November 2007

Essays

An afternoon at rough trade

By Robert Forster
An afternoon at rough trade

The first Rough Trade record store opened in 1976 at 202 Kensington Park Road, Notting Hill. It was a good year to open a record store, and a good address given the area’s association with late-’60s hippie culture, its Jamaican reggae community and its proximity to the centre of town. In 1983 the shop moved around the corner to 130 Talbot Road, where it remains today - stacked as ever with records, fanzines and a full noticeboard, with best-of lists and old photographs and posters, and staffed by people well up on the current developments in every tangent of indie music.

I first went to the shop in 1979. It was a pilgrimage. A trip to London was not complete without at least one visit, and more were needed, as this was a time when stunning releases were coming out of independent labels every week. The shop then housed a label, also called Rough Trade, that released and promoted some of the bands on the scene. Over the intervening years I’ve dropped by to get records, to play an in-store performance or two with The Go-Betweens, and to just be there and check the pulse - because Rough Trade is one of those shops that just by being in it tells you what a city is like. It provides an instant catch-up. So I visit again in late September 2007, on a Sunday afternoon, and walk out with four new releases and a four-CD compilation.

Alela Diane’s The Pirate’s Gospel is a staff recommendation. It’s a record with that particular word-of-mouth current under it that comes from people wanting to pass on something special. Diane is a Native American singer-songwriter, and this is her first album to receive a wide release. It was recorded in 2004; the first 650 copies were all handmade and packed by Diane until demand necessitated a more conventional form of manufacture. Her songs are folky, with blues and gospel touches. The songwriting is underpinned by acoustic guitar and a mesmerising voice that catches you from its first breath.

The album is a family affair, in that her father did the recording, her brother plays guitar and her eight-year-old cousin sings. The songs are in the family too, in a sense. There is displacement, a missing mother, babies, as well as the spirited fight to preserve one’s identity in a distant city and against a Christian God (or g-d, as Leonard Cohen writes in his latest book of poems). You can imagine this music coming out of a kitchen: people standing around clapping and singing, someone in a corner on guitar or piano, half heard, as the talented daughter lays down her songs about their lives. This is a very strong album, one that will figure high on the shop’s influential list of the top 100 albums of the year, and so the current shall continue.

Although attributing artistic influence can be a hazardous undertaking, you can sense the work of Karen Dalton may be known to Alela Diane. Dalton, besides being of Native American descent and an accomplished guitar player, was the possessor of a startling voice, singing folk and blues (though not her own) full of pride and pain. She recorded two albums in her lifetime, It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best (1969) and In My Own Time (1971), and was marketed - though to no great effect - as the ‘hillbilly Holiday’, due to her voice resembling Billie Holiday’s. Usually all comparisons to that singer are ridiculous; in Karen Dalton you can hear not only the similarity but also the quality.

Cotton Eyed Joe is made up of recently discovered tapes of Dalton playing in a small nightclub called The Attic, in Boulder, Colorado. The year is 1962, and 50 people sit at her feet knowing she is no run-of-the-mill folk-boom performer. “Karen Dalton was the real deal,” writes Joe Loop, who ran the club and recorded her, in the sleeve notes. The sound quality is surprisingly high as Dalton runs through two CDs’ worth of material. The starkness of the recordings, and the bare plucking of the 12-string guitar and banjo, mark this album as one for devotees. Dalton’s two official recordings are a gentler introduction. But it’s all here: excellent versions of ‘It Hurts Me Too’ and ‘Katie Cruel’, her repertoire and style in place years before she hit the studio.

All four of the new albums I buy have the acoustic guitar at their heart. The biggest surprise in the field is Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, who, with his solo album Trees Outside the Academy, has made a likeable Sonic Youth record for all those people who don’t like Sonic Youth. He’s heightened the songwriting aspect of his music, dropped the electric experimentation of his band and taken it all out to the country with a violin player, low drums and J Mascis (from Dinosaur Jr) on lead guitar. There is a feeling of freshness and lightness on this record, and by emphasising tunes and a softer sound, Moore’s made something far more challenging than what may well be going down in the rock cellars back in town.

Tunng live in the country but have London roots, and their album Good Arrows is as fine a soundtrack to the city as I’ve heard. It’s twitchy, intimate, paranoid, abstruse, clever and a bit mad. Where the three albums above could have been recorded anytime over the past 40 years, Tunng’s could only have come from the past five. The band’s hook is their mixing of traditional instruments with laptop beats and blips, creating an iPod-in-the-ear experience that will have you glaring nervously at the person next to you on the Tube.

They are a collective - at present a six-piece - and this, their third album, is the breakthrough. It’s a particularly English experience, with echoes of turn-of-the-’70s Pink Floyd and Bowie: creepy voices, creepy lyrics (“We cut our fingers off / To give ourselves extra insights”) and cracking tunes. Like the Thurston Moore release, the album’s four best songs are sequenced at the front, and it spins off from an opening melodic rush. One song, ‘Bullets’, is very good, with a marching chorus that just won’t leave your head. That’s one to sing on the Tube.

Sometimes I buy albums not only for the music. Something else grabs my eye, or there’s some quality about the product that says to me, ‘You have to have this.’ In the case of the Karen Dalton record, I buy it as much for the packaging and the fact that I want to hear 50 people in a room in a small town clapping and talking in 1962. In the full-size book that accompanies the four-CD Love is the Song We Sing: San Francisco Nuggets 1965-1970, there is a two-sided full-colour photo of Jefferson Airplane under a tree in a park, and I know I have to buy the whole package. But there are many other reasons too, not least that the San Francisco psychedelic scene of the late ‘60s is a favoured chapter of rock history, and this compilation - which draws on the usual suspects (Big Brother & The Holding Company, Grateful Dead, Country Joe & The Fish) and others also great but still relatively unknown - is the best summation of it I’ve found.

No visit to a record store these days is complete without a worrying thought about its survival as you leave. One large chain in the UK announced recently that the record store has to be reinvented, and as part of the shake-up they will be selling smoothies. You can’t imagine smoothies in Rough Trade. The shop’s too small, for a start, and the German and Spanish customers you hear amid the racks haven’t travelled this far for that. So what do they want? And what is the modern record store? I don’t know. But at the door I pick up a copy of the Stool Pigeon, an excellent new free weekly; I check the best-of list for 2006 on the wall. I’ve touched the rock books on the counter and seen what’s on the listening posts, and overheard some hipsters talking to the staff at the counter. I step out of the shop. London sorted.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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