Rough Trade at 40: Nostalgia or a new counterculture?

Saturday 22 October, 17.30 - 18.45 , Club Stage Festival Attractions


Forty years ago, a softly spoken Cambridge graduate, Geoff Travis, set up a small record shop called Rough Trade on Kensington Park Road. It quickly became a colossus of independent music and a lightning rod for a squat-based counter culture. Travis’ open door and open shelf space policy enabled countless bands, record labels and fanzines to get an inaugural, important hearing. Rough Trade became the place for bored yet fiercely ambitious youth. Consequently, the label acted as an incubator for creativity and ideas that had a major impact on British society. Nearly every iconic band that existed throughout the 1970s and 80s, from Scritti Polliti to The Smiths, The Fall to the Young Marble Giants passed through the Rough Trade label at some point. But Rough Trade’s high pedigree does not just come in the musicians it finds, but the culture it helped promote. In late 1970s Britain, independent music was not simply about getting into other bands, but a gateway into art, politics, film, poetry and literature. Punk may have had a nihilistic edge, but it also drew on high art and the avant garde to question the complacencies of post-imperial Britain. The broad range of characters that orbited around Rough Trade, from filmmaker Don Letts to poet Ivor Cutler, showed that Rough Trade’s counter cultural world was more than just landing a session on John Peel’s show. The label encapsulated an era of possibilities for anyone, a time when restrictions based on gender, ethnicity or class backgrounds could be transcended. In Rough Trade’s world, freedom was the watchword and total reinvention was often the outcome.

How different it is in the 21st century. Rough Trade re-emerged in 2000 and again found major success with The Strokes, The Libertines and Palma Violets. Geoff Travis’ still has the sharpest set of ears in London. New Rough Trade shops were launched in Shoreditch, London and in Brooklyn, New York, thriving where other outlets were dwindling. But the counter cultural landscape that Rough Trade helped invigorate was only noticeable by its absence. In the 21st century, guitar bands merely exist as a gateway into other guitar bands. The dead hand of kitsch and irony means taking ideas or yourself seriously is out. Hipsters may aspire to be different, but only within a world of anodyne, high-end consumerism. More troubling is that young people today are at the cutting edge of anti-freedom protests, the loudest advocates for intolerance, censorship and extensive state bans. They have become the New Puritans – no drinking, no smoking, no sex and no independence.

Was this how the future was supposed to be back in 1976? Can a label built on freedom and free expression survive an era that rejects experimentation and re-invention? Can a music scene thrive when public space is shrinking? Or is the indie label world of Rough Trade set to become a thing of the past?

The panel debate precedes Rough Trade 40, a special concert with John Grant & Wrangler (feat Stephen Mallinder) + Scritti Politti & Alexis Taylor + The Pop Group & Protomartyr 22 October 2016 19:30 Barbican Hall.