The 10 Greatest Unsigned Bands In History

As it's Mercury Award season we though the time ripe for a run down of the top ten bands that have made their name without a record label or flogging their backstory on The X-Factor.
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Although as unlikely-sounding these days as Jeffrey Archer once being an internationally competing athlete, there was a time back in early 2003 when The Darkness were the coolest unsigned band in our local galaxy group. Playlisted on XFM and Radio 1 but gloriously unencumbered by such trifles as a record contract, the Lowestoft four-piece came on like a post-ironic Queen with their ludicrous outfits, metallic screeches and ‘are they taking the fucking piss?’ lyrics (did they really get away with calling a song ‘Get Your Hands Off Of My Woman Motherfucker’? I suppose they did) to the point where, by that April, they were headlining the late, great London Astoria. Then Atlantic signed them and, a few twists and turns aside, it all went armadillo-shaped.


If you like your blues and Americana to be faintly amusing, your mullets to be long, your beards untrimmed and your record sleeves adorned with comedy rodents – and God help me, I don’t – then The Hamsters are probably already your favourite band. After every record company in the land (one suspects) totally ignored them when they formed in 1989, they ignored them right back, creating their own record company (Rockin’ Rodent Recordings) and proceeded to spend the next twenty-odd years doing very nicely thank you, before splitting last year. Credit where it’s due, they did have a song with the lyric ‘it’s those wankers Oasis again’: relentless beard-rock clearly didn’t dim their powers of observation.


You might have heard of this lot. While it’s a bit of a myth that they headlined a tent at Reading and had a number one single on the strength of their MySpace page alone, they’re certainly most people’s idea of the first big band of the internet generation. Prior to Domino signing them, their demo MP3 files zipped across Northern England like an electronic strain of smallpox, with fans allegedly creating a page on the fledging MySpace before the band themselves even knew how to switch on a computer. Things had changed by the time ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ hit the top, as an eloquent web posting to their fans would reveal: ‘People understanding it, relating to it, not relating to it but dancing to it, whatever.’ Rock on, lads.


‘Being unsigned nowadays feels more like an active decision rather than a passive one. Plus it gives you an undeniable underdog fighter spirit that would be a shame to lose at any stage of a bands career.’

A blistering, tight-as-a-pair-of-Dalston-trousers anti-folk collective with a healthy sting in the tail, Kent’s Tom Williams & The Boat belong to a crop of new acts who couldn’t give a rat’s arse whether they’re signed or not. All their music can be bought from their website, and it could be cannoning out of your speakers before the kettle’s even boiled. They’ve made an indelible impression on the music industry in the past year, not least at the BBC where they’ve done numerous live sessions, had their single ‘Get Older’ playlisted on three of the Beeb’s national stations, and their debut album, Too Slow, was made Album of the Day on 6 Music. But if one thing still seems unlikely, it’s that the Boat will be readily sailing into a major label’s office any time soon.

‘It seems that now, as opposed to back in 2001, it's more desirable to be unsigned... big bands actually long to drop off the end of their major label deal and be their own bosses.’ Indeed. Which brings us on neatly to…


In 2007, after fifteen years and a near flawless string of albums, Radiohead announced to the world that EMI would just have to trundle along without them; as would all other record companies, for that matter. In an instant, those nice Oxfordshire boys became the world’s biggest unsigned band. Although employing the far from unmuscular arm of XL Recordings to handle their physical product (i.e. CDs in shops, if my mother is reading), Radiohead remain essentially free spirits, able to take as long as they like, do as little touring as they wish, and – if it pleaseth them – release no proper singles whatsoever. Some might argue that while Radiohead’s independent approach warrants at least a couple of pats on the back, it’s probably a lot less daunting to stride boldly out on your own when you’ve a few million bones in the bank. Still, if the ‘Head keep on producing albums as fun-packed and hook-laden as this year’s The King of Limbs, the cynics can just jolly well shush.


What do Blur, Faith No More, The Smashing Pumpkins and the Pixies have in common? They’ve all spent a large part of their career under the influence of an unsigned band from Chessington. Despite such unlikeliness, the Cardiacs have held enviable sway over the more surreal end of the alternative music market since about 1984, despite never coming within gobbing distance of a deal, or, indeed, a hit. And yet their own record company is perhaps the bizarrest thing about them: The Alphabet Business Concern is presented as a bullying, doom-laden corporation, controlling the band’s output with all the cheerfulness of a Victorian orphanage. Sadly such industrial irony doesn’t seem to have done leader Tim Smith an awful lot of good, the poor sod having been hospitalised since 2008 after a stroke and, um, a cardiac arrest. Oh dear.


A couple of years back, the manager of my current band told me he’d taken on a new group called The Boxer Rebellion. ‘Oh yeah?’ I smirked, remembering them from some long-ago soundcheck at the Borderline. ‘Still unsigned, are they?’ ‘Yup,’ said he. I waited for the inevitable ‘ah, but Polydor are really, really interested, and the head of Sony’s coming to a gig next week’ – but it never came.

The Boxers, like Tom and his Boat, are one of those acts for whom a record deal would probably be considered decidedly inconvenient. In 2009 their second album, Union, reached a cool #82 on the US Billboard 200 album chart. Earlier this year the Boxers appeared (not just their music, they themselves) in Drew Barrymore’s latest flick Going The Distance, a feat which helped secure an appearance on David Letterman, a headline show this September at Shepherd’s Bush Empire and five-figure sales of their excellent current album The Cold Still, earnings from which will, in theory, go straight into their pockets rather than to some cigar-smoking fatso. Record companies? They’re just so early-noughties.


Any casual observer of pop in the last twenty years will know at least one KLF story. They machine-gunned a music-industry audience at the BRITs (blanks) and left a dead sheep on the doorstep of an afterparty. They split at the height of their career and instantly deleted their entire back catalogue. They burned a million quid in cash. What I didn’t know, or rather, what I didn’t twig until recently, is that through the entire length of their many-monikered career they were unsigned. Granted, Bill Drummond, one half of the band’s mission control, was a seasoned music industry veteran with more than a vague idea of how to make the whole thing work, but the sheer quantity of records they sold (six Top 5 singles, including two number ones, in under three years, plus a Top 3 album) and the completely bonkers way they went about it (can you think of anyone else who, having secured a guest appearance from a name as big as Tammy Wynette, would subsequently make them sing a line as nuts as ‘they’re justified and they’re ancient and they drive an ice cream van’?) surely earns them a very special place in pop history indeed. To round the whole thing off, they said they’d never reform, and they never have. Respect.


When Nizlopi hit the UK number one spot just before Christmas 2005 with their self-released ‘JCB Song’, a touching little tune about a father and son causing a regional traffic jam, I was astonished. How on earth did this happen? Dwelling as I still did in a world of unsigned confusion, Nizlopi’s success was startling. And what I also recognise now, six years hence, is that Nizlopi’s hit was the very last of a particular breed of one-hit wonder. A good song was written and recorded, it got played to a few people, a decent video was filmed, a few more supporters jumped on board, a big DJ started playing it on national radio, papers started talking about it, the band decided to take a chance and press up thousands of copies, and it hit number one. The internet seemed to have played practically no part. And Nizlopi never repeated the feat, nor did they get anywhere near the charts again. They split last year, the whole ‘JCB’ story probably remaining in their heads an almost supernaturally strange dream from another era.


Before writing this, I tweeted a friend (yeah, I know, but bear with me) and asked him to sum up Throbbing Gristle in a single ‘tweet’. He replied within the minute with ‘cultural wreckers of creative civilisation, drawn together by forces of noise, experimentation, literature and desire.’ I’m not sure what’s more impressive, the speed at which my friend can tweet, or his ability to make Throbbing Gristle’s subhuman dirge sound so exciting. Formed in 1975 around the time Marilyn Manson was being given his first Lego set, they are to industrial rock what Black Lace are to novelty party music: bloody essential, but who on earth would voluntarily put one of their records on?

Such sacrilegious rot aside, TG were also totally and utterly unsigned to anyone but themselves. Being independent suited their brutally experimental methods (their studio was referred to as a ‘chaotic research lab’) and allowed them to be as oblique, subversive and often downright sick as they wanted (it’s hard to imagine ‘Slug Bait’, a song about biting the head off a human foetus, making it through an A&R playback session). They managed to be groundbreaking at just about everything they turned their hands to: using samples, provoking audiences, abusing instruments, living in Hackney. They shocked the arse off a Tory MP at their first gig, invented the phrase ‘Tesco Disco’ (said to describe ‘rhythms based on conveyor belts’) and named an album 20 Jazz Funk Greats, the cover of which featured a cheesy-grinned snap of the band standing among the daisies at the very spot on Beachy Head where suiciders leapt off. They ran their own Industrial label until their demise in 1981, only coming close to another record company when Mute Records conducted a reissue of one of their albums: typically, TG saw to it that all the tracks on the reprint played backwards and in the reverse order. Despite this obstinacy, or probably because of it, they’ve influenced an insane firmament of alternative stars, from Gary Numan to Depeche Mode to Nine Inch Nails. Just don’t expect to find one of their songs at a Karaoke night.

Death of An Unsigned Band by Tim Thornton

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