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415 Records: Pioneers of Punk Get Reissue Series

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In the mid- and late 1960s, Howie Klein was a student at Stony Brook University, in suburban Long Island’s Suffolk County. And yet, while he was 50 miles removed from the churning artistic epicenter of Greenwich Village — where the likes of Bob Dylan and The Velvet Underground were forging their pioneering sounds — and even though he was more than 2,000 miles away from the Bay Area’s burgeoning psychedelic scene, Klein still somehow found himself at ground zero of all that was vital and new in the world of rock and roll, thanks in large part to one highly influential friend.

Klein — who was then in charge of the school’s Student Activities — regularly received live tapes of emerging West Coast bands from legendary San Francisco promoter Bill Graham. These recordings were a part of Klein’s secret arsenal, which he used to establish credibility as a campus tastemaker.

Klein booked many of the bands he heard on Graham’s bootlegs to play at Stony Brook — even before they had released their debut albums. And though his path would sometimes meander, there is a long and winding thread that ultimately connects Klein’s early days as a champion of the counter cultural sound to his role as the founder of a San Francisco-based record label responsible for elevating the profile of punk and new wave, back when the genres were nascent, under defined, and tearing through small clubs and house parties all over the city.

By the late 1970s and early ’80s, San Francisco was home to a thriving underground music scene. At the center of that activity was Klein’s small, independent 415 Records. Named after the police code for “disturbing the peace”— not for San Francisco’s area code — 415 Records released a number of groundbreaking singles and albums, helping to pave the way for new wave’s larger exposure in the coming years.

Just in time for the holidays, Liberation Hall Records is reissuing music from the early days of Klein’s label, including titles by The Pop-O-Pies, SVT, The Uptones, The Readymades, and more.

Stock photo courtesy of Skylar Sahakian/Unsplash

From the Fugs to Punk

In the 1960s, Klein established himself as a successful New York City-based concert promoter, working with The Byrds, The Who, Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, and many others. But by 1978 he was in San Francisco, at the vanguard of punk and new wave, heading 415 Records, a label that championed music’s new directions. While that transition might seem like a major shift, Klein says that it all felt natural to him.

“It was a smooth transition,” he insists. “The Fugs were the first band I ever booked, when I was freshman class president at Stony Brook. They were kind of a bridge between the hippie music of the ’50s and the psychedelic music of the ’60s.” Klein was already deeply immersed in the musical underground, and thanks to his West Coast connection, he was hip to the emerging sounds coming out of the Bay Area.

“Bill Graham was sending me tapes from The Fillmore,” Klein explains, “and I was playing all this psychedelic music that no one had ever heard of — The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Moby Grape — even before they had albums.”

Yet by the end of that decade, Klein packed it all in and spent several years in Europe and the Far East. When he returned to the States, an old friend insisted he come along to see a new band. “I wound up going, and it was The Ramones who were playing,” Klein says. He immediately perceived a connection between what they were doing and the music counterculture of the ’60s. “It was always very different,” he acknowledges. “But it was coming from a similar place.”

When vagabonding across Europe, Klein had been essentially broke. “I had been working in a meditation center in Amsterdam, and one of the things that I taught there was darkroom photography as a form of meditation.” On his return to the U.S., he pursued photography as a way to earn a living, and soon relocated to the West Coast.

Disturbing the Peace

Once settled in San Francisco, Klein met Harvey Milk. “He was running for office, and I soon became his campaign photographer,” Klein recalls. “Harvey fronted me the money to buy darkroom equipment.” Klein set up shop on 16th Street in Noe Valley. Next door was a record store called Aquarius Records, run by Chris Knab. “I went back and forth between the two storefronts all of the time,” Klein says.

His musical omnivore qualities led Klein to host a program on KSAN-FM. “It started out as just a one-time thing,” he says. But The Outcastes — the first punk radio show in the country — quickly found an audience. “There wasn’t really enough music coming out of New York and London at the time,” Klein explains. “We would play songs twice in one show!” To fill up the time, Klein started playing music from Bay Area bands.

But many of those bands didn’t know anything about the music business; several asked if Klein and Knab could help them release records. “That’s how 415 Records started,” Klein says. “We didn’t plan to start a record company, but it started because of the radio show.”

Launching a record company from scratch takes cash, of course. And neither man had any to spare. “We did everything by credit,” Klein says. “We were able to persuade [factories] to let us press our records and to use a recording studio and then pay later. We were very lucky that way.”

But as originally envisioned, 415 Records wasn’t a typical capitalistic enterprise. “Neither of us ever imagined that 415 would lead to anything financial,” Klein says. “It was just kind of a gas, a way to help some of the bands and have some fun. That’s all it ever was for us.”

The label’s first signing was The Nuns, featuring a young Alejandro Escovedo, and from there 415 records released a number of 45s by several other Bay Area new wave and punk acts — including The Offs, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions, and SVT. Liberation Hall’s new reissue series spotlights several of the bands from the label’s early days.

The Mutants

In late 1978, Sally Webster had a giant loft on First and Mission where she often held salon-type events. “A lot of bands played there for their first time; it was sort of an experiment, but it was super fun,” she says. Recruiting some musicians “who could actually play instruments,” Webster and her friends launched a theatrical punk group, The Mutants — “a 50/50 combination of visuals and sound” — in early 1979.

The Mutants’ freewheeling onstage show would build upon the ideas espoused by Free Theater troupe Angels of Light. In that respect, the band’s approach was ahead of the curve, incorporating theatrical concepts into live performance more than a year before bands like New York City-based Plasmatics.

The Bay Area underground and semi-underground music community of that time was “very inclusive,” Webster says. “It was like, ‘You want to perform? You can perform.’” Many groups were mentored by Howie Klein and other well-known music personalities. “Paul Kantner was really nice to The Mutants,” Webster recalls. “Professionally we were hopeless, but he was always trying to help us.”

The most notorious Mutants gig was one held at Napa State Hospital, opening for The Cramps. “We took acid for that one,” Webster recalls, noting that several of the psychiatric patients came onstage with the band. And although The Mutants played hundreds of gigs, Webster says that “we never made any money. It wasn’t a job, but we enjoyed doing it.”

The Mutants’ “Baby’s No Good” was included on a 1980 compilation, 415 Music. That same year, the band released a three-song single on 415 Records; one of those songs, “Insect Lounge” is included along with tracks from 20 other bands on the new compilation 415 Records: Still Disturbing the Peace.

The Readymades

Bassist Jonathan Postal was a founding member of The Avengers. But after playing with that group for some time, he realized that if he wanted to play his own songs, he’d have to start a group of his own.

“It just didn’t ring true to me when the Avengers took up this mantle of anger and politics,” Postal says. Postal’s songs instead drew inspiration from Broadway, as well as from singer-songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen. “If I wanted to play the songs that I’d written, I had to find real musicians,” he says.

Thanks to supporters like Klein and Bill Graham, local new wave and punk acts gained high-profile gigs opening for national bands touring the West Coast. “You’d have The Nuns opening up for The Ramones,” Postal recalls. “When The Sex Pistols came, The Avengers opened up for them. The Readymades opened for Blondie and The Police; the first really big show we did, we opened for Patti Smith.”

As their choice of band name would telegraph, The Readymades combined a more literate lyrical approach with the raw power of punk, helping to connect the new music with the artistic sensibilities of Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp. San Francisco Art Institute graduate Postal showed that punk could be lyrically sophisticated without losing its edge.

Readymades songs were, Postal says, “very melodic, but I had a lot of strange stuff in there. And that was probably the reason the band fractured: Other people in the band were being told, ‘Hey, if Jonathan didn’t have this quirkiness, you guys would be really big.’” But the Readymades had a loyal local following, and they toured outside the region.

Howie Klein played The Readymades’ songs on his radio show; other deejays picked up on them, too. Their self-released single “Electric Toys” was in regular rotation on KSAN. And at the direction of manager Sandy Pearlman, the band recorded a number of songs. “We did demos for all the major record labels,” Postal says. “That’s why we have such a small [official] output.”

One of those songs was “415 Music.” It’s a sardonic look at the San Francisco music scene. “Everything I wrote was kind of snarky; all my songs have little jokes,” says Postal. Howie Klein liked the song’s title enough to borrow it: he put together a various-artists collection of local bands on his newly-launched 415 Records.

The Readymades stayed together about three years, but never landed a deal, and didn’t release an album. Happily, Liberation Hall’s new San Francisco: Mostly Live collects nearly all Readymades recordings — an album’s worth of live and studio tracks — in one place.

The Pop-O-Pies

Joe Pop-O-Pie (born Joseph Callahan) recalls hanging out at college with his fellow music majors. “We were talking about new wave and punk, and somebody said, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if somebody did a punk version of the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’”?’” So he did: he put together The Pop-O-Pies, and initially, the group played only that one song.

It wasn’t exactly a piss-take on The Dead (or Deadheads), though. “It wasn’t a slam,” Joe insists. “It was more like … an experiment.” And The Pop-O-Pies one-song setlist earned the band some fans in high places. “Jerry Garcia liked it,” Joe says with pride.

Yet at first, the audiences gave an evening of “Truckin’” a mixed reception. “They would start chanting, ‘Play something different!’” Joe recalls with a laugh. “And of course that would just make us want to play the same thing more.”

Though there was certainly more to the group than its reinvention of a Dead classic, The Pop-O-Pies irreverent take on rock royalty hinted at a future musical landscape that would embrace satirical, high-concept genre-smashing acts like Dread Zeppelin, Beatallica, and Mac Sabbath.

On one hand, Joe says that his group was solidly in the punk and new wave camp. But at the same time, he wanted to push the limits of that label. “To my knowledge, I was the first white guy to ever put rap and punk on the same record, on The White EP,” he says.

The Pop-O-Pies

And Joe admits that calling The Pop-O-Pies a group is probably inaccurate. “It’s really kind of me and this blind tribe of musicians that I play with,” he says. At various points The Pop-O-Pies included Danny Heifetz and Trey Spruance (Mr. Bungle) and Klaus Fluoride (Dead Kennedys). And for a time, The Pop-O-Pies and Faith No More were essentially the same band.

Joe recalls how The Pop-O-Pies got signed to 415 Records in 1981. “I walked into KUSF one day; I said, ‘Hey, could you guys maybe cart this up and play it on the radio sometime?’ I didn’t realize how popular it would be!” Both “Truckin’” and an original, “The Catholics Are Attacking,” became the most requested songs on the station. “Howie had a label, he made me a deal, I went for it, and the rest just happened,” Joe says.

One of The Pop-O-Pies’ most memorable gigs was in December 1982, opening for Oingo Boingo. “I got this idea because there was so much backstage beer. There were all these kids down in the front, and I just had this wild idea to start selling the beer for $1,” Joe laughs. “That didn’t go over too well!”

Liberation Hall’s expanded version of The White EP adds seven more cuts including more recent Pop-O-Pies material.

The Uptones

Eric Din — who still leads a version of The Uptones today — recalls that he and a bunch of high school friends formed the group in 1981 to play the kind of music made by UK groups like the Specials, Madness and The English Beat. “One of the key flash points for us was the movie Dance Craze,” he recalls. “It was basically a bunch of concert footage of the English two-tone bands.”

The nine members of The Uptones were into a lot of different styles of music. “But we just agreed on a lot of things musically,” Din says. “So without really having to write down the ground rules, we knew what they were.”

He says that his group had one especially significant characteristic that set them apart from the British ska bands: “We played really fast. Our tempos were amplified by our experience and our energy.” And that energy was infectious, translating into a wild, dancing crowd.

The Uptones

Din says that Uptones shows were packed from the very start. “Nine high school people with friends is not going to be an empty room.” High energy music coupled with the young band’s mod-based fashion sense was a recipe for success.

The two-tone bands’ message of love and unity was built into The Uptones’ approach. The band was even well-received playing underground shows for hardcore punk audiences. “Our crew would come in dressed mod, and other people were dressed punk,” Din says. “And it was not acrimonious; it wasn’t a gang fighting mentality.”

Booked by Bill Graham, The Uptones opened shows for the English Beat, General Public, UB40, Steel Pulse and other like-minded touring acts. But they also opened for Billy Idol at the Oakland Coliseum. “We did okay,” Din says. “But we were used to playing nightclub stages. That was the shortest half hour in my life.”

Din doesn’t think that The Uptones’ local success led to a raft of new ska bands. “But we had some impact,” he allows. “I did notice that some of the pop bands started working some reggae or ska stuff into their material.” Citing the example of a group that was considered at the time to be one of the biggest bands on the planet, Din observes that “The Police had a really big part” in expanding pop music’s scope. “All of a sudden, it was cool for rock bands to play something like reggae.”

Howie Klein had interviewed the young band on his radio show, and Din says that’s where the conversation about doing a record for 415 began. “But by the time we actually delivered a record to him, it was really the second lineup of the band,” he says. That record — the 1984 K.U.S.A. EP — forms the basis of Liberation Hall’s new Get Out of My Way. The CD adds several previously unreleased tracks documenting the sound and energy of the original lineup. Those demo recordings “turned out to be some of the more definitive tracks of what the group really was,” says Din.

SVT

Bassist Jack Casady had been playing with his best friend, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, since both were in high school. They hit the big time in 1965 with Jefferson Airplane, and went full-time with their side project, Hot Tuna, in 1972. But as the ’70s neared an end, they decided it was time to take a break from each other, so Hot Tuna went on hiatus.

But Casady still wanted to play. “I called up a friend of mine from San Francisco — a fairly famous lawyer named Brian Rohan — who took care of a lot of bands,” Casady says. “I asked him if he knew of any players, and he gave me a cassette tape of Brian Marnell playing with a band.” Ten years Casady’s junior, Marnell was a singer, guitarist, and songwriter of great talent. “I liked his attitude and style right away,” Casady says.

He got in touch with Marnell, and the two decided to start a new band. And while the group — also featuring drummer Bill Gibson and Hot Tuna keyboardist Nick Buck — booked some of its early dates as the Jack Casady Band, the plan wasn’t to trade on the bassist’s name; they paid their dues. “We slogged our way through many of the clubs and on tour,” Casady says. “It was always pretty rough.”

The music wasn’t rough, though. While sporting a razor-sharp feel, Marnell’s original songs, like “Always Comes Back” (included on the new Still Disturbing the Peace compilation and as the title track of the new SVT collection) showcased a strongly melodic, power pop character.

“Brian had a really unique and powerful guitar sound,” Casady says. Sadly, Marnell died prematurely in 1983. By that point, SVT had released a single (“Heart of Stone”) and an EP on 415 Records, and gone on to make a 1981 album, No Regrets. Liberation Hall’s definitive Always Comes Back includes all of that material plus a handful of other tracks.

Thanks to the key participation of Jack Casady, unknowingly or not SVT provided a bridge between rock’s old guard and the newer, streamlined sounds of new wave. While SVT never broke out nationally, the later success of Red Rockers — perhaps the most commercially successful band to come out of 415 Records — demonstrated that the melodic values of ’60s rock need not be abandoned in the quest to make compelling rock music for a subsequent generation.

“I just had a sense we were good because we really wanted to be good,” Casady says. And although he went on to reunite with Kaukonen in Hot Tuna — a collaboration that continues to this day — Casady admits some disappointment at SVT’s failure to gain more success than it did. “After it was all over and stopped,” he says., “I was bewildered and chagrined by the fact that we couldn’t get any farther than we did.”

The Columbia Era

As 415 Records found more and more success, major labels came around with offers to distribute their releases or buy them out. After a number of conversations with industry execs — many of whom fit into the worst stereotypes of the era — Klein signed a deal with giant Columbia Records.

“I didn’t want to sign with them,” Klein says today. But longtime friend Pearlman — an industry veteran himself — told him that 415 Records would never get a better offer. Klein laughs as he recalls his thinking. “I said, ‘Well, these guys look like the worst label of all. And if I’m going to do this thing, why do it with someone who’s semi-good? Why not do it with the absolute worst, the most corporate, the most uninterested-in-bands?’”

Klein’s experience with Columbia/CBS bore out his pessimism. “They didn’t give a shit about anybody,” he says. “We would put marketing plans together and then they’d say, ‘Oh, god! We forgot. We’ll get you on the next one.’”

The Columbia era did nonetheless see some success for a number of 415 Records bands, including Translator, Romeo Void, and Wire Train (all from San Francisco) and New Orleans-based Red Rockers. But Knab sold his share of 415 in 1985, and by ’87 Klein joined Seymour Stein’s Sire Records. By that time, Sire — a label that shepherded punk and new wave acts like The Ramones and Talking Heads to success — had its own distribution deal with Warner Music Group. In 1989 Klein was named General Manager at Reprise Records in Los Angeles; Pearlman bought 415 Records and changed its name.

Still Disturbing The Peace

The pre-Columbia releases on 415 Records went out of print years ago. But recently, archival label Liberation Hall launched a campaign to reissue music from the San Francisco label’s earliest days. Headed by former Rhino Records executive Arny Schorr, Liberation Hall focuses on rescuing worthy music from obscurity. Beyond the 415 Records stable, other acts getting the reissue treatment include The Blasters, Phil Ochs, and San Francisco’s own Flamin’ Groovies. Schorr hopes to release more music from other 415 Records artists in the near future.

415 Records captured a specific moment in time, a period when San Francisco punk and new wave had yet to be co-opted by major label involvement. “There was no real [genre] definition at the time,” Klein says. “People were still trying to figure out: ‘What’s punk? What’s new wave?’ At the time, people were defining Tom Petty as punk rock!”

The archival 415 Records releases display the spirit and energy of venues like the Mabuhay Gardens in 1980. “It didn’t really matter who was playing,” Klein says. “It was just a scene.”

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Bill Kopp

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