Saturday, March 25, 2006

In the beginning

There is no real starting point to the story but if there were one, this might be it, 9 posts into the blog. The birth of Ugly Man records. I rather hope that my version which follows will be supplemented by a version by my brother Andrew who was the original Ugly Man - although to see him you would question the name.

Searching for the Ugly Man was a hidden gem from the punk era by The Transmitters and was a personal favourite of my brother Andrew. He had left Liverpool in 1975 to go to York University. All my life, and his is almost 4 years longer than me, he had been the most voracious consumer of popular music. He really knew what was good and he was really into all sorts of stuff across the whole range from pop to progressive. His main luxury item that he took to York was a Sanyo briefcase style record player. It was an amazing piece of kit (as Jeremy Clarkson might say) Half of the suitcase becoming stereo speakers and the other half a diminutive deck onto which you placed your vinyl. Whilst you couldn't carry it around with you listening to music ipod style, you were able take it places and set it up and play. It even ran off batteries so you could take it anywhere. This piece of ingenious Japanese technology became the centre of a record collection that would have Japanese vinyl collectors drooling and frothing at the mouth.

The “portable music centre” had been bought out of the compensation he received for an horrific accident that he had endured at school. A metal locker had fallen on him and sliced his ears in half. Fortunately Tomorrow’s World style state of the art plastic surgery had rendered him whole again and the local authority had coughed up a small sum to atone for their negligence in not screwing the locker to the wall.

In these days of “had an accident? – not your fault?” I feel certain he would have been a rich young man but this was the last sixties, early seventies and it was very different.

Central to his student life was this musical passion which in 1976 was exploded and enriched by Punk. He went from luxurious harmony hairspray, Miss World style page boy to a skin head in weeks and his collection of vinyl boasted Clash, Pistols, Banshees, Undertones, Spizz Energy, Scritti Polliti, a veritable who's who of the new wave of load, joyous, raucous arty music that was set to wipe the complacent smile off the music industry's face.

Having never really been that close to him and generally irritated him all my life to this point, I was suddenly drawn closer to him at this time by virtue of a mutual love of QPR who at this same time where riding high and in danger of winning the league. An amazing feat they didn't quite achieve, but the first 4 months of 1976, we spent an enormous amount of time on trains going to see Rangers and the bond started and grew a lot stronger.

Over the rest of his University career we saw more football and enjoyed some gigs, I became aware of the music scene that existed in York at that time. Andrew was in the centre of it, promoting gigs and further adding to his 7” vinyl mountain. He put on the Human League prior to their huge fame in a legendary gig at the De Grey rooms in York.

His vinyl addiction was serviced by Red Rhino, an independent specialist record shop on Gillygate and he appeared to enjoy the kind of service afforded to Sheiks in Harrods, whenever I accompanied him there, on my occasional trips to see my big brother in York.

As time progressed he moved to London and we became closer with regular trips to Loftus Road and amazing gigs at cool hang outs: Dexy’s at Shaftsbury Avenue, Aztec Camera and Blue Orchids at the LSE.

Work dictated a return to our home city and back in Liverpool it meant that he immersed himself in the vibrant music scene that always flourishes there and sporadically captures the imagination of national media taste setters. By this time Andrew’s vinyl dealers of choice had become Probe and the Virgin store by Central Station. Behind the Virgin counter at the time, amongst many other helpful and attentive staff was one Justine Vearncombe.

Justine was married to Colin Vearncombe, a former school acquaintance of mine. Colin was a true one-off at school, wilfully arty, an ace basketball player – who represented our county - and very eccentric. Having played the lead in a French existential play at school it was a seemingly small step to lead singer in the school’s punk rock band “The Epileptic Tits”. The Tits metamorphosed into Tilt and then Black. It was as Black that Colin found his true, incredible voice.

Andrew and I saw Colin’s first gig as a solo artist as Black at the Warehouse on Seel Street. It was the 80’s and backing tapes were an exciting technological breakthrough and having created his own backing in the week before, Colin took the stage and bravely sung his heart out. It was absolutely spell binding and the entire focus of the performance was on him and the voice.

From that point on Black became a two man operation with Colin at the front and Dave Dix his man at the buttons in the studio. They built a big reputation within a scene that boasted The Teardrop Explodes, OMD, Echo and the Bunnymen, Wah!, It’s Immaterial and A Flock of Seagulls, It was a time when Liverpool was garnering the plaudits and the lazy journalists heralded the rebirth of a genuine music scene to echo the Mersey beat scene of the 60’s.

If there was going to be a Mersey scene then all the major labels needed to have a group and so the avant garde art terrorists duly signed up one by one and Black signed to Warner Brothers. It appeared to be a deal that headed nowhere: 2 beautiful singles completely missed by everybody but the fans, who included Peel and Janice Long.

Black were tied into a label deal with Wah! And in a battle of personality and media friendliness, nobody could live with Pete Wylie, so as the junior partner in the label Black appeared to disappear. Fairly soon after the second release, they did disappear and returned to the ranks of the great unsigned.

This, coincidently, was the point when Andrew started to harbour thoughts of setting up a record label. Independent companies had started in the years post punk to become very successful at identifying fresh talent and developing it outside of the major record label structure. These records had been distributed into the shops by similarly new independent companies. The media had been supportive of these new industries and as a result a new level within music had been created - a non-league to use a football analogy.

One of the companies driving forward this new distribution phenomenon was Red Rhino in York - the people who had fuelled Andrew’s punk fixes were now ensuring that the likes of The Sisters of Mercy and The Wedding Present were freely available the length and breadth of the country. They happily decided to distribute Andrew’s fledgling label and were keen to find out who would be the first release.

After a variety of circuitous routes Andrew established with Colin that he would be interested in entrusting his future music career to the new label, if Andrew was able to reach an agreement with Colin’s Manager, Steve Baker.

To be continued…..

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