Monday, 5 November 2012

AAA Record Label Start-Ups (Top Nine News, Views and Music Issue 169)

You’re slogging your guts out trying to make your mark in the charts, your pr man insists on promoting you to the oldies and the under-fives and you’ve just been told if you don’t shift enough units you’re out on your ear. No wonder so many AAA bands have later in life, either jointly or individually, decided to set up their own record labels to prevent the kind of exploitation they used to experience in their youth. Some of the nine examples here (we couldn’t quite make this a top 10, sadly!) are simply for one band, for one band and solo spin-off albums or in some cases an honest attempt to promote new talent to the masses. Some are pretty successful (Apple made #1 with two of its first four singles – and only one of them a Beatles song), others less so (‘Ring’ O Records’ died in a year because its releases were so badly received, especially Ringos!) But they all had their hearts in the right places and many of them still exist in some form today, even if most are now linked to major record companies and have lost their independent spirit. Anyway, here is a rundown of them all, in alphabetical order:

The Beach Boys “Brother Records” (1967-date)

The Beach Boys set their label up just at the time when they were beginning to unravel (the famously unfinished ‘Smile’ was due to be its first release, replaced in the end by the lesser ‘Smiley Smile’). The band felt they had to do something though: their contract with capitol was exploitation personified and the label weren’t shifting their position despite the mega-millions the band had made for them over the years (their famous ‘Record tower’ building was known locally as the Beach Boys house as they contributed 90% of the label’s income at one point!) The label was, at first, run by Brian’s new friends: Van Dyke Parks (lyricist on ‘Smile’)’s manager David Anderle and the band’s long serving business manager Nick Grillo. Capitol continued to be the main ‘distributor’ of the Brother Records albums and the band kept the name for all their changes of company to date (Warner Brothers, Caribou and CBS). The only other band that ever released records on the label were The Flame, a South African group discovered by Carl Wilson who supported the band on their late 1960s tours and two of whom, post-split ended up in the band for a couple of albums (Blondie Chaplin, now a Rolling Stone back up man and Ricki Fataar, who played George/Stig O Hara in the Rutles). The company logo is similar in idea to the cover of the band’s ‘Surf’s Up’ cover and is based on a bust by sculptor Cyrus E Dallin, featuring an American Indian on a horse with his arms outs-stretched as if asking for peace.

The Beatles “Apple” (1968-date)

The granddaddy of them all, Apple was kick-started by Lennon and McCartney in 1968 after discussions throughout the past year (the idea of Apple was one of the last things Beatles manager Brian Epstein gave his blessing to before his death). Angered at EMI’s pay rate (which offered a half penny for every record sold) they wanted to set up their own business where ‘artists wouldn’t have to get down on their hands and knees in the office of some businessman’ to quote Lennon. The label started off well: new signings Mary Hopkin and Badfinger rivalled the Beatles’ last half a dozen singles in the chart, whilst other releases by band friends Billy Preston, James Taylor and Jackie Lomax brought in critical respect and support if not always sales. Ringo even roped in classical composer John Taverner to record for the label, although his work ‘The Whale’ was axed at the last minute. The idea might have worked with an Epstein type figure in charge, but the sad fact was the Beatles were too generous with their time and money and didn’t have the organisation to run a full-time business; and despite the role played by others the Beatles trusted (Derek Taylor, Neil Aspinall and Peter Asher among them) no one else had the power to decide issues without the band. The label lost lots of money and suffered under the strain of an advertising campaign for unsolicited tapes (thousands of which turned up every day and were either thrown out or collected in piles to rust away). The label pretty much disappeared when the band did in 1970, after two years of losing one artist after another as they escaped the mess (listen to Beatle worshippers Badfinger’s apologetic ‘farewell’ single ‘Apple Of My Eye’ for more insight into this). The apple logo – a big green apple chosen by McCartney after seeing a Miagret painting and given to several adaptations down the years of different varities and being cut in half etc – continued to appear on Beatles solo albums until as late as George Harrison’s ‘Extra Texture’ in 1974 (ending a seven year deal with EMI signed in 1967 that held the fab four to that label till then). However Apple is almost respectful again today, the logo having been resurrected for Beatle re-releases and archive compilations including ‘Beatles At The BBC’, ‘Anthology’, 2010’s mono and stereo CD re-releases and this month’s ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ DVD re-issue. Amazingly the whole fiasco was re-created by two of the Beatles in their solo career, as we’ll be seeing...

Grateful Dead “Grateful Dead Records” (1973-77)

Tired of exploitation at the hands of Warner Brothers, the band took a brave step when their contract ended in 1972 and decided to go the whole hog: recording, releasing, distributing and promoting their next few records all on their own. In the end the strain was so severe that the band only ever ended up releasing three records like this (‘Wake Of The Flood’ ‘From The Mars Hotel’ and ‘Blues For Allah’) before semi-retiring till 1977 and then signing for bigwigs Arista. But these three records are some of their best work, free of the need to be commercial or stick to their ‘old’ sound. The label might have worked had there not been extra complications too, such as a group of bootleggers counterfeiting American copies of ‘flood’ and selling them in replica sleeves – something that the anti-establishment Dead management sought to end by, err, teaming up with the FBI (surely one of the strangest cases they ever worked on!) The band only ever released albums by themselves – but that alone makes for ten records in three years including solo works by everyone in the band barring drummer Bill Kreutzmann (who still finds time to appear on all the others!) The logo is a lovely drawing of the traditional Dead ‘skeleton’ logo dressed as a medieval minstral and playing a mandolin!

George Harrison “Dark Horse Records” (1974-92, 2002-2004)

Despite the problems with Apple, George still longed to have a label of his own and came up with the clever moniker ‘Dark Horse’ (George has been described as the ‘dark horse’ of the Beatles after coming out of nowhere with the success of ‘All Things Must Pass’ and ‘My Sweet Lord’ in 1970). Ironically the song of that name ended up being George’s last single for EMI, although Dark Horse was a label more in name than actuality, the distribution of all of George’s remaining solo records going to Warner Brothers. George didn’t stick to his own work, however, and used the label to release records by lots of his friends including Ravi Shankar and Splinter, as well as the curious signing of ex-Wings guitarist Henry McCullough, who’d left the band after falling out with Paul McCartney! (Happy memories there!) The logo for the label featured a seven-headed horse named Uchchaisravas, God’s messenger of choice in Hindu mythology. The label was resurrected briefly at the end of George’s life for the re-issue of the ‘My Sweet Lord’ single in 2000 and its last release was Harrison’s posthumous album ‘Brainwashed’ in 2002.

Jefferson Airplane/Starship “Grunt Records” (1971-87)

The Airplane were more of a family than a band and by 1971 were playing in a ridiculously long list of variations as well as their more famous brand name. The ‘Grunt’ label started in 1971 two albums before the end of the Airplane’s flight to handle all the band, solo, joint and Hot Tuna albums (a new blues group featuring Jeffersons Jorma and Jack). The label did sign a few other acts, almost all from the ‘San Francisco Bay’ area the Airplane came from including band friends Jack Traylor and Steelwind and forgotten bands such as 1, Jack Bonus and Richmond Talbott. In all, the label released 37 albums until its last release in 1987, Starship’s ‘No Protection’ (their last record to feature any of the original band) when it was quietlky disbanded (the 1989 Airplane reunion LP was released on ‘Epic’. The curious name was first thought up when the band were discussing titles for the 1971 LP that was eventually named ‘Bark’ and was probably used because the label was seen as an updated way of communication, the equivalent of cavemen who used to ‘grunt’ at each other to express themselves. The label logo is very curious indeed, the ugly figure of a very rotund man with the names of the artists on the label tattooed over his body.

The Kinks “Konk Records” (1976)

In 1976 The Kinks were coming to the end of their time with label RCA Victor and were desperate to have more creative control during their next incarnation on Arista. As guitarist Dave Davies was getting more and more into engineering work the band set up their own recording studios, Konk, which are still going today – though they’ve been up for sale for the last 18 months or so (The Kooks even named the album they recorded there ‘Konk’ in 2010 in honour of the studios). Less successful was the ‘Konk’ record label, which barely ran for a year before Ray Davies reluctantly brought it to an end, upset that he’d ended up becoming ‘the middle man in a record company war’ rather than the nurturing visionary he wanted to be. The ‘Konk’ name never appeared on a Kinks record, although its been used on all the post-Pye (ie 1971 onwards) CD re-issues of the band’s catalogue. The Konk name did appear on two other records though – Claire Hammil’s under-rated ‘Stage Door Johnnies’ and the first album by Cafe Society. The logo for the label is the simplest on the list, with the name written in flowery, swirly handwriting, usually in white.

The Moody Blues “Threshold Records” (1969-99)

Probably the most successful label on this list outside of Apple, the Threshold label released the last four albums made by the original line-up before their split in 1973 and really came into its own thereafter, releasing solo records by all five Moodies. The label also signed sadly forgotten rock act Trapeze who released three records for the label and the little known Asgard in 1972. The label continued to release Moodies albums when the group got back together in 1978, although I’ve noticed the label has missing from the recent live CD and DVDs and Justin Hayward’s last couple of solo albums, which might mean that 1999’s ‘Strange Times’ is the last record to be released with the Threshold name. The logo is a clever design of the side of a train that also looks like a person’s ghostly face when viewed from a certain angle and is named after the band’s third record ‘On The Threshold Of A Dream’, implying that their records are on the ‘threshold’ of all that is possible in music.

Ringo “Ring O’ Records” (1975-78)

Ringo’s attempt to do an Apple didn’t last very long and was pilloried by a sarcastic music press who had great fun laughing at the drummer’s musical tastes. The label actually started life as ‘Reckongrade Records’ in 1974 and then ‘Pyramid Records’ in 1975. Still tied to EMI himself, Ringo never actually released any of his own records on his own label and only ever released 13 albums (plus many more singles), mostly by a forgotten singer-songwriter named Graham Bonnett. Interesting releases to note are a synthesiser adaptation of Ringo’s ‘Ringo’ album by David Hentschel (which might have inspired Paul McCartney’s big band version of ‘Ram’ shortly after), John Taverner’s classical ‘The Whale’ (delayed from its original pressing on ‘Apple’) and a ‘duet’ spin-off release by two of the Rutles!

Rolling Stones Records (1970-92)

Like so many others on this list, when the Stones’ contract with Decca expired in 1970, the band decided to have more control over their work and set up their own label. This enabled the band to manage the difficult problem of having their records released by two different record labels on two different sides of the Atlantic (EMI in the UK and, err, Atlantic across the Atlantic). The label was then discontinued in 1992 when the band signed to Virgin for all territories (Richard Branson filled the record sleeves up with so many logos there probably wasn’t space for one more!) The label only released records by the band (with the exception of Kracker, a short-lived rock band discovered by Stones producer Jimmy Miller and reggae star Pete Tosh) but there’s quite a few notable spin-off records that are surely unique for any label! These include Brian Jones’ ‘The Pan Pipes Of JouJouku’ which the guitarist had taped with an African tribe shortly before his death and finally saw the light of day in 1972 and the curious ‘Jamming With Edward’, basically an improvised set of rambling recordings made by the band in 1973 with session pianist Nicky Hopkins (known to his friends as ‘Edward’) while waiting for Keith Richards to show up. Mamas and Papa John Phillips also recorded a solo album destined for the label with Mick Jagger’s help, although the singer was so far gone in his drug dependency days that the record didn’t see the light of day until as late as 2001. Interestingly, the biggest success of any single released on ‘Rolling Stones Records’ belongs not to the band as a whole but to bassist Bill Wyman whose ‘Je Suis En Rock Star’ was a top ten hit in 1976!
And that’s all for another issue. See you next week!

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