Come a long way – talking Heavenly Recordings with Robin Turner

When Robin Turner came to the phone, I half expected mayhem around him, having recently read his evocative recollections of mad days in the mid-‘90s working in the Heavenly Recordings office in Soho, one of many vivid descriptions in his introduction to newly-published, celebratory tome…Believe in Magic. Heavenly Recordings, The First Thirty Years telling us, ‘On any given day, you might answer the door to Throb from Primal Scream, who’d be in need of a ‘Berwick stop’ between Covent Garden and Oxford Circus, or Paolo Hewitt and Paul Weller, who’d end up heading a football round the office for half an hour. If that sounds like a brag, imagine trying to get actual work done under those circumstances.’

Robert ‘Throb’ Young checked out six years ago, aged just 49. As for Paolo and Paul … well, they’re not there with you now, are they?

“No! Those were what we called the good old days. Now it’s just two small kids shouting at me all the time.”

Robin’s children are 10 and seven and he’s based in Bristol these days, his label days long behind him. Well, kind of. He still does press for bands he loves with strong links to those days, notably The Chemical Brothers and Underworld. And as he points out, you never really leave Heavenly.

“It was kind of crazy. Work got done, but I often wondered why others I knew who worked in similar offices were getting offered jobs, but we never were. I think we were only suited to working for that company! I don’t think we could have coped anywhere else.”

…Believe in Magic, from Orion Publishing imprint White Rabbit, was put together by Robin with the help of filmmaker, photographer and graphic designer Paul Kelly, who led early Heavenly signing East Village.

Heavenly Father: Jeff Barrett, the driving force behind Heavenly Recordings since 1990, still in his element at the label

I told the author I also particularly liked his description of the label’s old Soho office back in the day, ‘above Ronnie Scott’s and opposite Bar Italia on Frith Street … sat on a wonky trans-time ley line that connected the 2i’s, the Astoria, the YMCA and the End. As much as it was a working environment, it was also a makeshift disco and an egalitarian meeting place – think a Quaker meeting house with religion replaced by Raw Power, Bummed and an armful of Strictly Rhythm 12-inches.’ He certainly paints a great picture.

“Well, thank you. But it was so true, that’s the problem – it’s not even a stretch of the imagination!”  

In time, they’d move premises, but are now back at the heart of things after a few years out of Soho on Portobello Road, currently ‘three floors up on Old Compton Street, halfway between the old sites on Wardour Street and Frith Street’. But a home isn’t just about addresses, label founder Jeff Barrett revealing, ‘Heavenly was already a state of mind. Seemed like the right time to make it something really special. We were all deeply immersed in music that we loved. None of us could believe our fucking luck, really.’

…Believe in Magic is seen as a chronicle not only of the spell between this fiercely independent label’s first album release, Saint Etienne’s debut Foxbase Alpha (HVNLP1) and Working Men’s Club’s self-titled 2020 debut(HVNLP179), the bookends which hold in place a further 28 key releases that arguably got the label to where it is today, but also of Heavenly haircuts, nights down the pub, pencil-eraser-carvings, cheese toasties, acid houses, Sunday Socials and lost Weekenders, all just as much a part of this amazing story. 

And as Jeff Barrett put it, ‘If there’s a continuous theme that runs through all this, it’s that everything comes down to conversations with people about music. It might seem like it all starts with someone on one side of the counter selling you something, or someone writing excitedly in a magazine telling you about a band you need to hear, but I don’t think I’ve ever really seen things as one-way transactions.

‘It’s more an ongoing dialogue, one that never really stops and helps build up this growing soundtrack to our lives, something that’s passed from one person to another. That’s really the ever-present thread. That’s why we still believe in magic.’

Three decades have passed since initial Heavenly release, Sly and Lovechild’s ‘The World According To …’ (HVN1), touched by the hands of a certain Andrew Weatherall, with various line-up changes, ups, downs and a good few office clean-ups since. Yet Heavenly ‘continue not to believe their fucking luck … still being here, keepin’ on keepin’ on’ doing what they love for our listening pleasure.

In the words of long-time associate and BBC radio veteran Annie Nightingale, who put together a compilation for the label, ‘Heavenly has always lived up to its name. Celestial tunes with the sublime sure guidance of Jeff Barrett. A beacon of integrity.’ Meanwhile, Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh’s tells us, ‘Heavenly is more than a record label, it’s the absolute nectar of all that’s brilliant in the culture of these island. I love the shit out of them and everything they stand for.’  

Nicky Wire, whose trailblazing band Manic Street Preachers issued two singles on Heavenly before joining major label Columbia, writes in the book’s foreword, ‘Right from the start, Heavenly seemed to have a real sense of itself and its mission’. He adds, ‘Stylistically, it may have looked chaotic and disconnected to the outside world, but that was the point’.

You only have to look at the early roster to see the diverse range involved – from Saint Etienne to the Manics, Camden’s Flowered Up to Manchester’s Doves, and Norfolk-born folktronica pioneer Beth Orton to Ealing double-sibling quartet The Magic Numbers, the last band signed in the pre-digital era. This was never about identikit acts. Similarly, in more recent times, we’ve had Ian Dury’s son Baxter Dury, Australian dance-pop act Confidence Man, Cornish-Welsh solo artist Gwenno, Dutch indie darlings Pip Blom, Halifax’s The Orielles, and Wirral four-piece Hooton Tennis Club.

In a nutshell, …Believe in Magic is a celebration of all that and much more, a fully illustrated history of sorts of one of the most colourful independent UK record labels; one ‘responsible for creating satellite communities of fans around the country and at all the major festivals’.

The story of Jeff Barrett alone is worthy of the attention alone, this pioneering maverick setting up the label in 1990 with the acid house revolution in full swing, after several years working at or at least alongside Factory and Creation, soon fostering interest from the likes of music writer Jon Savage, ‘part of the Heavenly extended family since the start’, not only curating a compilation on the label but also providing the book’s introduction.

It’s fair to say the early releases set the tone and tempo, from that initial recording by perhaps the most revered acid house DJ of all to singles from the similarly afore-mentioned St Etienne and Manic Street Preachers.

And Heavenly was always different to other labels; more a ‘club’ with a defiant spirit of inclusiveness, as reflected in the way they set up The Heavenly Social in 1994, alongside the Hacienda perhaps the most famous club in recent British history, The Chemical Brothers for one making their name there.

With nearly 200 LP releases in three decades, Heavenly has consistently produced some of the most exciting music across various genres – dance, acid house, singer-songwriter, psych-garage – and Robin’s celebratory work collects rare photographs, ephemera and artwork as well as those 30 great tales, mostly told in the form of oral history by artists like the Manics’ James Dean Bradfield, Flowered Up, Beth Orton, Doves and pioneering DJ Don Letts, the latter having put together a Heavenly compilation celebrating his days providing a soundtrack for London’s legendary Roxy club from December ’76 to April ’77. And together they capture the presiding personality of the label, its bands and those associated with its success.

But enough ambling, let’s get back to Robin, getting him on the subject of Jeff Barrett’s back-story, from Nottingham roots to Plymouth, Bristol and beyond, including many anecdotal nuggets, at one early stage quitting a promising career at HMV to run a market stall nearby. And then there was the night he put on The Jesus and Mary Chain at Ziggy’s in Plymouth, having stoked a media storm about the band’s riotous reputation first, that happening soon selling out, Chain manager, Creation label guru and past WriteWyattUK interviewee Alan McGee so impressed that he offered him a job there and then, Jeff becoming Creation’s first employee. It’s been an amazing journey, hasn’t it?

“It’s the kind of thing you can’t really imagine happening now – a working-class kid having a load of lucky breaks, albeit breaks he’d created. He worked hard, but it’s hard to think that could happen again now in the music industry.”

Similarly, for this label to still not just be around but remain as fresh and driven three decades on is really something, not least considering the many changes in the industry since 1990. And Heavenly still boasts such an array of acts.

“Yeah, it’s 30 years without compromising and being this disparate, extended family, but a family all the same. I mean, I’m still part of it, even though I’ve not worked there for 10 years. Like The Godfather … dragging me back in. And it’s got that identity that makes it work. And you’re right, if you think of comparable labels, there’s Creation, its last records around 2000, and Factory, where it was all over by the early ‘90s. Heavenly’s managed to out-last lots of similar institutions. Not many get that far, and Rough Trade has had lots of different iterations over the years.”

So how did Robin – whose publicity clients these days also include Steven Wilson – get involved?

“Through interviewing Saint Etienne for a fanzine that never actually happened! We became friends, I came to Heavenly to do PR, and that’s what I’ve gone back to doing since.”

What struck me going through the book was how many Heavenly records I own where I either forgot they were on the label or never realised they were, such as Beth Orton’s Trailer Park (HVNLP17).

“Yes, there’s always that interconnectivity between them all, but someone like Beth … she was so different at the time. No one else was making folk music with a kind of electronic twist to it. These days you have festivals like the Green Man (featuring acts) doing what she did. Then you listen to (BBC) 6 Music and you’ve got someone like Laura Marling, but it was totally its own thing back then.

“After Beth, things tightened up a bit, partly because (new overseers like) BMG/EMI didn’t want us to sign lots of acts. In the Noughties, there was a lot less output. But now, Jeff’s properly independent and they’re putting out records all the time, from The Orielles to Working Men’s Club.

“They just put out a single by Sinead O’Connor, produced by David Holmes. They’re absolutely firing, whereas when I was there and we were linked to major labels, quite often that was more of a speed-limiter. You couldn’t really put your foot down, and you’d end up with lots of arguments.”

Yet some of the greatest opportunities come from taking such chances. In Jeff’s case, you could argue that his whole career was built on that maverick spirit – him seemingly over-ordering copies of The Smith’s ‘Hand in Glove’ at an HMV branch in Devon and soon selling out. That got him his first real break, ending up with links to Bristol’s Revolver Distribution, one of many defining contacts.

That said, Robin doesn’t try to dress all this up into one big success story. There are stories of decisions that didn’t go quite so well. He’s not over-glamourised.

“Yeah, we’ve done some stupid things! We weren’t always sensible. If I had infinite time with this book … but we didn’t want to get bogged down in talking about distribution deals and all that. The mechanics of the music industry are very boring for people outside all that.

“And thankfully there are enough great stories here to take this approach – there’s the Manics, there’s Doves, there’s Mark Lanegan, who of all people had a Sunday Times’ bestselling book this year (his memoir Sing Backwards and Weep)!

“Then there’s Saint Etienne, who drew me to the label in the first place. I was living in Newport, South Wales, heard Flowered Up and Saint Etienne, and a light went on, thinking, ‘This is my music!’

“The thing with Flowered Up … they had such potential. An amazing live band, but they were chaos. Mad, druggy fools. And in the book, it’s all pretty explicit. But for me the only record that’s really brilliant is ‘Weekender’.”

Well, I learned a lot, not least that modern-day Australian dance-pop wonders Confidence Man weren’t even a live unit until Heavenly persuaded them, having seen what this Brisbane four-piece could do in the studio on wondrous debut single, ‘Boyfriend’. 

“Ah … such a brilliant band! I remember hearing that single the first time, thinking, ‘What the hell is this!’”

Agreed. But at the same time, it brought smiles to faces.

“Completely! I’ve seen them a few times and my kids are obsessed with them, first seeing them at a festival a couple of years ago when they were eight and five. It’s definitely a bit too racy for kids … but, you know – sod it!

“And when you think about it – another totally bonkers thing (for the label), yet when you speak to them they are completely part of this mad family, and a really solid, good pop band.”

There’s the great story of Heavenly taking on Gwenno too, Jeff – who has Cornish roots and links of his own – having that initial chat about what’s next, the artist letting on that she’d decided her next LP – after one entirely in Welsh – would be entirely in the Cornish language. And he went along with that, releasing Le Kov (HVNLP145). An inspired move.

“I know! Such a brilliant thing, and more power to the label for supporting artistic decisions like that. A lot of people would have looked at that, seeing she’d made a Welsh language record and thinking that she could then capitalise on that, or make something in English – having been in The Pipettes before.

“But no, she decided to do something in Cornish, and both Jeff and Gwen herself were of the opinion that if you can put yourself in a position where you can make an artistic statement, you might not be in that position again so you have to do it when you’ve got that kind of acceleration behind you. In five years you might be kicking your heels, thinking, ‘No one’s asked’!

“I think that was one of the strongest statements they could have made as a label. And it really paid off.”

Talking of risk-taking, however huge they became, taking on the Manic Street Preachers was a huge gamble initially, wasn’t it?

“Yes! Completely. We know them now as such a huge British act, somewhere between BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music. But – and I worked with them, I’m a huge fan, and love them to bits – back in the day, when I was still living in Wales and they were about to sign to Heavenly …well, Welsh music at that point was The Alarm, disregarded in all respects as a joke, and I just wanted to get out, as there was no scene apart from US hardcore.

“And here was a label where the first few records were a Sly & Lovechild record remixed by Andrew Weatherall, Saint Etienne’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, Flowered Up’s ‘Weekender’ single (HVN16) … You could look at that and think this is an acid house label, or at least operating in that world.

“So signing the Manics – a four-piece punk band from Wales, with both of those things working against them – was a proper risk. But then you hear ‘Motown Junk’ (HVN8), and if you saw them live around then, you could totally see it. The energy and excitement there is absolute. You couldn’t fault it.

“And what that did, signing the Manics – and it was only ever going to be for a couple of singles to pivot them on to a major label, as agreed by all sides – the label set the template for the next 30 years. They could sign anything from that point.

“In fact, the next signing was The Rockingbirds, a country band from Camden!”

Ah, yes, HVNLP2 bringing me on to my next point. Edwyn Collins was perhaps the first artist I realised was on the label. Perhaps I just read his LP sleeves closer. And, almost bringing things full circle, his was one of the most recent live shows I’ve seen, a September 2019 appearance at Gorilla in Manchester (with a live review here) – seemingly an age ago now with the subsequent arrival of the pandemic and all that.  And his band that night included long-time collaborators Sean Read and Andy Hackett, Rockingbirds from the start.

“Yes, and speaking to Edwyn and his wife Grace for this book, I realised just how much of that record – 2007’s Home Again (HVNLP182) – and the support for it was part of a rehabilitation from his stroke. I was still working for Heavenly at that point, and that gig he did at Dingwalls … the first time he’d been on stage since, one hell of an evening. A real emotional rollercoaster. You were almost in tears when he walked on, yet the next thing … they were just going for it!”

Tremendous, and Grace and Edwyn are such a great double-act when you talk to them, aren’t they?

“Ah, Grace is phenomenal. They both are, but the way she finishes his sentences … it’s like a telepathic link at times. I adore them.”

It’s not just about the acts that have featured on the label either. For example, there can’t be too many labels that have their own hairdresser, surely.

“Ha! Basically, everything within – the 30 things in the book –was deemed relevant as long as it had a catalogue number. That included clubs we’ve run, like the Sunday Social (HVN44), Paul Cannell’s toasted cheese sandwich artwork (HVN13), and Heavenly hairdresser, Christopher Camm (HVN200).

“I describe Chris as Heavenly’s spirit animal. He’s cut everyone’s hair since … forever, and a vast amount of ideas have gone through his chair which he’s had to listen to, many of which would have been absolutely crap, but some of which will have been completely brilliant.”

Incidentally, there was even a catalogue number for the 25th birthday party at Hebden Bridge’s Trades Club in West Yorkshire in January 2015 (HVN300), its chief promoter Mal Campbell telling the tale in the book. And if you don’t know the story of Primal Scream singer Bobby Gillespie’s discarded toasted cheese sandwich, left at the home of artist Paul Cannell (who created the Heavenly logo as well as so much iconic Primal Scream sleeve art) and in time getting framed and securing its own cat.no., there’s another great reason to grab the book. And those are just a few of the off-the-wall tales within.

A more recent Heavenly act I love are Amsterdam indie pop four-piece Pip Blom, who released debut LP Boat on the label last year. It’s a shame they don’t get a chapter of their own, for there’s another great story, singer Pip and brother Tender’s Dad being Erwin Blom, frontman of John Peel favourites and session veterans Eton Crop. But I guess Robin couldn’t pick everyone, and others will maybe feel their favourites should have got a look-in.

“My daughter’s called Pip, and I’ve taken her along to see them … but wow, I didn’t know that. I love those family links in music. But with the later years’ bands, I wanted to put the onus on Jeff, and he didn’t want to direct me. He’s one of my oldest, best friends, and didn’t want to tell me what to do.”

Robin started at Heavenly in January 1994, which was when I moved from the South-East to Lancashire. My London days ended just as his truly kicked in, kind of making me wonder whether his role – with a twist of fate – could have been mine, heading from my own fanzine writing days to joining the Heavenly stable and covering all these great acts.

That said, I was fairly burned out around then with regard to the music scene, to a point that I couldn’t get too excited by the time the Brit Pop thing happened, having seen lots of great bands who deserved success not getting those breaks I felt they deserved.

“I probably remember those early days best, but at that point it was quite a dormant label, with very few releases. That is interesting. Brit Pop was this thing that wiped out everything else, but you’re right, there were lots of great scenes before that. The kind of Oasis-centric Brit Pop story I find pretty uninteresting. There was so much more to it than that.

“I preferred the electronic side, so I was working with Underworld and The Chemical Brothers out of the Heavenly office, and there was drum and bass kicking off. Noel Gallagher was on Chemical Brothers and Goldie records. It was all very interconnected. But read the history now, and it’s basically … Oasis play Knebworth, and so on!”

Yep, and I could name so many bands from that previous era who deserved more, not least personal favourites like BOB and before them That Petrol Emotion.

“Ah, That Petrol Emotion! Andy Weatherall’s Boys’ Own mix of ‘Abandon’ is one of my favourite records of all time! Jeff was managing Andy at that point, so again … all part of the big inter-connected family.”

Robin’s book is dedicated to both Andrew Weatherall and Pete Lusty, the Australian label boss whose managed bands included Heavenly outfit The Vines (who also get a chapter in the book), both gone far too young, lost in February and March 2020 respectively.

As Jeff put it in his closing piece, ‘Andrew’s name and fingerprint runs all the way through this story. He mixed our very first release, remixed our second, and it’s fair to say that his recent remixes for The Orielles, audiobooks and Confidence Man are up there with his best. His DJ sets soundtracked more of our nights than we can remember, from the first Heavenly party at the Camden Underworld to half a dozen successive summers in Cornwall as resident DJ on the Caught by the River stage we booked for the Port Eliot Festival.’

And both Andrew and Pete were fondly remembered by Robin as we wrapped up our chat.

“I’ve still got a text message from Andy, trying to arrange an interview which never happened. He was one of the last people I was due to speak to for this book. Much like Chris (Camm), he’s somebody who was very important to the label and was always there, even though he was never a signed artist.

“He was managed out of the office for ages, and DJ’d for us, from these weird little nights at The Social onwards, and was such a brilliant, lovely chap. He passed away just as we were getting to the finishing stages of the book. As did Pete, another friend of ours, and another brilliant bloke.”

…Believe in Magic is available as a £30 hardback, or £35 limited-run exclusive special editions with either a 7” Saint Etienne single (HVN550STE – ‘Spring’ b/w ‘Spring (instrumental)’, the A-side taken from Foxbase Alpha and available for the first time as a single, the flip side previously unreleased) or a Working Men’s Club track (HVN550WMC – ‘Angel (part 1)’ b/w ‘Angel (part 2)’, as heard in WMC’s live sets and here in a studio version produced by Ross Orton, split over both sides of a 7”). Special editions also include a fold-out map by Herb Lester of Heavenly’s London hotspots, with more detail here

Work Experience: Robin Turner attempting to tick the ‘no publicity’ box in the Heavenly office, all those years ago

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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