NEW FEATURE!

Before the Beginning — Ork Records: New York, New York (Numero Group)

ork-records-new-york-new-york-1BY Blaine Schultz

In 1979 music was changing.

In the Fox Valley, fans of underground music had few choices where to find the goods. WAPL featured a few hours of new music each week. Music that was not released on corporate-run major labels. 

Record stores like The Mad Hatteur in Oshkosh, and Fond du Lac, or Pipe Dreams in Appleton may get you a taste.  A gay bar might host a “New Wave Night.”  But mostly it was word of mouth from friends who traveled to big cities.

Your best bet was two music magazines. These satellites were a pair of monthly publications. CREEM Magazine was based in Michigan and did a great job of covering much of the interesting music Rolling Stone had given up on. With a legendary stable of writers who were both witty (smart ass) and knowledgeable (smart), CREEM set a standard that many underground fanzines later aimed for.  

A partial list of contributors includes Nick Tosches, Lester Bangs, R. Meltzer, Jaan Uhelszki, Susan Whitall, John Mendelsohn, Gregg Turner, Billy Altman, Robert Christgau, Ed Ward, Bill Holdship, John Kordosh and a bunch of others who were not slouches. 

Trouser Press was based in NYC and had something of a British edge.  Led by the fearless Ira Robbins, along with Dave Schulps, a huge part of the magazine’s legacy was the Record Guides they published along with the monthly issues. These were invaluable sources of information. 

But these magazines also offered another portal. The classified ads located in the back pages led to mail order lists of unknown LP’s, 45s and bootleg recordings.  For budding record hounds, ground zero was shops like Bleeker Bob’s and Metro Music.  And a name that popped up often was the label Ork Records.

According to guitarist Richard Lloyd, Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun said of Television, “I can’t sign this band. This is not earth music.”  If you can dig that, Ork Records: New York, New York (Numero Group) is a compilation just for you. The tentacles of this collection grow like a leviathan (Academic reference #1), with connections that are influencing music today.

By 1975 The Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls had left their marks on a fecund and vibrant music scene that grew out of a Bowery bar called CBCG’s. A movie buff, Terry Ork had connections to this new music and began releasing records on his label as well as associated labels Shake, Fun, Lust/Unlust, Ice Water and Car, with the help of Charles Ball and Jon Tiven.

Arguably the record this whole story is based upon is Ork’s release of Television’s groundbreaking 7-inch “Little Johnny Jewel, Parts 1 & 2,” an atmospheric blend of a riff and then a modal levitation. Ork would also be involved with the release of tracks by The Neon Boys (embryonic Television) and Richard Hell and the Voidoids (Television’s bassist gone solo). 

Years before Patti Smith guitarist/rock journalist Lenny Kaye compiled the ultimate punk collection Nuggets, he recorded his own garage record under the name Link Cromwell which is included here, and as an archival nod that holds its own.  Even Lester Bangs jumped the chasm form writer to artist with a chaotic blast that featured Voidoid Robert Quine. British journalist Mick Farren covered the Rolling Stones as well as a tune he co-wrote with Hawkwind’s Lemmy Kilmister.

As evidence to the depth of talent, New York Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan’s band The Idols crank out a pair of cuts that could have been Dolls/Heartbreakers tracks. Likewise, Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome pulls a similar trick, and steps out on two cuts that could have passed for Dead Boys tunes. Lloyd, on vacation from Television reworks a pair of  Stones gems, “Connection,” and “Get Off My Cloud.”

How deep was that well, you ask? Consider The Marbles…historically a footnote, their “Red Lights and Fire and Smoke” is about as close to a perfect 45 as you will find anywhere, any time, nailing a proto-power pop hook with a moody B-side.

In 1977, a good decade before Alex Chilton became a Power Pop deity via Big Star, very few people realized (or even cared) he had already destroyed that albatross by recording “Bangkok,” a genius slice of demented rockabilly reduction, as well as the shambolic EP “The Singer Not the Song,” (Thanks Earwaves!). The evidence is here.

The title cut of Chilton’s EP was to be included on a proposed Rolling Stones tribute album called “Sun Blotted From the Sky,” whose incomplete track list suggests it would have not only been the first, but the best in what would become a glutted and watered down cottage industry in the era of Alternative Rock. 

Suspects included Television’s Richard Lloyd (“Connection/Get Off My Cloud”) and Mick Farren (“Play with Fire”). The Feelies would eventually release “Paint It Black,” on A&M Records in 1990.

(Chilton once told me he was going to record “Like a Rolling Stone,” for the compilation, a comment that now seems to have been for his amusement.)

Prix, a band based around Tiven, Tommy Hoehn and Big Star’s Chris Bell contribute a handful of tracks that sound like nothing less than outtakes from Big Star’s Radio City.  (A full album of material was last to be released by HoZac Records.)

By the early Eighties it had become possible to track down some of these records.  I spent many hours digging through crates in record stores in Madison, Eau Claire, Minneapolis and Milwaukee.  Hearing this compilation pointed me to Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past  (Academic reference #2).  Long gone places and events rushed back. The right song at the right time still works magic.

The marketing of New Wave music and the success of MTV was in part shepherded by this music. Ork would remain an obscure point of reference, but the Feelies would later become something of a college radio favorite…here they contribute an early version of “Fe Ce la.”

Perhaps the key to this whole collection is Chris Stamey,  a North Carolina native who was a huge Big Star and Television fan who came to NYC to play bass with Alex Chilton and also collaborated with Richard Lloyd. Stamey put out his own band, the dB’s records as well as one by The H-Bombs (which included future dB Peter Holsapple and Let’s Active’s Mitch Easter – both buddies from the Tarheel State.)  

 

Stamey’s brilliant kitchen-sink production on his “If and When,” “I Thought You Wanted to Know,” and “Summer Sun,” are equaled by his witty lyrics. He still produces and releases fine records.  Stamey would also release “I Am the Cosmos,” Big Star founder Chris Bell’s final record before his tragic death in 1978.

Arguably, the godfather of punk was Terry Ork, a gay, heroin-using, Jean Luc Godard-worshipping cinephile. Something of a B-level Andy Warhol, he swiped the term “New Wave,” from Godard and slapped it on the bands playing CBGB’s in the 1970s.

The rest, as they say, is a shadowy history…until now.

Numero Group’s compilation Ork Records: New York, New York tells the story of ground zero for the Bowery scene in the cultural vacuum between hippiedom and punk.

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