Interview: John Esplen - Overground Records

OVERGROUND RECORDS is a British label operated by John Esplen in Newcastle. It focuses mainly on rare and/or out of print releases by artists as diverse as DICKIES, FLUX OF PINK INDIANS, 999, BEERZONE, THE MOB and RICHARD HELL. It's also been responsible for the fantastic four-volume series of CDs focusing on British Anarcho Punk. John's been involved in Punk virtually since its inception, so he knows his stuff. What follows is an interview with the man about his label and his other project, Vinyl On The.Net

..OK John, I recall you telling me you got into Punk Rock in 1978 - during your mid-teens. What turned you onto it? Were you into any music prior to Punk Rock?
..John) I liked a bit of Glam music (SLADE, SWEET, BOWIE, ALICE COOPER) but lost all interest in music in the Prog Rock era. After Glam and before Punk, there really was nothing. I was so disinterested in music that I even missed the very start of it. I can’t recall what made me first get into Punk but what got me hooked was buying THE DICKIES’ ‘Eve of Destruction’ on pink vinyl. After that I became an avid Punk fan and record collector.

..What about your adolescent family life? Given Punk was still pretty new and subversive in '78, what was the reaction of your parents and friends towards your Punk fandom at the time?
..John) I grew up in rural Somerset. There really was no local music scene of any description. Typical of the time, most people were into Disco or 70s Rock; only a very few of us liked Punk. It was seen as very controversial at the time, a threat to the fabric of our society etc. But my parents, although not rejoicing in my new found passion were okay about. I remember my mother used to hate the DEAD KENNEDYS but I did catch her singing along to THE DAMNED’s ‘Love Song’ once.

.. When did you make the move to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and why? What differences were immediately apparent from moving from the south of England to the North?

..John) Well, you either became a rugby playing young farmer or you got out, and I didn’t fit in so I got out. This was 1980 and there were no jobs at the time so I went to college in Newcastle
and loved it. The most noticeable difference between the North and the South was the poverty. In Somerset, you could always find work in the farms or the tourist industry; in Newcastle, they were shutting the heavy industry and unemployment was terrible. When living in Scotswood they sent a camera crew to our street and 82% of the male working age population in the street were unemployed. I’ll never leave, I really like it. People kept saying, “move to London and work in the music industry,” but I think London is a shit-hole.

..You started Overground in 1988. Were you actively involved in Punk in any way before starting Overground Records? You have told me that you have never been in a band – ever been
half-tempted to pick up a guitar and give it a go?
..John) I used to write for zines, put gigs on, buy and sell records, but never released any records before starting Overground.
I had zero musical ability. My dad paid for guitar lessons but I was totally incompetent so realised that my involvement in the music business would have to be in the non-performing side. If I couldn’t play on any records then I’d at least make a few.

..Why did you start the label? Was it to release a specific record? Did any other labels of the day provide you with any inspiration or advice?

..John) I think it was Dan Treacy from the TELEVISION PERSONALITIES to whom I said you should reissue ‘14th Floor’. It’s collectable and he said, “If you want it out, you do it”. Lee Woods
from Raw Records licensed us some SOFT BOYS and DJM some SATAN’S RATS and in 1988 we started with a flourish. There weren’t really any other labels reissuing Punk stuff at the time, although I remember Damaged Goods starting at about the same time.

..Was the label always intended to issue re-releases? As you said above, back in ’88, there wasn’t many labels doing what you do.

..John) I was a fervent record collector and was aware of how much unreleased material was out there. The idea wasn’t so much to do reissues of previous releases but rather to unearth
unreleased tracks, add material and make the releases more interesting. Of course with vinyl this wasn’t easy but CDs were just starting to appear and I could see the real advantage in 74 minutes of music.

..What about distribution? I assume it's pretty much independent. Given that a large percentage of your releases are re-issues, are there any band/label contracts involved?
..John) When we started we used to sell them ourselves by ringing up the better UK independent stores and exporting them via the UK exporters. But after a while that became impractical so
we used the conventional independent distributors. Nowadays my UK distribution is via PHD and my USA distribution via Get Hip! I have independent distribution in most of the major territories. I don’t do contracts but if a band wants one I can do one. I pay the royalties in full in advance of each pressing so the bands always get paid.

..What has been the biggest adversity that the progression of Overground Records has faced? Have there been any other problems beside the usual lack of finances?

..John) Distributors going bankrupt has always been a huge problem. Distributors that over order stock or fail to ever distribute it has also been a problem. As the independent shops close and
the chain stores stop taking smaller selling releases, it’s getting harder to get CDs into shops and that’s a big problem.
Things go wrong most days though. Usually it’s information that has been wrongly inputted that gives the CDs a wrong price, wrong bar code etc... and that can cause a lot of problems. I’ve
had to scrap entire pressings because of mispressings or major errors in the booklet - and that’s really annoying.

..Do you find that, even after 20 years of releasing records, that you are still finding new things out about the whole process of releasing records and, more specifically, the music industry?

..John) Well it’s rapidly changing. I actually think we’re in the middle of a revolution within the music industry and we’ll look back at 2005 – 2010 in years to come as the period when it all
changed. Therefore, every day I’m trying to learn and adapt to the changes around me.

..Your Myspace page says something about the name Overground being used by some Hip-Hop label. What happened there – were there legal issues or did you just threaten to send in the
..John) It happens quite a lot with people trying to nick the name. You’d think anyone with half an ounce of sense would type the name into Google and see that it’s actively in use. Last year
some American kiddie emailed asking if I’d mind if he used it? You bet I mind, come up with your own idea - loser. Anyway, some hip-hop numpty registered the name as his on MySpace and I sorted it out via MySpace but it took ages. Pleased to say they recognised who was the ‘real’ Overground Records.

..What have been the best and worst selling releases on Overground? To what do you attribute the success/failure of these releases? Have you ever turned down the option of releasing
something and regretted it – or released something you now regret?
..John) The best selling release has been FLUX OF PINK INDIANS’ ‘Not So Brave’ but two of the RICHARD HELL singles sold 6000 copies. It’d be impossible to do even half that now as sales
are way lower than they used to be. Recently the Anarcho compilations have done well as has the new 999 album.
The JOHN THE POSTMAN album did badly which really surprised me, and quite a few others have struggled. I repressed a few things when I shouldn’t have and it’s taking ages for the stock
to clear.
The only artist I regret working with is Bobby Steele from THE UNDEAD. He turned out to be a really nasty guy with odious political views who had a total rock star ego and was paranoid that
everyone was ripping him off. The only release I wish I’d done a better job with was the REALITY CD. To this day it escapes me how it got past me with the inferior mastering job that was done by Dave Goodman. It should have been so much better.

..You've just released a fantastic compilation of material by the Anarcho band, THE MOB. How did you track that material down?  Did you have much direct contact with Mark, or were the finer details of the release (cover, graphics, running order etc) left to you?
..John) Ha! Ha! Mark couldn’t even remember most of those recordings – “Are you sure they’re THE MOB?”; but he was helpful in approving it and in clarifying a few points. It took a considerable
time to compile as getting hold of some of those recordings was very difficult, but Sean Forbes, Gordon Wilkins, Danny Back2Front and my cohort Sean McGhee were all very helpful in eventually getting everything sourced and in verifying the information. To me this release exemplifies what Overground is about: unearthing interesting material and packaging it in informative sleeve notes - rather than just reissuing the obvious. I want to release things that add to people’s record collection.

..Another of your recent releases is the latest album by Punk veterans 999, ‘Death In Soho’, the band’s first new recordings in nine years yeah? Did they approach you about releasing the
album? Being an album of new material by a still-active band (as opposed to re-issues like THE MOB), did you need employ any different methods to releasing the album?
..John) I’ve always been a huge 999 fan and have released several CDs of old material by them so I already had a good relationship with the band, which is a total pleasure to work with. So,
when they approached me about releasing a new album, I leapt at the opportunity and I’m delighted I did. It’s a superb album and 999 fans have been delighted with it. I did more promotional work on the album than I’d normally do. Because it’s their best album in a very long time I knew that if people were aware of that then it would do well. The new songs went down very well live which certainly helped.

..BEERZONE is an odd choice of band for Overground to release. How/why did you decide to re-issue the band’s second and third albums on one disc? I find the band hugely over-rated
– kind of a poor man’s TEST TUBE BABIES but lacking the wit. Did you have to come to any kinda deal with Cyclone and Beer City Records [the labels that released the two albums respectively] about licensing them?
..John) Yes it was a bit of a departure from the norm. I’ve known Iain from BEERZONE for many years and he’s one of the great characters of the Street Punk scene and has become a good
personal friend. Cyclone had gone bankrupt and Beer City had deleted their album and with the band being very active it just seemed wrong that you couldn’t buy the albums so I thought I’d offer. I licensed them from Iain. I like the albums although the humor can be a bit dated, but they are great live and I’ve heard very positive reports from their recent Australian tour. The line-up has changed a lot and their new material is light years ahead of what they were doing so they’re going to be changing their name.

..What about ex-BLONDIE member, Gary Valentine? He’s one of the few American bands/ people you have released stuff by but, given the BLONDIE connection, surely one of the most
notable. How did you end up releasing his retrospective CD, ‘Tomorrow Belongs To You’? Did he expect more from you and the label than the usual Overground artist?
..John) He was living in London and a friend introduced us. He’s a smashing person and wonderful to work with him. He made no additional demands whatsoever.

..The four volume Anarcho Punk Compilation series proved to be an essential look back at both the major and minor players of the movement. Was the series your idea, or its compilers, Sean
McGhee? It's apparent a lot of work was involved with each CD via the track details, Sean's introduction on each volume, the layouts - you must be real proud of them as a set. What has the feedback been like from the discs? Did all the tracks obtained appear on the series, or can we expect a fifth volume somewhere down the line?
..John) The ideas for the series, the title and the framework were mine. I wanted to do a series that was done ‘properly’ before some other labels with no interest in the scene thought they could cash in, which is what always happens. I didn’t want it to be just the obvious bands but to include all the grass roots bands who were so vital in keeping the scene alive, even if they had nothing released at the time. A good example are Sean’s band PSYCHO FACTION. It was Sean who actually found all the bands, got the music and biogs and decided which tracks should be included, albeit with me peering over his shoulders along the way. He resourced an incredible amount of material and decided what should be included. Many of the tracks are unreleased or previously unheard versions. Without him the series would never have happened.
The feedback was superb and we were both very proud. The highlight for me was Penny Rimbaud writing the sleeve notes to the fourth volume and CRASS collectively providing us with an
exclusive version. I also thoroughly enjoyed hearing so many great bands for the first time and my highlight there was UNTERMENSCH’s ‘Ashfield Valley Headkick’.
There were just a handful of tracks left over but not enough for a fifth UK compilation. We were going to do a USA version but they are so expensive to compile that we couldn’t afford to do
another, especially with the additional costs involved in paying the USA bands.

..On the subject of Anarcho Punk, did you attend Steve Ignorant's staging of the 'Feeding Of The 5,000' show in November 2007? What was the atmosphere like? Did you have any
preconceptions of the show and, given hindsight, how do you feel about it now?
..John) Yes I was there and I thoroughly enjoyed it and so did everyone else I know. There was no doubt he pulled it off and it was a huge success; just look at all the comments on the
Southern forum. I know it was controversial but those people who want to pretend that it’s still 1983 and that CRASS members shouldn’t perform their songs are just being unrealistic. Why shouldn’t Steve perform CRASS songs when so many others are? If 2000 people a night want to go and see him then it’s not realistic to perform in small venues. Good luck to him, I hope he does more gigs.

..What have been the most notable changes you’ve seen in Punk Rock from those comparatively fledgling days of 1978, through the Anarcho scene of the 80s and onto the mass marketed,
watered down consumer Punk we oft see today (Good Charlotte etc)? 
..John) You’ve answered your own question there. I look at some of those USA bands and I know they’ve got stylists dressing them and cutting their hair giving each member a different style
to appeal to young girls. Still I’d rather the kids were listening to Good Charlotte than hip-hop or pop or something. I suppose the other major change is how Punk’s attitude has got adopted by other styles of music. I can see it’s influence in everything from folk to rap now. It was and still is hugely influential.

..Did you ever get onto the American Hardcore scene, or large American bands of today like RANCID, NOFX or BAD RELIGION?

..John) Yes I liked the USA Punk scene. The earliest records on Dangerhouse and Posh Boy were mostly amazing as were the next generation of bands that followed: DEAD KENNEDYS,
BLACK FLAG, AGENT ORANGE etc. And I liked the Hardcore scene as well but lost interest in USA Punk when the bands like TSOL, GANG GREEN, DRI etc. went Metal. I’m not especially keen on RANCID, NOFX or BAD RELIGION but am quite happy to listen to what they’re doing now, I just don’t find it as inspiring as I once did.

..Being an independent label, what are your views on Major Labels?  Does a band lose its affiliation with Punk Rock once it signs to a major, or does it depend on circumstance and the nature
of the band - does it really matter? Have you personally had any dealings, good or bad, with majors?
..John) Uh-Oh! That old chestnut yet again. I have debated this many times. It would be hypocritical of me to condemn major labels as so many of the records I bought when I got into Punk
were on major labels, but these days I couldn’t give a flying fuck about them. They are there to do what they do, the world has moved on, bands don’t need them and I find them totally irrelevant. By choice I have never had any dealings with them.

..I note that most of your releases are available to download via I-Tunes. How has the advent of file-sharing and downloading effected Overground Records? I recall in the 80s trying to
discreetly pack coins into envelopes for 7"s, visiting second-hand shops for those out of print rarities and prizing those records. The hunt was in many ways part of the fun and made me cherish those records even more. Do you feel these are concepts and values that are alien to those accessing music today?
..John) File-sharing and downloading has had a big negative impact for all the labels I know. Too many people no longer want to pay for music but rather just copy it or illegally download it. It’s having a dramatic effect on the music scene and it will only get worse. For Overground, bands that I once thought I could sell enough to reissue now won’t sell enough so I’m doing fewer releases than I would have. For Punk in general it’s affecting new releases as labels cut the recording budgets that they give so new albums are being rushed and corners cut, which is a shame. I’ve spoken to several bands who said they could have done a much better album with a little more money. Also, as labels sell less they have smaller marketing budgets so the fanzines, web sites etc. that rely on advertising are going to struggle. I’m sure we’ll see many more labels give up in the next few years and fewer people starting labels. It’s also partly responsible for the massive decline in record shops, especially the independent stores. I’m always hearing of shops closing but never new ones opening.
I agree that people value music less these days. Now it’s all about getting it ‘now’ and younger people especially treasure it far less than they used to.

..Where do you stand on censorship? Should Punk Rock still offend, and if so how far should it go? Has any record shop/ distributor ever refused to stock one of your releases on the grounds
of it being too offensive?  If not, would it concern you?
..John) Of course Punk Rock should offend, but then I believe music should be a form of protest whether Punk Rock or not. How far should it go? Well I’ve yet to be offended by anything in
music so I say keep pushing the boundaries although how much further they can go remains debatable; it’s pretty much all been done. I’m not aware that any distributor/shop has refused to stock anything on offense grounds and if they did I couldn’t give a damn.

..Do you feel Punk Rock, or any aspect of Punk Rock, actually changed anything for the better in a global sense?

..John) Governments haven’t fallen nor can I imagine world leaders discussing the latest Punk tunes at G8 summits, so globally no it’s changed nothing. But it has changed individuals and
some of those people will hold positions to influence things for the better, even if on just small and local levels and I’m a believer that everyone in their own small way can make a difference. When people believe that en masse, as in the poll tax protests or the toppling of governments in Eastern Europe, then we see people power at its most effective.
When compiling the Anarcho compilations it was interesting to see how many people were working or involved in projects that were outside of mainstream society. Many said that for them
Anarcho Punk was a life changing experience.

..Tell us a bit about your other venture, Do you have any plans to operate this as a full-on record store, or is it mail order and record fairs only?

..John) It’s a full-time mail order online store, it’s what pays the bills, the label is a labour of love. I’ve always been a passionate Punk/ New Wave/ Killed By Death record collector and it was
from my involvement with the collectors market that I started the label. I don’t sell many new items from it, it’s just collectable and cheap vinyl and memorabilia, mostly Punk or Punk related.

..Coming off music for a bit, what do you think of Labour now Blair has gone and Gordon Brown has taken over? I see Brown as more of a traditional Labourist as opposed to Blair's Tory
..John) Throughout the Thatcher years and beyond, I was desperate to see the Tories removed from power but when they were what were they replaced by? Is the country any better? I don’t
think so. Okay, Thatcher was probably the most objectionable politician imaginable but many things have got worse. I can’t stand the whole nanny state, fines for everything, surveillance, high bureaucracy, ID cards, PC culture that now pervades this society. We are sleepwalking into a police state.
All politicians are the same, on the make for themselves. This government is being caught up in the same sleaze allegations that bought down the Tory government. I have no faith in Gordon
Brown I don’t think anything will improve under his leadership.

..What about Global Warming? The evidence suggests it is very real even though skeptics still question the overwhelming proof. The recent news that the Polar Ice Cap of the North could be
melt in Summer as soon as 2012 is a worrying thought.
..John) I fear for this planet, but there are signs that the wake-up calls are being heeded. However, I’m pessimistic about the future. I believe that greed will rule, governments won’t take the
steps that are needed and any action will be too little too late. Ultimately the planet cannot be sustainable, all the resources are diminishing at ever increasing rates, the population continues to grow and this can only add to increased pressures on land, resources and wealth and ultimately mean more colonialism and more conflict.

..What are the best and worst aspects of life in the UK and of Newcastle specifically?

..John) I moved here from rural Somerset so it was a total contrast. I like the city lifestyle and as a city Newcastle isn’t too big so everything is pretty compact. Compared to London it’s very
cheap. We get lots of gigs here. Can’t really think of anything negative about it.

..What are the next immediate plans for the label? Any thoughts of more vinyl releases as some of the early Overground releases were - or 7"s? What about the DVD market?

..John) Not many releases forthcoming. For reasons stated earlier, many releases are no longer viable. Next up is a LEGION OF PARASITES CD of their earliest material that contains seven
unreleased tracks, a second volume of latter material will follow. There’s also going to be a CULT MANIAX CD. I’m going to repress some of the older CDs that have been out-of-print for a while, the first was THE SHAPES which is out now then hopefully the NEON HEARTS ‘Ball & Chain’.
I won’t be doing any vinyl, but am licensing some titles to other labels who specialise in vinyl. DVDs are a definite no.

..Anything you want to add?

..John) Thanks to those who’ve supported the label over the past 20 years, hopefully I can keep it going for another 20!!

Overground Records
PO Box 1NW
NE99 1NW
Overground Records
Overground Myspace
Vinyl On The Net
Anarcho Compilation Series