a new low in topical enlightenment

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Issue #59 (August 18, 2010)

Libby Flats, Snowy Range, Wyoming

Photo by Joe Carducci

A new, smaller, Independent Distribution system for rock music was a necessity in the mid-seventies. In fact the reigning powers that were/are made us reinvent the rock label, the club circuit, and radio outlets, too. We weren't good enough to air, though the Ramones can now be heard all over MLB PA systems. And after we and others did it we now have to hear it called by the diminutive "indie", used as a flavor of college rock. If that's what it means then everything below is a lie.

(Joe Carducci)

Rough Trade Records
by Steve Beeho

My first dealings with Rough Trade were in 1978. Sounds had run a brief piece about a Sex Pistols live bootleg which at that precise moment I craved more than any other record in the whole wide world. The local branch of Parrot Records was fine for satisfying my punk rock hunger but bootlegs were another matter. The piece hinted cryptically that copies could be found “at the usual places” but as a 15 year old I had no idea where “the usual places” were. Then I had a brainwave. Rough Trade was renowned as the hippest shop in England (and even distributed to Parrot) so if anybody had copies, they would. I rang them up and asked whether they stocked the “Indecent Exposure” album. The man who answered was understandably cagey.

“I couldn’t possibly say over the phone”. I was temporarily stumped...

“But if you did stock it, how much would it be?”
“Well if we did have it, it would be a fiver”.

£5 was duly dispatched with limited confidence but a week later "Indecent Exposure" turned up. That was it – I was hooked -- a regular mail-order customer, transfixed by Rough Trade’s ever-expanding catalogues of the obscure and the essential.

Those were heady times. Occasionally Nikki Sudden would fill in, dispatching the records with sniffy notes about Red Crayola and even the occasional Swell Maps freebie because “why not, sort of thing”. You don’t get this sort of service from Amazon. Via my loose involvement with a fanzine I magically ended up on an early (the first?) promo list, getting 7"s of The Pack, The Feelies, Monochrome Set, Last Words, etc., etc. Although I could appreciate the romantic principle behind this gesture, even at that age I recognised such largesse made no business sense whatsoever. And after about a year, so did they, it appeared, as the freebies dried up. Great records though.

A few years later when I’d moved to London I used to build up my flexitime at work so that I could take a long lunch and go to the actual shop every Friday. This involved dashing up Charing Cross Rd, tube-ing it from Tottenham Court Rd to Notting Hill Gate and then sprinting down Pembridge Rd/Portobello Rd, quickly “refuelling” at the Earl of Lonsdale, 15 mins max in the actual shop and then running back up the Portobello Rd and getting the tube back to work, returning shattered.

I once described this ritual to a former colleague who’s in his 20s, has never bought a record in his life and expects all music to be available for free at the click of a mouse. When I suggested that those days were actually infinitely more exciting than the modern era of over-abundance he just looked at me as if I was mad.

Looking back on it now, the punk/post-punk idealistic vision of the transformative power of “alternative” music can seem like a massive delusion, where being “oppositional” ended up as an end in itself. But even if that’s true, the belief that something crucial was at stake and it really mattered, was a necessary collective delusion to inspire all that feverish activity.

The story of how the Rough Trade shop blossomed into a distribution network and record label (in that order!) has now become enshrined in post-punk mythology. Its significance was acknowledged as early as 1979 in a 30 minute "South Bank Show" report while the more recent BBC4 documentary covered the whole saga more sweepingly. Neil Taylor has now built on that and produced a tremendous 380-page blockbuster oral-history of Rough Trade.

The book is very business-focused and generally takes the music pretty much as read. As the label’s output has been amply, not to say forensically, documented lately by Rob Young, and Simon Reynolds this is an astute move. Rough Trade co-founder Geoff Travis describes himself as being “between the cracks” in 1976 (i.e., neither punk nor hippie) but the backgrounds/histories of the original Rough Trade prime movers reminded me more of Caroline Coon’s observation that punk was actually the revenge of the hippies.

I’d previously assumed that the Rough Trade name derived from a conscious decision to position themselves as the antithesis of Virgin Records (then the hip UK record shop chain) but it seems that it was actually adopted from the 70s Canadian band of the same name who Travis had witnessed on his travels.

Taylor documents how the shop quickly took on a pivotal distribution role following the explosion in the number of independent labels in the wake of punk and how this role was consciously given an aesthetic and ideological backbone. Richard Scott, whose original background was in architecture, developed this into an infrastructure which was later formalised as The Cartel, an independent distribution network supplying the whole of the UK.

Geoff Travis was the driving force behind the Rough Trade label, although ironically the first RT record release, Metal Urbain’s “Paris Maquis” single was hatched while he was on holiday in New York. I’ve idly wondered in the past whether Travis is a bit of an unsung production genius due to his credits on so many early Rough Trade classics but Richard Kirk recounts how Cabaret Voltaire only humoured him in the studio that he was having any input into the recording of “Nag Nag Nag” and Jon Savage had also warned them before an Acklam Hall gig: “on no account let Geoff mix the sound” so perhaps not. Travis himself recounts how his early Fall co-productions with Mayo Thompson went well (“Fiery Jack”, “How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’”) but when they came to record “Totally Wired” Mark E Smith took him to one side and asked if he could “not have that Mayo Thompson come this time”(!).

According to Jon Savage a certain earnestness crept in quickly, despite the introduction of new blood like Claude Bessy. (You certainly couldn’t imagine anything as wild as that Electric Eels 7” being unleashed after 1980). The book charts how the make-up of the staff changed as Rough Trade expanded and sought to become more businesslike. This wasn’t always a smooth process as the schisms between the label (embodied by Travis) and the distribution side (embodied by Scott) became increasingly entrenched. When you read their contrasting perspectives its hard not to conclude that they were both right in their own way but it doesn’t seem as if a formal separation of the two parts of the business was ever viable.

Rough Trade was initially established as a co-operative, based on a shared missionary zeal, with Rough Trade artists often doubling up as part-time workers. But as the business expanded the gradual introduction of external middle-managers as part of a drive to put things onto a more professional footing alienated some of the original crew (One thing that Travis and Scott agree on is that Rough Trade ceased to be fun when it expanded beyond 12 people). By the time the company went bust in 1991 growing militancy among warehouse staff had culminated in dog turds being sent through the post to the MD of Rough Trade Distribution. It was all a long way from 202 Kensington Park Rd.

Early on Island Records head Chris Blackwell had presciently warned Scott that “the worst thing that can happen to a successful independent label is that it has a big hit” and events seemed to bear this out, as the need to strengthen the business to ensure that potential hits were converted into actual hits led inexorably to a need for further hits to continue to fund the initial expansion. (Scott says: “I had never been interested in the charts […] Uncharted territory is always more fascinating”). And although the hits came (especially via The Smiths) poor financial management and credit control created long-term cash-flow problems. When this was compounded by the purchase of an expensive computer system which never worked properly and the taking on of a lease for new premises without disposing of the old one Rough Trade was doomed, despite its turnover having never been higher.

But Rough Trade was in Travis’s blood and he subsequently resurrected the label with Jeannette Lee. Despite the odd glitch it has arguably been consistently more successful than it was in its heyday. But it’s a different label and a vastly different world now. When Rough Trade began in 1978 you couldn’t imagine a major label releasing such off-beam records, whereas nowadays its A&R policy is essentially that of a more clued-up/more tasteful/pro-artist major. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that – but you’re never going to mistake it for Siltbreeze, say.

Meanwhile the original Rough Trade shop in London (which went its separate way in 1982 but retained the name and ethos) has gone from strength to strength, despite the impact of download culture. In a completely counter-intuitive move it opened Rough Trade East in 2007, Britain's largest music-only specialist store, although my diehard puritanism does recoil at the idea of a concession in Topman. Ironically while the unstoppable march of the internet has enabled the creation of the kind of self-supporting communities that punk rhetoric could only dream of, it’s simultaneously devalued the currency of music to a degree that an equivalent cultural uprising now seems inconceivable. Nowadays, as The Fall foreshadowed on ROUGH 10: “It’s only music, John”.

[Illustrations: Sniffin' Glue 12 adv. RT label release list. Screencaps: Travis and Scott. RT label release dates.]

Rough Trade U.S.
by Ray Farrell

My interaction with Rough Trade began in 1978. I was the import buyer at Rather Ripped Records in Berkeley, California. I contacted the London shop because I’d heard they distributed various UK and European independent labels to stores in England. In general, imports were relatively easy to find through Jem and Peters International. But Rough Trade had a lot of great stuff and by ordering direct, there was no U.S. distributor as a middle man. I ordered via telex.

In 1980, I went to work for Arhoolie Records/Bayside Distiribution. Someone at Rough Trade in the U.K. asked me if I would be interested in working with them. I loved working at Arhoolie, but I knew that with Rough Trade I’d tap into a new and growing ecosystem of record stores, fanzines, clubs, that supported new bands that for the most part were all underground.

The Rough Trade shop in North Beach San Francisco had just opened. North Beach was the longstanding bohemian mecca of the west coast: The Mabuhay, Keystone, Savoy Tivoli, City Lights Books, Search And Destroy, On Broadway, and the post-show chow-down dive, Clown Alley, along with Rough Trade, were central to the scene.

Rough Trade wanted to establish a label and distribution system stateside. I was interviewed by a group of the RT staff in an S.F. apartment the evening of Dec 8, 1980 -- the day John Lennon was shot. On arrival, I tried to open the conversation expressing disbelief anyone would assassinate Lennon. There were blank stares, and someone chimed in that Lennon was dead well before that day. He was now part of the “dead rock geezer club” and his passing was insignificant. I half-remembered the slogan, “No Beatles, Stones or Seals & Crofts in 1977” and realized that some of these folks took their mission seriously.

Initially, I didn’t take the gig. Distribution was run out of the back room of the shop. One group of people had to work on the floor cross-legged while others used the work benches above. This was a “collective” business -- no bosses (on paper); wages hovering around minimum and everyone got equal pay. I told them to call me back when it made more sense. Besides, at Bayside and Arhoolie, we were distributing The Shaggs, NRBQ , Bongo Joe, hanging out with Clifton Chenier… I was having a blast! Some months later, RT set up a distribution warehouse in Berkeley, just blocks away from Carducci’s Systematic outfit. I knew some of the staff as customers of Rather Ripped. Two RT UK ex-pats Allan Sturdy and Steve Montgomery were the good cop-bad cop team overseeing the operation. I think that the label already had released a few titles, including the “Wanna Buy a Bridge” sampler compilation. I signed on.

Rough Trade U.S. provided two services. The first was distribution for Rough Trade and various UK and U.S. independent labels and zines. The second function was as U.S. outlet for domestic releases of specific Rough Trade, Factory and Crass label titles. They were pressed and distributed stateside as the profit margin was better with a domestic release.

Initally, there was no worry over lack of warehouse space. Shipments from Rough Trade & Jamaica could easily be dispersed among the 200 key independent record stores I sold to. I brought in U.S. independent labels because the demand was greater and we could keep stuff in stock. I wrote to many American bands I read about in fanzines to buy their discs for distribution on consignment. I was a fan of the Cramps, and I unearthed plenty of obscure American surf, rockabilly and country releases that needed an audience. This was the beginning of a philosophical rift between me and one Brit employee. He thought that almost all American bands were shit. The less political or culturally seasoned they were, the higher they were on his shitlist chart. One argument involved his request to pull all Johnny Thunders records off the shelves because the music was just standard sexist rock music. But when I asked how General Echo’s “12 inches of Pleasure” was ok in that context, he replied, “well that’s part of his culture”. I guess he wanted to change the world, one record at a time. Cassette-only releases were popular. Sub Pop began as a cassette fanzine series. The Fresh Sounds label out of Lawrence, Kansas also did well with comps in that format.

Somebody may have a complete discography of the Rough Trade U.S. release output with all discrepancies explained. But the focus was mainly on issuing key Factory Records titles stateside. We pressed all Joy Division titles, and Scritti Politti, David Thomas, Stiff Little Fingers, The Fall, Throbbing Gristle, Young Marble Giants and others. I pushed hard for the stateside release of Tav Falcos’ Panther Burns debut, “Behind The Magnolia Curtain” because, hell, it’s an American band on Rough Trade in England, so why not here too? The Cramps enthusiastically added them and The Gun Club as support acts.

One production challenge was to manufacture the album jackets to replicate the UK versions. At the time, cardstock and printing cost far less in the UK. Most U.S. labels used Canadian printers. A few printers refused to print the jacket for Crass’ “The Feeding Of The 5000”. Peter Saville’s Factory Records album art needed particular attention, and great effort was taken to try to match the UK covers. It helped that most of our funding came from Factory’s Tony Wilson. The UK label was doing very well.

Above, Steve Beeho has Island Records’ Chris Blackwell telling Richard Scott that the worst thing you can do is have a hit – an adage that probably goes back to the independent label heyday in the fifties. Here’s a good Rough Trade-US label story. Well, if you ever worked at a label, it is:

We released a 4 track 12” EP by the UK band A Certain Ratio. Many club DJs through the Rockpool network played all kinds of interesting records at a new iteration of dance clubs. “Shack Up” could easily fit into a set with, say, Liquid Liquid, and disco singles on the Tommy Boy or West End Records. Sales for “Shack Up” were brisk, but it hit a standard threshold of 2000 copies. One day I took a call from a one-stop in Detroit, saying that “Shack Up” was in medium rotation on a commercial R&B station. He wanted 3000 copies quickly and would pay half up front. The station would not maintain airplay for a record that was not in stores. We were out of stock. So we had to press them in an emergency. There were a handful of pressing plants in L.A. that we used, primarily Rainbo, and Bill Smith. Rainbo’s pressings were better but they couldn’t handle a rush-order at the time. We went to Bill Smith who was still using a hand press. He gave us the ETA for the order. We had the discs sent directly to the Detroit one-stop. It hits the stores and the complaints start coming in. Bill had also pressed an album called “Great Science Fiction Theme Songs” a dubious compilation of movie themes. Every copy of this record was in a “Shack Up” sleeve. That was the end of Detroit airplay for A Certain Ratio. No, our record was not a hit. If we actually had enough quantity to fill the order we would not have seen another dollar from that one-stop no matter how many it sold. Multiply that by five more major airplay scenarios and you see how having a “hit” is dangerous.

It was much smoother selling many hundreds of Delta 5’s “You” single on Rough Trade, because it the theme song of a San Jose teen new wave TV dance show. No bands -- just records and dancing kids sporting their latest wave units.

A standard practice among distributors is to return non-selling stock to the label for credit. At the time, this was not done in the UK. I occasionally received returns request invoices from distributors with an itemized list of the returns. Steve M thought that the word request suggested they were asking for permission to return the stock. He maintained that RT was a UK label and that all distributors played by our rules. Steve bought me a rubber stamp that said “Request Denied”. I stamped the request forms and mailed them back to the distributors, laughing every time. Unfortunately the resultant irate phone calls came to me.

Montgomery was a caustic and challenging sort and wanted to make his mark as an A&R visionary. He was determined to sign U.S. acts to Rough Trade. This caused friction with the UK office. The Sixth International label was a Montgomery project. He was the man behind a really good Toiling Midgets album, a smattering of LPs and singles, and my favorite, a 12” EP by a Seattle duo called the Smashchords. Two trashed-out cheap electric guitars playing Link Wray-style instrumental musings. Request denied by London, it had to be issued on the SmashTrade label. The Cramps now wanted them to open on west coast shows, but the duo got stage fright just discussing a live performance. The record was in Kurt Cobain’s collection and he was surprised to learn they were local boys.

I moved on in 1982. Rough Trade later moved the store and warehouse into one location in S.F. Ruth Schwartz took charge of distribution at that point. My favorite memory of Rough Trade US is of Allen Sturdy. A tall thin easygoing Jamaican gent, he would repeatedly sing one line of a lyric associated with one of our releases. He would sing the same line over and over for weeks at a time. The Fall’s “You better take an older lover” was one, sung in falsetto. The best was Joy Division’s “Means to an End” from the “Closer” album, with the repeated line, “I put my trust in you”. Allen misheard it and regularly sang it around our one-room warehouse as “I put my thrush in you”.

[Illustrations: RT press sheet with rubberstamped Berkeley address. Toiling Midgets "Sea of Unrest" cover. Smashchords ep cover.]

Renaissance Records, Systematic Record Distribution, and Rough Trade
by Joe Carducci

Renaissance was an import-only record shop begun by three guys who’d worked at Music Millenium in Portland, Oregon, and thought they could do it better. They couldn’t, partly because Millenium was everything to everyone, and according to Archie Patterson just this month, they still are driven to carry everything against all sense decades later. Archie was hired out of Fresno on the basis of his Eurock fanzine to run their import division. The Renaissance guys had already left Millenium and their idea included some continental releases such as now classic German psychedelic bands (Popul Vuh, Tangerine Dream, Harmonia, etc.), but by 1977 its bread and butter had devolved to their chagrin to supplying Brit or German or Japanese pressings of iconic audiophile recordings such as Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, or Michael Oldfield’s “Ommadawn”. Should there be any groove noise or even a single pop they’d bring the damn disc back the next day for a refund.

But the guys liked reggae as well and stocked Brit and Jamaican pressings of great classic stuff. Those 12” 45s cut and pressed in Jamaica were so damn hot that you quickly learned to junk any audiophile tendencies you might have caught, because those records popped like a mofo. As it happened one of the three guys travelled to London sometime in 1976 or '77 and wandered into Rough Trade Records in their earliest days when nothing but reggae played over the shop turntable. At that point most of the earliest Brit punk had been on major labels and the independent label and self-released flood of singles in 1978 had not dragged the shop into service as the nexis of the new.

By the time I wandered into Renaissance in late 1977 the shop was run primarily by Peter Handel. Peter was what NW folks recognize as a Reedie – a graduate of the semi-experimental Reed College. He was a stoner and really into the Stones and reggae, and also Patti Smith. He’s the one who began ordering the import 45s that Jem Records was offering (Sex Pistols, Clash, Jam, X-Ray Spex, Buzzcocks, etc.). I liked Peter and began to run the shop for three hours in the afternoon and close it up for him; I’d get one album or three 45s for pay. I have pretty cools records from that time. Peter was interested in checking out this reggae shop in London his ex-partner had told him about so he went over in early 1978. Everything was changing fast in London and he was inspired by what Geoff Travis, Richard Scott, and the others had going on; it was hip and righteous and though increasingly involved in the kind of punk rock Peter didn’t particularly care for, he could tell it was culture going somewhere.

If I remember he mostly bought reggae for himself that time but he thought we should start up a mail order service along the lines that RT had going so we ran ads in Rolling Stone and Creem and Slash magazines and began to collect a customer list. I had stumbled onto all of the Dangerhouse catalogue at Longhair Music where Jennifer LoBianco worked. She told me she got them direct so I bought them direct too. Jennifer later worked for Renaissance and her band, The Neo-Boys, practiced in the shop. I don’t think Peter thought that the various small American labels would ever add up to anything; the country is so large that it took years for any things to develop – years that often meant the bands that initiated events here or there were long gone by the time any results were seen. But in London Peter could see it work in a concentrated, one-city country form and he began to think about distribution as well. By early 1978 I was doing the first punk radio show on KBOO, playing the latest Brit punk and American releases and locally The Wipers joined the Neo-Boys as world class musicmakers. Also Portland saw west coast bands like The Screamers, The Zeros, The Dils, The Weirdos, Crime, Pink Section, and others.

We distributed the Dead Kennedys 45 so they asked us for a gig and we set up two shows at the Long Goodbye (The Fix opened). Jello was enthusiastic about our vague idea to move to the Bay Area to set up shop next to a planned Rough Trade U.S. RT had been selling to individual American record shops and having trouble getting paid and filling orders. They sold to Drome, Wax Trax, Yesterday & Today, Time Travellers, and most of the important shops around the country. Most were collector shops that nevertheless had respect for these new small label releases that could be hard to track down. The first 45s had come out of Ohio, New York, and others places – bands all over the map like Television, Patti Smith, Pere Ubu, Residents, Chrome, Devo, The Last, Half-Japanese, Negative Trend, The Zippers, The Dils, The Urinals, etc. Peter worked with the Geoff and Richard on the phone and I was in charge of writing for American samples and buying those for distribution/mail order and the shop. Over the counter sales didn’t amount to much but the mail order and distribution was beginning to happen.

Peter convinced Rough Trade to just refer American shops to us and we’d work our better price to a low mark-up and do domestic promotion for their releases, which were beginning too. So we took their promo list and combined it with what the DKs worked from and whatever anybody else had and sent out the radio and press copies beginning in 1979. Peter returned to RT in London to talk about a move to the bay area and laying the groundwork for splitting our American record shop accounts with them once we all got set up. This meant we did about a year long run to increase our accounts by combing the yellow pages at the Multnomah Library and blindly mailing our wholesale catalogues to just about any shop that looked hip or more often, just a used or collector shop. We made plans to start a label while in Portland but it was complicated to deal with the local bands and they didn’t seem to understand what we were building. Peter and I both sported beards which no punk would countenance until Peter Saville shots of Joy Division with facial hair cropped up years later. I wasn’t about to shave to the gods of punk.

In London a second time Peter sat in with Geoff and Mayo Thompson for the cutting of lacquers for Cabaret Voltaire’s “Mix-Up” album and he told me was so bowled over by the sound he was sure it would be a massive hit – I think they were all high. He also found out that Rough Trade would be doing Pere Ubu records so we booked them for Portland just to get a look at them. It cost the business about $1500, but Peter didn’t flinch; they were great (The Ziplocs opened). I flew to London so I knew what they were doing and they knew who did the catalogues. I stayed with Richard and liked him fine and still owe him five bob which i needed to get to Heathrow. I’d also gone to Paris to visit SCOPA (P.P.U., Illitch...) and to Sweden to visit SAM Distribution (saw Ebba Grőn too). While in London I managed to meet most of the RT crew including Allan who was about to meet us in Cali, and Steve Solamar of Object Music, the Better Badges guy, not too many others though i did get to see Geoff see off the Fall as they went to NYC for the first time. I missed the days of the doorless Rough Trade john that had so impressed Peter. But I saw a couple good shows, one at Oxford where D.A.F., still then a four piece, really impressed me, but something happened between that gig and the studio. I talked to the one American there, the late Scott Piering, who did promotions and he concurred that the building RT catalog might use a bit more rock as it seemed suddenly rarer in 1979. Mostly I spent days walking around London while I had the chance – big town.

We packed up a rental truck and moved to Pinole, California the day after Christmas, 1979. Peter, his girlfriend, and I. We got a space on Heinz Ave in Berkeley, just down from the Berkeley Barb offices. We got going as fast as we could set up and immediately were reissuing the first Dead Kennedys and Pink Section 45s. I got an apartment walking-distance of the office near the Ashby BART station, and Rough Trade’s first “agents” in town were Vale, of Search and Destroy magazine, and a straighter guy named Craig, a manic man about town who was about a perfect opposite of Vale. They’d been getting sixes of each Rough Trade release so we knew that RT counted on them to be hitting the bay area media, mostly the excellent college radio stations (KUSF, KALX, KFJC), Greil Marcus, and probably a commercial station, and that hunk of deadwood at the SF Chronicle Joel Selvin. I think Herb Caen may have gotten records too in the run-up. Soon Allan Sturdy flew in and he, Vale, Craig and I began to gather at Peter’s, or the Systematic office, or at Allan’s house in Orinda. Allan was a great guy, a tall, thin, red-haired stoner with a Jamaican accent and great little quirks like for example being unable to pronounce “San Francisco”.

Peter aced me out of half ownership of a company with negative value and since I knew it was a mistake to move to SF rather than LA, I stayed out of Peter’s relationship with RT mostly, though I saw Richard and Sue Johnson and Pete Walmsley on their various stateside stretches. Walmsley’s name was on King Crimson’s “Larks Tongues” and “Red” covers so he was like reg’lar Limey royalty. Richard studied baseball when he could, and Sue broke up Peter’s relationship with Lynne. Peter caught the collective/meeting disease from Rough Trade which wasn’t exactly relevant in a two-man office. One day he said we should have regular meetings, and I said, “Well I’m right here, what do you want?”

SF saw a few more better gigs because RT was there but the mother label became more purely English in some way that prevented it truly participating in the American music underground then being built up one kid at a time by Black Flag, SST, Systematic, Dutch East, Flipside, Forced Exposure, Touch & Go, and others. Souled American was the great exception to this rule at RT later in the 80s when interest finally swung to American bands in Europe. I mostly built up Systematic’s reputation as the place for American independent releases, in particular the heavier L.A. and D.C. stuff, which was fortuitous as Peter had let our bill with Rough Trade grow to a size which got us put on hold. As the Optional Music label wound down, I started Thermidor hoping to do the Monitor album and other stuff I couldn’t get Peter interested in. Thermidor was myself and Jon Boshard and a sometime-third, Johnny Myers, who’d put us together in between trying to manage Flipper. Thereafter I explored the limitations of the bay area which were thankfully many and left for LA and SST before the end of 1981.

At SST I was finally at the center of what was happening in this very large country which even then, under the latter years of the major labels’ dominating platinum ethos, had no apparent center. I was also as close to the artistic process of the bands as any non-musician can be. When Joe Pope took over Systematic I made an effort to convince him to move it to LA so SST could have a simpatico distributor within reach – the better for tour promotion and advertising coordination, etc. Might’ve worked but that Colorado boy loves San Francisco.

Vale describes the beginning in his ReSearch blog,

"I had been the first American hired to help launch Rough Trade USA (Rough Trade, a U.K. store and record label, had been stocking my punk tabloid "Search & Destroy" since its very beginning in June, 1977). I had rented a storefront in North Beach on Grant at Green Streets, a block from where I lived, and had set up the retail and wholesale operation, with help from Allan Sturdy (a white Rastifarian; and "Peter and Sue," seemingly always hunched over canary-yellow bookkeeping sheets, presided over by the tall, rail-thin founder, Geoff Travis).” [Vale]

Aquarius Records was the long-time hip shop in SF and then Tower was damn good in SF and Berkeley too. The buyers at Tower Berkeley were very loyal to Syst; Georgette went on to work for RT U.S. and then London if I remember correctly, and her successor Joe Pope (of the band Angst) eventually left to work for us. Peter ultimately gave Systematic to Pope for the assumption of what sadly turned out to be the insurmountable debt run up to RT UK.

In bay area retail terms, RT was trading on its underground cachet but that only went so far, though its exclusive with Factory Records with its simpler lux-gothish come-on could go quite far with impressionable Americans.

I was too busy on the phone or filling boxes for UPS to hang much at RT so allow me to cede the floor to Johnny Myers, friend of yore and rumored third leg of the Thermidor triumvirate. Johnny was the best on-mic college radio DJ ever and his KALX interviews with Black Flag and Flipper are legendary and were instrumental in the University Administration deciding finally that only registered students could have programs. I’ll end on Johnny’s Falconi-like discordant notes, posted late last month at his Hack Reviewer Guy mog page:

KALX, Thermidor, and Rough Trade U.S.

“Okay, I guess the first step for this somewhat sordid saga would be my years at KALX as their guy in charge of DJ training.... one day in 1978, a trainee arrived named Chris Lowry, a wacky gal from Wales. She picked up the necessary skills quickly. Moreover, her radio voice was perfect, all smoky accent with just the right amount of hoarseness. Her musical tastes roughly paralleled mine as well. Soon enough, my 'pupil' and I were involved in extracurricular activities...

I finally relented to Ms. Lowry's relentless campaign to get me to quit the 'Major Cookie Factory'. When she set me up to become retail manager at Rough Trade Records (US) on Grant Street in SF, I just couldn't resist. (East Oakland to North Beach, now THAT'S a paradigm shift!)...

The way I was hired was a bit of a hoot. Sure they had my 'resume', which consisted of all of the stuff I'd been doing for free at KALX and Another Room Magazine. They also knew I had zero retail experience, except for driving an ice cream truck; I was also a college dropout, and a factory grunt as well. At least I did know how to do one thing, and that was play golf. The chairman of Rough Trade US was Allan Sturdy, an Englishman raised in Jamaica who always had a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He thought it would be amusing to conduct my job interview on the golf course at Tilden Park. During the course of the round, I paid little attention to my game, concentrating instead on detailing my so-called 'qualifications'--my only real ones being that I knew my 'indies' well, and that I had an inkling about which ones would sell in the store... Mr. Sturdy, on the other hand, paid little attention to my drivel. His focus was entirely upon the task of kicking my ass--golf-wise of course... When the round was done, he shook my hand and promised to get back to me about the job. A few days later he offered me the job over several more qualified applicants (who all showed up at the store over the coming weeks wondering how this yahoo hick from Livergulch stole their dream job right out from under them). I then proceeded to commit financial suicide, i.e., I kicked the secure union job to the curb, in favor of a non-secure job working for what turned out to be a hippy-dippy socialist collective paying minimum wage with pie-in-the-sky promises of future profit sharing... yeah... right...

The highlight of my first week on the 'job' (you could hardly call it that after 4 years of factory wage slavery)--besides realizing they had almost no retail inventory for me to sell (a couple or three milk crates worth of LPs and 45s was about it)--was that I was setting new sales records every day. That seemed strange to me as there were never any lines at my register (BTW, the 'Manager' part of my job title only meant that I had slightly higher status than Ruby Ray, the infinitely hipper woman who worked weekends...). There was just an irregular trickle of customers who seldom bought more than 1 or 2 discs (CDs weren't invented yet kids...). I kept wondering, 'How could these paltry totals be sales records?' Well, after a couple of weeks of setting these 'records', Mr. Sturdy, and his British minions from the 'home office', Sue and Joe (?), finally put their 'collective' heads together and deduced that the comely young lady whom I replaced had been embezzling hundreds of dollars a month!...

Soon I settled into the retail routine of doing orders--the most 'fun' and 'risky' part. You want to broaden your customers' horizons, but if you go too far, your 'mistake' will languish in the bins for months.

I had a growing sense of uneasiness, however. For example, they were hiring people to do jobs that didn't really exist--which made the profit-sharing seem more and more mirage-like. Also, they didn't seem to be selling all that much on the wholesale end of things (where Chris Lowry worked) and that was supposedly their 'cash cow' (more about 'cows' later...). BTW, retail was expected to lose money, I was there for public relations mostly... I had quit my steady factory job to be 'window dressing'?!? Ouch!...

After a few months of this nebulosity, I had my first rude awakening. It all started one afternoon when Sue and her husband Joe (?)--the 'home office' people--said they were feeling really sick. They asked me if I could drive them to the free clinic (obviously RT provided zero benefits to anyone) at UCSF Medical Center. (Ironically, the very same institution where I will have my super-expensive 6 hour surgery, er... um... 'procedure' to somehow rescue this blogger's sorry ass (actually NOT my ass, but close to it) from cancer--bizarre!) I said ‘Sure thing!’ and they piled into the back seat as if my car was a cab (Mr. Sturdy was the ONLY one @ RT who had any respect for me, to everyone else I was just that 'Hick from Livergulch'...). They then proceeded to moan and groan increasingly as I worked my way across town. I eventually found the place and escorted my dyspepsic 'co-workers' inside. I waited for them for what seemed like hours, then an intern emerged asking for ‘Mr. Myer’ (my 'co-workers' didn't even bother to LEARN MY NAME--the arrogant snobs!) He then inquired, ‘We were wondering if you'd like a 'dose' as well?’ I responded with, ‘What are you talking about? I'm fine! I just gave them a ride.’ He replied, ‘Oh really? So you're NOT a heroin addict? It's okay, you're safe here, just have some methadone with your friends and you'll feel better too...’ I freaked out, screaming, ‘I AM NOT A F---IN' JUNKIE DUDE! I had no idea my 'co-workers' were heroin addicts! They just told me they had tummyaches!’ ...Working at Rough Trade was not the same after that--I had quit a respectable job to work with F---IN' SMACKHEADS! OUCH! DANG! Was I dumb, or what??? That was one sizable 1st wake up call for this idealistic greenhorn from 'The Gulch'...

The next alarm bell to go off revolved around a reggae record store that had opened up in luxurious digs near Oakland's Lake Merritt. I was occasionally enlisted by Allan Sturdy to deliver wholesale rasta records to them on my way back home to Berkeley. I was taken by the friendliness and humor of the supposed Rastafarians who were running the place. You'd be 'humorous' too if you were spliffin' as much ganja as they were (actually they seemed to prefer a 'chillum' to 'spliffs' (whereas my English 'colleagues' always took their pot with a large portion of tobacco mixed in...the friggin' foreigners...)). Anyway, they let me listen to some of their reggae rarities, and generally made this white boy feel welcome. Then one day, when I asked Allan when the next delivery was scheduled, he told me to take a seat. He then informed me that someone had blown the reggae store proprietor's head off with a shotgun at close range, and that the store had closed up shop... Ouch! Dang! Wake up call number 2! The opulent reggae store, which seemed to never have ANY customers, was a drug money laundry first, a store a very distant second...

The third and final wake-up call came after Allan Sturdy quit to return to his original vocation of managing tours for reggae bands. Now I was really vulnerable, I no longer had my 'wing-man', and was none too popular with the aforementioned druggies who were now 'in charge'. Soon, Ms. Lowry, who got herself and I into this mess to begin with, quit after being continually called a 'bloody cow'--a serious insult in British lingo--by Sue and Joe (?). Soon after these 'purges', this WAS a socialist collective after all, my demise was sealed by the arrival of a tall, dashing, Englishman by the name of Steve Montgomery. He had lots of experience in the 'indie' field, as he was a veteran from Rough Trade UK in London. It turned out that he was angling for a job with Rough Trade US, b/c he'd BEEN FIRED from the UK store for some sort of unscrupulous behavior... Now in the 'normal' business world one would think that such transgressions on Mr. Montgomery's part would preclude his being hired 'stateside'--but noooo! A precedent had been set for such madness as Rough Trade UK had gladly hired the embezzling babe whom I replaced! The company was being operated by people who were OUT OF THEIR FRIGGIN' GOURDS!!!

I could see the proverbial writing on the wall once Steve-o was hired. He undermined what precious little authority I still had. He talked behind my back, saying I was a country bumpkin (which is a fact I still can't escape--you can take the boy out of Livergulch, but you can't take the Livergulch out of the boy (my students think my 'hickness' is a hoot BTW...)), that I wasn't ‘Rough Trade material.’ He nailed me on that score, as I was neither a drug addict, NOR a crook...

Sure enough, soon a 'meeting' (read: kangaroo court) was called, a 'vote' was tallied, and I was out on the street yet again. I lost my 'dream job' to a 'con artist'--wake up call/life lesson number 3...

PS, Before Allan Sturdy left, he finally let me know why he chose to hire me, a kid (I had hair then) with zero tangible qualifications, when there were countless others with vast resumes that he passed over. "You beat me on the golf course," said Allan. (It was 78 to 79--I remember the scores like it was yesterday). "If you had lost, I would've hired someone else." He figured that if I had learned how to play decent golf, I could certainly decipher how to sell records. Yes, Allan Sturdy was exactly what his name implied--knowing him was just about the only positive thing I garnered from Rough Trade (besides the 3 'wising up' parts...). Actually, there WAS a 4th wake up call. That came when good ol' 'Junkie Sue' implied that if I did 'certain things' for her that her vote might just go for me instead of 'Steve-o-rino'. I told her that she could perform those 'certain things' on herself, and thus at least retained a shred of self-respect as I escaped that limey nut-house. (Which folded a few years later under Mr. Montgomery's megalomaniacal 'guidance'.

Anyway, I knew things weren't going well at RT when we were all excited about Joy Division's upcoming US tour... We were going to put them up in our various hovels to save the group some precious cash, as we had already done with Cabaret Voltaire (nice guys) and Delta 5 (prima donna jerks for no discernable reason...). Yet then idiothead Ian Curtis JUST HAD TO HANG HIMSELF BY HIS ANGST-RIDDEN NECK! At least his suicide boosted my sales in the store for a while, but it was all for naught...

(Johnny Myers, July 2010)

Godspeed Johnny Myers, but first hang around awhile.

[Illustrations: Rough Trade Newsletter 1981. Rough Trade pr sheet. Renaissance mail order catalog #9. Renaissance wholesale catalog 2. Renaissance wholesale catalog 3, pgs. 2, 3. Systematic wholesale catalog 4, pgs. 9, 10.]

Tower Records, Systematic and Rough Trade U.S.
by Joseph Pope

By the time Rough Trade released their first 45 in 1978 (Metal Urbain’s second single) it was just one of many records that had poured forth from the UK that year. Already a fan of the band and having heard of the London shop, the 45 was a welcome addition to my collection. Besides being fortunate enough to grow up near one of the better record stores of the era (Wax Trax-Denver), I had long been writing to bands, labels and stores to obtain tough-to-find regional punk releases as well as reggae records. I also used several mail-order outfits such as Zed, Bomp, and once they started, Renaissance, which soon turned into Systematic Record Distribution. On graduating high school in 1978 I landed a job as import buyer at Peaches Records, one of the Georgia-based chain. In those days, most punk records were sold through importers like Jem and tended to be dumped into the import section.

By coincidence, I landed in Berkeley at the same time as Systematic in early 1980. My first job was at the Tower Records on Durant Avenue (about 1/2 mile from Rather Ripped Records, where Ray Farrell worked). I began making regular, at least weekly, buying trips to Systematic, stocking up on all their new releases. Being an absolute believer in the underground/independent scene, I would buy at least two copies of every new release that came in. Not only was I supporting a place I felt needed it, the “import section” at Tower was thereby fleshed-out nicely with what I had purchased from the mainline importers. These runs to Systematic also allowed me to “set aside” (ie: leave in the trunk of my car) a copy of everything for myself! After about 6 months of this behavior I was asked by Joe Carducci if I wanted a job with Systematic and was hired in January of 1981. -- Note: I did not continue my “setting aside” behavior after being hired by “the good guys”. [That’s good to know at this late date – Ed.]

As I was their first (and only) employee, I did what was asked of me. Rough Trade had set up their warehouse near Systematic and was just getting their label/distribution off the ground in America. I began to interact with their employees on a more regular basis. The RT employee that I have the fondest memories of is Allan Sturdy, who was kind, friendly, and seemed to perpetually be in a good mood (he was probably stoned all the time). Once I had gone to his house north of Berkeley to pick up some records I think, and he offered me some freebase (“crack” had yet to be invented). Though I had given up chemicals by then, I took up the offer. What can I say? The drive home on that warm, sunny northern California day was splendid! Along with some of the music they released, this is the most pleasurable Rough Trade-related memory I have. (Ha!)

Prior to Rough Trade establishing their U.S. Distribution branch, Systematic was the first and only American distributor dedicated solely to independently released underground punk/new wave records. In short order the division of stores between Rough Trade and Systematic that Joe describes below took place. A simple agreement: you can call these stores first and we can call these – we each have our preferred customers. The agreement did not hold long. I discovered this by calling to solicit one of our larger and most supportive stores on some new releases and was told “I've already ordered that from Rough Trade”. Granted, Peter Handel (one of the original owners of Renaissance-Systematic) caused a number of folks financial grief (including Rough Trade and Systematic itself) so the action may have been warranted on some level, but given the long and unique relationship between the two distributors there certainly could have been a better way to handle it than simply breaking the agreement. So much for idealism.

The distribution landscape was rapidly changing. There was a new, much more substantial explosion of independent releases. In the early 80s more fanzines, stores, radio stations, and “serious” events such as the New Music Seminar began to pop up, creating a support network for independent releases that was non-existent a few years earlier. The unique Tower chain continued to expand as well. Rough Trade itself had deserved cachet among the growing number of people listening to and buying “new music”, and this gave them an advantage. Put another way, in 1981 it was a hell of a lot easier to sell a Joy Division album than a Dicks 45.

Hardcore took shape in this period as well, taking full advantage of this growing network/interest. So much so that Faulty Products (part of I.R.S. Records which was associated with A&M and so about as close to being major label as one can be without actually being one) signed bands such as the Circle Jerks and made an exclusive distribution deal with Alternative Tentacles, as well as picking up smaller labels for distribution. Faulty went under in 1982 though, nearly taking Alternative Tentacles with them. This period – 1982-83 -- was an odd one, as on one hand the growth and possibilities seemed endless, but on the other hand there was a contraction. Within about a year Faulty, Bonaparte, Sky Disc and Disc Trading all folded, and though they weren’t all that vested in the punk underground, it caused a chill nonetheless. By 1983 Peter was gone from Systematic and Allan had left Rough Trade. Faces were changing, and so was the mood.

As the visibility and popularity of underground music grew, so did bands' hopes and expectations. For me 1984 was key in this regard. This was the year that both the Meat Puppets and Hüsker Dü got reviewed in Rolling Stone. Suddenly it seemed like anything was possible. More bands wanted to “make it” and distributors were becoming much more competitive in how they were going to get their piece of the pie. I had a conversation with Ruth Schwartz (then at Rough Trade) where I was lamenting this and that things just felt less friendly. She simply replied “There's too much money involved for people to have a sense of humor.” Rough Trade had, oh, about 12 employees at this point. (Systematic had three.)

More distributors became focused on their own in-house labels. Some of them remained musically adventurous, others less so. Having an in-house label generally meant, of course, that their own records would be the ones they'd push first to the stores, at the expense of smaller groups that needed help. Many distributors cut back on the number of 7” records they carried, or stopped carrying them all together. It was work to listen to and keep up with all the new bands debuting on their own labels. Distributors also began to sign established independent labels to exclusive deals. This really ended the original open system. But who could blame such small operations for wanting to simplify how or from whom they would get paid? On the other hand it cut the legs off the entire “do-it-yourself” aesthetic. Many independents were behaving just like major labels!

A common practice among distributors (Rough Trade, Important, Greenworld, and others) became to approach a store with your in-house exclusive new release that they couldn't refuse (The Smiths, say) and while on the phone take pre-orders on something like the forthcoming Hűsker Dű album (by “New Day Rising” every distributor carried them) offering the latter at a “loss leader” price that was impossible for the likes of Systematic to match. This gutted the chances of Systematic selling larger quantities of what was to them a huge release, and it ate up stores' limited budgets rendering it impossible to sell some new unknown group's 45 as well. On more than one occasion, a band would have a “buzz” after a 7” or two, and then Rough Trade would begin carrying them, or worse yet, sign an exclusive deal with them or their label.

For someone who, probably naively, still believed in the original DIY aesthetic and believed in supporting bands simply because they liked the music, the writing was on the wall. The increased competition and changing marketplace created an untenable situation that affected distributors in different ways. With a feeling that I can only describe as similar to that of losing a family member, Systematic folded in 1988. It was maybe 3 years later that Rough Trade itself went under, largely due to developments in Britain, though those in America could hardly have helped. Ironically, “Punk Rock” and labels that began as true independents went on to sell millions of copies shortly thereafter.

[Illustrations: Metal Urbain, Rough Trade 1. RT distribution catalog cover. RT dist. catalog page one (independent dist. network). Systematic mail order catalog 27. Folsom St., S.F. Systematic office c. 1984 (l-r: Gary, Stephanie, Joseph). Seasons greetings from Jeff and Ian of Dischord Records.]

From the Wyoming desk of Joe Carducci…

Further Rough Tradeiana:

Jeffrey Lewis’ History of Rough Trade.

Official Pere Ubu particulars.

Kleenex “Nice” 1978


The Sleepers in NYC w/ saxophone w/ saxophone, April 10, 1981 Hurrah’s.

Toiling Midgets Haight Ashbury 2007 Street Fair


Stench Radio interviews with Kira, Sylvia Juncosa, Mike Watt, Gary Floyd...

Black Flag vocalists T-shirt.

Lisa Fancher of Frontier Records interviewed by Larry LeBlanc in Encore.


Early electric guitar prototypes at EMP, Seattle

Photo by Joe Carducci


Maxine Bernstein in The Oregonian, Chasse Chase, knockdown ‘inconsistent’ with training. This was the cover of the Sunday Oregonian when we left Portland the day after the Lightbourne Tribute. James Chasse was the youngest kid interested in punk rock when I was at Renaissance Records and KBOO in the late seventies. For all the talk of “the kids” there weren’t that many real kids into the music. Jim-Jim as we knew him was on the outs with his parents and when they committed him I set a petition for his release out on the shop counter and collected the signatures of Portland’s punk roll call circa 1979. I contributed cartoons to two issues of Jim-Jim’s fanzine, The Oregon Organism. He went to the gigs, saw the all-ages Dead Kennedys show we put on and understood when I had to throw him out of the second 21+ show. He was probably always sneaking out of his house; I remember him showing up at my late night Sunday radio show a couple times. I see that Jim sang for a band called the Psychedelic Unknowns through the eighties and nineties. Jeff Williams of the Ziplocs back then, told me a couple years ago of Jim’s death on the street at the hands of some policeman. Not the kind of thing one expects of Portland. When I read about his now elderly parents having to bury their troubled son I thought of his mother’s call to the shop on receiving our petition. All I could do was vouch on behalf of a marginally sane punk rock community that her son was considered sane and a good friend and deserved to be free. She knew him better of course; I trust it wasn’t all ordeal for them.

From Pdx we drove up to Seattle where I was deposed by Jacob of the Experience Music Project for their oral history archive and an upcoming Nirvana exhibition. The night before I met up with Jack Endino and compared notes on the Northwest, Southern California, and… sound. Nice to finally meet him. Last time I was in Seattle I did a well promoted but poorly attended Tower book-signing -- everyone was in lockdown at Bumbershoot. The time before that I was with Back Flag and they played for all the next big things in their formative stages. And the time before that I went up with a carload of Portlanders to witness The Wipers first out-of-town gig. Seattle and environs is about the best looking cityscape one sees, but it was good to get back to about the best looking ruralscape one can find.


Tad Friend in the NYer, "Sleeping with Weapons", ought to be called "John Lurie has a Cool", as it bends in the direction of Gay Talese’s new journalism breakthrough, "Frank Sinatra has a Cold" (Esquire, Apr. 1966). The NYer doesn’t know who to call to get hip so you get Tad Friend who writes about Lurie and the other guy like he knows them socially. Or maybe someone who doesn’t know told him this is this day’s hip in jeopardy: John Lurie, the chairman or maybe stoolman of the “known universe” (“Between Fourteenth Street and Canal”). On any level, the music (Lounge Lizards vs Sinatra any period), film (Stranger Than Paradise vs The Detective), gossip column appearances (zip vs threatening to punch Woody Allen for Mia Farrow while in his eighties) this is sad. Sinatra in 1966 was postwar American culture in full, but under siege by boomer youth culture. Still he was doing great work in music, business and movies. Is the NYer really same vs the old Esquire of the sixties? Well maybe any magazine is, but the NYer is not this bad until they do these pop culture pratfalls. After appearing in Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Lurie burned his “trademark fedora, which people had started to recognize from the film”? I just saw a rogues’ gallery of Brooklyn hipsters in the WSJ modelling their neo-pork pies. Maybe one of them’s a genius who will have to stop wearing it in ten years once they become a recognized New York genius-artist and can’t walk the streets of the known universe no more. The middle column feature begins first with a stipple portrait of Sinatra mistakenly wearing a homburg from some period musical; probably not what he was buried in.


Nat Hentoff in the WSJ, on himself and a 3-CD set “Cantors, Klezorim and Crooners 1905-1953."


The new issue of Uncut features another insulting treatment of American gospel music and blues and country, whereby anything to be determined cool must first be reverse-engineered and rebuilt to be remarketed to kids as Goth. It isn’t just readership and listeners insulted, it's Goddamned Nick Cave who looks like a fool on the cover of the mag, the free CD and throughout the feature. Rick Rubin did this to Johnny Cash too at the beginning of his final act. Johnny let himself be gothed up in some Hollywood version of his old Man in Black phase, but by the end it was Gospel and folk and Rubin himself trying to follow along in whatever Buddhism he’d picked up in Cali. The film version of this is Noirism. This is all fine if you’re a wise-ass eighth grader, but that isn’t the intended audience for Cash, Cave, or old films so it’s unfortunately the measure of the deterioration of modern sensibility.



Third Annual Wyoming Film Festival, August 27 - 28, 2010.


Allen Barra in the WSJ on Yojimbo at 50.

I’m all for valorizing Akira Kurosawa’s perversely comic samurai drama, Yojimbo (1961) -- it's his best film if not quite the best samurai film, that be Sword of Doom (1966) -- but this appreciation makes the usual mistaken assumptions that pass through American letters and numbers in various flavors of pretense, here recycled from the usual inadequate experts and/or aesthetes: Audie Bock, Pauline Kael, Donald Richie. The title of Barra’s piece is “That Nameless Stranger, Half a Century Later”, but if “Yojimbo” is his job -- bodyguard -- the character gives an improvised name as Sanjuro Kuwabatake as he looks at a mulberry field according to Alain Silver’s book, The Samurai Film. That isn’t quite the Man With No Name of Leone-Eastwood. Because critics in America can’t but assume that our culture comes from Europe, the influence of Yojimbo on Hollywood via Sergio Leone’s Italo-German co-productions filmed in Spain with Clint Eastwood is seen as a novel twist in this Euro- or Anglophile false culture-narrative. Barra notes labored speculations that Kurosawa might have read Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel, Red Harvest, which moves his Continental Op between warring bands of thugs brought to town by an industrialist to muscle labor. The truth is a general one and that is that the American pulp cornucopia was so vast from the 19th century-on that there is conversely no appreciation for its richness by those edumucated in colleges that seem reluctant to broach even the accepted classics of any culture. Hammett himself reworked this classic construction and Harvest itself was adapted for films earlier and later. But Kurosawa was adapting the western, probably Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) which was produced by Harry Joe Brown and Randolph Scott, directed by Budd Boetticher, and written by Charles Lang and an uncredited Burt Kennedy from a 1956 western called Buchanan by William Ard (credited as Jonas Ward) which served as the beginning of a series of Buchanan westerns by several writers over the years including Brian Garfield (Buchanan’s Gun). Kurosawa didn’t remake Buchanan, but we can assume he saw it in its time and realized that its story of a loner riding into a border-town feud between Anglos and Mexicans could be his departure point for a story that said something he was feeling about postwar Japan. Our culture snobs then took Yojimbo for ground zero thereafter, and unfortunately this includes postwar American filmmakers. (God save us from the versions of the Coen Bros. and Walter Hill and the inevitable high school-set version.) Anyway the point is whatever fandom’s limits, there be the information that our culture editors and writers need, absent which they read everything wrong, since we know they read or see or hear very little American pulp. How sad; I once called them “Vicarious ex-pats”.


Jed Perl in The New Republic, "The Picture: Midcult Revisited".

“[Dwight] Macdonald—an anti-Communist Leftist who had been turning his energies from politics to culture in the 1950s—was worried about the place of the arts in a modern, democratic society. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to worry about. Macdonald was appalled by the cheapening of art and literature in a big, complex, contemporary culture, about the extent to which people were being fed—and, sometimes it seemed, force-fed—a preprocessed, easy-to-digest version of art, literature, theater, and music. This was what he called ‘masscult,’ which was ‘at best a vulgarized reflection of High Culture and at worst a cultural nightmare.’ Instead of Old Master paintings, people were getting Norman Rockwell. Instead of Bach and Mozart, they were getting the Boston Pops. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there was also midcult to contend with. Midcult was a newer idea, a mid-century variation on the phenomenon of mass culture. Midcult, Macdonald argued, “pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.” Midcult was Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town—works, so Macdonald argued, that mimicked the profundity and complexity and unconventional language and structure we expect from original works of art. Midcult was imitation high culture—a cheapening of the deepest artistic experiences that was passed off as deep experience.”


Jonathan Carson at Americanthinker.com, "Why We Can’t All Just Get Along".

“We can take from this that the prohibition of infidel houses and houses of worship higher than Islamic ones is not absolute: it can be waived as long as the principle of compulsory degradation is otherwise upheld. Given this prohibition, we should not perhaps be too surprised that Islamic terrorists destroyed the lofty World Trade Center nor that Muslims now own the tallest building in the world, even if they had to pay for it with borrowed money and oil extracted by Western companies: it was designed by a Chicago firm and erected by Samsung--in Dubai.  There seems to have been no real economic basis for such a tall building, only a desire to overawe the infidels.”


Michael Calderone at his upshot blog believes he’s making an important point about the Ground Zero mosque, namely that it isn’t being built on ground zero, but a short cab-ride away. But really, the point is not what our media or we think of this. The question is, at the wellsprings of Islamic Jihadism how will this development be heard and interpreted? I think we know that in the villages and ghettos of Islam the news of the building of the mosque will not be understood as it is in the editorial boardroom of the New York Times, or in the White House, but will rather be seen as tribute paid by infidels to the one true faith. The Koran allows for no other interpretation, not that there are none differing interpretations in Islam, its just that these have no standing in the faith’s fundamentals and never gain the power to force a reformation that would vault that faith out of the eighth century for good. Just as the Moslem ghettos of Europe accept their generous welfare payments as tribute -- the neat reverse of the jizyah tax on infidels in Islamic countries -- they will nod in acknowledgement at the news of the building of the mosque, understanding that their expectation that, the Koran being true, all the world must one day submit.


Tom Wright and Siobhan Gorman in the WSJ, "Militants Overtake India as Top Threat, Says Pakistan’s ISI".

“Pakistan has about 150,000 soldiers fighting on its western border, with an additional100,000 in reserve to rotate with those troops, the senior ISI officer said. The country's remaining 350,000 soldiers are focused on the border with India, including the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir. "The direct threat from India has reduced considerably but that's not to say it's diminished entirely," the ISI officer said.”


Ajit Kumar Singh on FATA drone attacks at SAIR.

“Reports indicate that missile attacks by US drones in the FATA have more than tripled since January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama took over the Presidency in USA. According to a BBC Urdu Service report published on July 24, 2010, there were 25 drone strikes between January 2008 and January 2009 in which slightly fewer than 200 people were killed. Between January 20, 2009, and the end of June 2010, there were at least 87 such attacks, killing more than 700 people.”


Newspapers revenue breakdown breakdowns at niemanlab.org.


PBS semi-defends its poor little foundling scream-fest, "The McLaughlin Group".


Tom Genrich and Michele Perry in LeMondeDiplo, "Settlers by choice ".

Degrowth (décroissance) is a loose international movement against consumerism and the idea that economic growth is not only good for us, but the only means by which we can survive. Degrowth is environmentalist and advocates generalised downscaling, at least in developed nations. ‘But we don’t live in a cave,’ says Manu, a qualified teacher, self-taught builder, school bus driver and elected representative in his village (only about a quarter of whose inhabitants were born there). ‘We have a computer, we’re not Luddites.’ He and his partner wanted out of the ‘dirty smelly city’ which they found ‘aggressive, especially towards the fringe elements of society that we represented, and the poor in general.’ They wanted something better, for themselves and their children. Néos in the Cévennes are artisans, artists, social workers, translators, special needs careers, activists, and smallholders. None of them have been ‘forced’ to move here. Most thought hard before taking the plunge into what is, by any standards, deepest countryside: average population density in Lozère is 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, compared to 100 nationwide.”


John Rosenthal in The Weekly Standard, "The Secret History of Climate Alarmism".

“American criticism of the protocol has typically focused on the pass given to major industrializing nations like China and India. The treaty creates no concrete obligations for so-called developing countries. Only the 39 countries named in Annex I of the framework convention are assigned emissions reduction or limitation targets. All other parties to the agreement got, in effect, a free ride. Indeed, some are even paid to ride....

But the fact is that even many Annex I countries have no obligation to reduce their emissions under the Kyoto arrangements. Some are even expressly permitted to increase them. This group includes not only Australia and Norway, but also, thanks to an ancillary agreement, several EU member states. Others are only required to keep their emissions stable. Still others are assigned nominal emissions reduction targets, which, however, on closer inspection turn out to be de facto licenses to increase their emissions. Perhaps most remarkably of all, Germany—the would-be pacesetter in the global effort to reduce emissions—ended up having at most only a relatively trivial reduction requirement under Kyoto.

To understand how this could be so—and, above all, how it could have been so widely overlooked—we should return to the German commission of inquiry’s report and consider the date of its submission. October 2, 1990. One day later, German reunification took place. When the commission proposed its ambitious target of a 30 percent reduction in CO2 emissions for Germany and other ‘economically strong industrialized countries,’ the inevitable demise of East Germany’s highly inefficient, enormously carbon-intensive industries was already underway....

According to official statistics, from 1990 to 1995 CO2 emissions in the eastern German states fell by a whopping 44 percent.”


Kerry Brown and Loh Su-hsing at opendemocracy.net, "China’s next elite: 2012 and beyond".

“In democratic states there are political parties, government and opposition, left and right currents, and open media. In the world’s last major one-party state none of this applies. In recent years, analysts of China have come to employ notions of ‘populists’ and ‘elitists’, and affiliation to particular factions (such as the ‘Shanghai group’). But these markers seem less reliable today. In part this is because China’s current generation of leaders seem more homogenous than any previous one. These leaders have no experience of pre-1949 China; are products of the cultural-revolution era of 1966-76; and are wholly formed by the culture of the Chinese Communist Party. The overall result is an appearance of facelessness and uniformity. The most distinctive feature in its way is one that actually links China to the west: the rule of technocrats is ending, and that of lawyers and political scientists coming to ascendancy.”


Thomas Frank’s column in the WSJ, "The Economic Crisis: Lessons Unlearned", isn’t better than his usual but it is his last so perhaps worth noting. The Baffler’s founder came of age at Univ of Chicago but doesn’t seem to remember the eighties, nor the seventies, though he wrote with complete confidence in his knowledge of New Deal history and Keynesianism. He’ll go far at a normal publication but the two year stint at the WSJ begs a number of questions. His successor, Al Hunt, did reporting, in addition to reminding the Journal’s readers how, if not what, the left thought. Perhaps the WSJ thought they’d appeal to the youngsters.


Dan Rostenkowski’s last thoughts by Carol Felsenthal in Chicago mag.

“On John Kennedy’s re-election chances in 1964 and his short presidency:

I think he would have had a problem. Jack Kennedy took his wife to Dallas [on November 22, 1963 when he was assassinated] because they were having a problem with support. College campuses were really turning conservative. I don’t think Illinois would have gone for Jack Kennedy the second time…. Aside from Camelot and a wonderfully delicate, beautiful wife, tell me what else he did.”

John Kass on Rostenkowski’s Chicago in the CT.


Thanks to Patrick Baldwin, Glen Friedman, Jack Endino.

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  1. It seems like a lot of the RT stock ended up at Reckless Records, on Haight @ Masonic. I miss that place!
    Found Sea of Unrest LP at a funky Soul/R&B store in lower Haight in 1996.
    SF used to have so many great little record shops. Sigh.

  2. Some additional background...

    In the book Steve Montgomery recounts he was visiting friends in LA in 1980 and had arranged to go to San Francisco to collect his severance pay. Although RT had received this money they had spent it before he got there. It's implied that this was part of much larger financial mismanagement. While he was staying with Sue Johnson and Peter Walmsley he received a call from RT UK asking him to "investigate" RT US.

    "I had no option but to jump back on board and, once Peter and Sue went back, sort out the mess. I had the grand pleasure of basically firing every lazy bastard involved with fleecing RT Inc out of money. It was the only time in my life I've felt like a fascist dictator and it gave me a very uncomfortable feeling. But it was either that or shut down the business.

    "There was a lot of sorting out to do. Geoff had agreed to fund Re/Search and they were taking us to the cleaners for a couple of thousand dollars a month which was insane given the returns. We sold about 5 copies each month at the shop."

    A bit further on:

    "The structure needed a lot of sorting out. When I arrived we were shipping American records over to England and they were reselling them back to shops in New York. Sometimes they'd agree to send records over to San Francisco for us to sell and I'd walk around the corner and find a competitor had already got them. Rough Trade in the UK had supplied them first. It was insane".