Tag Archives: Columbia Records

R.I.P. Steve Popovich

In the 70s and 8os, when record companies warred against each other like lumbering dinosaurs, there were some real unsavory characters in the business. I’ve met and worked with quite a few of them, and to say I counted my fingers after a handshake is putting it mildly.

But among the stories of the ridiculously rich and powerful were the occasional feel-good stories of when David beat Goliath. Of course these days, that happens daily – the major label stranglehold on music is all but dead.

But when little Cleveland International Records started up, they could have never imagined that they would stumble across one of the most monumental albums of the rock era, especially after most of the supposedly smarter majors passed on it.

Steve Popovich had the career I thought I wanted a the time, a VP of a major label in his twenties with the ability to sign artists and help share them with the world. Any of us who are fans of music have our truckload of underappreciated musicians and writers and singers who would surely be megastars if only given the break. Working under Clive Davis at Columbia Records and then A&R with Ron Alexexburg at their sister label Epic, he was able to help launch or maximize the careers of artists like Cheap Trick, Brice Springsteen, Mott The Hoople, Johnny Winter, Southside Johnny and many of my favorites.

When he struck out to form Cleveland International Records, he used his old school local promotion skills to work an odd and obtuse album called Bat Out Of Hell month after month, slowly building an expanding regional base until radio finally fanned the spark into a flame. I was working in a record store at the time, and I remember how often labels would get all excited about a new record only to ignore it three months later if it didn’t catch on. Popovich believed in the record, believed in Meat Loaf, believed in Jim Steinman. He followed his gut instincts, and the rest is history.

He also gave us Ellen Foley’s majestic Night Out, and when Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson wanted assistance post-Mott, it was Steve they turned to for direction. He had the reputation as a man who would invest in the artist in ways far beyond financial.

Steve Popovich passed away today at the age of 69.

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I Got The Knack

R.I.P. Doug Fieger

R.I.P. Doug Fieger of The Knack.

The best-selling album of 1978 was Saturday Night Fever, the zenith of popularity for guys in satin shirts (open to the waist so that the gold medallions could bounce within the prominent clump of chest hair, of course). Women were no better, focused upon inane dances with said hairy men, hopefully rendered impotent after bathing in strobe lights under satanic mirror balls and shaking what booty they thought they had to beat-pulsing stage lamps flashing primary colors like an amoral heartbeat. Surely the world had gone to Hell in a handbasket, although that handbasket now had a designer name and cost more than a week’s wages.

Sadly, 1979 was no better. Those of us buying Blondie and Ramones and Sex Pistols records could not help but wonder what the hell happened to rock’n’roll, since all the attention and the money and the shelf-rack space in the record stores – our record stores, dammit! – were being glommed by Donna Summer and Chic and Andy Gibb. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, this simplest of rock songs, this most basic beat, blasted its way to the top of the charts like a lung full of oxygen in a coal mine…”My Sharona“.

Video: “My Sharona

No, it wasn’t the best pop song ever written and The Knack were certainly not The Beatles despite the great pains the Capitol Records marketing department went through (the black and white cover photo and the Meet The Beatles cadence of the title Get The Knack). Nor did the bizarre decision to not do any interviews play out well; what initially inspired mystery in a band holding the Number One Single hostage for six weeks soon turned into resentment and an attitude of animosity towards four guys who were just trying to sell pop music.

But “My Sharona” did serve notice to the industry that despite disco and punk and prog and that god-awful corporate rock that Columbia Records kept spewing out its sewage pipe, there was an audience for what we refer to as powerpop music. Good melody. Great hook. Big beat. Maybe it wouldn’t dominate the charts like it did in the 60s, but when given a chance, people respond to it. Sure, you might gloss a sheen of hair metal over it, maybe even countrify it, but at its core a great pop song is a great pop song.

Of course The Knack didn’t last long; maybe these things aren’t supposed to, although their next couple of albums weren’t bad. One knock on the group was that the girls being sung about might be a tad on the younger side, which could explain the occasional leering expressions from the band members. (I’m not certain where these prudential critics were when Gary Puckett and The Union Gap were prowling school yards in the 60’s in military gear, but so be it.) In subsequnet years The Knack would occasionally reform sans retired drummer Bruce Gary (who passed in 2006) with ringers like Terry Bozzio standing in alongside Fieger, guitarist Berton Averre and bassist Prescott Niles.

The Knack will never have the cred that Big Star or Badfinger or even The Romantics have earned, but “My Sharona“, the biggest pop single of 1979, was the right song at the right time. Thanks, Doug (and co-writer Averre), for that lifeboat you dropped into The Sea of Disco. Rest in peace.

***

And R.I.P.  Dale Hawkins, the rock and roll tornado

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Blast From The Past: Rockabilly Raveups

For all the countless repackaging that we are constantly drowning in, sometimes the major labels throw us a bone with brilliant anthologies. Being a fan of garage rock, the pinnacle for me might be the original Nuggets collection, although I’m certainly not sneezing at the various label series that have followed in those caveman footprints to issue regional and chronological; collections of little-known garage and punk singles.

Rhino and Sony Legacy have really stood out in this regard (although in fairness to other labels, their access to the entire Columbia and Warner Brothers libraries is a hell of a head start). When these efforts are done right, you get a great cross-section of material in its best available sonic condition combined with some entertaining and/or authoritative liner notes written with care. If there’s one major drawback to the digital download medium – and there are several – the loss of liner notes might be the leading contender.

I didn’t grow up an Elvis or rockabilly fan, but I did grow up loving rock’n’roll, and chasing the roots of an art form is a worthwhile exercise for any devotee. These collections are far from complete but are an excellent primer for someone wanting to know what the fuss was all about.

When I saw that Whistle Bait is on sale at Amazon for $6.99, I figured I should pay props to these killer anthologies once again. Here’s my original review from 2000 as it ran in PopMatters

Fifty—count ‘em—50 snips of rockabilly, America’s original punk rock music, collected on two CDs to awaken your latent juvenile delinquent tendencies. Rockabilly was the cross-cultural spawn of hillbilly country, southern R&B, urban blues and rock’n’roll (which, of course, was itself a hybrid of the previous three). If you think the ‘50s were all about American Graffiti and Happy Days, you’re as wrong as the people who think Pat Boone butchering “Tutti Fruitti” was the cat’s meow. This was rebel music, parent-scaring yelps from garages and small towns across America. In your town, it was that kid down the block who chain-smoked and had a pompadour seemingly held in place by 30-weight motor oil. Thirty miles away, some kid with a buzzcut and an attitude was making the “bad girls” swoon.

Whistle Bait and Ain’t I’m a Dog strip-mine the vaults of Columbia Records—who, through their strong country music associations had a leg up on these things—and their associated labels. Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, in their post-Sun era, are just two of the stellar names among The Collins Kids, Johnny Horton, Link Wray and Marty Robbins. Perkins checks in with some pre-requisite sharp clothing titles like “Pink Pedal Pushers” and “Pointed Toe Shoes”, but cuts like “Jive After Five” prove who Dave Alvin spent a lot of hours listening to. Billy Crash Craddock might not have been the star that Elvis was, but “Ah Poor Little Baby” could fool many people in a blind taste test. For me, the revelations were Ronnie Self and The Collins Kids—it’s no accident that the first track on each volume comes from their catalogue.

Hard not to learn a few things along the way, too. I never knew that Ronnie Dawson cut tracks under the unlikely moniker of “Commonwealth Jones”, nor did I realize that Webb Pierce had a hand in writing both “Bop-A-Lena” and “Bo Bo Ska Diddle Daddle” (although now that I look at those titles side by side, I know why Mensa passed on my application!). Then there are the classic monikers like Ornie Wheeler, Ersel Hickey and Werly Fairburn; three names impossible to pronounce without a little twang in your thang. Many of these acts had one or two records and then disappeared; some (Cash, Perkins, Dawson) had long careers, and some wound up in unexpected places (how the hell did Larry Collins cut tracks like these and then later pen schlock like “Delta Dawn”?). Although the genre primarily existed for but a few years (the tracks here range from 1955-1961), there sure were a hell of a lot of great records, and you know there are plenty more where these came from. File these two right alongside Nuggets when not playing loud.

Listen to clips from Whistle Bait

Listen to clips from Ain’t I’m a Dog

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