Christian record companies come in all shapes and sizes. But few have shown such tenacity to stick it out supporting grassroots CCM as London's PLANKTON RECORDS. Andrew Long investigated.
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"I made contact with a bloke in Belgium called Tony Stippelmans, who had a company called Embryo Arts. It's now called It Stinks! and he started taking product from us and distributing it in Europe," Simon explained. "Then I made contact with a bloke in America called Larry Miller who ran an operation called Kosher Records and he started distributing our stuff in America and they were both working on about the same level as us. But then when we stopped doing vinyl and moved on to cassettes our American contact dried up because, and I quote, 'Americans don't buy cassettes.' But when we moved into CD another American contact opened up for us called Rad Rockers, run by Michael Delaney. The European connection has remained constant. And then of course, because we were sending Plankton stuff out we got odd little companies asking us to distribute European material in England. The first one was a Swedish band called Vatten whom I first met at Greenbelt way back in the 70s. In fact, they appear on the famous 'Greenbelt Live 79' album and I got them over here for a tour and I've been distributing their records ever since. Much more recently we've re-established a contact with a guy called Matthias Mittelstadt from Germany and we've been distributing Saviour Machine in this country."
"That was just before Greenbelt '95," continued Keith. "We'd never heard of Saviour Machine, so we took some [product to Greenbelt] and all the Goth fans were saying, 'Wow! Saviour Machine!' We sold loads, so that was a good deal."
Two albums of kids' rock 'n' roll praise songs have also helped put Plankton on the menu of Christian bookshops, always a difficult area for independent labels to break into.
I wondered what would happen if Plankton grew to be a herring or a shark, would the commitment to grass roots (or sea bed) music be lost. Both partners had something to say about this. "We would be in danger of that," admitted Simon. "If Fresh Claim started to escalate I would keep it all on Plankton because I imagine that all those companies who have ignored us would suddenly start running around offering to do this and that, and I'd say, 'Clear off, you've not been interested in us in the past.' But as far as I am concerned the principle of who we take on board would remain the same."
Keith felt very much the same. "If we got big as in more money I wouldn't like to change what we do in terms of supporting grass root bands. It would give us the chance to put more support in because there are always bands whom we'd like to support."
Amongst Plankton's latest releases is the 'Greenbelt Fringe '95' album, a low cost CD featuring 20 tracks by bands which, not surprisingly, played at the Greenbelt Fringe '95.
"It featured many up and coming bands that were new to Greenbelt in '95;" said Keith, "like Asylum from Hartlepool, who are fronted by singer, keyboard player and band songwriter Stuart Elwin. Stuart, who apart from remarkably coping with the difficulties of being registered blind, is an old friend of mine and also released a solo album called 'Discerning Reality' through Plankton in 1994 (an album which won high praise from Cross Rhythms reviewer Tony May). It also featured established Fringe favourites like Eve And The Garden, Mudheads Monkey, 3rd Day, Obviously Five Believers and Jonathan Day and of course our own Fresh Claim and Marc Catley."
The Fringe album was mainly Keith's project. Although Simon provided valuable legal and technical advice, Keith basically masterminded it from start to finish and was very pleased with the final outcome. "It had to be CD so it could be played on the radio. It was played a lot on Radio Greenbelt. All the bands were very pleased. I was very pleased when it came out because I was worried that we might get some poor quality masters, but we were able to use everything that we got and it sold really well at Greenbelt and it's still selling. We're not going to do one every year but we probably will do another one in a couple of years' time. Next year we may do a poetry book of Fringe poets."
The label's other main push as I write is the new Fresh Claim album 'Broken'. Why the change in sound with this line up? As far as Simon is concerned, it's a move to his roots. "That's really where I started from, but as each band has come and gone each member has thrown in their two pennyworth and the sound has changed. I've got to the point now with Greg and Matt where they're very pleased to be doing what I'm doing. Whereas before it was much more of a mixture, I feel now it's got back to where I started from. There was a slow blues that I wrote 20 years ago but I've never had the chance to record it because it didn't suit the style of previous bands, but also two or three of the songs are quite fresh."
"The two other guys have very similar tastes to Simon," Keith added. "Greg likes Hendrix and The Who. The song he wrote is very Who-ish." (There followed a brief discussion of whether 'Who-ish' was a real word and Keith then finished his statement) "Matthew's quite a lot younger but he's into the 60s stuff and he also likes Oasis and stuff like that."
The current catalogue of Plankton and Sea Dream includes over 150 releases, although some are now deleted. Plans for '96 include the possibility of a new Marc Catley album, a live benefit album for the charity Casa Alianza and a solo album with Cliff Bergdahl, ex-leader of Really Free Band, which has recently been recorded with Plankton's in-house producer Nigel Palmer (known for his work with lona and Adrian Snell).
Labels like Plankton are really the backbone of British Christian music. Without them and magazines like Cross Rhythms it would be almost impossible for home grown artists to get a foot on the ladder. As I said earlier, there are many more like Plankton swimming in the ocean of CCM. More power to their fins!
OUT OF DARKNESS
OUT OF DARKNESS emerged in 1969 and were labelled the "seminal Christian rock band". Led by Hendrix clone Wray Powell, the band forged a unique cocktail of gospel, African music and heavy rock that proved to be an inspiration for many bands who were to hit it big in later years.
They cut a lone, eponymous album in 1970 with Key Records (now intolerably rare) and played to increasingly enthusiastic crowds for several years, but having failed to secure a major recording contract they disbanded in 1974 and that was the end of that.