Inspired by the ethos of punk, people picked up instruments and created some of the most forward-thinking music for that time: ‘Warm Leatherette’ by the Normal, ‘Realities of War’ by Discharge, ‘Turn to Red’ by Killing Joke, ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ by Scritti Politti and ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ by Bauhaus. All classic releases that are still respected to this day.
Likewise, the labels that released them (Rough Trade, Mute, Clay, Malicious Damage and Small Wonder) have also passed into legend, being part of a movement that would shape the direction of not only music, but popular and independent culture for the next forty years.
And then there was Stevo.
Born Stephen Pearce (with an older brother prominent as an idealogue for the National Front before converting to Christianity) in Dagenham, Stevo quickly made a name for himself on the London scene, mainly because of his bad haircut and ability to create drama.
By the age of 18, he was managing a highly successful pop act (Soft Cell), nurturing an influential songwriter (The The’s Matt Johnson) and running Some Bizzare Records. A label that, at it’s height, released some of the most abrasive and confrontational records the indie sector had ever seen. Even Dig Pearson (Earache Records) had to admit that the label “…was trying to push the envelope for the heavier end of the 80s indie spectrum” and, with acts like Swans, Foetus and Einsturzende Neubauten, they did so in glorious fashion.
Unfortunately, by the late 80’s, the label’s roster was devoid of big hitters and so its reputation descended into that of a reissue label, living on past glories. Then various bands spoke out against the lack of royalties. Curses were placed. Threats were made. And Stevo seemingly disappeared.
As a result, the label doesn’t get enough credit for its work.
In steps Wesley Doyle to help rectify this situation.
Confessing that he’s never been the same since seeing Soft Cell and Jim Thirlwell cover Suicide’s 'Ghost Rider' on TV (impeccable credentials for this job), Doyle, through various interviews with the main protagonists (Stevo, Marc Almond, Jim Thirlwell, Michael Gira), employees, peers and journalists, sets out the story of how a Gary Numan fan went from terrorizing the dancefloor with abrasive music to infiltrating the mainstream with Soft Cell and then helping underground legends like Cabaret Voltaire, Psychic TV, and Coil gain bigger profiles before under the banner of ‘conform to deform.’
In terms of narrative, the fact that it is told through a variety of voices helps and hinders. On one hand, this is a blessing as it allows for a number of differing perspectives on events (such as the royalties issue). On the other hand, without a strong voice dominating, it can mean that the narrative can meander at times (with constant references to Stevo’s youth, antics and vague references to him being an arsehole) and certain angles are brought up but never explored (a reference to Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson being someone who one female journalist didn’t want to be in a room alone with is one such example).
Stevo himself is a frustrating narrator (quelle surprise, I hear you say) as he either talks in riddles or self-aggrandisement. He does open up towards the end, but it’s mainly point scoring. Some would argue that he’s retaining true to his original characteristics which, while true, would be more impressive if he still had a functioning label that had its pulse on the underground. As he doesn’t, he resembles Charles Foster Kane in the last days of his second marriage: filled with hubris while everything around him crumbles.
Ultimately, Doyle deserves a huge amount of credit for, not only getting Stevo to sit down and talk with him, but also for helping set the groundwork for a new generation to be inspired by the label and its output. Bravo.
Stevo recently said that, for all his antics, there was method to his insanity: “It isn’t about trying to do things for the shock… It was about breaking down this stupid structure and to turn it all around.”
And, for a while at least, he did so with aplomb.
Wesley Doyle, 2023, Conform To Deform: The Weird And Wonderful World Of Some Bizzare Records. Jawbone Press, ISBN-13: 978-1911036951
🕮 Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.
Another fascinating insight into the indy record world.ReplyDelete
Was there ever any hint that he was politically similar to his brother? I vaguely recall reading about the other Pearce brother.
It is a brilliant reviewDelete
Stevo completely rejected his brother's NF views and took great delight in winding him up. In Marc Almond's autobiography (which is a great read) he recalls one Sunday morning where him and Dave Ball were having breakfast with the Pearces (Mum, Dad, Joseph and Stevo) and Stevo makes a point of announcing that he discovered some Jewish ancestors, which Joe didn't find amusing!