WFMU Ichiban, Rock and Soul with Debbie D

Monday, November 5, 2012

Deke Dickerson remembers his early days as a Norton Records artist

 In the 1980's, as a headstrong teenager fresh out of high school, I was in a band called the Untamed Youth.  We were the first "new" act signed by Norton Records, back in 1988.  It's hard to remember this now, but at the time the two main formats were vinyl records or cassette tapes.  CDs were an expensive medium for classical and jazz fanatics, and if my memory is correct the earliest CD players cost something like two thousand dollars.  LP's were definitely waning in popularity, and cassettes were the highest selling format....and don't forget the most miserable format of all, "cassingles,"  the majors' feeble attempt to replace the 45 rpm record with a two-song cassette tape.  If you were a normal alternative rock or heavy metal band in 1988, you put your new release out on cassette, and it would possibly be released on vinyl if you were signed to a big indie or major label.  There was no "hip" association with vinyl at the time.  It wasn't cool like it is today.  Mainstream people hated it.  A lot of people thought the pressing plants for vinyl were going to go out of business (and a lot of them did) during that time.

I remember asking Billy Miller if the Untamed Youth album would be released on cassette, since I was very worried (insert sad horn sound here) about our band's commercial potential in the marketplace.  Billy's response was that "cassettes are for Madonna."  When the Untamed Youth came to New York to play, Billy took me in the Norton-mobile to the pressing plant to see our record being made.

To an 18-year old kid, immersed in the new-to-me mystical world of intense, obsessive record collecting, seeing the antiquated processes and machinery that created these records was like a visit to the Wizard of Oz.  Machines wheezed and clunked and the air was thick and acrid with the smell of vinyl particulate and steam.  It was awesome.  I watched as Untamed Youth "Some Kinda Fun" LP's came off the line.  I was surprised at how much hand-work was involved, figuring it would be an all-automated process.  Nope, it was pretty much like the 1950's, low-wage folks inserting vinyl biscuits into pressing machines, hand-inserting vinyl into sleeves.

Billy Miller looked at a stack of reject 45's and pulled out a red vinyl 45 called "Roaches" by the Court Jesters.  "Hey, this one is a good doo-wop song about Roaches, you have it?"  I replied I did not, but I knew I certainly needed it.  Soon my world would revolve around doo-wop sounds about Roaches, one-man band songs about government cheese, and surf songs about monkeys.

We loaded a bunch of boxes of literally hot-off-the-press Untamed Youth albums into the Norton-mobile and drove to the Norton warehouse (different place than it is now, but still a musty, moldy underground bunker with the sort of infrastructure and wiring and plumbing one would expect from a city built upon the ruins of the previous three centuries).  There I was, a kid fresh out of high school, unloading a princely 1000 copies of my first record down some rusty stairs into a dark basement warehouse.  I probably knew at that moment, though my ambition wouldn't let me accept it, that super-stardom was not in my future.  Madonna had not started out this way.

Somehow I knew, though, that this was my place.  A world where a pancake-shaped molded vinyl particulate would be obsessed over as though it were the Shroud of Turin by a group of unemployed, broke jackasses that really, god bless 'em, really really cared about the music.  They could tell you about alternate takes, they could tell you about which pressings were vinyl and which were noisy styrene, they could wax philosophical about how Hasil Adkins and Jerry McCain had been separated at birth, even though one was white and one was black.  I felt all the same things, and I knew that Jerry Lee Lewis alternate takes were important to me, too, even if they didn't mean a damn to the friends I had back in Missouri.  For that moment of recognizing and accepting my fellow species of lowlife music-obsessed, record collecting miscreants, I owe Billy and Miriam and Norton Records a huge thanks. 

Now here I am, two and a half decades later, lugging my own vinyl pressings into my own storage space, 1000 copies at a time.  Vinyl is hip again in a way that we never would have predicted back in the 1980s.  I have no embarrassing cassingles in my past, and I have Norton Records to thank for that as well.

It saddens me now to think of the Norton Warehouse, submerged under Hurricane Sandy bilge water, those precious biscuits of vinyl waterlogged.  Some of those priceless nuggets have my own precious teenage angst garage band music recorded on them.  I remember lugging those boxes down the stairs nearly 25 years ago, and it makes me damn proud to know that Norton Records has hung in there that long--prospered, at that.

I know that the good people will come together and help save what records can be saved, and people will help Billy and Miriam recover from this tragedy.  Norton Records is too damn important to let some flood water put 'em out of business, where Madonna had failed to do so.  You can't drown the loud sound, indeed!
 All photos appear here courtesy of the Untamed Youth's Facebook page.

1 Comment:

golddigger said...

So sad and so cool at the same time.