Good morning and welcome to the working week, albeit one sliced in two here by some holiday celebrating independence from someone or other. Oddly enough it was to do with taxation and here we are now with plenty of taxation and just as little representation as ever if you ask me. Still I do like a birthday so a happy one to the US this week and the same to Canada (earlier this week). Far happier though are probably Spain who despite being as financially viable as an 8 track retailer still managed to win the football, again. They should really let someone else have a chance.
As you can tell I started writing on Monday and suddenly here we are on what should retitled Independents Day. The spirit of being independent from political parties and corporations (are they even separate entities?) would go a long way to improving not only the USA but lots of other countries too. One of the easiest shots many take at The Clash was the fact that when negotiating a record deal they signed up for a long term deal with American giant CBS Records. Mark Perry famously stated “Punk Died the day The Clash signed to CBS”. I understand the sentiment but disagree on a number of counts. Primarily, would The Clash have made it to ’78 if they hadn’t made a deal that allowed them to tour and record?
The rise (and rise) of independent record labels was at it’s very embryonic stage at the tale end of ’76/beginning of ’77, for years the industry was not so much dominated by major labels but that was essentially the only way. Without digging out my books for reference, at the time that The Clash signed to CBS their minor label options would have been probably Chiswick Records or Stiff. Which isn’t to say that there were not other backroom labels but these were the only two that would somewhat effectively get your music into more than a handful of local record shops. Even Stiff didn’t have the organisation and support to get their new vinyl releases distributed everywhere effectively at that early stage. Having worked in record shops a few years later the landscape was knocked upside down by the advent of punk, particularly record labels and their distribution which I’ll get to below. The Clash signing to CBS didn’t kill punk, it brought it into small towns and big cities throughout Europe. You could then get the debut album at places like Woolworths no matter where you lived and didn’t need to travel 25 miles just to get the chance to hear what the music weeklies were telling us about.
What punk accomplished ran deeper than the media reaction, the typically English hype and build up over anything considered an outrage followed by a crowded bandwagon and the anticipated implosion. The scene changed so quickly that the original DIY aspects of punk were overshadowed by the daily papers interpretation of the scene, bands that weren’t punk simply cut their hair, kids that weren’t punk found their calling and within a year the entire scene had grown beyond recognition. Yes it did fragment really quickly and the bands that had one or two great songs were found out. The best of the bunch including The Clash didn’t stand still, the progression of bands like XTC, The Jam, Wire, Buzzcocks, or The Damned that were playing live to great impact was the healthiest outcome of all. Most importantly the rapid approach to writing and recording meant that between the start of ’77 and the summer of ’79 each of these bands were already onto their 2nd or 3rd albums. Post punk evolved before punk really even slowed and by the time Gang of Four, Magazine and the bands from the Liverpool/Manchester scene were getting records out the biggest impact of The Clash signing to CBS was being seen – independent labels had got it organised to the point where signing for one didn’t limit your chance to be heard.
I don’t think that the flourishing health of independent labels seen from the late 70′s through to the early 90′s would have been remotely possible were it not for punk. Within 3 or 4 years of the punk scene independent record labels had grown in size to more than 50 recognised labels in addition to hundreds of others that came and went. When I worked in record shops (83-87) I was fascinated by the ability of the distribution methods of Pinnacle and Rough Trade (Jungle/The Cartel) to get smaller bands exposed and distributed throughout the country. If you look at your own record collection I bet you’ll find that much of what you love from 77-79 was on large labels (Clash on CBS, The Jam on Polydor, The Police on A&M) but from 1980 onwards you’ll probably see the huge change caused by punk in terms of where bands ended up. I don’t assume to know what you listened to but I bet a good ratio of what you had originally evolved on Rough Trade, Korova, Beggars Banquet, Mute, 4AD, Factory, SST, Situation Two, Creation or any of the other dozens of great labels that rose during those early years. If The Clash had started in 1981 it’s pretty safe to say they would have signed to one of those labels above and had the artistic control they needed.
The CBS deal didn’t kill punk but it might have helped to kill the band. That original contract impacted their ability to accomplish more than pay back their original advance until very late in the history of the band and increased the pressure to write, record and tour continuously – and the single mindedness (and brilliant) approach of the band to give fans value for money further constrained them. Just read about how Sandinista! was priced to learn more about that. The CBS contract even handcuffed Joe Strummer beyond the breakup of The Clash, he simply had to wait it out. Such a big decision made by Bernie Rhodes back then forever changed the future of The Clash, but the success of The Clash and punk in general impacted the record industry in a positive way for many more years to come.
Do you remember getting those early records and just how much independent labels changed the way we found and bought our music?