Auteur Labels \ Robs Records [LTMCD 2542]
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. SUB SUB Ain't No Love (Ain't No Use)
2. THE BEAT CLUB Security (Sumner Remix)
3. A CERTAIN RATIO 27 Forever (Jon Dasilva Mix)
4. SPACER IV Sirocco
5. STRANGEBREW Sky Life
6. ROY DAVIS JNR & JAY JUNIEL Egyptian Jazz
7. J-WALK Buggin' Becky (Balihu Remix)
8. MR SCRUFF Chicken in a Box
9. ANAMBI Our Love Climbs Higher (Extended Mix)
10. RACK-IT! Tarantella Ritual
11. DIGITAL JUSTICE Theme From It's All Gone Pear Shaped
12. A CERTAIN RATIO Listen to the Sound
13. SUB SUB Inside of This
"Outstanding compilations, sophisticated scholarship' (The Wire, 08/2008)
"LTM deliver another instalment in the extremely exciting Auteur Labels series, compiling the best tracks from the label prior to Rob Gretton's death in 1999. Among them are pre-historic Factory workers A Certain Ratio, Roy Davis Jr, Sub Sub (later Doves) with their Number 3 hit Ain't No Love and the early ambient uberhit Pear Shaped by Digital Justice. Strictly 90s and full-blooded" (Westzeit, 05/2010)
"For all the clichéd 'disco sucks!' rhetoric bandied about, the crossover between dance and punk musics are amusing. Sonically both bore repetitive, rhythmic passages topped with lyrics about boredom, drugs and sex. 80s dance punk/funk groups came and went (Swamp Children, Marine, APB, Maximum Joy) and the late 80s birthed A Guy Called Gerald, Soul II Soul and M People while the 90s represented a more linear sect of DJ/collage/House proponent (Sub Sub, Anamdi, Mr Scruff, Spacer IV, J-Walk, Strangebrew). Joy Division/New Order manager Rob Gretton helped fund Slaughter & The Dogs, helped establish post punk with Joy Division and New Order, and instigated dance club The Haçienda. While Anthony H. Wilson might not have agreed, Gretton himself knew it before anyone: 'Disco RULES!'" (The Big Takeover, 09/2010)
AUTEUR LABEL: ROBS RECORDS
a proper wythenshawe boy
Born in Wythenshawe on 15 January 1953, Robert Leo Gretton was educated at St Bede's College, a Roman Catholic grammar school, and after leaving took a job as an insurance clerk at Eagle Star. In 1975 he and partner Lesley Gilbert spent six months on a kibbutz in Israel, then travelled through Europe to Greece, eventually returning to Manchester in the summer of 1976. The pair missed both epochal Sex Pistols gigs at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, but were quickly drawn into the developing punk scene. Previously more interested in black music and soul, Gretton latched onto fellow Wythenshawe natives Slaughter and the Dogs, and with characteristic generosity contributed £200 towards the cost of producing their first single on Rabid Records, Cranked Up Really High.
'They were quite a strange group,' he observed later. 'They used punk fashion to a certain degree, but they were more like glam rock. Their heroes were the New York Dolls, Bowie and Roxy. They ended up more like The Damned than the serious side of punk. The music they played was great, but no-one seemed to like them.' Never quite their manager, Gretton instead produced a band fanzine and frequently travelled with the group, attending several gigs in London, including the infamous Roxy in Covent Garden.
Gretton determined to remain self-employed and worked hard on establishing a music career. As well as dabbling in gig promotion with Vinny Faal at The Oaks, a popular pub venue in Chorlton, Gretton also produced a fanzine called Manchester Rains (a punning riposte to Clash song London's Burning) and took on management of punk hopefuls The Panik, whose members included guitarist Eric Random. The only single made by The Panik was itself the sole release on Rainy City Records, another Gretton business venture founded on a simple manifesto: 'We're so bored with London.' Prophetically captioned It Won't Sell, the EP was released in November 1977 and distributed through Rabid. Yet within four months The Panik had disintegrated, victims of disorganization, non-rehearsal and a lack of transport.
Gretton considered his next move carefully, and was profoundly impressed by Manchester band Joy Division after seeing them perform at the Stiff/Chiswick Challenge at Rafters on 14 April 1978. 'I thought they were the best group I'd ever seen. There was something really weird about them. I'd met them before because they used to come to Rafters and ask me to play records by Kraftwerk; they always asked for pretty weird stuff. It was around then that people first said "Fascists" because they dressed so differently. They were smart, punky, but not scruffy; it was unusual. And the music was absolutely wonderful.'
The following day Gretton encountered guitarist Bernard Sumner in a city centre phone box. 'Barney was on the phone to me,' drummer Stephen Morris recalls, 'and said that the bloke from Rafters was outside. He didn't mention anything about Rob wanting to manage us, so when Rob came down to the rehearsal room it was all a bit awkward. Terry Mason had tried a bit of management, but basically Rob was first in a queue of one.'
In June Joy Division appeared on one of the opening nights at The Factory, a club promoting 'the next music' promoted by Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus at the Russell Club in Hulme. Later in 1978 the venue became a label, Factory Records, one of the most influential labels in the history of recorded sound. Gretton and producer Martin Hannett became partners in Factory in 1979, joining founders Wilson, Erasmus and designer Peter Saville. 'For me personally it is an experiment in art,' said Wilson of Factory. 'It has to do with art theory. For Rob Gretton, it's to give people alternatives. For Alan Erasmus, it's to keep from getting bored. We all have our motives.'
Besides managing Joy Division and then New Order, Gretton also occasionally dabbled in production, overseeing further singles by Section 25 and Foreign Press, and also a session by Repetition. Inspired by the first Factory outing to New York in September 1980, Gretton became the main instigator behind The Haçienda nightclub, opened by Factory as Fac 51 in May 1982, which would became the most famous dance club in the world after five lean years. Far more of a populist than Wilson, Gretton was keen to issue commercial records on Factory, but by 1984 he would admit to a degree of disillusion. 'In the past few years the music scene has changed a lot, for the worse. Now everything's very pop orientated. The established music press - the ones where you get print on your fingers - are dying off, and the big ones now are Smash Hits and Number One. I don't think that's a good thing particularly. One of our groups on Factory were trying to get an interview with Record Mirror, and they said they only deal with Top 100 groups, which to me seems a bit self-defeating. Everything's gone a lot more superficial, and record buyers are a lot younger. Major record companies can work very successfully on these. children. At Factory we still basically believe that you don't have to hype a group in any way, and that a record should succeed on its own. But it's getting increasingly difficult. We put a record out by Marcel King and it's hardly sold at all. The charts are wide open to hyping and marketing. I'm not totally sure that the people of Manchester particularly want The Haçienda. It's part of the whole recession in anything that's slightly different.'
Gretton differed with Wilson and Gretton over dance music. Wilson had little time for pure dance, deeming it ephemeral and shallow, with little or no artistic or intellectual intent. Gretton, in contrast, was an avid fan of black and dance music, and in 1982 had brought Wythenshawe soul sons 52nd Street to the label, as well as Quando Quango, an electro-dance group formed by his friend Mike Pickering. As House music gradually transformed The Haçienda - and the charts - during 1986 and 1987, the ongoing dialectic around House and dance at Factory saw the label fall behind. Gretton was unable to interest Wilson in licensing happening imports such as You're Gonna Miss Me by Turntable Orchestra, and Pickering took dance projects such as T-Coy and Black Box to Deconstruction.
By 1989 Gretton had decided to set up his own label, Robs Records, and worked for some time on lining up pin-sharp electro track Security by Miami duo The Beat Club as his first release. Like Deconstruction, Robs would develop primarily as a dance label, and utilise a clean graphic identity designed by Mark Farrow. Unlike Factory, Gretton remained remarkably faithful to his punk-era ideals, shaping an independent label firmly rooted in Manchester and the North West, drawing mainly from a local talent pool, and licensing occasional imports by way of variety. Marketing funds were available where required, but there would be no name producers, no £100,000 deals, and no prestige headquarters. Instead Robs was run by a small staff from the Gainwest office at his Chorlton home, and later empty space above The Haçienda. These differences notwithstanding, over the next few years Robs Records came to resemble classic Factory more closely than Factory itself.
'It's my solo project,' quipped Gretton. 'Everyone else has got one, so I'm doing mine.'
Indifferent to generic baggy Madchester styles, Gretton finally opened his account in January 1991 with Security by The Beat Club, a duo comprising Ony Rodriguez and Mireya Valls. Security was originally issued in the States in 1988, and remixed as ROB1 by Bernard Sumner of New Order/Electronic, who also added additional vocals. Like Carino by T-Coy, the single indicated the likely direction of travel for Factory Dance, and also kickstarted Beat Club's career. 'Rob allowed me to pursue my love for the studio, and the artistic freedom an independent label allowed,' says Ony Rodriguez. 'He forever changed my attitude towards the business and defined the priorities for my career.' Following on from the modest success of Security, Robs released a second Beat Club single, Dreams Were Made to be Broken, this time backed with a Manchester Mix by Martin Moscrop of A Certain Ratio.
Not wishing to be left out, and recently freed from an unsatisfactory major label deal with A&M, Ratio themselves also joined the Robs roster, Gretton joking that the new venture could not be considered a proper label until it had lost money on a record by ACR. In fact Ratio thrived at their new home. Their first single on Robs was the much-loved 27 Forever, a song for the clutch of dead rock musicians eternally preserved at that mythical age. Its ravey, Technotronic-esque Jon Dasilva Fix Mix would soon become a ubiquitous Haçienda door wobbler, and was followed by Mello, The Planet and Wonder Y. Remaining prolific, Ratio stayed with Robs for five years and released two albums, Up In Downsville and Change The Station.
Although both Factory and Gretton missed a trick by failing to release compilation album Haçienda Classics in the middle of 1992, Fac 51 remained an important centre of operations for Gretton and his new label. A Robs Records party held on 4 March 1992 offered live sets by Ratio and house act Anambi, as well as DJ sets from Jon Dasilva, Dave Rofe (also founder of dance label DFM) and brothers Andy and Peter Robinson. Besides his involvement in Anambi, Andy Robinson had also played in both Life and Electronic, and would later co-manage New Order along with Rebecca Boulton. As Gretton's assistant at Gainwest, Boulton also helped to run Robs and oversaw much of the admin.
Another key signing came in 1992 when Rob was introduced to Sub Sub, a young Wilmslow trio managed by Rofe. Sub Sub had just enjoyed an underground club hit with their debut single Space Face, only to be dropped, inexplicably, by Virgin subsidiary Ten Records soon after. 'Our first meeting with Rob was at Dry bar a year or so after Space Face had been released,' says Andy Williams. 'It was refreshing meeting him because he was totally straight with us. He said he liked what he heard and would love to release some tracks, but he didn't actually have much money to spend on them. He said they couldn't cost a lot to put out, but anything we made would be a 50/50 split, which actually worked really well for us.'
Sub Sub's first release on Robs was the sublime Coast, an instrumental EP of MDMA-soaked Balearic gorgeousness, the title track of which can still be heard wafting through every other holiday programme on television. But it was to be Sub Sub's second release on Robs, the single Ain't No Love (Ain't No Use), which really lit the touch paper for both band and label. As soon as the band had finished the demo, they realised it had potential as a crossover pop song, and could therefore use a vocal. They passed it onto a friend, singer Melanie Williams, who sassed up the existing melody and added a verse of her own. The final version was completed in just one night at Revolution studio in Cheadle Hulme. 'You could feel the excitement in the studio,' recalls Rofe. 'Before Ain't No Love, the band had been making great dance records, but they were a bit too different for a lot of the clubs. Ain't No Love was more straight-up. We knew we had a hit on our hands.'
Later that week, Dave Rofe and Pete Robinson (who went on to run harder-edged Robs offshoot Pleasure) took the newly-minted DAT down to Sunset Radio to play on their Haçienda FM slot. By coincidence, their friends John Burgess and Paul Benney were down at the station taking photos for what would be a brand new Manchester-based dance music magazine. The picture of Dave and Pete airing Ain't No Love made it on to the cover of the first ever issue of Jockey Slut. Needless to say, the track got a rave review.
Exploding into life with a sample nicked from an old Disco Spectacular album (won by Andy Williams on a coconut shy at Knutsford Fair), Ain't No Love (Ain't No Use) was a number three hit in the UK in April 1993, going on to sell a quarter of a million copies. A final twist in the tale came when London Records released New Order's Regret, the band's first post-Factory single, in the same week that Ain't No Love came out. New Order entered the charts at #4, but were held off the top three by a single on their own manager's record label.
Ain't No Love transformed the fortunes of Sub Sub and Robs. The 50/50 profit split between label and band meant that Rob now had some cash to pump into the ailing Haçienda, and Sub Sub could move into their own studio complex on Blossom Street in Ancoats. This facility would become a vital component in the next chapter of the Robs story. 'There were four rooms at Blossom Street,' explains Dave Rofe. 'We decided to sublet the other studios to pay for ours. So we ended up with Phil Kirby, the drummer from Yargo, in one room, and Simon Crompton from Digital Justice in the other. There was still a spare space, so I said to Rob, why don't you have a programming room so we can get some kids in off the street and just see what happens. At the time Spirit studio were just starting to run their first music production courses, so we got Cromi [Crompton] and one of the lecturers there to pick out the two brightest kids on the course. The idea was to get some of the great young DJs that we were hearing into the studio with their records, and team them up with some whizz kids from Spirit. The ethos was trying to give people a little leg up so they could then go on to do what they wanted to do.'
It worked. The Spirit kids were Liam Duggan, who engineered Mr Scruff's classic Chicken in a Box, and Martin Desai, who became one half of J-Walk. Duggan went on to work with the likes of Roni Size and Grace Jones, while Desai is now head of audio at the School of Sound Recording (formerly Spirit). The DJs were Jake Purdy and Martin Fisher (aka Martin Brew), as well as Stefano and Paul Langley, whose epic Have You Had It EP as Rack-It! became the debut 12-inch on Pleasure. Martin Brew became one of the most prolific artists to emerge from Blossom Street, putting out an impressive total of twelve releases across both labels as Strange Brew (with Jake Purdy) and J-Walk (with Martin Desai).
'Rob enjoyed being part of the dance fray,' says writer John McCready, who with Jon Dasilva would himself issue a single on Robs as Hallelujah. Other Robs releases not featured on this compilation included Search, Robbie, Red Seal, Gold Coast and Vanilla Sound Corps. 'Typical of his generosity of spirit, he wanted to encourage. He knew a lot of this stuff wasn't fully formed and that some artists would go on to certain obscurity while others would flourish. Utterly playful sometimes and, yes, fundamentally Situationist, it was in some ways an extension of his social life and a kind of experiment. Rob was looking at what Soma, Warp and DMC were doing. He heard the simple practical joy in house music and connected with it immediately, stood by the bar, pushing his glasses up and absorbing all that energy like Yoda. He tried hard to make that label distinct, to make it un-Factory. He'd done Joy Division and wanted to lighten up and look forward. You can't underestimate the personal emotional cost of being involved with that band and New Order. Robs was his unheavy holiday.'
By this point, 1995, Gretton's varied musical enthusiasms were starting to pull the label in different directions. He was indulging his age-old passion for reggae with acts like Bad Man Wagon and Dan Man and the General, and also exploring soulful, downbeat styles via Flamingos and Mantech. Pleasure was created with the idea of focusing more rigidly on the dancefloor, and run by Peter Robinson. Artists included Prism, Spacer IV, Strange Brew, J-Walk and Mr Scruff, whose seminal Frolic EP was the fourth 12-inch to come out on Pleasure. Another home-grown talent, Andy Carthy started off knocking together loops and samples in the Robs Records programming room. When (as Mr Scruff) he was ready to turn these rough ideas into finished tracks, he was aided by Phil Kirby and Liam Duggen in Phil's studio next door. Chicken in a Box went on to become a true Northern Quarter classic and helped launch Mr Scruff's highly successful career as a DJ, cartoonist and tea fanatic.
Yet another sublabel, Manchester Records, was set up to put out Gabrielle's Wish and Jane Weaver tracks, Rob having fallen back in love with guitar music. However, Pleasure was far more prolific, with a strong of strong releases in 1997, including tracks from Chicago House don Roy Davis Jnr, and Knutsford's own Spacer IV. Roy Davis was turned on to the label when Dave Rofe and Pete Robinson invited him to play their 5th Man night at The HaÁ. The three DJs got talking after the gig, and soon Roy sent over two tracks for release: Who is Billy? backed with slinky Egyptian Jazz. As Spacer IV, James Zeiter had enjoyed a big Euro hit in 1995 with his first release for Pleasure, the progressive house anthem Arc 3. Two years later his track Sirocco marked something of a departure, with its meditative Fender Rhodes and liquid basslines giving his friends Sub Sub a run for their money on the blissed-out Mediterranean beach vibes front.
In 1995 Louis Gordon and Simon Crompton of Digital Justice became the envy of technoheads all over Manchester with their epic twelve minute beatless masterpiece, Theme From: It's All Gone Pear Shaped. The track reeks of the kind of melancholic euphoria that can only be cooked up in dank Ancoats studios on strong drugs, and has since become a big spin for Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Carl Craig, to name but three. Not bad for a track jammed out in one take and mastered onto a TDK cassette. Says Cromi: 'The most memorable time I ever heard Pear Shaped being played out was on Millennium Eve. I was working in London away from my family and friends. I'd gone down to see Andrew Weatherall DJing with Leftfield. The bells came in at midnight, and then Pear Shaped came on, and Weatherall was just grinning at me from the behind the decks. I got straight on the phone to Louis and he was like, fuck off!'
The final record released on Robs was a Sub Sub single, This Time I'm Not Wrong, which, like Security by The Beat Club, featured Bernard Sumner on vocals. This track would also mark the end of Sub Sub, who not long before had lost all of their equipment when a fire destroyed the Blossom Street studio. The band overcame this setback, and returned with a more guitar-focused sound as Doves. Indeed Gretton oversaw the release of the first Doves single Cedar Room, issued on bespoke imprint Casino in 1998, but sadly Rob died after suffering a heart attack on 15 May 1999. He is sorely missed.
Despite this tragic loss, the Pleasure imprint continued until 2001 under the direction of Pete Robinson, achieving a big airplay hit with J-Walk's filmic Soul Vibration on the way. Doves continue to thrive, achieving major international success on Heavenly/ EMI. Always the most involved member of New Order when it came to The Haçienda, bassist Peter Hook opened a new Factory-themed club in February 2010, Fac 251, and in his Haçienda memoir How Not To Run A Nightclub paid heartfelt tribute to Gretton and his hitherto undervalued label: 'Rob always looked for ways to earn money, but it was always on his terms. In 1991 he started his own music label, Robs Records, which he operated with great success out of an upstairs office that he shared with his assistant, Rebecca Boulton, who took over the running of New Order when Rob died. He specialized in finding home-grown talent: most of the acts on Robs came from Manchester. He didn't extensively scout for talent, either - he relied on Dave Rofe (Doves' manager) and people like that to bring him the Manchester acts. Despite all the power at his disposal, he ignored anyone outside of our area. He hated everyone south of Chorlton. He wasn't looking for the next Black Box. He preferred to back a group from Wythenshawe, like Doves or A Certain Ratio. It was a very purist attitude, but then he was a proper Wythenshawe boy.'
For more information on Robs Records and associated labels see: