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A look into the most prolific years from the genre-defining dream pop label.
The great British label 4AD was co-founded by Peter Kent and Ivo Watts-Russell, the latter of whom would go on to release his own project on the imprint as This Mortal Coil. The pitch was simple: 4AD, as a subsidiary of the successful British indie label Beggars Banquet, would act as a “testing ground” of sorts for new artists, and if commercial sales seemed promising, the owners would promote the act to Beggars Banquet. After just a few singles, though, Watts-Russell acquired all the rights and took creative control. The change begat new, dark and emotional facets of pop and post-punk.
That sound would later help define guitar-based music in the 1980s UK. Watts-Russell first enlisted graphic designer Vaughan Oliver to establish their now-iconic visual identity, a collage of gothic and enigmatic images that would echo the music packaged within. Showcasing challenging underground acts from the beginning — Rema Rema, the Birthday Party (Nick Cave’s first band) and Modern English included — the label eventually expanded to the American indie scene. After signing Boston band Throwing Muses, they took on another Boston band in 1987: the Pixies. By the time the Pixies and 4AD connected with major label Elektra in the late 1980s, 4AD had outgrown their humble “testing ground” to create their own mysterious sonic world.
Here are a few of the many highlights from those first ten years, 4AD: 1980-1990.
The inaugural release by 4AD was a 7-inch single, “Dark Entries,” by Bauhaus. Not a bad way to launch a label, considering the song inspired a movement (and one of our favorite contemporary reissue labels). The influential gothic post-punk group would soon follow it with their critical debut, 1980’s In the Flat Field. As the model dictated, Bauhaus quickly grew too big for the “test” label and soon graduated to Beggars, making this their only 4AD LP.
A play on “different jazz,” Dif Juz is one of 4AD’s lesser-known acts, but they put out a series of 12’s and LPs in the label’s early years. Each contained a dizzying whirlpool of atmospheric guitar tones and solitary moods, and a sound that resided at the intersection of the dream-pop that would later be perfected by their younger labelmates, the early seeds of post-rock and the cavernous, dubbed-out post-punk of PIL.
In essence, the sound of 1980s 4AD can be found in the otherworldly Cocteau Twins. The Scottish group comprised guitarist and drum machine programmer Robin Guthrie, who employed his famed reverb production on most albums; Simon Raymonde, the multi-instrumentalist with ambient sensibilities; and singer Elizabeth Fraser, the main component to the group’s ethereal magic.
The emotional and angelic soprano would often abandon recognizable English, epicly singing utterances of her own invention that underscored their mystically alien nature. The group became a worldwide sensation, the face of 4AD and collaborators with many like-minded (Felt) and 4AD family acts. That legacy still stands. Who didn’t soundtrack their teenage experience with the Cocteau Twins?
Harold Budd, Elizabeth Frasier, Robin Guthrie, Simon Raymonde
The Moon & the Melodies was a collaborative 4AD effort with the late minimalist Harold Budd. Featuring the three central figures behind the Cocteau Twins and Richard Thomas (Dif Juz’s saxophonist), the group expanded their ethereal, guitar-laden sounds into Budd’s 1980’s Southern California minimalism territory. The pairing was ideal, especially after the Cocteau Twins’ virtually percussion-less Victorialand. The result is this beautiful and moody one-off.
This Mortal Coil
In a way, This Mortal Coil was the 4AD family band. The act primarily featured label-founder Ivo Watts-Russell and John Fryer, but both invited a large rotating cast to participate, most of whom were labelmates or affiliates. Among the array of supporting musicians who contributed to help realize Watts-Russell’s epic and mythic musical dreams? Members of Cocteau Twins, Colourbox, the Pixies and Dead Can Dance. Like the famed Hamlet quote that inspired the band’s name, This Mortal Coil recontextualized pop songs with epic drama, a gothic nature and a hint of serious classic tradition: The aim was to transform pop into poetry and successfully draw a template for transcendent, dreamy ballads.
4AD described the project like this: “This Mortal Coil was not a band, but a unique collaboration of musicians recording in various permutations, the brainchild of 4AD kingpin Ivo Watts-Russell. The idea was to allow artists the creative freedom to record material outside of the realm of what was expected of them; it also created the opportunity for innovative cover versions of songs personal to Ivo.”
Pieter Nooten and Michael Brook
Sleeps with the Fishes is the sole collaboration between Clan of Xymox’s Pieter Nooten and the Canadian musical polymath Michael Brook. As a guitarist, Brook toured with David Sylvian and Robert Fripp, played on Jon Hassell’s Power Spot and his debut was as a duo with Brian Eno. He may be less celebrated than these titans, but this record stands alongside their best. Intimate and intense, it’s an overlooked masterpiece.
Dead Can Dance
Dead Can Dance is the Melbourne, Australia cult duo of Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry. Many cite 1988’s The Serpent’s Egg as their opus, and at their peak they were nearly as big as Cocteau Twins. The group resonated with sounds suggestive of 4AD’s earlier catalog, but took the ideas into expansive, atmospheric spaces. The Australian music historian Ian McFarlane described Dead Can Dance’s style as “constructed soundscapes of mesmerizing grandeur and solemn beauty; African polyrhythms, Gaelic folk, gregorian chant, middle eastern music, mantras, and art rock.”
It’s difficult not to mention this 90’s defining band within this list. After all, they’re a huge part of the 4AD catalog and the band that really catapulted the label into “major” status. It would also mark the label’s convergence with the American underground, which ended up being the future of 4AD. They were responsible for releasing all of the Pixies’ soon-to-be classics, beginning with the 1987 EP Come on Pilgrim to 90’s Bossanova, and eventually Kim’s critical off-shoot, The Breeders.
The ’90s would find the label gearing towards the American underground’s punchier sounds, but one last band to solidify the dreaminess that was 1980s 4AD was this Leeds-based group. The last hurrah per se, The Comforts of Madness, is full of the celebrated 4AD style. The group’s dark atmospheres, lush noise and heavenly vocals were generated by their choirboy-like leader Ian Masters.
“Kinky Love,” a cover of a Nancy Sinatra hit, was their only breakout song, and despite that it came out in early ‘91, it simply must be mentioned. Timeless, heavenly, the cover is one of our absolute favorites.