Raygunesque #16: Creation Records

Art & Culture

London, in the mid-1980s. A ridiculously exciting time. Ahead of the fully-fledged arrival of that whole acid house mullarkey, London is your proverbial melting point of music, styles, tribes and all sorts. Electro records from New York, electronic music from places like Sheffield, proto-techno industrial sounds from Berlin, moody Gothic records from up north (Leeds probably) and, hip-hop beginning to flex its muscles and spread ever further afield. 

Just as exciting as this, for one impressionable floppy-fringed youngster, was Creation Records. 

The nascent label, launched in 1983, still had that punk rock frisson, a proper fuck you to the industry, to everyone else… And yet this was not the bludgeoning, shouty, sweary anger of anarcho-punks such as Flux Of Pink Indians. Instead of taking 1976 as year zero, it was a distillation of all things leading to punk (60s US garage, West Coast psych, London mod, bleak New York-based Velvet Underground feedback, a hint of Northern Soul) and everything good that had followed it, from the initial surge of the Pistols and The Clash through to the Buzzcocks and all that followed, notably post-punk giants Subway Sect, Orange Juice and the seminal Postcard label, as well as equally unruly Fire Engines. 

In 1984, especially, as it hit its stride, Creation, itself borne out of The Living Room, a different kind of London club (pre-acid house, it was, for pasty-faced white boys wearing creepers, as much about the records between the bands as well as the bands themselves), seemed like the most exciting label on earth. 

Those early, halcyon days are celebrated in a just-released, lavish box set from Cherry Red Records, Creation Artifact, subtitled The Dawn Of Creation Records 1983-85. 

It celebrates a pre-Loaded Primal Scream, a pre-major label Jesus And Mary Chain, a pre-Oasis-discovering Alan McGee, the mercurial label chief and a whole bunch of groups you may never have heard of. And it celebrates the ethos of the label in its nascent, formative years. For anyone who’s read any of the welter of books that have followed since the imprint was shuttered, especially McGee’s own biography, it celebrates the days before it got swallowed up by its own mythology, before everything became about Oasis, before that famous My Bloody Valentine elpee nearly sunk the label (yawn, how many times do we have to hear that story?), before Primal Scream took a pill and then became traitors to the acid house cause and turned to smack and before it became all about units (again, that one is for those who’ve read McGee’s own memoir, the second half becomes almost as much about how many copies a record shifted).…

And, a few duff ones aside, it still sounds great. Exciting, lively and very punk. 

But don’t just take my word for it. I was an early Creation devotee, buying anything and everything on the label (even a baroque, neo-classical outing by Les Zarjaz, a mysteriously missing single from this otherwise comprehensive look at its early years). So I’m bound to say it’s good.

Let’s ask, instead, Jim Shepherd, part of The Jasmine Minks, one of the finest bands to have ever graced the label throughout its entire history, not just the formative years. 

I’m really proud of the label and the people we were then,” he says now, some 30 years or more since the group of fresh-faced Scottish lads released their debut single (Think, the third on Creation) and mini-LP, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 All Good Preachers Go To Heaven (a title that, as legend has it, was one of the inspirations behind the Manic Street Preachers’ name). “We could be a bit obnoxious, but it is bringing back memories of meeting all these talented guys, drinking beer and discussing how we could challenge the world, yet be positive. I still feel like that to an extent, but it was extreme then and that’s why the memories are so strong.

Shepherd and co’s group bonded with McGee over a shared love of the Velvet Underground, one of the requirements for any Creation group worth their salt in the early days. “We sent a cassette of demo’s to the weekly music magazine, Sounds, where it was reviewed,” he recalls. “A few days after, Alan McGee phoned me up and asked a few questions about us, the main ones being, ‘Are you a Scottish band?’ And, ‘Do you like the Velvet Underground?’ Both answers were yes, he came along to see us rehearse at Alaska Studios in Waterloo, London, and liked the song, Think. Adam [Sanderson, the Minks’ other frontman] and Alan hit it off really well and then he asked us to play his club, The Living Room. Soon after that we did some recording for a single.

The Living Room was the fulcrum around which the label was built, a night in a venue up near Warren Street, which put on two or three bands, with McGee and people like Joe Foster, another leading light in the Creation story, playing records. “We were making friends with the bands we regularly played with and would see each other at gigs,” says Shepherd. “The Loft, Primal Scream, Television Personalities, June Brides would all play together at other venues, not just the Living Room, and we'd share gear and wanted Creation to be a label with a focus against the more hippy-like independent labels we'd come across before then.

If we weren’t playing at the Living Room, we were there watching the other bands.

The bands and the their influences were, he notes, from a similar starting point, although they all went off at different tangents. As Shepherd says: The Velvet Underground was a common influence, whether it was performing Sister Ray at a Christmas party or chilling out to Femme Fatale. The 60s Nuggets sounds was a common influence too. We did 60s cover versions like Love's Seven and Seven Is and We The People's In The Past. The scene was very definitely 60s influenced with a bit of post-punk and a few other odd things going on. Bands like The Undertones and The Buzzcocks had the right feel for what we wanted to sound like sometimes too. We were all on the left of politics and liked to wear 60s influenced clothes with a Mod look.”

The Minks were, arguably, the most mod (modest?) of the lot, a counterpoint to the near-psychobilly trash sound of of X-Men. “The angular images and the 60s Carnaby Street thing was big for us, especially as Scots coming down to London. We kinda mixed the Mod thing with the Post-Punk thing. I started buying modernist jumpers and shirts, I bought a plex-glass guitar, I had an infatuation with The Who and the Jam for a while. I loved the 60s soul music.

It all seemed, I suggest, incredibly exciting, being part of this label. If the best groups are gangs, then Creation was a gang of gangs. Something like the opening scene of The Warriors. “It was a good group of people, varied in ways, but with lots in common, especially a desire to do something different than the darker Indie music which was around at the time.

Although one can mention The Warriors, and the label and its roster had a decidedly tough image, thanks in no small part to the Jesus And Mary Chain’s riot-friendly sounds, they weren’t as hard as they pretended. The Jasmine Minks were on the bill at the legendary Jesus And Mary Chain riot at North London Poly, but it wasn’t as exciting as it looked to this observer. Shepherd says: “It was frightening and we managed to bluff our way out of getting beaten up by pretending we were tough. I had a Suedehead hair-do at the time and a Crombie coat, Adam took a hammer on stage and, somehow, we never got attacked. It certainly was a memorable night and we were lucky to get all our gear out in one piece, although everything else was wrecked.

The success of the Jesus And Mary Chain arguably changed the label forever. “JAMC took off and deservedly so. They had a unique, incendiary sound and Jim was a great singer. The label took off and it was a busy time, although Alan had to stop managing us to concentrate on JAMC, so that was a blow to our regular gigs and press a bit.

In the middle of all this maelstrom, there’s McGee himself. The motivator, the man behind the label, who looms large over all five CDs in this set. He’s there as the main man behind Biff Bang Pow!, arguably the most underrated of all bands on the label and offering some of the highpoints here on the Artifact set; the man who released singles by everyone from Meat Whiplash (one of the standouts) to Danny Rampling’s Sound Of Shoom, from Baby Amphetamine (made up of women he’d “discovered” working in a Virgin Megastore) to the mighty Felt and Kevin Rowland wearing a dress. And despite all his finer moments to come (and ones that sold many, many more copies), this is arguably some of his finest work as label boss. I’d had a long chat about the Creation Artifact box with long-time pal and collaborator Andrew Innes, present here in Biff Bang Pow! and Revolving Paint Dream line-ups, later a fully paid-up Primal Screamer, at the Weatherall Convenanza Festival. (Clang, clang, and clang again for the namedropping.) I told the very affable Innes that in 1986 or 87, McGee had bought a fanzine from me and told me how good it looked, an inspirational moment for a wannabe writer and then cub reporter. The thing about McGee, he says, is that if he thought you’d make a brilliant record, or could do something great, he’d give you his last fiver.

The Jasmine Minks’ Shepherd concurs. “Alan was an energy to behold. We all fell in behind the energy. It spurred us on to make short, sharp statements in our music and to make the music accessible but not bland.

In his book, McGee says in the early days, the Jasmine Minks were the band “most likely to”, although he adds they seemed happy just touring and releasing records. That is, Shepherd agrees, a fair assessment. “We would have been happy to plod along playing live, writing new tunes and building an audience slowly through the years. We were never going to set the world on fire with our music but did have ambitions to have a hit on the single charts. What’s Happening got a play on daytime radio, but it sounded out of place and was never played again at that time.

There was this idea that certainly this writer used to have, that these songs deserved to be somewhere in the top 10, on Top Of The Pops, in Smash Hits. Listening now, great pop songs they may be – most Creation bands had a firm affinity with girl groups and 60s pop – but the frantic rush, the punk ethos marks them now as far away from the hit parade as you can get. How does it sound to Shepherd now? “The musicianship sounds a bit sloppy but we had good tunes and something to say and a bit of anger and soul, so they sound good to me still because I remember that feeling of wanting to shout loud about the things that concerned me (the usual things of not being listened to by our bosses, not having a say, all the usual things young people still talk about today).

And personal favourites? “Think is the obvious one to pick, seeing as it was our debut,” says Shepherd. “But it does have all the best elements of the Minks: we all sing, there’s wonderful, funky grooves and it has a bit of a message, ‘leave me alone, let me be myself’, kinda thing. Everybody Has To Grow Up Sometime should have been a single and could have moved us to a more soulful direction had it been successful. I’m really glad that has finally been given a release.

Years later, Shepherd, having helped revive the band for a few stints, first for McGee’s Poptones label and then again more recently, thinks the rest of the music has stood the test of time. Especially once you rid yourself of the notion these were chart bound sounds. “Primal Scream were always my favourites, but I like lots of the early recordings when I hear them now. Time has passed enough for me not to think of the songs as possible chart hits, or as stepping stones in building the record label but just as pure music without those prejudices. They were of their time but, wow!, what an amazing time it was!

The Creation Artifact boxset is out now.