Warner Bros. Loss Leader Series: Troublemakers (1980)

A while back I started writing about Warner Brothers’ Loss Leader record samplers, a series of 2LP vinyl records that compiled tracks from Warner Brothers and its sister labels’ formidable roster of talent. I wrote about The Big Ball, a 1970 release by the label.

As I continue to collect and write about this series, I’ll try to capture the year and the varying fortunes of Warner Records and the music business that can be gleaned from the collections. Mostly I try to ferret out the best music and bring attention back to bands that didn’t make it big or maybe had a short time in the spotlight. Today I turn my attention to the compilation that was released in 1980 (the second such compilation in that year) called Troublemakers. It turned out to be the last release in the original Loss Leader series.

The 1970s at Warner Brothers Records is sometimes referred to as ‘The Ostin Era.’ This was the time period when the label’s executives, AR men, and staff producers included Mo Ostin, David Geffen, Joe Smith, Stan Cornyn, Lenny Waronker, Andy Wickham, Russ Titelman, and Ted Templeman. The label was known as an ‘artist first’ enterprise and had no problem attracting much of the bestselling rock talent of the day.

Troublemakers: COMPLETE PLAYLIST

In the last few years of the decade, a new rock style became influential and achieved popularity as well, at least for certain acts. The label invested in the new sounds, signing Devo and the B-52s. They also bought Sire Records in 1978, retaining label head Seymour Stein as president. Stein had signed a number of punk and new wave bands, including Dead Boys, The Ramones, Talking Heads, as well as a new dance club sensation, Madonna. Stein also had distribution deals with a number of British indie labels who were releasing cutting edge music that would be defined as post-punk. This brought bands such as Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Yaz, and Depeche Mode, into the label’s orbit. 

Warner continued to feature some of these bands on its Loss Leader series, part of the usual potpourri of musical material they presented twice yearly in the form of double LP samplers that anyone could order for only a few dollars to cover shipping costs. For their second release in 1980, the label did something unusual, but smart. They featured a group of their current new wave and postpunk bands exclusively on the Loss Leader release Troublemakers

The idea of the type of compilations that the Loss Leader series represented had seemed like a vital marketing tool in the late 1960s and the early ’70s when people still found out about new music a lot by word of mouth. By the mid-70s, people found out about new music largely through the intensive efforts of the record labels. As rock music grew into a massive business sector, the marketing departments of major record labels grew into small fiefdoms. 

In the self-proclaimed ‘obituary of rock and roll’ The Boy Looked At Johnny, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons describe the relationship between New York’s punk scene and Warner’s Sire label:

“And even if a band makes it onto the stage, they then have to survive the savage scrutiny of influential media magnates Richard Robinson (record producer/rock writer) and his sly spouse Lisa Robinson (syndicated scribe/socialite scene manipulator)–the only NYC hacks who call the tune when it comes to the submission of well-worn wares. 

   Seymour and his business (but not sleeping) partner-wife Linda control investment of capital, Richard and Lisa control media marketing, and the fun foursome share a collective court jester in senile whizz-kid Danny Fields, ex-hired hand of Lou Reed, the Stooges, and The Doors.”  

The Boy Looked at Johnny: The Obituary of Rock and Roll, Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, 1987 (First American Edition), Faber and Faber. (pg 57).

Punk and postpunk bands were largely discovered and shared, initially, by word of mouth of fans and local publications, particularly zines. Someone had the brilliant idea of dedicating the record to featuring the label’s new wave catalog exclusively, giving it a musical sound, an identity based on the music included. On previous Loss Leader samplers, the unifying concept was that the bands were all Warner Bros. artists. That’s not the only unifying concept of Troublemakers.

One of the good things about creating a Loss Leader with a certain aesthetic concept is that it limits the bands that the label featured on the sampler, so we get to hear more than one track from Urban Verbs, Robin Lane & the Chartbusters, Wire, Public Image Ltd., the Buggles, Pearl Harbor & the Explosions, and Gang of Four. I’ve always especially enjoyed compilations that have two or three songs per artist, and I used to sometimes create mixtapes that way. 

Urban Verbs were the darlings of the DC punk scene, and they drew the attention of Brian Eno, who recorded and remixed two of their songs, which the group used as a demo. Of course, the band had an in: Verbs’ lead singer Roddy Frantz was the brother of Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz, and Eno produced several Talking Heads albums. Signed to Warner, the Verbs made two excellent albums: Urban Verbs (1980) and Early Damage (1981), but neither sold well and Warner dropped the band. It’s a shame because guitarist Robert Goldstein (who passed away in 2016) creates perpetually interesting soundscapes and the band definitely had their own sound. Calling them “Fascinating but tragically overlooked” Trouser Press‘ Ira Robbins maintains that “while guitarist Robert Goldstein guided the band through striking modern instrumental pieces of depth and quality, Roddy Frantz’s urban-alienation lyrics, delivered in a fair approximation of David Byrne’s vocal style, typecast the group as second-string imitators. The Verbs’ records showed great potential, but this needless flaw prevented them from being taken seriously.

They are represented on Troublemakers by two tracks from their first album: “Subways” (‘I leave my problems on the street/and ride the subway where it’s always warm) and “The Only One of You,” which, while quirky, is the poppier song. The Urban Verbs also distinguished themselves by using synthesizers at a time when most punk bands were just using an organ or electric piano.

Robin Lane began singing in folk-rock clubs in California in her late teens, and in 1969 she became known when she sang on “Round and Round,” a track from Neil Young’s Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere. In the ‘70s she moved to Cambridge, MA, and became interested in the harder rock sounds of some of the punk bands on the East Coast. In 1978 she formed the Chartbusters featuring Asa Brebner and Leroy Radcliffe (both from The Modern Lovers) Scott Baerenwald and Tim Jackson. The group played energetic rock that was heavily influenced, both in topic and in performance, by Lane’s folk-rock roots and her Christian faith. This was another hugely underrated band whose music should have been blaring from every car radio, and its Byrds update proved influential on bands like The Bangles. The two tracks here, “Don’t Wait Till Tomorrow” and “Kathy Lee” come from the band’s first album on Warner, but the followups, Imitation Life and the EP Five Live, are also great and deserving of being sought out. In 2019 Blixa Sounds released Many Years Ago, a complete collection of Lane’s Warner output with a nice package, so her best work is accessible right now. 

Wire is the most process and experiment-focused band here and in that respect, I would compare them to Radiohead. Wire retains a talent for pop music but approaches it obtusely from a minimalist angle. Both tracks on Troublemakers come from the group’s third album, 154. It would be their last for eight years until the group resurfaced with a more electronic sound in 1987. Even so, the group developed quickly over the course of their first three Warner releases: While Pink Flag was minimalist punk, Chairs Missing added keyboards and more expansive song structures. 154, named for the number of live gigs that Wire had played up to that point, consolidated what the group had learned and taken from the differing approaches to the first two albums. The beautiful “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W” manages to evoke Joy Division, R.E.M., and Pylon during its 3:40 duration. 

Jon Savage said that Joy Division was not a punk band but that they were inspired by its energy. People got tired of a few chunky chords and recycled guitar riffs badly played but they did like the energy the new music produced. The music industry needed a handy genre designation for this music, and so it became ‘new wave.’ Unfortunately, in the words of Claude Bessy, writer for Slash magazine and sometimes punk singer, ‘new wave doesn’t mean shit.’ But the music being created by bands like Joy Division, Gang of Four, and Public Image Limited earned the moniker ‘post-punk’, leaving new wave for the more pop-oriented, less abrasive acts.

Both Andy Gill of Gang of Four and Keith Levene of Public Image played a different style of guitar from what had typically been heard in rock music before. They eschewed the buzzsaw chords of punk groups like The Ramones and Buzzcocks, playing instead a style that was angular, abrasive, percussive, and left much more space for bass and drums. Some bassists were influenced by funk as Gang of Four’s David Wolfson or by dub, like PiL’s Jah Wobble. The two tracks on Troublemakers from Gang of Four’s debut, “Damaged Goods” and “Love Like Anthrax,” are representative of their sound as well as their lyrical outlook. 

In fact, the songs were the band’s first single, which is a good indication of how radical Gang of Four really was at the time. “Anthrax” is especially stunning, with Andy Gill opening with a room-clearing salvo of feedback that exists on its own terms, not acknowledging a song form or chords, or leading to anything that is the actual song. When the rhythm section comes in Gill lays out momentarily, only to return in the same style. It’s as though Gill’s guitar part is a form of energy that hangs over what the group is playing without being influenced by it in any way. While Jon King sings the song’s lyrics, Gill takes to reading something of a manifesto simultaneously on the other channel, a nod to Godard’s use of the split-screen technique in film. “I don’t think we’re saying there’s anything wrong with love,” Gill intones, “We just don’t think that what goes on between two people should be shrouded with mystery.”

Public Image Ltd was the new band formed by John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten) on the dissolution of the Sex Pistols. The band was supposed to be the next phase for Lydon, a band that was not punk and that would be what the Pistols were not, which is to say they would be a real band and they would move in a different direction, but the first album by the band, First Issue, contained both new ideas and rehashing of some old ones. The band did seem to be searching for new energy, and on the album’s opening track, “Theme,” they find a groove that will serve the band well in the future, with drums like waves constantly crashing the shoreline, Jah Wobble’s dub-influenced bass, and Keith Levene playing guitar in the same kind of choppy, in your face, pure sound approach as Gill was exploring with Gang of Four. Other tracks, like “Public Image,” which is included on Troublemakers, are punk songs with a little bit of artsy guitar thrown on top but honestly, it’s the group’s most Sex Pistols-like song. 

PiL’s sophomore effort, Second Edition, was released in 1978, and by the time they recorded it, they had developed the sound they were looking for. Levene, the band’s co-founder, had also founded The Clash and convinced Joe Strummer to join, leaving before the band recorded a single note. Levene was also reinventing the language of rock guitar with his postpunk array of noise, feedback, and effects. Levene does sometimes resort to a bit of old fashioned strumming in order to build a certain energy, but the overall effect is one of sound shapes and single note figures. U2’s Edge was definitely influenced by Levene’s work on the early PiL albums.

Singer Pearl E. Gates was a backup singer/dancer with The Tubes, the theatrical San Francisco-based band, and then she became part of the San Francisco punk/new wave scene. Pearl Harbor and the Explosions were formed with guitarist Peter Bilt, and the Stench Brothers, John and Hilary, on bass and drums. Warner signed the band on the strength of their song “Drivin'” which sold 10,000 copies with no real marketing and became a radio staple around the Bay area. The song is ear-catching a low-key cool with its hi-hat driven beat, motorik bassline, and pentatonic melody, but what really makes it work is the juxtaposition of Bilt’s clipped jazz-voiced chords on the verses with a more straight-ahead rock guitar on the chorus. At times the group sounds like an up and coming Police. 

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of other songs put together that well on the group’s one and only album, and “Drivin'” is not included on Troublemakers. The song had already proven itself and so Warner features the album’s second cut, “You Got It (Release It)” and a non-album B-side entitled “Busy Little B-Side.”  “You Got It” was originally released as the B-side of “Drivin'” when it was released on the local 415 Records label. It’s a sunny piece of power pop that sounds about as ‘alternative’ as pumpkin spice. “Busy Little B-side” is a clever uptempo boogie about a hit song that emerges from a B-side record, a story that is ubiquitous in the canons of all popular music genres. Ultimately, the album sounds like many a local band that has a shot at the top of the charts but can’t quite convert on the play. For that reason, it may give many listeners a shot of positive nostalgic feelings as they remember the local bands of their youth.

The Buggles were formed in 1977 and released their first album, The Age of Plastic, in January of 1980. The first single, “Video Killed the Radio Star” (included on Troublemakers) was a hit in the UK, allowing Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn to record an album. Shortly after this, the duo joined prog-rock band Yes to replace singer Jon Anderson and keyboard player Rick Wakeman. They completed the album Drama with Yes as well as touring with Yes in 1981. In August of 1981, the “Video Killed the Radio Star” became the first music video broadcast by U.S. MTV, securing its place as a cultural milestone. 

The Age of Plastic is a good synth-pop album, one well worth listening to even now. The tracks run a large gamut of styles and the record is meticulously produced (Horn left Yes after the ’81 tour to focus on production). “Clean Clean,” the other Troublemakers track, starts out like a Billy Idol song and sounds much less dated than a lot of 1980s synth-driven music. Horn helped define the sounds of the ’80s as a much sought after producer, while Downes has remained in the orbit of Yes. 

Marianne Faithful is hardy a new wave artist, but her emergence with the 1979 album Broken English might as well have been her debut. After surviving a rough time of heroin addiction and homelessness that left her once-crystalline voice a hoarse croak, Faithful received a lot of attraction with the album that featured the songs “Why D’Ya Do It,” “Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” and John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” which is included on Troublemakers. The album’s title track, also included here, featured Steve Winwood’s bubbling keyboards. Winwood was brought in at the suggestion of producer Mark Miller Mundy in order to give the album a more modern and electronic sound. It obviously worked, as the album gave Faithful a huge comeback from which she was able to put together a new, post-’60s career. 

Troublemakers, back cover

Rounding out Troublemakers are single tracks by The Modern Lovers, Devo, Brian Briggs, and Nico (whose Desert Shore album is anything but New Wave). Oh, and there are two tracks from a band called The Sex Pistols, who reportedly started this whole UK punk thing but then dissolved after one album. Personally, I find it difficult to even consider them a band, but in truth, many successful bands started out by being artificially constructed, so there you go. In any event, if you like the music of this time period Troublemakers provides a pretty solid listening experience and takes the Warner Loss Leader Series into new territory. 

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