I met David Suff the head of Topic Records at the recent Independent Label Market. The event took place at London Spitalfields up on what would have been the outer edge of the old, long vanished city wall and now nestling between the corporate glass and steel of the major corporations, jostling for prime location and architectural one-upmanship of the ‘Square Mile,’ and the Bangladeshi hub of Brick Lane. In the sweltering heat a large number of indie labels had set up temporary shop, attracting a sizeable crowd, mostly intent on sniffing out rare or desirable vinyl. With a strong showing from London’s ever increasing brewing fraternity also on hand, thankfully there was also ample chance for refreshment.
The aisles were packed with shoppers and David quickly confirmed the event was a rip roaring success exclaiming, “Brilliant! Hot! Sweaty! There are over 100 record labels here and a number of breweries and lots and lots of people who are interested in music, it’s great.” Although modestly downplaying Topic Records status as the oldest surviving independent record label, now in its 75th year, with a laugh, he did admit, “Well I think I’m doing more interviews than Simon Raymonde of Bella Union and I think a lot of people are genuinely pleased to see us here as the oldest indie.” He quickly qualifies this adding, “But there are dance labels and others whose music is a million miles away from what we do. Besides, this is the fourth or fifth year that this event has been run and it’s our first appearance, so we’re more like the new boys than the granddaddies.”
I ask David what he’s brought down with him and it turns out to be quite a list as he reveals, “We’ve brought some vinyl from the topic archives, releases from the 50s, 60s and 70s. There’s also some brand new vinyl that we’ve manufactured, Nic Jones, first ever 45 with two tracks from Penguin Eggs, with a special label bag, photos and memorabilia included and there are reproductions of Anne Briggs Hazards of Love and Shirley Collins Heroes in Love EPs, both of which are 50 years old. We’ve also got copies of our Three Score & Ten CD set.” He gives a broad smile and adds, “Oh, and we’ve even got some button badges and T shirts, which I guess makes us a proper record label.”
His tongue is firmly in his cheek of course and the history of the label, so well told in the sumptuous, history spanning Three Score & Ten CD set proves their enduring existence as a ‘proper record label.’ As the title suggests that set celebrated 70 years of Topic Records, chosen as a landmark as it chimed with what by today’s standards is a fairly outmoded assessment of the average life expectancy of the common man. They’ve now hit another milestone and Topic is in the throws of commemorating 75 years, coming to its climax over the next few weeks.
[pullquote]One of the things we’re doing this year is compiling a 2 CD set of political song called Voice & Vision, to be launched at this years TUC in early September.[/pullquote]“One of the things that Topic did a lot of in the 60s was to work with the Trades Unions,” David tells me. “We’d set up stalls at conferences and had particularly close ties with the NUT and sold our records as teaching aids and social history.” The connections with the Unions go right to the start of Topic Records and David explains that the connection remains important explaining, “One of the things we’re doing this year is compiling a 2 CD set of political song called Voice & Vision, to be launched at this years TUC in early September.” He explains the remit, “We’re working with some of the Trades Union Federations to set these songs into some sort of historical context. It’s not to dry and serious and the subtitle is Song Of Resistance, Hope & Peace and the emphasis is on creating an uplifting collection.”
It isn’t simply an exercise in revisiting historical ties, however, and David emphasises, “We’ve commissioned some new recordings by younger artists to sit alongside songs from Martin Carthy, Roy Bailey, Pete Seeger, Peggy Seeger and others from the classic Topic archives.” I ask David whether the same sort of idealism and political motivation exists amongst the younger generation and he acknowledges, “It probably doesn’t get the focus, but there are plenty of your artists writing songs of protest and whether playing rallies or smaller clubs still have a strong political voice. He had quite a queue of willing acts and regretfully couldn’t accommodate them all.”
Those archives will get another revisit at the same time, however, with another 2CD set called The Good Old Way, that promises another slant on the labels repertoire acting as the closest the label has ever come to a best of, although it’s also probably reasonable to expect a typically Topic take on what qualifies. Suffice to say that for those who might find the seven CDs of Three Score & Ten too much, this should prove a worthy primer of the labels manifold delights. There is another point to as well as David hypothesises, “Topic, over its history can justifiably claim to be the preminent British folk label, but the music we release much like jazz also, sometimes almost volunteers to be confined to the margins, so it’s important to keep highlighting the good stuff that you’ve done and reminding people of why you’re here.”
The youthful theme is also echoed in a major event as David reveals, “As well as our 75th year Towersey Festival are celebrating their 50th anniversary and during the festival, on the 23rd of August, it’s also Eliza Carthy’s birthday.” He continues, “We’re going to present Topic At Towersey, a sort of 75th birthday party and Eliza is our musical director for the event. There are a number of performers involved who haven’t recorded for the label before including Josienne Clarke, Jim Causley, Lau and Blair Dunlop who will be playing and singing material from the archives. Plus there’ll be Eliza and Martin, Norma Waterson and Fay Hield also doing much the same.”
With no more artist albums planned this year it seems Topic is setting its sights on the widest possible horizons and David makes the point, “When I started my own record label, Fledg’ling, 21 years ago, I quickly realised that the job was not to make records, but to distribute them. It’s no use having a load of copies stashed away under the bed. For the last few years the focus of Topic has meant that we haven’t been out there at events, working with people and organisations or communicating directly with our audience. So, this is designed to redress the balance and re-establish some of the connections that we have with our past while keeping our eyes firmly on the future.”
Interview by: Simon Holland