The Mighty Thau
A hefty chat with rock legend, Marty Thau.
Only the most ardent fans instantly recognize Marty Thau's name. Even he admits he's never become a household name in the United States. But chances are nearly 100 percent that you either own or have heard a record he was responsible for exposing to the public. His first industry job was in the early 1960s at Billboard Magazine, which he quit to manage a then-teenage Tony Orlando. From there his list of credentials and an uncanny Zelig-like tendency to be in the right place at the right time put him at the promotional helm of labels Cameo-Parkway, Buddha, and Paramount. His partnership at Inherit Productions made him one-third of the production team responsible for the early catalogs of Van Morrison and John Cale. He spent the rest of the 1970s managing the New York Dolls, producing Suicide, The Ramones, Blondie, and founding his Red Star Records label which introduced The Revlons, The Fleshtones, Comateens and Brian Setzer's pre-Stray Cats band Bloodless Pharaohs.
Now 73, Thau still keeps his ear to the ground as much as possible and recently launched Red Star Digital to release projects on a boutique basis. That is, only when he really wants to. After several years of writing and rewriting he's completed his autobiography Red Star Chronicles (Keeping The Rock 'n' Roll Spirit Alive) and says he'll probably self-publish it as the book industry is still as irrevocably one-sided as the record biz was for decades.
So, what do you do when you've got the chance to have a nice, long chat with a guy like Thau? You take it.
VICE: I'm particularly interested in how you feel about the music world. Being able to look back over the past 50 years, are you disgusted with it? Are you still inspired by things? Does it seem like a totally different world? Is it relate-able?
Marty Thau: No, I'm not disgusted with it. Music will never go away. There are people that are predicting the doom and gloom of the music business but that's not gonna happen. Money talks as far as those big music corporations are concerned and eventually they'll figure out what the market is about, what the distribution is about. Then they'll buy it all up and do it that way. Then they'll be back in good stead. But where they're missing the point is the music they're putting out [are] sideways versions of music that had become popular earlier. [Either popularized] by themselves or other companies that they emulate. They're missing the point because the best music of the day is by the indie [musicians]. There's no comparison between these manufactured songs and the original songs being made by indie producers and artists.
It seems like you’ve felt that way for a long time. At least from the early 70s onward.
I've always felt that way. Even before I got into manufacturing and management I worked for Buddha Records and everything we did there was put down and labeled as pure garbage. But people forget that music is geared toward all different types of people on all different levels, ages, ethnicities, nationalities...I mean, you name it. So, I've always been on the edge and in the controversial section of music. At Buddha, the bubblegum music that we put out...[people] put it down but it was really charming music. Kids loved it, parents loved it. Radio listeners hated it. Nobody loved it but the millions of people that bought it.
Buddha had a pretty diverse catalog, too. It wasn't just “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy.” There was Captain Beefheart, Edwin Hawkins...a lot of different people.
That’s right. Beefheart's first album Safe As Milk.
[Edwin Hawkins'] “Oh Happy Day” is a classic. Undeniable.
One of my favorite songs of all times and the one thing I'm most proud of, I think, out of all I ever did.
You know, I get a lot of pleasure out of The Ohio Express records. I think “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” is a great record. A lot of times people forget that bubblegum music really is....you know, before you're a teenager or college age and you're getting really heady and your music has to have a certain depth, you're a teenybopper... but you're still attracted to music that is meaningful to you in some way. Maybe The Ohio Express isn't Captain Beefheart or The Sex Pistols or Ramones or whoever...but looking back on that 40 years later [it's clear] that “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” is a great pop song.
Right! And “One, Two Three. Red Light," “Indian Giver," and “Simon Says” by the 1910 Fruitgum Company... They labeled The Lemon Pipers “Green Tambourine” as bubblegum but I never really thought it was. That, to me, was more of a psychedelic-pop rock record.
Before I worked at Buddha I was at Cameo-Parkway Records with Neil Bogart and Cecil Holmes and “96 Tears” [by Question Mark & The Mysterians] was our big hit there.
I was gonna ask you about Cameo-Parkway and the transition of you, Bogart and Holmes over to Buddha...
I'll explain that. The reason we left Cameo-Parkway –we were cooking pretty good for about a year from mid-1966 to 1967—was because Allen Klein bought the company. We asked him what his plans were for our crew, our staff, and he said, “Well, don't worry about that. You'll just get paid. I'm not gonna tell you any more than that.” We didn't like that. We suspected that we were gonna lose our momentum. At the same time Art Kass was the controller at MGM Records and he was in charge of the accounting for the Kama Sutra line—which was owned by Phil Steinberg, Hy Mizrahi and Artie Ripp—they felt they were not getting a good accounting of records sold. They seized upon a loophole in their contract with MGM to form Buddha Records and then they stole Kass away from MGM to run the label. Kass remembered Neil Bogart from when Neil worked at MGM and recognized him as a bright, young rising star. [Kass] knew what was happening at Cameo because it had been in the press so he contacted Neil and said, “Would you and your crew like to come run the Buddha label?” It took us about ten seconds to say yes.
That was what prompted us to leave. It was Allen Klein—who is not exactly the warmest person in the world or the friendliest. Or the most forthcoming or righteous in any way. We felt like we were getting out of a bad situation and getting into what might be a good situation.
I'm always interested in the people who were behind the scenes. Those that saw stuff as it was coming up and recognized talent when other people looked over it or didn't even know it existed.
That's always very interesting to me. And I'm interested in the history of the record industry pre-1980. Especially the bigger indies of the '60s and '70s before everything started to be consolidated. Knowing your history with Cameo-Parkway and Buddha...
There were great moments there. You know, Neil Bogart passed away when he was 39 years old.
That Casablanca scene was pretty crazy. They got into drugs pretty heavy. Not Cecil Holmes, he didn't at all. But Neil really went down the path with drugs.
When they split off from Buddha and went and did Casablanca why didn't you go with them?
Well, number one, they were moving out to California. And, two, when I left they were still at Buddha and stayed there for another year or two. So I was already removed from their circle.
But I'm impressed that you knew Buddha had some other great artists aside from the bubblegum.
If I understand correctly, while you were still at Buddha you formed Inherit Productions...
No. A friend of mine, Lewis Merenstein, was a partner with another guy named Bob Schwaid. The two of them had Inherit Productions which was a publishing, production and management company. I had worked at Buddha for about four years and felt like I was getting burned out. I was the vice president in charge of promotion. I promoted all their hits and directed the promotion of all those hits that Buddha had. But I also had to travel around the country. And I was married. I had a wife, a big house out in the country and three children. Two of which were hers from her first marriage and the third that we had together. But all I ever did every week was hop on a plane and go somewhere. And I just said, “The hell with it. I can't take this any longer.” So Merenstein and I had become good friends and he said, “Look, why don't you come and join our company? We'll make you a third partner.” And I said OK and I resigned from Buddha. Inherit's artist roster was Miriam Makeba, John Cale and Van Morrison and [Merenstein] had produced Astral Weeks and Moondance...I felt like I was gonna learn a lot and be in the company of music that I personally related to versus music that I liked but didn't relate to necessarily.
Would this have been around 1970?
Yeah, that was the middle on '70. When I joined there the very first thing I did was promote—Warner Brothers had given up on Morrison having a single [from Moondance], I had heard one of the songs from the album that I thought...the very first thing I did was get that song [“Crazy Love”] on the radio in Atlanta [at WQXI]. It put Morrison on the map and after that they really started selling his album in big numbers. The guy that placed that on the radio was the program director, George Burns.
I once went down to Atlanta [in 1969] as “The Mighty Thau” with Neil and Cecil. I was dressed in these Lion Of Winter long, flowing robes, purple goggles, a headdress and a walking stick. Neil and Cecil were my assistants in their outfits of that period. They had a motorcade and it was on the TV news. In the evening we went around to the different clubs. This was promoted by WQXI for a couple of weeks before we even got there. No one even knew who “The Mighty Thau” [note: a play on “The Mighty Thor”] was or why he was there.
Was this just a promotional trip for something?
It was a put-on, yeah, and a promotion for WQXI. A reason to go screaming that “The Mighty Thau” was coming to Atlanta. It was really funny.
So..in '72 you happen upon the New York Dolls and go in that direction.
I was working for Paramount Records [then]. At that point I had left Merenstein and Inherit...we were treated with great respect and we traveled first class but the fees paid to producers in those days were far different than they are today. Today a producer can get a hundred thousand dollars if he's brought in to produce an artist. And if it's not a big artist at least he can get 25 or 30 thousand dollars. But in those days you'd maybe get five or ten thousand dollars if you were lucky. The monies were being divided three ways, too, so there was no way I could afford it. I had a big house out in the country and I had three kids and cars and, you name it, doctor bills, mortgages and insurance and on and on.
I'd imagine if you were already under contract to a label you'd be an in-house producer and would only be getting a certain rate anyway.
I left Inherit because Tony Martell became the new president of Paramount Records. He knew me and liked me and offered me the job of head of A&R so I took it and left Inherit. I didn't stay there very long. I was only there about seven or eight months and I resigned because I had found the Dolls. I also discovered that Martell was in over his head and most of his old cronies were hired by him in promotion and marketing. And at five o'clock every night they'd go into his office and have cocktails and tell old stories about their past victories. Their manufactured past victories! And I thought that Paramount was really the soundtrack-releasing arm of Paramount Pictures and they weren't really a rock-n-roll company. And that's what I wanted to be with if I was gonna do A&R. So I resigned.
I had heard about the New York Dolls from Danny Goldberg who later went on to manage Nirvana and became president of Warner Brothers and Atlantic...he's still in the business today. I think Warner Brothers bought him out and gave him ten million dollars to leave the company. I guess they felt he wasn't doing the job that they wanted. He was better off leaving than staying!
So, he had mentioned to me that the Dolls were the best unsigned downtown New York band. The day that I had resigned [effectively], that night, I took my wife out in the village in Manhattan to have dinner and kind of celebrate. It was a nice spring night and after dinner we were walking around the village and we came across this marquee for The Mercer Arts Center. It said “New York Dolls. Three Dollars. Two Shows.” So I said, “Oh, I remember, Danny Goldberg mentioned this band to me. Let's go in.” So we went in and that's when I saw the Dolls an I didn't know if I thought they were the greatest group I'd ever seen or the worst group I'd ever seen. So as we were walking out and leaving the “Oscar Wilde Room,” that's where they were appearing, I said, “Come on, let's go back and talk to these guys.”
So, I did and they were really hilarious and funny and intelligent. They were well spoken. So I said, “let's meet up in a couple of weeks. Maybe we can talk about some things together.”
At that same time Morris Levy, the godfather of the music business and rumored to be the connection to the underworld, he offered me a job. Not [just] a job, he offered me a label. He wanted to give me $75,000 to do some singles. He thought I could come up with some hit singles. And I thought, “I don't know. I don't know if I want to get associated with this guy.” But I didn't turn him away and just kind of left it with, “Let me think about it, Morris.” So there I am down with the Dolls and I'm thinking to myself, “Hmm. This could be the first group that, if I do that deal, I could do singles with.” The funny thing was is that I thought actually the Dolls music was kind of like parallel to the bubblegum music at Buddha.
Well, it really was. When you were first talking to them I can only imagine they'd have been impressed by your association with Buddha and felt a kinship with those records.
They definitely were. I just recently became friends on Facebook with a guy named Joey Levine. He was the producer of “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” and all The Ohio Express records. He was the voice. He sung “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy.” So, I had some involvement with him later on [i.e. after Buddha] where I brought one of his records, an unreleased song that didn't have a label yet, to RCA—“Life is a Rock (But The Radio Rolled Me)” by Reunion—I don't know if you remember that record. I told Joey. “You should get involved with all these downtown punk groups.” Actually, the Mercer scene at that point had not evolved into punk. I told him, “They all dug a lot of your songs and you would know exactly how to produce and record them.” He was frightened. He said, “I don't know. I don't if I could deal with them. They seem kind of ominous.”
Tell me a little about that scene. From what I understand the Mercer Arts Center Scene, as it's been written about, wasn't around very long.
It was around, maybe, for a year. Maybe not even.
It's part of the fabled history of New York punk.
Yeah. The Dolls were spearheading that whole downtown scene at that point. When they came onto the music scene there was Teenage Harlots, I think they were called, Ruby & The Rednecks, Wayne County...there were about six or seven bands that were [each] able to draw a little bit. They would play at The Mercer and some of them would play at Max's Kansas City. Max's was still kind of in the throes of the Andy Warhol sixties set. You know, artists and writers would come down and hang out at Max's. This was sort of a change of the guard. The Mercer...this was the scene after The Velvet Underground in New York. The Dolls were the first biggest thing after the Velvet Underground. Lou Reed had gone solo. John Cale had gone solo. Speaking of John Cale, when I was at Inherit my partners Lewis and John produced Vintage Violence (1970) which was Cale's first solo record. If you've never heard it I recommend it. It's really a great record.
Oh, I own it.
So, anyway, Mercer actually physically collapsed. It was [located in] the Mercer Street side of the Broadway Central Hotel. The main entrance was on Broadway but the building went through the block to Mercer Street. The ceiling collapsed in the Mercer Center and so that was the end of the place where those groups could play.
I'd always heard that the whole building fell down.
There were like six rooms, I think, at the Mercer Center. This was an off-off-off Broadway theater complex that would stage more of the radical or extreme or artistic presentations. It was owned by an air conditioning mogul, a fellow by the name of Art Kaback. He opened it up to music or whoever wanted to rent it on off-nights and the Dolls took advantage of that. When I got involved I established a residency for them at Mercer. Every Tuesday night they would appear. We did a New Year's Eve show. A St. Valentine's Day show. They attracted a lot of kids and made a lot of noise and people like David Bowie and Elton John and Fran Lebowitz. People from uptown and downtown. Peter Max, Susan Sontag...it was really a hot buzz in town. But then when it collapsed that was the end of that.
After Mercer the group Television came about and they were looking for a venue to play and stumbled upon CBGB. But owner Hilly Kristal was looking just to have Country, Blue Grass & Blues-type music. But Television convinced him to let them play there and [said] they would bring in their audience and he would make some money out of it at the bar. They would play for free. So he agree to that. So the word got out, when television put on some of their friends and their friend’s bands to open for them, that this club CBGB was starting to happen. And then The Ramones started getting some notoriety and recognition. This was late '74, the first time they played there.
Oh, by the way, Patti Smith played the Mercer Arts Center in its last days...Just her and Lenny Kaye. Those were the first shows she appeared in as a recording artist, as a singer and performance artist. Then CBGB started getting noticed and the whole look started to change. This next generation started to feel, “Oh, we gotta look different! So instead of having long hair let's see if we can cut our hair shorter and let's get rid of the glam and the glitter. Let's do something more direct and basic.”
It's seems less fun, too, in a way. Like things got more desperate and less campy and glammy.
You know, Theresa [Randolph Ott, who helped spearhead this conversation] was telling me how when she first came up to New York and saw the punk bands she told her friend Curtis Knapp, he was a photographer, she said, “I've seen a band down in Athens that cuts these bands—every one of them—in half!” And he said, “yeah, sure, Theresa.” so, anyway, she convinced him to go down to Athens to see The B-52's and he was knocked out. I think she probably told you this story.
She did, she did. He flipped for them. He loved them and brought them back up to Max's.
Right, right. She brought them up to New York. She brought them to me at Red Star Records and I remember sitting with them and saying, “Well, I'd like to do an album with you.” And they said, “No, no. We don't want to do an album but we'd like to do a single.” And I said, “Aw, I don't wanna just do a single. I wanna do an album.” And they insisted so I said, “I don't know.” Then nothing happened after that because I didn't want to just do a single but what a foolish mistake that was! That single would have been “Rock Lobster.”
Yeah, it would've. They wound up putting that out with Danny Beard down here in Atlanta...
But I was a fan. I really dug them. I thought they were a great band. I still think they're a great band. In fact, I heard some of their more recent things and I think [those songs] are just as good if not better than anything they ever did.
When you were working with the Dolls what capacity were you in? Were you trying to produce records? Doing personal management? Or a bit of everything?
I was their personal manager. I brought in these two booking agents that had left William Morris—Steve Leber and David Krebs [Note: Leber and Krebs would later manage Aerosmith and create the musical Beatlemania]—I brought them in to co-manage. They handled all the administrative work and, because they were booking agents, the bookings as well. I dealt with the band in terms of any promotion I could develop, artist development, marketing and strategy. I directed the whole thing and they got [started] touring, which I thought was the most important thing. If I was gonna manage a group, [one that] I thought could happen, they had to get out on the road. I didn't have that experience of booking but Leber and Krebs did so that's why I brought them in.
How did the Dolls do on the road?
At first they were so raw and, you know, inexperienced...they thought it was a big party. And people on the road, in the clubs they they appeared in first, didn't know what to think of them, what to make of them. I mean, the girls loved them, the guys hated them. The guys though, “Eh, these guys are a bunch of fags! Look at them in their silly outfits." And, actually, the “silly outfits” were not that silly. They were just different. Then word spread in some of the rock publications that this was “the band that comes on stage wearing dresses!” They never wore dresses! In fact, you've probably seen some clips of the Dolls online...
What they looked like became the look of the heavy metal bands from the 80's on...
The Dolls always looked to me like a less-coiffed Bowie. Like if Bowie had needed to buy his clothes at secondhand stores rather than on Kings Road.
Bowie loved them. In fact, he tried to convince his Mainman Management company to steal them away from me, Leber and Krebs. But that didn't happen.
From what I understand, you recorded the first Ramones demos. The ones that wound up getting them signed to Sire Records.
That's true. I don't know for a fact that that's what prompted them getting a record contract but I feel pretty confident because after they heard that demo it was just like three weeks later they had a contract.
That would have been “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend."
Yeah, and “Judy Is a Punk.” I recorded it but I never did anything with it until the mid 1990's. All those years later. You know, I didn't know whether I should or shouldn’t because they were just demos. They were pretty good, actually. The Ramones put it out on their anthology, the “best of” that came out through Rhino. I was on the short list to be their manager and when I met with them I thought, “Gee, these guys are pretty good but I don't really want to manage anybody.” The experience of the Dolls was very rough and tumble [with regard to the way] I was treated by them and the way the industry treated us...so I told them, "Look, I don't want to manage anybody but I would like the opportunity to produce something with you in the studio just to see how you'd fare. If it comes out well and we're on the same page then we'll see if we can do further things together.” So I took them into the studio, did those two tracks then gave them to my friend Craig Leon who was working in A & R at Sire. Three weeks alter they had a contract. Then Seymour Stein's wife Linda and Danny Fields became their managers. Craig, who took them to the company, was chosen to be the producer because Seymour had a budget of six thousand dollars for Craig to work with. Which he did work with and produced that first record which, you know, is a great record.
I produced Suicide's first record for four grand! So, even then you could do things inexpensively and today you could do it for nothing.
When did you come across Suicide?
I came across [them] when I was doing shows with the Dolls and bands who were part of that Mercer scene in '72. I put them on a St. Valentine's Day show and I thought, “These guys are incredible!” They weren't for everyone but they were really stunning as far as I was concerned. But I was so immersed with the Dolls—they were sort of my financial albatross—that I couldn't do anything with [Suicide] as much as I enjoyed what they were doing. Then I didn't run back into them for a few years. '76 is when I came across them again.
It was down in the East Village one afternoon. I happened to bump into Marty Rev and he said, “Ah, how ya doin'?” and all. “We're playing at Max's Kansas City in a couple of weeks. Would you like to come to the show?” And I said, “Sure, I'd love to.” So I went to the show and I couldn't believe how great I thought they were. Even better than they were earlier. Certainly more unusual. I never thought they were really commercial but I enjoyed what they were doing and I respected what they were doing.
So within less than a year, in mid-'77, I offered them a contract and that summer I brought Craig [Leon] in to co-produce [Suicide's debut album] with me and we produced that record and released it. I remember the date. December 28, 1977. In the course of the first six months of '78 we got an offer to headline the third annual International Science Fiction Festival in Metz, France. That got us overseas. Red Star had been formed at that point but Red Star, you know, didn't really have much money. [In January 1978] I'd struck up a deal with Bronze Records to distribute [the album] in Europe. So, they did that science fiction festival. That got them overseas and then they joined Elvis Costello on his first tour of the continent. Thirty days of shows, one show after another. At the end of that they shot over back to England where they opened, for thirty more days, for The Clash. So that was sixty days with Suicide playing with Elvis Costello and The Clash. It was remarkable. The response that they got...During one show an axe was actually thrown at Alan Vega's head.
Well, yeah, I mean Elvis Costello...the music he was playing at the time was just revved up pub rock. And then, The Clash... I mean putting Suicide in front of either of those audiences...I can only imagine...
Yeah, yeah....the fans that booed them...that was more of a statement on them than on suicide. And that turned out to be true. Suicide eventually proved to be one of the most important bands of that moment. And into the '80s and today. Publications like Pitchfork will say things like, “This is the group that started this and that and trance and ambient...”
Your history has been that of a promo man. How difficult is it to keep your enthusiasm up when you believe in a group but you see the reaction that they're getting. Did you ever feel a personal failure?
You gotta believe. You gotta believe in what you're doing. Then you gotta stick with it and take the good with the bad. But you gotta believe you made the right choices and, in time, sooner or later it will be evident. That's the way I've always felt. I didn't have any questions or doubts about Suicide I just figured it would be a matter of “when” and they'd be recognized for what they do. And the Dolls...as far as I was concerned, I thought the Dolls were one of the most influential bands of the '70s. And Suicide, although [their debut] came out in the late '70s, were one of the most influential bands of the '80s. I believe I found two seminal bands. Two bands of greatness for their moment in time.
I believe that's true, too. And another one you worked with, Blondie.
Yeah, I worked with Blondie, did those Ramones songs and did The Fleshtones.
I wanted to talk to you about your involvement with Blondie. Do I have the story correct? That you were the one who recorded and produced the “X-Offender” demo?
Well, I personally didn't produce “X-Offender.” I was there at the sessions and offered my thoughts on it. But my partner—we had a company called Instant Records at that point. This was before Red Star—my partner was a fellow by the name of Richard Gottehrer. He produced “X-Offender.” We brought Craig Leon on away from Sire and he offered his talents to the production. It was the three of us: Richard, Craig and myself. Instant Records was a production company, not a record company. I took “X-Offender” to Private Stock. Nobody would sign Blondie. They thought, “Eh, she's beautiful but the band sucks.” There was some truth to the fact...I wouldn't say they sucked but they needed some experience and some tightening up under their belt. But whatever they were, as good or bad as they were, she [Debbie Harry] was always great. She was always an eye stopper, a show stopper. You couldn't take your eyes off her.
So, nobody would sign them. But I knew, from my days at Buddha, Larry Uttal. [Back then] he was running Bell Records. So I took Blondie to Private stock and said, “Look, you gotta release the single and if the buzz is really good you have to commit to letting them record an album within thirty days of the release of the single. You have to pick up that option within thirty days.” I knew that when that single came out there'd be such a big buzz to it. I didn't know if there'd be big sales or whatever but I knew that there'd be big press on it. I knew that would really influence Larry Uttal to commit to doing an album. Then, Blondie would have an album out and if Blondie had an album out they were on their way.
So what happened was Terry Ellis who owned Chrysalis Records...Larry Uttal was really out of his milieu. He didn't know what he had on his hands. He'd read some press and thought, “Hmm, this is interesting. I'll go with it...” But Terry Ellis knew this was a band that could really do something. He bought pout Blondie's contract from Larry Uttal at Private stock. [The buyout was] rumored to be for $500,000 but I don't know. That sounds like a bit much. It could have been half of that. But whatever it was it was a considerable sum. Then, all of a sudden, Blondie were Chrysalis. I wanted to manage Blondie but my partner Richard Gottehrer didn't want that. So we didn't get the management because he wouldn't agree with that. Then Blondie went out into the world and played Cambodia and Thailand and the Far East. They became huge in England. From the very beginning they were huge in England. To this day if they put out a record it'll go to number one in England. Top five at least. They're on tour right now. After all these years Blondie is still going.
Well, the music's endured. That’s true with all of the artists we're talking about. The Ramones, Blondie, New York Dolls...they're all legendary.
Willy DeVille was also legendary and had he lived he'd still be going. He was big in Europe.
And that's a name a lot of Americans just aren't going to be familiar with unless they read books on the New York scene. Wayne/Jayne County is kind of the same way...
He was from Georgia.
Yeah, he was! So, you're doing Red Star as a digital label now.
Well, you know, not with great regularity but only when interesting things cross my desk. Anything digital that I release would be in EP form. Like 18-20 minutes worth of music. So far I've released six of them. The most recent one is Soft Tread of the Future from Robert Coyne. He's the son of the the late Kevin Coyne.
I was trying to find any web presence at all for Red Star Digital but couldn't. Is there anything or do the releases just go straight to digital outlets?
No, no there was a website that was made for me. It was an English designer who then went to some far east country to take care of his mother and he let the domain lapse and because he controlled it for me I couldn't reinstate it. So now I'm in the process of constructing a new one.
What's the most important thing an artist can be doing in 2012?
Be all over the Internet, give away free songs from time to time, assemble a great fan base and then hit the road. And suffer and pay the price for being new in the midst of ten zillion groups that are out there all trying for the same thing. So few have a shot at really hitting it but some don't care about that. They just want to do it because they love playing and getting out. For those who aspire to being well known popular artists and making obscene sums of money...you're gonna suffer. You have to pay the price and then hope that somebody discovers you and backs you. But you've gotta bring them ammunition to work with. And that's your perseverance, your musical talent and your willingness to work really hard and [your acceptance] of the time element involved before you can really break through. It's a hard, tough trip. It's a rough road.
People always say that labels aren't interested in artist development anymore. But people have always said that labels only want the quick hits.
But there's been artist development going on constantly. Maybe the majors haven't been interested but indie labels have generally always been interested.
That's what drives the indies! The majors want you to [come to them] with something they think they can't lose on. And whatever they create are just sideways versions of what's [already] happening. All that manufactured crap. They're artistically bankrupt...and they're only interested in one thing. The instant, quick hit.
Do you think the majors are irreparably screwed? They've always had this attitude but were able to skate along for over half a century.
People are still buying music. Maybe sales are off but it's not gonna disappear. The majors are not gonna fold. They're gonna be here in some form or other. Even if all they do is back those companies and artists that come to them with things they believe they can sell. But they're not gonna be creating very much, I don't believe, in the future. Because they've proven that they really have no taste...All they have is money.
They don't have what I would call old school record guys at the top anymore, either.
But there's a whole bunch of young people who are vastly underpaid but understand the technology whereas their bosses are lucky if they could send out an email. Or, at least that was rumored to be the case of some of the old school guys who were getting their compensation—their dispensation—their severance money.
See, as far as my participation in the Punk/New Wave scene, not that many years ago there were Rock-N-Roll entrepreneurs with an ability to recognize trends and relate to audience preferences. Those were the guys that ruled the roost. Their passion and commitment, and need to reinvent the wheel, was all that mattered to them. And, of course, what they had in the grooves that connected with people. I place myself in that independent maverick category. Against all odds I strove to popularize a handful of the most original and culturally influential artists of the late '70s and early '80s—the Dolls, Ramones, Blondie, Suicide, The Fleshtones, Martin Rev, and despite our differences even Richard Hell.
Artists who were truly hip and their own greatest creations. That's how I see myself. I'm always surprised when someone makes a comment like, “I'm honored to speak to you” or “I'm honored to interview you” because I really did suffer a lot [and take a lot of abuse from] the industry in the past. But I'm starting to recognize that, hey, maybe I did something pretty good.
I've made my living outside of the mainstream for almost forty five years or so because I believed in the acts that I worked with. I had a passion for them and I worked 24-7 to promote their careers on an international basis. But, today, it appears that it'll be increasingly possible to market more efficiently to niche audiences using the Internet and the technological tools of the day.
See, I don't even even consider in my thoughts what the big labels are doing. To me that's like a whole other world, something that doesn't interest me.
But I think that fans expect them to do that also because the Internet has everybody so connected. Fans are [not as willing] to accept a band that is hands off toward their audience. They expect that personal connection. If a fan drops them an email they expect a response. Fans expect more and more from artists. I think that sometimes takes away from what the artist is really supposed to be doing which is working on their music. They have to become their own promo people.
Yeah. But, you know, with all the bands that are indie and don't have to kowtow to the majors and try to go it alone...they're still at a disadvantage. It takes money no matter what. And as uninformed as the majors are they're still the champions of marketing. They still can pull it off if they put their mind in the back of [a project]. But there's no exact formula yet for the indies on how to break through with the Internet. But it's coming about more and more.
Ok, now we've basically gone over—roughly—he past fifty years... but, wait, we haven't! What about the past 30 years? My knowledge of your work pretty much ends around 1980. What were you involved with in the '80s and '90s?
I had a hit in the '80s with Johnny Dynell. The song was called “Jam Hot.” That was somewhat of a hit. I had a company called Acme Records. We released that and sold about 30 or 40 thousand copies of it which was a lot for an indie in those days. Then I got to the point where I thought, “I don't know. It's pretty difficult when you're not financed.” And I wasn't financed to do a label. So I thought to license what I own because there'll always be some interest in it and that'll keep me going. You know, I was always fairly frugal. I never had any need to live any high life. So that's what I did. In the '90s I had a couple of publishing hits. I co-published a Dolls song [“Human Being”] that Guns-N-Roses did on their album The Spaghetti Incident? I think that sold about five and half million copies for Guns-N-Roses. And that was considered their least record. I co-published a Suicide song that was in The Crow, “Ghostrider,” that Henry Rollins did a version of. So [with those] and licensing—and I sold off some things—that brought in money. I lived OK but I was not living the high life, like I said.
You know I live in Roanoke, VA now. I moved out of New York. My daughter lives down here. She married a Virginian and she called me one day in New York and said, “You're not getting any younger and you're gonna be a grandfather soon. Why don't you think of moving down here and be part of your grandson's life?” And I thought about that and it made a lot of sense so I moved to Roanoke.
In 2003 I moved down to Virginia, in 2010 I got ill. I had inner bleeding in my abdomen and I had an operation [where] I died on the operating table but they revived me.
Oh my God.
Yeah. And then I lost the use of my kidneys. Now I have to go to dialysis three times a week. I had to learn to rehabilitate my legs so I could walk again. Now, I can walk but with a cane. Now I'm 73 years old but I'm still interested in all the music and events taking place within the industry.
By the way, I'm working—through Red Star Digital—with a band named Lola Dutronic. I think they're great. I've released two EPs so far. One is called Musiqueand the other one is New York Stories which was a collection of five songs from the '70s. We did Blondie's song “In The Sun,” The Fast's “Kids Just Wanna Dance,” [Johnny Thunders'] “You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory,” Suicide's “Keep Your Dreams”... and, you know, we got a great reaction to that. We hit charts all around the world. It was, like, number one in Greece. We have an album coming with them. They're a duo. He [Richard Citroen] lives in Tortonto and he makes all the music there. Then he sends it over to Berlin where [vocalist] Stephanie B puts her voice down and sends it back to him and he mixes it and molds it the way he wants it and that's it. It's really great stuff.
It's kind of incredible that records can be made that way. [But] for all the changes in technology, and in the music industry itself, the fundamentals really haven’t changed.
It's still all about the song.
- Vice Blog