Saturday, August 13, 2016

Fossils: Sire Records’ Don’t Call It Punk

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Sire Records should be lauded for its free-thinking attitude towards new music in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Formed in 1966 by industry veteran Seymour Stein (who made his bones with King Records) and songwriter/producer Richard Gottehrer, Sire Records quickly earned a reputation as an independent label with an eye on the underground, releasing albums by such diverse, non-mainstream artists as the Climax Blues Band, Matthews Southern Comfort, Focus, and the Deviants. Sensing changing trends in rock music in the late ‘70s, Stein signed the cream of the CBGB’s crop to record deals, including bands like the Ramones, the Dead Boys, and Talking Heads.

Even after being swallowed whole by Warner Brothers Records in 1978, Stein ensured that Sire Records continued to sign a diverse range of artists, the label finding overwhelming mainstream success with acts like Madonna and the Pretenders, but also launching the careers of artists like the Flamin’ Groovies, the Cure, the Smiths, and the Replacements. Sire was also an early player in rap music, releasing a handful of mid-to-late ‘80s era albums by Ice T.

This “Don’t Call It Punk” advertisement from a 1977 issue of Trouser Press magazine is curiously and uncharacteristically tone-deaf for such a forward-thinking and progressive record label. Buying into the industry’s overall attempt to whitewash punk rock by re-labeling it as “new wave,” Sire went all-in by trying to hype its hot new albums – now-classic discs by Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, and the Saints – as the best of the “new wave,” working hard to smooth the punk genre’s rough edges and make it more commercially acceptable.

Three of the four albums featured are unabashedly punk in nature, and while I think that the ad’s general lay-out and use of copy is effective, the label’s futile attempt downplaying what made these albums attractive to young listeners in the first place is laughable in light of the fact that three of these four discs have since become known as milestones of punk rock. So it goes...

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