Small Wonder Records: Pete Stennett interview Part.1
If you were to list the great musical landmarks and locations in London, it would be a while before Walthamstow tripped off the tongue. However in Hoe Street, around the corner from the crumbling art deco cinema where the Beatles once played is a nondescript shop at the very centre of the punk explosion.
Today, 162 Hoe Street provides tasty Kabanos and other Eastern European grub but in the late 70’s kids from across the capital would make a pilgrimage to Small Wonder Records for the latest Punk and post punk sounds. Crass, Bauhaus, The Cure, The Cravats, Patrik Fitzgerald, Cockney Rejects… to name but a few of the bands who had their first release on the Small Wonder label.
As a music blog based in Walthamstow I’ve wanted to talk to Pete Stennett, the famously bobble hatted man behind both the label and the shop for years and last summer I had the pleasure of visiting the picturesque village where he now resides.
‘SMALL WONDER – THE EXHIBITION’
This September (EDIT: SEPT 2016) I’m curating an exhibition about Small Wonder (with the help of the folks at Beatroots, Waltham Forest council and countless other people). We’ve also had some incredible donations and loans of Small Wonder ‘artifacts’ and treasures which we’ll be displaying to tell the story of the label and shop and what it meant to people.
Aside from the physical items we’d like to document the oral history of what it was like with the help of those that were there (but also to introduce the sounds and story to those born post punk or even post post-punk). There will be volunteers who’d like nothing more than to hear recollections of Small Wonder and its importance to you so we can save these things for posterity.
Here’s Part One, beginning with a look at Pete’s musical influences and if you’ve read that then Part Two – focusing on some of the bands that signed for Small Wonder – is here.
Growing up, were there particular people who sparked your love of music?
The most important influence in the whole thing was John Peel, I’d listen to him every night. He was just back from America so he was playing all this new stuff. I was just taken aback by it… It was fascinating and that’s how I got into music.
I actually went to his mews house in London once and painted his portrait. I phoned him up and said can I come round and paint your portrait? He said yeah ok, rang me and gave me his address. So off I went feeling ever so sort of cool because I had all my easel and stuff on the London Underground and I’m going to paint John Peels portrait!
At the mews there were all these women around and they were drinking macrobiotic coffee, whatever the fuck that is!
They kept stepping over me and they weren’t wearing any knickers, it was quite bizarre. Very surreal.
For his 40th I went to a fancy dress do at ‘Nan True’s Hole’ (Peel Acres). Sheila his wife sent out 45rpm singles as invitations. You had to dress up as whatever the single was, and she sent me “Cupid”… Fuck!
I had to dress up as Cupid so I turned up in this flarey shirt thing, regency type with this big arrow stuck in with blood all the way down. That was the best I could come up with!
His kids were little then and they kept coming up saying is that arrow really stuck in you?
Were your parents an influence?
None at all, no. My dad was a cook for the gas board, and me mum was a machinist.
You just hear stuff and it rings a bell, strikes a chord you know, and the sixties were so exciting music wise. You were used to crooners and the like and then suddenly someone like Dylan came along who doesn’t fit the image of a singer… And you just thought, that’s brilliant.
Sod the voice, lets listen to the words. It just grew from that really, getting into it as a teenager.
How did you make the leap from Peel listener to starting a record shop and a label?
I was doing a bar at a fancy dress party that happened to be at Phonodisc, the record distributors and they got me an interview. I ended up getting a job as what was called a troubleshooter. We had to look for records that were no longer where they were supposed to be in the warehouse and I eventually moved up through supervisor and all that rubbish.
Then they had a little competition to write for the in-house magazine and I won it and became the editor. I did that for about four or five years until they decided the magazine was superfluous or too expensive. I was offered either redundancy OR I could become a supervisor in the call centre and I thought sod that!
They gave me about two grand, and I’m thinking what am I going to do now… I’ve got no real skills, so I thought… I’ll have a shop.
At first we were going to have a sort of Rockers cafe but eventually I figured, I’m into music, music’s been my life so let’s open a record shop.
We managed to buy a few records and put these signs up saying we will be fully stocked after Christmas which was total bollocks because we didn’t have any money. We just hoped it would trickle in.
Initially it was just heavy metal, progressive rock because there was nothing that exciting around you know. There was this sort of great limbo between the 60’s really great stuff and the punk stuff… there was this gap so we tried to get into things like reggae and anything that was different, dub reggae and all kinds. There was a black geezer who used to come in with what they called pre’s, pre-releases from Jamaica.
Then all of a sudden I went to see the Sex Pistols at Walthamstow Town Hall and the rest is as they say history.
I just thought fuck, something’s happened, something brilliant.
Colin Faver who was working for us on a Saturday took us to a gig behind The Roxy at this little youth club and there was this band called Puncture. They were doing the usual gobbing lark and all the rest of it and we just decided we wanted to put a record out by them.
Because Peel was already into that early stuff, I’d heard of a band called the Desperate Bicycles who’d done their own single. It cost em about 500 quid I think and their slogan was “it was easy, it was cheap, go and do it!”. So we went to see them in a sort of smelly teenage bedroom and they told us exactly what to do, so we hired a studio, took Puncture down there and recorded.
So when Small Wonder the label started, the shop changed from stocking reggae etc to punk overnight?
Gradually, punk didn’t just happen, there were people like Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, people like that.. The New York Dolls, The Ramones. It gradually started to grow and then a lot of the English bands suddenly emerged. It was kind of an organic thing, we just went with it because we liked the music, and found the stuff was selling.
It was the cheapest shop we could find. We went to the bank manager to borrow some money and he more or less said fuck off!
So we just bought the lease off this little childrenswear shop who wanted to retire and went back to the bank manager and said “look we bought the fucking shop, we need some money to stock it” and he lent us the money.
I lived in Stratford, and had been in East London all my life so Walthamstow was almost a suburb but the record company I worked for were in Ilford so it was that kind of an outer east London scene. The shop was in a good position on the high street and we thought lets…what do the Americans say… kick arse or ass.
There was a ladies hat shop next door, and the bakers on the other side and a greengrocers, just your average high street you know and then we turned up (chuckle).
They just saw us as oddities really. We didn’t fit in, we weren’t shopkeepers.
Was there much else going on in Walthamstow in that period?
Bugger All. Nothing at all. We were just out in this sort of satellite thing. The only reason we became what we became was because I suddenly decided we ought to try a bit of mail order because there were kids all over the place that just couldn’t get his stuff.
So we started the mail order and one morning my then wife got up and saw all these letters on the carpet and thought they must be bills! It turned out they were all from kids writing for records. That’s how we became known, by just supplying all over the country and eventually all over the world.
You didn’t have to have a fucking massive shop, you could have a little pokey place like we had and you could sell to thousands of people. And supply them with records they otherwise couldn’t have got hold of.
Mail order came through desperation really, we needed some money and we loved music. We just wanted to share it you know.
In the end it funded the label, because you can only get so many kids in a shop. Kids being kids you’d sit there Saturday morning and wait until about 12 o’clock when the little bastards got up. Then they make that great trek so you’d be working your arse off until 6 in the evening and the rest of the week you’re just sat there waiting for someone to turn up.
That changed eventually, people turned up from all over the world when we were at our zenith.
Kids would come and stand around for hours, meet their mates. You’d get the odd bit of trouble, National Front and that kind of stuff. It was just a meeting place, and a place to buy records, we did second hand and bought records off kids, resold them.
Did you open Small Wonder with any particular mission or grand vision?
Partly because I’ve always been a bit of an anarchist on the quiet, and the music and the attitude stimulated me. You know these kids who were suddenly putting two fingers up to society and thinking lets form a band. We might only know how to play three chords buts let’s do it. They were brilliant, some of those bands were superb and they just you know stirred you.
Fuck, it was just good!
It wasn’t popular with the older people, I know little old ladies complained a lot, particularly about the window displays. I remember when the Derek and Clive record came out… it was absolutely filthy. Every time a little old lady came into the shop, unaware of what we were we’d put the record on with people going you fucking cunt and all that. It was amusing to just to be part of that.
When The Sex Pistols Never Mind The Bollocks came out we put it in the window and somebody complained. Suddenly these two policeman turned up in a squad car, looked through the window scratching their heads and then they buggered off. They returned and were threatening me, like “take that out the window NOW!”, like they are…like they do!
And I thought I’m not going to be dictated to by them so I got a bit of cardboard and I covered the two L’s of bollocks up so it suddenly said never mind the boocks and I thought that’ll stymie them.
They turned up again about half an hour later to check that I’d obeyed their commands and of course they’re just standing there thinking what can we do now, we can’t do him… so they just buggered off.
Subsequently I phoned Richard Branson and he told me that bollocks actually appears in the bible and they were going to fight a court case over it. They won so all in all it was a nice experience really.
People came to Walthamstow from all over London just to come to the shop?
It was one of those places kids went to, it was part of their little sort of weekend. Our main rival was Rough Trade and we always thought they were a little bit exclusive perhaps but we were more down to earth I thought.
If a kid came into the shop and I didn’t like him or he was a twit I’d just tell him to fuck off. You could do that and that generation appreciated that, you didn’t have to say yes sir, can I help you?
What do you fucking want!?
And I heard one guy saying you refused to sell him a record because it was crap?
Yeah that’s true.
We weren’t a business in that sense we were just there and it was ours so if your face didn’t fit then get out, fuck off, bugger off, I don’t care. That was part of the fun of it because you could do that… you couldn’t do that now… imagine going to Sainsburys and somebody saying look fuck off… where’s the manager!?
If someone asked me what I thought of something I’d say you’d be better off without it, its crap, but if he wanted it he’d buy it anyway. I’m only expressing my opinion.
Often records would come out that would sell but you didn’t particularly rate but if people wanted it… you know… people like Tom Robinson… I don’t know I couldn’t see it all. There you go.
So you didn’t just stock music you loved, there was a commercial reality?
Oh there was a commercial reality. Most of what we heard, either bands would come in, like a band like Killing Joke would turn up with a 10” single and say have a listen to this and we’d say right we’ll have 50 of them.
Other times you’d make mistakes, the Boomtown Rats was a prime example, we bought some of their stuff and no one wanted to know.
It was largely what you liked, but then most of it you liked because it was all so bloody good!! There were so many good bands out there.
The shops open, your first release is out label, what next?
Well then people came into the shop, largely at first they were local. Our second release was a band called The Zeros who were from Walthamstow. They just came into the shop and gave me a demo as a lot of them did, and you listened to it and if you liked it you thought right we’ll release this.
Our deals were we’d pay for the record, the recording, the sleeve, the artwork, the pressing all of it, and if it broke even fine but if it made a profit we’d give them half that profit. And that was the case with every single band. Our contracts were ridiculously simple.
We didn’t tie them up to anything, we just gave them money, a lot of it in some cases. Bauhaus made quite a lot because the Bela Lugosi’s Dead 12” sold huge amounts. A lot of them went on to other labels of course but they’d often come back to us for a couple of grand they’d earned from the record we’d released while they were owing the company they were with money, because they were getting 8-10 % whatever it was.
Bauhaus on TOTP – unfortunately featuring that ARSE Steve Wright at the end.
Not the traditional advance and tie them in for a 3 album deal then?
No, No, No. We just put a record out, if it sells it sells. It was like Menace “GLC GLC you’re full of shit”… that just amused me so I thought what the hell. The main reason we put what we put out on our label was simply because we were recognising that these people that were coming to us were giving us music that we liked and we simply wanted to share and we were in a position to be able to do that. We just had enough money to ..it a little indulgence really but it was serious.
How easy was it to put out a record at that time?
It was a piece of piss it really was, you just go to a recording studio, record the thing, you’ve got an engineer there that knows what he’s doing, then you’d get the master tape, take it to some bloke to Porky in London near the BBC and he’d cut the master disk. Then you’d send it to a pressing company, usually in Ireland because they were cheaper and they’d press 2000, 5000. You’d arrange the artwork, usually the band provided the actual basic artwork, you got it printed, you got the labels printed and then you put the records in the sleeves yourself by hand. Sometimes the band would come and help.
That’s how it worked, basic.
I remember the Puncture single got quite good reviews and one of the kids in the band, they were working and he said he did cartwheels across the station when he read the review. I mean if you can do that for somebody.
Why the name? We had a photograph of an affluent black family with a white wife and a black vicar with a baby, and they were very well dressed in Edwardian clothes. I loved the photograph which I think we got from Kensington market or somewhere…an old sepia thing. We’d had it for years and when we were opening the shop I thought what we gonna call it?
I looked at the photograph one day and thought that’s such a great image we’ll use that! And Small Wonder simply because the baby was of mixed race parentage at a very unusual time, I assume it was in America. Black people in those days didn’t have that sort of status.
So it worked… Small Wonder.. and we were little… and I was.
I read that you found the picture under the floorboards? You found it and thought it must be important to be hidden for so long.
That may well be the case I honestly don’t remember. It’s such a long time ago. It’s probably true.
I read interviews on the internet with like Bauhaus for example, and their memory of when we first signed them is somewhat different to mine. Whether they’re right or I am or it’s a bit of both I’m not sure?
Great cover design is perhaps fading along with the physical record but how important was the artwork to Small Wonder?
The artwork was absolutely vital, partly because it was such a nice thing to look at but with LP’s you could have so much information and lyrics which is the most important thing. If you’re putting out a record that you feel has something to say you want people to be able to read the lyrics. You know you listen to lyrics and often you’re totally wrong about what the lyric is.
Also it was a possession, a thing you could look at and enjoy, it was the whole package not just the music.
Each band did their artwork and then they gave it to us and we said yeah ok or no that’s crap do another one. Usually it was alright and it’s their record that’s the point. I was just supplying the means of producing it, it was their record to do what they like.
It’s unusual to get that sort of freedom from a record label.
Well, we were what we seemed to be.
We were just honest and we weren’t in it for the money.
READ PART TWO HERE but I’d love to hear your memories of Small Wonder. If you’re London based it would be fantastic to do a quick interview if possible but if not please share in the comments or via email. Thanks.