One way to gauge the quality of older rock & roll recordings is by the label that released them. Ork Records, Spy Records, Stiff, Radar, ZE, ESP-Disk and on and on were all marks of if not guaranteed rock & roll quality, then at least something interesting, challenging, and different. Charles Epting, 27, has used this method to suss out the good stuff, and shares his unearthed treasures on his podcast, as well as interviews people associated with the labels. Epting explains his perspective on what he called “Lost Labels” with PKM.
As a youngster growing up in California in the early 2000s, Charles Epting fell in love with the music of the New York Dolls, Television and the Velvet Underground amongst many other legendary artists that emerged from the New York scene in the 1960s and 70s. Today, he’s a 27-year-old President/CEO of HR Harmer Fine Stamp Auctions in New York City. But he is still immersing himself in the music that he loves.
Recently he created a podcast to focus on some of that music, particularly obscure record labels of the 1970s that produced what he considers to be some of the most timeless music of the era.
I know firsthand what his passion for music is like as well as his passion for history because, well, he is my son. We sat down recently so I could talk to him about his latest project.
PKM: So, the podcast, what made you decide to focus on “Lost Labels”?
Charles Epting: I think you can can tell a lot of about song record based on the record label that releases it. Labels often have reputations, and personalities all their own. One record that triggered this idea for was an EP by a band called Model Citizens. I had never heard of them before but I took the record out of the sleeve and saw that it was on Spy Records, which I knew was John Cale’s independent label back in the 1970s. I figured if the music was good enough for John Cale, a true musical genius, then it was worth hunting down more. It’s almost like everything I really like or respect can be traced back to the Velvet Underground on some level (laughs).
And also, living in New York now has made me want to explore the music deeper and so the podcast gives me a reason to do that. It was also a realization that if something was on Stiff Records or Ork Records, I didn’t know what it was going to sound like necessarily but if those labels had faith in putting it out then it probably was going to be pretty good. Stiff would put out something by Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, so if I saw something by Plummet Airlines or Roogalator, even if I didn’t know them or if they weren’t really commercially successful, I figured it would be good by association. All of a sudden, I realized record labels could be a guide for what I listen to and what I should seek out when I was digging through crates of vinyl.
PKM: When do you remember first getting pulled into this music that led you to your interests now?
Charles Epting: Probably when I was in eighth grade, the first time you played “Personality Crisis” by the New York Dolls. Then soon after hearing everything by the Velvet Underground. Then the song “Ghost Rider” by Suicide. That song by Suicide is when I went from just liking the music to being obsessed with music. Suicide is not music that you ever want to listen to. It’s music you have to listen to. The first Suicide record in my opinion is one of the most challenging, difficult, dark and depressing things I’ve ever heard in my life. And a switch flipped and my brain the first time I heard it. I’m just trying to seek out things that made me feel the way the Suicide album made me feel and doing it through these labels makes it interesting for me.
PKM: You’ve landed some truly interesting, provocative guests. What has that process been like?
Charles Epting: I decided I wanted to do a podcast telling the stories of these labels and the one I wanted to start with was Radar Records, because not only did they put out the second and third Elvis Costello albums and first two Nick Lowe albums, they also released some really obscure stuff like Metal Urbane out of France, they put one of the first Soft Boys 7” records, they re-released a lot of 1960s garage rock and psychedelic stuff; and Radar Records was a label that, whether it was Bram Tchaikovsky or Yachts, everything I listened to I liked very much. And it really ran the gamut from commercial and mainstream to really odd, obscure stuff, that I still found highly listenable. So Radar was where I started trying to track people down, and the first guest I came up with was Clive Langer, who also had a huge hand in Stiff because he produced the early Madness stuff, and he was important at Radar because he produced Betty Bright and the illuminations, and in addition to his own stuff with Clive Langer and the Boxes, he was in Deaf School. He also produced the first Teardrop Explodes record, so he brought a lot as a guest. He was happy to do it and I was very thankful.
PKM: Did he appreciate someone so young being so into his music and productions?
Charles Epting: I think so. I think he was also relieved to not just be asked about Madness. It’s become a common theme for guests on the podcast. I think they appreciate an opportunity to discuss less obvious and more personal projects.
PKM: So you wanted to focus on one specific label at a time?
Charles Epting: Originally. The initial idea for the podcast was for the first season to be all about Radar but then I realized it was hard to compartmentalize because there were many artists that were involved with different producers and labels. Artists moved around. So I started branching out. The main labels I’ve been focusing on are Clone Records out of Ohio, Ork and ZE of New York, Bomp and Beserkley out of California and Radar and Stiff out of the UK. There are a few others now too, like Red Star out of New York. But the focus of Lost Labels would be broad enough to include all of the cutting-edge independent labels primarily form the 1970s. “Independent” is a key word. There’s a lot of great stuff released on Sire and Warners and big labels like that, but those are majors. I just want to focus on independents.
PKM: Describe the range of guests you’ve had on so far.
Charles Epting: A range of everyone from producers, label staffers, artists, engineers and more. So, for instance, Craig Leon from Red Star produced the first Suicide album; from Ork I spoke with Ivan Julian from the Voidoids and Howard Bowler of Marbles and Jon Tiven from both Prix and Alex Chilton’s band. Hue Gower from the Records was another good one. He became such a part of the New York scene and told me some great stories. He wrote the guitar part for one of my favorite songs ever, “Starry Eyes.”
From Stiff I’ve spoken with Henry Priestman from Yachts, Clive Gregson from Any Trouble, Andy Murray who was the press agent from Stiff Record and who was responsible for the many unique promotions Stiff did, Wreckless Eric – –
PKM: The Wreckless Eric episode was terrific.
Charles Epting: Wreckless Eric is one of five artists on that first famous Stiff Records tour, along with Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Ian Dury and Larry Wallis. He was happy to talk and especially happy that I was just 27 years old because I was not alive to have experience Stiff originally. He thinks the books that have been written are inaccurate along with many of the stories and the mythmaking. So he wanted to right a lot of those wrongs. He did some of that in his book but he seemed happy to have a blank canvas where he could really express himself and correct many misconceptions. He lives in upstate New York and so I went up there and we spoke at a coffee shop just after he recovered from a severe bout with the coronavirus.
“Independent” is a key word. There’s a lot of great stuff released on Sire and Warners and big labels like that, but those are majors. I just want to focus on independents.
PKM: What are some of the things you’ve learned so far?
Charles Epting: Jon Tiven, who was Alex Chilton’s guitar player and also had his band, Prix, both of whom released singles on Ork Records, shared a lot. I knew Alex was in bad shape in the mid 70s after the demise a Big Star. But when Jon arrived in Memphis to record with Alex (they had been friends since the end of Big Star), there was a story in the press at that time that Alex had broken his hand and could not play guitar, which is why Jon had to play all the guitars during the sessions. Jon shared with me that Alex had broken his hand by trying to punch his girlfriend in the head and instead hit the wall. He told me how Alex and his girlfriend had a mutually destructive relationship. Jon also shared this his own relationship with Alex ended when Chilton tried to put a cigarette out in his eye a couple of years later when they were at CBGB. It’s not always pretty but these anecdotes give context to what else was going on.
PKM: What label have you learned the most about?
Charles Epting: I think ZE Records. ZE records was founded by Michael Zilkha and Michel Estaban and is probably my favorite record label. On back to back days I spoke with Bob Blank, the in-house engineer, who worked on records by everyone from Kid Creole to Lydia Lunch to James Chance to his own project called Aural Exciters. And then the next day I spoke with Zilkha himself, the co-founder, which was fascinating. They bother shed a lot of light on how they created the “mutant disco” sound which is what they called the music being released ZE. Also, Michael was a huge Suicide fan and never thought he’d be successful enough to sign a band as important as Suicide. But he got a call one day saying Suicide had recorded a single and didn’t have enough money to pay the studio bills so all it took was him running down and paying their bills and that’s how we got the rights to their next single, and so that’s how he got to put out “Dream Baby Dream. The song had been floating around had been a B side in a rough demo form – but that’s how the final version came to be. Ric Ocasek said he wanted to produce their second album for free, he was such a huge fan of Suicide. It was an altruistic move, supporting an unknown band like that, but he also demanded that he put up at the Plaza Hotel for the duration of production. Zilkha told me that in the end, given how expensive the Plaza was, they wished they had just paid him to produce the record.
PKM: The Chris Butler episode was particularly entertaining and informative.
Charles Epting: He was wonderful as a guest and we’ve stayed in touch. I even visited him in Ohio recently. Chris Butler (of the Waitresses) was interesting because he came out of Ohio scene that birthed the Bizarros, the Dead Boys, Devo, Pere Ubu, and others. The Waitresses were originally a side project so he could make music that his band, Tin Huey, would not release. The Waitresses then had a second life when Chris moved to New York. He needed to put together a band and he found out that the Contortions had just broken up. He found guitarist Pat Place working as a ticket taker at movie theater but she wasn’t not interested in joining the band. The rest of the Contortions became his backing band for the first version of the Waitresses. That band broke up and and he got Billy Fica from Television and a couple of other players for Waitresses 2.0. Chris Butler is really interesting because he crosses over from that raw Midwestern punk scene into the mutant disco New York scene, so he gets you the best of both worlds.
Waitresses – I Know What Boys Like:
PKM: Do you have a “wish list” of people you’d like to talk with for the podcast?
Charles Epting: Richard Hell. Aside from just being, in my view, a brilliant and important artist, he released music on Ork, Stiff, Radar and Red Star – four labels that the podcast heavily focuses on. Also, I think he’s just a genius and Blank Generation is my second favorite album after the first Suicide album. Martin Rev from Suicide would be great, obviously. Jake Rivera, co-founder of Stiff Records. Lydia Lunch and James Chance would also be interesting.
PKM: How many episodes have you recorded and where do you see the series going?
Charles Epting: I’ve recorded enough right now for about 30 episodes and about half of those have been posted. An I want to keep expanding. David Bowie wrote a note to Tony Visconti back in the late 1970s that has been since shared on social media. In it, he instructs Visconti to buy him certain records and he specifies that he wants the entire Stiff Records catalog. That means something. That catalog, from the Damned, to the Adverts, to Nick Lowe to Elvis was just so consistently interesting and Bowie knew it. He obviously understood the reputation of the label. So that’s what drives this project, that kind of label-based fascination; the concept that a record label can tell you about a record before you buy it. Also, everyone will remember the greats like Patti Smith, Television, the Dolls, Dead Boys and many others. But what about forgotten bands like U.S. Ape and Model Citizens? Their stories matter too and so I’d like to be able to document these lesser known artists that recorded as a result of smaller, independent renegade record labels.