Jon Wozencroft, founder of pioneering label and publisher Touch, reflects on 40 years of experimental electronics and audiovisual adventures

“Touch can be anything it desires, from words to music to images,” asserted a text in the plastic wallet that encased ‘Meridians’, issued by Touch in 1983. “No two items are alike. Sameness is anathema.”

“It was a collective statement,” explains Jon Wozencroft, “not a manifesto, as such. It was more like a provocation to ourselves.”

The text was assembled by the four founders of Touch – Wozencroft,  Mike Harding, Andrew McKenzie and Garry Mouat – and that collective statement would guide the activities of the independent music project for  the next four decades. A glance at the array of events organised to mark  this, their 40th anniversary year, shows how true they’ve stayed to their defining philosophy.

Wozencroft began forming the idea for Touch in 1981 as he finished his studies at Durham University. It was on his frequent visits to Newcastle  that he got to know McKenzie, who was then working at the city’s Virgin Megastore, and the pair bonded over a shared passion for The Residents,  Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle. After graduating, Wozencroft did a  one-year postgraduate course at the London College Of Printing and spent most evenings at gigs.

“One night at the beginning of 1982, I went to the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead to see Academy One,” he remembers. “That’s where I met Mike Harding, as he was managing them. We got talking and he introduced me  to Garry Mouat, who was doing design work for the publishing company  Mike was involved with.”

Though the four had bonded over music, the idea for Touch was always intended to be much broader.

“We knew we couldn’t – and didn’t want to be – a record label,” insists Wozencroft. “What is beyond a label? Where is the space between art, design, music, photography, film, writing and all of these things? I was a huge fan of Kandinsky, Klee and Bauhaus art. Kandinsky was all about synaesthesia, colour and music, and that fed into the idea for Touch.  He had also published an almanac, ‘Der Blaue Reiter’, and a set of woodcuts  he called ‘Sounds’. At that time, there was a lot of attention towards what was then called ‘mixed media’, but we didn’t just want to be part of the art world – we wanted to be in the shops as well.” 

Touch rapidly moved from a rough outline of an idea when, in March 1982, Wozencroft approached New Order backstage after a gig at Newcastle’s Mayfair venue about providing a track for the first Touch product, ‘Feature Mist’. Two months later, at another New Order gig at Pennies in Norwich, Wozencroft and Harding were handed the band’s contribution – a cassette entitled ‘Haçienda: Video 586’.

“Mike and I put that cassette on as we were steaming away from Norwich,” recalls Wozencroft with a sparkle in his eye. “Oh my god! It turned out that this was 22-and-a-half minutes long!”

While ‘Video 586’ gave ‘Feature Mist’ the centrepiece around which everything else was constructed, the length of the track caused some angst.

“We dedicated ourselves to a C60 cassette, and there were lots of other things we wanted on it,” says Wozencroft. “The New Order track would have taken up almost the whole of one side, so I had to work out a way to cut it into sections. I was really nervous about it. I met Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris again at a concert in Blackpool in August 1982. I said, ‘Look, can I treat this like a piece of film?’. They said, ‘Yeah, you can do what you want with it. This is our gift to you’. I was completely blown away by that.”

In its final state, ‘Feature Mist’ appeared in December 1982 as an unbranded Maxell C60 cassette, accompanied by an A5 magazine, all housed inside a plastic wallet. The title wasn’t evident and only appears at the very back of the magazine.

Alongside two edits of ‘Video 586’ were tracks by Tuxedomoon, Simple Minds, Andrew McKenzie’s pre-Hafler Trio unit Flesh, Egyptian musician Soliman Gamil, Eric Random, an interview recording Wozencroft did with Robert Wyatt, and excerpts from an event at London’s Riverside Studios focused on the work of Vladimir Mayakovsky. The accompanying magazine included text-based art, photography by Touch acolyte Panni Charrington and The Rozz Tox Manifesto, written by Residents collaborator Gary Panter. Highlighting how well attuned it was to the early 1980s zeitgeist, ‘Feature Mist’ sold 5,000 copies. 

“We wanted to do something on cassette because we could control the mode of production,” explains Wozencroft. “Recording studios and professional mastering were just too expensive. The cost of printing was  bad enough. I managed to do a deal with Maxell so that they would sell us cheap cassettes in return for an ad on the back cover, which we designed,  as we wanted it to be in keeping with the rest of the magazine.”

Flushed with success, the Touch team plotted an ambitious follow-up in the form of the two-part ‘Meridians’. Both instalments were issued as unbranded Maxell cassettes again, with ‘Meridians 2’ accompanied by a  full-colour pack of “inserts” inside a screen-printed plastic wallet.

Sonically, the cassettes were full of firsts – the first tracks from Touch 33 (Wozencroft), The Pathfinders (designers Malcolm Garrett and Roger Cleghorn), Pascal Gabriel, Wire’s Graham Lewis, Deux Filles (Simon Fisher Turner and Colin Lloyd-Tucker), Derek Jarman, Test Dept and Current 93 –  plus exclusive tracks from artists like John Foxx, A Certain Ratio and Ludus.

Each insert included was a single page featuring art, design and texts from Garrett, Paul Morley, Panni Charrington, Peter Saville, Linder, Russell Mills and others. More than just a lavish release, ‘Meridians’ seemed to offer an eyewitness account of an unnamed community of like-minded creatives.

“We wanted to be a kind of transmitter station for all these amazing, weird things that were going on,” says Wozencroft, who continues to run Touch with Mike Harding today. “There was something in the air in the 1980s and 1990s. You just felt part of a slipstream of cultural dynamism where people wanted to explore something different. These first three Touch cassettes were like beacons that led us to where we are now.”

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