Heavenly Records is home to Flowered Up, Saint Etienne, Manic Street Preachers and East Village. Less a record business and more a label of love, it shouldn't in reality even exist. From humble Clerkenwell Road to Paris in less than a year, Britain's most innovative label has put the energy back into pop.
A year ago, 88 Clerkenwell Road was doing quite nicely thank you. It played host to a press agency called Capersville, run by a mild-mannered, chain-smoking, vinyl junkie known as Jeff Barrett who, together with friends, confidantes and drinking partners Jayne. Martin and Chris, pushed the likes of Happy Mondays, Ned's Atomic Dustbin and The High into the public eye. Then came a label called Heavenly and all hell broke loose.
Call it hype if you like, but Heavenly isa phenomenon of sorts. Based in London, the shredded nerve centre of the music industry, Heavenly really shouldn't exist at all. The label has no money, no cohesive identity, Only a hatch-potch mixture of weird and wonderful bands and some romantic notion that a good tune is worth blood, Sweat and tears, "I get obsessed," begins Jeff. "If I meet somebody who inspires me, I wanna get involved. like people who don't stick with the norm. love it when ideas are bounced around the room, that moment of uncertainty. It can be the most ridiculous, unorthodox thing at the time, but if it makes sense You've got to keep going.
And in the face of adversity, Heavenly has. It's achieved in one year what most independents accomplish in four. Home to Saint Etienne. East Village, Manic Street Preachers and - in spirit if no longer in fact Flowered Up (now signed to London Records), Heavenly's disparate repertoire reads like a checklist of the rock'n'roll years. There's the joyous strains of Saint Etienne with their pure pop sensibilities, sexy technology and dance drive; the eyeliner, venom and rock'n'roll revolution of Manic Street Preachers; the melodic maelstrom and guitar buzz Of East Village: and Flowered up's funked-up genius. Heavenly. like forerunners Creation and Kitchenware, is a label of love, a celebration of good music, something worth being in debt for. It's also a success story, something that's surprised the just as much as the rest Of us. "The idea behind Heavenly being so open was never manufactured. My musical tastes have always been poles apart maybe if I was younger perhaps there'd be more of a musical identity. say like Warp. People do tend to isolate themselves a bit too much, I think. which is a shame because there's so much good music floating about which they miss out on.
It's this non-identity which is the strength Of Heavenly and has intrigued people more than anything else. "People will actually go and listen to a band just because they're on Heavenly. It's brilliant when youget a letter from a kid who's gone out and bought a Flowered Up single, then gone out and bought a Saint Etienne single because he recognised and liked the label. People are coming back and saying 'I never realised I liked this much music. what next, Icelandic hip hop?' Actually, it's country. I've just signed a country band called the Rocking Birds!"
Behind every good idea is a catalyst, and, like most things this decade. Heavenly was born indirectly from the rise and rise Of dance music. There was a shocking time in the mid-Eighties when teenagers and youth culture did not exist. What the dance scene did was make up for lost time. People didn't necessarily get involved with dance music. but the movement swept them off their feet, got people excited. got the creative juices flowing. It generated a generation gap again. And major labels were left in the lurch as entrepreneurialism and creativity joined forces. filling the cultural vacuum with mad ideas. Which is where Heavenly comes in.
The concept had been bounced around for ages, thrown regularly at Jeff by independent distribution company Revolver, then part of the Cartel distribution network, which was peachy keen to Start an in-house label and have Jeff running the show. "I kept turning them down - you know what it was like that year, you didn't do much except go out all the time. But when I came through that drug haze, I just felt quite elated. I'd met some really exciting people like Andy Weatherall and Boys Own who really inspired me. I don't like 'scenes' but I find the obsessiveness of them exciting, The joy of it all is learning new things, music is endless. it's limitless. So I took up the offer."
After an initial honeymoon period. however, Revolver dropped out. "Basically. they wanted Heavenly to be a hip independent label. not a hip independent chart label. " shrugs Jeff. "But my attitude is, if you can compete, then do it. Music's not there just to be kept in a little closet, in a ghetto, it's there to be heard, to change people's lives. "
Armed with only a few bands, some firm friendships and a few brass coins, Heavenly carried on regardless, now hopelessly addicted to the idea Of survival. Contracts are negotiated on a record-to-record basis and bands are given all the artistic freedom they want. "It's based on trust. If all these bands decide to walk out now and leave me. I'd probably stop the label. I'd feel very betrayed. It's very personal."
Heavenly is so personal. Jeff discovers bands by bumping into them, and verbally-agreed deals are clinched on the premise that the personalities involved. as well as the music, click into place. "I stumbled over Flowered Up, I mean I literally fell over them. They were the reason why wanted to keep the label alive. The minute Liam very sheepishly told me his group were called Flowered Up. that was it, I was in love, What is it like about them so much? Their honesty, their loyalty, their unorthodoxness."
East Village came to Heavenly via Martin who works for Capersville, while Pete and Bob from Saint Etienne met Jeff while they were writing a fanzine. When they ventured into the heady world of pop, Saint Etienne took their demo to Jeff for an opinion. Hearing their delicious version of Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", Heavenly swooned and immediately offered them a place on their roster. The record was released within a matter of weeks. only to be deleted when it was discovered the bar codes on the record sleeves, coloured an attractive pink, were incompatible with modern technology. Thus, in a round about way, the single became something Of a cult hit. its breathless vocals, sexy vibes and inaccessibility making it a club favourite. And although it only sold 15,000 copies. the song featured Strongly in the music papers' end-of-year charts.
Of all the bands associated with Heavenly, Flowered Up are perhaps the most notorious. They're young. energetic. fashionably working class and get right up people's noses. Before they'd even released their debut single, "It's On", last May, Flowered Up had graced the front covers of both Melody Maker and NME, and had embarked on a love/hate relationship with the press. Kicking into touch snide comments about them being London's answer to Happy Mondays, they signed to London Records for a huge advance and hauled Heavenly out of the red. The Heavenly logo still appears on their releases.
"It was really important to us to keep in touch with Heavenly, to keep in touch with their identity," explains Liam. the band's Artful Dodger vocalist. "Without them none of this would have happened, they were behind us right from the word go. Our first few gigs were fucking terrible. but Heavenly never doubted us. They had faith from the start when there was absolutely nothing to have faith in."
Their ties with the label are as strong as ever. Capersville still deals with the press for Flowered Up, Jeff remains a strong ally when dealing with record company bods, and the band can retain a sense of independence, even if it's only a token gesture. "The thing is I'm more involved with that group now than when I first encountered them," grins Jeff, "l get out of bed for that group. I am the spanner in their works. I am the person London thought would be very useful to have between themselves and Flowered Up. ha ha!"
Now Flowered Up are signed to a major. expectations are high, the pressure's on and schedules are tight. With their first album nearing completion and a third single, "Take It", released later this month, Flowered Up are more than a little anxious, and almost wistful about Heavenly. "It's a mad business innit," philosophises Liam. "It should be full Of morals but it ain't, it's full Of money. With Heavenly, though, it's like a passion, they really care for you, but once you're with a major it's all about product...I like Heavenly's diversity. I mean when Jeff signed Manic Street Preachers I just thought: 'What the fuck's he done that for? His head's gone,' But seeing them, I understand the attraction, how he's tapped into their energy. And that's what makes the label tick, they get totally involved with the bands they like, they haven't succumbed to just selling records.
Heavenly has yet to pull its card and fly into the charts. But it will, you can just feel it. If knee-jerk nonentities like DJ H and Stefy or Nomad can swing it with cut-and-paste dance tracks. then Saint Etienne, whose records are both beautiful and intelligent. have got massive potential with "Nothing Can Stop Us". And now the Clash have topped the charts, even the idea of the Manic Street Preachers, Heavenly's bright new hopes. doesn't seem so strange.
"If they prick up the ears of a 16-year-old who, as much as she or he tried, didn't like house music. or turn the ears of somebody who thought they only liked the sound of house music then they're doing something right, " enthuses Jeff. "Rock 'n' roll's about being stupid, it's about having a laugh - rock 'n' roll's about thinking you can change the world. At the end of the day you only ever succeed in changing your own, but you can certainly open people's minds, ears and attitudes to something new. The Manics are saying things people haven't said for a long time, and you know they mean every word they say. "
Jeff first met Manic Street Preachers through Hungry Beat, an adrenalin-rush fanzine put together by a passionate friend. The band used to write in to rant. rage and advertise their wares - a tactic once employed by Kevin Rowland Of Dexy's Midnight Runners' infamy.
"I was handed this letter and told 'read this'. It was passionate, it was on fire. it wanted to change the world and it really excited me. Unfortunately their demo tape didn't do as much for me." Three years later. their paths crossed again, and this time the music was better. The Manic Street Preachers were added to the Heavenly roster and journalists went into a frenzy as they tried to work out what the fuck was going on. The Manics got people talking again, provoked heated debates in the letters pages of music papers and got people back into the habit of thinking for themselves. They were a shock to a tired old system where EMF was about as rocking as you got. The Manics are obsessed by the idea of fame, they've lived for it, they've devoured every column inch on every band they ever thought was cool and have been beaten up every time they stepped outside the house.
Acid house didn't happen where the Manics lived in Blackwood in South Wales, whereas Liam from Flowered Up was out every night. The two bands come from completely different worlds. Manic Street Preachers formed their opinion on the outside world by not participating in it. "A band should be self-contained. self-obsessed, not interested in anybody else, says Richard, the pretty-boy guitarist. "We want to try and incite something in people. we want to change their lives. Heavenly believe in us, it's just brilliant the way they saw past the bullshit in the press and saw our potential as a massive rock band, which is all we can be. We're just a massive cliché."
"When people hear our music they know we're pissed off, frustrated, and everybody's felt that at some point in their life," growls bass player Nick blinking through smudged eyeliner. "That's all we can communicate. We can't communicate any joy, or happiness, one-world love or anything like that. We'll always be pissed off. I just don't see any chance for happiness in my life, whatever happens we're just doomed. I think we must enjoy it though, we get scared when we start feeling happy and contented."
The Manic Street Preachers are a million light years away from everyone, let alone anything on Heavenly. Their music snorts, steams and foams at the mouth with teen angst, passion and disillusionment. They have all the old-fashioned momentum of a garage band, the snotty-nosed opinions of a rattled punk combo and all the camp of the New York Dolls. The press can't resist them and they know it, which has fuelled accusations that Heavenly is just a scam label, as Jeff is particularly adroit at manipulating the press.
"I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing to do. I think it's wrong when you're actually conning people. but I'm not - I genuinely believe in every band we've got," opines Jeff. "People keep referring to us as London's 'ultra hip' Heavenly label. which doesn't make any sense at all. really. In fact, if I hear that again I'm going to scream. I never learned how to do any of
this. it's just something I do, drink a few beers, rabbit on about music and hang around with people that feel as passionately as me about it. And you know what, we're the most boring bastards in the world. We're trainspotters."
The weekend the trainspotters trek to Paris is a true test of Heavenly's strength. All four bands are to play on the same night at La Locomotive on March 1, a club set among the porn shops and peep shows of Paris' tacky La Pigalle, which once played host to the Hacienda's 'Temperance' nights. In retrospect, the weekend goes amazingly well thanks to some deft organisation and forward thinking. No one dies, no one gets lost, no one gets arrested and despite the motley crew assembled backstage there are no personality clashes.
Once in Paris. the four bands do the things most bands do when they're abroad. They soundcheck, sit in the nearest bar, struggle with the local currency, struggle with the local press and get bladdered. Fantastic plans concerning the Pompidou Centre and the Eiffel Tower disappear with the afternoon. The Manic Street Preachers don't even venture from their hotel rooms, driving to and from La Locomotive, a five-minute walk, in the tour bus. It's their first time abroad and naturally they hate it. They're disgusted by La Pigalle.
"I really hate it here, it really disgusts me," mumbles the drummer from beneath his fringe. "I just feel really sorry for the women who walk down here. I think it should be closed down straight away, taken off the streets. It's scum. I despise it actually."
Roll on 1992, eh?
"1992 is going to be crap - there will always be nationalism, people like feeling secure in their own little prejudiced world," sighs Richard. "I just think nothing will ever impress us. Everything's the same wherever we go, people are obsessed with sex and getting pissed, ambition and greed, People may speak in different languages. but they all want the same things out of life... we're starting to sound like Morrissey, aren't we?"
Flowered Up take things more in their stride - Barry Mooncult, the band's mascot and mischief-maker, tells preposterous tales about vibrating arms the size of your thigh and transvestites "who're dead sloppy with their make-up and don't give a fuck about the nine o'clock shadow" Last time Flowered Up played La Locomotive it all weant horribly wrong - dressing rooms were trashed in true rock' n' roll style and they were banned.
East Village spend their time lolling on sofas, giggling uncontrollably and being pursued by obsessive female fans who demand they dissect their lyrics on request and announce they would die for their music. This kind of reaction unnerves East Village, they're not used to all the attention. Back in Britain they're taken for granted, and occasionally fall under the shadow of their stablemates. " Actually in the Daily Star, they had a piece "It said about us," titters Martin, "It said we played bongos and recited poetry at our gigs, like we were beatniks or something. They must have seen my shoes, not listened to any of our music and drawn their own conclusions."
France is actually an ideal location for the Heavenly night, as only the French regularly dance to folk music, heavy rock and disco in the same evening without pausing for breath or stopping to consider the strange mixture of music. So, confronted with fuzz-pop, punk rock, syncopated rhythms and a whole range of emotions, the audience are in their element. They cheer East Village, flirt with lead singer Stephanie from Saint Etienne, spit at Manic Street Preachers and get completely lost with Flowered Up. Backstage the Happy Mondays are drinking all the rider. having just played a gig down the road, and Anne Nightingale is transfixed by the Manic Street Preachers. Andy Weatherall takes the night through till dawn backtracking with acid and hardcore tunes, while Jeff does his best to avoid the uninvited record company bods who've started sniffing around the dressing room.
"We are the downtrodden. we are the scum," grins Jeff, in his final attempt to draw some collective identity for Heavenly. "We all had problems in our childhood, so we reacted and rebelled against the status quo because we were told we were wrong. Is there ever a time when I throw my hands up in the air and think fuck it? Yeah, every day, but then someone comes into the office and says 'listen to this'".