This is pure lushness - a 188-page glossy photo-filled book documenting the rise of Warp Records by Rob Young (Black Dog Publishing). I'd leave it on my coffee table to impress visitors, but I'm worried the kids would spill Ribena on it, or something. It covers all the major developments in the label's long history, from the early hardcore days, through pioneering the 'Artificial Intelligence' home-listening electronica period, going on to explain the reasons for the eventual/inevitable move from its Sheffield roots to become the London-based international organisation it is today. Along the way we remember the early Top 20 triumphs, reflect on those beautifully designed record sleeves, lament the tragic death of co-founder Rob Mitchell, and pour over the label's fascinating back catalogue and legion of artists, some of whom have long-since disappeared off the radar.
Even a wizened scholar like myself learned a few interesting facts. For instance, although I was aware that Robert Gordon had been a central figure in the early days, I didn't realise (or maybe I'd forgotten?) that he was actually a fully paid-up partner in the company. It was only after a bitter argument with Mitchell and Becket (over the licensing of Chicago House track "Can't Stop" by Plez) that he left. Interestingly, Gordon's departure marks the end of my absolute favourite period in the label's history - it's earliest period '89-'90 when it was all about bass-heavy 12 inch singles with a strong Sheffield-centric identity. Part of that must be due to the sound of those records, which were overseen by Gordon. His drive for absolute sonic perfection - involving endless dub cuts and remixes at his FON studio - is still clearly evident on those discs, and any serious collectors of classic UK electronic dance music needs to have the first ten Warp releases on original pressings (plus a decent hi-fi). I still reckon "Clonk", by Sweet Exorcist, features one of the most insane sub bass frequencies ever - everything in the house starts rattling like crazy whenever I crank it up, and I personally have never heard anything that beats it. Although the output of his own project, The Forgemasters, is miniscule, Gordon remained a central back-room figure for most of the finest releases to come from the three holy cities - Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford. True, Unique 3's "The Theme" was undoubtedly the first anthem of Northern Bleep 'n' Bass, but look at the credits on the rear of the sleeve and you'll see that Gordon was there as engineer, mixer and co-producer. The man should be canonised.
I admit that I have little interest in the current entity known as Warp Records. They still occasionally put out interesting (maybe even great) releases, but its a very different operation to the one I used to cherish. That's probably more to do with my own militant standpoint, but at least this book helps to explain and perhaps validate the reasons why Warp moved in the direction it did. And regardless of its current status, Warp set precedents which many other labels tried to emulate, but few ever came close to matching. Current dubstep labels like Tempa, DMZ, Hotflush and Tectonic are the inheritors of Warp's early legacy - committed to releasing quality underground dance music with a strong sense of identity - and new releases from labels like these fill me with the same excitement as those Warp ones did 15 years ago, though admittedly none of them look quite as attractive as those beautiful generic purple sleeves.
It's not a very meaty read, but damn - I fucking love this book. Naturally, its available at Warpmart, although mine was picked off the shelf at Waterstones, so looks like its widely available in the high street as well.
BIRTHDAY PRESENT #3
"Margrave Of The Marshes", the (semi) autobiography of the late, great John Peel. I've barely started on this one yet, but just reading the introduction by his children fills me once more with a sense of tragic loss. John got halfway through writing this before he died, and his family have overseen the writing of the remaining chapters of his life. Peel's ageless commitment to new musical exploration never fails to amaze and inspire me, and his radio show was such a huge part of my life, particularly during the teenage years stranded in a provincial backwater with little or no money. True, he playlisted an awful lot of indie drivel, but I have fond memories of waiting, with the cassette recorder on pause, for the all the interesting hip hop, house and esoteric/electronic tunes to come on. In that time before the internet, Peel really was a lifeline for me.
I get stressed just trying to assimilate the fairly narrow selection of demos and releases that come my way each month, and compiling it all into a little 45 minute show, but its literally nothing compared to the thousands of hours' worth of material that Peel waded through, bringing the most exciting, innovative sounds to the airwaves every week in a career spanning five decades (and let's not forget that, just before he died, John was particularly excited about a little-known Croydon dj/production team called the Digital Mystikz!). Its mindboggling, when you think about it. I dunno how the hell he managed to keep that perpetual, almost childlike sense of wonder and excitement, but I hope to aspire to it in my own small way.
Just reading the charming, evocative opening chapter covering his early childhood during the second world war, I know I'm really going to enjoy this book.