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In Writing

Martin Aston's 4AD Primer

October 2013

The journalist and author of the recently published book Facing The Other Way: The Story Of 4AD, networks the label's visual aesthetic.

23 Envelope Presents
4AD's artwork is as worshipped as the music, so it makes sense that the only existing documentary on the label spotlights 23 Envelope, 4AD's in house designer Vaughan Oliver and photographer Nigel Grierson. There’s complementary music and videos (not made by 23E), and Cocteau Twins, Colourbox and 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell are also interviewed. Apart from Ivo, everyone seems shy, nervous of the camera and of explaining themselves. Oliver offers his maxim, from French photographer Robert Doisneau: “To suggest is to create; to describe is to destroy.” It’s noticeable that neither of the groups appear enamoured with Oliver’s domineering approach, though almost every 4AD artist agrees that, without him, their artwork would have been immeasurably worse.

Lonely Is An Eyesore
4AD’s first vinyl compilation, 1987’s Lonely Is An Eyesore, was also released on VHS, the only time that Watts-Russell commissioned video work. With the exception of Throwing Muses's "Fish" (the group were busy working in the US), 23 Envelope’s Nigel Grierson directed the videos, reflecting his love of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, especially Stalker. Lots of grimy water, grainy monochrome and abstract textures were associated with Grierson’s Cocteau Twins covers. The one jarring exception is Colourbox’s sample-laden instrumental “Hot Doggie”, a video that contained camp or tacky aesthetic choices such as cartoon gangsters and terrible wigs, rare elements under the 4AD banner.

4AD – The First Twenty Years
Designer Maximillian Mark Medina’s fansite catalogues every 4AD record sleeve, associated poster set and calendars released in the Watts-Russell era, namely the period between 1980–1999. Eventually the 4AD co-founder became disillusioned by the increasing dependence on remixes, chart-bothering formatting. With failing interest in the grunge, industrial and big beat genres dominating alternative music, he sold up and severed all ties to the music industry. By then, Vaughan Oliver was no longer involved in overseeing 4AD’s artwork, so Medina makes a distinct point by not cataloguing anything after both men’s involvement. This site also provides visual evidence that Oliver’s own website refuses to. Instead, there is a holding abstract image and a link to buy books of his work, which suggest: a) he is more interested in selling his artwork than sharing it and b) prefers to prolong the enigma of that work. Meanwhile, Medina’s own sleeve artwork is a pointed tribute to Oliver’s aesthetic.

Tom Baril
Watts-Russell’s attention to art didn’t stop at record sleeves. When he moved to Los Angeles in 1993 to begin afresh, he fell in love with photography. In 1997, he launched 4AD as a publisher, with a monograph by East Coast photographer Tom Baril who’d been Robert Mapplethorpe’s exclusive printer for 15 years. No expense was spared in printing, paper and binding, and though its run of 2500 copies sold out, money was still lost. When two more scheduled books by Robert Maxwell and Han Nguyen were cancelled (Watts-Russell discovered the business of art was as mercenary as that of music), 4AD’s publishing arm died as quickly as it had been born.

Feminist Music Geek
After looking into other independent labels of the time, I realised Watts-Russell signed a high percentage of female fronted projects, some of them featured on the Feminist Music Geek site. Since Watts-Russell’s departure, 4AD has continued the trend (Grimes, Purity Ring, tUnE-yArDs, Daughter), though Fem-Geek concentrates on the 80s and 90s era (Cocteau Twins, Throwing Muses, Lush, Belly, Dead Can Dance, The Breeders).

4AD First Decade
Johnny Halfhead displays the slavish devotion of a collector. Having become a 4AD loyalist at the end of the 1980s, he admits: “After visiting a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition of some American's art collection, I came to thinking of all this musical art that 4AD have released that may one day drift into obscurity unless someone shows it as art.” Vaughan Oliver has staged exhibitions before, but Halfhead has embarked on collecting 4AD’s first decade with the goal of exhibiting it on 4AD's 50th anniversary, in 2030. This “stupid idea”, as he calls it, embraces every format and every multiple release like for example, the eight versions of Bauhaus’s debut single Dark Entries to the hordes of M/A/R/R/S Pump Up The Volume editions. But he feels he must go on.

Robert Flynt
At the end, I wanted to look outside of 4AD, at something that mirrored and complimented Watts-Russell/23 Envelope’s core sensibilities: “Beauty, mystery, dream logic and emotional fragility,” according to The Guardian. I’ve thrown in Ivo’s love of photography and the homoeroticism that typified several of 23E’s earlier sleeves, to counter the ubiquitous use of the female body. The work of US photographer Robert Flynt embodies this conglomeration, especially his method of layering pre-20th century imagery with his own contemporary shots. To me, it’s like a series of dreams experienced inside the head and outside the body, which is one way of imagining the effect of the so-called ‘4AD sound’ and 23 Envelope’s empathic response in the mid-80s, a halcyon era for sound and vision, where ideas were not instantly shared by the internet and people could make up their own minds of what things meant and said.

Facing The Other Way: The Story Of 4AD is published by The Friday Project.