WFMU Ichiban, Rock and Soul with Debbie D

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Norton Records: It's bigger than all of us

When I opened my first record store in the early 90s, in Columbia, Missouri, Norton Records was the label on which the whole store pivoted, at least in my heart.  Crypt had the best contemporary bands and the Back from the Grave comps and an essential persona of hilarious anger and resentment. Estrus and Sympathy had their own West Coast garage punk thing and the attractive graphic design. In the Red had the weirdos, Goner were the weirdos, and Telstar and Bag of Hammers and Ripoff and others were important to an overall healthy rock and roll presentation. But Norton Records not only had some of the best records - it had the point of view and the sense of humor that most explicitly dovetailed with and informed my own idea of what rock and roll was and why it deserved to be celebrated in all of its crazy permutations.

The Revelators play in front of Whizz! Records ca. 1996 or so.

It helped that they were the label that put out local heroes the Untamed Youth. This put Columbia, MO in the rock and roll game, and it was to my mind essential that we keep their records in a position of prominence at all times. This meant frequently ordering directly from Norton, since none of my other distributors reliably kept deep Norton catalog in stock. You could pick up the latest from Matador or get a 35% fill from Get Hip, but if you wanted to make sure you got exactly what you wanted you went straight to the phone and talked to Miriam. Plus they'd keep me in stock on the Youth's notorious "banned" Sophisticated International Playboys EP, which you couldn't get anywhere else.  (You should check out Deke Dickerson's remembrances of his early experiences with Norton here.)

I quickly discovered Norton was waaaay more than Untamed Youth - more than any other label I could or can think of, Norton epitomized rock and roll as a point of view, a way of life, a pair of shades through which you could view the world. The best bands are as much about fully realized, manifested personas as they are about the music (prime Stones, Dolls, Ramones, Cheater Slicks, Menster Phip & the Phips), and Norton was an entire label that managed to project that attitude of a larger-than-life entity strolling through the world casting illumination on all things rockin'.  From the perspective of a record guy in the middle of Missouri (and now North Carolina), Norton Records was not just Billy Miller and Miriam Linna - even if it really is just Billy and Miriam most of the time. Billy and Miriam had a baby and it named itself rock and roll.  

The Norton attitude was clearly flash-fried in the same kind of yuk-up-yer-sleeve Mad Magazine attitude as me, while at the same time, Norton obviously took the important things seriously - the Link Wray Missing Links series, f'rinstance, is some of the most deadly stuff released by anyone ever. Another label might have presented a wildman like Hasil Adkins as a novelty act, but Norton accorded him the respect and awe he truly deserved. At the same time, it also gave props and perspective on the stupidest records ever created and really opened up my mind to the vast scope and wonderful ridiculousness of rock and roll. The notion that, oh, I dunno, the Slough Boys and the Real Kids were part of the same continuity, that Wade Curtis's "Puddy Tat" and the Twiliter's "Rollerland" and Bobby Fuller's El Paso Recordings had an equal place in the rock and roll firmament was, if not exactly alien to me, brought into better focus because of Norton. 

I learned that it was all about chickens.
Kicks set the standard for hyper-hyphenated ultra-injokey but passionate and informative rock and roll writing. And don't get me started on how awesome their old print catalogs were. Distributed records (who knows where they came from?) like the Big Itch series clarified that the ocean of insane music was too big to ever get a true handle on, that it was impossible to ever run out of new noise, even if that meant digging deeper into the past rather than keeping a both eyes on the future. Which was fine with me.  

Without these records of unknown origin, the world would be a much poorer place!
I remember when Do You Feel It? The Captivating Sound of Question Mark and the Mysterians came into the shop fresh on its release.  This record defied every notion of what a reunited 60s band was supposed to sound like in the 90s - how could so many of those songs actually sound BETTER in '96 than in '66? I actually brought this question to Miriam in an e-mail to restock the album, and she replied "I don't know what to tell you about how it happened, all I know is that it just is, and that's what makes it so wonderful, darling!" 

And while you can fill in the timeline on the actual history of the Norton empire, like Question Mark and the Mysterians topping their two "real" albums on one crazy night in Coney Island in front of a room of 50 people at three in the morning (I think that's the deets), it's harder to get a grasp on how all the pieces fell into place to become the inspiration, the resource, and the outlet for so much great stuff.  How many of the labels I mentioned at the top of this post were inspired or at least influenced by Norton records, and how many of them are still even around? Would we have Ugly Things magazine without Kicks? Would Sundazed and the entire model of US rock and roll reissue labels even exist without Norton? Would Ichiban?

Thinking about the entire Norton catalog, along with their legendary archive of print memorabilia, master tapes, Kicks books, and God knows what other irreplaceable bits of the culture, all waterlogged and/or destroyed when the warehouse got swept up in the Sandy surge breaks my heart AND my jaw. That place was a museum waiting to happen, and the loss seems immeasurable. But Billy and Miriam, proud and determined parents that they are, aren't giving up. They aren't throwing out the baby with the flood water, but they need your help nursing it back to health. 

Norton Records needs to be saved. Norton Records has to survive and to continue, because the world needs Norton Records. And Norton needs volunteers and it needs donations. If you're visiting this blog or listening to Rock 'n' Soul Ichiban, remember - Norton Records is your heritage as much as it is anything else. 

You can find out the latest on how best to volunteer your time in this recent update on the  situation, and you can donate here.  


Anonymous said...

Right On, brother, right on.

Tom Burgess said...

Columbia, the gem of Boone County