Words by Hannah Tinker - @hannahetinker
Images by Through The Eyes Of Ruby - @throughtheyesofruby
Think of the 1970s: it’s stack-heeled and bedazzled, in a golden, lacquered font with a never-ending 12-bar blues progression on loop in the background to a roaring audience of disco fever fanatics. Think more specifically to 1976: the Bee Gees released You Should Be Dancing, John Travolta was garbed in that white suit and ABBA were at their height; everyone in the mood for a dance (when they got the chance.) But, as ever, there was an opposing team. Some glared at the perceived excess and pretension of the '70s mainstream and wanted none of it. A new, unkempt youth movement appeared: intentionally immaterialistic, throwing shade at the glistening glitter ball.
In the US, the Punk movement was emerging on the streets of lower Manhattan, defined by the androgynous, rough-cut lure of the likes of the New York-based Ramones and the "godmother of punk": Patti Smith. On the other side of the pond, fashion followed suit. Punks reworked the Teddy Boys working-class uniform of drainpipes, drape-coats and post-war haircuts that left a short-back-and-sides quivering. Teddy's brothel creepers and Brylcreemed DAs (the 'Ducks Arses' hair slick - the hair is slicked back into a peak at the back of the head) were toughened up with leather trousers and tight band t-shirts emblazoned with the names of NYC acts such as The Stooges and New York Dolls. By 1975 Vivienne Westwood had already established her position on the throne as the "Queen of Punk", selling her wears from the King's Road boutique 'SEX', which she co-owned with Malcolm McLaren. This new, youthful resistance was anti-authoritarian, anti-fashion and looked on whilst the majority of the UK were tying up bunting in preparation for the Queen's Silver Jubilee.
Punk was - in all its forms - a contrast to the aforementioned, glamour and hedonism of the Disco Era. According to the Punk aesthetic, patrons of the scene can produce work and share their message with limited means. In her early days, Westwood would customise pre-made t-shirts: ripped, knotted and emblazoned with 'Fuck', 'Rock' and 'Perve' - almost childlike in their brilliantly anarchistic simplicity. It was a shift in dynamic compared to the high maintenance of, not only the razzle-dazzle but the professional wears of the primed and preened elite and pro-Establishmentarians, whose beliefs deferred to those of the Punk revolution.
To be able to sell-out arenas and have gushing gaggles of fans, established, prominent '70s musicians like Bowie, Elton and any member of The Beatles had the backing of mammoth record labels behind them - think EMI, Parlaphone or Mercury - with access to meritable post-production professionals; distinct recording studios such as Trident and Abbey Road and; flashy PR campaigns at their disposal. Punk musicians looked to establish themselves by a means that would allow them to circumnavigate this commercial and almost exploitive path laid out by the mainstream music industry. This culminated in the theory that musicians could be the controller of their entire production and distribution chain or, to put it simply: the "Do It Yourself" ethic.
Unlike the mainstream which focuses on generating profit for large conglomerate record labels, the main aim of those that follow and create through the organic D.I.Y process is to share music with as many people as possible. Music/art is the main focus, not financial gain. In this sense, the D.I.Y scene is, and always has been, a very collaborative network of people. People offer their skillset with the grand aim that they're collaboratively working to share a project, almost as an art form.
In 1976, Punk music was piercing through the charts. CBGB was the place to be in New York with Patti Smith as a regular and the likes of Suicide, Television and Blondie having played there; the Malcolm McClaren (co-owner of 'SEX' and husband of Vivienne Westwood) managed Sex Pistols 'Anarchy In The UK' topped the charts and; the Ramones crossed the Atlantic to play that 2000-capacity gig at the Roundhouse with Flamin' Groovies and the Stranglers. The D.I.Y scene was unfolding and a "hey I can do that" notion was sweeping the nation, with those who had music industry knowledge and a genuine passion for the art form looking to promote like-minded musicians that needed a hand with their development and promotion process. Cut to Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera (real name Andrew Jakeman). The pair met in 1975, both sharp-eyed and passionate with music industry experience in tow as managers of the bands: Kilburn And The High Roads and; Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers, respectively. They saw firsthand that Punk was reaching fever pitch but there were limited means for D.I.Y musicians to infiltrate commercialism. Pub Rock was the basis of the then-current D.I.Y gig - musicians often paying to play or paying for free in their local to an audience of weekend warriors more interested in their pints than the talents afore them. A revolution was in sight and a catalyst was needed.
The pair wanted to give these early D.I.Y musicians in London the chance; wanted to offer these fledgeling and aspirational artists their skillset in order to get their music out there. Thus, in Spring 1976, what was arguably one of the first D.I.Y British Punk record labels, Stiff Records (ironically coined after the music business slogan "it's a stiff" meaning to be a dud) was established. A launchpad for the independent music scene, Stiff was pitched to and set up with, £400 borrowed from Lee Brilleaux of Dr Feelgood.
Being the first of its kind, Stiff found quick success. On the 14th of August 1976, the label shared their first release, a 7" single by Nick Lowe - who was in Brinsley Schwarz, a Pub Rock act managed by Robinson - titled 'So It Goes' with the B-side 'Heart Of The City'. As with any record that is produced, the record label stamps every copy of the release with a catalogue number which, for sales purposes, stands as a way to record stock levels. In a nihilistic manner, Robinson and Riviera chose to 'BUY1' as the striking number for their first release. They also flyposted London with self-created posters that simply stated: "If it ain’t Stiff it ain’t worth a fuck." The record sold out of all 10,000 copies. Later that year the label signed The Damned and released what was to become known as the first officially recognised English punk rock single: 'New Rose'. The Damned were a group that summarised the label and its forefathers' unpretentious attitude - and the band went on tour with the Sex Pistols as part of their ill-fated 'Anarchy In The UK' tour (EMI dropped SP due to their untoward and destructive behaviour whilst touring the record). In fact, The Damned and the Sex Pistols became bitter rivals after this tour, as Jake Riviera disagreed with Malcolm McClaren's views that the D.I.Y ethic could never result in success. Riviera soon flaunted this in McClaren's face when the independently produced and low-budget 'New Rose' trumped Sex Pistols’ EMI-sponsored ‘Anarchy In The UK’ in the charts by a huge five-week hold.
Stiff Records continued to snowball, signing the likes of Ian Dury and The Blockheads, Elvis Costello, Lene Lovich and many more. It was also the first independent British record label to strike deals with the major labels: in 1977 Stiff signed distribution deals with EMI and CBS Records to have Stiff releases available in the United States. Stiff Records became an institute in its own right. An example of what D.I.Y record labels could become. Compilation and 'Live Stiff Live' (live recordings) LPs became available featuring the artists on their roster. 'Stiffs Live Stiffs' their tour of Costello, Wreckless Eric, Nick Lowe, Larry Wallis and Ian Dury And The Blockheads in 1977 sadly marked the departure of Riviera in 1977 (he and Robinson notably had a fiery relationship and Riviera had burned some industry bridges for them with his quick tongue and volatile temper that Robinson wasn't all too pleased about).
Stiff carried on though, signing Madness in '78 and releasing their first No.1 single in the form of Ian Dury and The Blockheads 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick', whilst also continuing to release a run of obscure and commercial "No Wave" releases such as the parody record 'The Wit & Wisdom of Ronald Reagan' which was completely silent on both sides. However, the age was coming to an end: the peak of Stiff Records success was unanimously seen to be between 1976 and 1978 before it was closed and their assets sold to ZTT in 1987.
However, others had watched and taken stock of Stiff's success. Tony Wilson started the hit Manchester-based TV show 'So It Goes' as a result of hearing Nick Lowe and later established the Factory Records independent label in 1978. That same year, when Geoff Travis established the now world-renowned label Rough Trade, it was clear that Stiff's 'picture sleeves' had inspired him. The punk revolution and the dawn of the D.I.Y ethic had cultivated something new. Mark E Smith-fronted The Fall formed in '76 and maintained a D.I.Y method of producing work throughout their discography, playing working men's clubs well into the bands prime and; Ana Da Silva and Gina Birch's The Raincoats (established in '77) self-produced and released their own material whilst squatting in their London flat.
By the time the 1990s had rolled around - and with the progression of music technology and higher education, meaning people could access both equipment and music knowledge far easier - the D.I.Y ethic had become established and the independent music industry was now an established feat of what was once a mogul-led battlefield. Look to the likes of Elliot Smith or The Native Hipsters as examples of artists that created and produced their music themselves, growing their notoriety independently from the mainstream process and flourishing because of it. The '90s Grunge subculture, which was primarily cited to the Seattle indie label Sub Pop, which was started in 1986, can be closely linked to the D.I.Y aesthetic but perhaps, in some sense, to musicians funded by great wealth simply "dressing the part".
Similarly to how record labels were formed by those with a passion for music, looking to share the work of those they admired, soon these appreciators and D.I.Y patrons turned to venues. These are venues that have been built with the viewing experience in mind - the idea that the music community and those looking to share their craft are at the heart of it. These venues do often trace the grey area of legality but, while people usually equate that with danger, these venues are not inherently dangerous. Instead, they serve as a place for artists to push the boundaries of expression and their own art form. It's worth watching the 2016-released 'Goodnight Brooklyn' to get a true sense of the passion, soul and outright sense of community that goes into these venues. The film is a documentary about the rise and closure of the iconic New York music venue/squat Death By Audio, which hosted the likes of Future Islands, Ty Segall, Black Pus, Thee Oh Sees and many many more until it was forced to close down in November 2014 due to Vice Media taking over their building.
What started as a means of raging against the sparkling, musician-exploitive, profit-led glamour of the 1970s mainstream music industry has opened up a community for people that love music for exactly what it is, be that creating it or simply appreciating/adoring it. The D.I.Y scene also provides a safe haven for people who feel marginalised and unaccepted by the obsessive "perfect image" of the mainstream, chart-led music industry like; women; people of colour and; the LGBTQ community. Today, D.I.Y venues, record labels and promoters are a welcome part to society and aren't quite as rare as they once were. Though, their existence is threatened. Generally speaking, D.I.Y venues pop up organically and often with intention, but they're connected by the spontaneity and ephemerality of their existence. Most of these venues are meant to be temporary, often occupying a space that was originally meant, and may still yet be meant, for another purpose à la Death By Audio. If you're wondering about some that are active now or have even become established and staked their claim on the premises they inhabit, there are the likes of CHUNK in Leeds, The White Hotel in Salford, Roll For The Sound in Bristol and DIY Space For London.
I don’t mean that to disparage the money in music though. The artists that play these venues are ultimately seeking greater fame and notoriety so they can play “legitimate” venues. The middlemen are important facilitators of the music industry. But, D.I.Y venues, record labels and promoters serve that important point in the lifecycle of any artist that is seemingly impossible to break through without knowing someone high up or being backed by a financial benefactor. D.I.Y opens doors.
Next time you're in the record store, ensure you riffle through our Independent section and you'll find fledgling artists that thrive on what they create.