Bristol Archive Records Blog

Wavelength Records and The Bristol Recorder


by Dave Cohen – Jan 2009


I don’t normally begin by talking about my bedroom, especially to strangers. Or indeed this particular bedroom, given that I was a student at the time. Most of what went on in there you really don’t want or need to know about. And I can assure you that with regard to the bed itself, there was disappointingly little activity to report anyway.


But this otherwise innocuous sleeping quarters had an interesting role in Bristol’s popular culture, and I am proud to be a footnote in any story of Bristol and punk. Because my bedroom at 16 Ambrose Road in Cliftonwood was home, in the late 70s and early 80s, to two of the lasting creations of the Bristol post-punk scene – Venue magazine, and, to a smaller but no less significant extent, the WOMAD festival.


Bristol got punk sooner than much of the rest of the country, courtesy of The Cortinas, the only non-London band playing the capital in the early days. Us long-haired, scarf-wearing, Genesis-loving student-types were slow to catch on, but by the summer of 1977 were fully on board. That was a good summer for Bristol’s barber shops. The sneering ultra-cool London journalists, perched high in their NME tower, had already pronounced the movement dead and buried, but unknown to them, in the provinces punk was changing the musical landscape for ever.


Everyone who was a teenager around that time will have their own story of how they became punks. For me it was sitting in my hippy friend James’s smelly windowless living room, in a rambling basement flat in Royal York Crescent, and watching this man – for whom re-filling his bong was usually the highlight of his afternoon (James didn’t do mornings) – jumping up and down unable to contain his excitement, as he brushed away his Steve Hillage albums and placed The Cortinas’ ‘Fascist Dictator’ on the turntable. By the time he turned the record over for a blast of the superb B side ‘Television Families’, I was hooked.


During the next year I took charge of organising live gigs at the University, and so began a struggle with the staff to put on as many local punk bands as we could get away with. My one supporter at the union was someone involved in student politics, who like me had ditched Genesis for Generation X. Martin Elbourne knew all the staff at the Students’ Union, and with his help we were able to sneak the odd local band into its revered if brutal surroundings.


It wasn’t always easy – for a long time punk was as much a breeding ground for the National Front as it was for the all-inclusive anti-racist movement it became. There were fights with skinhead gangs and battles with the union porters who were not ready for the onslaught of punk. To even look like a punk as late as 1978 was a brave and defiant gesture. Nowadays you can walk down any street in any town and you wouldn’t say ‘boo’ to a goth, but it’s amazing to remember just how challenging the standard punk uniform was to the vast majority.


I don’t remember me and Martin covering ourselves in glory during this period. Our low point was in the summer of 1978, when we were asked to help put on The Sex Pistols at the Students’ Union as part of the ‘secret’ SPOTS tour. We were told the staff would go on strike and shut the building if we went ahead, so instead  were ‘offered’ to promote the gig at the Bamboo Club in St. Paul’s. Or we would have done, had the club not mysteriously burned down two days before the scheduled appearance.


We should probably have quit while we were way behind, but by now Martin and I were ready to conquer the world, or at least Hotwells. The success of the 1978 Stiff Records ‘Be Stiff’ tour of the label’s bands, led us to create our own ‘Be Limp’ tour (ahh, student humour, dontcha love it), featuring me as a pre-alternative comedy alternative comedian, Martin’s band Candado Palado, and our favourite live Bristol groups Joe Public, Gardez Darkx and The Spics.


By now every city and even the odd village had its own record label. Three or four local record shops, including Revolver and Focus, were shifting picture disc singles by the lorry load, from bands who made their own records in Edinburgh, Manchester, Liverpool and even Norwich.


BBC Radio had just altered the radio wavelengths, and in response Martin and I had put on a gig launching ‘Rock Against Radio Wavelength Changes’ (no please, stop now, my aching sides). The gig was such a huge success (ie it didn’t lose money), that we decided to build on the brand and so in April 1979 Wavelength Records was born.


Full of brilliant ideas, we got an office in West Street, which we never seemed to have to pay for, and a telephone, which we did. We found out how to make records, print DIY labels and sleeves, and sell to the independent record shops. All Martin and I lacked at this point was the knowledge of how to sign up bands, book them into recording studios, and choose what songs they should record.


Luckily the drummer of The Spics proved to have some knowledge in this field. Thos Brooman was also a student, (although as a post-graduate he was clearly much older and wiser than us) and former Genesis fan. Unlike me and Martin, Thos displayed some ability as a musician, and he offered to produce our first records.


Unfortunately he chose the most expensive studios in the area, so Wavelength more or less went bust before we’d even printed the records. Clearly, even at this early stage in our music-promoting careers, we were displaying the kind of financial acumen that was to feature so spectacularly during the first Womad festival of 1982 (‘Brilliant But Bust’ if I remember the NME headline that followed it).


Having said that, those two records – ‘Herman’s Back’ by Joe Public and ‘Bliss’ by Gardez Darkx – were exceptional. I still think ‘Bliss’ was one of the finest tracks to come out of Bristol’s post-punk era – an era where there was bountiful competition from such brilliant bands as Glaxo Babies, Essential Bop and The Electric Guitars.


The Great British Public were yet to be persuaded, however, preferring Dr Hook’s ‘When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman’ to our jangly guitars and rock trumpets. Our next two releases, ‘You And Me’ by The Spics and ‘Leaves of China’ by Color Tapes fared little better, and we were forced to make a quick getaway from the office.


So began role number one for my bedroom – Wavelength Records warehouse. There were days when I practically prayed for a burglar to break in and run off with the 3,000 units of unsellable vinyl taking up valuable joint-rolling space.


I have to say that at this stage my Record Label-owning career was not looking promising. And as luck would have it, in the summer of 1980, I was approached by a businessman from Bath who believed the West Country was ready to support its own version of ‘Time Out.’ He had already appointed local journalist Dougal Templeton as editor, and ‘Out West’, soon to become ‘Venue’, was born. The businessman was as far from punk as it was possible to be, apart from his philosophy that you didn’t need money to set up a magazine. He assured us that he would find offices in Bristol as soon as possible, but in the meantime we needed to produce the magazine from a base in Bristol, and would I mind if we used my spacious Cliftonwood residence?


There was at this stage a small amount of room for the Cohen business empire to expand, so I agreed, and shifted the modus operandi of Wavelength Records to the Ambrose Road living room – much to the irritation of my flatmates, who had to be careful not to confuse their pizza boxes with each 25 unit collection of ‘Leaves of China’ every time they sat down in front of ‘Tiswas’.


That summer, I came back from my holidays to discover that one or two irritated flatmates had moved out, (‘it’s either the cardboard boxes or me’ said one) and Martin had moved in, along with a mate of his I’d met maybe twice in my life, called Dave Higgitt. Dave at this stage had never expressed any interest in writing about music or producing magazines. The perfect qualification for the next 28 years of his life, editing ‘Venue’ magazine.


Martin, meanwhile, had been thinking hard about how one could produce local records without losing bucketloads of money. He came up with the genius idea of the Bristol Recorder. Produce a record, and then pay for distribution and costs by selling advertising space in the record sleeve. The sleeve then becomes a newspaper with articles about the Bristol music scene.


And the idea worked instantly. The first, live album made all its money back through sales and ads on the cover, and enough to subsidise an immediate studio follow up. The boxes of seven-inchers were replaced by twelve-inchers, the difference was that these were genuinely being shifted.


By now ‘Out West’ was up and running and I didn’t have as much time to work on Recorder. And real differences were emerging between us – I wanted the content of Recorder to include jokes and comedy, Thos wanted it to be weighty and properly serious about music. Luckily for Bristol, and WOMAD, Thos won that argument.


By chance, and as always seemed to be the case in the random world of punk, my mate Jonathan was looking for a job and I suggested he take over from me at Recorder. Qualifications for the job? None whatsoever. But he had one skill that Martin, Thos and I had always lacked. Jonathan Got Things Done. This was when the idea of WOMAD became a possibility.


With the next Recorder album, it became clear why in the past Thos had chosen the recording studio that broke the bank at Wavelength. It was the studio where Peter Gabriel worked. Thos and Peter hit it off straight away, and after a few meetings, Thos persuaded Peter to donate a couple of tracks to the next Recorder album. Gabriel was at this point looking for an outlet for his increasing interest in world music. The final piece was in place.


In early 1981, Bristol Recorder 2 was released, and of course with those previously unreleased Gabriel tracks was an instant sell-out. Within 18 months Martin, Thos, Jonathan and Peter would create the first WOMAD Festival. Two months earlier, ‘Out West’ had been launched, from the similarly unpromising geographical beginnings of my bedroom. Amazingly, nearly 30 years on, both ventures continue to thrive.


I often think the story of punk is best summed up by one song – ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’ by Eddie and the Hot Rods. There really was a sense that you could do anything, and be anyone, as long as you had the right attitude. Enthusiasm was more important than musicianship, or promoting skills – ‘I’m sure I must be someone, now I’m gonna find out who,’ as the song states. It was the attitude that created both ‘Venue’ and WOMAD.


Unfortunately attitude can only take you so far. Yes you can do anything you wanna do, but Eddie and the Hot Rods never did anything again after that single hit. There comes a time when expertise is vital, and while the first WOMAD was incredible, financially it was a complete disaster.


But that’s not a story for me to tell. That story belongs to Martin Elbourne, Jonathan Arthur, Thos Brooman and Peter Gabriel. They were the people who created WOMAD out of nothing, and whatever else happens in their lives they should be justifiably proud of that monumental achievement.


All I’m saying is, none of it could have been achieved without my bedroom at 16 Ambrose Road.

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