Friday, September 4, 2009

Topic records – 70 years of giving a voice to the people

Topic is the oldest independent label in Britain, if not the world. Not bad for a Marxist party offshoot that was started in a basement

Alexis Petridis,, Sunday 23 August 2009

Tony Engle is not a man much given to hyperbole, which is unusual in a record label boss. In fact, after 36 years in the job, he's still not entirely sure that he should be running a record label at all: he worries that the whole business of recording the kind of music he does runs contrary to its very essence. "The thing about folk music is that it existed prior to microphones," he says. "The singers I really loved, when they were performing in their heyday, records had hardly been invented. The music existed to serve the community. In a way, recording almost undermines certain aspects of the music. It's a strange contradiction that exists within it." He sighs. "But if you love the music and you love records, like me, you're forced to get into this circular contradiction all the time."

Even he is forced to concede that his label, Topic, is unlike any other. It's not just its advanced age, although that's certainly a factor. Topic is currently celebrating its 70th birthday. No one seems entirely sure whether this makes it the oldest independent record label in the world, but it's certainly the oldest indie label in Britain – a fact it is now celebrating with Three Score and Ten, a beautifully packaged book containing seven CDs, biographies of its most famous artists and as many photographs of men in caps playing accordions as a human being will ever need.

Nor is it Topic's bizarre stable of artists, although, again, you would be hard-pushed to find a label with a roster remotely like it. As you might expect, given Topic's venerable age, virtually every major figure in the British folk revival has recorded for them, from Ewan MacColl to Eliza Carthy, by way of Anne Briggs, June Tabor, the Watersons, Martin Simpson and Davy Graham, as well as innumerable traditional singers captured in priceless, aged "field recordings".

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