We’re back with our first Unsung Heroes of Americana article for 2021 and Tim Martin returns to take a look at a record company that has become synonymous with the genre.
David Geffen has a reputation as a cliché hard-nosed music business magnate. When he founded Asylum Records in 1971 with Neil Young’s manager Elliot Roberts, they picked the name after Geffen was unable to get Jackson Browne a record deal elsewhere, and they saw it as a safe place for “their” artists. The story goes that the first artist planned for the label was Geffen’s friend Laura Nyro, who decided to stay at Columbia in the end. Geffen has said it was the biggest betrayal of his life up to that point and that he “cried for days”. While that seems hard to reconcile with the popular view of Geffen, he did sign some artists who were at first sight less than commercial.
The first catalogue number is the debut from Judee Sill. With Jackson Browne’s self-titled album next in line. Sill subsequently complained about her treatment by Geffen and his failure to promote her albums, as we mentioned in out Forgotten Artists piece on her a few months back, the debut sold well enough and money was spent on her second ‘Heart Food’. She was treated certainly no worse than other artists. Folk duo Batdorf & Rodney, and singer-songwriter David Blue were in the same boat as Sill. The formation, at Geffen’s encouragement, of The Eagles, and the arrival of Joni Mitchell meant, as with many record companies, that the focus was simply on the potential big sellers.
Asylum wasn’t just about Americana and Country. Hard Rock band Jo Jo Gunne’s first album was released in 1972 and their first single ‘Run, Run, Run’ became an early top 40 hit for the label. It wasn’t really until it merged with Elektra Records to become Elektra/Asylum Records that a more distinctive roots music personality started to develop. From 1974 until the end of the decade Asylum was all about country flavoured rock and pop, The Eagles and their various offshoots, and Linda Ronstadt as their hit-making acts. Lower selling singer-songwriters like Terence Boylan, and Tom Waits and older names like Chris Hillman remained with the label. Geffen himself left for the film industry in 1975 and after that a slow trickle of artists away from the label started. Dylan stayed for just two albums, Joni Mitchell left after 1979’s ‘Mingus’, to join David Geffen’s new label, and Tom Waits contract went to Island after ‘Heartattack and Vine’ in 1980. By then Elektra had pretty much absorbed Asylum and The Eagles hiatus in 1980 was largely the end of the distinctive Asylum character. Asylum was turned into a country label later in the eighties and was dormant by the end of the century.
Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Free Man in Paris’ is probably responsible for David Geffen’s image as a hard-bitten businessman. “The way I see it, he said. You just can’t win it… Everybody’s in it for their own gain. You can’t please ’em all. There’s always somebody calling you down. I do my best. And I do good business” Her view that he was: “Stoking the star maker machinery. Behind the popular song” has coloured the public opinion of him since. In his defence at the start of Asylum, he took risks, recorded artists, like Sill, who were never going to sell millions but who he and Roberts believed in. And for that we should be grateful. The country-rock format that dominated much of asylum records output in the 70s was one of the leading genres in the American charts for much of the decade and Geffen and Roberts were instrumental in bringing it to the public, and for setting the stage for a lot of what we call Americana today.
According to a “poll” on an American music website the 5 essential Asylum albums that characterise the label and its era are:
Eagles – ‘Hotel California’ (1976)
Tom Waits – ‘Small Change’ (1976)
Bob Dylan – ‘Before the Flood’ (1974)
Joni Mitchell – ‘For the Roses’ (1972)
Jackson Browne – ‘Late for The Sky’ (1974)
Barney Hoskyns – “Hotel California: The True-Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends” is an excellent read.