Book Review

Cowboys&Indies-webCOWBOYS & INDIES: The Epic History of the Record Industry 

By Gareth Murphy.  Hardcover. 

St. Martin’s Press. 364 pages.

Review by Francis DiMenno

The first thing which ought to be said about this impressionistic slab of reportage is that it is neither epic, nor really a history per se. It is more like a series of sharply written and carefully shaped anecdotes in which selected highlights of music biz careers are chronicled and then hung out to dry, as it were. It reminds me very much of the recent book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley. It is not a comprehensive but, rather, an idiosyncratic history of independent and major labels on both sides of the Atlantic. The episodes, which are set in the post-Elvis climate, are far more compelling—perhaps because far more secondary sources exist and are cited—than the earlier parts of the book.

      In the hands of an actual historian, this tome would likely be five times the length and would very likely be a drearily complex chronicle of various minutiae of interest only to serious scholars and ethnomusicolgists. In Murphy’s hands, we are given a breezy summary of trends, fads, and technological breakthroughs as well as the names and often brief biographies of certain important music biz figures – nor are we denied at least a glancing run-through of formative musical movements over the years. By making this a history solely of the record industry and the men who dominated it, Murphy is in the position of being able to not mention at all the popularity of sheet music, on one end of the timeline. He also gives short shrift to CD and digital formats of more recent years. Occasionally, the convoluted history of some of the movers and shakers of the industry begins to read like the Byzantine maneuverings explicated in tomes such as “Apple to the Core.” (For example, Murphy has clearly thoroughly read and excavated from Tom King’s massive Geffen biog, The Operator). However, for the most part, Murphy eschews the nitty gritty for the broad outline, though he does from time to time indulge in the telling anecdote: Andrew Loog Oldham insisted that The Rollin’ Stones change their name to “The Rolling Stones”: “How can you expect people to take you seriously when you can’t even be bothered to spell your name properly?”  (Oldham insisted also that the band jettison Ian Stewart.)

      In sweeping terms, the story of the music industry is told in terms of standard-issue musicland lore: how the industry develops from wax cylinders to vinyl. This section is convoluted but also rather cursory. We are then told how the industry is threatened by radio and how it eventually adapts to the challenge and diversifies. We also learn—nothing new here—how ragtime eventually gives way to Dixieland, swing, and be-bop; The Original Dixieland Jass Band is name-checked, along with Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Billy Holiday; we hear tell of Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson; Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Fletcher Henderson. Well and good. But Louis Armstrong apparently doesn’t make the cut, although Fiddlin’ John Carson and Vernon Dalhart do. (I’d like to double-check this omission, but I can’t; there’s no index. No footnotes, either.)

     That’s an exemplar of what I find lacking in this book; it touches most (though by no means all) of the major bases, but it all seems rather idiosyncratic. Firstly, it seems to be shaped by the received wisdom of musicland lore: Phil Spector was a talented nut; Brian Wilson was talented but schizophrenic; Joe Meek was a bloody genius (why? how?; we’re not told). Secondly, Murphy devotes more space to the stories he is itching to tell—we hear far more about, say, U2 and far less about, for instance, Nirvana than perhaps is warranted. One can hardly blame Murphy from focusing on the more colorful players in his pantheon of “music men”; but giving little space to influential but reactionary figures such as Mitch Miller is a defect in that it shows a certain selectivity which some might characterize as a biased viewpoint.

    What makes this book worthwhile is what one might call the Wow factor: there are plenty of insider stories: about the struggle to record “Strange Fruit” (which appeared not on Columbia but on Commodore Records); about the appearance of the last Cream album, Goodbye (“Jerry Wexler has cancer, and he’s dyin’, and he wants to hear one more album from you.”); about the zany doings over at the Casablanca office in the coke-addled late 1970s (“Jerry, gonna have to hang up now, my desk is on fire.”). This reliance on insider lore sometimes makes this book a shopping list of received wisdom.  But more often, it pays off in a corresponding series of entertaining trivia tid-bits. Murphy has tried hard to interview surviving industry insiders, and this lends his book a certain amount of credibility that a production solely dependent upon secondary sources would lack.

       In fine, you might refer to this book as “Gareth Murphy’s Greatest Record Men.” It’s not a wholly satisfactory history of indies vs. majors, but it is seldom short of entertaining, and will do nicely until a better one comes along.

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