Thursday, July 23, 2009


Welcome to the first in a series of blogs where I turn the spotlight away from the artists and the releases and focus on the indie labels responsible for their existence.
Today's label is: el (distributed by Cherry Red in the UK)
According to their website, “el is one of only a handful of genuinely original and important record labels in the history of popular music” and I do wholeheartedly agree. There have not been many labels that have a ‘style’ that is instantly identifiable and yet each and every release is different from what came before and what came after. To classify the label is like trying to sum up your life experiences in three words or less: it can’t be done!
Over two decades after Mike Alway started el, they remain everything that a label should be: unpredictable, unafraid and unashamed by anything on their roster.

Here’s what others have had to say about the label:

"el records is a world where The Avengers' John Steed forever seems to be creative controller and Emma Peel works the A&R department."-Record Mirror
"The melodies, the phrasing, the enthusiasm and ambition are all here plus a mysterious sexuality, a tropic of Ruislip classy vulgarity."-Andy Darling, Melody Maker, 1988
"Alway is a man out of time-part Kim Fowley, part Kim Philby and el is his unashamed indulgence."-Bruce Dessau, NME, March 1988
"Alway is that rare breed - a man who knows a record should always look good."-Jane Solanas , NME, November 26 1988

Luckily, I was able to catch up with el’s Mike Alway and dig a little deeper into the label’s psyche…

SPAZ: Before starting el, were you an avid music collector? If so, what types of music were you collecting?
MIKE ALWAY: Music captured my imagination in childhood. The first record I purchased was “She's Not There” by The Zombies in 1964. Its light jazziness rubbed off on me; an underlying style that stayed with me for decades. I was always inquisitive about music (without actually being a record collector) and suddenly found myself as the boy in school with the hip, alternative albums.

SPAZ: What inspired you to start up el? Was there a label you admired? Or perhaps a music genre that you felt was not well-represented on the market? MA: Verve was the label I most admired. I was impressed by the eclecticism of their mid-‘60s roster. There seemed to be a little of everything, all of it daring. The Mothers of Invention, Astrud Gilberto, The Velvet Underground, Gary McFarland and Ella Fitzgerald, all under one roof, struck me as remarkable and I sought to emulate that expansiveness in my own work.

SPAZ: How did you go about picking the name of the label?
MA: I wanted a word that was completely neutral. a word that meant nothing. A word that suggested possibility and that might look good as a graphic. Perhaps a word rather like dada? So, inspired by Luis Bunuel’s film about a Spanish aristocrat driven mad by jealousy, I decided on el.

SPAZ: When did the label first start operations?
MA: 1985, whilst still within the bosom of Blanco Y Negro. Within a year, el became owned by Cherry Red and remains that way today.

SPAZ: When you first set up the label, what were your initial goals? And do you feel you've achieved those goals so far?
MA: By the mid-‘80s, I was convinced that traditional rock music had run its course and had nothing more to say. So I determined to create a new vernacular and a completely original look and to project it through el. The emphasis of the songwriting was on Mediterranean culture, food and drink and forms of escapism through art and travel. I was heavily influenced by the Technicolor fantasies of Powell and Pressburger and the patrician and sometimes absurd comic humour of Terry-Thomas, Richard Briers and Leonard Rossiter (the latter specifically in the role of Reginald Perrin).
As for the look, we borrowed from the photographer Angus McBean, the cinematography of Jack Cardiff and the designers, Charles and Ray Eames.
I approached music as a director might film and, yes, we were successful in creating records that at very least could not possibly have existed on any other label. Choirboys Gas by Bad Dream Fancy Dress and The Camera Loves Me by The Would be Goods are two of titles of which I am most proud. They are quintessential el.

SPAZ: How do you go about picking the titles that you release?
MA: I would dream up a song title (say, "Cecil Beaton's Scrapbook"), offer a framework for a scenario and a suggest musical context (maybe a pastiche of Hermans Hermits with a touch of flamenco guitar or the Doors plus schoolgirls) and the writer would bring it to life.

SPAZ: Is there an elusive album out there that you have been eager to reissue but haven't been able to get the rights to?
MA: I’d love to properly restore, in all its glory, Dudley Moore’s brilliant score for the film Bedazzled. It simply IS the ‘60s.

SPAZ: Is there a particular artist (or artists) out there that you would love to have on your roster?
MA: Scott Walker, Robyn Hitchcock, Van Dyke Parks.... Keith Floyd (spoken word recipes with one song at the beginning of the album and one at the end)

SPAZ: If you had a choice, would you prefer to reissue an album as it was originally released or do you like the opportunity of adding bonus tracks?
MA: So long as the centerpiece of the restoration isn't obscured, I like to be as expansive as possible. Most el editions are of generous length. It's not merely the offering of value for money but the wish to bask in and celebrate the art of the subject

SPAZ: Which format do you personally prefer? (CD/Vinyl/Cassette/MP3)
MA: Much of el's reputation is based on the attractiveness of it's vinyl presentations.but CDs can also be beautifully realized.

SPAZ: As a collector and music lover, how do you view the current music scene?
MA: Today, the industry needs individualism more than ever. There should be more emphasis on creativity (of joy in arts and culture) and less on "attitude" and "celebrity".

SPAZ: How do you view the idea of a future filled with download-only releases? Don't you feel that collectors will always want to physically own the music that they purchase?
MA: There will always be a market for a superior three dimensional product so the design aspect of what we do is going to become ever more important.

SPAZ: Do you see the resurgence in the popularity of vinyl growing?
MA: As a nice artifact to have around the house. why not?

SPAZ: At the end of the day, do you have a particular personal favorite amongst your own label releases?
MA: Of the records el has re-issued, the 2008 anthology, Sketch for Summer by Gary McFarland and Gabor Szabo embodies much of what matters to me and is certainly up there amongst my favorites. Of the records we have created, the Bad Dream Fancy Dress album. It's intelligent and full of humour. It's like nothing else on earth.

SPAZ: What would you like people to know about the label?
MA: That an el record is primarily a sensual experience.

SPAZ: How can our readers contact the label with suggestions, comments and praise?
MA: Via el's parent company Cherry Red: . I reply to all communications personally.

Other recommended el releases:

Too Good To Be True: The Very Best Of el Records
And here are just some of the great artists you can find on the label:
And more! Click here for the complete el discography

Your roving reporter,
Stephen SPAZ Schnee

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