Documentary Evidence

A Short History of Documentary Evidence

1991 - 2011

Mute - 'Documentary Evidence 5' booklet

A Short History of Documentary Evidence 1991 - 2011

Musically, and most definitely financially, my world changed massively on 22 June 1991. That was a warm and sunny English Saturday. As I did on most Saturdays, I went into Stratford-upon-Avon town centre with my mother and sister. Earlier that week, 'Chorus' by Erasure had been released. 'Chorus' was the first single to be taken from Erasure's new album, also called Chorus. By 1991 I was hooked on Erasure and I had decided that they were my favourite band, without question. Elsewhere I still had dubious musical taste, was still buying up ostensibly chart pop with all its attendant horrors, but Erasure were my favourite band by far.

I'd liked Erasure since 'Sometimes', but only as much as I liked anything else I heard on the radio if I'm honest; it would be tempting to say that my fandom had started when that track was released, but in truth I was ten years old in 1986 and I'm not into revisionist personal histories. I do, however, recall Vince Clarke and Andy Bell performing 'Chains Of Love' on Saturday morning TV in 1988 and thinking 'I really like this band,' but not so much to enter the competition on the show to win their entire back catalogue; a shame really, as winning that competition would have saved me a lot of money on buying up their releases later on.

A few months later, my father came home from his factory job with a home-recorded cassette of Erasure's The Innocents and I grabbed it out of his hand before he'd even had a chance to listen to it himself. That tape was rarely off my Walkman after that, never mind the fact that the remix of 'River Deep Mountain High' cut off a quarter of the way in, and so when 'Drama!', Erasure's first single from Wild! was released, I was straight down to Music Junction in Stratford-upon-Avon and grabbing a 7" copy down from the racks to the left of the till. A 7" of 'You Surround Me' and the cassette of Wild! arrived courtesy of Father Christmas that year; at the time my collector tendencies had not yet kicked in and I didn't see the value of buying the 'Blue Savannah' and 'Star' singles; why did I need to? Those songs were included on the album. And as for those LP-sized 12” versions of the singles? Surely that was pointless also; why did you need the 7" single just on a larger disc? If I could go back in time and offer my younger self some advice it would be thus: 'Buy every format of every release. Don't ask why. You will save money in the long term. It doesn't matter that there isn't a CD player in the household yet. Trust me.' I did, however, listen to the B-sides of 'Drama!' and 'You Surround Me' (the sampleadelic 'Sweet Sweet Baby' and the gently layered '91 Steps' respectively); my parents had drummed into me that B-sides were generally pointless, and usually rubbishy filler tracks at best, but I just wanted to hear more and more Vince Clarke / Andy Bell music and the B-sides fulfilled that need.

Thanks to my local branches of WHSmith and Woolworths, both of which at the time had expansive cassette racks, between the release of Wild! and the 'Chorus' single in 1991, I had bought Wonderland and The Circus, the albums that preceded The Innocents. I was poised and ready for the release of new material. 'Chorus' didn't disappoint, though I still fail to see, pre-internet and at that point not being an Erasure Information Service member, how I ever knew it was coming out; I do recall one performance before the single was released, on a Saturday night comedy show called Paramount City, which saw Andy and Vince performing with a load of showroom dummies around them; looking back, with that distinctly analogue sound, it was such an obvious Kraftwerk connection, but I didn't know that at the time.

Erasure 'Chorus' 7" artwork

Anyway, back to that Saturday, the weekend after 'Chorus' was released. I was in the Woolworths in Stratford-upon-Avon town centre with my mother and sister and I had paused in front of the singles rack. With 'Chorus' expected to do pretty well in the UK singles chart, it was sat on the upper rows of their singles section. I think I was only looking at that rack to check in on whether it was expected to chart highly, but instead I found myself with the 12" single - my first 12" single - in my hand and paying the £3.99 that was, even then, the going rate for the format.

Pulling the white inner sleeve out at home, and poised above my parents' crummy record player, out fell a 12”-sized brochure which landed at my feet on the carpet. I stuck side A of the record on, instantly warmed to the entrancing Youth-mixed Pure Trance version of 'Chorus' and began unfolding the brochure, fully expecting to throw it into the dustbin shortly after. That brochure was called Documentary Evidence. An example of a CD-sized version is included above.

At that time I had no knowledge of Mute apart from seeing its linear 'M' logo on Erasure releases, and certainly wasn't aware of founder Daniel Miller's musical legacy. In truth, I found the whole Documentary Evidence booklet utterly confusing. I was used to chart pop music, and yet here was a brochure listing out records by bands I'd never heard of. In my naivete, I had never considered the possibility that bands might exist outside of the realms of the chart, or that there might be some bands that actually didn't necessarily aim for success at all, and certainly had no awareness of independent music. I watched the Chart Show on ITV most Saturday mornings and thought the 'indie chart', like so many people did, represented a particular style of music and not a reflection of the fact that the records themselves were released via an indie label. The list of bands and artists in that pamphlet was enthralling, even without the remotest idea over what they might actually sound like - Fad Gadget, Nitzer Ebb, DAF, Nick Cave, Cabaret Voltaire, Laibach, Einstürzende Neubauten, Renegade Soundwave and so on. They sounded mysterious, edgy, uncompromising, exotic, dirty somehow, and the accompanying monochrome images just reinforced that view. I was learning German and twentieth century European history at school, and some of those artists somehow seemed to tap into my awareness of the German language and my incorrect notion of Germany itself. Rightly or wrongly I assumed that I'd just not noticed these artists in the charts, and - and at this I still cringe at my younger self - that the music these artists made would sound just like Erasure.

If the catalogue list of releases was intriguing, the accompanying text (by Biba Kopf aka Chris Bohn, former NME editor and current editor of The Wire) totally threw me. It talked about punk, it spoke in artistic terms I barely understood, it described Nitzer Ebb's sound as a 'putsch', a word I only knew in the context of 1930s German revolution. Once I'd got over my confusion, it was through that text that I became aware of Vince Clarke's background in The Assembly, Yazoo and, most challenging for me, Depeche Mode. At that point I hated Depeche Mode, in spite of not having heard anything outside of 'Personal Jesus' and 'Enjoy The Silence'; that hatred was less about the music and more about the fact that a girl I didn't like in my class was a fan. All of a sudden I felt like I needed to like Depeche Mode.

That sense of not just wanting to, but needing to listen to Mute material has prevailed to this day. From that day in July 1991, via snaffling up the releases by Yazoo, Assembly and Vince-era Depeche Mode, on through a tentative purchase of Nitzer Ebb's Ebbhead and Fortran 5's Bad Head Park in quick succession, I found myself totally immersed in the Mute back catalogue and largely leaving the claustrophobia of the charts behind; Inspiral Carpets' Revenge Of The Goldfish was next; I first got into punk thanks to buying the early albums by Wire at university in 1996; got into all sorts of dance music thanks to Moby and Plastikman; got into tortured singer-songwriter blues thanks to a performance of 'Red Right Hand' by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds on Jools Holland; fell in love with guitar music in a major way thanks to Sonic Youth and Foil whilst at university; developed an attraction to noise and avant-rock thanks to Einstürzende Neubauten and Labradford respectively; and fell in love with London thanks in part to Komputer's reverential 'Looking Down On London'. And so on. Only my interest in jazz as a genre seems to have not been informed by my primary love of Mute, although I have Mute to thank for keeping my ears questing for new things to listen to (and I do in fact have a solitary Sun Ra record just because Blast First put out an edition of his Space Is The Place).

Regrettably, I still own barely a fraction of the releases on the label and its various offshoots, and with the advent of responsibilities (both financial and familial) it seems harder and harder to justify an obsession that's extended from my youth to my mid-thirties. Nevertheless, I retain the (possibly hollow) ambition to own every single Mute release ever issued. This site, named after the brochure that fell out of the sleeve to my copy of 'Chorus', is my attempt to document my obsession and in doing so perhaps become a useful resource for any like-minded fans of this eclectic label. Only once have I given up this obsession, and that came with the birth of my eldest daughter in 2005; music just didn't seem important for a few years after that, and for a while I earmarked most of my Mute collection for sale, but something inside persuaded me not to follow through on that notion. However, when I did start buying music again it was mostly non-Mute, and that period is best documented by my now-defunct Audio Journal blog. Around 2009, by now with two wonderful daughters, I once again felt compelled to write about Mute. That need became fully formed whilst watching Depeche Mode performing at London's O2, whereupon I found my Mute mojo again. This site has swelled again since that point.

Vic Twenty 'Text Message' CD artwork

I started this site in 2003, commencing with a review of Vic Twenty's 'Text Message', released on Daniel Miller's Credible Sexy Units once Mute had been swallowed up by EMI. The reviews here follow no particular pattern, though I try to review new releases as quickly as possibly after they come out, and sometimes I'll try and cover off a lot of releases by some artists in quick succession. In addition to reviewing as many things as regularly as I can, I am also trying to refresh and update older reviews as well. All of this is generally done whilst commuting backwards and forwards from my home to my office in London, on flights to and from Edinburgh or very late at night. This site is therefore perpetually a work in progress, and may prove to ever be thus, and I apologise to anyone hoping to find it more complete than it actually is. I do, however, hope that in some small way it raises the mystique of Daniel Miller's mostly successful musical vision from 1978 onwards, through financial difficulties, through its rescue by EMI and on into its defiant return to independence in 2010. Also, whilst I consider myself a writer (and I will finish my tentative novel one day, I assure you), I'm clearly not a professional music writer; therefore whilst I try to write impartially about this incredible music, I often slip into personal recollection, emotion and so on. I only half-apologise for that. I more completely apologise for my lack of skills as a web programmer.

Along the way I've had the great privilege of being able to interview numerous people who have released records on Mute, or who have had a hand in its development, or who have simply worked with artists on the label. These can be found collected in the Interview Series section of this site. I've also had the privilege of receiving promos, working demos and support from time to time from artists, Mute itself, and some of the labels who have also put out records by Mute's artists (Cherry Red and Cooking Vinyl being two). Generally though, this site reflects my own personal collection of Mute and connected material. Its progress is thus entirely dependent on how much money I spend on Mute releases, new and old.

Thanks also to those who have offered support and feedback over the last eight years, with a special thanks to recent support from Chris, the Davids (Fleet, McElroy, Law), Jürgen, Yolanda and Jorge for the retweets and suggestions. Without your comments I'm sure I wouldn't bother.

(c) 2011 MJA Smith / Documentary Evidence