I was a graduate student in 1988. I was also a college radio DJ and I had been publishing the small "fanzine" Incite! (ten sheets of letter-sized paper, folded over, stapled, and duplicated at the local print shop: what blogs were before blogs) since 1985. The latter made me think that it must be relatively easy to run your own record label, because so many people I knew were doing it. (I would soon find out how wrong I was; and my respect for how much work everyone involved contributed to my music scene would soon grow by leaps and bounds). So I contacted five bands I knew, they each gave me two songs, and the result was "Harmony in My Head," a poorly-recorded cassette tape compilation that was the prelude to Harriet Records, which I started the next year. The tape was named after a song by the Buzzcocks; the label was inspired by a record label from Bristol, UK, called Sarah Records, and the children's book Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I released no-frills music by bands that toured (now and then), got radio airplay (on low-frequency college stations), and were mostly much better-educated and less pretentious than most rock musicians out there.
Here's a retrospective on the label I wrote for Incite! number 30; and here are a few samples from among the hundreds of songs that saw a little bit of light through my efforts:
“100,000 Fireflies” by The Magnetic Fields (Harriet Records, 1991). The Magnetic Fields have gone on to bigger things, including the epic "69 Love Songs," performances at Lincoln Center, and most recently a collaboration with Peter Gabriel.
“Steamrolling, But it Wasn’t Steamrolling” by Wimp Factor XIV (Harriet Records, 1993). Wimp Factor (a now-forgotten reference to the first George Bush) hailed from Pittsburgh, PA; their singer Frank Boscoe went on to play in two similar-sounding bands (Vehicle Flips and the Gazetteers), earned his Ph.D. in geography, and now works as a cartographer for the New York Health Department. Like Frank in the song (but in the present tense), I am surrounded by people getting things done here at Lehman.
“My Tailor Is Rich” by Caramel (1996). One of the few bilingual singles on Harriet, Caramel's singer was a physics doctoral student in Cardiff (Wales) but his heart (and his band) was in Limoges (France). This song is a wry reflection on his early efforts to learn English.
"Daddy Rolex" by High Risk Group. Among other things, High Risk Group was active in the Boston chapter of Rock Against Sexism in the early 1990s; they were also the first band I signed to Harriet. This was their second single, from 1991.
"Breakfast of Champions" by Prickly. The song title refers to a popular morning show on WMBR, MIT's excellent radio station. The song itself sums up the life of the lonely scholar: "Holed up in the can, just tryin' to read."
A short (but at least accurate) Wikipedia entry; liner notes to my final CD compilation "Friendly Society"; a little more information on rateyourmusic.com; and a little context (for those of you who have never heard of indie pop before).
An hour on the subway each way between Woodside and the Bronx gives me plenty of time to keep listening to great new music. Here's a taste of the now and then of it, dating back to the 1990s (and including The 1990s!).
The 1990s, "You're Supposed to Be My Friend." From their 2007 debut LP Cookies on Rought Trade Records, this band took bad teeth to the next level, and gave Pulp a run for their money in the tongue-in-rockstar's-cheek arena.
Sonny Boy Williamson, "Eye Sight for the Blind." Elaine RIvera of the JCT Department clued me into this one. No moving images, just sound: to quote the legendary radio personality Norman Corwin, who died recently: "the ear makes a participant to the listener." Participate!
One of the best-named groups in recent years, The Get Busy Committee delivered one of the best songs of 2009 with "My Littler Razorblade"—actually two of the best, since they rap over the amazing "Heartbeats" by Swedish electro band The Knife.
Keny Arkana "La Rage": There's no one like this in the U.S. (I wish there were). From Marseilles, and truly inspiring. From her debut 2006 CD, "Entre Ciment et Belle Étoile."
Lethal Bizzle "Police on My Back": The Clash seldom sounded so good ("Straight to Hell," sampled on M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," comes very close) as on this 2007 single. The back-up band are The Rakes—see below. The School of Arts and Humanities does not endorse car jacking.
Cashless Society “Hottentot Hop Bantu”: Cashless Society are South African rappers founded by Kwezi Ngcakani and Julian Du Plessis. "Hottentot Hop" appeared in 2008 on the African Grooves Vol. 13 compilation.
Roll Deep “Racist People”: Roll Deep formed in 2002 and helped to create the "grime" hip-hop scene in London. "Racist People" is from their second CD, "Rules and Regulations" (2007) and features co-founder Wiley, who now vies with Dizzee Rascal as the best-known British rapper.
Juvenile "Get Ya Hustle On": Kanye West made headlines in 2005 with his comments about the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. Juvenile (aka Terius Gray), who had been rapping about conditions in New Orleans since the mid-90s, wrote the best song about it.
Pinker Tones "Karma Hunters": Splendid (and funny) animation from this Barcelona electro band, from their 2005 "Million Colour Revolution" CD.
Massiv, "MAS Techno": Massiv (aka Wasiem Taha), is a German rapper of Palestinian origin. This single from 2009 (and accompanying video) is very... muscular.
Familjen, "Nar Planeterna Stannat": Swedish techno from Johan Karlsson. Everybody gets to play the drums!
I'm From Barcelona, "Paper Planes": Also from Sweden (not Barcelona), one of a bundle of great new pop bands from there. I'd venture to say that this is among the best videos ever shot in an elevator.
Tricky, "Black Steel": a great British band that put trip-hop on the map. That's Martina Topley-Bird on vocals (at a taping in NYC, 1998). The song originally appeared on their debut CD Maxinquaye (1995).
The Rakes “Strasbourg”: The Rakes were an amazing London band that released three CDs between 2004 and 2009. "Strasbourg" is from their first, Capture/Release.
McLusky "She Will Only Bring You Happiness": My favorite band between 2002 until they broke up in 2005, this Cardiff-based outfit provoked in all the right ways. From their 2004 CD "The Difference Between Me and You is that I'm Not on Fire."
Pulp “Common People”: Fronted by the absurdly appropriately-named Jarvis Cocker, Pulp stretched art rock into a series of comfortably evolving shapes between 1978 and 2002. "Common People," from their "Different Class" CD (1995) was as close as they ever came to fame and fortune.
Bloc Party "Helicopter": Not since the Specials has their been such a successful and innovative interracial British rock band. This is from a single released in 2006, and the performance is from the late-night UK music show "Later With Jules Holland."
Sleater Kinney "You're No Rock'n'Roll Fun": From Olympia, WA, this band was absolutely the coolest thing going in the late 1990s, and by far the best thing to emerge out of the "riot girl" scene. From their 2000 CD "All Hands On The Bad One."
Mark Riley and the Creepers "Judas Sheep": Mark Riley, who is older than me, is a former member of The Fall. The was the band he formed after that and the video is exquisite.
Electric Six "Gay Bar": This video, from the always-campy Detroit sextet (with an emphasis on the sex) Electric Six, accompanied their debut CD "Danger High Voltage" (2003). Abe Lincoln will be rolling over in his coffin (or bathtub).