“From Brussels With Love is the reminder -without really trying, without being
obvious- that pop is modern poetry, is the sharpest, shiniest collection of
experiences, is always something new.” NME writer Paul Morley
If the vivacity of a music scene can be measured by its impact on the surrounding cultural landscape, outside of the borders of where it was born, then the 1980s in Belgium can be thought of as a certain type of golden age. It was the period when several unconventional labels offered offbeat catalogues that came to be avidly sought after not just in Belgium but especially in foreign countries for their selection of artists and the type of identity they were then constructing. Crammed Discs, Les Disques de Crépuscule, Sub Rosa, as well as Igloo –each in their own way– imposed a new vision of recording and publishing, and contributed to breaking down the barriers of the genres we know today.
The 1980s in Belgium started out much like the rest of Europe with the massive launch of independent labels, founded on the mixed traditions of 1960s counter-culture and punk rock self-reliance. Whether it was the artist collectives looking to have more control over their own work or the curators trying to affirm a vision, the convictions and points of view that brought about these record labels had the same fear of absorption and misappropriation (with ideological and financial aims in mind) by the traditional media machine. The ethos also had the canniness to realize the need to stay away from imposed career paths, ones that made the musicians wary of labels and carried them towards the exploration of the blending of once-disparate styles, connecting artistic ways and means that had been compartmentalized up until that point. From there, many personal artistic trajectories would cross paths and lead to brand new collaborations including not just labels, but alternative networks of promotion and distribution, and the organization of concerts and events.
In 1979 the choreographer Frédéric Flamand got together with the journalists Michel Duval and Annik Honoré to open up a new type of venue in Brussels: the Plan K. Located in an old refinery on Rue de Manchester in Molenbeek, the place quickly became known for its multi-genre approach, often combining theatrical pieces, film
these record labels had the same fear of absorption and misappropriation (with ideological and financial aims in mind) by the traditional media machine.projections, literary happenings, and musical events on the same evening. For example, on the 16th of October, a multimedia event put together Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire in concert along with a discussion with the writer William S. Burroughs. In a packed house during those major events such as the legendary end-of-the-year parties, the Plan K marched out a lineup of artists who represented the emerging avant-garde scene at the time: Echo and the Bunnymen, Orange Juice, Josef K, Teardrop Explodes, The Slits, The Pop Group, James White, The Human League, Bill Nelson, Richard Jobson, Vini Reilly, A Certain Ratio, Section 25, as well as expats like Winston Tong from Tuxedomoon and locals bands like Digital Dance.
An artsy, cosmopolitan mix of ambitious and proud esthetes and intellectuals, this scene created an international network of avant-garde artists. Annik Honoré and Michel Duval then formed a vital connection with the label Factory Records from Manchester (as well as with other labels like Postcard, New Hormones, and Rough Trade), which led them to develop the idea of a parallel label with owner Tony Wilson: Factory Benelux. This would be the model on which they then based their own company, Les Disques de Crépuscule, in collaboration with the graphic artist Benoît Hennebert. Their first release, the cassette From Brussels With Love, would set the tone for their approach, showcasing a mix of contemporary classic music, rock, pop, as well as two recorded interviews, one with Brian Eno and the other with Jeanne Moreau. It would mark the debut of an eclectic catalogue, which maintained a carefully balanced combination of local and international artists with a diverse selection of activities and musicians, and was unified by the graphic identity found in Benoît Hennebert’s distinctive posters and album covers.
Michel Duval remembers this time as a period where Brussels was filled with a great deal of emulation, curiosity, and extremely innovative young artists. Among them, there was Marc Hollander who had already co-founded along with Vincent Kennis the unclassifiable group Aksak Maboul. He also took a leap into the unknown by creating his own label, Crammed Discs, in 1981. He was as much involved in the avant-garde of British post-punk (People In Control, Family Fodder, Colin Newman from Wire, etc.) as he was in an eccentric Belgian scene (Julverne, Les Tueurs de la Lune de Miel, and his own project, Aksak Maboul). Added to that, he also had his hand in the expat bohemian circles (the Israelis in Minimal Compact, and the Americans in Tuxedomoon, etc.). Beyond this eclectic production, Crammed Discs also compiled a series in 1983 titled Made To Measure, which published instrumental music that rarely made it onto records (like film soundtracks and theatrical scores), music from imaginary movies and also adaptations of poetry by Samy Birnbach and Benjamin Lew.
Sub Rosa also built itself up around the concept of anthologies and collections of selected pieces. The founders Guy-Marc Hinant and Frédéric Walheer, who beforehand were active in experimental groups like Kaa Antilope and Pseudocode, marked the labels’ inauguration with a series of compilations that showcased the international alternative avant-garde. Organized around a set of themes, the collection Myths included the participation of musicians such as Mark Stewart + Maffia, Camberwell Now, Martyn Bates, SPK along with writers like William S. Burroughs and sound documentations like a Tibetan Buddhist ritual. The third volume under the name “La Nouvelle Sérénité” focused on a young music scene that remained unclassified up to that point and brought together composers such as Gavin Bryars, Harold Budd, Jon Hassell. Outside of its “normal” recordings, the label continues to pursue this focus on curating a wide range of avant-garde music, from sound archives to recorded literature, which can be found later on an a-chronological collection called Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music.
While it may be known today as more of a jazz label, Igloo also started in 1978 with an eclectic focus, exploring the most obscure recesses of the avant-garde, from electronic music (Leo Küpper, André Stordeur, Henri Pousseur, etc.) and improvisation (Fred Van Hove) to contemporary music (Walter Hus) and experimental music (Godfried-Willem Raes, John Van Rymenant), as well as recorded poetry (Henri Chopin).
Paradoxically, this period that concentrated heavily on other countries was also very “Belgian,” and seen as such outside Belgium, as if the assimilation of all these strains of music that turned that small country into a musical hub also had an impact on the greater cultural landscape.