Ive always thought of myself as a record man, says Greg Shaw. My role models have always been the guys who started labels like Atlantic Records, Chess Records and Modern Records by going around selling records out of the trunks of their cars. Today, the music industry is run by lawyers and accountants, but if you asked those old guys what they did, theyd tell you: Im a record man!
With a blond moptop and the face of a debauched cherub, Shaw hardly resembles the cigar-chomping, larger-than-life industry characters of yore. But the founder of Bomp Records is every inch a record man -- and quite an influential one, at that. Most indie labels come and go as noiselessly as a raincoated peep-show patron, but the Burbank-based Bomp has managed to maintain a loud-and-proud profile for a quarter of a century. While Bomp has never produced a bona-fide hit record (The Plimsouls A Million Miles Away came the closest), Shaw has kept the label rolling by adhering to a simple philosophy: If he likes something, theres bound to be a couple of thousand other fans and record weasels out there who will feel the same.
I always thought in terms of reaching a network of hip people, rather than, like, the masses, he says. I was cynical enough to realize that, if you want to reach everybody, you have to water down the stuff to the point where its crap.
Since the first Bomp release -- a 1974 single by pop classicists the Flamin Groovies -- the label has served as a magnet for artists and listeners who prefer their music undiluted. The Bomp catalog includes titles by such famously impolite acts as Iggy Pop, Stiv Bators, the Lazy Cowgirls, the Dwarves, Spacemen 3, the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Streetwalkin Cheetahs, and the labels long-running Pebbles, Highs in the Mid-Sixties, English Freakbeat and Electric Sugarcube Flashbacks series are now considered de rigueur for anyone interested in the underground music of the 1960s. Though indie labels tend to paint themselves into a specific corner, Shaw insists that Bomps aesthetic is more conceptual than stylistic.
You can kind of see a pattern, he says of the labels history. Im a traditionalist; I like things that are rooted in the best music of the past. I like people who have good record collections, who are not slaves to their roots but still pay homage to them even while theyre doing something original and different.
This open-minded aesthetic can be observed at work in old issues of Who Put the Bomp?, the magazine Shaw started in the early 70s as an alternative to mainstream music rags like Rolling Stone. As readable as it was opinionated, Bomp! (as the title was later shortened to) was one of the first publications to appreciate the connection between the anything goes AM-radio culture of the 1960s and the punk movement of the 1970s, but Shaws editorial policy accommodated interesting pop of any stripe. (The winter 7677 issue, for example, contains features on Dwight Twilley, ABBA and 1960s Mexican garage-punk, an interview with Brian Wilson that devolves into a passionate discussion of chips and dip, and a rave review of ACDCs High Voltage LP.) Though Shaw closed up the magazine in 1979, its all-inclusive spirit remains dear to his heart. Over-categorization is sort of endemic to modern times, he laments, but thats not the way I think.
Indeed, Shaw has abruptly changed course on several occasions, usually in an effort to shake off bandwagon jumpers or narrow-minded followers. A staunch supporter of the 1970s power-pop explosion via his magazine and label (which released singles by 2020, the Romantics, Shoes, Paul Collins and several other power-pop luminaries), he eventually found himself besieged by hundreds of crappy skinny-tie bands who wanted to become the next Knack; he also found himself being courted for A&R gigs and distribution deals by several new wave--happy major labels, though none of them was willing to grant him the autonomy he craved. It was during this period, as longtime business partner and former wife Suzy Shaw ruefully remembers, that Greg briefly made a grab for the brass ring of the record business.
In the early 80s, Greg went on this big campaign that we were gonna be legit, laughs Suzy. He had all these suit-and-tie guys running around with all these stupid ideas that had nothing to do with a small label, just wasting money right and left. When I think of it now, I just want to cry -- they were all driving Mercedeses and everything, and we were making tons of money, but it was all flying right out the door. We had, like, 14 employees, and no one was really doing much; it was really unorganized and inefficient. So we just started paring it down to the point where it was just me and Greg again.
As part of the paring-down process, Greg came up with Voxx, a Bomp subsidiary devoted entirely to the garage-rock revival then taking place in mid-80s California. (Its worth noting that Voxx bands such as the Pandoras, the Tell-Tale Hearts and the Gravedigger V had all been inspired by the Pebbles series.) I hated getting calls from managers that wanted to use me to get that billion-dollar deal somewhere else, he remembers. So we redefined the label, saying, All we do is neo-60s psychedelic garage punk. So, of course, all these David Geffen wannabes started calling up saying, Yeah, we do that!
Out of Voxx came the Cavern Club, one of Shaws more ambitious experiments. Located in the old KFWB building on Hollywood Boulevard, the Caverns swingin-60s-style scene was an immediate hit with a small but devoted coterie of Beatle-booted clubgoers, but it lasted only two years before Shaw pulled the plug.
All of these [60s-influenced] bands were having trouble getting booked at Madame Wongs and the Troubadour, he recalls. So I said, Heres a place where you belong. Anybody who was doing surf music, Merseybeat, groovy psychedelic music or any combination thereof could play there. But the audience didnt rise to the occasion; instead of trying to create an interesting culture of their own from it, they just criticized each others clothes. Eventually, I just got fed up and walked away from it.
The past decade has seen Bomp go through several more changes, including a recent relocation to a new warehouse space thats as bright and airy as the previous HQ was rundown and disordered. 1993 brought the addition of partner Patrick Boissel and his AliveTotal Energy label, best known for its copious amount of MC5-related material; next year, Alive will expand to include Disaster Records, a punk-oriented imprint created by Duane Peters of the U.S. Bombs. Shaw himself has recently recovered from a kidney and pancreas transplant; though he continues to exercise final say on Bomp projects, Suzy and Boissel take care of Bomps daily business. Its an arrangement that seems to work well for everyone involved.
Gregs more the creative type, says Suzy, who first met Greg when he was a 17-year-old science-fiction freak and she a 16-year-old runaway. Hes not the kind whos going to efficiently put records in a box, you know. Hes the brains, Im the brawn -- but youve gotta have both.
Greg agrees. Suzy downplays her own contribution, but we would not have survived without her. Shes the one who makes sure we get paid, and thats the hardest thing with a small label -- getting paid! If Id been a one-man company, I couldnt have done it. I cant sell anything; I cant deal with banks. Its a really good partnership.
And, all in all, its been a pretty good 25 years. As for the next 25, the record man remains open-minded. Were just waiting for something good to happen, he says. Since Ive been sick for the past five years, I really havent been all that active; but now Im back from the dead, and Im interested in finding a new band or scene that excites me. The doctors tell me I should be healthy for at least another 30 years, so Ive gotta find something to keep me busy!
Bomp Records 25th-anniversary party, featuring performances by Beachwood Sparks, Wayne Kramer, the Zeros, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Davie Allan & the Arrows, Twink and Small Stone, takes place Saturday, November 6, at the Garage.