Pandamonium! How (Not) to Run a Record Label by Simon Williams
In his time as an NME scribe in the 1990s, Simon Williams perfected the art of the musical pun as a reviewing device. Puns weren’t just for pithy headlines, they were for scattering liberally throughout the text. No band was untouchable – in fact, the loftier their status the more ripe the opportunity for humour.
Williams is a witty writer, always has been. Check out his work – he currently writes for this here website. He isn’t one of those serious musos. Not for him the forensic analysis or the florid language. Instead, he communicates the rush of the gig and exuberance of the music fan. There may be exclamation marks.
His memoir is likewise awash with impish puns and suffused with musical allusions. Some of his readers will snigger at “touch me I’m slick” or appreciate the references to a hundred lonely housewives or kidney bingos. Others will have (train)spotted that every chapter title is the name of a track by cult 80s indie janglers the Close Lobsters before Williams fesses up to the fanboy indulgence. Perhaps many won’t even notice these artistic easter eggs scattered through the text – these are callouts to his people, the indie faithful who hoover up guitar bands with the same alacrity as Williams, a man who loves checking out up-and-coming acts so much that he built an independent label, Fierce Panda Records, around releasing gateway singles for new artists.
Some of those artists – Coldplay, Keane, Supergrass, Green Day, Placebo – went on to hefty or even stratospheric success. Many didn’t. But that’s his “quality out of control” A&R scouting policy. Williams and his Fierce Panda cohorts do it for love and pride (this game is infectious), not for commercial success. Fierce Panda has outlived many more prominent labels through a combination of grassroots dedication and monomania. Because, as Williams will admit, there is an insanity to running an independent record label – and he should know. It nearly cost him his life.
Pandamonium! How (Not) to Run a Record Label (yup, even the title is a pun) is in large part the story of the “label with the big heart and small purse”. That means a lot of gigs in sweaty back rooms, a lot of pub meetings, a lot of printing 7-inch record sleeves on a wing and a prayer and even some dealings with the grown-up, infantile music industry. Strip that back and get Williams to sit still for a second, however, and there is much more going on beneath the busy, busy surface, and it’s pretty dark and moving.
Threaded through the early encounters with future pop stars, the hustle and bustle of the London live music scene, the formative love affair with the music of The Farmer’s Boys – not for Williams the traditional David Bowie epiphany or life-changing discovery of The Smiths, he was always a champion of the underdog – and his inexplicable aversion to cheese, there is a parallel narrative of what Williams calls, with characteristic comic bathos, the Grand Malarkey. In short, his suicide diary.
On 30th December 2019, Williams made several attempts to take his own life, recounted here like some pitch black comedy of errors. Thanks to a timely intervention, he ended up in hospital for a few weeks where he was monitored for possible imminent liver failure. And then the first Covid lockdown hit and Williams had no choice but to get off the gigging hamster wheel.
Not even his wife was aware of Williams’ depression – what he calls a “gentle decline” leading to “exhausperation” – though the stress-related alopecia might have been a giveaway. Like many so-called “happy depressives”, Williams felt unable to admit he was floundering and go on to seek help, making this quasi-comical confession all the more vital and courageous. Although the what-ifs are painful to contemplate, the text is not. Williams seems more embarrassed by the fuss than anything else – “I didn’t want to be a bother” – which is the ultimate bathetic shrug.
However, he sets up the inevitability of his breakdown early on with a child’s-eye-view of his father’s suicide when Williams was five: “Everyone liked my dad. Apart from my dad.” Again, Williams doesn’t want to bother us with the absence of a father figure, but the inference is there.
He also genuinely wants to celebrate the agony and ecstasy of running an independent record label for close to three decades. The Fierce Panda discography at the end of the book runs to 14 pages. That’s a lot of lives touched, careers boosted – or not, but at least they got a launch party…
And there is a happy ending. In addition to setting up a website punting alternative funeral songs, Williams made a New Year’s Resolution to see 365 performances in 2022 but instead of tearing around Camden to find the next hot act before they’ve even formed, he’s enjoying the concert as a more relaxed social experience. You can read all about it in his Diary of a Pandaman column for Entertainment Now.