Face the Music
Facing the Other Way. The Story of 4AD, Martin Aston
(650pp, £25, The Friday Project)
On the Periphery. David Sylvian - A Biography. The Solo Years,
Christopher E. Young (384pp, £24.99, Malin Publishing)
Punk 45. The Singles Cover Art of Punk 1976-80,
eds. Jon Savage & Stuart Baker (366pp, £25, Soul Jazz Books)
One way of telling if non-fiction books are good, is if they make you go back to their subject. And these books certainly did that. In the end, however, that was Facing the Other Way's downfall for me, as most of the 4AD records I pulled out having read about them, are unlistenable today. I simply have no idea why I ever regarded the vacuous warblings of the Cocteau Twins as interesting; only Harold Budd and the Wolfgang Press, along with some of the Pixies' music, seem the slightest bit relevant in 2013. In a similar manner, the 'groundbreaking' 23 Envelope covers mainly seem like overwrought, rather fey collages with bad typography over them.
The trouble is that trying to write a biography of a record company is a kind of compromise between a biography of the owner - in this case the shy, retiring and seemingly dull Ivo, and a book about the bands signed to the label. The latter has been done elsewhere for the likes of the Pixies and Cocteaus, the former doesn't make for very interesting reading: what little we are told about Ivo makes it clear he is a nice guy who worries too much and not much else. And of course in this case there are also the designers to be taken into account: 23 Envelope. Trouble is, there are a couple of good books about their art out already too.
I really wanted to like Aston's book, I have fond memories of 4AD review copies arriving in Exeter, and the then mysterious sleeves those LPs came in, not to mention publicity postcards and promotional calendars. Unfortunately, this book is probably 20 years too late to hold my interest. I don't think 4AD will go down in history in the same way Rough Trade or one or two other labels will. Or perhaps the fact that this book exists means it already has?
I also really wanted to like Christopher E. Young's book on David Sylvian, a musician I've got a lot of time for, though also some questions to ask should I ever bump into him. In the end, I did warm to On the Periphery, but it has to be said only once I'd got over the shock of finding such a poorly edited, and sometimes repetitive tome. Young's book is shockingly inconsistent in spellings [for example, John Hassell and Jon Hassell appear on the same page!], riddled with errors, and all too often offers potted biographies as an introduction to the endless musicians Sylvian has worked with. The book also suffers because it offers personal opinion rather than making an argument or case for itself, and because it has the strangest referencing system I've ever come across. Please, next time, somebody copy edit and proof read, for somewhere in here is what could be a much more readable and enjoyable book.*
Young considers various spiritual, musical and literary influences, along with biographical events that may have informed Sylvian's musical output. These often make for interesting reading, but they are very much speculation, and Young somehow thinks honesty, truth and emotion are useful markers for music. He doesn't seem to consider that lyrics might be a form of fiction or poetry writing rather than emotional outpouring. Neither does he like to criticise or question Sylvian too much, despite it being clear that Sylvian is at times a control freak who uses people and their music, and that although he is inspired by and creates occasions for improvisation he himself is not part of that process, preferring to work alone, composing with spontaneously created material. That's no crime, but it does raise some interesting contradictions and questions. Even if Sylvian himself will not answer these questions, I'm sure some of the musicians discussed in this book might have been open to interviews. Young could also have framed the discussion using other books about improvisation and composition, something I longed for elsewhere in this rather insular book.
Disappointments aside, Young's book is all we have at the moment, and will - I'm sure - prove a valuable stepping stone for future (perhaps more academic or considered) writing about the work of David Sylvian and the meeting of pop and improvisation.
Best of the bunch is Savage and Baker's coffee table compilation of punk singles, which does what it sets out to do with the added bonus of some interviews interspersed amongst its wide-ranging and eclectic mix of images. The book centres around 1977, but goes back to the end of the 60s with the MC5, and follows through to 1980. There's lots of bad photocopying, quirky collage and dodgy images here, as well as design classics by the likes of Barney Bubbles. There's not much more to say. This is what it is, and I don't need to go back to the subject as, like my box of singles, it's never gone away.
Rupert Loydell 2014
* The publisher has been in touch since this review was posted and assures me the second edition, which is about to be issued, is a proofread and corrected version.
On the Periphery is available