Auteur Labels \ New Hormones [LTMCD 2492]
The ongoing compilation series Auteur Labels profiles independent record labels with a unique and enduring sound, vision and design sensibility, usually guided by one or two directors, concerned more with creativity than commerce.
1. BUZZCOCKS boredom
2. THE TILLER BOYS big noise from the jungle
3. LUDUS my cherry is in sherry
4. DIAGRAM BROTHERS bricks
5. DISLOCATION DANCE stand me up
6. BITING TONGUES denture beach
7. ERIC RANDOM skin deep
8. THE DECORATORS twilight view
9. LUDUS hugo blanco
10. DISLOCATION DANCE you'll never, never know
11. DIAGRAM BROTHERS discordo
12. ERIC RANDOM hardcore
13. DISLOCATION DANCE what can the matter be?
14. LUDUS acknowledgement
15. ERIC RANDOM strange day
16. BITING TONGUES heart disease (live)
17. HOWARD DEVOTO the presentation of the self in everyday life
Auteur Label New Hormones liner note by Justin Toland
The story of New Hormones begins with a revolution and ends in a skip. In between much is shrouded in fog. "New Hormones began with Buzzcocks," explains Richard Boon, who was both the band's manager and, in due course, the owner-manager of the record label after an initial year of operation running the label with singer Howard Devoto.
"Once Buzzcocks had done a few gigs, including the famous Lesser Free Trade Hall, there was a bit of a thing around them. But Howard was already fed up of punk and thinking about going back to college; the future was very uncertain. We just thought: we need to document this - let's make a record."
That 7-inch slice of vinyl was the Spiral Scratch EP (ORG 1) in late January 1977, the first DIY record of the punk era. Produced by Martin 'Zero' Hannett, the four track EP was recorded as-live in a few hours at Indigo Sound Studio on 28 December 1976, and featured four raw classics: Boredom, Time's Up, Breakdown and Friends of Mine. Financed by a £500 loan and sold for a pound each, the original edition of Spiral Scratch eventually shifted 16,000 copies, and inspired countless others to put out their own recordings. Indeed ORG 1 was only the third true UK punk record to reach the shops, after New Rose by The Damned and Anarchy in the UK by the Sex Pistols.
After Howard Devoto left the band, a second Buzzcocks release, a 7-inch EP called Love Bites (featuring Orgasm Addict) was mooted. However, an ultimatum from John Maher's dad put paid to ORG 2. The drummer had a job lined up as an insurance clerk - he could carry on with the band but only if it gave him a regular income. With offers from majors coming in following their support slot on The Clash's White Riot tour (May 1977), Buzzcocks signed with United Artists (UA).
Inking a deal with UA meant putting New Hormones on hold. "After we put Spiral Scratch out we started getting tapes from people like Cabaret Voltaire and Gang of Four. And we weren't in a position to do anything other than offer support slots," Boon laments. However he and Buzzcocks were keen to support other bands from the provinces, such as Penetration and The Fall. Highly enamoured with the latter, in November 1977 Boon paid for the band's first recording session, later released on Step Forward as the Bingo-Master's Break-Out! EP. "I would have put it out if I'd had the money."
The Secret Public
After the rush of Spiral Scratch, New Hormones lay more or less dormant for three years while Buzzcocks took precedence. However, one project did come to fruition during this hiatus. At the end of 1977, collagists Linder [Sterling] and Jon Savage put together a fanzine called The Secret Public that was given the catalogue number ORG 2. Linder's take on feminism saw her mesh images from women's magazines with those from porn mags; Savage explored the alienating effects of urbanism.
"The 'secret public' were the people we were trying to reach," explains Boon.
Having been unable to follow up his earlier interest in the likes of The Fall and Gang of Four, towards the end of 1979, Boon found himself in a position to revive New Hormones. "Once Buzzcocks were kind of established and there was a team around them, there was a little more space to operate in. And some resources."
By the time New Hormones returned to the fray, the music scene had changed immensely. Dozens of tiny labels had flowered from the seeds sown by Spiral Scratch; musically, three-chord ramalama had given way to the dark, dubby spaces of post-punk. In Manchester, the scene was dominated by Factory, home of Joy Division, whose Unknown Pleasures LP set a new benchmark for moody yet muscular introspection and minimalist design.
Despite Boon's best efforts, New Hormones was never quite able to escape Factory's shadow. "Factory was the hip Manchester label in everyone's mind so we were always fighting that a bit, especially with press, which was so important then," recalls Peter Wright, who managed Dislocation Dance and later helped run New Hormones.
The first release on the revitalized label (February 1980) was Big Noise From the Jungle (ORG 3) by The Tiller Boys: Peter Shelley, Francis Cookson and Eric Random. The Tiller Boys had been an occasional live irritant over the previous 18 months, following a memorable debut at The Factory Club in May 1978, bottom of a bill that also included The Durutti Column, Cabaret Voltaire and Joy Division (Peter Saville's poster for this gig would become FAC 1, the first Factory Records 'release').
"I think we only actually did four gigs altogether and Shelley did two of those," says Random. "The main nucleus was me and Francis really, we did most of the recording." On Big Noise From the Jungle, the boys combined Neu! with Sandy Nelson to powerful effect. "This record is so incredibly alive it attacks like a slap in the face," said Sounds at the time.
The revamped New Hormones roster also included Ludus. With the cool, charismatic and design-savvy Linder, Ludus (Latin for 'play') had been attracting press attention ever since their live debut in August 1978. An early line-up, featuring Arthur Kadmon on guitar broke up before it could commit anything to vinyl.
Linder chose Cardiff native Ian Pincombe (later known as Ian Devine), to replace Kadmon as the band's guitarist. "When she met Ian Devine something different happened," believes Boon. "A bit more open-ended. We would say post-punk, actually a bit more jazzy."
After an unreleased session with Peter Hammill, the band - Linder, Devine, and drummer Philip 'Toby' Tomanov (later of Primal Scream) - went into Pennine Studios in Oldham in December 1979 with Stuart James, a local radio producer, who had recorded sessions with the likes of Joy Division, OMD and, indeed, Ludus. The result was The Visit (ORG 4).
James went on to work with most of the New Hormones roster over the next couple of years. "He was our producer: Factory had Hannett, we had Stuart," says Boon. "I was the poor man's Martin Hannett," recalls the producer, semi-jokingly. "New Hormones didn't have a lot of money to spend in the studios, so it was very much about getting it down. There wasn't a great amount of time for experimentation. My idea was to just bring the best out of the bands, as much as possible. I certainly wasn't trying to imprint an auteur's sound on them."
But The Decorators debut single, the wonderful Twilight View (ORG 5), was cut in the plusher surroundings of Eden Studios with Martin Rushent producing. The Decs, as they were fondly known, were a five-piece from Ealing. "It was nepotism: my brother-in-law was the band's sax player, Joe Cohen," says Boon. "We wouldn't have put it out if we didn't like the record, even if it was family. They were doing something other people weren't doing." Mick Wall described the band as 'street rock' in Sounds in 1980. Certainly, Twilight View has a hint of Nick Lowe about it, although singer Mick Bevan's voice is like a more tuneful Peter Perrett. "Neo-classical," says Boon.
The Decorators only released one single with New Hormones. "I think we recorded four tracks with a view to doing a second single, but that never happened," recalls Cohen. "I don't think we were the favourites, the label sound was more left field. I never felt we really fitted in with the other bands." Stints with Red Flame and Island followed, before a final single on Virgin France in 1984.
With New Hormones back in business, Richard Boon set about finding new talent. One early discovery was Biting Tongues, spotted supporting The Fall at the Beach Club in May 1980. Held at Oozits on Newgate Street, the Beach Club filled a gap left by the closure of the Factory Club and ran from April 1980 until the end of the year. Essentially a New Hormones club night, these events offered cult films as well as bands, and included the first gig by New Order on 29 July 1980.
Filmmaker (and saxophonist) Howard Walmsley had initially formed Biting Tongues to play a live soundtrack at a screening of his film, Biting Tongues. Bassist Colin Seddon describes the nascent group's approach: "We had a kind of unspoken rule amongst ourselves that if anybody else does it or follows any rules of musical harmony, then we don't do it. Mix that with a high level of energy and arrogance." "Organized noise" is how Graham Massey (keyboards, tapes, guitar) sums it up.
In August 1980 New Hormones paid for a recording session at Drone Studios in Chorlton with Stuart James at the desk. Not for the last time, cashflow problems led to the label sitting on the tape. When Peter Kent at Situation Two expressed an interest in putting out a Tongues record, Boon agreed to let them have the tapes, which became the second side of the album Don't Heal.
One important conduit for new bands in Manchester in the post-punk era was the Manchester Musicians' Collective (MMC), co-founded by arts administrator (and founder member of The Passage) Dick Witts, and Trevor Wishart, composer-in-residence at North West Arts.
MMC regulars Dislocation Dance formed in August 1978 after singer/guitarist Ian Runacres, recently arrived from Wolverhampton, spied bassist Paul Emmerson's 'musicians wanted' ad in Virgin records. The band released debut EP, Perfectly in Control jointly on its own label, Delicate Issues, and on New Hormones (ORG 7). "Hopelessly derivative of Ubu and Scritti" is Emmerson's verdict today. Dislocation Dance thereafter put Delicate Issues on the backburner and became New Hormones' band-most-likely-to.
After the 'conceit' of The Tiller Boys had outlived its usefulness, Eric Random carried on recording for New Hormones as a solo artist. In August 1980, his debut EP, That's What I Like About Me (ORG 6), was made single of the week by the NME despite clocking in at more than 30 minutes for the four tracks, two of which were produced by Cabaret Voltaire.
"I was still in the same sort of frame of mind as with Tiller Boys," says Random. "Still quite an aggressive physical sound, but using a lot of repetition. I'd started using drum machines by then, things like that, very basic synthesizers as well. Usually I would just start by making a backing tape, which could be anything - like mixing in TV adverts - just to create a moving texture. And then I'd just improvise over it." Some people preferred listening to the results at the wrong speed.
The Diagram Brothers joined New Hormones in 1981. The group, postgraduate science students Fraser Reich (vox/guitar) and Lawrence Fitzgerald (guitar/vox), undergrad Jason Pitchers (bass/vox) and his drummer brother Simon (who worked as a chartered structural engineer), had formed from the remnants of student band The Mysteronz. Pursuing an ultra-democratic approach, the key elements of the band's approach were the use of discords and simple words. "Because we had a diversity of political viewpoints, we decided only ever to state facts," recalls Jason Pitchers. In essence this meant quirky pieces about everyday life such as Isn't It Funny How Neutron Bombs Work?
Ultra-democracy also extended to adopting the same surname: Diagram Brothers came from a structural engineering term, the Williot-Mohr diagram. "They were early geeks," laughs Liz Naylor, one of the founders of the Beach Club, who (with Cath Carroll) ran City Fun fanzine from the same office as New Hormones.
The combination of an appearance at a John Peel Roadshow at Manchester University in January 1980, and a demo tape memorably wrapped around a brick secured an early Peel session for the band. The Diagrams cut a single, We Are All Animals, which came out on Construct Records in October 1980. "I liked We Are All Animals," explains Boon. "I recall Mike Hinc phoning me up and saying do something else with them, because he was too busy being a booking manager at Rough Trade."
By this time Jason had left the band to return to Bristol, where he formed The Skodas. His replacement (found through the MMC) was Andy Diagram: a classically trained musician freshly arrived from the London squat scene. As well as picking up bass duties in The Diagram Brothers, Andy started playing trumpet with Dislocation Dance (and then the Pale Fountains), adding a new level of professionalism to both outfits.
"He was exactly what I was looking for," recalls Runacres. "Andy has the perfect blend of musicality, individuality and freedom."
The first Diagrams single for New Hormones was Bricks b/w Postal Bargains (ORG 9), respectively a tribute to the humble household brick and a tirade against shoddy mail order purchases. Bricks quickly becme a John Peel favourite, and the band recorded three radio sessions for the BBC in as many years.
Joining Diagram Brothers at New Hormones in early 1981 were Gods Gift, a different kettle of fish entirely. "Gods Gift were just Goddamn weird," says Naylor. "They were fronted by this really intense skinny guy, Steve Edwards. And the guitarist [Steve Murphy] was this really big, fat guy." He was "very, very good" says Boon. "Used to play with his back to the audience all the time."
The band's first release for New Hormones was the Gods Gift EP (ORG 14) in July 1981. In the label's catalogue later that year, Boon describes the record as, "Confronting war and religion with uncompromising, compelling noise. And confronting the listener. Frantic minority appeal, loud and extreme."
"Richard loved Gods Gift. He adored them. I think they were his ideal," says Random. "One of the great lost bands," reckons Naylor.
Almost a family
New Hormones was based in an office on the top floor of a large, ramshackle old merchants' warehouse at 50 Newton Street right in the centre of Manchester (today it houses a backpackers' hostel). "A typical day at 50 Newton Street is beyond description," reckons Boon. "It was an open house to derelicts."
When they weren't recording or hanging out at the office, the label's bands were often on the road together. One live package, I Like Shopping, featured a line-up of Ludus, Dislocation Dance, The Diagram Brothers, Eric Random and the Mudhutters. "It was almost a family with New Hormones," recalls Fitzgerald.
The New Hormones cassette series, released in batches of 500 in 1981, was aimed at the new Walkman generation. There were three releases in all: Pickpocket by Ludus (CAT 1), Radio Sweat by the CP Lee Mystery Guild (CAT 2), and Live It by Biting Tongues (CAT 3). Multimedia was the thing: "You'd get a tape and you'd get a magazine," says Boon. "It's nicely put together. You've got Linder's work, which was a musical work and a visual work put together. Biting Tongues: I'm sure we were supposed to do some text thing but didn't. It wasn't just supposed to be the Live It cassette."
A fourth project, 20 Golden Great Assassinations by Liverpudlian Ambrose Reynolds was shelved. New Hormones also funded and distributed the quarterly cassette magazine Northern Lights, which appeared four times between April 1981 and February 1982.
By 1982, New Hormones was running short of money. Yet, despite (or perhaps because of) these problems, the label reached its creative high water mark at this time, releasing a string of great records: Eric Random and the Bedlamites' Earthbound Ghost Need (ORG 18), the Diagram Brothers' Discordo EP (ORG 21), Ludus's The Seduction (ORG 16) and the fiercely experimental Danger Came Smiling (ORG 20), the punk classic Discipline by Gods Gift (ORG 25) and two sublime pop records by Dislocation Dance: Rosemary (b/w Shake) (ORG 19) and the double-A side, You'll Never, Never Know b/w You Can Tell (ORG 22).
The label was also beginning to improve its promotion and distribution by this stage, securing licensing deals for Ludus in Italy (the Riding the Rag compilation LP) and Dislocation Dance in the Benelux countries (the single Rosemary). The latter, a proto-Housemartins kitchen sink vignette with a samba beat, became New Hormones biggest seller since Spiral Scratch, reaching the top 20 in the Netherlands, and prompting an appearance on the Dutch equivalent of Top of the Pops.
The relative success of Rosemary followed hot on the heels of a successful US East Coast tour to promote the first full-length Dislocation Dance album, Music Music Music. Released in October 1981 (ORG 15), the Stuart James-produced LP showed off the group's mastery of a range of styles, from swing to brown rice funk to bubblegum pop. Despite winning over both critics and audiences, the US tour "didn't actually help sell many more records," notes Boon. It also led to Pete Wright's departure from the New Hormones organization. "I met someone when the band was in NYC and then got an offer of a (paying) job," recalls Wright. "Things were getting pretty tight back in Manchester by that time."
"I thought, 'we're fucked'," recalls Runacres. "Pete leaving probably had a bigger impact than the lack of New Hormones financing. Nothing is more important than an effective manager."
Shortly after this blow, New Hormones was dealt another when Diagram Brothers parted company, having just released what would turn out to be its swansong, the Discordo EP. New Hormones' monetary difficulties certainly played a part in the decision. "They couldn't afford to release anything more really," says Fitzgerald.
Aside from Spiral Scratch and Rosemary, Ludus' The Seduction was the biggest-selling record New Hormones put out. Given the record company's predicament by late 1982, a more business-savvy label boss might have despaired at the anti-commercialism of the group's next LP, Danger Came Smiling. "Reichian therapy. Screaming birthing therapy!! You have to love them for that, don't you? You have to love Richard for putting it out," chuckles Liz Naylor. Today, Boon says it is his favourite New Hormones release.
After further singles from Gods Gift and Dislocation Dance (by now original vocalist Kathryn Way had rejoined, after three years at college), the final New Hormones release was Cruisin' for Santa (ORG 25), a Christmas 1982 CND benefit single by CP Lee's band Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias. "We'd talked to CND and it was supposed to be a fundraiser: it just didn't sell, so it didn't raise any money in the end," recalls Boon.
Further releases were planned for 1983, including Biting Tongues' Libreville LP (ORG 26), a Dislocation Dance single, Remind Me (ORG 27), and Eric Random recordings later released on the album Time-Splice, before Boon's parlous financial status intervened. "My bank manager called me and said 'I've been having a word with Richard - he had the same bank manager as me - I think you ought to lend him some money'," recalls CP Lee. "I was like, 'well, I'm not going to', which was sad in a way because maybe that was the end of New Hormones, I don't know. He wanted five grand."
With New Hormones on the verge of collapse, Boon was offered the chance to sign a new band fronted by Linder's best friend: "Morrissey came in saying 'right, we've recorded Hand in Glove and we've got this live track from the fashion show, could I help'? And I said 'no, because you need more resources than I could possibly, possibly offer. You need to talk to Simon Edwards at Rough Trade Distribution'." Boon's referral led directly to The Smiths signing with Rough Trade.
Shortly after, Boon received his own offer from the London label. "I couldn't sustain Dislocation Dance anymore and I'd done some demos and I took them to Geoff Travis and he rang me and said, 'oh, this is interesting, I want to talk to them. And I want to talk to you'." Travis asked Boon if he would be willing to deputize for him for three months while he was in the US. Boon agreed.
When he moved down to London (early summer 1983), Boon carried on renting the office at 50 Newton Street, just in case. "I paid two months ahead. Liz and I packed up all the press releases, all this stuff - boxes, labelled them. I told the landlord we were packing up, we'd be going in two months, but I paid - He threw everything in a skip! Bastard!"
"This music should be heard"
"Richard was really a vital glue conceptually for everybody. I think from him came that sense of it's a creative house and I support you in your creative stuff," says Reich. "He was so clearly committed to the idea of the creative part of it that actually money hardly got discussed at all."
"Richard detested business. It wasn't him really. He was more into the creative side," agrees Random.
Why then, given the undoubted creativity of Boon and his bands, has New Hormones left barely a trace in the collective consciousness? Perhaps it's a question of economics: whereas Factory, Fast, Zoo, Postcard and Rough Trade all produced chart acts, New Hormones artists didn't sell, either whilst with the label, or after. Even Dislocation Dance, listed by Smash Hits as one of the bands to watch in 1983 (alongside Wham!), never broke through following their transfer to Rough Trade, their eclecticism proving too difficult to market.
"Maybe New Hormones as a label was a little bit too diverse," suggests Stuart James. "Even though a lot of the bands shared the same producer, there was no signature sound. The artwork didn't have a unified style. Even though they were more of a family, it wasn't perceived as that."
Has New Hormones had any influence? "Hardly any, apart from its attitude," reckons Boon. "If there was an ethos," he says, "it was just that this music should be heard. And these players should be paid attention, because they have, hopefully, something to say, or they are making an interesting racket. There wasn't an overarching ideology. I didn't want to be Ahmet Erteg¸n or anything like that."
"If you look at what New Hormones didn't put out [The Fall, The Smiths, etc] Richard's very generous with his advice, or his enabling of other people to do things. And subsequently has been a lot less successful than anybody else," reflects Naylor. "He really was an important person in Manchester's music history."
Tony Wilson of Factory concurred, stating in Q Magazine in September 2006: "The real hero of the independents movement was New Hormones, the Buzzcocks' label, which paved the way for the 1980s independents. And like every other label it was set up by the band's manager, Richard Boon."
"I'm not bitter - about anything actually," says Boon. "It was a great adventure: set out with that map and see where you land."
"Outstanding compilations, sophisticated scholarship. Boredom by Buzzcocks from 1977 sets a standard of intellectual imagination and neurotic pop energy. Several of the artists subsequently recording on New Hormones would in their different ways evolve this school of taut, playful, sonic compression, in which tremulous pop guitars merged with deft hi-hat beats, moody electronic enhancement and outright avant-gardism. Thus the free pop collage of My Cherry Is In Sherry by Ludus finds a place alongside, for instance, the near dub jazz of Skin Deep by Eric Random, or the dark growling of Denture Beach by Biting Tongues" (The Wire, 08/2008)