Fight the power

Reprise Records president defends the rights of his artists against the Right and the wrong

"I came back to the United States loving it as strongly as I had hated it--loving it not because I was born there, but loving it because I had gone to other places and seen what they were like and seeing what was good about them and what wasn't good about them," Klein says. "And in the end, I felt like I was choosing America, choosing the United States because I felt that it was the best. And I've always felt that since.

"That was a really important thing for me, to realize that I was an intensely patriotic American. I never personally burned a flag, but I had certainly a spiritual bent of a flag-burner and thought that America was the worst place in the world. And here I was coming back, absolutely positive that America was the best place in the world and not to ever be discouraged by the fact that sometimes there were evil tendencies within America or not to worry if there was some kind of proto-right-wing semi-takeovers of America.

"In my heart, I know that America is a great place, and certainly the place for me. And even if things aren't exactly right, even if you've got the quality of someone like Newt Gingrich in power, it's still a great country and it will right itself in a way that other countries maybe can't."

Klein came back to America and found he had lost his taste for pop music; at the time, in the mid-'70s, bands like Styx and Journey and REO Speedwagon were rising toward popularity, and Klein could find nothing in the music he liked. But a friend named Danny Fields, who managed the MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges, took Klein--against his will--to CBGB's in Manhattan to see the Ramones. The experience turned Klein around once more, and he became enamored of artists like Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Television, and Patti Smith.

Some friends in Blue Oyster Cult suggested Klein move to San Francisco, and he began writing for Bam and Creem magazines. He also began disc jockeying in a country bar, and soon he was writing for Country Music Magazine with the likes of Nick Tosches and Chet Flippo. Klein still has a picture of himself wearing a cowboy hat, interviewing the Ramones.

"I was sort of championing the outlaw music of the time in country--Willie [Nelson], Waylon [Jennings], Tompall Glaser," Klein says. "And at the same time, it was kind of a very confused thing. To me, it was all outlaw music, whether it was the Ramones, Patti, Richard Hell, or if it was Waylon and Willie. It was all outlaw music, and I like that."

Klein eventually drifted toward the burgeoning new-wave scene and began directing the first "alternative" radio show in America at KSAN-FM in San Francisco. He became involved with bands like the Nuns and Pearl Harbor and the Explosions; eventually, he would release their albums on his own independent label, each selling better than the next.

The first band he signed to an actual contract was Romeo Void; their debut release on Klein's new label, 415 Records, was In a Condition in 1981, followed the next year by the Ric Ocasek-produced Never Say Never EP in 1982. The success of the EP's title song led to a deal between 415 and Columbia Records, which Klein would later regret. Subsequent signings to 415 included Translator ("Everywhere That I'm Not") and Red Rockers.

"I ended up doing a deal with Columbia Records, which is the most corporate of all of the labels," Klein says. "I thought that was funny to go all the way. As long as you were going to do it, might as well do it with the worst of the lot. But after a while, that really got to me.

"I learned a lot of lessons from that because, basically, the corporate culture there was not a culture that nurtured artists nor employees. It was a very insidious situation I got myself in. Every time I put out a record, I felt like I was taking off a year from my life. All the bands I signed, I knew them all. I knew the people who were in the band, I knew their parents, their girlfriends and boyfriends, and they were part of my life. And then, suddenly, we would take this music, which was their soul, and I would be the one feeding it to this unfeeling, uncaring machine that didn't care at all."

Just as Klein was preparing to pack his bags and head for Thailand in 1987, his friend Seymour Stein called and offered him a job at Sire Records; together, Klein and Stein worked with such artists as Madonna, Depeche Mode, Lou Reed, and Morrissey. A year later, Klein was named a vice president at Warner Bros., in addition to his duties at Sire, and he became fast friends with men like Mo Ostin, the chairman of Warner Music, and president Lenny Waronker (who had discovered the likes of Randy Newman). Klein describes them both as "truly, truly great men."

They taught Klein to respect the artist, to treat musicians with dignity and support their every decision. Such tenants were what brought a band like R.E.M. to Warner Bros.--and what almost caused them to leave when Ostin was forced out and Waronker followed behind him last year.

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