The Story Of Mute Records
By Classic Pop | February 27, 2020
In the dense jungles of electronic music, plenty of interesting labels have reigned over particular niches at various moments in time: Warp, DFA, Ninja Tune, !K7, Wall Of Sound, XL… But for uniqueness and longevity, Daniel Miller’s Mute is the head of the pack. Classic Pop reveals the inside story behind the label’s success…
There’s a reason why some labels ooze more substance than others. Pull back the curtain and there’s always some Wizard Of Oz figure operating the levers. Look into their soul, and it’s usually plugged into a deeper power source. The greatest-ever record labels aren’t just run by real producers – they’re driven by real producers on some personal crusade. The uplifting power of Motown came from the remarkable story of Berry Gordy’s family working its way up from slavery in Georgia to prosperity and self-confidence in Detroit. The edgy evangelism of Sun Records was imbued with the spirit and energy of its founder and producer, Sam Phillips, who grew up as a poor cotton picker in Alabama. Such examples, however, are not exclusive to the blues, or the US. The same phenomenon can strike in the suburbs of Britain, through the lightning rod of a £50 synth.
The proverbial wizard of Mute is a character named Daniel Miller. Jovial yet private, he was the only child of Jewish refugees who’d escaped Vienna in 1938. His talented father, Martin Miller, had been a star of Viennese theatre, but unable to work or even hide due to Nazi violence, he fled to London. As war broke out, Miller senior opened The Lantern on Finchley Road, a German-language theatre that became an important meeting place for refugees. It was through the club that Daniel’s father met his mother, Hannah Norbert, also a Viennese actress and refugee.
When Daniel was born, in 1951, the bitter memories of fascism were, of course, firmly locked out of children’s reach. Among the bohemian immigrants who orbited the Miller home in North London, no Jewish family had remained untouched by the Holocaust. Those who had escaped simply invested all their hope and sanity into the next generation; who, like Daniel, were happily growing up with The Beatles, The Kinks and black-and-white TV. Having learnt English, Miller senior found himself in demand to play various strange, foreign characters in British theatre, film and TV productions… Daniel sometimes accompanied his father to film sets and became so interested in comedy that he helped form a scriptwriting team at school. They sent their creations to none other than John Cleese, who was then just an up-and-coming radio comedian. Cleese liked what he read and invited the teenagers to the filming of several sketches, which later became part of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Although obsessed with music, Daniel Miller got an inside view of 60s TV. In 1969, however, his father suffered a fatal heart attack on film location in Austria. Weeks later, Daniel enrolled in the Guildford School Of Art to study TV and film production. While the music business was up to its neck in Woodstock, mavericks like John Peel began spinning German experimental music from Can and Amon Düül.
“I just thought: ‘Wow!’”, says Miller of that milestone period. “It wasn’t American and it wasn’t based on traditions of British pop music.”
Being a film student with a smattering of German, he got a real-time view of the accompanying new wave in cinema. Directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders were, as Miller put it: “redefining German culture”. What struck such a chord was that these new German artists had, like himself, been born into a type of haunted house. The shadow of the war would hang heavily over the next generation, and yet they were conscious that making peace with the future meant more than just self-examination and penance. They had to keep what was good in German culture and innovate for themselves, as themselves.
After college, Daniel worked for two years as an assistant film editor, then went travelling and got a job DJing in Switzerland. The punk explosion, however, lured him back to London. Equipping his old bedroom with a MiniKorg-700S synth and TEAC four-track recorder, he began recording synth-driven experiments until, in 1978, he decided to release a DIY single under the artist name The Normal. He walked into Rough Trade with a test pressing and asked if they wanted any copies. Owner Geoff Travis put Miller’s demo on the store system and nodded silently to the raw, edgy weirdness of its first track, Warm Leatherette. At the end of the second track, T.V.O.D., Travis stunned Miller by ordering 2,000 copies to feed into the shop’s back-door distribution network. In fact, Rough Trade advanced Miller the money to get the records pressed.
MUSIC FOR PARTIES
Even if he was only operating out of his bedroom, Miller just assumed that all records had to include a label. As a film editor, he’d long admired the iconic qualities of the term ‘mute’ that technicians marked on reels that contained no audio. Thus began the imprint. Tens of thousands of copies of Warm Leatherette/T.V.O.D. were eventually sold around the world – a cult record that even got a spin on John Peel’s show. Miller began receiving demos and checking out bands until, in 1979, he was introduced to Frank Tovey – the musician behind Fad Gadget, whose single Back To Nature became Mute’s second pressing. In 1979, Miller then released another of his own experiments, Memphis Tennessee under a new artist name, Silicon Teens. That year, he also added three new acts to the roster; Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, Robert Rental and NON. In 1980, he signed a group of gawky teenagers from Basildon called Depeche Mode.
Curiously, major labels were also sniffing around Depeche Mode’s first gigs, but the young musicians chose to stick with Miller – who became their live sound man, producer, record label and all-round uncle figure. Recorded in December 1980, Depeche Mode’s first single on Mute was Dreaming Of Me, followed three months later by the brilliant New Life. It charted at No.11 and earned Depeche Mode an appearance on Top Of The Pops.
The whole year of 1981 proved the turning point for both Mute and the electro genre in general. That spring, Miller produced Soft Cell’s Memorabilia 12” which, although released on the Some Bizzare label, crept into New York’s nascent dance scene in clubs such as Danceteria and Paradise Garage. By autumn, bombs were going off on all fronts. Miller had secured Depeche Mode an American sub-licence deal with Sire, a subsidiary of Warner. He also produced and released their debut album, Speak & Spell, featuring the infectious Just Can’t Get Enough – a No.8 hit single in the UK, and an instant dancefloor hit in American clubs.
The bulk of Mute’s early releases remained radically electro, but the key figure behind the label’s commercial evolution was Vince Clarke, Depeche Mode’s original songwriter who formed Yazoo with Alison Moyet. Following a string of transatlantic dance hits, such as Don’t Go, Situation and Only You, Clarke went on to form The Assembly in 1983 featuring Feargal Sharkey, and then in 1985, Erasure with Andy Bell – another hit machine for Mute. Without Clarke’s gift for melody and immediacy, Depeche Mode’s rise to international stardom was more gradual and hard-earned than most realise. With Miller working the boards as producer, Depeche Mode were regulars on Top Of The Pops and scored a No.13 US hit single in 1985 with People Are People. However, it wasn’t until their sixth album in 1987, Music For The Masses, that they started to break the States. In 1990, their seventh album, Violator, provided the long-awaited Big Bang. With its killer singles Enjoy The Silence and Personal Jesus, Depeche Mode began selling out football stadiums and the album sold more than 10 million copies.
Alas, for Mute and most of the UK indies, the 90s rapidly descended into a dark age. Once Rough Trade’s distribution system went bust in 1991, the majors and CD megastores began gobbling up the entire marketplace. By the mid-90s, Britpop ruled the airwaves, as music began its decline into the corporate swamp of boy bands and talent shows. Owing to burn out, Depeche Mode released only three studio albums between 1993 and 2001, a time when disillusionment plagued Daniel Miller – by then in his 40s and feeling unusually uninspired by the music scene.
Fortunately, one quirk on Mute’s roster was Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds. They’d released seven cult LPs since 1984, before scoring their first big hits in the mid-90s; Let Love In and Murder Ballads. Successes such as these kept Mute hydrated and trudging onward through the Britpop desert. Another cult artist was Moby, with his eclectic albums Everything Is Wrong and Animal Rights mixing grunge, shoegaze and sampling.
But by Mute’s own standards, the label had been struggling, both artistically and financially, for the best part of a decade.
Then, in 1999, Moby delivered Play. Amazingly, it wasn’t until the fourth single, Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad? that the album exploded. As Miller puts it: “I should have asked myself on day one: ‘What’s my favourite track?’, and not: ‘What is the obvious single?’”.
10 million copies later, Mute was back on top of the world, as one of the label’s new signatures began rippling underground. In 2000, Goldfrapp’s debut album Felt Mountain caught the ears of discerning taste-makers, thanks largely to its haunting opening track, Lovely Head.
Back on a roll and old enough to realise you needed solid finance in this era of CDs and megastores, Miller struck an audacious deal with EMI’s European office at the perfect moment in 2002. They bought into Mute for £23 million, but granted it total operational independence, including even the right to keep its indie distribution. As raw, dirty electro came back into vogue, Mute released a whole new generation of eccentrics: Add N To (X), Tarwater, M83, Echoboy, The Knife, and a series of electro masterpieces from Goldfrapp. Miller had already licensed back catalogue from Can and Throbbing Gristle, but in this period of consolidation, he licensed and reissued classic repertoire from the Virgin Prunes, Suicide, Buzzcocks and many of his personal favourites who had slipped into relative obscurity. He also opened his door to fellow pioneers who needed a new home.
Mute’s EMI years provided one of the happier stories in the otherwise tragic genre of indie buy-outs. There was even a happy ending when, in 2010, Miller cleverly won back Mute’s independence from the increasingly embattled EMI. In September 2014, New Order announced they had signed to Mute records for their 10th studio album. Older, wiser, freer of his mid-life burdens, Miller is now back to where he started: facing the wide-open chaos of today’s post-crash digital revolution.
This year Mute turns 40, so what can we say that Mute has stood for? There’s no doubt that, compared to its generally sultry peers, Mute was always more of a hit factory. Mute has proven time and time again that indies can compete at the highest level, while remaining different. But Mute’s greatest legacy is that it sits alongside such distinctive-sounding imprints as Motown, Stax, Sun and 4AD… An exclusive club, reserved for the few whose names can be used descriptively as a sub-genre or sonic picture. Producers describe their work as “Mute”; a muso’s term, meaning more than just 80s-style bleeps and burbles. It also implies a philosophy (uncommon in electronic music) that being arty and conceptual doesn’t exempt you from the old-school rule of giving your audience their ticket’s worth.
In this regard, Mute was neither New Romantic, nor was it ever a DJ label. It’s an art-pop label, devoted to real artists who can write, innovate, play gigs and entertain on multiple levels. Beneath its spacey aura, Mute is deceptively down-to-earth and rooted in Miller’s multicultural journey through electro, punk, krautrock, European cinema, British comedy, 60s pop and the cabaret theatre of his parents. To explain Mute in visual terms, imagine a working-men’s club, borrowed for the evening by penniless art students. They’ve covered the mildewed curtain in tin foil and plastic, the audience is seated around tables, the atmosphere is festive, and although the sounds might evoke ducks going to Moscow, the actual song is about the girl next door. Mute is sonic vaudeville. Nobody’s quite sure what’s going on; if it’s pop or highbrow, or even if it’s serious or ironic. But therein the magic lies.