Thursday, December 07, 2006

Medium Cool

One of my very favourite labels from any decade ever, Medium Cool, has a website in the making. It’s worth taking a look and keeping an eye on, too, as the shop suggests there’ll be old MC releases for sale, which are all worth grabbing.

One thing that set MC ahead of the pack was its fine attention to packaging. The sleeves were great and you knew just by holding a Medium Cool release that you had something special in your hands.

Andy Wake, who ran the label from1986-89, took special care in his customers. Every so often packages would arrive – unbidden but always loved – including badges of his bands (yes, I do still have them all) and updates of the label’s next steps to certain world domination. Best of all was the A2 poster advertising the peerless Autumn 87 schedule (She Looks Right Through Me by The Waltones, Don’t Bury Me Yet by The Raw Herbs and Be Small Again by The Corn Dollies, I think; maybe there was something else), although that sadly got destroyed in a house fire 16 years ago. (Fortunately, I and my records escaped 6 months earlier from the arsonist, but there were a few hostages to fortune…)

I remember one fanzine in the late 80s urging readers to write to Andy asking him why he’d put out She Looks Right Through Me by The Waltones on 12”, saying he’d got a 6-page letter in reply. The 12” singles are the antichrist/7” singles are manna from heaven argument that raged in fanzines in the 80s (and I’ll show my colours here by declaring that I still hold the 7” as aesthetically not to mention economically far more dear to my heart than any other format) might just have pissed off Mr Wake a little.

Knowing as I do now, that all small-scale indie labels are run on a shoestring and breaking even on a single release is a great result, releasing 7”s might not seem so attractive. There are test pressings of She Looks Right Through Me on 7” – but it could also just be that The Waltones thought it sounded better on 12”.

In the days before we had compact disc players (ok, I know all you Dire Straits fans and yuppies had them back then) some indiepop bands really did want their records out on 12”. I recall talking to The Orchids about this in 1990 and they were dismissive about the whole format issue; they just wanted their songs to sound as best they could when released, and to their minds it was on 12” not 7”. And which of us is to argue that the Penetration EP, all five songs of it, doesn’t sound fantastic?

It’s hard to pick a favourite from the Medium Cool discography. I’ll probably go for the crashing, glorious jangle of The Popguns’ Landslide (they never came close to matching that stroke of wonder, for shame) and The Raw Herbs’ Don’t Bury Me Yet; flip this one over and you’ve got I’m Falling Down, an unfathomably unheralded slice of melody and melancholy fanned by a country breeze from the Appalachians.

Forever Steven by The Corn Dollies, originally released on the Farm label in 87, then picked up by Medium Cool when they were home for the band for the rest of the 80s, is a perennial favourite, too. When MC reissued Forever Steven in 1988, the short-lived Underground magazine ran a competition to win copies and t-shirts.

After discovering – and you can imagine my surprise – that I failed to win (had I more influence there would’ve been a steward’s enquiry) I wrote to The Corn Dollies in a mixture of rage and disbelief, enclosing a cheque for £5, entrusting that this bribery – or exchange of cash for goods – would ensure me a t-shirt. They sent me one and returned the cheque. This (very poor) schoolboy was delighted.

I never wrote to thank them. If anyone of them happens across this, I hope that this belated thanks will suffice. I wore it to The Go-Betweens gig at the Barbican in June 2004 (you know, the one with the string quartet that was released on double CD). I was fortunate enough to be at the aftershow. Pointing to my t-shirt, I asked Robert Forster, who produced the single, if it rang any bells. “Many!” he exclaimed, eyes wide and eyebrows aloft. “Fond ones.”

Medium Cool didn’t last, thanks to Red Rhino’s collapse. If it had…well, you can hear how things were developing on the mighty Edge Of The Road compilation album (always available from ebay for about £3.50; one day these Medium Cool releases will be changing hands for serious money, so get them while you can).

One last question: The Waltones - why did they get overlooked in the Madchester phenomenon? Not wacky enough, perhaps (that is, just too darned good)- have a compilation out in January on Cherry Red. Find out more about them on myspace here.

1 comment:

Wakey said...

Thanks for the kind words on my label. It always amazes me that anyone remembers Medium Cool let alone is willing to spend time writing about it!

I was especially pleased you mentioned the unsolicited packages I regularly sent out. We wouldn't have sold any records without people like you supporting us and I always believed it was important to give something back.

As for the 7" v 12" debate you hit the nail on the head. It was down to (a now understandable) economic pressure from our distributors who paid for the manufacturing of the records. Looking back I wish there'd only been one format but we had to cover costs and that gave us the opportunity to release music by what I thought were some great groups.

That said, and like many other labels at the time, we never got into profit but that wasn't the point.

When the label collapsed I left London with my tail between my legs and headed back to my home town of Manchester. It's strange to think it's 20 years now since our first release and that was one of the reasons I set up the website and blog. They're still not finished and I've got to get on with the biggest part which is the tale of the label. It's actually a daunting task but I intend to put Medium Cool into context and talk about the whole scene back then and some of the great people and groups I had the pleasure to see and know.

Fingers crossed, there will be a double CD label compilation next year via Cherry Red entitled 'The Punk Rock Itch' including the singles, unreleased stuff, demos, videos and related releases. And yes it will have a beautiful cover...


Andy Wake