This 4AD article was written by Nick Palmer, a GIGsoup contributor
Thirty-five years in music is an aeon, think of what music was like in 1980, Ian Curtis was still around (until May, anyway) and The Police were topping the singles chart. For an independent record label to not only survive, but thrive for a large chunk of that 35 years and still be on the cutting edge of music today is just astounding. Even the legendary Rough Trade filed for bankruptcy in the 1990s, but 4AD just keeps on going. 35 years may also seem like a slightly odd anniversary, but compared with the 30th in 2010, 4AD seems to be in an even stronger position (plus GIGsoup wasn’t around 5 years ago, and who wants to wait until 2020?).
Ivo Watts-Russell, an introvert obsessed with the perfect sound, had held a series of jobs with the Beggars Banquet label during the 1970s. Unlike most other music buffs at the time, he did not convert to the gospel of punk and found the rough, lo-fi recordings unsatisfying, craving a more polished sound. After meeting Peter Kent, another banqueting beggar and manager of the Earls Court branch of the label, the two decided to set up a record label. According to Ivo, in an interview from 1986, the conception of 4AD went like this, “We’d regularly rush upstairs to convince Martin and Nick [founders of Beggars Banquet] that they should get involved with something like Modern English, as opposed to what they were involved with. Eventually Beggars got fed up with us pestering them and said, ‘Why don’t you start your own record label?’”
‘Axis’ was the name Kent and Ivo opted for, but were forced to change it after an existing German record label (surely, the most inappropriate places to set up a company called Axis?) threatened legal action. Frantically, they plucked a name out of their immediate surroundings – the words on a promotional flyer for the label which read:
1984 AD 4AD
As a random grouping of one number and two letters, it meant nothing and had no baggage. For Ivo it was perfect, because it meant that there would be no preconceptions, the label would be judged on the merit of its music.
4AD found its first hit in 1980 with ‘Dark Entries’, by gothic post-punk band, Bauhaus. A snarling and brooding number which combined yelping, breathless vocals with dark, confused mutterings. In the first year of 4AD, they also found the man who would define 4AD’s distinctive visual style, Vaughan Oliver. Throughout the 80s and 90s, Oliver established 4AD’s visual identity through inventive and beautiful album covers.
Kent left 4AD in 1981, due to creative differences with Ivo, but 4AD chugged along steadily with moderate success from Bauhaus and Modern English, who both released albums that year. During this time, 4AD was approached by a painfully shy couple. Robin Guthrie and Elizabeth Fraser, lovers and musicians together in their band, Cocteau Twins, would go on to create a sound which fit perfectly with Ivo’s love affair with the aural. Their 1982 debut Garlands proved to be a surprising hit, and not only pleased consumers, but also pleased the previously anti-4AD music press. A string of beautiful (and commercially successful) LPs and EPs up to 1990 cemented them as 4AD’s stars, though tensions often flared between Ivo and the increasingly prickly and coked up Guthrie, who resented an apparent lack of recognition for Cocteau Twins being the top selling band on the label.
As much as Cocteau Twins encapsulated the ‘4AD sound’, in 1987 it would be a scratchy, jittery guitar band from Boston, Massachusetts (the label’s second Yankee band, after Throwing Muses) who would prove to become 4AD’s biggest footprint on music. Pixies, who would go onto release some of the most creative, different and just plain catchy music of the 80s and 90s, were first noticed by the producer of Throwing Muses. The televangelists-inspired lyric of “Come on pilgrim,” from ‘Levitate Me’ was chosen by Ivo as the title for the band’s debut EP. The band’s next two LPs, Surfer Rosa (1988) and Doolittle (1989), were widely praised and catapulted the band above even 4AD darlings, Cocteau Twins. Even more awkwardly, halfway through a tour in 1988, where they were supporting Throwing Muses, Pixies were suddenly made the headline act, when the promoters noted that the latter was getting bigger cheers than the former.
1990, however, proved to be a trying year for the label. Cocteau Twins were let go, after a fraught recording process of their wonderful Heaven or Las Vegas and Guthrie’s and Ivo’s relationship becoming unsustainably toxic. 4AD had lost their flagship, and on top of that, Pixies were having their own troubles, with frontman Black Francis becoming increasingly autocratic and pushing bassist (and very proficient songwriter) Kim Deal to the fringe of the band.
Pixies broke up in 1993, but 4AD continued to ride the alternative wave set in motion by Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, with success from bands like Pale Saints, Lush, Belly and, ex-Pixie Kim Deal’s own band, The Breeders. However, as the 1990s drifted on, Ivo found himself less interested in the music business and in 1995, he officially stepped down from running the day-to-day stuff. It wasn’t just him who was less interested, the music press and consumers also weren’t reacting strongly to 4AD’s new crop of American signings, Heidi Berry, Air Miami, Lisa Germano. Staff, whose numbers swelled in the late 1980s and early 1990s, were being let go to prepare for leaner years. The fact that a 1997 Pixies ‘Best Of’ compilation was the most successful album 4AD had released in four years demonstrates how much of a decline was setting in. In 1999, Ivo finally called it a day and left 4AD to live in the New Mexico Desert.
The next 5 years were a muddled time for 4AD, which continued to put out quality albums from its, still enviable, roster of musicians, The Breeders, Throwing Muses, Mojave 3, but also struggled to sign any new artists who brought the same excitement that ‘classic era’ signings had done. However, in the mid-2000s, a series of excellent albums restored 4AD’s prestige and fortunes. Blonde Redhead’s Misery Is A Butterfly in 2004, Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago in 2007 and Deerhunter’s Microcastle in 2008. Today, the modern 4AD appears to be within a second golden age, churning out great record after great record, in a huge variety of genres. On the indie/alternative side of things, The National and Deerhunter, on the electronic side, Purity Ring and Grimes, and on…some other side, Tune-Yards.
4AD, even if lacking a centrepiece like Cocteau Twins or Pixies to hang the rest of their roster around, is thriving in the mid-2010s. A roster of genuinely exciting and inventive artists are cementing 4AD’s success in the foreseeable future. And, even if 4AD hadn’t began a recovery a decade ago, it would still be worth all of the reverence it’s bathed in, by artists, journalists and, above all, music lovers.
Want the latest music news, opinions and reviews?Subscribe to the GIGsoup newsletter today
Explore the latest music from the comfort of your own inbox