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Creator / Blast First

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Mat Smithnote , interviewer: Do you remember how you felt when you first heard Bad Moon Rising for the first time?

Paul Smith, label founder: I feel I have a total recall of that moment, the time of day, light, smells and the effect of the sound... I was ABSOLUTELY sure that I was experiencing a future music... a music of my own generation... with all the zeal of a new convert, so very unaware of how long and how much effort it was going to take to get the rest of the world to see it too.
—From this 2005 interview

Born out of one Englishman's desire to get a specific album by an American Noise Rock band released in the United Kingdom, Blast First quickly evolved into a company that John Peel reportedly called "the most important label of the age".

The Age was The '80s, and the Englishman was Paul Smith, an employee at Doublevision, a small video and record label started by Cabaret Voltaire. At Doublevision, Smith worked with No Wave legend Lydia Lunch, whose 1984 mini-album In Limbo included important contributions from Thurston Moore (he co-wrote four of the six songs and played bass). When Lunch returned to her New York City home, she told Moore about this British music executive she'd dealt with who "wasn’t a complete arsehole". This prompted Moore to send Smith a cassette demo of his band Sonic Youth's work-in-progress, Bad Moon Rising (which happened to feature Lunch as a Special Guest). When Smith listened to the tape, it changed his life.


Smith: I mean, it was an absolute epiphany for me in one of those weird, pseudo-religious things that you never think is really going to happen to you, but I was absolutely drawn into that world immediately.

Smith took the album to Doublevision, who rejected it as "too rock and roll". He offered it to several other British indie labels; no one was interested. Finally, Peter Walmsley of Rough Trade told Smith that his label didn't want Bad Moon either, but if Smith started his own imprint to release it, RT would manufacture and distribute the new company. In March 1985, Bad Moon Rising was simultaneously released on both sides of The Pond.

Smith maintains the deal happened only because Arsenal was playing and Walmsley, a die-hard Gunner, wanted Smith to shut up so he could concentrate on the match.

Smith named his new company Blast First, a reference to Blast, the manifesto for the short-lived Vorticist art movement created by writer/artist Wyndham Lewis just before World War I. Its confrontational tone was the literary equivalent of the music Blast First would put out.

BLAST First (from politeness) ENGLAND
DISMAL SYMBOL, SET round our bodies,
of effeminate lout within.
the LONDON cloud sucks the town's heart.
—The beginning of Blast

The Rough Trade deal ended after only three releases because RT thought the sleeve for Sonic Youth's "Flower" single, which featured a photocopy of a photo of a topless woman, was sexist. Fortunately, Mute Records agreed to take over distribution, which was good news all around, since both Smith and his premier band had plans for the fledgling company. Thurston Moore gave Smith a list of American Noise Rock bands who needed overseas representation; several of them wound up on Blast First, including Big Black, Butthole Surfers and Dinosaur Jr., which gave the label a unique focus among its British brethren. The company also signed some like-minded UK acts, such as Head of David, Stretchheads and The Mekons. As Richard King noted in How Soon is Now? The Madmen and Mavericks who Made Independent Music 1975-2005, Blast First soon acquired a "reputation for the ornery and unconventional"; this was personified by the two sisters who handled their press relations. This article from Juno Plus tells the story:

Liz and Pat Naylor, described by Smith as “two hardcore lesbians who hated male music journalists,” were in charge of PR, and their remarkably brusque approach generated yards of coverage in the music press. One press release was an entire A4 page covered with a rant by Pat Naylor about the travails of supporting Derby County F.C., with one line at the end about the fact that Big Black had a new album out that week. It was reproduced in full by NMEnote .

Blast First also had sublabels such as Not, which released "authorized bootlegs" of concerts by the label's most popular acts, and Furthur, whose catalog was half relatively normal albums, half picture discs either performed or compiled by visual artists like Raymond Pettibon and Robert Williams. This uniqueness gained Blast First a devoted following — which Smith was not at all happy with. As he told Juno Plus:

We started getting letters from some people saying, "We buy everything on Blast First". That’s when I started putting out Sun Ra and Glenn Branca and a few other things because, while I speak highly of the methodologies of Tony Wilson, I didn’t want a Factory Records where people bought everything just because it was on Factory. Literally within a couple of months of getting those letters and putting out those records, which I probably would have put out anyway, then we got a slew of records back, saying "What is Sun Ra? What is this shit?" I was like, "great, have your money back but you know, don’t go around following people". That’s just not that smart to do that, and I didn’t want a cult in that sense. It’s not good for your ego if you have a run of bands and you start believing that you really do know what you’re doing. I really didn’t know what I was doing.

This statement presages the changes that Blast First went through as The '80s became The '90s. With its most popular acts either breaking up or Channel Hopping to major labels, Smith gradually changed the company's focus from guitar rock to Avant-garde Music performers such as Keiji Haino, Hovercraft, Labradford and PanSonic, although some relatively traditional rock groups such as The Afghan Whigs, Band of Susans, Erase Errata, The Liars and The Raincoats still made releases on the imprint. Blast First also signed Suicide, which released both old and new recordings on the label, as well as several Alan Vega solo projects.

Bigger changes came in 2002, when Mute was bought out by EMI. Although Blast First was part of the deal, "the greatest recording organisation in the world" had little interest in its releases. Smith responded by forming Blast First Petite, an independently distributed sublabel which distributed artists that EMI wasn't interested in. Eventually, Blast First went dormant while Petite continued; its website is still up, although it hasn't made any new releases since 2019. Whatever the future holds, Blast First has earned a unique place in pop culture.

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