I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

4AD: Ghosts In The Closet

by Jason Forrest
June 10, 2016

As much a work of art as any record label could ever be, 4AD was a collaboration between two dudes with arty names: Ivo Watts-Russell and Vaughan Oliver. The label was started in 1980 when Watts-Russell was given the opportunity to start a label with a small budget dolled out from his bosses at Beggars Banquet - then a successful chain of record shops in London. [1] He and co-worker Peter Kent together released their first 7” and named the label “Axis”. But there was a problem: there was already a label called Axis. In one of those fateful snap judgments, they changed the name of the label to 4AD and much to everyone’s surprise it caught on almost immediately. Ivo Watts-Russell quickly showed a penchant for savvy A&R work, releasing singles that year by a host of up and comers including Modern English and this other band, some skinny guys called Bauhaus.

Whatever it is that drives a scene - or even a whole subculture – quite a few of the bands that Ivo signed had it.  He seemed to have a knack for working with a diverse roster of bands to develop some of the best material regardless of genre.  In 1983 4AD released albums ranging from the bombast of The Birthday Party, the  ephemeral Cocteau Twins, and emerging pop-stars Modern English.[1]  Despite it all though, the label began to develop an overall sound. Of course, Watts-Russell never really had any of that in mind but we humans love to classify stuff.


That same year Watts Russell hired an aquantience of his named Vaughan Oliver to work on some design for the label, and also do a bit of the heavy lifting.  Oliver recounts, “I ended up saying to him that he needed some consistency, a logo, label designs and he said ‘Fabulous.’ He at that time, and for a long time afterwards, was truly philanthropic. He just wanted to put out music that he liked. He wanted other people to share in this. He had no commercial aspirations if you like. He just wanted to put stuff out and to put it out in a nice sleeve, that people would want. He had really old fashioned ethics about care and quality and stuff like that. It was about three years before he got a studio that he invited me in to and said ‘Work with me.’ And I was his first employee. And I think he expected me to do more than just sleeves so there was warehouse work and stuff like that and we went from there really.” [2]

Oliver’s aethetic fit perfectly to the 4AD sound (or maybe it was the other-way around. Who wouldn’t want to make music that sounded like a 23envelope cover?). His unique approach mixed photography with design and typography in ways that were at once immediately recognizable and embodied with a rare ability to match image to sound, the label had an impact that spread like wildfire. Oliver and 23envelope were ultimately employees of 4AD as they never worked exclusively for the label -- which did result in some tension [3] -- but the work they made together will forever set the standard by which each will be measured.

So this is the period we’re looking at, the first golden era of 4AD, and for you art students and non-conformists out there, the year was 1987.

That’s the year 4AD released Lonely Is An Eyesore. Back then labels had a bit of money and it wasn’t uncommon for an extravagantly packaged compilation to hit the market. But nobody did it like Lonely Is an Eyesore.  A collection of specially commissioned short films (music videos you say? No way- this is art!) and Vaughan Oliver-designed wooden box that held a deluxe gatefold LP, a cassette, a CD, a home video and two specially-commissioned etchings. The Victoria & Albert Museum acquired one for their permanent collection.[1]

It was a manifesto in design and sound. The music ranged from the medieval tribalism of Dead Can Dance to the cold synth-pop of Clan Of Xymox. The biggest band on the label at this time was Cocteau Twins who easily wore the “Ethereal” banner proudly. Their shimmering guitars and otherworldly vocals were perfectly foiled by the guttural punch of The Wolfgang Press. The label itself emerged as the star and the potent combo proved greater than the sum of its parts. But there was another story too -the label itself was an artist on the label. Sort of.

This Mortal Coil was a project started by Watts-Russell a few years prior in 1984, when the idea popped up to get the Cocteau Twins to make a cover version of a few Modern English songs. “It instilled immense confidence in me that we would be able to create, primarily through others, interesting and worthwhile interpretations of some music that had inspired me for years and was pretty much unknown to the world at large.” [3] But it was more than that. This Mortal Coil was an attempt to elaborate on the 4AD brand from the inside. Many of the artists on the label were involved in recording, but the control of the project resided in Watts-Russell’s grip. “I was accused of being a bit of a taskmaster more than once.” Never before had a “non-artist” so masterfully and artistically delivered on the promises that the same person was making from the label side. It was amazing to watch and to listen too. Watts-Russell promised that This Mortal Coil was a 3-album project and that’s what it was, ending effectively on the release date of Blood in 1990.

But they were 3 great albums filled with gripping performances made with the same iconoclasm he ran the label with -- probably best represented by 1986’s Filigree And Shadow. An over-flowing double album full of haunting reverb drenched vocal covers of songs by Van Morrison, Talking Heads and Tim Buckley among others. The songs were held together by an underpinning of liquid ambience evocative of Eno, but wholly different and unexpected. These 3 albums were a gargantuan undertaking but lovingly so. Even if the lyrics and overall tone are a bit melodramatic, you can hear the pride just leaping from the speakers.  Of course Vaughan Oliver was also at the top of his game and the dreamy ladies photographed for the covers of the albums even held a resemblance to acts on the label. It was a total package.

But 4AD never seemed to bask unnecessarily in it’s own glow and new acts continued to expand the possibilities. His Name Is Alive was an unlikely group made of a visionary guitar player, Warren Defever, and a loose group of people in his orbit, their first album, Livonia, is still a rather unusual release with drums, guitars, and vocals never really cohabitating in the same space. The group released a string of adventurous albums in fairly rapid secession that kept squirming around any musical barriers.  Yep, you guessed it; Vaughan Oliver was here once again to capture the experimental fragility of these albums and render them into bizarre jewels that just jumped off the shelf. 

There were other great acts too - The Pale Saints and Lush were brilliant shoegaze groups that proved unique and delivered a few great albums each. Dead Can Dance became a cultural force in their own right, with 7 albums full of arcane curiosities built around the mind-blowing voice of Lisa Gerrard. (She went on to do a ton of film soundtrack work and won a Golden Globe for her work on Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.) There were also more conventional rock bands including Throwing Muses and Unrest – and oh yeah, this little known band called The Pixies. Each and every album completed with the incredible artwork of Vaughan Oliver.

But the collaboration between 4AD and 23envelope didn't stop at cover-art. Ivo fully understood what was going on and commsiioned 23envelope to make poster-sets, calendars, compilations some promo-only, limited editions, collector only vinyls, and even a few art prints.   Watts-Russell understood the power of a brand – especially one that represented suffering suburban arty types with ready cash at hand. Luckily for Watts-Russell, Warner Bros. Records came calling in 1992 with a cash injection, but by then beast got too big. These things only can last for so long and in 1999 he sold 4AD back to The Beggers Group and left the label.  He currently lives in New Mexico. Vaughan Oliver is still working as a designer and pretty much everything he touches (like the £400 Pixies box set/book Minotaur) immediately becomes a collectors item. [5]

Surprisingly, 4AD hasn't been re-explored by the larger media yet. It was a rare label that skirted so many trends while fully satisfying them. They were above being merely fashionable. From the Indy rock kids to the Goths, almost every sub-genre had a major band release on 4AD at the time. Plus the only track by M/A/R/R/S, the sample-classic dance floor smash “Pump Up The Volume”, went to #1 in the UK charts. They were everywhere.

Take a look at Pitchfork and you’ll probably be surprised that many in the coveted Best New Music category artists are either currently on 4AD or are steeped in 4AD history, and yet they don't even really fully realize it themselves. Indeed 4AD is still rolling strong with a roster that gets a lot of press action. I’m hard-pressed to think of a label that has such a strong legacy. Seems like it might be time to put a bid on that Lonely Is An Eyesore VHS tape on EBay.

[1] http://www.4ad.com/year

[2] http://thequietus.com/articles/03454-vaughan-oliver-a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-jung-man

[3] http://www.fedge.net/ftww/interviews-ivo_02.html

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lisa_Gerrard

[5] http://www.vaughanoliver.co.uk/

Jason Forrest is CEO and Creative Director of Network Awesome. He's been an electronic musician for over 11 years and has traveled almost everywhere in the world.  He invented and developed the iOS app Star6 and aided in the development of both Buddha Machine apps. In addition to that he runs 2 record labels, Nightshifters and Cock Rock Disco - so he's a busy guy.  His new album "The Everything" was released in April 2010 on Staatsakt. Grab it here and Follow him on Facebook here and contact him via the Network Awesome About page!