|Lisa Fancher (photo by: Grove Pashley)|
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Lisa Fancher, owner Frontier Records.
Like such women label owners as Lillian McMurry of Trumpet Records in the ‘50s, and Florence Greenberg of Wand Records in the ‘60s, Lisa Fancher was a music trailblazer in the ‘80s with Frontier Records.
The Los Angeles-based indie label is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary.
Owned and operated by the feisty, wise-cracking, 51-year-old Fancher, Frontier is heralded today for documenting the hard-core punk rock scene of Los Angeles, and for releasing landmark punk, alternative country, paisley underground, goth and pop recordings that ultimately altered the topography of pop music’s mainstream.
Among the first to tap into Los Angeles’ punk and hardcore scene, Frontier has released significant recordings by the Circle Jerks, the Adolescents, Christian Death, Suicidal Tendencies, the Three O'Clock, the Long Ryders, Thin White Rope, Young Fresh Fellows, and American Music Club.
As well, Frontier has been at the forefront of reissuing obscure out-of-print recordings, including releases by Redd Kross, the Weirdos, the Middle Class as well as several compilations originally issued by Los Angeles’ Dangerhouse Records.
Later this year Frontier will release a digitally remastered version of Christian Death’s 1982 goth landmark album “Only Theater of Pain,” as well as an album by the Stains, who were once popular among street punks in South Bay and Hollywood; and re-release the Dangerhouse’s 1979 “Yes L.A.” compilation.
The re-release of “Yes L.A.” will be Frontier’s 100th release.
Los Angeles' late 1970s punk scene received considerably less media attention than what happened in New York or London. Regional bands like the Middle Class, Social Distortion, and Black Flag emerged in the wake of the first wave of British punk bands--the Sex Pistols, and the Clash. However, despite their local popularity, they were largely ignored elsewhere.
Among the early L.A. area bands playing punk in the early ‘80s were Fear, the Germs, and the Circle Jerks. These were soon followed by the Adolescents, Social Distortion, Agent Orange, Bad Religion, the Minutemen, Suicidal Tendencies, TSOL, Wasted Youth, Youth Brigade and others.
Unlike in London or New York, where hardcore and punk groups were recorded by major labels, the California punkers weren’t courted by the multinationals. Releases were sporadic and even then, were primarily issued by independently-run labels such as Frontier, as well as Slash Records, SST Records, BYO Records (started by Shawn and Mark Stern of Youth Brigade), Epitaph Records (started by Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion), and New Alliance Records (started by the Minutemen's D. Boon).
While being baptized in Los Angeles' teeming club world, Fancher began her music industry career at the Bomp Records store in North Hollywood (one of the first local stores to carry punk music). Besides working at Bomp, Vinyl Fetish, and Liquorice Pizza retail outlets in the late ‘70s, Fancher ran the Dickies’ fan club; published the music fanzine Biff!Bang!Pow!; and wrote for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and Sounds in the U.K., as well as any music fanzine that would have her.
She’s a bonafide music junkie.
The first Frontier release was the self-titled 1980 EP by the Flyboys. It was soon followed by iconic punk releases by the Circle Jerks, the Adolescents, TSOL, China White, and Suicidal Tendencies.
How cool was it to have Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized" featured in the first “Ironman” film in 2008?
That was one of the proudest moments in my life. Sitting in the Cinerama Dome for the first show on the day it opened. I would have done that even if I didn't have a song in the film. The theatre was sold out. When the song played, the audience was audibly going, “Yeah, cool man.” Just too see Frontier Records in the credits of “Ironman,” I felt that finally I have arrived.
Have you retained the full rights to your catalog?
Yes. If anything is out of print, it’s voluntary. If the label ever becomes dormant, if I wasn’t exploiting the master, and I thought people could make money off of (their recordings), I might (offer it to them). But I am more about me staying afloat. I don’t want to have a day job.
Do you own the publishing?
The early stuff, I do have the publishing on, certainly Suicidal Tendencies. Thank God for that.
["Institutionalized," was also featured in the 1984 film “Repo Man,” as well as in an episode of the NBC-TV show “Miami Vice.”]
When you started the label 30 years ago, it was primarily grassroots and localized. Now, this music is international due to the internet.
I can’t imagine having local scenes anymore the way things are. Also, just creating a buzz for people (is difficult). There are so many labels now. You don’t even have to have a label (to release music). All you need is a Facebook page. Everything has changed. But I don’t see how you establish an identity for a band or how you make a noise (for a band), because the internet is so vast. Previously, it was, “We started in the Cavern Club.” Now, the whole world is your (first) stage.
It’s so daunting.
If I was to start today, I don’t know if I would bother. You can’t tour. You can’t get guarantees. I don’t know what label can offer a band tour support. All of the things that we did at college radio are gone. Now it’s internet radio. I don’t even know how you would start to try to make a noise.
Frontier used to mail out a lot of promo copies.
It’s a whole new world. Now you can just send people a file of MP3s. You don’t have to send a record. When we did LP promos, and my employee Graham Hatch used to make me mail out - I don’t know how many ungodly copies - to radio, it used to take up our entire office, from floor to ceiling with album mailers, and records. It was a pain. It was expensive. The people at the post office would go, “Not another mailing.” (Our mail-out) would be right as everybody was leaving their shift, and the day was over.
You are about to re-release Christian Death’s 1982 goth landmark album “Only Theater of Pain” with Rozz Williams' original artwork. That album is credited with spawning the goth movement.
Michael Bean in England is writing a book about L.A .goth called "Phantoms - The Rise Of Deathrock From The LA Punk Scene." So I was poking around looking for archival trash for him. I found (the late singer/poet) Rozz’s original artwork for the album which we didn’t use at the time because he had made a lot of typos even on his own song titles. I don’t care about the spellings now. So we are going to repackage it with Rozz’s original artwork. I have digitally remastered it.
You also have a release coming by the Stains, who were popular among street punks in South Bay and Hollywood.
The Stains is a Latino punk band. Their (SST Records) EP has never come out on CD. We are going to remix it. I had them track the tapes down. They hadn’t seen them since 1981 or 1982. (SST house producer/engineer) SPOT (aka Glen Lockett) found them. I kept writing him at all of the social networking sites. I tracked him down, and located the tapes. I will be re-releasing that LP, digitally remastered of course.
You are also re-releasing Dangerhouse Records’ “Yes L.A.” compilation. What was so cool about Dangerhouse?
They signed every legitimate, really great punk band or, at least, they put out a 45 by every great punk band in Los Angeles like X, and the Weirdos. The Alleycats were great. So were the Deadbeats, and the Bags. You could not beat their art work. Not only was the single incredible, but the picture sleeves were mind-blowing. They even recorded a Germs’ track (“No God”) for “Yes LA.”
[Dangerhouse Record's stable also included Black Randy & the Metro Squad as well as San Francisco's Avengers.]
How did you come to be able to release the Dangerhouse compilation “Give Me A Little Pain'' and now “Yes LA”?
It was a long, delicate process in getting the two owners to speak together again. David Brown had moved to another state, and Pat Garrett went back to Oklahoma. They had not spoken to each other. The tapes were all over the place, the art work was everywhere. Getting them on the same page probably took about a year of back-and-forth.
“Yes LA” from 1979 is one of their rarer albums.
One of their rarest projects that a lot of people don’t know exists. It was a one-sided clear (silk-screened) album. Finding a silk screener that would be able to do one side (of a CD) without getting paint on the side with the grooves, I haven’t found that person yet.
Are people surprised to be contacted by you after so many years? In some cases, they have been out of the music business for decades.
A lot of them are 100% retired. Like the Dangerhouse guys. They left L.A. and the music industry. The Stains have played a few shows. But you know everybody is interested in all things L.A. punk with (the 2006 film) “American Hardcore” and all of that stuff.
You got sliced out of “American Hardcore.”
Unbelievable. I took the filmmakers down to the remnants of the Masque, and was interviewed at length. I wound up on the extras of the DVD. It's all about the East Coast, man. I never would have (agreed to have) been interviewed at all except that the Adolescents wanted to be in there because they always felt like second bananas; that they never got any credit for being as popular as they were. So that was the only reason I cooperated, and I got severed from the movie. I don’t want any nepotism or any favoritism but, seriously, they have people….some stupid band guy with spaghetti-chinned hair that nobody cares about. And nothing from me? They couldn’t use anything that I said? Nothing?
[Spinning off Steven Blush's 2001 book of the same name, Paul Rachman's documentary "American Hardcore: A Tribal History" in 2006 explored the 1980-86 formative years of the American hard-core punk scene. The two conducted about 100 interviews with veterans of the scene.]
You are trying to put together a documentary with independent film director John Roecker. Four years in the making?
We don’t exactly work every day on it. It’s like evenings. We spent a whole year pulling the movie (clips) together. John’s films include “Live Freaky! Die Freaky!,” a puppet film about Charles Manson and his girls, and “Everything You Wanted to Know About Gay Porn Stars But Were Afraid to Ask.”
[John Roecker also directed “Heart Like a Hand Grenade,” which documented the recording of Green Day's 2004 album “American Idiot.”]
What is the focus of the film?
The Devil. The Devil, movies and television. It is the coolest thing. Because I worked in television, I absolutely refuse to use any narration or any talking heads. Each clip connects and tells a story, and it is intertwined. So, it is like doing this unbelievably elaborate embroidered tapestry. It will take a lot (to complete), but it will be so amazing. I can tell you it won’t be this year. I don’t know where we are going to get the money to clear the music for it, but we have to use a couple of Roky Erickson songs and “I Dream of Demons” (by the Wisconsin industrial metal band, the Electric Hellfire Club), and Arthur Brown (the Crazy World of Arthur Brown). There aren’t a lot of videos, but obviously Arthur (with “Fire” from 1968) is crucial.
Had you really planned to call the label Frontierland?
I totally did. I thought it’d be okay, and that Disneyland would get a big boot (name recognition) out of me. No. That was a horrible idea. My earliest lawyer told me, “Don’t think about doing anything with Disney including parody things.” So I just chopped it off (to Frontier). It seemed a nice, generic and a California kind of a concept.
You launched the label with the self-titled, 12-inch EP by the Flyboys in March 1980.
I probably started the record in late ’78 or ’79. It took me that long to scrape money together to finance this stage of it; then the next stage of it. I didn’t have a trust fund. I didn’t borrow anything. It was always what I came up with.
[Frontier's debut Flyboys release was recorded at Leon Russell's Paradise studio in Burbank throughout 1979. It was produced by Scott Goddard and engineered by Jim Mankey. The receptionist at Shelter was Johnette Napolitano. Mankey and Napolitano went on to form Dream 6, which, after releasing a self-named album, signed with IRS Records. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe offered up a new name for their band, Concrete Blonde.]
How did your parents adjust to you putting out albums by the Circle Jerks and Christian Death?
The Flyboys. Cute cover. An airplane. “This is a nice thing that you are doing.” Then the Circle Jerks came along. Of course, my dad had heard about what a Circle Jerk was. My mom had to ask. I told her it didn’t mean anything. That it was two words the band stuck together. They were thrilled by this second record (“Group Sex” by the Circle Jerks) because, at least, that record sold. Money was coming in although it was going out just as quickly. The Flyboys was such a bomb, and I was then living at home.
With the success of “Group Sex” you were able to move to an apartment.
I know. But the Flyboys’ (EP), my parents had a whole garage of those. Their attitude was, “This record, not so good. We have a garage full.” But with the Circle Jerks, transport would drop (records) off and they were out the door. I was in my Pinto delivering them to Rhino and taking them down to Zed. So it was that “Bad records fill up the garage and the other one is gone right away.” However, they weren’t really so thrilled about Christian Death and that title (“Only Theater of Pain”). Or the Hamlet thing on the front (cover) with Rozz (Williams) on the cross.
My parents were super conservative. They were just a little concerned by the whole thing. They’d ask, “Aren’t you going to get in trouble with this?” Christian Death was a real crowd pleaser because we’d get all of those local Christian (TV) shows, Jan Crouch or whatever. We are using some footage in our film of her holding up the Christian Death album. She’s crying, her makeup is running, and she’s saying, “I can’t believe they said the Lord’s Prayer backwards.”
[Throughout their three-decade-long career as co-founders of the fervently Christian Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), along with Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker), the flamboyant Crouch couple-- Paul and his wife Jan Crouch--have preached about the wrath of God, even delivering holy death threats to their critics. In 1991, Paul Crouch warned viewers, “To hell with you! Get out of the way! I say get out of God's way! Quit blocking God's bridges or God's going to shoot you if I don't."]
The Three O'Clock originally formed as the Salvation Army in 1981. In the summer of 1982, legal problems with the actual Salvation Army forced the band to change their name.
The Salvation Army had no sense of humor and made us change the name.
Their album never came out on the Minutemen's New Alliance label.
They just had the 45 ("Mind Gardens") there. The second I heard the single I thought, “This is the best band I’ve heard in my whole life.” (Lead singer/bassist) Michael Quercio didn’t have (guitarist) Johnny Blazing in the band by then. He had quit -- it was a whole different lineup. The guitar player (Louis Gutierrez) could barely play and the drummer (Troy Howell) could barely drum but Michael’s songwriting was solid. I was (thinking), “Let’s hope nobody notices the musicianship.” Then, of course, Louis became a great guitar player. But Troy did not survive. He was quickly replaced by Danny Benair, who was my boyfriend in the ‘70s when he was with the Quick.
The songs on their debut (“The Salvation Army” in 1982) are really good but not so well-executed, due to the musicianship. That was one of my Thom Wilson (production) efforts. I remember that he was so frustrated with the band, asking, “Why am I doing this?
Then we were threatened with a lawsuit after the LP came out and the band changed their named to the Three O'Clock. “Sixteen Tambourines” (1983) was very well recorded by Earle Mankey, formerly of Sparks.
When you released Suicidal Tendencies in July 1983…
It stiffed. Absolutely. It was the opposite of the Circle Jerks. People in L.A. did not like the band because of their reputation, their whole quasi-gang hanger-oner people thing. So absolutely D.O.A., I didn’t spend that much on it. I figured you win some, you lose some. I was already starting to move on.
[Suicidal Tendencies was voted "Worst Band/Biggest Assholes" in Flipside fanzine in 1982.]
The video of "Institutionalized” turned that album around. It was one of the first hardcore punk videos to receive big airplay on MTV.
Yes. Their manager Glen E. Friedman, who brought them to me, just kept pushing to do the video. He’s awesome because he never let’s go. He just knew that record was a massive smash. He would not let it rest at all. KROQ was playing it and he was telling me that we had to take it to the next level. I said that there was no next level. Once MTV started playing the video, forget it. Bill Fishman did such a great job with all of the skaters and stuff. That wasn’t a genre then.
Here you are a grassroots indie label grabbing MTV airplay.
It was amazing the company that we were in. People just knew the song. I’d be in a social situation, and I’d be asked what I did. I’d tell people that I put out records, and they would be bored. I’d ask, “Have you ever heard of this song, ‘Institutionalized,’" and they’d start singing me the Pepsi line. People knew that video even if they didn’t know anything about the band, their background or anything.
You were on the dance floor of a “Miami Vice” show when Suicidal Tendencies guested.
Yep, I was on “Miami Vice.” My first movie role, however, was in a Cheech and Chong film (“Up In Smoke” in 1978). Everybody in L.A. was waiting in line to see Cheech and Chong’s band, Alice Bowie. If you slow motion through the line, everybody (on the L.A. club scene) was there. I think they gave us $25 to $30 for a whole day.
Being in “Miami Vice” was kinda cool.
I went along with Suicidal. I just had to make sure that Mike Muir didn’t hurt anybody there when they tried to put loafers on him.
“Miami Vice” director Michael Mann didn’t put the band in color-coordinated suits?
He absolutely did try. The set the band played on had to be repainted at least twice, because it wasn’t the right shade of purple or something. Then, they were trying to make the band member’s clothes coordinate. There was a trailer with all of the clothes, and the stylist was trying to put them into blazers and stuff. I was like, “Noooooo.”
You went to Miami for the location shooting?
I bought my own ticket, and I had to pay for the band to go too. I charged the airline tickets. They were so cheap and had no budget. I was like, "You guys are a TV show and you are telling me--a girl who works in her house--that I have to pay for the band?” They said, “Yep.” I think we were there two days. They did pay for the hotel because they pretty much had the Fontainebleau blocked out all of the time. They fed us from the set food. They did give me a fee to put the stinking song in there but, Jesus Christ, I could not believe they wouldn’t pay for the band. I’m still hearing that story today. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s always, “We have no budget left for music.”
Did you give all your bands tour support?
Definitely. It wasn’t a lot. But, even it was just (them) charging for a van, and (me) paying for it when they got back, it was crucial to put them in front of people. That was how everything happened.
You are from the San Fernando Valley.
Yep. I’m a valley girl. At 14, I was in the Mott the Hoople Fan Club. My favorite band of all time. Ian Hunter is a mind-bending genius.
You also grew up with music you heard on the radio.
Absolutely. I grew up in the ‘60s. I loved the radio because there was everything from Marvin Gaye, to the Yardbirds, to whatever. I loved all of it. I loved all soul music, Phil Spector records, whatever hits of the day there were. Somewhere along the line, I wanted to get deep into buying and collecting records. I began wondering what happened to people that I loved. I loved Bobby Fuller so much. One of my earliest things when I started collecting records, at about 8 or 9, was thinking, “What ever happened to Bobby Fuller?” It didn’t even occur to me that he was dead.
[In 1966, 11 months after the Bobby Fuller Four’s Mustang Record version of "I Fought The Law" was released (reaching #9 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart), Fuller was found dead in his automobile parked outside his Hollywood apartment. Many believe Fuller was murdered. The 2002 novel “The Dead Circus” by John Kaye includes the murder of Fuller as a key plot point. Among those who have since recorded "I Fought the Law” have been the Clash, Green Day and Social Distortion's Mike Ness.]
You had a Runaways’ collection.
I hung out with the Runaways. Kim (Fowley) and Greg’s (Shaw) dream was to have an all-girl band that was a rock band that wasn’t manufactured by a Phil Spector guy. So what do they do? They work with Kim Fowley, and it’s manufactured anyway. I was there pretty much from the beginning days with (singer/bassist) Micki Steele before Cherie Currie.
You went all over L.A. to see them perform early on.
I was in high school. Kim would just kidnap me and tell me that they were playing some theatre out in the valley somewhere. I would get home at 2 a.m. and get in trouble. The Runaways played my high school. I got them to do it. Everybody hated me before because they thought I was a weird idiot. After the Runaways played, I then had no friends at all. Nobody got me.
Glitter was pretty much out by the time that I was in high school, but I still wore the last vestiges (of glitter). I would have a glitter sweater or whatever. So I would be like some type of dork (to others). And I liked the Ramones, Patti Smith, and Television. Everybody was into Jethro Tull, Yes and ELP.
We had a radio station (at high school). When I would play Roxy Music or whatever, people would sit in the quad with fingers in their ears saying, “Take this shit off.”
Did you go to the monthly record swaps held in the parking lot of Capitol Records?
When I was a kid I would go. It was dark out when it started. It’d be 4 or 5 a.m. Here’s me taking a bus. I was so lucky I wasn’t kidnapped or chopped up by weird people. I would take a bus over there and buy a ton of records. It kept (starting) earlier and earlier. You know how record collectors are. Then it (started) after you went to the Whisky (the Whisky A Go Go). It would start at 2 a.m. Then I started selling records there. It was a huge part of my social life. It was so much fun. That’s how I met the punk rockers. Everybody on the planet went to the Capitol meets. That’s what you did. Even if you didn’t need anything you would go to see what everybody else was doing or go to talk to people. It was great thing while it lasted.
[In the ‘70s heyday of the Capitol Record Swap Meet, vendors ranged from those selling cheap, used LP's from the trunks of their cars to those that set up makeshift stores to sell all sorts of rare records and memorabilia. By 1980, the meet was moved indoors to various locations and bootlegs were banned. None of the indoor locations captured the spirit of the original.]
You quit Cal State Northridge after a semester and a half.
There was just too much going on. I would have liked to have made my parents happy, but there was just far too much going on musically for me to apply myself. I would be at the Whisky or The Starwood ‘til 2 a.m. Then, we would go to Canter’s (Restaurant and Deli) afterwards. I never got home (early).
How did you square that with your parents?
They just gave up on me. They knew that I was really, really smart. I think they thought I would pull it together. I had three older sisters and they just beat the hell out of my parents. There was an age gap (between us). If I had been the first born, they might have been able to control me, but after the three older sisters who were really a handful, they couldn’t. They knew I wasn’t doing anything bad like robbing banks. I was watching music until 2 a.m. People would bring me home and deposit me on the doorstep. So I wasn’t doing anything terrible.
Back then, it was different standards for girls and guys.
Oh yeah, totally. And (my parents) didn’t even know half of the time what I was really doing. In my youngest glitter days, I would be hitch hiking in my stupid platforms or taking a bus into Hollywood. I’d tell them that I was studying at the library, and I’d go to Rodney’s (Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco) or whatever and change clothes. I just had to go out. There was no way that they could have stopped me (from going out to clubs). You wear jeans and stuff and then have a big bag, and you change into your stupid-looking clothes.
You loved early punk bands?
I liked the Stooges of course, but it was seeing both nights of the Ramones at the Roxy that was life-altering. I cut school to buy tickets. It was worth getting a detention. I may have bought Patti Smith's "Piss Factory" or a Television single first at Tower Records, but it was seeing the Ramones that changed my life.
Early punk was the original energy of rock.
I think that punk was the Trashmen, the Sonics or Los Saicos, which was an unbelievably raw early '60s Peruvian punk band, or whatever. I don’t think that there was some line that happened in the ‘70s, “Now, it’s punk.” Remember when Elvis Costello was punky? The Ramones were life altering for me, but I will never forgot seeing Elvis Costello when he played the Whisky. I thought we’d be getting hippy pub rock like (his debut album) “My Aim is True.” Then the Attractions came out playing the songs on “This Year’s Model,” (1978) I was blown away. That just put my head on backwards.
You have worked at a number of record stores. What’s “cool” about a cool record store?
It is the most immediate way to connect with the rock community, whether it is just the serious nerds that live to buy records, who would come in every day. Now records come out every Tuesday, but (back then) they would come in every day just because they wanted to. And musicians would come in dropping off stuff. I loved working in record stores. I did everything from inventory to working at Licorice Pizza. I cannot believe there’s now a fan page for Licorice Pizza because I can’t think of any worse place to work than a corporate music store.
You got fired from Licorice Pizza after an infamous Christmas party?
Yes, I did. Oh my God. Did we ever have a good time at that Christmas party. We ran wild. I personally had the most complaints per person of anybody at that store because people would come in and tell me to “Take that shit off.” I could see it if it was X-Ray Spex but, if you don’t talk to me nicely, I say "fuck you." So personally, I had the most complaints per capita. I did all kinds of terrible stuff to people who worked at record companies. It was the punk rock location, and I worked with Kid Congo (Cramps), Jett Compton, Steve Hufsteter and Danny Benair (Quick), Cliff Roman (the Weirdos), and (music journalist) Don Snowden.
[Licorice Pizza, the southern California record and video store chain, was sold to the Musicland Group in 1986.]
How about working at Vinyl Fetish?
Vinyl Fetish was really fun. I was at the Melrose store. The one that is right on Poinsettia. We had (in-stores) by everybody, including Duran Duran. We had every single band that came to town. I waited on Bono and Larry Mullen (of U2) the first or second time they came to LA. That was the store people sent you to when you came to Hollywood. So that was pretty fun. Unlike Licorice Pizza, we were encouraged to be rude to customers because it was our punky thing. If people are nice, then I’m nice. If they aren’t nice, then I’m not nice.
I worked there with Randy Kaye, who was A&R guy at Warners for a long time; and Michael Meister, who had the Texas Records store, and the label Texas Hotel for a long time. We were the glaring mob that you would get when you walked in the door. We might have been to The Veil (club) the night before and been super hung over. (The club’s owners) Henry Peck and Joseph Brooks were our bosses at Vinyl Fetish. They became local media darlings after appearing in Kim Carnes’ "Bette Davis Eyes" video (in 1981).
You were also working at Bomp?
It was kind of concurrent. I was kind of part time with both (jobs). I worked different days at different things. When I started the label, I was working less at Bomp. I was doing double duty. I would help Suzy (Shaw) in mail order and then I would go and do the Hollywood thing. I needed just as much money as I could to do the label.
You weren’t making enough money running the Dickie’s fan club for $50 per week?
Unfortunately, that didn’t last into the ‘80s. They might have gotten 10 letters a week. Most of the time it was one or two. But I was like, “This is the greatest gig a person could ever have.”
You wrote on music for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. A great way to get free records.
I know. I’d be like, “I get to keep this. Oh, my God. A free record. I cannot believe I get something for free.” Remember when labels had (club) tabs? We just used to get sauced. And I would buy all my friends hamburgers. I was very popular. I worked for the Herald Examiner for many years for (editor) Ken Tucker. Ken is a great guy. He set me up for the “clay pigeons” (easy target acts) which I had no problem with. I was reviewing Styx, Journey and anybody else that he wanted me to slay. I also wrote for the (Los Angeles) Times briefly.
I can’t quite see you and Robert Hilburn getting on musically.
I actually left on my own accord (after only a couple of articles) because he told me to be less enthusiastic with the records that I really loved that (he felt) weren’t that good. I was like, “F.U. pal. But, it’s okay for you to say that Bruce Springsteen is really great but if I say that the Ramones are the greatest band in the world, than I’m an idiot? Who needs this trouble?” So we parted ways amicably. I didn’t think that was the right place for me. And why did I do that (leave)? I might have been second or third banana at the L.A. Times. No label. No Circle Jerks. No nothing.
Did you think of music journalism as a career?
Oh, I was on a total mission when I was a journalist. I thought that I was going to turn the world on to good music. Music that nobody gave a shit about. That was my particular taste. This was when I hooked up with Greg (Shaw) from 1975 to probably 1980. When I started my label, I realized that it was a total conflict with my writing, and I just stopped in my tracks.
You wrote for a ton of publications.
You can’t imagine how many fanzines I wrote for. I wrote for anything. One of the coolest things happened when I saw Cheap Trick at the Starwood. There were about six people in the audience the first time they came out here. (Drummer) Bun E. Carlos knew who I was because he had read something that I had written. I couldn’t believe that. I loved Cheap Trick so much.
There weren’t that many female rock writers in those days?
No. I still know (Detroit native) Jaan Uhelszki, who started at Creem (and became a senior editor). My life would be nothing without (Australian journalist Lillian) Roxon. I will never diss her. But, Lillian Roxons were few and far between. I still have her book (“Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia,” published in 1969), and I think of her fondly. I would always be leafing through it, trying to figure out what record I needed to track down.
I would sit there and go through PRN (Phonograph Record Magazine, a free newsprint magazine from the '70s, edited by Greg Shaw & Marty Cerf) and I would cut out every Flo & Eddie thing. “I need all of these records.” It’s hard to come up with stuff on major labels at the time. Local record stores didn’t know what these records were. I’d show (the listing) to clerks, and say I needed it. They’d say, “I’ve never heard of this. I wasn’t offered it.” I spent all of this time going to the Capitol meet or whatever, tracking this stuff down. “I need Blue Ash’s album. Find it for me.” Then, I’d get to see these bands when they came through town.
What was your first freebie?
It was probably from Greg because he was so generous. I would go over to his house. He gave me the first Saints’ single. It wasn’t even on a (proper) label. It was “I’m Stranded” (1976). It was on a little white (promo) label. Even in the Runaway days Greg would have extra copies (of records) from doing PRM. He’d go, “Have this Beckies’ album. It’s really awesome."
Greg was so utterly generous with his time and his collection. He would send me home with rare records. I would look at something and say, “I can’t believe I am holding this.” He would just go, “Take it home. Give it back to me the next time you see me?” Who would do that? I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t send someone home with one of my priceless albums.
[Record collector, archivist, and historian Greg Shaw wrote for San Francisco’s Mojo-Navigator Rock and Roll News before moving to Los Angeles with wife and partner Suzy Shaw. The two started another fanzine, called Who Put the Bomp, later shortened to Bomp! The fanzine featured the early works of many music journalists, including Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Richard Meltzer, and Ken Barnes.
In 1974 Bomp became a record label that released recordings by Devo, the Weirdos, Iggy Pop, Stiv Bators, the Dead Boys, Shoes, the Plimsouls and the Romantics. Bomp Records was also a record store for a couple of years, as well as an independent music distributor. Shaw died of heart failure in 2004 at the age of 55.]
You also wrote for numerous fanzines.
I did my own fanzine, Biff!Bang!Pow! and Streetlife with Bob Morris. Streetlife was a blast. It was half record collector ads, and a little bit of copy. I think I got through three issues of Biff!Bang!Pow! Danny and I tried to live in London in June and July 1978 and that derailed the magazine for awhile. We ran out of money right away. It was post Sex Pistols, but it was a great era for great power pop bands. We saw the Rezillos play. That was worth being over there. We got to hang out with Midge Ure, the Rich Kid, and we got to see Generation X.
Living in London I (tried but) couldn’t get a toe hold at NME, but Sounds was awesome (to me). I got a few things filed there. I loved writing for Sounds. They sent me out to see the Jam. I’d write my articles on Greg’s telex. Then, it wouldn’t go through, and I would have to send it again. The call would just drop and I’d go, “nooooooo.”
Bands then had the chauvinistic attitude that woman equals groupie.
I encountered that a lot. They just assumed that if you wanted to interview the band that you wanted to sleep with them. I had no desire to be any kind of groupie or make any of those guys my boyfriend.
One of the distinctive aspects of Frontier is that the cover art is so strong.
I’m glad you noticed that because I was all about the artwork. On an extremely limited budget, I tried to make (records) sound as good as they could sound and the artwork was crucial to me. Being a record collector I did not want to take some crappy sketch that someone did in five minutes and put it out. I was all about having really great photos, artistic photos or really graphic concepts. It would start with the band but I would make sure that their idea came to life. That it was really good and not lame.
How long did Diane Zincavage design the label’s artwork?
She did them up to “Sixteen Tambourines” in 1983. She worked with me at Bomp. My logo was my idea but it was designed by one of Bomp’s graphic artists, Mick Toohig. Then Diane came in. I drove her crazy. She had a magazine that she was working on; and she had all of Greg’s records that she was working on. She’d try to avoid me. Luckily, I only put out one or two records a year so I didn’t keep her (tied up). But there was always something to do (with artwork). This was before everything was computerized. It was a hell of a lot of work.
You could write a textbook about being with bad distributors.
I wish I had kept track. I don’t think there’s even one that is around from when I started.
Who distributes Frontier now?
A new company called Independent Label Coalition. They are a bunch of employees that worked at Lumberjack Distribution. True to my nature, instead of going with somebody that made a lot of sense and would have given me an advance and stuff, I believed in them. I do believe in them. I wanted to see a new company get off the ground. It’s a completely different business model. I have a say in what labels that they take on, and in financials and other stuff. I figured I might as well believe in them; and they will believe in me instead of being the 1,000th label at some other distributor.
How did Epitaph’s Brett Gurewitz end up with your 1981 album “Dance With Me” by TSOL (True Sounds of Liberty)?
He brought it lock-stock-and-barrel. It was a hard one for me to give up. I was so devastated financially that there was no way I could say no. I didn’t have a line of credit or anything that I could access for loot. I was already working at a day job. I had closed the offices and let my employees go. In the early ‘90s, I had had two offices and employees and stuff. By ’97, it was just me.
You briefly worked at MCA Records, headed then by Jay Boberg.
Oh my God, the magic of Abbey Konowitch (executive VP at MCA Records). He was number two. It was like Dick Cheney and George Bush. The Three O’Clock were signed to I.R.S. Records, so I knew Jay well. I only spent a year there. It was when they were negotiating with Seagram’s to buy the (company). I thought I was golden because I was such an amazing copywriter. I was in the creative department. I wrote all of the copy for their ads from 1998 to 1999. I was working for an absolute genius, (the late) Jonas Livingston, who was senior vice president for creative affairs.
You also worked for four years at World of Wonders, the international media production company.
That was one of my Epitaph-have-to-pay-the piper things. They called me up because they knew that I “knew a lot about music” and they needed someone to do (music) clearance. I told them I didn’t really know how to do that. They told me I’d figure it out. So the very first thing I did was “The History of the Music Video.” I had to clear 600 songs. It was a baptism of fire. I had a great time there. We did clip shows, every appalling clip show there was for VH-1.
You can tell how cool people are by the people who work for them. (David) Bowie was lovely. Bruce Springsteen’s people were great. (Bob) Dylan’s got some great people working for him. Dolly Parton went over every single request herself. It didn’t matter if she got 800 in one day. She’s one of the great ones. Other people were just total tools. They were just awful and rude. I don’t care if they fall into a creek tomorrow and die. You can tell who’s an asshole when you call their people and try to clear something. It was surprising the ones that were difficult. I was like, “Nobody cares about your stupid band. We just want to use their song in this (top) 10 guitarists (show).” Ozzy Osbourne would be amazing; Sharon Osbourne was one of the nicest and easiest people to deal with unless you are an idiot. If you are an idiot, she will rip your heart out and crap on your neck.
You did an episode of a VH-1 series called “From the Waist Down: Men, Women and Music.”
My episode was called “Gender Benders.” They let me write, direct and produce. So, I got the sexuality show. I wanted to heavily feature obscure (people) like Esquerita (the stage name of singer/pianist Eskew Reeder Jr.), and Brett Smiley. I got all of the network notes, “No, no, no.” I would not drop the Jobriath (footage) so that is in. (They said) “No, it’s too gay.” I told them (that the show is) about sexuality. People are still bent out about (being gay).
I couldn’t use “Midnight Special” footage of Jobriath. I actually cried, because (producer) Burt Sugarman is so hard to deal with. I just could not strike a deal with him to show the “Midnight Special” footage.
Do you visit many music stores today?
There is a whole new crop of vinyl stores here. Vacation is cool and it’s right in town. Freakbeat is good if you are in the valley. I just walk in the door and Bob (Say) and I just start (razzing each other). I’ll ask, “Where’s Edgar Broughton, Bob.” And it never stops. The prog rock torture never ends because he still loves (that music). Bob’s a straight shooter, man. If he hates something, he has no problem telling you, whoever you are.
So many record stores have fallen by the wayside over the years.
Amoeba is still amazing. Thank God for Amoeba. When I walk in there, it’s like Costco. I don’t even know what I want. It just freaks me out. There are so many records (there), that my mind just shuts down. I just read a thing in L.A. Times that there is a store that is stocking cassettes. Who is making cassettes? 8-tracks are funny. I don’t find anything amusing about cassettes. Thank God they died. They are landfill. They are meant to build houses on top off. I was so happy when they died.
I still love my records. I have had to sell tons of them over the years just to keep myself afloat. I don’t have the collection I once did.
[Tape cassettes became a format for distributing music in the '60s. Their fidelity improved throughout the '70s. With the rise of the portable Sony Walkman in the 1980s, and as automobiles came equipped with standard cassette decks, the cassette became a viable mainstream format.
Today, there are a handful of labels in California releasing cassettes in small batches, including Kill/Hurt, Not Not Fun, Bridgetown Records and Fullerton's Burger Records. So far, only Vacation, and Ooga Booga stores are making shelf space for new cassette releases.]
What was great about a physical product—whether an album, EP, or single--was the graphics, the liner notes, the credits, even the spine of the record. Today, with MP3s, there’s no emotional attachment for people.
You’re right. And you don’t even know what (the band) looks like or what they dress like or what bands they were in. I suppose that it is pure because it is just music, and it is divorced from any era or whatever. But what I want is the history, and who is in the band, and is he cute? I can’t imagine music stripped of all of those things.
That is what has happened.
Yes. It started with radio. It became, "You can’t play rock and soul music on the same station. You have to have just hip hop or just country." For me, that just killed everything.
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.
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