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The secret history of Warp Records

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  • "Oh my God, what have we done?" White labels, grey-market economics and a little help from Daniel Miller.
  • published
    17 Apr 2012
  • tags
    Mute
    Warp
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The following is an extract from How Soon Is Now? The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975-2005, a new book by Richard King. Reprinted with the kind permission of Faber and Faber Limited. All rights reserved © Richard King, 2012.


By the midpoint of the 1990s the momentum of the independent sector had stalled almost to a halt.

Rough Trade and Factory had both ceased trading. Creation and 4AD were in the hands of a support staff as [Alan] McGee and [Ivo] Watts-Russell, exhausted and broken, had removed themselves from the day-to-day running of their compaines. Daniel Miller was finding himself in the difficult position of firing and rehiring staff as Mute’s finances became increasingly volatile. With the end of Rough Trade Distribution came the end of the most sympathetic route to market for independently released music – a market that was now beginning to harden into a professional era of double-format CD singles, high-end advertising campaigns and overpriced albums. The music often associated with independence or indie – four-piece guitar bands referencing the Sixties – had become mainstream and rebranded Britpop. Almost none of the bands associated with it were signed to independent labels.

The most creatively successful independent label of the era had nothing in common with the perky ordinariness of Britpop.



The most creatively successful independent label of the era had nothing in common with the perky ordinariness of Britpop. Warp Records, or Warp, as it instantly became known, had started casually in the back room of a Sheffield record shop and financed its first release with an Enterprise Allowance Grant. “At the time we didn’t think we were setting up a label neccessarily,” says Steve Beckett [pictured left, today], one of Warp’s three founders. “It was more about, ‘Let’s do this 12-inch and see if it can have an effect’, like we were seeing in guys like 808 State and Unique 3, It was all ore orientated to the dance floor rather than the label side of things.”

Beckett and his friend Rob Mitchell were in their early twenties but already veterans of the Sheffield underground, whose focal point was FON studios and record shop. FON had been a bridge between the dystopian futurism of the Sheffield of Cabaret Voltaire and Human League and the city’s next generation of bands like Hula and Chakk. It was with Chakk’s major-label advance that FON had been built as a state-of-the-art studio. The project had been successful; FON’s clients included David Bowie and Yazz. Chakk’s material was recorded by Robert Gordon, a local producer and FON regular who had credits on mixes for Top Forty singles by Erasure, Ten City and Joyce Sims to his name, and a reputation for serious technical dexterity behind the mixing desk.

The debut release on Warp was an evocation of the nocturnal energy of an industrial city in decline, whose empty, industrial spaces were being turned into illegal and autonomous party zones.



An aficionado of the north’s club scene, Gordon had started to record music that suited the atmosphere of the hardcore techno raves that were now a feature of Sheffield’s nightlife. Gordon recorded a track under the name of Forgemasters, a trio in which he was joined by two friends and fellow FON luminaries, Winston Hazel and Sean Maher. The name was taken from a local heavy engineering works and suited the music on their tape perfectly: a ghostly melody, floating over finely wrought beats, programmed with a crisp industrial precision. The track was driven by an eerie pulse, a sound which would soon be called a ‘bleep’ and become the distinctive signature of hardcore northern techno and, for its first two years, the sound of Warp.

Pressed up as a white label, ‘Track With No Name’ by Forgemasters was the debut release on Warp, an evocation of the nocturnal energy of an industrial city in decline, whose empty, industrial spaces were being turned into illegal and autonomous party zones. “The whole thing was crime from the start,” says Beckett. “It was an illegal place, selling illegal drugs, with the gangs on the door taking their illegal money. But people were having this amazing time and I can’t ever remember fights going on.”

“On a Saturday they were literally queuing down the street to wait for the doors to open. All the Transmat releases, or whatever the two or three big tunes were that week, would be gone in an hour.” – Steve Beckett



Warp was initially a partnership between Beckett, Mitchell and Gordon. The first decision taken by the trio was to refit the FON shop into a new record store, also called Warp. The cash flow for the refurbishment came from an unlikely source and was testament to the trio’s working knowledge of the grey-market economics of hardcore. Warp sold tickets for events at Sheffield University, then one of the indie circuit’s most successful venues. “We sold thousands of pounds of students’ union tickets and then used that as cash flow,” says Beckett. “They’d say, ‘We need the invoice paying.’ We’d just keep fobbing them off until we’d got the money, but obviously, because it was students who had no business sense, they just think everything works like it’s supposed to work. ‘You’re supposed to pay us now.’ … ‘Yeah, but we can’t.’ ‘Oh – what happens now?’ ‘Come back next week’ … ‘Oh, OK.’ … ‘Chill, chill.’”

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