We Could Send Letters #1 takes place this Saturday 27th May at Glasgow’s book festival, Aye Write. It will focus on the Hungry Beat book about the seminal Scottish independent labels Fast Product (The Mekons/ The Human League/ Gang of Four/ Scars/ Fire Engines etc) and Postcard Records (Orange Juice/ Josef K/ The Go-Betweens/ Aztec Camera etc. Bob Last (Fast Products) and Malcolm Ross (Josef K/ Orange Juice/ Aztec Camera) will discuss both labels.
Tickets for We Could Send Letters / Aye Write: https://www.glasgowlife.org.uk/event/1/bob-last-malcolm-ross-and-douglas-macintyre-we-could-send-letters
Here’s an interesting article in The Guardian about Bob Last and Fast Product.
Bob Last and Hilary Morrison started Fast Product in an Edinburgh bedroom, released music by the Human League, the Mekons and Joy Division, and devised the blueprint for Britain’s nascent indie record scene, all in two years.
Imagine a label that was run from a flat and released only a handful of records, yet among them was early music by the Human League, the Dead Kennedys, Gang of Four and the Mekons. Fast Product was exactly that label. It seems scarcely believable now that its commitment to quality control apparently led founders Bob Last and Hilary Morrison to turn down the Cramps, while Fast Product’s artwork – usually bright pink or DayGlo green, with cartoons and giant text – took postmodernism to the mainstream. It’s hardly ever recognised that Fast Product created a blueprint for British independent labels – in everything from the aesthetics to the manifesto of taking on the major labels. Despite all of its wonderful achievements, it is rarely talked about these days.
Perhaps, had the Edinburgh label lasted longer than two years – it released just eight singles, three split EPs, one album and two fanzines between 1978 and 1979 – it would now be talked of with the same reverence as Factory, Rough Trade, Creation, Mute, 4AD or Glasgow’s also short-lived Postcard, as a pinnacle of British musical independence. Instead, it has taken 36 years for the story to be told – in Big Gold Dream, a documentary about Fast Product, Postcard, and the Scottish independent scene of the late 1970s and early 80s, released in 2015.
On the other hand, there’s a magic in Fast remaining largely unknown. In 2016, even with the internet, I barely know any more about Bob Last than I did when he was releasing terrific records. I once read that he had studied architecture and roadied for the Rezillos. Others have surmised that Fast Product was in fact a brilliant, Malcolm McLarenesque means of scamming money from major labels. Any or none of these nuggets could be true, but what is important is that Fast Product left behind a perfect back catalogue and created an ideal for maverick pop independence.
My first Fast Product record was Earcom 2: Contradiction (FAST 9b), a sort of aural magazine (Earcom meaning “ear communication”). I’m staring at it now, a 12-inch vinyl record with a photo on the sleeve of a man climbing up (or down) a cliff above the sea. The inner sleeve contains an image of “a woman Sandinista guerrilla cradling an assault rifle while listening to a pep talk from a political officer in Masaya”. The record itself contains music by Thursdays, whose version of (Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay I heard as a schoolboy (before I’d heard Otis Redding’s), Stockton band Basczax and Manchester’s Joy Division, who remain my favourite band of all time. I was lucky enough to see them at the 1979 Futurama festival – my first ever gig – but initially heard them when John Peel played Autosuggestion, one of their two tracks on Earcom 2, on his radio show.
By then, Joy Division had already signed to Factory. Fast apparently turned down the chance to sign them permanently. With hindsight, the label may have got some things badly wrong, but Fast’s Mekons singles – Never Been in a Riot (FAST 1) and the sublime Where Were You? (FAST 7) – defined the DIY ethic and ramshackle brilliance of so much of what would become British indie.
Another Leeds band, Gang of Four, arguably invented punk funk with their Damaged Goods EP (FAST 5), and caused uproar in the music industry when they became the first unsigned band to appear on the cover of NME. The Human League’s ascent from Sheffield’s electronic avant garde to the No 1 spot began when Fast put out Being Boiled. Even the label’s lesser-known releases were important. The Scars’ Adult/ery – later sampled by Lemon Jelly – was once called “Scotland’s Anarchy in the UK”.
This much we do know: Bob Last was given a copy of Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP – the first independently released British punk record, on Manchester-based New Hormones label – by Morrison, his partner, and was so inspired he formed an independent label of his own. There were other indie labels forming, such as Rabid and Small Wonder – but Fast were different. Like Factory’s Tony Wilson – whose strategies were influenced by Fast – Bob Last was a theorist who wanted to do more than just release music.
Fast Product once sold plastic bags of rotting orange peel to show that everything could have a value. That was actually a microcosm of Last’s theory that things that appear musically rudimentary or simplistic could have merit. That oddball but brilliant logic proved the perfect ideology with which to unleash what was – in 1978 and 1979 – original but unusual and even difficult music. Armed with such slogans as “mutant pop” or “difficult fun”, Fast challenged pop’s musical conventions, showing that recording and marketing music wasn’t just the preserve of the major labels. Last explained his records’ eye-caching sleeves by claiming he was “deploying marketing in the service of this raw and unsettling music”.
Quite why the label burned so brightly but briefly has never been fully explained. The Mekons, Gang of Four and the Human League were poached by majors, with Last remaining as manager of the latter. He masterminded the band’s unlikely but brilliant transition from culty leftfield electronic weirdos to Abbaesque global chart-toppers from his base at 2 Keir Street, the Fast Product flat.
The label’s last single, FAST 12, was California Über Alles by the Dead Kennedys, which – 37 years on – is still influencing the likes of Savages and the Vaccines. But that wasn’t the end for Bob Last. After Fast Product, he and Morrison started another label, and Pop Aural released the first record by the Fire Engines, who were an immediate sensation. After that, Last walked away from releasing music. He concentrated on management – with Heaven 17 and ABC – before making his way into the film industry. In the 1990s, he worked as a music supervisor, then became a producer – The Illusionist, which he produced, was nominated for best animated film at the 2011 Oscars.
Bob Last recently hinted that he may revive the Fast Product name – but not to release pop music. Instead, he wants to market mountain bike components. If nothing else, that would be typically Fast.
One thought on “Hungry Beat / Bob Last / Aye Write (Glasgow Book Festival) / Sat 27th May in the Royal Concert Hall.”
Thanks for sharing this fascinating article about Bob Last and Fast Product. It’s amazing to think about the impact that a label created in an Edinburgh bedroom had on the independent record scene in Britain. Bob Last’s commitment to quality control and his label’s unique aesthetic paved the way for maverick pop independence. Fast Product has left behind a perfect back catalogue, and it’s great to see it being celebrated.
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