Punk USA: The Rise and Downfall of Lookout! Records (2014)

Kevin Prested

Lookout Records was situated in a unique position as pop/punk saw a post-grunge boom in the mid-nineties. The label held the release rights to Green Day’s pre-major-label back catalogue as well as the Operation Ivy releases (by pre-Rancid members). The millions in revenue that these releases generated annually for the label meant, essentially, that they were free to do as they wanted with the many other bands they released and were not bound by the usual financial restrictions of an independent label. Despite this the label would come to fall behind on it’s royalty payments to most of its bands, including Green Day, all of whom would eventually take back ownership of their releases leaving the label destitute.

The rise and fall is told as a series of feature articles about key label releases as well as a chronological oral history. Oral histories collate excerpts from interviews to provide a narrative through many different perspectives. Music histories are often told through oral history because, I guess, so much about the experience of music relates to its interaction with and experience by a fan base. This leads to the inevitable cliché in music documentaries of well-known musicians describing how they felt about a band when they were younger… usually worst personified in obligatory load of drivel from Bono. I don’t think there is a comparative use of oral history in other mediums (i.e. film, art) as it seems it is only music where there are so many shared group experiences.

The obvious problem with oral histories is that it is all necessarily subjective, a patchwork of opinions and recollections which need not necessarily be verified. I’d love to declaratively state that oral histories are awful, lazy and a cop-out but unfortunately, I must admit, at least to an extent they are sometimes necessary. Even the best books about music scenes are often decried as biased, subjective, or marginalising. Even Please Kill Me: The Oral history of Punk, which seems to insulate itself in its title as being subjective and prone to error, was accused of being too subjective and prone to error.

So, while I wish that this book, like all oral histories, used interviews as sources and wrote with a consistent narrative voice I understand too that it would be inviting an unholy amount of criticism to do so. Prested writes that as the label grew out of the same time and place as the venue Gilman St and adjacent to the magazine Maximumrocknroll there was a sense of ownership throughout the local scene. Furthermore, the casual and friendly nature of the recording contracts with the many bands the label released also promoted a sense of camaraderie and ownership. There are a lot of people, many represented in the book, who felt that Lookout did wrong. Meanwhile, though Lookout records was at its peak a multi-million-dollar business it only ever employed a few handfuls of people. The label was never so large that there were enough people on the inside who could objectively piece together the path to disaster.

With such a delicate subject where many people felt different kinds of personal connection to and, in turn, betrayal by the label and its owners it was bound to be difficult to try and chart the labels history and the points which lead to its failure. In his introduction Prested is self-aware enough to attempt to explain why he is simultaneously the best person to write the history and rise of the label but perhaps not so well-suited to tackle the decline.

Prested’s unabashed fandom leads to a high level of detail on the signing and key releases of the labels bigger bands. He also does a great job explaining the origins of Green Day and Operation Ivy The book provides more detail than I’d ever come across and fills in a lot of gaps in my knowledge about pre-Green Day bands and the many bands Operation Ivy members took part in before Rancid. I now also understand and appreciate the importance and standing of other pivotal Lookout bands like Screeching Weasel, Tilt, Avail, and The Queers as Prested writes comprehensive biographies of these and many more bands. I would happily recommend this book to anyone with an interested in 90’s pop/punk because of this level of information, trivia, and care for the subject(s). There are also often larger stories hidden in the side mentions of venues/people/bands/magazines which have renewed by interest in revisiting issues of Punk Plant as well as finally cracking the Gilman St book.

It’s unfortunate in a way that Prested must go on to detail the fall of the label. Time seems to have blunted many interviewee’s sense of anger and outrage. The attitude is predominantly ‘so it goes’ with occasional allegations of negligence and improper conduct which are never substantiated or explored. There is no real ending, summation or moral to take from any of the events as they are portrayed. There is no passing of judgment or clear damnation. There are points, where the book allows people to contend what, ultimately, was the downfall of Lookout but they also mere straws piled on mountains of mistake.

The story of the label reflects the fall of the music industry in general. A gigantic amount of hubris and lack of planning for leaner times. Mass riches squandered in a way that seems incomprehensible in a post internet/streaming world. A more objective investigative book could be written about the mismanagement and fall of Lookout Records and its peers. This is what I initially thought I wanted when I finished it. With time though I’ve realised that Prested’s book is successful because of the chosen focus. A witch-hunt wouldn’t have proven anything other than what we know. The entertainment business squandered money at its peak. Lookout was more foolish than some and as bad as many. The witch-hunt would rake bitter fuel over dying coals, but an exploration of the labels highlights, success and legacy shows not only why it was so important but the reason so many were heartbroken at its failure.

 

 

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