class=”alignleft size-full wp-image-52219″ title=”upside down” src=”https://www.heyuguys.com/images/2010/10/upside-down-.jpg” alt=”” width=”220″ height=”150″ />Upside Down relates the rise and fall of Creation Records, arguably the most important British record label of the 1980s and ’90s, as told by those who were there and lived to tell the tale.
Eschewing voice over narration or gushing on camera tributes from well known admirers and critics, the filmmakers do an exemplary job of telling the happily sordid story of Alan McGee and his band of merry men (and women, although the label was very much a boy’s club) and their largely exultant romp through the music industry during its last burst of glory.
Launched in 1983 by Alan McGee, Dick Green and Joe Foster with profits from their successful Tottenham Court Road hipster club The Living Room (or a £1,000 bank loan, depending on which version of the story one believes), Creation initially released 7″ singles, including The Jesus & Mary Chain’s ‘Upside Down,’ one of the biggest selling UK indie singles of the 1980s. Once they began building a head of steam, the label proceeded to stumble gleefully along a familiar independent path, characterised by an increasingly ambitious release schedule including the move into full length album releases (which, while seeming to indicate success, actually initiates a cycle of financial hand to mouth existence), and the descent into the kind of excessive rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that gets in the way of running a business.
Watching the footage of the bands is an exhilarating reminder of how many tremendous albums Creation released from the likes of Primal Scream, Teenage Fanclub, The House of Love, Sugar, Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Boo Radleys, Swervedriver, and of course, Oasis. I worked for Creation’s distributor for a time in the early ’90s, and the film took me back to hearing those albums in the office for the first time, and seeing the bands live. It was a heady time to be involved in independent music, but that era was effectively the last gasp of the top down, free-for-all label world (major or minor) before the downloading tsunami began rapidly eroding the old model.
While the film is an affectionate (but not unabashedly adoring) look at the UK indie era in the ’80s and ’90s and one of the labels that best exemplifies it, it’s worth noting that the trajectory the label took isn’t unique. Many a great independent label has been vanquished, either financially or creatively, by the great beast success, usually in tandem with proportionately raging ego. Independent labels have always functioned as talent scouts for the well financed majors (U.S. indie pioneer Sam Phillips sold Elvis to RCA in the ’50s so he would have cash to build the rest of his stable of rockabillys) and as the originators of styles and movements, but the sad irony is that nearly every time that maverick indies get into bed with a major rather than just acting as scouts and trail blazers, it’s the beginning of the end for the indie.
Rob Dickins, who ran Warner Music in the UK for nearly two decades, admits in the film that the indie label mentality just doesn’t work when the major labels try to shoe horn it into their structures, and it can be said that the reverse is true as well; massive, major label level success, when handed to quirky or downright dysfunctional individuals and labels, changes or ruins what made the labels interesting artistically and culturally.
The timing of Upside Down is ideal. Enough time has passed for the principals to have some objective distance, but we are still close enough to events that the key players are alive and have decent recall of events. Director Danny O’Connor has done a fine job of letting the horse lead the cart, keeping his authorial presence and stylistic flourishes to a minimum and in the service of a tale that needs very little assistance to be engrossingly entertaining. As programmer Michael Hayden said of himself after the screening, the film made an old indie kid happy. It made this old indie kid happy too.