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Friday, December 17, 2010

THE LABEL: THE STORY OF COLUMBIA RECORDS

BOOK REVIEW

The Label:
The Story of Columbia Records
by Gary Marmostein
p. Thunders Mouth Press 2007


   I grew up basically in ignorance of everything associated with Columbia Records.  When I did learn about Columbia, it was in the period after they had been sold to Sony Corp., which is where this book ends.  The Columbia Records of today is like a ghost of the original.

  The glory days of Columbia Records came in the pre-rock era.  You can actually feel the domination coming to an end during the chapter in which Clive Davis is described cavorting at the Monterey Jazz and Pop Festival while long-time head of label Gordon Lierberson broods in his suite of offices in New York City.

  Today, we think of Record Labels as being little more then a generic off shoot of the global culture industrial complex, but twas a time, my children, when bold entrepreneurs invested millions in the idea that Americans and the World would buy recorded music in large numbers.  In the beginning, there was classical music.  In particular, the early chapters of The Label are devoted almost entirely by the high minded attempts by Columbia to bring the best in classical music to the masses.   In attitude they resemble the indie tape labels of today, determined to bring the music to the audience whether the audience wanted to hear it or not.

  In the 30s and 40s, Columbia developed a catalogue of Jazz and Pop music, but eschewed blues and rhythm and blues- let alone rock and roll.   Columbia is like...the label of the world of Mad Men: smooth, suave but kind of scared of black people and smug and superior about rock and roll and country music.

  At the same time, it was Columbia Records where Bob Dylan recorded his most seminal albums of the 60s.   In the 70s, Epic Records (a subsidiary) brought the world arena rock- one of the most interesting asides in the entire book is when Marmorstein's describes how Columbia had to bend "Union Rules" to allow producers to work in the basement studio of  Boston writer/singer Tom Scholz- how DIY is that?  And of course... there was Michael Jackson.  Columbia Records continued to pump out hits, but they didn't really control the Zeitgeist after the one-two punch of the Beatles and the "Summer of Love."

  Once again, the mid-60s proves crucial in the story of a large American culture corporation.

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