Sandy McLean on the origins of 53rd and 3rd, The Cartel and how Fast Product became Fast Forward….
Ok, well, it was called Fast Product when I joined in ’82, the name Fast Product hadn’t been used on a record for at least a year. I think Fast Product came to the end of its life as a label, at some point Bob and Hilary decided to go and get a new one called Pop Aural and they did, I think, Lubricate Your Living Room with The Fire Engines and Candyskin of course as well and later on Big Gold Dream, but in the meantime Fast Product’s still a great name for a distribution company, get product into shops fast. So that ran in conjunction with Pop Aural, and I think they had some other label they were going to do as well, I forget what it was now, but…
Q: It was for one of their albums wasn’t it (Accesory)…
It’s one of the background kind of music one’s I think but in the meantime Bob had signed the Human League to Virgin and he’d seen what it was to sell a lot of records and he’d seen the kind of…the approach that Virgin had down in London and it was a creative company back in those days, and at the same time we had all these Scottish bands coming out of the woodwork with independent records, you know, guys from Fife like Beat Necessity, would come over with a thousand records or APB from Aberdeen would come down and John Peel would play the APB records and we sold shed loads of those.
They…APB did tens of thousands of records and no-one knows who they are these days, they supported James Brown in New York but no-one knows, they almost…they weren’t from the cool central belt so they’ve kind of been shunted off to the sidelines of Scottish independent history. But, so yeah, Bob and Hilary doing the Pop Aural label on the side, Fast Product…Simon was running Fast Product but wanting to leave, but he gave…I think he gave a years notice, and he kind of worked side by side with me for a good few months just getting me up to speed to understand what it was to be phoning up all these shops and dealing with the English labels and to getting it in and doing the logistics of things so it wasn’t easy cause I was a retailer, I hadn’t been doing behind the scene stuff but I quite enjoyed it, they gave me a lot of freedom and we just went through the phone books and just wrote down the name of every record shop in Scotland and started calling them all.
Started banging our heads against a wall with a lot of the wee ones like Ace Records in Musslebrough, or Band Parts in Leith Walk, and all these little places up and down the country who had no interest in stocking independent records from Pig Bag or the Stiff Little Fingers or things like that so basically it boiled down to the kind of really good ones, the good ones in Edinburgh like Ripping or in Aberdeen like One Up and in Glasgow it was A1, and Groucho’s in Dundee, there was always a good core of about half a dozen shops in the cities that you could deal with and the kids in those towns would go and buy from One Up in Aberdeen and A1/Fopp in Glasgow and it gradually built up and up and up until The Cartel became more professional with things like The Smiths or The Wooden Tops and the 4AD label, Cocteau Twins, and Depeche Mode was a huge one as well actually, Depeche Mode opened a lot of doors for the independent labels and independent network.
Q: And so what, for a laymen, what was the idea behind The Cartel?
Well The Cartel came about because we were all regional warehouses, out in the regions, and most of them were shops actually, it was like a…it was a Rough Trade shop, who bands would bring stuff to and there was a Red Rhino shop in York, it was Baxx in Norwich, it was Revolver in Bristol…and we weren’t, we were the label.
Rough Trade knew Bob and respected Bob from his label activities so we were the only one that was slightly different like that so each geographical area, each shop or each Cartel member would bring in the label product from their area and put it into a kind of
central pool, the central pot and we would move product around and not charge each other for about two months until the dust had settled on it.
Once you’d put it into the shops, even if it was going to come back, then you would account for it so it eased the cash flow for all these small labels and small shops and distributors but at the same time it meant that a band from Norwich like The Farmer’s Boys could get a record into Ripping Records in Edinburgh or Groucho’s in Dundee or something like that or Concorde in Perth, you know and now to this day, whenever I hear a Scottish accent in Canada or the States or in Spain, if I hear a Scottish accent and I speak to someone I know their local record shop, and they say ‘oh, I’m from Thurso,’ ‘oh, J and G, whatever in Thurso,’ or ‘I’m from Oban,’ ‘ Oh, remember Douglas’ in Oban,’ ‘oh, I used to shop there every week,’ and all this stuff. So I can…you know, it’s just this knowledge of the 80 in the Scottish Record shops, cause I knew them all, I drove around them all.
Q: So how did this relate to Fast Forward?
In Fast Product we went quite happily along for a few years and the politics of The Cartel and the whole professionalism of this evolving thing called The Cartel, which became expensive to run and it was Bob Last’s hope that Fast Product would become bigger than the other Cartel members and because he had so many connections at Virgin he wanted us to wholesale Virgin label product. Things like Culture Club and Phil Collins and things.
We weren’t overly excited and my cartel colleagues didn’t like it at all but Bob got us deals with Virgin, Island and Jive and we attempted to get that stuff into the shops and the record companies were out there doing it already. Virgin had their own rep doing the same kind of thing so we wasted a bit of time and money basically trying to kind of replicate those efforts and our Cartel colleagues were miffed at us that we weren’t spending our efforts focussing on our own independent labels and with the benefit of hindsight they were right basically, so what happened was we just didn’t make any money doing these major label things and Bob got us to do a stock check and it had turned out we had actually technically lost three grand that quarter or something like that, so technically we’re insolvent, so he pulled to plug on the company, despite having bought a new warehouse a month before that he’d just got the keys for. So he had all these big visions and the plug was pulled very abruptly to being I think 3 or 4 grand down in a quarterly stock check which I think we could have battened down the hatches and gotten through that but he just pulled the plug very quickly and before we knew it we were unemployed.
I saw my colleagues at Rough Trade, Richard Scott and Tony Costray from Red Rhino, showed them the sale figures and the kind of accounts I had they both agreed there was a viable business there so Tony agreed to set me up, get me an office and a phone line and pay my colleague Nick Haines and I a wage, so we found an office in Edinburgh, Alva Street, and I just thought ‘ok, Fast Product…Fast Forward.’ Great name, easy, done. And within a few weeks we were started up and running in 28a Alva Street. Phoning up the shops in the morning, faxing the orders down to York and they were dispatched from the Red Rhino warehouse to the Scottish shops and that worked quite well for a while and Tony would come up and he would see how things were going and he was pleased and he was making money, we were happy, we were making money.
The whole independent ethos was carrying on and he said ‘right well, I want you to create product now, I want you to become more than a distributor and encourage Scottish labels to come into the system, the Cartel system and I’ll happily pay you your wage to do the wholesale in the morning and then the distribution in the afternoon and encourage labels to come.’ And it was great, it did, and we encouraged all kinds of labels and all kinds of musicians like The Pastels and The Shop Assistants and basically the bands of the day would come along, whether it was We Free Kings and Swamp Trash, and there’s just dozens and dozens of bands who’s names have evaporated from history that were just there and it was very vibrant. Fast Forward was my company basically and I was helped by The Cartel to get up and running and it kind of hit the ground running.