The Smiths. The Strokes. The Libertines. The history of music is littered with inherently cool character, all described as such for a myriad of different reasons. Be it a must have aesthetic, charismatic stage presence or general ability to put together a song that you can’t get out of your head.
They also usually share another similarity: they owe part of their success to Rough Trade Records. At one point a small indie record label out of London, Rough Trade Records is now a bastion of the industry and revered by music heads around the world for leaving a lasting impression on the musical landscape during their storied 38 year history. In fact the tale of label is so storied you could say they’ve have had more ups and downs than a majority of the artists they’ve signed.
In 1976, Rough Trade was born, although the original aim was to sell records as opposed to producing them. Based out of Kensington Road, London the shop was the retail baby of one Geoff Travis. Inspired by the record stores he’d visited on a trip around America, he returned to England bemused at the lack of something similar on our shores. He yearned for a store that you could comfortably stay in all day without the pressure of purchasing something. The store idea had also become somewhat of a necessity, as he had returned home with hundreds of US pressings of new records, with no real place to store them.
Armed with the right stock, the right premises, the right name (allegedly borrowed from a Canadian New Wave group) and a vision Geoff was ready to take on the world. At first though, it appeared the world wasn’t ready for him, as sales were slow. That was until a little ideological movement called punk reared its head. Rough Trade found itself at the epicentre of the punk explosion, with in-store appearances by Talking Heads and The Ramones bringing unbridled success.
With success came ideas for expansion, and soon Rough Trade Records was born. The story goes that the label started when French punk act Métal Urbain entered the shop wishing to find a way to publicise their single Paris Marquis. The meeting seemed to cause a spark within Geoff, as Paris Marquis became the label’s first release. Further success was bound to follow. It took just two years and one album for the label to make an indent in the charts as Inflammable Material, the debut album from Stiff Little Fingers climbed its way up to number 14. The album gave the fledgling label their first taste of success, one that they wished to repeat again and again.
To help promote the Rough Trade Records and labels of a similar ilk that had appeared up and down the country, Geoff and Tony Kostrzew, head of Red Rhino Records based in York started a distribution network known as The Cartel. The Cartel was a collaboration, helping the different label’s promote their artists around the UK.
As interest in the label increased, the store and its musical namesake parted ways, becoming two separate entities although rather confusingly keeping the same name. With Geoff’s full attention on Rough Trade Records, it went from strength to strength. Seminal albums from The Raincoats, Robert Wyatt and The Fall left the label in good stead but things were about to get a lot better when a little-known band from Manchester signed. In 1984 The Smiths released their eponymous album on the label. The album sent shockwaves across the musical landscape, with feedback still being heard to this day. Reaching number 2 in the charts and containing the sing-along classic This Charming Man, the album received unanimous critical acclaim and provided Rough Trade with their much needed stars. Three albums then followed, with continued chart and commercial success. Although it wasn’t all plain sailing though. On the band’s third album, The Queen Is Dead, the song ‘Frankly, Mr Shankly’ was seen as a veiled attempt at resigning from the label. The disagreement was due to the band’s belief that the label had not put enough promotion on their releases, something a bigger, wealthier label would more than happy to do. After a lengthy legal dispute The Smiths signed with EMI.
Although the label had put out albums to critical acclaim, with some even breaking into the charts, it was just papering over financial cracks that had appeared. The Cartel began to disintegrate almost as quickly as it started due to money issues. First Red Rhino went into liquidation in 1989, followed by Fast Forward in the early 90s. The future looked bleak for the plucky indie label. Their worst fears were confirmed in 1991 as Rough Trade Records filed for bankruptcy.
Like all great underdog stories though, this wouldn’t be the end. In 2000, Rough Trade Records was relaunched in a partnership between Geoff, Jeanette Lee (former member and manager of Public Image Ltd) and Sanctuary Group. A new millennium saw a new interest in good quality indie music, the type Rough Trade were renowned for producing. Influential releases by a roster of talent that included The Strokes, The Libertines, Sufjan Stevens, Antony & The Johnsons, The Hold Steady, Arcade Fire, The Decemberists and British Sea Power saw that Rough Trade Records were firmly back in business.
In 2007 Sanctuary sold their shares in the revitalised label to Beggars Group, allowing Rough Trade Records to fully return to their independent roots. With the steady hand of Geoff Travis and artists such as Warpaint, Palma Violets and Jeffrey Lewis signed to the label it’s clear that Rough Trade Records new releases will remain a staple of your music library for many years to come.
Words by Daniel Eggleston