Terry Burrows with Daniel Miller - Mute: A Visual Document From 1978 To Tomorrow

by Jeff Penczak Rating: Release Date:
Terry Burrows with Daniel Miller - Mute: A Visual Document From 1978 To Tomorrow
Terry Burrows with Daniel Miller - Mute: A Visual Document From 1978 To Tomorrow

This hefty (320-page) coffee table picture book documents in words and images the 40-year history of one of our most influential indie labels, home throughout its illustrious career to the likes of Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Nick Cave, Erasure, Wire, and Moby. An eclectic roster, to say the least. While they arguably peaked in the ‘90s, their reissue campaign and Best Of compilations of collectible artists like New Order, A Certain Ratio, Swans, and Inspiral Carpets has kept the cash register ringing. Included herein are covers of most of their releases (a godsend to fans of all those Record Album Covers books), a difficult to follow but somewhat helpful Mute Family Tree of related artists, a myriad of posters and promotional artwork, and numerous short, but informative essays on the label’s history. Completists will also enjoy the complete Albums and Singles discography at the back of the book so you can check out which releases you need to complete your collection!

     Daniel Miller launched Mute (“the accidental label”) in April 1978 to self-release his first record. Under the pseudonym The Normal, ‘T.V.O.D.’ c/w ‘Warm Leatherette’ would sell 15,000 copies in three months. [Miller’s tongue-in-cheek recipe on “How To Make A Record” details the entire 12-step process for recording and pressing the record within 24 hours, including his inspiration for the famous ‘Warm Leatherette’ riff!] Soon Miller would start signing bands (mostly electronic and experimental) and in a few years Depeche Mode would begin a continuous string of Top 10 albums and Yazoo would give the label their first Number One (You and Me Both).

     Miller makes it clear in his Introduction that this will not be your standard label biography, “but rather something that presented the story of the label visually – through design, artworks, photography, and packaging”. Nevertheless, Burrows’ essays manage to trace the label’s history from its humble beginnings. Citing Miller’s fascination with German experimental and electronic music (Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!) and the groundbreaking electronic compositions of Delia Derbyshire (her Doctor Who theme was an eye opener) and Ron Geesin (his Roger Waters collaboration on the Music from The Body soundtrack), Burrows’ traces the early influences on Miller that led him to create his own music, initially introduced via the aforementioned Normal single. Early British experimental artists like Caberet Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, and The Human League began bringing electronic music to the masses, and cheap Japanese technology (Korgs and Rolands) allowed almost anyone to create music at home on low-priced multi-track recorders.

     Next up, the label needed a name, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how Miller settled on Mute. The surprising success of the single led to some gigs with Robert Rental and a spot on Rough Trade’s Stiff Little Fingers tour. Miller eventually met Frank Tovey (aka Fad Gadget), who would become one of Mute’s most prolific artists. Miller had one more “solo” project in him, the “world’s first teenage electronic pop group”, Silicon Teens, who scored with his/their poppy electronic covers of classic rock oldies like ‘Memphis Tennessee’ in 1979. An album followed, and Miller now had a label to run.

     In keeping with his remit to focus on the visual aspect of Mute, Burrows explains the early conversations about the label’s look and feel, particularly the significant contributions by Simone Grant, Brian Griffin, and Anton Corbijn. Yet both Burrows and Miller make it clear that the artists had the final say on the art work for their releases. Throughout the book, Miller drops in a few anecdotes about his album and single covers, most of which make for fascinating reading (including why all their album catalogue numbers began with STUMM and the subtly unintentional suggestion behind Yazoo’s chart-topping final album cover, a one-off project by 4AD’s legendary designer Vaughan Oliver), offering additional insights into how the label functioned, but also highlighting everyone’s sense of humour. There really was much more than just the music behind every Mute release!

     The early years are covered in detail with interesting anecdotes, and as some of Miller’s early signings defect to major labels and commercial success (e.g., DAF, Alison Moyet), one is reminded of the similar fate that befell Stiff Records, who signed, nurtured, and then lost key talent to the majors: Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, The Damned, Devo, Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Kirsty MacColl, Wreckless Eric, and many other household names.

     Perhaps not coincidentally, as Mute’s commercial star waned in the late ‘80s, Miller began an extensive reissue campaign via his new The Grey Area imprint, which enabled him to fulfill a dream relationship with pioneer krautrock legends Can and Kraftwerk, and experimental underground giants like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. Miller explains the impetus: “There’s music out there that isn’t Mute in the sense that we didn’t create the master recordings, but it is Mute in spirit. The Grey Area of Mute is simply a label of artists we love, who we think are important, and whose work should always be available.” The imprint has reissued material by Laibach, Einstürzende Neubauten, SPK, Swell Maps, and Delia Derbyshire (of Doctor Who fame). Swans, New Order, Buzzcocks, and A Certain Ratio have also reissued material through Mute, and the prodigal sons DAF also returned to reissue the three albums they released on Virgin after leaving the Mute family.

     For the past 20 years, Mute is also known for the many festivals it curated, from Blast First Disobey club nights in 1995, the Irregular gigs in 1998, and the 2011 Short Circuit Electronic Music Festival. In 2015, Miller brought some of his artists to Mexico for the Festival Mute Mexico, headlined by non-Mute artists Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. It’s success has Miller excited to do more in the future.

     In addition to the reissue series, I’m glad Burrows allots some ink to Mute’s nearly two dozen subsidiary imprints, many set up and curated by specialists who were able to distribute American artists throughout Europe (Blast First), Mute artists in America (Mute America), France (Mute Sonet France), and Eastern Europe (Mute Czechoslovakia). Admittedly, some were simply artist-appeasing vanity labels (Rob Collins’ Product Inc., Moby’s Trophy, Andrew Fletcher’s Toast Hawaii, and Barry 7 (from Add N To (X))’s Mute Irregulars), and most only lasted a few years, but many of these side labels were set up and run by Mute staff members to give artists working in their favourite genres an outlet to get their music to a wider audience. Thus we have the rap, hip-hop, and house imprint Rhythm King, the techno label Novamute, the experimental Parallel Series label, more house and trance music via Future Groove, and A&R bigwig Patrick O’Neill’s electronic imprint, Liberation Technologies. They’ve even ventured into film soundtracks via The Fine Line subsidiary. Much of this music certainly caters to a refined palate, but the fact that Miller could branch out and cover so many bases speaks wonders about his integrity and devotion to the vast electronic and experimental soundscape.

     Despite all the excellent research Burrows has done (helpfully, he had Miller’s cooperation throughout), one does get frustrated by the frequent repetition throughout his various essays, as if they were written independently and then edited together for the book. Several examples in the early going include repeated quotes about Miller’s attitude towards the punk movement, lookbacks at the beginnings of The Normal and Silicon Teens, the story behind The Grey Area imprint, and the myriad reissue campaigns of Can, Swell Maps, Throbbing Gristle, and Cabaret Voltaire’s back catalogues. They also come across as more marketing material than scholarly analysis. 

     Some of Burrows’ “facts” are also incorrect, which naturally suggests the rest of this comments could do with a second set of eyes. For example, ‘Enjoy The Silence’ is not Depeche Mode’s “most successful single” as Burrows claims on page 186. (For the record, both ‘People Are People’ and ‘Barrel of A Gun’ peaked at number 4, while “Enjoy…” “only” reached number 6.) His DM facts continue to allude him when he states that “Ultra charted almost as strongly as its predecessor” Songs of Faith and Devotion (my emphasis). In fact, both of them topped the charts, making them the Mode’s only number one albums. One should also question Burrows’ sources which led him to praise Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads for “reaching the Top 3” when it peaked at number 8. He also misleads readers by claiming Moby’s Play reached number 1. In fact, it was the reissue in 2000 (following some successful airing on numerous adverts) that pushed it to the top, the original release having stalled at number 33 six months earlier (I knew my Complete Book of The British Charts Singles and Albums would amount to more than a hefty doorstop one day!)

     Elsewhere, I also didn’t care for the way he hid behind the failsafe “arguably” whenever he made bold statements that couldn’t be proven. To wit, “Mick Harvey has arguably done more than any other musician to bring [Serge] Gainsbourg’s work to English-speaking audiences” and “Mute remains arguably the most significant label to have taken an active and committed interest in the experimental music scenes…”. Yet another argybargy starter: “Diamanda Galas’ voice is, quite possibly, the most unique you will ever hear”; although he may be right about that one! I’d also like to know where he copped the quote that installed the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion as “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band on the planet”.

     Burrows’ essay on Mute’s techno period (via the Rhythm King and Novamute specialty labels) will only have specialist appeal, as will their “Krautrock connections”, although the later offered far more interesting material. Miller even shares his Top 5 Krautrock albums, which, while predictable, also show where his head was at when he started Mute nearly 40 years ago. (Although, once again, Burrows repeats quotes from Miller about this stylistic influence that he’s already shared several times earlier in the book. A better editing job should have tidied things up more.)

     The final essay looks at the future of Mute. Most of their 21st century artists continue in the experimental and electronic vein that Miller has evangelized for four decades. It remains to be seen how successful artists like Liars, Beth Jeans Houghton, Richard Hawley, Lift To Experience, and Yeasayer will be, but Depeche Mode still have a tangential relationship with the label and Miller signed New Order in 2014. But back in 2002, Miller pulled the plug on his lifelong project, when, in financial straits due to low sales and the dominance of Britpop (which Miller states “represented a lot of things I disliked. I found it non-progressive and all-pervasive”), he sold the label to EMI. Miller stayed on in charge of the Mute name, and eventually created Mute Artists to carry on the tradition. Some artists who weren’t signed to EMI stayed on (Erasure, Goldfrapp, Liars), but Depeche Mode and Nick Cave were gone. Still, we can thank Miller and his initiative and dedication to the artists and their music for giving us so many albums and singles that many of use still consider the treasures of our personal record collections. And while this is by no means the definitive story of Mute Records, there are enough anecdotes and personal interviews with the main man to give us a better understanding of what it is like to start, nourish, and run an independent label in these increasingly difficult times.

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