The Story of 4AD by Martin Aston

1980 FWD
1984 AD

– designer Mark Robertson, promoting the concept of a new decade, a new mission, a new record label

4AD cover
The Story of 4AD by Martin Aston

The two initially striking components of this book are its sheer size (at over 600 pages, only slightly slimmer than Bob Stanley’s entire history of modern pop music) and its immediately emblematic matt-on-gloss cover.  Historically, 4AD, like no other British record label other than perhaps Factory, has tended to evoke the type of blind and unswerving devotion usually reserved for the most inspirational and cherished of bands; a label with its own fans, its own concept, its own subculture. Its familiar, enigmatic sleeves – the consistently inventive output of artistic director Vaughan Oliver – and its prescriptive Factory-esque means of cataloguing its product, having been pored over and obsessed about for over three decades. Though both labels had from the start sought to establish a visual aesthetic at the core of its respective operation, South London’s 4AD has always tended to evoke an aura of more otherworldly characteristics than its more brazenly audacious Mancunian counterpart. Author Martin Aston goes as far to describe the label as ‘the anti-Factory’, adding that ‘if the 2002 fictionalised film about Factory Records was called 24 Hour Party People, what might a film about 4AD be titled – Eight Hours Chilling and Then Bed?’ The now defunct rock weekly Sounds went a step further still, branding the label ‘the manic depressive Motown’.

As much as the story of 4AD is largely a tale of two men, the aforementioned Oliver and the label’s equally long-serving chief, the benign dictator Ivo Watts-Russell, it is also a story of two bands above all others; the inimitable and ground-breaking Cocteau Twins and the part-buzzsaw, part-Beach Boys hybrid of Pixies. An occasionally uneasy coalition of artistic intent that acted as a de facto ‘changing of the guard’ in the focus, investment and ambition of 4AD itself. Though both bands appear to have undoubtedly respected one another the competing demands of their respective aspirations made their involuntary roster-marriage of convenience an occasionally pointed one. As Aston recounts, Pixies’ Black Francis liked the ‘mystery’ of Cocteau Twins, the Cocteaus’ Robin Guthrie praising his label-mates’ energy ‘but not’, he adds, ‘their stop-start weirdness’.

The author’s candid, present-day interactions with Guthrie form some of the most insightful elements of this lovingly, bordering on obsessively, researched book. Having engaged with Aston at length from the comparative distance of his current home in France, Guthrie lays bare the personal impact that this reflective process of contemporary soul-searching has had. As a man who has overcome both a chronically debilitating cocaine habit from which he now appears to be recovered and the crushing break-up of his long-term relationship with the iconic Cocteaus’ chanteuse, Elizabeth Fraser, the sign-off of his subsequent email to the author is an especially poignant one: ‘can, worms, opened’. The Cocteau Twins story is in itself an eternally frustrating one. A should-have-been-massive artistic proposition fronted by the conspicuously unearthly ‘voice of God’, yet much like The Smiths, a band who spent far too long without the guiding hand of a manager and, equally similarly, one that grew to resent the label that had initially signed and nurtured them – an antipathy based on a perception that its sales were funding 4AD’s less reliable commercial dalliances.

As intricate and unnecessarily forensic as Aston’s text can occasionally become there is sufficient light detail, even the odd comical moment, to lift the anecdotal content to an often bizarrely engaging level. Scattered amongst the abundant tales of Nick Cave, Throwing Muses and The Breeders the jolting cameo appearances made within the story by both reggae legend Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and chief Bay City Roller Les McKeown will no doubt come as something of a surprise to the average 4AD aficionado. As may also the intentionally/unintentionally twisted humour inherent in a number of the best Ivo/Vaughan anecdotes. A personal favourite being a passage that defines the true artistic hierarchy of the label and the manner in which it viewed the more misguided artistic impulses of its acts: ‘Oliver’s role as 4AD in-house designer – to maintain a consistency of design approach, and to counter what he felt were lapses of judgment on behalf of the artist – had Ivo’s full support’. As dismissively disparaging as accounts such as this might superficially appear it is the devotion of Ivo (‘Ivo’, always simply ‘Ivo’) to his charges that most readily resonates throughout the author’s eminently definitive account. Having lost the Cocteau Twins to a major label following a spectacular falling out, he is seen dashing out of the band’s first post-4AD show in tears, the heart of a fan fragmented by what seemed at the time to be a permanent schism.

The denouement of Aston’s tale ends on something of a discordant note. Though Guthrie is now happy to admit that leaving 4AD for major label backing in 1992 was the biggest mistake the band ever made – ‘Fontana was a faceless, corporate-wank entity’ – the blurring of the original 4AD vision in a more corporate, post-Ivo, music industry is plain for all to see. Yet recent years have also seen the Pixies’ valedictory reformation to long-overdue global acclaim, and Elizabeth Fraser’s wholly unexpected and utterly regal 2012 return to the stage of the Royal Festival Hall. A show in which she reconnected with huge swathes of the Cocteau Twins’ back catalogue only a few years after describing these songs as too painful to revisit. Still mining the recesses of her magnetically alluring private language, Fraser never achieved the global adulation that her inimitable talent demanded. Yet to this day she remains a figure of adoration, an artistic deity to those select few who sought to engage with and explore her peculiarly private world; in this sense, the archetypal 4AD artist. Just as it’s fair to say that this is not a book for the casual reader, it is equally the case that 4AD has never been a label for the casual listener.