Rough Trade remains one of the most iconic independent labels within the music industry, a bastion of supporting alternative music ever since Geoff Travis founded the company back in 1976. In the first decade alone, the label gave artists a chance, allowing the freedom to be as weird as they wanted in what was a decision process to make music a more vivid place than ever before.
Originality is at the heart of their label. Sticking to their fundamental ideas, Rough Trade has never been inherently searching for a talent to replicate the mainstream successes of other artists. Instead, they champion creativity and passion in equal measure; traditional success is an afterthought. This mantra has served the label well, and their flagship store down Brick Lane is a utopia for any muso who will have crystal clear of the first album they ever bought from the shop.
Before they emerged as a label, Rough Trade was a humble record shop down Kensington Park Road, a location that Travis opened in 1976 before experimenting with the label world just two years later. Their first release came after French punk band Métal Urbain went into the shop and asked if they could help promote their music.
Rough Trade then decided that they would be stronger if they joined forces with fellow like-minded indies all around the country, which was labelled as ‘The Cartel’. The partnership allowed small record labels such as Factory Records and 2 Tone Records to sell their releases nationally, with them those included willing to chip in to promote one another’s respective scenes.
Since that moment, Rough Trade has gone through many transitions, blending genres and music styles, but the ethos has remained the same. This feature celebrates one of the great British musical institutions, one which only works with artists that deserve your attention.
10 greatest records released by Rough Trade:
Mazzy Star – She Hangs Brightly
Mazzy Star are pioneers of shoegaze and, despite being from California, Rough Trade handed the band their first-ever record deal back when they were operating as Opal. The band released their debut album in 1987, but during a tour supporting The Jesus & The Mary Chain, their singer Kendra Smith walked out on the group and Hope Sandoval was brought in.
The group were obliged to record a follow-up as Opal for Rough Trade, who still wanted the album despite Smith’s departure, and they delivered it albeit as Mazzy Star. She Hangs Brightly is a wondrous escape filled album that would start the band’s journey, and it slowly became a hit with alternative music fans who became transfixed by the album.
Baxter Dury – Floor Show
Baxter Dury is an artist who epitomises the spirit of Rough Trade, he’s been shining his unique world view out on the world for close to 20 years and continues to produce the goods with captivating releases that are unequivocally Baxter Dury.
Floor Show was his second record and his final one with Rough Trade, who also issued his debut album. While Baxter Dury is interesting due to his father being Ian Dury, Floor Show proved that he is an artist in his own right and one who shares little in common with his father from a musical perspective. ‘Cocaine Man’ from the album remains Baxter’s biggest song to date and is a masterful example of his storytelling.
Sleaford Mods – Spare Ribs
Sleaford Mods’ latest effort was released by Rough Trade on January 15th and the record arrived as another evolutionary step for the duo. Continuing to hit their stride with each album, the band returned to the label with yet another bullseye.
“We shouldn’t have left them in the first place,” Jason Williamson told Far Out about returning to Rough Trade. “We get dodgy information from our ex-manager, so we got rid of him. Then, our new manager had a couple of meetings with Rough Trade. We realised that that’s where we belong. For the time being, as long as they want us, we will stick around.”
Their ability to paint a genuine picture of British life on Spare Ribs is awe-inspiring. Not the quaint manufactured one that you see in Richard Curtis films – but the mundanity and the self-regarding attitude that permeates our nation sets the band apart from the rest and, in turn, creates a more worthwhile connection.
The Fall – Grotesque (After The Gramme)
When The Fall signed to Rough Trade, they attempted to refine their sound and make a more palatable attempt than the ramshackle approach we associate with Mark E. Smith and his conveyor of merry men and women who made up the band for varying amounts of time.
Key moments of the album include vigorous tracks like ‘The N.W.R.A’, ‘New Face In Hell’ and ‘Impression of J. Temperance’, all of which are noteworthy in their own right. Across a 42 year career, Smith oversaw 31 studio albums with the group, and Grotesque (After The Gramme) is up there with their best.
Arcade Fire – Funeral
Arcade Fire’s debut album parachuted the band from obscurity into the mainstream with hits like ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ and ‘Wake Up’ ushering a new alternative music era. Even though the band signed with Columbia for their last record, 2017’s, Everything Now, Rough Trade still work with the band in the UK.
According to Travis, signing Arcade Fire was a last-minute deal, who recalled to NME in 2015: “They were self-releasing their album in Canada, and it was just about to come out,” he said. “We heard it and just flipped out. We managed to track them down and license it just in time before the whole world caught up.”
Jarvis Cocker – Jarvis
Jarvis Cocker’s debut solo album in 2006 started a long and fruitful relationship with Rough Trade, which is still serving both of them well today. Picking just one record by Cocker was an ardent task, but his debut was such a breakaway from Pulp and saw him take an avant-garde left turn, which worked in stellar style.
Instead of trying to live off the coattails of Pulp’s success, Cocker deliberately tried his hardest to veer away from a mainstream sound on this album and allowed himself to travel to sonic corners that he’d never been to before, which made for an exhilarating listen.
Warpaint – Warpaint
Warpaint have released all three of their studio albums exclusively on Rough Trade, and their eponymous middle child is the record that finds its way onto the list. The album features the monstrous single, ‘Love Is To Die’ and is killer from start to finish.
Travis recalled to NME how they signed the band: “We saw Warpaint play at CMJ in New York and we did that classic thing where we said to them: ‘You’re good, but you need a different drummer’. We don’t usually say that, but it was pretty evident the drummer wasn’t right. It could have backfired, but they said ‘We know!’ That’s when Stella [Mozgawa] came on to the scene.”
The Libertines – Up The Bracket
When The Libertines arrived in 2002, Britain’s prayers had finally been answered for a band to come and bring rock ‘n’ roll back from the dead. There had been no domestic band for the youth to latch onto in this manner since Oasis, and Up The Bracket proved that The Libertines had the tunes to back up their raucous image.
Jeannette Lee, who helped re-launched the label with Travis in 2000, told NME: “Their demos were quite Strokes-y so we were a bit sceptical, but they put on a rehearsal for us. They were totally fantastic, riveting, charming, interesting and funny. They already had their double act routine going on. We loved them on the spot. Even the day we signed them they were hours and hours late.”
The Strokes – Is This It
The album isn’t just the most delicious piece of work by The Strokes, but one of the truly great alternative rock records. Across 11 relentless songs, The Strokes would change the future of guitar music and, while it did inspire useless imitators, without this album, there would be not have been the flurry of other indie great’s whose life was changed by this album.
From the moment that the first line from the titular opener kicks in, you know that you’re in for a treat of the highest calibre. Getting to re-listen to this album in its entirety for the first time is something that I’d do silly things to do, and I’m sure I speak for a lot of people in saying that. While ‘Last Nite’ and ‘Someday’ are the headline stealers from the album, the whole record is an enthralling ride that ends in raucous fashion with the timeless ‘Take It Or Leave It’ — a true modern masterpiece.
The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead
The Queen Is Dead set the stall for what an album should be and, ever since, few have made a guitar album that can even be mentioned in the same sentence as this iconic effort. The Smiths were on their third record and at the absolute peak of their powers.
The album is The Smiths’ finest work out of the four records they made during their time together and encapsulates everything great about them as an entity. Morrissey’s dark lyricism was juxtaposed alongside Johnny Marr’s sunny guitars that would be the perfect soundtrack to the 1980s. Every single track on the album is a bonafide classic. It simply wasn’t fair on other bands that The Smiths could cram tracks like ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’, ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’, ‘Cemetry Gates’ and ‘I Know It’s Over’ all on one album, which confirmed their voice of a generation status.