Howie Klein Revisits The Rise of Punk and Alternative Music With 415 Records & Liberation Hall Releases (INTERVIEW)

Over the last few months of 2020, 415 Records and Liberation Hall teamed up for the remastered release of an anthology and several albums by bands who were part of the 415 label’s original slate of releases in San Francisco in the late 70s and early 80s during the rise of Punk Rock and Alternative music via the local live music scene. The co-founder of 415 with Chris Knab, Howie Klein, who also went on to a very storied career in the music industry at Sire Records and Warner Bros., has spearheaded these very special releases, including the multi-artist Disturbing The Peace compilation, and expanded reissues from SVT, Uptones, Readymades and Pop-O-Pies, all currently available.

The story of Klein’s early years in music, and the story of 415, is a fascinating one that stemmed from attending a thriving live music scene in San Francisco during a period of rapid change, curating the budding Punk and Alternative bands for radio shows, then later for 7-inch releases, and finally, full album releases that eventually became a first look partnership with CBC/Columbia Records. A number of 415’s bands, like Red Rockers and Translator, ended up with Columbia Records deals, but it’s the bands who remained with 415 you’ll find on these new rereleases, bringing with them the freshness of a less commercial sound that captures the atmosphere of the scene so fully. Howie Klein spoke with me about his personal experiences setting up the label, learning about the often less savory aspects of the music business, and how it all put him in good stead to continue putting the band first during his lifelong career in music. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: When you set up the 415 label, back in those days, what did you have to do in order to make that happen?

Howie Klein: That was at the end of the 70s, and the music industry was very different from what it is now, and it was already different from when I’d discovered the music industry in the mid-60s. But my friend, Chris Knab and I were basically fans of this new genre of music that was called “Punk” and some people called it “Alternative”. We started the very first Punk Rock radio show in the US on a commercial station. There were a couple of non-commercial stations doing it, but we were at KSan, a flagship station in San Francisco. There weren’t enough releases coming out to fill up a whole show, so we started playing tapes of local bands. Then local bands started asking if we’d put their records out. 

Chris had a record store called Aquarius Records and I was a writer for some Punk magazines. We didn’t know how to put records out or any of that stuff, so it was very much a do-it-yourself operation. That was common around the country. Also, neither of us had any money, so everything was done on credit. We got studio time on credit. It was always kind of understood that we’d pay when we could. We were up front with everyone that we didn’t really expect any profit and everyone was pitching in.

One of the San Francisco studios, called The Automatt at the time, had a really nice owner and he’d let us use his studio, which was also being used by the biggest bands in San Francisco. He’d let us use it when he had down time. All the people who worked for us, doing production and engineering, also did it for nothing. Even the manufacturer let us do it on credit, which I can’t imagine happening today. That’s how we got the label started. The first band that came to us was The Nuns, and they were the most popular Punk band in San Francisco. All the major labels would come and hear them and make demos with them, but then the labels wouldn’t know how to sell it, so they’d end up with these demos. Then the band gave us the demos and said that we could just use them to make a record, so we didn’t have much of an investment, and it was just fun for us. 

Then we’d find record stores like Aquarius in every city who would love to get our records. The same with fanzines and magazines as this music was developing as a new thing around the country. It was all one big family. We were lucky that we were in the right place at the right time. 

HMS: Were you surprised to find that there were other people also excited about Punk music out there in other parts of the USA?

HK: People were getting it going everywhere, and a whole bunch of us got together after writing to each other for a year or two. There were people who had alternative magazines, or radio shows, or labels, or shops, and we had a kind of convention called “The New Music Seminar”. There were 150 to 200 people the first time, but it got to be a really big thing. It was very exciting. A lot of us had known each other from writing to each other, and we were all trying to do the same thing and get a network of live venues going. We wanted to create a situation where our bands could play at these clubs and the clubs were really excited about it. It was a special time and Chris and I were in on it from the start. Even though we were a San Francisco-based label, we also looked for opportunities to put out bands from other towns. We did the Red Rockers, who were from New Orleans. We were mostly San Francisco, but we would keep an eye out for other independent bands as well that fit with what we were doing.

HMS: These were, initially, 7-inch records being released by 415 right?

HK: The Nuns were a 7-inch EP with three songs, and The Mutants did the same thing. The first album looked like the one that just came out, a compilation album, though it didn’t have the same songs as the one we just released. That was the first 12 inch that we did. It promoted the band that we felt strongly about. At the time, we weren’t signing any bands. We didn’t commit to anything. It wasn’t until one of our bands, who we had put out a 7 inch for, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions, came to us and told us that they had been signed by Warner Bros. Records, that we realized that we better have contracts. That was a little distasteful to me to realize that we were going to have to deal with a lawyer. 

But we were instrumental in helping get Pearl Harbor and the Explosions get signed, bringing Warner Bros. to their show, and then we got a letter from Warner Bros. lawyer telling us to cease and desist selling any Pearl Harbor records. They told us that if we sold any more of their records, they would sue us, and this was catastrophic for us. We had these singles that we had to sell. Ironically, much later I became one of the presidents of that company. But at that time, to me, it was just this giant, faceless, behemoth and that’s when we realized that we had to become serious and start actually signing bands. We had to protect ourselves and offer them protection as well, so we did. The first band we actually signed was Romeo Void, for whom we put out a single, and then an album. 

But these releases we are releasing right now are all from bands who were not part of our CBS deal. When I refer to “CBS”, that’s now Sony Records. At the time, CBS was the parent company, and we dealt with Columbia Records. At one point, we made a deal with them, and they had the choice of taking bands that they wanted to take and not taking bands that they didn’t want to take. So the other bands remained 415’s and the ones that CBS released, we the lost rights to. 

HMS: Thank you for explaining those relationships. I wanted to ask you about that partnership with Columbia. What do you think led to some bands being picked up by them and some not, and did you have any particular feelings about that at the time?

HK: We always hoped that all of the bands would be picked because it would give them an opportunity to have a career. That’s how I went into it, thinking it would give them an opportunity to make some money. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the horror of being part of a corporate machine and what an awful thing it was. I know this sounds really hippy dippy, but 415 was really a family. Not only did I know all the bands, but I knew their boyfriends and girlfriends and fathers and mothers. We were all working as a team together. 

When a band puts out a record, there’s a good chance that they’ve worked on it for a number of years, and it’s like their child. I remember this one time when I was already falling out of love with working with Columbia, for one of Translator’s albums, all these plans for publicity and marketing had been made, and then the record came out, and nothing happened. I went to the head of promotion and asked, “What happened?” He said they had other priorities and they would get us on the next one. But I thought, “No. There’s no next one. This has to be.” 

Later on, we started having some success with one of our bands, Red Rockers, and their songs started taking off. I went to the head of promotion and asked why we weren’t getting any crossover, saying, “How come we aren’t getting any of these played on the Top 40 or even trying?” I don’t remember his exact words at the time, but what he basically said was, “If you want that to happen, you have to pay me.” On top of that, we’d have to find money to bribe the radio stations. He needed to be bribed and the radio stations needed to be bribed or it wasn’t going to cross over. 

HMS: Wow, that is so crazy!

HK: That’s when I decided to get out of the business entirely. It was such a depressing thing for me. I wanted to give up the whole thing, but at that time, one of my mentors was Seymour Stein, who had set up his own independent record label now with Warner Bros., Sire Records, which was on a higher level in the food chain. He asked if I wanted to come and work with him as a general manager at the company. He was offering me more money than I thought I would ever make in my life. The entire time I ran 415 Records, I had to make a decision every week whether to fill my car with gas or have dinner. I couldn’t do both. So in one conversation, he was offering me an opportunity to go from someone who couldn’t afford $100 in rent to being someone who could buy a house. It was very fortunate for me.

HMS: Because you knew Sire and your mentor, did you think that some of the distasteful aspects of the music industry that you had experienced would become more manageable while working there instead?

HK: Absolutely, yes. My Sony experiences hadn’t been entirely useless. I learned from everything they did that was wrong, and I learned to never do that myself. Some of that I knew instinctually, like never to screw over the band, since the band is everything. But at Sony, it was never about the band, it was about the careers of the executives. It was horrifying. So I learned that it must always be about the artist. Because I had such bad experiences at CBS, I learned how to behave in a corporate situation. 

HMS: To go back a bit, when you were talking about The Automatt and recording, these were bands that were very much live-performance based. That’s how you discovered them and how they were known in San Francisco. Were there goals in terms of how you were recording, in terms of trying to capture that? Or were you going more towards an album-focus since that was popular at the time?

HK: We did it both ways. To go back a few years, after college I lived overseas for seven years. I only came back one time, and that was because I had figured out that I was gay, and I wanted to tell my mother in person. We didn’t have cellphones and internet back then. While I was in New York, a friend of mine from college who was a music producer, Sandy Pearlman, brought me to a church basement to see a band play, and they blew my mind. He wanted to sign them. I said, “Sandy, you’re never going to capture that on a record. That’s just impossible.” It was Patti Smith, as a matter of fact! There was a live band, just a three piece, who completely blew my mind. Then, when her records finally came out, yes, they captured it, and I learned something from that moment.

Once the 415 stuff started, we had to balance that really carefully. A good example was the Red Rockers. The first album came out, and it was very Punk Rock, and kind of raw. There’s a certain authenticity to it. Nothing could have been more wonderful to me or them than the reviews we were getting in England and in the USA, that they were the American Clash. It was because of the authenticity and the rawness. But once CBS was in charge of them, everything changed.

The first record came out, with our producer, David Kahn, and it still captured that balance between a commercial sound and that raw, live, feel. They had a huge hit with a song called “China”. Then CBS decided that, since they were having a big hit with a band called The Hooters, they needed to put Red Rockers in the room with the same producer as The Hooters. In terms of the music, this guy had no idea what Red Rockers were all about. He had no idea what an authentic Punk band was. He had no idea. He tried to make them sound manufactured, and their career went downhill from there. It sounded too commercial. All their fans said that they sold out and didn’t like them anymore. And they got more fans, but not enough to make a career out of it. I don’t mean that a band should sound only one way, and never grow, but I do believe that it should be organic, not something manufactured.

HMS: What’s really cool about these releases now from 415 is that these were the bands who never became co-branded, so the sound is incredibly fresh and approachable. There’s a sense of air, like you’re there, in the room.

HK: Yes, you’re right. That’s exactly the case. We did sneak on one band, The Renegades, who gave me a tape at a show, and I snuck it onto a radio show. In the process of me working with them, the Sony deal happened, and the band also changed their name to Wire Train. So we retained ownership of that tape, meaning The Renegades and 415. Because of that, we were able to put that song out on the compilation. 

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One Response

  1. It was a huge honor and privilege to work for this brilliant man at Warner Bros. I remember a priceless moment watching him pick up the Reprise main phone line: “Hello? Yes? Yes. This is Howie Klein. Yes, this is the Howie Klein! What can I do for you?” His steadfast integrity and rejection of hierarchy continues to inspire me in all of my endeavors.

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