Mudcat Café message #2709001 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #123177   Message #2709001
Posted By: Desert Dancer
26-Aug-09 - 11:16 AM
Thread Name: Topic Records 70th birthday
Subject: RE: Topic Records 70th birthday
A nice article.

For purposes of the archive...

Topic records 70 years of giving a voice to the people

Topic is the oldest independent label in Britain, if not the world. Not bad for a Marxist party offshoot that was started in a basement

Alexis Petridis, Sunday 23 August 2009

Tony Engle is not a man much given to hyperbole, which is unusual in a record label boss. In fact, after 36 years in the job, he's still not entirely sure that he should be running a record label at all: he worries that the whole business of recording the kind of music he does runs contrary to its very essence. "The thing about folk music is that it existed prior to microphones," he says. "The singers I really loved, when they were performing in their heyday, records had hardly been invented. The music existed to serve the community. In a way, recording almost undermines certain aspects of the music. It's a strange contradiction that exists within it." He sighs. "But if you love the music and you love records, like me, you're forced to get into this circular contradiction all the time."

Even he is forced to concede that his label, Topic, is unlike any other. It's not just its advanced age, although that's certainly a factor. Topic is currently celebrating its 70th birthday. No one seems entirely sure whether this makes it the oldest independent record label in the world, but it's certainly the oldest indie label in Britain a fact it is now celebrating with Three Score and Ten, a beautifully packaged book containing seven CDs, biographies of its most famous artists and as many photographs of men in caps playing accordions as a human being will ever need.

Nor is it Topic's bizarre stable of artists, although, again, you would be hard-pushed to find a label with a roster remotely like it. As you might expect, given Topic's venerable age, virtually every major figure in the British folk revival has recorded for them, from Ewan MacColl to Eliza Carthy, by way of Anne Briggs, June Tabor, the Watersons, Martin Simpson and Davy Graham, as well as innumerable traditional singers captured in priceless, aged "field recordings".

Topic is responsible for some legendary albums ofthe genre: the Watersons' Frost and Fire, Anne Briggs's self-titled debut, Nic Jones's Penguin Eggs, Eliza Carthy's Mercury-nominated Anglicana, and the remarkable 20-volume Voice of the People series. But, over the years, its release schedule has proved far weirder than that list suggests; it has to be the only record label in the world to have put out records by Paul Robeson, Vanessa Redgrave, the crisply named Massed Choirs of the Glasgow Socialist Singers and the Glasgow Young Communist League, and Harry H Corbett, of Steptoe and Son fame, who sang sea shanties with MacColl and AL Lloyd on an album called The Singing Sailor. (Frank Zappa, of all people, loved this record, until his copy was stolen by an equally enraptured Captain Beefheart).

The eccentricity of the label's output, Engle explains, may well be a case of like attracting like. "I recognised Topic was going to be a strange environment when I first went to work there," he says, cheerfully. A folk fan from Portsmouth, he fetched up at the label in the late 60s, having heard the managers were looking for "young blood". "The thing is, if you're interested in traditional British music, you very quickly find out that you're not just the only one on your block, you're the only one in your town. By definition, you're a strange person."

Still, it's more the label's prevailing ethos, that, as Engle delicately puts it, "set us at variance with the industry". Before the arrival of two figures most closely associated with its early years, Ewan MacColl and his musical partner, folk scholar and singer AL Lloyd, Topic was the recording wing of the Workers' Music Association, an educational offshoot of the British Marxist Party: its original 1939 brief was to release "gramophone records of historical and social interest". Its first release was a recording of The Internationale sung by a surprisingly plummy-sounding choir, rather like being lectured on the need to bloodily overthrow capitalism by Penelope Keith. Its records were sold by subscription, and the organisers eschewed the commercial marketplace, seeing publication as an end in itself.

The communist affiliation is now long gone; Engle, who took over the label's running after the death of his staunch trade unionist predecessor Gerry Sharp in 1973, describes himself as "never party political". But something of that original spirit of rebellion and independence seems to have survived.

"You never make vast sums of money. You're ploughing more money in and keeping things in catalogue. That's one of the big things about Topic. The idea is to make records that are, if not instant classics, then records that will be here for as long as we have the medium to make them available. The music industry, by and large, wants to make money. It's a business, and thinks relatively short term. I always think long term. Sometimes we will decline to record people because, well, I think you're great, mate, but I think you're a thing of now and I'm looking for something that has its feet in the great tradition."

It is, Engle says, an attitude in keeping with that of the music itself. "Folk music doesn't set out to seduce you, or to make the performer a star, or to make money it exists for its position within the culture." This is, nevertheless, a policy that continues to amaze even its stalwart supporters. Legendary singer and guitarist Martin Carthy began buying Topic records in the 50s. "They were like a gateway into another world then," he recalls. "Folk was this subject I was interested in, and they had the information at a time when it was hard to come by, when Cecil Sharp House [headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society] used to keep you out with cannons and rake you with machine-gun fire." Carthy started recording for Topic in the mid-70s, an association that continues to this day.

"They never delete records," he says, with a hint of wonder in his voice. "Some things they put out sell two copies a year, but they stick with it. And they always survive. They even thrived during the vinyl crisis in the 70s, when other labels went under. They survived the slump in interest in the folk scene in the early 80s. They didn't make a bundle of money, but they kept on going."

Is folk recession-proof? "If you're a small business and you're doing most of it yourself, you're not taking much money out of it almost nothing will change it," says Engle. "Our commercial expectations were so low, and we had designed our business model" he uses the phrase with a mixture of disgust and bemusement "to fit that. I'm not saying it was totally recession-proof, but it didn't really affect us. There's an awful lot of business naivety, but it served to get us through the hard times. A more business-oriented company would have probably decided it wasn't worth going ahead."

Indeed, Topic's survival is a staggering, inspirational tale of resourcefulness and of blind, fervent belief in music surmounting any obstacle. In the label's early days, some of their albums were 8in across rather than the usual 12, because, Carthy claims: "They would get a job lot of 8in vinyl blanks and a machine that would do them for nothing." Even by the time of Engle's arrival at the label, at the height of the late 60s folk-rock boom, things were tight: "I thought a record company was a big operation with a neon sign. Topic was in the basement of someone's house."

Recording sessions didn't involve a studio, he says, but "travelling around with the company Revox in the back of a Morris Traveller and setting it up in someone's house. It was a question of: this is a good thing, I want to do it, what's it cost? Can we afford it? What's the worst-case scenario? We weren't thinking, this will sell 5,000 or 10,000 copies. We used to think, well, it'll wash its face on 2,000, but that might take five, 10 years to achieve. OK, let's do it."

And so, remarkable music poured out of Topic, music that you suspect no one else would have recorded. It continues to do so: the label's next major project is another series of Voice of the People. The days of it being run, as Carthy puts it, "truly, truly on a shoestring" are some way in the past, although its north London headquarters are still resolutely devoid of a neon sign. "Am I surprised it's survived? Oh no," laughs Carthy. "It's a label that's gone out of its way to explore, and explore, and explore, and then put out what it finds".

Three Score and Ten is released on 14 September. The Topic 70 festival is at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, from 11-18 September. Details: