One of the best books about the music industry is Gareth Murphy’s Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Music Industry.
More than just a standard history, the book focuses on the individuals who made huge changes to the industry. People who founded record labels, often as D.I.Y. enterprises on a shoe-string budget. It is fascinating, and inspiring, to learn how these people started their labels, made decisions, nurtured talent and brought us some of the music we love the most.
Gareth’s parents were two of the most interesting entrepreneurs of Ireland’s counter-culture. His mother had a fashion stall in the legendary Dandelion Market in Dublin in the 1970s, and his father was a music promoter responsible for bringing bands like the Ramones to Dublin. Crucially they were responsible for staging Dublin’s first major rock festival in 1977. It featured Thin Lizzy, Graham Parker and the Rumour, the Boomtown Rats and the Radiators From Space. As such, it was a key moment in Ireland’s rock as well as punk culture.
In the new issue of Long Live Vinyl magazine, Gareth has a lengthy article on the early punk moment. Just as he did with Cowboys and Indies, he looks at punk with a fresh perspective and highlights the significant contribution of behind-the-scenes individuals like Danny Fields, the early Ramones manager.
Gareth very kindly answered some questions for us about his punk research. Interestingly, he notes that some of the most successful and innovative music entrepreneurs had a background in punk. He also identifies how Richard Branson’s Virgin empire got a major boost from punk.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered/learned when you were researching the piece?
Well, over the last five years, I’ve pretty much been around the block when it comes to punk. I’ve talked to a lot of key players and had to look at punk from different angles – both in the UK and from an American perspective. At the end of it all, what you come away with is a sense of all the mythology. Blagging seems to be a core feature of punk. Punk was, and remains, a great news story. It never sold that many records. I’m sure it’s sold far more newspapers, magazines and documentary grant applications. So, it’s unique in that regard, and you have to cut through the fibs and be forensic.
Writing this piece, I had to condense everything down to a definitive essay. Although I was given 2,500 words, I didn’t have the space to pirouette around diplomatically. I had to pour the main points into the given pages and be damned with it. So I guess what I learned is that I don’t care if I’m offending anyone.
If punk mythology has thrived unquestioned for so many years, it’s because so many writers have stars in their eyes and keep giving these punks free rides. I definitely don’t have any stars in my eyes. Not anymore. It’s a snake pit of professional bullshitters and I can prove it.
What songs/albums from that early punk era do you go back to and listen to most?
It’s the “punk-not-punk” bands that I like the most. The Stranglers would definitely be my favourites to come out of that whole scene.
Although, I really wonder if they count as punk. Listen to their keyboard player, Dave Greenfield, who is very much a virtuoso, almost in that prog tradition that punk supposedly hated. He’s a genius who made many of their songs so good.
Talking Heads are another example of a band who surfed that punk wave, initially, albeit somewhat sideways. I think they were a really important group who I happily listen to today. Blondie I love, but again their best stuff was not punk at all. I actually can’t stand their first punk album. Same goes for Ian Dury. He’s the original London punk, isn’t he? And what a hilarious poet, but the Blockheads were the opposite of punk.
Musically, I don’t really like raw punk. What I do find interesting, musicologically, is how it was a reaction to corporate rock and hippie uniformity. It’s a great story as a cultural event. I definitely get the joke and can recognize how it put energy and meaning back into the music business. As a clothing fashion, I love it, too.
My problem is that I’m a musician, so there’s only so much Sex Pistols or Ramones I can listen to before I get bored. That said, in a party or a particular situation, one well placed joker like “God Save The Queen” or “Blitzkrieg Bop” can work a treat. Very much a question of context and what was happening before.
Your family ‘had a seat at the table’ with those early punk bands…any stories that stand out?
My parents were gig promoters, so the anecdotes I heard tended to be horror stories. The laughter was always mixed with due shock. My father, Pat Murphy, organized that famous Ramones gig in the State Cinema in Phibsboro [Dublin]. He was taken to court because fans ripped up the seats and threw them in the air. The venue was trashed and I think he may have lost money in the end.
Generally, the punk gigs got so violent, they had to get metal detectors at the door, and at one, they found a meat cleaver in someone’s trench coat. Gobbing and stage invasion was in vogue, so bouncers had to guard the stage while being gobbed all over. Apparently, on the front line, punches were flying in all directions.
I was too young to see the gigs, but I do remember the stress at home, because as promoters, my folks were taking all the risk. They were terrified someone would die from a stabbing or being crushed. This was a perfectly reasonable nightmare scenario because at the side door emergency exits, dishonest bouncers were letting people in for cash. The venues were dangerously over-packed and no matter what my parents did, it was always terrifying mayhem. In the Olympic Ballroom, nutters used to dive off the balcony onto the people below.
Were there any women entrepreneurs that have been forgotten about by the standard histories?
I can’t think of any truly game-changer women managers or label heads. The music business has always been male dominated and largely still is. As my mum put it: “women aren’t stupid enough to take such crazy risks.” However, there was the New York journalist Lisa Robinson who in 1975, alerted Danny Fields about the Ramones. She was one of the very first players who sensed something happening. A bit later, there was Linda Stein who, on Danny Fields’ invitation, co-managed the Ramones.
On the fashion side of things, Vivienne Westwood was a key player who proved herself as a successful entrepreneur. But I think it’s in the actual bands that one finds a higher-than-usual proportion of women. I’m thinking of Debbie Harry, Gay Advert, Poly Styrene, Jayne Casey, The Slits, and if one widens the field into new wave and post punk, there’s Siouxsie Sioux, The Raincoats, Chrissie Hynde, Tina Weymouth, Lene Lovich, The Go-Go’s and half of the B-52’s.
There’s no doubt that punk was good for women. And even the subsequent generation of early 80s pop stars, like Madonna, Toyah, Annie Lenox and others, definitely got their cues from the pioneers in the late seventies. In that sense, you can see that punk’s take-no-shit attitude was, in many respects, its single greatest strength.
Who were the impressive entrepreneurs of that era do you think….what traits did they have?
There were plenty of labels to come out of punk. In fact, giving so many people a crash course in business was the the real success of punk and it’s amazing that nobody really says it more often. Stiff, Factory, Fiction, Mute, 99, 4AD, STT, Radar, ZE, Def Jam, Zoo, Epitaph, etc.
People say that punk made Richard Branson because he signed the Sex Pistols, but he already had a chain of record shops and a boutique record label that had scored a massive hit earlier in the 70s with Mike Oldfield. He was already heading for bigger things, but it’s true that Branson learned new tricks from Malcolm McLaren about playing the media. Virgin was a much more aggressive company after punk.
But I think the most interesting examples were obviously Rough Trade and Beggars Banquet. Both were record shops that evolved into labels because of punk. They’re still around today, because what they had were musically literate bosses – Geoff Travis and Martin Mills respectively.
As young shop owners, they learned vital lessons about operating within modest means, keeping up to date, building a community and being genuinely independent. And all these labels, including some new ones like Def Jam, KLF, Sub Pop and others went on to drive hip hop, rave and grunge. They were all run by punk graduates.