From the moment that he strolled onto the stage and took his seat, Geoff Travis, founder of Rough Trade Records, seemed to be on automatic, reeling off a string fascinating insights into his life and how he seemingly fell into the music business. Travis’s laid-back musings on the music industry were at home in the fittingly intimate stage at Bluecoat, which has in the past has played host to experimental music performances and visitations from the likes of Yoko Ono.
In response to the interviewers first question about why he decided to open a record shop, Travis warned that his answer could be lengthy. This was certainly no understatement—he went on uninterrupted for at least fifteen minuets, detailing a Kerouac-ian tale of travelling across America, picking up records in Salvation Armies along the way, and making a pilgrimage to San Francisco in search of the City Lights Bookstore, which was founded by eminent beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Travis revealed how City Lights served as the main inspiration for the first Rough Trade record shop, and the comparisons are quite apparent, in that each shop is strongly community focussed, and both specialise in the rare and unconventional strands of their respective media. Moreover, each company started off as seller, and transitioned into publishing their own ground-breaking works.
Rough Trade started making inroads into releasing music after setting up the ironically titled ‘cartel’ distribution stream with other independent record shops across the country, including Liverpool’s own Probe Records, bringing some of the most exciting sounds of 1970s punk rock and reggae to a national audience. Less than a year later Rough Trade were releasing their first album in the form of the Stiff Little Fingers’ blistering debut Inflammable Material. The record sold in excess of 100,000 units, an enormous success, and a practical impossibility in today’s market of streaming, launching Rough Trade into the upper echelons of the music business, and forcing the industry to take notice of independent music.
As the conversation went on, the interviewer seemed to be pressing Travis for an insight into the Rough Trade ethos, but the interesting thing was that, beyond shunning the mainstream and promoting innovative music, there didn’t seem to be one. It all seemed to form out of instinct, going to show that success does not have to come from some grand motivating force, and sometimes, to borrow a phrase from the lexicon of corporate media, you need to Just Do It. A large part of the success of Rough Trade Records is down to Travis’ ability to discover and market music that is both pioneering and commercially successful, and when you have this kind of ear for music, it would be a shame to go off anything other than compulsion. Of course Rough Trade were bound to make mistakes along the way, but it brought me some personal joy to hear that it is possible to make an impact within the arts through individuality, and without succumbing to some uniform machine.
After a short interval in which Travis roamed about chatting to various members of the audience, attendees retook their seats to witness a slightly different portion of the evening in which Travis picked a selection from Rough Trade’s illustrious back catalogue. The lights were dimmed and each song was played in full before Travis talked about his feelings on each track. The first song to be played was the iconic ‘This Charming Man’. After commenting on the transcendent nature of the song, Travis segued into some bitchy digs at Morrissey, with whom he has had a lengthy spat that started when Morrissey wrote the infamously scathing ‘Frankly, Mr. Shankly’, aimed at Travis and his purportedly “bloody awful poetry”. After several stiff jabs, and a very amusing story regarding Morrissey’s overbearing mother, Travis maintained his respect for Morrissey’s artistry, coming to concede that he is still one of the greatest British lyricists to ever live.
The songs then led from Anthony and the Johnson’s solemn ‘Hope There’s Someone’, to one of the most recent Rough Trade releases, ‘B.H.S’ by Sleaford Mods, offering a glimpse into the past and future of the label. There couldn’t have been a better way to end the evening, as Sleaford Mods are one of the most exciting bands around. Their music really speaks to the revolutionary spirit of the label, and I don’t think there could be a clearer sign of the continued success of Rough Trade Records.