For the Richard Nixon administration and for rock music, 1973 was a grim year. The president spent most of it in a desperate campaign to move past Watergate, including firing Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and Attorney General Elliot Richardson in October during the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre.”
But whatever joy lefty rock fans derived from Nixon’s troubles was tempered by the realization that the Great Era that had begun with Ed Sullivan declaring, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Beatles” in February 1964 had come to a depressing end.
After a couple of surprisingly good years, the former Beatles, with the exception of Paul McCartney and his album “Band on the Run,” had begun to turn out mellow material that seemed aimed at a middle-of-the-road audience. With the release in September of “Goats Head Soup,” a major comedown from 1972’s “Exile on Main Street,” The Rolling Stones were about to enter a five-year period of sustained mediocrity.
Outside of the big two, the news was not any better. The Who were quiet, Bob Dylan was semi-retired, Eric Clapton was strung out, David Bowie killed off Ziggy Stardust, and no one had taken the place of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or Jim Morrison.
Worst of all, rock and roll radio each week added to its playlists singles that were bland, dumb, or outright embarrassing—a betrayal of what the record charts represented between 1964 and 1969. In the 1960s, you could count on the labels to release a brilliant 45 or two every week. Maybe 10 songs from the entire year of 1973 fit into that category.
Still, there was one bit of good news in 1973, though few people noticed it at the time. In September, Richard Foos opened Rhino Records in Westwood. The store sold mostly used albums, bootlegs, and cutouts, which were sealed LPs no longer manufactured or listed in the catalog and dumped at a lower price by labels.
In early 1974, Harold Bronson, a rock and roll-mad teen during the 1960s, was hired by Foos, his friend, to work at Rhino. Bronson had been no more accepting than were his peers of the precipitous decline in the quality of rock music beginning in 1973. However, rather than sink into a post-Woodstock depression or switch to jazz, Bronson took a job working behind the counter of a small record store, eventually becoming manager.
Bronson and Foos were just getting started though. Three years later, they formed their own label, also called Rhino Records. Over the next 24 years, Rhino released some of the most inspired and important collections of performers from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s in the history of rock recordings.
For record buyers like me, who had assumed they would never get the chance to acquire at regular prices a boxed set of classic and obscure Doo Wop songs, the best of the Standells, or the Monkees’ studio albums, Rhino was a music industry miracle. Though it cannot be said of a label grounded mainly in the past that it saved rock and roll, Rhino did its best to ensure that the “hits just kept on coming”—to paraphrase a radio promo from the ’60s.
Now, more than a decade after he and Foos were forced from Rhino, Bronson has written “The Rhino Records Story: Revenge of the Music Nerds” (Selectbooks). The book describes in meticulous detail the label’s business history, particularly the key deals that went well, and, just as often, the ones that didn’t. The author’s frequent recounting of unreturned phone calls, catty remarks, corporate ignorance, and devastating double crosses will confirm the jaundiced view many already hold of the entertainment industry.
Yet he and Foos put up with it, as do executives every day from Burbank to Santa Monica. In the case of the Rhino Brothers, as they dubbed themselves, the possibility of issuing creatively packaged releases featuring underappreciated or quickly fading acts outweighed the humiliations.
With the record store, and to some extent, the label, Bronson and Foos combined reverence for rock from Elvis through “Let it Be” with a yippie-like irreverence for the accepted rules of retail marketing. At the Westwood Rhino—a second store opened in Claremont in the fall of 1974—the pair proffered a brand of silly capitalism as compared with the many record chains at the time—Licorice Pizza, Tower, and the Wherehouse—which aggressively peddled stacks of the latest hot new releases by Boston, Elton John, Journey, and Queen. “Obviously the goal was for Rhino to be considered as much more than a typical record store,” writes Bronson. “More than anything else, an atmosphere prevailed that the music was to be taken seriously, even if it was presented in a fun manner.”
One Mother’s Day, they put their mothers to work behind the counter; on “C” student day, customers who brought report cards from any year that demonstrated an average of “C” or worse received a free album. Foos once hung a noose around the neck of a cardboard rendering of John Denver showing customers what he thought of the country boy’s music. You couldn’t get away with this stuff at any of those corporate establishments.
Bronson is an effective, not effusive, name dropper, casually recalling instances when celebrities shopped at the record store. I especially liked his anecdote about the Ramones purchasing collections by Herman’s Hermits, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and other 1960s’ pop acts, an era and style that was supposed to be anathema to punk rockers in the 1970s. Hardcore punk fans would have been appalled to know that the Ramones had such mainstream tastes. But now, with all three of the band’s founding members deceased, it’s safe for Bronson to reveal the group’s secret.
Sky Saxon, lead singer of the Seeds, a legendary Sunset Strip band from 1966–1967, came into the store at the end of the 1970s, looking like a creepy hippie ghost and carrying copies of a red vinyl 12-inch disc he’d recently recorded in the studio. He told Bronson, who had once been a big fan of Saxon and the Seeds, his name was now “Sunlight” and that he’d been living in a commune in Hawaii. This was too odd for the Rhino manager, who bought a few copies of the record just to get the singer to leave.
Most of the book focuses on the Rhino label, which was launched with a recording by an L.A. street vocalist named Wild Man Fischer who had been discovered by Frank Zappa in 1968. Zappa produced a double album titled “An Evening with Wild Man Fischer,” which Bronson called “remarkable.”
In January 1978, at the height of disco mania, Rhino released its first album, “Wildmania,” by Wild Man Fischer. Though no “Saturday Night Fever,” Bronson writes that the record sold in sufficient numbers “to encourage us to plan more albums.”
Despite the pleasures of telling customers which records to buy and not to buy, Bronson and Foos had found something better than working in retail to satisfy their need to be around music. The author writes: “Putting the records together, and in some cases making new recordings in the studio, was more creatively stimulating for Richard and me than running a record store.”
Ten months after “Wildmania,” Rhino put out a four-song picture disc EP of obscure songs by the Turtles—the label’s first release of old masters. In 1981, Rhino issued a three-volume box set “History of Ritchie Valens.” At that time, prior to CDs and downloads, it seemed all but impossible to me that you could buy at fair price albums recorded by Valens, who had died at the age of 17 in a plane crash in 1959.
Before the box set appeared in stores, my personal Ritchie collection consisted of a single on Era records, a makeshift label, which featured “Donna” paired with “La Bamba.” I thought having that one 45 was an accomplishment. Rhino showed me how much better it could get.
Bronson’s history is invaluable, not only for what it tells us about Rhino, but also because the business side of rock and roll is an underreported story. Outside of Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Berry Gordy, and Sam Phillips, you don’t hear much about the executives/producers responsible for the music. I consider myself a knowledgeable, passionate fan of rock and roll from 1955 to 1975, but I can’t name the head of Capitol Records when the Beatles arrived in America or who ran London Records when it had the Stones under contract.
Compared with movie moguls—yesterday and today—we know little about the (mostly) men who signed, packaged, and recorded rock and roll, soul, funk, and disco performers. Yet they are no less important than are Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, or Jeffrey Katzenberg in shaping American pop culture in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The best chapters in “The Rhino Records Story,” however, are mini-histories of The Turtles, The Monkees, post-1960s, and the Knack—three bands that were at various times under contract to the label. Bronson, who in his 20s wrote numerous articles on rock for Rolling Stone and other publications, gets much more enjoyment relaying the stories of these performers, including their capitalistic proclivities, than he does the intricacies of business negotiations with guys probably wearing sport coats, white shirts, and no ties.
These anecdote-rich, personality-driven portraits of the bands continue for pages and pages before the author establishes the link to Rhino. But most readers will forgive the authorial transgression. I was fascinated by the 34-page chapter on the Knack, especially when Bronson recalls how the group fell apart after the phenomenal and unexpected worldwide success of the single “My Sharona.” The finger-pointing reminded me of politicians reacting to a failed policy.
Later, Rhino branched into film; the company was located in Los Angeles after all. Bronson’s best story is about the agony around the making of a 1998 movie based on Hunter S. Thompson’s famous book, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” We knew Thompson was difficult—Bronson adds more evidence—but not even TMZ has such revealing material about Johnny Depp, who starred in the film. Bronson states:
“It was a no smoking building, but Depp refused to comply. In the course of the evening he drank a six-pack of Rolling Rock beer…” Bronson goes on: “Not realizing that Depp was imitating Hunter’s barely audible mumbling, which included displaying no emotion in the rendering, I was put off.”
A few years after the film was released, a guy named Roger Ames became head of the Warner Music Group, of which Rhino was a subsidiary. Ames didn’t much like Rhino, and he expressed his displeasure with digs and putdowns—ominous behavior from the boss of any business. In early 2001, Bronson was terminated from Rhino. Foos left several months later.
If you drive today along the 134 Freeway through Burbank, you’ll see the familiar Rhino logo attached to the offices of Warner Brothers Music. You’ll be tempted to think that not much has changed at Rhino in 35 years. Don’t be fooled.