GEOFF TRAVIS: CULTURE OF INDEPENDENCEWriting on the Wall and Bido Lito! Membership @ The Bluecoat 5/5/17
The beauty of language means that words and their meanings are constantly evolving. However, it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about jangly guitars or a DIY attitude to producing music and musicians; if you’re into indie, GEOFF TRAVIS is the man to talk to. Having started from a London record shop at the birth of punk, Travis turned Rough Trade into one of the most important cultural totems of the last 35 years. Not only did they bring the likes of The Smiths, Scritti Politti and The Strokes to our attention, but in creating their own means of distribution and production, Rough Trade started a cartel that became the backbone of both independent shops and labels, bringing alternative music to Britain’s outposts.
Those of us familiar with his work need a second look at this giant of a man poured into a three-seater sofa on an intimate Bluecoat stage. Gone is the 70s Wafro, but the broad smile and disarming giggle are still present and correct, at the end of nearly every sentence. And there are some long sentences. Like any good storyteller, Travis isn’t afraid to go off on a few tangents – for example, the story of the record shop’s birth takes us thousands of miles across three continents.
Travis exudes the perfect balance of pride and humility for a setting such as this. Names are dropped, but for context rather than glamour; if he were really trying to dazzle us he could do better than Kevin Shields and Bob from Probe Records. When bigger fish such as Morrissey or Tony Wilson are discussed, it’s with the kind of gentle teasing only good friends can get away with; his skill is bringing us into the circle rather than merely asking us to marvel at it.
This is a core aspect of the man’s success. There’s a love and respect for anyone who seeks to create music, and a desire to help those who do in deeds as well as words; whether that means paying up front for records they were yet to sell so the band could afford to make more, or enabling labels like Factory to keep hold of their star acts by offering distribution deals.
These values allowed Travis to draw influence from areas of society that were being marginalised. There’s always been a strong female presence at Rough Trade, from the friendship that became a partnership with Jeanette Lee, to over 50% of the current workforce. They were also one of the first shops to stock reggae alongside rock, thanks to the work of tastemakers such as my uncle, Austin Palmer. He talks about sexism and racism as if their mere existence is baffling, as though no aspect of a person’s being is more important their attitude. Well, except maybe their record collection.
The second half of the evening sees Travis invited to pick three songs from the Rough Trade canon to discuss (The Smiths’ This Charming Man, Antony And The Johnsons’ I Am A Bird Now and Sleaford Mods’ BHS, if you must know). It’s clear that, at heart, he’s still a music fan, rather than someone bruised by 35 years at the coalface of an often brutal industry. Despite the journey down such a star-studded memory lane, Travis is clearly more animated when discussing the newest delights to catch his ear. If Geoff Travis is still finding new music to be excited about, it’s good news for all of us.