Fire Records was the original maverick Psychedelic Art Pop label born out of the DIY independent labels boom of the 70s. It intrigued and entranced with the splendidly surreal tales of early Pulp; embraced the famed pop shambolism of the Television Personalities, the dashing tunesmithery of the Close Lobsters, the sonic serenity of Spacemen 3, the legendary lo-fi art-rock terrorism of Half Japanese, and a wonderful tapestry of outre pop stretched over 30 years. There exists an elemental flame which still connects and resonates with the label’s fraternity of current flag-bearers, from Josephine Foster, Death And Vanilla, Blank Realm, Virginia Wing and Rats On Rafts, to resurrected legends like The Chills & Pere Ubu, and fuels an ever-unfolding catalogue of seminal recordings from both its own label archives and those of others.
Ahead of the labels 30th Anniversary in 2014, original founder Clive Solomon talked to Record Collector magazine about the past, present and future of the label
My first involvement in the music industry was managing a university band when I was a student – they were called The VIPs and I misspent my student grant releasing a single by them, which was much loved and played by John Peel, who declared it his favourite record of the moment. I’d always listened to Peel a lot, for better and for worse! One night around that time, I heard him play a TVPS track as a white label and he read out a note from a Nicholas Parsons (aka Dan Treacy) that he was looking for someone to release it, so I sent Peel a note that I would love to. I never heard anything back, but some time later, after I brought the VIPS down to London, at a gig in Chelsea, someone came up and introduced himself to me as Nicholas Parsons, but said you can call me Dan and so sorry I never replied to your note, but I didn’t get it from Peel, until many months later…so that’s how I never got to originally release “Part Time Punks”! But Dan become one of my first signings to a publishing deal, and through him, met Ed Ball (The Times) who was good friends with Dan and worked closely with him, although he had his own band as well, The Times. There was a bit of a scene at the time, people discovering 60s music, and I ended up starting a club as an excuse to play stuff from that era, which I was into, and still am really. Have you heard The Moles, by the way? Not the 60s Moles, but our Australian Moles who were even better – charting a course back in time from abrasive punk and nascent lo-fi to 60s garage and psychedelic baroque. They’ve just released a new single, their first recordings for 20 years, and “Chills” is literally that, a track to give you the chills, a timelessly brilliant track by any standards.
From reading Erik Morse’s book about Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized, I’m aware you knew Alan McGee at Creation and Dave @ Glass before you started Fire and liked both those labels. Did their existence help galvanize you into starting Fire in 1985 and were pioneering independents such, say, Rough Trade and Postcard also influences?
No, not really, sure I liked some of the stuff they were releasing, but the label came about to release records by artists that I had signed to publishing deals, rather than having to shop bands like Pulp and Blue Aeroplanes around to other labels that weren’t interested!
Also in Morse’s book, he says something like: “Creation had the janglers, Glass was more psychedelic, but Fire was more art-school. Out of all of us, I probably had the widest taste in music.” Is this still a fair comment on all three labels’ outlooks, in retrospect?
I think you mean I said that! Well, I probably did and yes, it probably is – my tastes in music have always been wildly eclectic and given half a chance, I would have signed Todd Rundgren alongside a band like Thin Lizzy, if I’d been around a few years earlier!
You pretty much started Fire from your bedroom and even later, I understand, Fire’s HQ was still pretty much your front room and kitchen in your Highbury flat. How long did you work this way? I vividly remember interviewing Anastasia Screamed for Sounds in an empty upstairs room in a building on the Seven Sisters Road towards the end of 1990, which I assume was HQ at the time?
I couldn’t afford an office for a long time and in those early years when we were working from my home, I’d have to take time out every day to lie down, as I suffered badly from post viral fatigue syndrome, so it was a crazy environment to be living, working and trying to cope in. Fire operated on peanuts and sold unbelievably few records, but we had friends and admirers, including one who gave us a free office in Sisters Road and then the distributor Rough Trade went down, just as we were releasing our best selling record to date…so we weren’t a lucky label, but one that survived in spite of the odds!
The PR for Diving For Pearls suggests your ethos was “popularity and profit be damned!” I’m asking this with the benefit of hindsight, of course, but did you really have no aspirations in relation to fame and fortune at the start?
Of course I did, that was a just a line to justify the label’s existence, but given the artists we were working with, it was pretty much true!
Can you tell me a little about your very earliest releases? For example, what attracted you to 1,000 Mexicans, who became the label’s first band?
Just a highly original band, they had an innovative, experimental approach to their music, but really good songs at their core. “The Last Pop Song” is actually a scathingly great punk track.
C86 came along quite soon after Fire started to get established. Did it have any effect on the label’s progress, bearing in mind you worked with The Close Lobsters and The Blue Aeroplanes who were starting to get critical acclaim around this time?
I thought that most of the C86 bands were jangly re-treads and pretty mediocre, but the Close Lobsters stood that, as they had fizz, pop and a frantic rock ’n’ roll spirit about them. They were more like the Only Ones than C86.
Interestingly enough, some of the label’s most collectable releases haven’t always been made by your bigger artists. For example, Lives Of Angels’ Elevator To Eden LP is now worth around £45. Save for Imperial Motors from Diving For Pearls (which is cool) I don’t know that much about them, except they were a husband and wife duo and that Dark Entries did a vinyl-only reissue of this LP about two years ago. Can you tell me a bit more about this album and what you liked about this band?
My good friend, Sounds journalist and founding spirit in Fire, Johnny Waller, received a tape from them, which I also really liked…thought it had shades of New Order and a similar tune-smithery about it, but enveloped in a cloud of, well, I could describe it as pastoral psychedelia…no-one but us appreciated it at the time, so I’m happy it’s garnered collectable status, though I didn’t care for Dark Entries doing an unauthorised release of it, which we then had to take down. In a similar vein, there’s a lovely album by Lewis L’Amour, which we had wanted to re-release for years, but couldn’t track down the artist or the rights owner. And then recently we read that Light In The Attic, who similarly couldn’t track them down, were releasing it anyway, even setting up an escrow account for royalties. Totally wrong thing to do of course, and we decided against it, but if that’s the truth of what they did, it seems to have worked out for them, as the artist then made himself known and supported the release. Of course, we’re completely mortified at having been so principled, but we now enjoy great karma!
How did you first start working with Pulp in 1985? Most people tend to forget that they slogged away for years rather than arriving fully-formed with His & Hers in 1994. I appreciate that Jarvis hasn’t been all that kind about Fire since, but what were they like to work with during their time on the label?
Johnny Waller played me an album taht they were about to or had just released called “It” and I pretty much flipped over that – the Scott Walker-isms and the Jimmy Webb styled songs. Totally my thing! They were fine, and I liked them as people – quite obsessive and particular and appealingly different! I know that Jarvis has said some things, and I take it all with a pinch of salt, because the reality is that I believed in them so much as to sign them twice over and second time around, sank so much into them when no-one else would have (and people close to me thought I was crazy to do so), that I deserved everything I later earned from them – and I know that I was right to delay release of the Separations album in order to first release two exceptional singles, “My Legendary Girlfriend” and “Countdown”, which got real plaudits and that’s when the buzz on them really started
If you haven’t already answered this one, which of Pulp’s Fire releases are the best in your opinion?
It has to be the compilation album “Countdown”, lovingly compiled by yours truly, but not sure the band saw it like that. “Separations” was a strong and cohesive record, but there were some great if somewhat roughly recorded songs on “Freaks” and the early singles
Spacemen 3 also obviously played a very important role in the label’s history. If I have this right, Robin Gibson (my former deputy editor at Sounds!) first put you on to them? Can you tell me some more about what attracted you to them and how you got to release much of their earlier catalogue? I’ve read that Glass was in dire straits financially by this time…
Robin was a big Spacemen 3 fan from their early days, and he did turn me on to them and their Glass releases. Apparently, they were introduced to Dave Barker at Glass by The Jazz Butcher, which just goes to show that many signings happen by fortuitous introduction like that and not inspired A&R! Though actually, Pat Fish (The Jazz Butcher) may well have been the real A&R behind Glass, away from his guise as creator of some of the finest English musical whimsy, now firmly favourited in Fire’s deep and illustrious catalogue from that era. Before I heard Spacemen 3, I think I was expecting them to be heavy, droney psychedelia, but instead, they were a revelation to me…they had an almost pastoral quality about them, intertwined with the rock ‘n’ roll elements.
I’m assuming Spacemen 3 were hard work to deal with? Relations between Jason and Pete reputedly went downhill around the time they signed with Fire and were recording Playing With Fire. It’s also well-documented that both Jason and Pete had a very fractious relationship with Gerald Palmer who managed them for a while. Was the fighting continual between them all?
Well, I was outside looking in and I think the only people who can properly comment on the internal relationships are those in them!
When Spacemen 3 eventually imploded, would you have taken Spiritualized on had that been an option?
I certainly would have, but it was never an option – I think a former major label exec threw a lot of money at them!
Around 1989, I think, you approached Dan Treacy about releasing the TVPs Privilege, but you also wanted to rerelease the first four of the band’s LPs. Can you tell me some more about this and also what he was like to work with?
In my opinion, Dan Treacy is one of the great lost song-writers of all time and I found him open and down to earth, a little bit irreverent about the music industry and the people in it and I used to enjoy his company and outlook on things. I’d already been his publisher for many years, before approaching him about releasing records.
Is the rumour that you wanted to sign Ride but lost out to Alan McGee true?
We were talking to them first and I think they were going to sign with us for an album and then Alan offered to just put out a single for them, which scuppered our deal. Ride instantly took off and Creation then went from strength to strength off the back of that and moved to another level, so it became impossible to compete with them from then on. Alan had an incredibly charismatic personality and I sometimes used to feel that if he went for an artist, we didn’t stand much chance of getting them, and for reasons mentioned below, I never put myself in the front-line trying to compete with him!
The cusp of the 1990s was an interesting time for music as the whole Madchester/ indie-dance thing was kicking in and then grunge came along in the wake. With hindsight, what did you make of this period?
Fire responded by being ever-more eclectic, releasing LPs by bands as diverse (and underrated) as The Parachute Men, The Gun Club and The Perfect Disaster…
I thought the Stone Roses were something special, and their sound was an immaculate conception of indie dance and 60s pop psychedelia…I truly coveted them and of course Pulp did feed off that scene, but I can’t recall much else of note coming out of it, though I remember hearing a demo or early recording of the Charlatans “The Only One I Know” and being into that as it was kind of like the Stone Roses and I loved the 60s style organ groove…I did actually try to sign them very early on.
Yes, the Parachute Men & The Perfect Disaster were sadly under-rated. Don’t get me started…but I’ll just throw out there what an ear for a tune the Parachute Men had – just check out “Sometimes In Vain” or “If I Could Wear Your Jacket”.
How did Fire offshoot labels Paperhouse and Roughneck get started? Those labels were also very influential, releasing records by the likes of Teenage Fanclub, The Lemonheads, and Leatherface etc. What was the idea behind establishing these sub-labels and were they run on the same ethos?
Because I was so bogged down in trying to keep the business above water, I just felt the need to work with other people who had the time and energy which I didn’t, to help find bands, and they wanted to see a separate label identity for artists that they brought in. I would have preferred to have kept it all on the one label, and The Teenage Fanclub in particular would have fitted Fire perfectly, but it’s not something I was ever precious or bothered about.
I guess that Laurence had a particular musical vision for Roughneck, as his taste was heavily into grunge and I reckon he would have totally hated a pop band like Franz Ferdinand back then, so I guess his tastes changed a lot when he started Domino! But credit where credit’s due, and in Leatherface, I think he found a truly great British band to rival any of the U.S. grunge bands and the shared ethos the sub-labels had, was discovering new talent and developing it; that is a way of working I’ve always upheld and admired and forms the roots of how a great label should be. But Domino, for all its commercial success, never had those roots and to me, just seemed like a shrewd land-grab to first of all licence the entire Drag City label rosta, talk up that roster even more and build its own roster in that image and finally go get Pavement from another label! Wonderfully calculating and I actually mean that as a compliment, as it almost makes me wish I had thought of doing it that way myself, as it would have been a far easier path than the one I trod.
You continued helming Fire until the late 1990s, by which time Britpop had come and gone. With hindsight, what did you think of all that? Could you have envisaged meeting Tony Blair like Alan McGee did?
Definitely not! I only ever cared about the music and Britpop only ever seemed to be about a handful of bands anyway, and I thought that Pulp were easily the best of them. But I totally respect Alan and it was fun to see him hit the headlines like that – he’s a showman!
Judging by the label’s roster and output over the past few years, James has continued in the same spirit, balancing great releases from respected cult artists alongside exciting new talent. Why do you think Fire has survived (and thrived) when so many other labels have struggled and/ or given up the ghost in recent years and what do you think Fire represents in 2014?
James is the best A&R person I’ve ever worked with, and that includes Laurence from Domino, and signs things before they are endorsed by the music press, rather than signing things once they have been picked up by so-called taste-makers, and that’s an ethos that has characterised Fire through the years!
Listen, Ryan Driver was an artist that both James and I thought was incredible, and he is, yet his releases were totally ignored or unappreciated by the music press, but I don’t give a fuck for what they think and I never have or will – you know, I used to wrote vitriolic letters to music papers complaining that certain journalist shouldn’t be allowed to put pen to paper, because I thought they were so utterly ignorant about music, which probably didn’t help our cause! But also, I think that things have changed so much – in the era that Fire was born into, labels had an very obvious identity coming from the kind of music they worked with, whether it was Creation (or before them, Stiff or Postcard), Factory, or 4AD or One Little Indian. But Fire was way more eclectic in its musical output, almost unfashionably so and was neither trendy nor cool. But these days, with the access to music that the internet provides, people are far more educated and knowledgeable about music, and so diversity is appreciated as the new cool and now we seem to be on the map for our assortment of riches, both past and present, which is great, as it’s only taken 30 years to get that recognition, and it means a lot to me. When I was a teenager, I spent all my time in second hand record stalls, discovering old pop, soul and rock ‘n’ roll from Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, the Shirelles, the Marvelettes and Sam Cooke, to The Zombies, The Animals, Them, Dusty Springfield, anything by Phil Spector or out the Brill Academy, The Loving Spoonful and Creedence Clearwater Revival, whilst listening to Neil Young, Led Zep, Kevin Ayers, The Faces, Todd Rundgren & The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, along with T.Rex, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Sparks & Slade – and now, for me, Fire Records encapsulates that same spirit, a place where you go to discover great music, be it classic catalogue from The Moles, ESG, The Television Personalities, The Adverts, Pulp and Spacemen 3, iconic artists like Guided By Voices, Pere Ubu, The Chills & Wreckless Eric, or innovative new talent like Blank Realm, Josephine Foster, Scott & Charlene’s Wedding – and we’ve just signed an outfit called Virginia Wing, and their album is out of this world, almost brilliant in fact, like a cross between Broadcast, Stereolab and Julie Cruise, so it doesn’t get much better than that….or maybe it does, because just the other day, James signed the soon to be highly touted I’m sure, Death & Vanilla. I guess I want Fire to be like the best record shop on the planet and with that in mind, we’ve just recently started a re-issue label called Earth with a re-issue of Jackson C. Frank and just wait until you hear the lost madcap genius of Howard Eynon….I’m really looking forward to our next 30 years…
And you didn’t ask me this as a last question so Ill ask it myself, but if I wasn’t involved in running a record label, what would I be doing?
Unless someone offered me a ridiculously highly paid business affairs position, probably a full-time record collector and music writer, but I’d definitely fancy a crack at filling in for Stuart Maconie on his “Freak Zone” programme on 6 Music…
But you know what’s truly great about Fire, is that after I wrote my replies to your questions, on a Saturday afternoon, I sent it over to the creative team of like minded, music loving and incredibly committed, loyal and hard-working folk assembled by James (John & Alex) I work with, just curious for their thoughts on it, and they spent the rest of the day drowning me with feedback. You have to love working with people like that, which I never had in the old days of Fire, and makes me feel refreshed and revived and ready for more, and with a bit more popularity and profit welcome!
Thank you in advance Clive!