Some Bizzare: How one cult label pranked the music industry

BY Wesley Doyle

16th Feb 2023 Music

Some Bizzare: How one cult label pranked the music industry

Some Bizzare was the unorthodox label that introduced the world to Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, and THE THEs in the 1980s. A new oral history, Conform to Deform, tells its story

Along with Factory, Mute, and 4AD, Some Bizzare was a vanguard of outsider art in the 1980s.

The label’s debut release—1981’s Some Bizzare Album—reads like a who’s who of electronic music, featuring early tracks from Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, Blancmange, and THE THE, none of whom had a record deal at the time.

The label’s founder, a teenage DJ from Dagenham named Stevo Pearce, struggled with dyslexia and had left school with no qualifications.

But through DJing and promoting small gigs around London, as well as compiling a chart of exclusively electronic and experimental music for the weekly paper Sounds, he came into contact with a group of bands that would go on to define UK pop music in the 1980s and beyond.

Capitalising on Soft Cell's "Tainted Love"

Depeche Mode and Blancmange signed with other labels, but Stevo continued as manager for Soft Cell and THE THE, landing them both record deals with major labels.

By keeping his artists under the Some Bizzare umbrella, Stevo ensured the bands maintained creative control while having access to the distribution and budget of a mainstream corporation.

"Stevo used 'Tainted Love' as a calling card to pay for the experimental artists he admired"

However no one, not even Stevo, could have foreseen the massive success of Soft Cell’s "Tainted Love", a million-selling single in 1981 that went on to break the record for the longest stay on the US Billboard chart.

Rather than repeat this success with similar acts (as was standard industry practice), Stevo used "Tainted Love" as a calling card to pay for the experimental artists he admired, such as Cabaret Voltaire, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Psychic TV, to make expensive albums he would then licence to major labels.

Some Bizzare antics and industry pranks

Stevo also used his success as an excuse to indulge in a penchant for making major record labels jump through hoops to secure his acts.

Such eccentricities became the stuff of legend: from sending a tape player with the agreement details attached to a teddy bear into the meeting for Soft Cell’s deal (“They can’t negotiate with a teddy bear”), to demanding a weekly delivery of sweets in the same contract.

Stevo’s antic could be playful, such as getting CBS boss Maurice Oberstein to sign THE THE’s contract sitting on the lions at Trafalgar Square, but occasionally more sinister.

He and Marc Almond destroyed an office at Phonogram to express their displeasure at "Tainted Love" being given away with the current Soft Cell single.

"They can’t negotiate with a teddy bear"

But as far as Stevo was concerned, it was all done to support his artists, and he would do anything to get their music heard.

In Stevo’s view, all music could be appreciated by any audience if they just had the chance to hear it.

He encouraged his artists to make the music they wanted, because he believed that success wasn’t achieved by compromise. Rather, by exposing people to things that were normally labelled as weird or avant garde, they would be able to make up their own minds.

This approach resulted in Marc Almond from Soft Cell being allowed to make sprawling but brilliant double albums of dramatic chamber pop, THE THE making an expensive globe-trotting film to accompany their Infected album, and political industrial collective Test Dept releasing their records in packaging so expensive that they immediately lost money.

Nurturing experimentalism in the industrial music scene

However, Stevo’s idea of getting leftfield bands to be treated as unit-shifting pop stars with the budgets to match, soon fell apart when the amount of money being spent on the records wasn’t reflected in the amount coming back.

The majors grew tired of Stevo’s idealistic approach to A&R, as well as his legendary pranks, and through necessity Some Bizzare started to release music independently.

Stevo still had a vested interest in Marc Almond and Matt Johnson’s major label careers, including another global smash for the former with "Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart" in 1998, and THE THE’s huge Mind Bomb album the following year.

But the music Some Bizzare put out independently was successful in its own way, going on on to define the burgeoning industrial music scene: Foetus, Swans, and Coil were all hugely influential to a generation of US Nineties bands such as Skinny Puppy, Ministry and Nine Inch Nails.

The decline of Some Bizzare

Unfortunately, credibility doesn’t pay the bills, especially when running an indie label as if it was a major one. Art galleries, champagne fountains, and bespoke tailoring are just some of the things that Stevo was spending money on, money that some acts believe should have been going to them.

One-by-one, the Some Bizzare artists left in acrimony, and without another big-selling pop act like Soft Cell to balance out the more leftfield A&R choices—as well as the books—Some Bizzare’s influence diminished, along with Stevo’s ability to wrestle money from the big labels.

However, he continued to work through the Nineties, mainly in band management, and had great success with The Grid, Bizarre Inc and Dubstar.

But the industry was becoming much more corporate, and Stevo’s way of working just didn’t have a place with the new model. Bridges were burnt, and soon Stevo was running the label from his flat in Hampstead.

He did continue to release new music on Some Bizzare independently right up until 2010, including a forward-thinking project that utilised the nascent MySpace in an A&R capacity.

However, nothing had the impact that the initial batch of Some Bizzare artists did, and the label slowly ceased to operate, with much of its back catalogued mired in litigation between Stevo, the artists and labels he licenced them to.

How Some Bizzare paved the way for today's indies

But the way Stevo worked, one of remaining independents working with major labels for distribution, can be seen in artists like Damon Albarn, Paul Weller and Nick Cave.

All are established acts who own the means of production, which enables them to make their albums without a label, and then licence their work to whichever label gives them the best deal.

This is just one example of Stevo’s legacy; these days he’d be called a disrupter.

"The way Stevo worked can be seen in artists like Damon Albarn, Paul Weller and Nick Cave"

Now 40 years on from the legendary compilation that started it all, a book has been published that charts this unlikely story.

Through the words of the people who were there, Conform to Deform: the Weird & Wonderful World of Some Bizzare (£14.95, Jawbone Press) tells the Picaresque tale of the teenage DJ from Dagenham who took on the music industry in its pomp and—for a while at least—beat it at its own game.

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