Record geeks are familiar with Rhino Records as a label known for quality reissues and compilations, often celebrating artists who have dropped lower on the pop-culture radar than they used to be, and for championing eccentrics and novelty acts. The Rhino Records Story, written by Rhino Records co-founder Harold Bronson, is almost like one of those compilations, assembling several different tracks to form one cohesive if slightly uneven whole.
The book’s official subtitle is Revenge of the Record Nerds, and the cover carries an additional subtitle: “The incredibly strange story of the world’s most famous record store!” Both reflect Rhino’s attitude, which respected the music but treated the business with a bit of irreverence. But the book could have carried even another subtitle: “… and other stories.”
Bronson traces the company’s origins from 1973, when it began as an offbeat record store in Westwood, the western Los Angeles district that is home to UCLA (former UCLA basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a regular customer, would walk through the store carrying armloads of albums — and then put most of them back, buying only two or three at a time). The store was founded by Richard Foos, whom Bronson later joined to help run the business, which in 1978 grew into the small but cheeky record label.
The book is part memoir, but Bronson breaks the chronological formula, waiting a couple of chapters before he spends one on Foos’ life story and then one on his own. And it’s partly a look at the music industry, as Rhino, a company that Bronson and Foos tried to run with absolute integrity, enter into distribution partnerships with larger companies such as Capitol, Atlantic and Warner Bros., where they would sometimes run into sympathetic executives but more often would encounter ones who were clueless about music or downright hostile to Rhino’s mission. That the music biz is screwed up is hardly front-page news, but Bronson’s experiences really underscore it, and he occasionally comes off a little bitter when writing about it.
Bronson intersperses this with several chapters about artists that he has worked with — the Turtles, the Monkees, the Knack, Tommy James — and although these acts are associated with Rhino, the chapters about them often come off as digressions. A nearly 40-page chapter on the Turtles, which went from being one of the most popular acts of the ’60s to being underappreciated aside from a few oldies-radio hits, doesn’t just read like it belongs in another book — it reads like it should be another book (and in fact, is: Howard Kaylan, the Turtles’ witty lead singer, published his memoir Shell Shocked just a few months ago). Tommy James also has told his own story in 2010’s Me, the Mob, and the Music.
But just because these chapters seem like digressions doesn’t mean they can’t be entertaining. The story of the Knack, which features the real-life Sharona who inspired the group’s 1979 hit My Sharona, is a fascinating look at how lead singer Doug Fieger’s life was affected by his obsession and eventual involvement with a young girl (as Sharona put it, she wasn’t the Knack’s groupie — Fieger was her groupie, and My Sharona was far from the only Knack song about her).
Rhino also got involved in movies and home video, and Bronson’s behind-the-scenes look at the making of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the 1998 adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic counterculture book, paints an even less flattering portrait of Hollywood than you might expect and deftly explains why the movie was such a misfire. His look at Head, the psychedelic 1968 movie that attempted to change the Monkees’ image, is also illuminating.
Bronson is a little all over the place here, but somehow he assembles all the parts into an enjoyable whole, even if the story of his fate at Rhino is a little depressing. He can over-explain things — it’s doubtful that anyone reading a book about Rhino Records will need a definition of “R&B” or “baby boomer” — but he does have a skill for making the more business-oriented parts of the book more understandable to the layman. And any book that can coherently combine business, memoir and pop-music history is pulling off a pretty neat hat trick.