Martin Aston's 'Turning The Other Way: The Story Of 4AD' makes its paperback debut this month, and if you missed it the first-time around, this weighty tome is well worth your time if you have even just a passing interest in the celebrated label. Meticulous and exhaustive, Aston's effort is impressive and provides a definitive look at the development of an artistic revolution that's often overlooked. The story behind 4AD isn't just about the music, but rather the fusion of design, song-writing, and personalities to create something unique.
Indeed, this oral history, as told by nearly every main player involved, doubles as a biography of reclusive but enigmatic label founder Ivo Watts-Russell. It's that element that elevates Aston's writing beyond an obsessive deconstruction of catalogue numbers and long forgotten EPs. By concentrating on the evolution of the label, which was often at odds with a landscape of post-punk and rapidly emerging electro-pop, Aston shows why 4AD was a very different beast to contemporaries like Mute and Factory. While Watts-Russell is at the heart of the story, the eclectic cast of characters is also fascinating. From co-founder Peter Kent, who acted as an important balance to Ivo in 4AD's nascent development, to the likes of designer Vaughan Oliver, singers Nick Cave, Liz Fraser, and later Frank Black and Mark Kozelek, there's a real affection here for all of their contributions.
Originally named Axis, a name change to the more oblique 4AD quickly followed the foundation of the label in 1979. According to Watts-Russell: "Peter (Kent) may have been thinking of Hendrix but, for me, Axis related to (Nazi) Germany, like Factory and Joy Division. It was a stupid name". Aston's attention to detail is also key to understanding the importance of those early decisions. The initial reputation of the label thanks to Bauhaus, The Birthday Party and Modern English is explored here in real depth, and it's a credit to Aston's research that this is the first time these stories have all been compiled in such a way. The narrative really starts to take flight though, with the signing of the Cocteau Twins, and from there, the story unfolds in many interesting directions. But it's the additional insight into the design ethos that Vaughan Oliver instilled and the mindset of Watts-Russell that makes Aston's work ultimately a more fulfilling read than it could have been.
If there is a criticism to be made here, it's perhaps the chronological structure that Aston adheres to. His tendency to jump from subject to subject to service of this structure can be at times frustrating. The plethora of names and places can become a little overwhelming, especially over more than 600 pages, and interviews seem to be cut abruptly short in order to discuss an unrelated subject, before returning to the interview a handful of pages later. It's understandable why this format has been adopted, as this is primarily a biography of the label, but there are some pieces of background information that are unnecessary interruptions. For the most part though, the passion for the subject matter and Aston's writing style do carry you past these narrative potholes.
Tent pole names like the Pixies, Cocteau Twins and Red House Painters are likely to attract readers, and with good reason. But Aston's book is far more accomplished than just concentrating on the big names; to his credit, he's told the full story. 'Turning The Other Way' may make many re-assess and re-evaluate the glories of 4AD as compared to its independent label contemporaries. While Watts-Russell and 4AD didn't go in for Tony Wilson's Factory showboating, there's undeniable evidence here that the 4AD story is just as interesting and important to indie music in the 80s and 90s.
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