our dismay that quality "hit" singles as memorable as "valleri", "you mary you", "nicky", "trial of dr fancy", "the camera loves me", "guess i'm dumb" and "curry crazy" had sunk without trace, they could see nothing in future plans for the label which included my intention to recruit the superlative children's group hunky dory that would stem the tide of fiscal loss and our alliance was swiftly dissolved.
but a decade on from it's demise, EL is more alive than ever and it's influence on today's international pop scene is there for all to see. in japan, the biggest domestic popstar cornelius has claimed that the label changed his life whilst kahimi karie recorded a sublime tribute single, "mike alway's diary". pizzicato five were another successful japanese group to blend some of our visual themes with eclectic musical perspectives. I recall that in 1994, momus returned from tokyo to say that "the EL 'look' was everywhere".
at long last EL surfaced in the west. shampoo enjoyed a vast success that should have belonged to bad dream fancy dress and popular artists from both sides of the atlantic as diverse as the cardigans, divine comedy, beck, pulp, st etienne and combustible edison apparently drew inspiration from our work. the debatable lounge scene owed as much to our pioneering also and our ideas have infiltrated photography and graphic design. film and television production. even fashion.
so if you want a monument to EL, look around.
mike alway london october 1998