L.A. Style, November 1988
This is a story that takes place partly in the actual past and partly in my head. Made up out of old records and magazines, personal recollections and conversations with a few of the people that saw and made it happen, it's a fairy tale from an age of fairy tales, from a moment when all (or, at any rate, more) things seemed possible, if for no other reason that that they hadn't been tried before.
It is the story of Warner Bros. and Reprise Records (and all their baby subsidiaries -- Bizarre, Straight, Brother, Raccoon. Capricorn among them) aloft in an enchanted balloon that floated across the late '60s and into the early '70s before bags of silver weighed it back to earth, corporate voices waked them, and they drowned. Like all legends of a golden age (and like all balloon rides), it's the story of something that could not last. And like all legends, it is partly true, but only partly -- though to winnow fact entirely from fancy is to rob the tale of its power to persuade.
So when I answer the question Was this the greatest record company in the world? in the affirmative, you must understand that I am speaking not simply as an historian (junior-grade) but as the teenage consumer I used to be, and that nostalgia and ignorance are as much my tools as inquiry and research. And that the truth, baby, is a matter of taste.
In the time of which I speak, these artists recorded for Warner Bros., Reprise or a branch thereof: Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, Ry Cooder, Van Morrison, the Grateful Dead, the Kinks, the Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart, the Beach Boys, Tiny Tim, John Cale, Neil Young, Pentangle, Richard Thompson, Alice Cooper, the Faces, T. Rex, Tim Buckley, Jimi Hendrix, Gram Parsons, Arlo Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat, the Fugs, Michael Hurley, Wild Man Fischer and Frank Sinatra. Staff producers and regular contributors included Van Dyke Parks, John Cale, Russ Titelman, Lenny Waronker, Ted Templeman and Jack Nitzsche. Frank Zappa helmed various Bizarre Records projects.
The Beatles are commonly held by scholars of my generation (or thereabouts) to be the band that wrested pop from stogie-chomping businessmen (who had supposedly moved in when Elvis was drafted, but who'd actually been there all along) and returned it to the kids. But as much as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" got the world hot and/or bothered back in '64, it was not in itself sufficient to bring the old order down: The Beatles, at least for the first few years of their recording career, moved within an industry that regarded them mostly as something new to sell. They worked for stogie-chomping businessmen, in other words. This had also been true of Elvis and the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and all of their contemporaries.
The "youthquake," the boom-born listing of the marketplace that upended the "dad" culture of the '50s and gave teenagers a stature and leverage they had never before known, while it changed the face of fashion, of advertising and of film, and certainly altered the sound of music, had at first little effect on the constitution of the industries that administered those arts. It was not until Young America left home to form newfangled families on the streets of Greenwich Village, the Sunset Strip and the Haight-Ashbury and (having decided that anyone over the comfortably distant age of 30 was not worth trusting) had assumed the captaincy of its own counterculture that things, of necessity, began at last to change.
Warner Reprise (as the union was typically called, or often simply Warners) understood the paradigm shift sooner and more completely than did its competition and took an early purchase on the Revolution. Of course other labels signed new underground acts -- San Francisco was cut up and carted away quick as you could say "Jerry Garcia" -- and other labels employed young people in tune with the coming times, but none surrendered to the phenomenon with the gleeful abandon of Warner Reprise. Where the competition may have deigned to dip its feet in the rising Kindergeist, or go in up to its knees, or even all the way to the chest, Warners took the plunge, and having taken it, swam clear across to set up camp among the freaks.
"I remember going to an introductory party for the Grateful Dead," says Stan Cornyn, who would soon become director of Warner Reprise Creative Services (the in-house ad and image department), "and we stood there in our uniform blue blazers -- the Warner execs were known as the Men in Blue in those days -- and Joe [Smith, future prexy, then working in A&R and promotion] said that he was so proud that the Grateful Dead were on Warner Bros. Records, which would introduce the band to the world at large. And the Grateful Dead didn't take that very well, because in their view they would be introducing Warner Bros. Records to the world at large. It was a point of view that one had to assimilate."
Warners attempted to become identical with its artists (so that it seemed less a company than a consensual collective, a beehive) and, Sinatra & Co. and Bill Cosby notwithstanding, its artists were the most eccentric and visionary the era had to offer. it became, determinedly, the label of possibility and risk.
This was, no doubt, partly an illusion. But only partly.
It was still a relatively young company when came the deluge, and run by relatively young men. Formed in 1958 by Jack Warner to capitalize on the market for film soundtracks, Warner Bros. Records began life over a machine shop on the Warner Bros. Pictures lot in Burbank. Its first releases included Music from "For Whom the Bell Tolls," Have Organ, Will Swing and Ira Ironstrings Plays Music for People with $3.98. Within a year and a half, the company was $3 million in debut. They cut staff, switched management, landed Bob Newhart and the Everly Brothers and began to turn a profit.
In 1963, they acquired from Frank Sinatra a somewhat less than hale custom label, Reprise, for $2 million, a one-third share in the combined operation and his promise to make three films for Warner Bros. Pictures. Reprise's Rat-Packed catalog included Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dean Martin, plus a host of other old-guard show-biz ululaters. And in the bargain Warners acquired Mo Ostin, Reprise's president, who, with Joe Smith, would eventually run the whole shebang. (Nowadays, he is "Chairman Mo.")
Subsequent to the merger, business picked up all around: Frank and Dean had hits; Peter, Paul and Mary, already hot, got hotter; Petula Clark went "Downtown"; comedy (Newhart, Allan Sherman, Bill Cosby) was king. Rock & roll was not yet an issue at Warners, which had, like much of that era's musical establishment, deemed it a fad (a view bolstered when, at the beginning of the decade, rock faded into brief limbo). Reprise founder Sinatra could turn purple on the subject: In the '50s, he had decried rock as "brutal, ugly, degenerate and vicious," "a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac...sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons." (It would outlast him on his own label, however; Sinatra's last LP was cut for Qwest.) Apart from the Kinks, the Everlys, Nancy "Boots" Sinatra and the almost as nepotistic but less interesting Dino (as in Martin), Desi & Billy, rock did not roll at Warners.
Then, in 1966 when Joe Smith went to San Francisco and came home with the Dead, business as usual became a practical impossibility.
Things got interesting for me -- as a fan, as a follower -- in 1968. That was the year I got serious about popular music (and turned 13, just so you know), though more often than not the popular music about which I was serious was something less than popular. And most often it was on Warner Reprise.
That was the year they issued the first albums by Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks, albums similar enough in concept and execution and so little like anything else the pop market had to offer that they almost seemed to herald the arrival of a new school, based around a quasi-cinematic American art song, with roots in Hollywood, the black South and the conservatory. It was extravagantly arranged -- orchestral, in fact -- and sung in such homely tones that the Newman LP was advertised under the banner "Once you get used to it, his voice is really something." Parks, known to the public primarily for the impenetrable yet haunting lyrics he penned for mostly unreleased Beach Boys songs, coproduced the Newman LP, while Newman wrote, arranged and played piano on the first track of Parks's Song Cycle.
If it was a new school, however, attendance was dismal. Critical reaction to both records was generally millennial (The New Yorker, of all publications, called Song Cycle "a milestone of American pop music"), and listeners who did manage to connect with the discs -- which received little airplay and were apparently as difficult to find at the time of their release as they are now -- tended toward the apostolic. "Through my efforts Mr. Parks is regarded by most of my friends as a Pop Deity," testified one young proselytizer who wrote requesting a photo of Parks to "enhance devotion." But the records stiffed -- stiffed bad, considering their cost. Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, a cataract of deep Celtic soul still making rock crit "top tens," was released by Warners the same year, and met with comparable indifference.
Also in the class of '68: The Kinks' Something Else, which stalled at 153 on the Billboard charts; Joni Mitchell's first album (dead at 189). The Grateful Dead's Anthem of the Sun, which collaged and superimposed live and studio performances in a maddeningly elusive audio acid test, struggled manfully to 87 before sliding back down the mountain. Neil Young was readying his first solo album; its occasional orchestral textures (by Jack Nitzsche, who also contributed "String Quartet from Whiskey Boot Hill") and offbeat constructions link it to the art-op of Newman and Parks. ("Nobody's idea of a success" is how critic Dave Marsh later dismissed it, though I would beg to differ.)
That any company would bring out
so many brilliant yet awesomely uncommercial LPs in such close order was just
the sort of thing to warm the heart of an elitist, socially retarded, soi-disant
suburban-bohemian junior high school artist like myself: You had to respect that
kind of recklessness. Newman and Parks, along with bottleneck prodigy and blues
deconstructionist Ry Cooder (a low-seller for years), completed the troika of
what Joe Smith described to Timothy White as Warner's
what-they-mean-to-us stars." But even assuming the brass had reckoned on making their money back -- and it's safe to assume they did -- well, that was even better in a way: It meant they were working out of an expanded notion of what sort of music might be considered, if not expressly commercial, at least viable. And that was right on. It was far out. It was stone groovy.
Even the label's stars, such as they were, tended to be fairly peculiar -- mavericks, one-of-a-kinders, first principles. Ostin and Smith would generally sign the original and most extreme exemplar of any contemporary trend: No one in pop was more apocalyptically heavy than Hendrix, more psychedelic than the Dead, more soul-searching-sensitive than Joni Mitchell, more soulfully shamanistic than Van Morrison, more politically/sexually explicit than the Mothers of Invention, more Grand Guignol than Alice Cooper, more baroque than Jethro Tull, or more authentically strange than Tiny Tim -- unless it was Wild Man Fischer, who was also on the label. The Kinks, Reprise's first real rock band, wrote exquisite, sympathetic, often haunting odes to provincialism, steam trains, afternoon tea and the English middle class, in contravention to all prevailing countercultural values. No one's ever unraveled Captain Beefheart.
"You felt real protected," says Russ Titelman, a staff producer (of Randy Newman, Ry Cooder and Little Feat) who sometimes did double duty as a session musician, "so you could make these records that were real crazy that you didn't think were going to sell but you felt should be made.... You get a songwriter like Randy Newman, the records have to be made."
But what gave Warner Reprise an identity -- beyond the fact that almost everyone on the roster was some kind of oddball -- was that there appeared to be operating within and out of the Burbank compound a group of musicians and producers working in close quarters, trading visions and licks, who simply by their interrelation were calling into being a "house style," a kind of easygoing radical pop bounded on one side by Tin Pan Americana with classical overtones (Parks, Newman, Nitzsche and, as a European variant, Cale), and on the other by mutant white blues (Beefheart, Little Feat, Cooder).
A chart of "Hollywood's Hot 100" printed by Rolling Stone in early 1972 gives the Warner Bros./Reprise "Family" the title "The Intellectuals," and both nicknames are apt: These were artists who were not only left field for their time but whose concerns were so personal and idiosyncratic that most had little influence on the subsequent course of music -- except as regards their influence upon one another.
They were many of them collaborators, many of them friends -- some before they'd even come to Warners. From the Cooder/Newman/Parks axis spreads a tangled web that includes and connects producers Russ Titelman (who also played on records by Cooder, Newman and Beefheart), Lenny Waronker, Ted Templeman (also a member of the Warners-signed Harper's Bizarre, to whose first album Newman and Parks contributed songs) and Jack Nitzsche to musicians Lowell George (Little Feat, Mothers of Invention), Neil Young, John Cale, Captain Beefheart (whose band Cooder once led), the Beach Boys and Frank Zappa (who, as head of the Bizarre/Straight sublabel, forms a junction to myriad further connections).
They played on and produced one another's albums, they traded songs (Cooder cut Newman's "Old Kentucky Home" and played on Newman's version; Cooder and Parks both recorded the calypso "F.D.R. in Trinidad"' Parks recorded Lowell George's "Sailin' Shoes"). Some shared offices, living quarters, even relations -- Cooder is married to Titelman's sister. Sometimes you could find a bunch of them all together: Jack Nitzsche scored the film Performance and Randy Newman conducted it, leading a band that included George, Cooder and Titelman, and sang "Gone Dead Train," which played over the opening credits.
Titelman suggests that Mo Ostin believed "the way to be successful in a creative business was to have a core of creative people -- not unlike the MGM movie lot in the '30s, with the creativity, rather than the business part, at the center of the company. Where the music is the most important thing, and whatever it takes to get it right is okay."
That Warner Reprise understood the difference between quality of work and quantity sold is reflected in the ads Creative Services assembled in the wake of the commercial failure of Randy Newman and Parks's Song Cycle. For Parks, there was "How we lost $35,509.50 on 'The Album of the Year' Dammit). (We're not hurting for the 35 thou. We sell enough Petula and Cosby and Association, we can afford a Van Dyke Parks)," which was followed by a "one-cent sale," whereby anyone sending in a copy of Song Cycle and a penny would receive two new copies -- one to keep, and one to spread the word.
For Newman, they simply gave his record away ("We've got hundreds on our hands"). It was all promotion, of course, and the bottom line was to sell more records -- the chatty, chummy copy told you that straight out -- but the (intended) side effect was to signal the reader that here was a record company that was "iconoclastic, reasonable and friendly," that dared to tell the truth (still important in those days) without taking itself too seriously. "We just tried to break every rule possible," says Cornyn.
Contests were also popular: the "Win a Fug Dream Date" competition, the "Pigpen look-alike" contest (the Dead's Pigpen, not Charles Schulz's). So were giveaways: "Free dirt (while the supply lasts)," for example from Topanga Canyon ("not any of that Pacoima or Wilkes-Barre or Mineola stuff") to publicize a Neil Young album, or a "big sensitive Joni Mitchell poster."
Cornyn -- who had won Grammys for his liner notes to Sinatra albums -- did not always get his youthspeak quite right and was not immune from overreach: Van Morrison's "Beside You," it was claimed, would "attack your senses like the sudden sniff of a whore's underwear," and Joni Mitchell was being flogged to America with headlines like "Joni Mitchell Takes Forever" (to finish her next record) and "Joni Mitchell Comes Across" (with said record). According to Cornyn , when they came out with "Joni Mitchell: 90% Virgin," she broke down in her hotel room and cried.
But the potential for bad taste is the eternal risk of liberty. The fact that this sort of excess was allowed was an indication that the subtext was true: Here was a company that ran on freedom of expression and the testing of limits, and if it was not exactly the People Taking Power, it was at any rate as reasonable a facsimile as any major record label had ever cared, or dared, to offer. The ads sold records, but they also sold the label: The company itself become a kind of performer through constant, often caustic self-reference (a Little Feat ad refers, for instance, to "the fat, hard of hearing, paunchy executives at Warner Brothers Records") and the establishment of a uniform promotional format recognizable enough to be parodied by the competition (large, bold, black headline, with body copy and a small picture or two below) and the proud insistence that this or that artist was on Warner or Reprise, "where (s)he belongs." Warner Reprise was, in a real sense, its own biggest and most successful act.
But finally they were too big, too successful. In the '70s, the record business went through the roof. Warner Bros. Records, by now part of the giant Kinney National Services (the parking lot people), took up residence in a new, sprawling building and began to diversify, to expand -- and to lose its identity. In many respects this was desirable, even overdue (black music, Hendrix notwithstanding, had been nearly absent from the catalog), but it was the beginning of the end of Warner Bros. as a symbol, as a family, as a crucible. Times had changed; policy became more cautious. Creative Services no longer painted Warners as a kind of year-round summer camp attended by people who just happened to make records; references to the company all but disappeared from its ads. Long, snappy copy was out; weird contests and absurd free offers melted into history; selling the artists by selling Warners was a strategy consigned to the dustheap. Warner Reprise became but another record label.
"As a generation adopted records as something more than a novelty entertainment," recalls Stan Cornyn, "as they became a 'credo builder,' they sold a lot more. And as more money is made people [in charge] tend to focus on it -- you pay a lot more attention to maintaining your car than maintaining a doormat, just because the rewards are a little better. There was a golden age of artistic excitement, growth. And that can change when it gets serious enough that corporate people get in their own jets and fly out to make sure things are going well. Success breeds Establishment. It stole away its innocence."
So that's the story. As I said at the outset, it's partly a yarn, a fable about image -- the telling of a vision as much as a recitation of facts. Because maybe I'm dead wrong: Business is business, after all, and it always has been. Maybe they were a pack of thieves, I don't know. But I believed in Warner Reprise then, and that's why invited you on this little trip. In the aisles of my local record store, in the pages of my music magazines, I saw the company actively do good on Earth, spill from its horn of plenty the most consistently challenging wax of my generation.
It's a fact that most of the Warner Bros. artists I loved back then, half my life ago, are no longer associated with the label, and it's a fact that a label as big as Warner Bros. must by necessity act more as a clearing house than as a real creative partner in the recording arts. And no matter how cutting-edge and, yes, even uncommercial the bands on its roster may be (and they continue to be the most interesting major around), no one is going to take them for Underground anymore.
Newman and Ry Cooder are still hanging around -- they're even sort of popular
the end and copyright © 1988 and 2006 by Robert Lloyd me.
words in general