When writing about music Jonathan Coe has mentioned many times how fond he is of the output of the él record label which was run by Mike Alway. It would be fun to have Jonathan write something at length about Mike and his activities, perhaps as the biography of a music business fantasist or even better as an outlandish work of fiction, a rather romantic caper, that happens to feature a label like él.
It seems fair to say that there is an accepted version of the él story where in the second half of the 1980s Mike Alway came up with a fabulous concept of a pop label that aesthetically or implicitly took in The Archies, Powell & Pressburger, Joseph Losey, Saki’s Clovis, The Avengers, Carry On films, Edith Sitwell, Dick Lester, Fellini, Edith Nesbit, Privilege, Oscar Wilde, and that sort of thing. Mike being the arch strategist, orchestrating activity in a consciously raffish way, while always (ha!) being just a little off-key, never quite as smart and as sophisticated as he would wish to appear, and ending up being more appealing for often getting it slightly wrong, like someone casting Ian Carmichael or Richard Wattis to play an Andrew Loog Oldham figure in a late 1960s British comedy scripted by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.
There is available on the Internet a short film from early in the new millennium, made by a Swedish production team for the This Is Our Music series on MTV, which shows Mike in full flow, being very charismatic, slightly absurd though very persuasive, completely self-assured and almost arrogantly confident in his own opinions and abilities. It is also unintentionally very funny, and rather depressingly sad (though not as desperately so as the TVPs film in the same series) because of the way it shows the Svengali figure reduced to working with so little.
Once Alway had been an incredibly canny A&R man, initially at Cherry Red who were always a bit naff, never inspirational and aesthetically pleasing like, say, Postcard or Factory. He had a bit of experience with managing Scissor Fits, Soft Boys and The Monochrome Set (who would be a bit of an obsession throughout Mike’s brilliant career), and in his new recruitment and development role he had a shrewd eye for signing new talent, picking up acts from smaller labels and those out of contract.
In his short time at Cherry Red in the early 1980s the label built up a pretty impressive roster, featuring Felt, Eyeless In Gaza, The Passage, Marine Girls, Ben Watt, Everything But The Girl, Tracey Thorn, Quentin Crisp, Kevin Coyne, Thomas Leer, Monochrome Set, Fantastic Something, and best of all The Nightingales. Actually, thinking of Jonathan Coe, is it possible to cast Robert Lloyd in the Cherry Red era as a B.S. Johnson figure, a pig on purpose? Looking at the cover of the B.S. Johnson collection, Well Done God!, it does look a little Robert Lloyd-like, and the title is an amalgam of The Nightingales’ favourites ‘Son of God’s Mate’ and ‘Well Done Underdog’.
Mike’s big idea at Cherry Red was to put out the Pillows & Prayers sampler LP at the budget price of 99p, which in a Poundland manner proved to be very popular. In a way this was in the spirit of Virgin putting out The Faust Tapes for 49p back in 1973-or-so, which Alway would have been aware of. Indeed he had a lot to do with Cherry Red putting out archival releases, by The Misunderstood, John’s Children, Neu!, and ‘Kinky Boots’ by The Avengers stars Patrick MacNee and Honor Blackman which had appeared in Kenny Everett’s World’s Worst Record Show in 1977, the success of which oddly coincided with David Nobbs’ concept of Reggie Perrin starting his Grot shop.
Mike left Cherry Red to become part of Blanco y Negro with Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis, a Warners sponsored label. Mike was in quite a strong position, and could take Everything But The Girl with him, along with his beloved Monochrome Set and Fantastic Something. Geoff could bring Sudden Sway who really were conceptual geniuses, and goodness knows how they got away with the Spacemate and Sing Song projects.
The world of major label politics, pragmatism and compromise was not made for Mike and he was allowed to go off and amuse himself running his own imprint, the él label, which at that stage was distributed by Crépuscule, the company run by Michel Duval who had some involvement with Blanco y Negro too. In some ways Alway’s él can be seen as occupying ground between the adventurous Crépuscule and Tot Taylor’s playful Compact Organisation.
The initial batch of él releases included records and acts which did not meet with the approval of the Warners machine, and in particular Shock Headed Peters’ ‘I, Bloodbrother Be’, a true work of genius by Karl Blake, formerly of the Lemon Kittens who genuinely has to be one of the most perplexing characters in pop music ever. Karl should also be applauded for his liaisons with Mark Perry in The Reflections (who recorded for Cherry Red in the Alway era) and the mid-1980s Alternative TV line-up that recorded the under-valued Peep Show LP.
Also among the initial él releases were singles by Momus and by Klaxon 5 who were in around 1983 the sort of outfit the best pop writer Dave McCullough (who was also briefly, perhaps disastrously, involved with Blanco) would describe as Fire Engines meet Dollar. And there was also Vic Godard’s single ‘Holiday Hymn’ / ‘Nice on the Ice’, which collected up tracks from some expensive sessions Vic recorded with many of the top British jazz players. Then Cherry Red stepped in and started to sponsor Mike’s él label, generously indulging his fantasies, and so began an intense period of activity, now known as the golden age of él.