Label Watch: Mute
Mute Records was set up in 1978 to release some songs made by label founder Daniel Miller. More than forty years later and it’s still here, although not just releasing songs by its founder.
From its early days joining forces with post-punk innovators like The Birthday Party, onto pop crossover with Depeche Mode and Erasure and including its recent work with sound innovators like Arca, Mute’s music always tends to have a fearlessness to it. The label’s desire to find new sounds that challenge and thrill the listener keeps people coming back for more.
Chances are that if you’re on the Norman Records site you’ve probably already sunk your teeth into a bit of the Mute catalogue. Maybe you’re into the heavy stuff - a little more Ben Frost, madam? - or perhaps you dig the label’s oddball curios like Silicon Teens. Perhaps you know Mute best via sub-labels like it’s techno-crazed offspring Novamute. Whatever, it’s cool. We don’t judge. Either way, allow this article to guide you through the great and the good of what this noble music stable has to offer.
Formed in the fervent musical hotbed that is Basildon, Depeche Mode are what that made Mute the massive deal it is now. Initially just picked up for a single (1981’s ‘Dreaming Of Me’), the band broke into the mainstream later that year with top 20 hits ‘New Life’ and ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’. Mute rapidly grew in order to keep pace with the group’s ever-increasing popularity. After more than 100 million units shifted (!) and scores of massive tunes, Miller’s decision to sign the band off the back of a gig in Canning Town can now be viewed as one of the all-time great examples of following your nose.
Depeche Mode have always done a fine job of balancing pop nous with a desire, in true Mute fashion, to push people’s buttons. See Music For The Masses and Violator, the dark, sexy pop-noir masterpieces they made at the end of the ‘80s. Miller & Co. have been with the band all the way.
Recently Mute have come through with the lovely reissue box sets for some of the band’s seminal early singles. The collections for Speak And Spell (1981), A Broken Frame (1981), Construction Time Again (1983) and Some Great Reward (1984) present each album’s hits as lovingly-restored 12”s, meaning you get the B-Sides and remixes along with the big tunes.
Though Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds have recently struck out on their own Bad Seed Ltd. imprint, prior to 2012’s Push The Sky Away the band was one of Mute’s longest-serving artists. Indeed, Nick Cave’s relationship with the label goes back even further than this to encompass his work with those rambunctious scamps known as The Birthday Party. If Depeche Mode were the group who promoted Mute to the big leagues, Cave is the artist who’s given the label consistent underground clout.
At this point Cave’s discography is pretty much unmatched - beyond Miles Davis, Björk and a handful of others there are few who’ve turned out records of such quality for so long. His run from Tender Prey to The Boatman’s Call, for instance, is peerless. From the ‘Prince Of Darkness’ early days, through the balladeering mid-period and onto the zany seaside gospel resurrection in the 2000s, all of it is gold and all of it came out on Mute.
Industrial music has come back in vogue over the last few years. However, it wouldn’t exist in anything like its current form if it weren’t for the innovations of Hull group Throbbing Gristle in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
For a long time the band were associated with the Industrial label from which the genre takes its name. Initially TG served up feasts of famine in the form of The First Annual Report and The Second Annual Report Of Throbbing Gristle, albums that were as much noise as they were music. With subsequent records like 20 Jazz Funk Greats the group wed the anarchy of their early work to grizzled mutations of disco, funk, exotica and post-punk. They were, in short, way ahead of their time.
Though the band’s first epoch only last six years the members have hardly kept a low profile since. The array of acts started up by TG alumni down the years include Coil and Psychic TV, and Throbbing Gristle’s confrontational aesthetic has gone on to influence everyone from Nitzer Ebb to Aphex Twin. The band’s star has risen again in recent years - partly due to resurgence of Cosey Fanni Tutti, and partly due to the fact that Mute marked the band’s 40th anniversary with a set of reissues.
On the cusp of the ‘80s, Daniel Miller signed the unusual German act Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (D.A.F.) to Mute Records because ‘they weren’t relying on past rock traditions at all, which is the criterion of what goes on Mute.’ As it had with Depeche Mode, Miller’s hunch once again proved correct.
The D.A.F. were a five-piece when they signed up to release Mute’s first LP back in 1980. Die Kleinen und die Bösen maintained the fire and fury of the band’s early tapes while also shading in the jerky post-punk grooves with angular chords, pounding rhythms and heavy use of synthesisers. Die Kleinen und die Bösen is about as good as new-wave gets.
However, the D.A.F.’s defining moment came when, between Die Kleinen... and 1981’s Alles Ist Gut (all available on this magisterial boxset) they shrunk to the two-piece of Gabi Delgado and Robert Görl. Taking cues from Suicide, the pair streamlined their sound into something sleek and dangerous. The aesthetics that the band cultivated here and on follow-up Gold Und Liebe are the defining images of Electronic Body Music, a sound that still exerts great influence over the worlds of punk and techno. Though the albums were initially dealt through Virgin, the D.A.F. never forgot their roots and allowed Mute to reissue their finest hours in 1998.
Wire’s perfect opening salvo needs no introduction. The first three LPs from the Watford group - Pink Flag (1977), Chairs Missing (‘78) and 154 (‘79) - remain the gold standard in British art-punk. However, there is a case to be made that the hallowed ground around this trio means that their 13 further LPs do not get the credit they deserve.
Wire were on Mute for five years from 1986, releasing six studio LPs before taking a break again for the best part of the ‘90s. This period saw the band combine the jerky, tic-addled sound of their early epoch with the kind of electronicised post-punk of New Order. By the turn of the ‘90s they’d started to lay the groundwork for LCD Soundsystem - see Manscape and The Drill if you don’t believe us.
During their time with Mute the band’s head-honcho Bruce Gilbert also released a bunch of more avant-garde solo records on the label. This influence that occasionally fed back into Wire’s sound - for instance, try comparing some of the more abstract numbers on 1989’s It’s Beginning To And Back Again with the lengthy spools of Gilbert’s This Way.
Though Can’s golden period prefigures Mute by several years, this isn’t to say that the Krautrock pioneers and the label aren’t heavily entwined. Can’s emphasis on groove, iconoclastic aesthetics and emphasis on power and immediacy is exactly the sort of vision that drove so many subsequent Mute acts.
Can honoured Mute with their twelfth and final records, 1989 reunion piece Rite Time. In recent years the label has done a fine job of conserving the band’s legacy, embarking on a reissues run that has spanned the length of the 2010s and includes all of their studio full-lengths, from 1969s Monster Movie to the eponymous LP that followed a decade later.
Can’s members, of course, have always been active outside the group, and Mute have been highly supportive of their solo careers, from Holger Czukay’s 1993 album Moving Pictures, Michael Karoli’s Polly Eltes collaboration Deluge (originally released 1984, Mute reissue 1998) and through to Irmin Schmidt’s more recent work.
A sinister thread runs through the acts we’ve mentioned so far. While Depeche Mode may not have upset the apple cart as much as Throbbing Gristle or Can, there is still an element of transgressive darkness to their music. However, there is another facet of Mute’s discography that is distinctly breezier. Cases in point: Goldfrapp, Moby, and most of all Erasure, one of the label’s longest-serving and best-selling acts.
Formed from the ashes of early Mute success Yazoo (Yaz, if you’re one of our Yankee readers), the duo of Andy Bell and Vince Clarke have spent more than three decades on the label’s books. Like Depeche Mode, the band have a similarly future-forward approach to instrumentation - electronics to the front, guitars to the back - but Erasure’s music contains little of the tension or daring of most of Mute’s other bands. And you know what, that’s fine, because sometimes what you really want is to just kick your heels off and bawl along to ‘A Little Respect’.
Formed way back in 1982, Swans originally emerged out of the New York no-wave scene. Their one constant over the years has been founder Michael Gira who has led the band since inception, retiring it in 1996 but subsequently reforming in 2010.
Initially known for their brutal live shows, Gira's confrontational stage presence - along with their music being played at painfully loud volumes - led to various violent incidents and to police being called to halt shows. On record their initial recordings were made up of repetitive riffs which created a kind of hypnotic sludge over which Gira howled morbid lyrics about death and religion. Over the years their music gained a kind of grace and their only major label album The Burning World was an acoustic based affair at odds with their earlier intense delivery. Since their reformation in 2010 the band (now Gira and a revolving cast of musicians) released a slew of well received albums, both The Seer and To Be Kind from this period were ranked on Pitchfork Media's Top 100 Albums of the Decade So Far. They remain to this day an unrelentingly creative force, a brutal ever changing outfit continuing to challenge and surprise listeners and are one of the very few bands to stay relevant and vital over a long period.
Born Francis Tovey, the avant-gardener Fad Gadget was Miller’s first signing as Mute boss. In effect, he is the reason that Mute ceased to be Miller’s pet project and became a going concern within the music industry. And with his fearless commitment to his art and ability to mangle pop into strange new forms, the late Gadget may be the one artist who defines Mute above all others.
Taking the mantel from Miller’s MUTE001 release as The Normal, Gadget’s early work combined frosty synth-punk experiments with oddball musings. Take 1980 debut LP Fireside Favourites, a record in which unerring no-wave beats underpin Gadget’s black-comic rants. Informed by his studies in visual art and mime, Gadget would use live sets to spar with the audience while doing anything from hanging from the ceiling to pulling out his hair. The mime thing soon bled into Gadget’s music - records like Incontinent (1981) and Under The Flag (‘82) have a kind of surreal music hall flavour to them.
Even on a label roster than includes Fad Gadget, Throbbing Gristle, Liars and The Birthday Party, Einstürzende Neubauten take the crown for the sheer audacity of their sound. In their early days the Berlin mainstays blew away all in front of them for the way in which they took the sonics of punk to new extremes. Creating raw and harsh music as much from found objects as from traditional instruments, dark nights of the soul like 1981’s Kollaps (not released on Mute) still shake listeners to their core.
A decade or so in and Einstürzende Neubauten signed with Miller. This was a logical choice given that the band had already been involved with his label for several years - band founder Bargeld had been playing with Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds for some point, and the group already had a Mute credit to their name due to a 1983 collaboration with Fad Gadget. Since putting pen to paper the band have released a string of albums that have rounded out the edges of their sound. LPs like Silence Is Sexy and Perpetuum Mobile still have some tracks that sound like they’ve been taped in the seventh circle of hell, but there are just as many numbers that come across like the kind of lurching, distorted balladry of early Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. An ever-burgeoning interest in electronics and musique concrete culminated in their most recent masterpiece, 2014’s Lament LP.
Mute’s Year Zero. Despite only releasing this one single (and a weird live album in tandem with Robert Rental), The Normal - a band that is really just label founder Daniel Miller - remain a hugely influential act.
1978’s ‘T.V.O.D.’/‘Warm Leatherette’ is a crucial record in the early days of no-wave, coldwave and minimal synth. It also sets the tone perfectly for what was to follow on Mute. These frosty synth-punk tunes operate in a space that is somewhere between confrontational and cerebral, menacing and icy. Many people were taking note, and both tracks have received tonnes of co-signs and covers down the years (Grace Jones even named an album after ‘Warm Leatherette’). ‘T.V.O.D.’ and ‘Warm Leatherette’ are also part of the noble tradition of records inspired by JG Ballard’s Crash - see Gary Numan’s ‘Cars’, The Manic Street Preachers’ ‘Mausoleum’, and Phase Fatale’s Reverse Fall.
Despite not doing much more as The Normal, this single wasn’t to be Miller’s only move to centre-stage. In 1980 he released the cult classic Silicon Teens LP, and he’s subsequently done albums with members of Wire and remixed as Sunroof alongside Depeche Mode producer Gareth Jones.
The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that Yazoo have already been mentioned in this list. Along with The Assembly (who no-one really talks about any more) Yazoo was the thing that Vince Clarke did between leaving Depeche Mode and forming Erasure. As well as being chronologically sandwiched between the two, Yazoo’s debut LP Upstairs At Eric’s is also pretty much the sonic midpoint between the two acts.
On this record Clarke and partner-in-Yaz Alison Moyet deliver a set of soulful synth-pop bangers that draw from the British synth-pop Clarke helped pioneer along with the house sound just starting to filter into the UK from the American Midwest. As such, it’s no surprise to find out that acts like Hercules And Love Affair and LCD Soundsystem cite Upstairs At Eric’s as an important formative record.
The run of pop bangers here are occasionally broken up by forays into some distinctly more experimental electronics. ‘I Before E Except After C’ and ‘In My Room’ may not be as devil-may-care as, say, Einstürzende Neubauten, but the studio trickery and icy air of the tracks joins the dots between Yazoo and other early Mute signees like Fad Gadget.
By the end of the ‘80s a few people were questioning whether Depeche Mode still had it in them. Critical and commercial darlings at the start of the decade, the band’s writing style - though still producing popular records - had grown a little stale. Taking a more free-wheeling approach to their craft liberated Depeche Mode to make what is arguably their defining LP. Spawning some ultra-massive hits, Violator was the band’s first record to shift a million units in the States - yet this humid, almost perverse album is arguably the most daring thing the band have ever done.
In many ways Violator set the tone for the ‘90s. It’s expensive, post-modern, risque, and tastefully tasteless. Above all, it’s absolutely brilliant pop music. You could go so far as to say that you’d have no Marilyn Manson without Violator - it’s no surprise that Manson has covered ‘Personal Jesus’. Now, anyone up for few jars and a singalong to ‘Enjoy The Silence’?
Picture the scene: it’s a Saturday afternoon in December 1979, and you and your mother are doing a spot of Christmas shopping. She takes you into Woolworths (R.I.P.) to help you choose a gift for your father - ‘I’ll give you some hints as to what he likes’, she says. You both head to the record aisle and, through the mob fighting to get their copies of Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick In The Wall’, your mother spots an LP with a pastoral cover and four nice-looking 20-somethings on the front. ‘20 Jazz Funk Greats’, she says, ‘that’s just Martin’s sort of thing’. She puts a few coins in your hand and sends you over to the checkout to buy the album. Unbeknownst to her, the Throbbing Gristle full-length she has just bought contains not unassuming library instrumentals but a mixture of louche lo-fi disco, avant-garde semi-songs and ear-splitting noise. Poor Martin. Originally released via Industrial, Mute got their hands on the rights to reissue Throbbing Gristle’s upstart masterpiece in 1991.Editor's note: for a less, um, comical take on TG, try this or this.
One of the only labels that could hold a candle to Mute in the 1980’s was Tony Wilson and Alan Erasmus’ Factory. The legendary Mancunian imprint shared many qualities with Miller’s stall - a desire to look past the guitar continuum and find new modes of expression, a confrontational aesthetic and a desire to promote music in which groove was the organising principle. Along with the likes of Joy Division, New Order and The Durutti Column, punk-funkers A Certain Ratio were one of the jewels in Factory’s crown.
The band’s 1981 LP To Each… - either their first or second album depending on whether or not you count The Graveyard And The Ballroom - was possibly the moment in which A Certain Ratio came closest to sounding like one of Miller’s bands. The group’s somewhat Gothic mutations of disco and funk here have plenty in common with, say, the D.A.F.’s Die Kleinen und die Bösen.
Given the complementary aesthetics of the two parties, it came as no surprise when Mute recently announced that they’d be reissuing all of A Certain Ratio’s LPs as well as a rarities box set. ACR’s catalogue spans many decades and genres - by the end of the ‘90s they’d followed fellow Factory signees the Happy Mondays and veered towards acid house, and a few years later they were making Saint Etienne-ish ambient pop - but for sheer visceral thrills To Each… remains one of their most arresting collections.
Murder Ballads is the final record of the first phase of Cave’s career. From the late ‘70s up until this point Cave’s work had been steeped in Southern Gothicism, the blues, violence and the Bible. Making an album of Murder Ballads didn’t just feel natural for Cave in 1996, it felt like the logical conclusion of something he’d been building towards for two decades. The next year Cave would release the spare, heartbreaking torch songs of The Boatman’s Call, and he’s never really returned to the wide-eyed outlaw mania of his early period. Maybe he knew he’d never do it this well again.
A mixture of originals, covers and updated versions of traditional murder ballads, this gallows chuckle of a record is notable for both making a pop star of Cave and also containing some of his most daring material. The success of Kylie Minogue collaboration ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’ and PJ Harvey duet ‘Henry Lee’ opened him up to all sorts of hitherto-untapped markets. However, new fans curious to see what this rakish man would deliver across the course of an album were in for a shock. Murder Ballads goes beyond to visceral thrills of Cave’s earlier violent fantasies to become an examination in the depths of human depravity - from the ‘fat boy’ lyric that makes ‘Stagger Lee’ to the tragicomic orgy of death that is album climax ‘O’Malley’s Bar’, this is an album that stares life down with hysterical intensity.
In 1986 Wire broke a silence that had lasted since 1979’s 154 and released new EP Snakedrill. A louche, lush record that blended the angular rock of their early work with a newfound interest in synthesisers, Snakedrill perfectly set the stage for The Ideal Copy to follow the next year. The nervy, portentous guitar tones that herald album opener ‘The Point Of Collapse’ are coloured by keyboard melodies and a needling synth line. Dig deeper and you find cuts like ‘Madman’s Honey’ and the superb (and very A Certain Ratio-ish) ‘Ambitious’ doing a similar thing, while ‘Still Shows’ and ‘Over Theirs’ are bug-eyed and circuit-fried in the way that only Wire can do it. The more avant excursions of the various Wire members’ solo output also comes to bare on ‘Feed Me’, a brilliantly vampy piece of theatre-punk.
Can’s 1971 LP was where they really got into gear. With a settled lineup - Damo Suzuki had firmly ensconced himself on vocals by this point - the Krautrock pioneers set about recording a record that could have been A Bit Much even by the heady standards of the early ‘70s. Tago Mago contains two tracks that run to a whole side (‘Halleluhwah’ and ‘Aumgn’), and penultimate track ‘Peking O’ almost gets there too. From a psychedelic opening salvo Can move out and encroach on pretty much every radical sonic territory going. Musique concrete, drone, experimental electronics and free jazz all come to bear increasing weight on Tago Mago, and the general air of musical fearlessness makes it a cousin of The Beatles’ The White Album. However, unlike that record the band don’t waste a second here. Not originally a Mute release - ‘T.V.O.D.’/‘Warm Leatherette’ was still seven years off - but Miller snapped up the rights to reissue Tago Mago a few years back.
Speaking of fearless albums, may we (re-)introduce you to Liars’ 2006 LP Drum’s Not Dead. Though it came out more than three decades after Tago Mago, the LPs have similarities that extend beyond the fact that they were both recorded in Germany. In the best Can tradition, here Angus Andrew et al balance the power of rhythm with an extremely ambitious array of sonics. Vocals, often delivered in falsetto, sprawl over instrumentals that tend to be built from an array of processed percussion sounds backed by the sort of widescreen guitar atmospherics that make you feel like you’ve been looking at your magic eye poster for a wee bit too long. Drum’s Not Dead’s beat-less drone tracks - ‘It’s All Blooming Now Mt. Heart Attack’, for instance - only add to the air of a mind at war with itself. You would likely never have got the brute force of HEALTH’s early work or the most recent Daughters record without the gains Liars made here.
Tabula Rasa is the Latin for blank slate, and after signing to Mute the German vanguarders Einstürzende Neubauten decided that they would use the fresh start to redefine their sound. When Tabula Rasa came out in 1992 fans were initially taken aback by the relatively restrained record. Sure, opener ‘Die Interimsliebenden’ is a industrial avant-punk epic that sounds like someone trying to crowbar open Cthulhu’s tomb, but some of the tracks that followed it were distinctly un-Neubauten. They were melodic, tranquil - even, in the case of ‘Blume’ and ‘Wuste’, beautiful. As time has passed we now know Tabula Rasa to be one of Einstürzende Neubauten’s definitive statements. No other group could have made a record like this in the early ‘90s. In fact, no other group could have made a record like this - period.
More stuff from Mute that we're in to. Non-exhaustive, obviously!
Lots more playlists (inc. our Friday Jukebox) available over on our YouTube Channel »