Heavenly Recordings

Unlike many independent record labels, you can’t really pin London-based Heavenly Records to any genre or scene. Founded by former Creation Records employee Jeff Barrett as the hedonistic freedoms of acid house bled into the 90s, early Heavenly releases on the one hand included Andrew Weatherall-produced seven-inch The World According To Sly & Lovechild (recently enjoying a new lease of life thanks to remix from Peggy Gou) and Flowered Up’s era-defining 16-minute single "Weekender," and on the other, country rock revivalists The Rockingbirds and the debut singles from Welsh iconoclasts Manic Street Preachers. Indeed, even a label as quixotic as Creation might not have given an official catalogue number to a piece of artwork made from the wrapper of a cheese toastie purchased by Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie (HVN13 Toasted Cheese Sandwich by Paul Cannell).

If anything, over the past three decades Heavenly has been defined more by its spirit, something driven in no small part by the enthusiasm and passions of Barrett. Born in Nottingham, despite not having a passport or being able to drive, a young Barrett went from working in HMV to tour managing The Jesus And Mary Chain before taking on the loose job of “doing everything” for Creation, chiefly press and radio promotion. He set up his own press office Capersville out of Creation’s HQ and worked both Creation and Factory bands, including Happy Mondays for the latter. It was while trying to get press for Primal Scream’s largely unlovable second album that he had the idea of getting a new DJ/writer friend of his by the name of Andrew Weatherall to review the band, thus setting off a collaborative chain of events that resulted in the group’s game-changing third LP, Screamadelica.

Prior to starting Heavenly Barrett had run two small independents, Sub Aqua and Head, but it was the Weatherall connection which helped launch Heavenly with 1990’s The World According To Sly & Lovechild (HVN1). Though the record’s acid throb was on the bleeding edge of the contemporary club scene, Barrett never considered limiting Heavenly’s horizons to just being a dance imprint and as such over its thirty plus year history, releases have roved across styles and genres, led mainly by Barrett’s magpie tastes and reliably good ears.

“That is just a straight up reflection of what I, and anybody else that has been significantly involved in the label, am about. Me, the others, we just dig music and have the utmost respect for those that write it and play it,” says Barrett. “Well, the good stuff anyway.”

Beyond putting out records, Heavenly have diverged into putting on now legendary 90s club night The Sunday Social, which launched the career of The Chemical Brothers; Heavenly Films, responsible for award-winning documentaries on Felt/Denim/Go-Kart Mozart’s enigmatic leader Lawrence, Dexys Midnight Runners and others; a literary wing Caught By The River, which publishes books and puts on events focused on Barrett’s other great love, nature; and iconic central London bar and venue The Social.

At Heavenly’s heart though is still the eclectic spread of great music the label has championed and put out over the years: albums from Saint Etienne, Beth Orton, Doves, the late Mark Lanegan, and more recently acts like Confidence Man, Baxter Dury, Australian psych rockers King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard and Yorkshire’s Working Men’s Club. Here’s a select bill of fare for some of Heavenly’s key releases…

Lost Souls cover

Emerging Phoenix-like from the (literal) flames of Manchester dance act Sub Sub after their studio burnt down, Jimi Goodwin plus twin brothers Andy and Jez Williams recalibrated as Doves, swapping samples and 808s for sweeping, atmospheric and emotionally powerful rock.

Understandably, a deep melancholy hangs over much of the trio’s 2000 debut (perhaps not coincidentally the trio had also all entered their 30s at the time), but while the rich swell and delicate intricacies of Lost Souls might at times bring to mind Radiohead’s The Bends or Jeff Buckley’s Grace, Doves tempered the sadness with a spirit-lifting euphoria, a trace memory almost of their hometown’s club scene, resulting in spine-tingling epics such as “The Cedar Room” and “The Man Who Sold Everything.” Elsewhere, bands like Elbow and Coldplay were taking note.

Confident Music for Confident People cover

As a live act, Brisbane’s Confidence Man were certainly an arresting prospect when they first emerged in 2017. Twin front-persons Sugar Bones and Janet Planet (aka Grace Stephenson and Aidan Moore) spent almost as much time breakdancing through impressively choreographed routines as they did delivering the outfit’s Day-Glo house pop, flanked by two DJs/producers dressed head-to-toe in black, their faces covered by veils. The challenge when it came to their debut was to maintain that level of hi-NRG entertainment without the visual stimuli, something Confident Music For Confident People more than delivered. Stephenson’s bratty party girl persona could have easily grated over eleven tracks, but instead the pounding squelch and Technicolor throb of tracks like the Tom-Tom Club-like “My Boyfriend,” “Out The Window”’s Screamadelic wash and “C.O.O.L Party,” in which they channeled the spirit of ‘90s one-hit wonders Deee-Lite, proved irresistible.

Foxbase Alpha cover

Saint Etienne’s piano house-smudged cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” was Heavenly Recordings’ second ever release and 1991’s Foxbase Alpha its first album. Fired by the magpie tastes and encyclopedic knowledge of former music journalist Bob Stanley and his childhood friend Pete Wiggs, Foxbase Alpha not only summed up the anything goes approach of the era, but also the label itself. An enchanting, jumble sale patchwork of the UK’s current club culture and its pop past, Stanley and Wiggs’ passions — C86, Chicago house, Dusty Springfield, King Tubby, football, 1970s children’s TV to name a few —  came together to form a charming bridge between the old and new which would set the tone for much of Britpop.

Trailer Park cover

Though it would become an over-used combination by the decade’s close, the bringing together of folk music with post-club electronica on Beth Orton’s 1996 debut album proper (William Orbit-produced Superpinkymandy only received a limited release in Japan) was a radical move at the time. Orbit, auxiliary Bad Seed Victor Van Vugt and Andrew Weatherall helped to create a hazy, trip hop-informed backdrop for Orton’s songs, illuminating tracks such as “She Cries Your Name” and “Someone’s Daughter” with a warm sunset glow. But the allure that still brings you back to revisit Trailer Park is those songs themselves and Orton’s wistful yet world-weary delivery.

The Rockingbirds cover

Out of step with labelmates like Flowered Up and Manic Street Preachers, and indeed most of the then current UK music scene, The Rockingbirds instead mined a rich seam of country rock. Produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, the band’s self-titled 1992 debut was a commercial flop at the time, but the intervening years have proved it to be something of a lost classic. All deft banjo-picking and weeping pedal steel, “Further Down The Line” is a masterful collision of bluegrass, 50s rock and roll and Nashville country worthy of The Flying Burrito Brothers, while second single “Jonathan Jonathan” was a pounding tribute to Velvet Underground-loving songwriter Jonathan Richman, proving their musical vista was wider than many initially thought.

Le Kov cover

Former member of Brighton-based ‘60s girl group revivalists The Pipettes, Gwenno Saunders moved the dial considerably on her 2015 debut Y Dydd Olaf, a spacey blend of sci-fi krautrock sung in her native Welsh. For the follow-up, Saunders switched languages to Cornish (another dialect she’s fluent in) and ventured further out into the psych-pop hinterlands. The most recent UK census put the number of Cornish speakers at just 563, but you don’t need to understand what Saunders is saying to fall under Le Kov’s spell. The likes of “Tir Ha Mor”’s baroque, Broadcast-like psychedelia, the sparkling motoric pop of “Eus Keus?” and “Aremorika”’s dreamlike visions find space not only between locales, but worlds.

Drop Out cover

Initially signed to Jeff Barrett’s pre-Heavenly label Sub Aqua, Buckinghamshire’s East Village had split up – live on stage, no less – by the time their debut album eventually came out in 1993. After the collapse of Sub Aqua, Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley lent them the money to record Drop Out and you can hear his faith in the group vindicated on these ten tracks. Much of the romantic, bedsit jangle of the previous decade’s indie music echoes through the record (The Pastels and Brisbane’s The Go-Betweens in particular), but there’s an assurance, soulfulness and ambition that makes it sound like a group on the cusp of something much bigger (The Charlatans are just one band who made more successful hay out of the seeds planted here). Moreover, the songs themselves – romantic, swooning and bittersweet – are flawless. A 30th anniversary reissue with sleevenotes from acclaimed England’s Dreaming author Jon Savage helped shine new light on an album that really does feel like a great what-if of the era.

Working Men's Club cover

The early releases from Todmorden’s Working Men’s Club positioned the group at an intersection between post-punk and proto-techno, as if imagining a world where Ian Curtis had stayed with us long enough to front a nascent New Order. For the band’s 2020 debut, however, 18-year-old leader Syd Minsky-Sargeant dispatched with guitars almost entirely and instead burrowed deep into his love of vintage drum machines and synthesisers. Early Human League, Daniel Miller’s The Normal, Cabaret Voltaire and yes, New Order are among the touchstones, but the key is the human element Minsky-Sargeant himself brings. By turns scathing, detached, blissed out and vulnerable, he’s the beating heart within what could have turned out to be a more coldly austere, tin man of a record.

Nonagon Infinity cover

Given Melbourne’s King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard have released 25 studio albums, sixteen live albums, three compilations and one remix record since forming in 2010, the job of picking just one LP as an introduction to their hyper-productive universe is a difficult one. With honourable mentions to 2014’s I’m Your Mind Fuzz, Infest The Rat’s Nest from 2019 and 2017’s Microtonal Banana (one of five LPs they released that year), 2016’s Nonagon Infinity is as good a place as any to start if you want to explore the twelve legged wig-out machine’s oeuvre.

Conceived so that not only do all nine songs seamlessly blend into one another, but also that the pounding goblin rock of closer “Road Train” can jump straight back into opening track “Robot Stop”’s flailing runaway psych without skipping a beat, meaning that in theory you can listen to it on a loop ad infinitum. That might be a bit intense even for the most devout Gizzard fan, but Nonagon Infinity’s 41 minutes are more than enough testament to what an astonishing unit they are, able to burrow down, skin change and levitate with a potency and agility that at times – as when the pinballing “People-Vultures” ricochets into the spaced out “Mr. Beat” – recalls Can at their peak.

Losing Sleep cover

Losing Sleep’s 2007 predecessor Home Again had largely been recorded and finished before former Orange Juice leader Edwyn Collins suffered two life-threatening brain hemorrhages that left him partially paralysed and unable to talk. The mere existence of the album, then, is remarkable. Yet even if you knew nothing of the struggles behind its creation, Losing Sleep is still a triumph. Johnny Marr, Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame, Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos and the Sex Pistols’ Paul Cook are among the friends and fans lending a hand for a pounding, muscular and life-affirming set of songs, but the undeniable winner is the strength, spirit and still razor-sharp songwriting of Collins.