“There’s so much in these pages that offers a real understanding behind the politics of K Records” – Niall McGuirk on Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music
“Inspired by the punk movement, Calvin (Johnson) and his co-conspirators took to the airwaves, created their own publications, and recorded their own music on cassette tapes. They shared ideas, punch lines, heartache, and, most importantly, music.“
And so this book ends as it describes a story similar to many different cities throughout the world. Certainly, the story culminated in varying levels of success in those cities, but their existence was its main success
When we are in school, history is taught as the major events that charted a nation’s course, but in reality history is the situations that allow such events to happen. While history will state that the U.S. invaded Iraq with the help of the U.K., it is the events leading up to it that paint the real picture. And so it is with our own history. We are the people who have had music to the forefront of our lives for more than one generation. We are the people who have taken punk rock and tried to create a community; a community of punks with many strands, with K Records standing out as one particularly important strand.
Calvin Johnson’s introduction to punk was on a trip to the UK in his early teens. He went to a record store, ready to buy any record connected to punk rock. The worker there was as helpful as so many record store assistants were back in the day, and he eventually traded a Jam album and 7″ for Calvin’s hard earned sterling. His first gig was a Patti Smith show in 1978. All the attitude and good sounds of Patti Smith were evident, but there was something that didn’t quite ring true with Johnson. Deep down it was still a rock show.
Broadcasting from Olympia, near where a young Calvin Johnson was studying, KAOS FM is one of the better known US radio stations, with a rule that music played must be 80% indie. Calvin studied radio in school, got a licence, and became a DJ only too happy to play independent records. It is notable that prior to K Records starting, Johnson spent some time in Seattle with Bruce Pavitt. Pavitt also had a show on KAOS but both moved from Olympia at separate times. Johnson also spent some time with Ian Mackaye from Dischord Records, and this triumvirate became the mainstays behind arguably the three biggest indie labels in the States. Little were they to know what was in store on the road ahead for each of them.
Of course there would be no K Records without Calvin Johnson and the existence of the label was supplemented by Calvin being in a band. At times this book veers a bit too much into Beat Happening rather than the label, but theirs is a compelling story too. Beat Happening (which wasn’t Johnsons first band but the first to play gigs with vigour) always sought out venues that were all ages. “If there’s one person who wants to go, I want that person to be able to go to the show.” As for their musical style, Beat Happening are so much of an antithesis to punk rock that they come full circle and are very much of that genre. Not one of hardcore noise and energy but one where people matter and everything is very much done by themselves. Bands that weren’t singing “no future” but insisting that there be a future worth fighting for.
Underneath the name and the logo though, independent labels are generally run by individuals. And individuals have flaws. K records had to grapple with the consequence of increased record sales by releasing more records. Not all broke even which didn’t seem to matter for the K business model but did matter to bands who felt they were owed something. Kill Rock Stars took offence and operated completely independent whilst having an office across the road. Their label blossomed with the ascent of Riot Grrrl.
An interesting feature to this book are the snippets at the end of each chapter giving us brief histories to many different facets of the underground music scene. They have their own place and, whilst not about K Records, it lays the foundation for the label. There’s so much in these pages that offers a real understanding behind the politics of K Records. It has been repeated ad-infinitum that punk’s real breakthrough mantra was that anyone could start a band and then anyone could bring out a record. What is often ignored is that many of the people in bands had nowhere to play. This has been challenged by a few through the years but really, access to venues only became truly available when people reached drinking age.
Johnson’s decision not to feed the profits of industries like tobacco and alcohol that were oppressing people, “A true rebel wouldn’t drink or smoke if they were trying to change something, you have to change yourself first“. If only I could have quoted the great man, rather than waging my own battle through the sea of alcohol in punk rock where it seemed like I needed to explain my own abstinence at every turn. Remarkably that has changed very little over the decades, where I’m still the one who doesn’t drink alcohol and the object of a conversation piece. At least I can now say Calvin Johnson is on my side.