In early 1976, a record shop called Rough Trade opened in London's Ladbroke Grove and soon became a haven for punk and reggae fans. Almost exactly two years later, the shop's founder, Geoff Travis, initiated the Rough Trade label with a single by France's Metal Urbain. The label was as accomodating to its artists as the shop was to its patrons, and the extended reach of its collectivist spirit allowed for the financial support and distribution of several other independents. 30 years later, through numerous ups and downs and releases from artists as disparate as Cabaret Voltaire, the Fall, Robert Wyatt, the Smiths, A.R. Kane, and the Arcade Fire, the label -- as well as the shop -- continues to thrive. Despite its successes since the post-punk era, the label's first 100 singles and EPs, released within a short frame of five years, represent one of the most remarkable runs in music history. We'll talk about 40 of those first 100 small-scale releases in chronological order. Here's part one of three.
Metal Urbain - "Paris Maquis"
Metal Urbain's "Paris Maquis" was the first single issued on Rough Trade, as RT001, and for a long time that was perceived as the most important aspect of the record itself, particularly as copies of it were practically impossible to find in the U.S.A. Sung in French, the style of the music is grounded in punk, but with several significant differences: the guitars are distorted beyond recognition, a drum machine pumping out hyper-fast rhythm takes the place of a live drummer, and the singing, rather, shouting is largely unintelligible even to Francophiles, outside of the cry "Fasciste!" Often cited retrospectively as foreshadowing the work of Big Black and the Jesus and Mary Chain, on the contrary, Metal Urbain is perhaps closest to anticipating the advent of grindcore and groups like Napalm Death and Godflesh. In this sense, they do resemble some of their contemporaries on Industrial Records, particularly the Australian group SPK as opposed to typical English punk. - Uncle Dave Lewis
Cabaret Voltaire - "Do the Mussolini (Headkick)"
Any misunderstanding would've been prevented with a different title -- "Kick the Corpse (The Corpse of Mussolini, That Is)," for instance. The third song on the four-track Extended Play, Cabaret Voltaire's first release, didn't inspire a dance craze, but it did unintentionally attract some members of the National Front to the group, a trio of seemingly dehumanized freaks from the gray industrial city of Sheffield. Cabaret Voltaire based its sound around an assortment of electronics and were far more radical than any punk band designed to destroy rock & roll with poorly-played rock & roll. "Do the Mussolini (Headkick)" is a lot closer to brainwash than the violence suggested in the title, burbling, scraping, and needling beneath a thick reverb cloak. The whole thing sounds grossly decayed, stridently cracked. In a weird and disturbing way, it's also rather lulling. Listen close, and you'll hear a perversion of the organ line from ? & the Mysterians' "96 Tears." - Andy Kellman
Stiff Little Fingers - "Suspect Device"
Stiff Little Fingers' second single wasn't as immediately anthemic as the instant classic "Alternative Ulster," but 1978's "Suspect Device" significantly upped the ante on the fearsome passion and guitar-driven rage of the band's debut, and it was one of the finest bits of spitfire punk in a year when most of the genre's founders were still running at full strength. In Jake Burns' world, the bomb about to explode is built from the thoughts boiling in his head after a short lifetime of living in Ireland under British rule, and the song's scorching fury doesn't release the tension but only winds it harder and tighter. Glorious rage in pure form, and if you don't want to sing along when Burns sings "Don't believe them! Don't believe them!," you have no business saying you love punk rock. - Mark Deming
Subway Sect - "Ambition"
It's hard to believe that when Vic Godard first appeared in the mid-'70s with Subway Sect, with a break or two they could have been as big as the Clash, Buzzcocks, or the Undertones. The band could barely play and Vic hit some notes that dogs would recoil from, but their songs were hooky, insistent, charged with electricity, and popular, too. "Ambition," Vic's finest early moment, deservedly hit the top of the indie charts -- it's a spiky and brainy collision between Godard's desperate poetry, his manic vocals, and the band's rollicking, joyous attack. The album that would have capitalized on the single's success was shelved, bandmembers were fired, and Vic went underground, releasing the brilliant What's the Matter Boy?, in 1980, and then more or less vanishing. Vic's influence outlived his fame, as you can trace the sound of great bands like Orange Juice, the Pastels, and the Libertines back to Subway Sect. Today Vic treads the London streets as the world's coolest mailman. - Tim Sendra
The Electric Eels - "Agitated"
The first-ever release of any recording of Cleveland's Electric Eels, on Rough Trade 008 in 1978, came as a revelation to budding British "do-it-yourself" post-punk artists. "Agitated" was recorded in October 1975, an early date seemingly impossible to reconcile with the development of American punk as it was understood over there, or anywhere. Among the tumbling surfeit of trashy drums and raw, atonal guitar leads came lyrics that were garbled and inarticulate, expressing such incomprehensible utterances as "I don't know what I want, but I just want to shoot it." As British youth eagerly snapped up this American recording and absorbed every drop of influence it contained, back at home its pioneering release was greeted with as little fanfare and interest as the band itself had garnered at its rare local gigs in Ohio. This single was cut loud, and while subsequent reissues captured this studio (!) recording in more faithful sound, none has the power and crushing intensity of the original, monophonic Rough Trade single. - Uncle Dave Lewis
Kleenex - "Ain't You"
In the first years of the punk explosion, the shock waves emanating from New York and London were felt around the world, but they manifested themselves in different ways wherever they shook people up. When Kleenex -- four women in their early twenties from Switzerland whose enthusiasm initially far outweighed their skill -- went into the studio in 1978, seemingly without trying they found an ideal middle ground between the urban alienation of Richard Hell and the goofball fun of the Rezillos while sounding as if they'd never heard either of them. On "Ain't You," Kleenex's first U.K. single, there's a lean and powerful force in Regula Sing's vocals and Marlene Marder's guitar, but the heady joy of the singalong chorus suggests one of the greatest messages of punk -- self-expression is not only liberating, but a hell of a lot of fun. - Mark Deming
Swell Maps - "Read About Seymour"
Though lambasted by Trouser Press and several other members of the press, Swell Maps' debut single -- originally released on Rather and then reissued by Rough Trade two years later -- set the tone of what was to come from the group in later years, especially the jagged guitar playing and furious drumming of brothers Nikki Sudden and Epic Soundtracks, respectively. "Read About Seymour" hangs out in punk territory with its singalong verses and choruses, but kisses off into chaotic meltdown three quarters of the way through. It's another of several hidden treasures in the label's catalog. - Rob Theakston
File Under Pop - "Heathrow"
"Heathrow" by File Under Pop is the most vaguely defined of all Rough Trade singles. No one is credited specifically with making this recording, the front cover image consists of nothing more than a photo of a light bulb shining out of the recesses of a construction site, and the back bears a photo of the (cheap) equipment used to make the recording. However, this is one of the first records of "industrial" music to appear on a label other than Industrial Records, and consists mostly of lightly altered field recordings made at Heathrow Airport interfaced with very basic electronic sounds. It is sort of the other side of the coin from Brian Eno's Music for Airports; rather than being designed for introduction into the environment of Heathrow, "Heathrow" comes out of it, capturing the tension, boredom, and confusion of being at a modern airport. - Uncle Dave Lewis
The Raincoats - "Fairytale in the Supermarket"
With its grinding riffs, shouted vocals, and tumbling chaos of a chorus, "Fairytale in the Supermarket" sounds just as defiant as any punk single, but its wit and creativity make it a post-punk classic. Ana da Silva kick-starts the song, sneering "It makes no difference/Night or day" -- it could be a typical punk tantrum, but then her snarl turns sing-songy: "No one teaches you/Haaaooow to-ooo live." You can almost see her rolling her eyes at the poor soul who inspired the song. All or largely female bands thrived in the arty atmosphere post-punk fostered after punk's leveling, back-to-basics blast, and the Raincoats didn't hesitate to remake rock in their own image. Most of "Fairytale"'s melodic sense comes from Gina Birch's spry, mischievous bassline; what sounds like guitar feedback is actually violin; and lyrics like "Cups of tea are a clock!" use distinctively feminine/domestic language. Triumphantly unpretty and full of surprises, this is truly independent music. - Heather Phares
Metal Boys - "Sweet Marilyn"
The debut single by Metal Boys was in effect performed by the main members of Metal Urbain, the very band Rough Trade issued as its first single. Metal Boys later recorded an album called Tokio Airport, when the band was pared down to Eric Débris and English vocalist China. Here, however, on this furiously glorious mess of a record, the shambolic punk rock of "Sweet Marilyn" (guess which Marilyn they're talking about, folks?) is courtesy of Débris, Herman Schwartz, and Pat Lüger, all of Metal Urbain. This is typical of the era for the French: it digs deep into Stooges and Velvets worship without sounding like either one, due to an overreaching, super-distorted guitar sound, cheesy sound effects -- like a theremin on stun with a faulty reverb unit, and muddy drums, all on top of Débris' whispered vocal. It may have been minor at the time, but it sounds just as freaky and fun today as it did in 1979. - Thom Jurek
Doctor Mix - "No Fun"
Following hot on the heels of "Sweet Marilyn" is another post-Metal Urbain project under yet another moniker. Here are two different versions of the Stooges classic "No Fun," back to back by offshoot Doctor Mix, fronted by Eric Débris -- whose sole aim was to do late-'60s/early-'70s covers by his heroes. The A-side is dirgeful and barely literate as the French frontman tries hard to mimic Iggy's pathological sexuality to the point it's almost laughable, but you figure maybe even he gets the joke. The surprise though is the B-side, a mostly instrumental version of the same track that is even thinner, more treacly than its vocal flip. The cheap drum machine effects and the crummy electric guitar turned to full distortion on a cheap amp make it surreal fun. - Thom Jurek
The Last Words - "Animal World"
This little slab of punk genius is one of the least celebrated but hookiest punk singles Rough Trade ever released, even if the band did little more than this before vanishing into the ether. Fronted by Malcolm Baxter, who was a cross between Billy Idol and the late Malcolm Owen (of Ruts). In a sludgy roar of down-strummed guitars, he sums up the personal deprivation as political: "We're livin' in an animal world/We're all livin' in an animal world/I can't believe I'm real...I got no money, got no beer." Right, London 1979. Bands like Cockney Rejects, Angelic Upstarts, and the Exploited were ushering in the confused and often loutish Oi! era as these poor yobs were playing on the dark side of the Undertones while not even getting their own joke and expecting others to take them seriously. Still, it's a great little record for what ails ya. - Thom Jurek
[A version of this was originally published as a www.allmusic.com front-page feature in June 2006.]