A short history of record company cock-ups

Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music

Artie Fufkin. Remember him? The balding A&R guy from Polymer Records who asked Spinal Tap’s legendary frontman David St Hubbins to “…do me a favour – just kick my ass, OK? Kick this ass for a man” after presiding over a record-signing appearance at which nobody turned up?

Compared to this lot, Artie is a veritable genius. We proudly present ten rollicking record company balls-ups, from backfiring stunts to vanity projects which should have been taken out the back and shot.

Dick Rowe - The Man Who Turned Down the Beatles, 1962

You’d think that being the man who signed the Rolling Stones would pretty much guarantee you a well-deserved place in rock and roll history, right?

Well, senior Decca A&R man Dick Rowe – for it was he – DOES have a seat at the top table. But for a very different reason: he was the man who had earlier turned down the Fab Four, reputedly telling their manager, “Guitar groups are on their way out, Mr Epstein.”

Rowe went to his grave in 1986 denying he’d said that, presumably thinking that if he could chip away at a minor detail, people would question the whole story. But Epstein recounted it in his autobiography A Cellarful of Noise, and the fact remained – Rowe didn’t sign them on that day in 1962 after they’d rocked through some fifteen songs in a rehearsal room.

The story goes that the label’s chief talent-spotter actually told his junior colleague Mike Smith to make the choice between the Merseyside mop tops and Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, who got the nod mainly because they were from Dagenham, not Liverpool, so would be easier to record.

Chinese Democracy, 1994 - 2008

Literally millions of people died in the time it took to make this record. Presidents, Heads of State and Britpop came and went. Dynasties rose and fell. Shane McGowan cleaned his teeth twice.

Geffen Records were only too happy to bankroll this mind-blowingly self-indulgent project when Axl Rose started fanny-arsing around with it in 1994. The label happily paid the monthly bills, which reportedly included £8,000 for every band member (and there was a revolving door policy from the get-go), £4,500 for guitar techs, £10,000 for the chief engineer, £18,000 for the “recording software engineer” and over £35,000 for studio hire.

It wasn’t just Axl’s legendary perfectionist tendencies which were being pampered to – eccentric axeman ‘Buckethead’ aka Brian Carroll insisted on playing in a custom-built chicken coop. And when Axl’s perfectionism extended to not showing up at the studio for months on end, some of the hired guns had the time to form their own band, A Perfect Circle.

When the album finally surfaced in the winter of 2008, like a forgotten cold war submarine, reviews were… ahem… “mixed”. They certainly weren’t what Geffen chiefs, who had reportedly spent over £10million on production, were praying for. To add insult to injury, Rose blamed the long-suffering label for the album’s crap sales, but presumably after 14 years of asking “are we nearly there yet?” they’d lost the will to live.

Fun fact: Clutch released EIGHT albums in the time it took Axl and Co to make the album. And every single one of them rocks harder than Chinese Democracy.

Bottoms Up: Uriah Heep in 1976

Bottoms Up: Uriah Heep in 1976
(Image: © Getty Images)

Alpine launch of Uriah Heep’s High and Mighty album, 1976

It was downhill from the moment Bronze Records hired PR guru Keith Altham to stage a mountain-top launch party for the Heep’s High and Mighty.

The LP did not exactly mark a career best moment for the band anyway. It’s what might euphemistically be called “patchy”. As the release date loomed and with the band’s relations with the UK press at an all-time low, Bronze OK’ed an ambitious scheme by Altham and his colleague Alan Edwards to charter a jet-load of Fleet Street’s finest to a Swiss resort for a five-star launch party. The hacks – over-refreshed thanks to a free bar on the flight – were greeted at the airport by a man wearing an eight-foot bear outfit, which inexplicably enraged “tired and emotional” drummer Lee Kerslake so much he rugby tackled him to the floor and proceeded to knock seven bells out of him.

Matters didn’t improve when they reached the revolving restaurant on the Alpine mountain top via one of the longest cable car rides in the world. Speaking recently to the BBC, guitarist Mick Box recalled, “The journalists were told that one drink up there was worth five at ground level – and they’d already had about ten each.” A boozy five-course lunch followed, after which veteran DJ Alan “Fluff” Freeman face-planted into his soup.

The mile-high madness reached its peak when the band staggered outside for the photocall, which was the whole point of the exercise – High and Mighty Heep captured against the breath-taking backdrop of the snow-capped Alps. But as Alan Edwards remembers, “What we hadn’t taken into account was that relations between some members of the band were not… perfect… and just as the photographers lined up, a scuffle broke out between the group. Within minutes it seemed like a full-on fist fight.”

The stunt is probably best succinctly summed up in one word by Box: “Lunacy”.

Two The Hard Way by Allman and Woman (Gregg Allman and Cher) 1977

I can’t think of many things the music world has to thank Cher for.

Oh wait – there’s this: she owns the master tapes to Two the Hard Way and has always refused to release them. Not that there’s exactly ever been much of a stampede for a reissue of the album. There’s another reason it’s never been available on CD or via iTunes – it’s undiscussably shite. So let’s keep this tight.

The Allman Brothers Band were on extended “hiatus” in the late 70s after Gregg was arrested for drug possession. In exchange for immunity from prosecution, Allman testified against the group’s tour manager, an act reportedly considered an act of betrayal by the rest of the band, hence the break-up.

Swearing off drugs and booze, Gregg began a new chapter in his life by marrying Cher and celebrating the union by recording an album of duets with her. Record executives at Warner’s nodded nervously and agreed to back this absurd vanity project by the unlikely couple.

Comprising turgid yacht rock, nauseating ballads and pointless cover versions (Smokey Robinson’s You Really Got a Hold On Me, Elvis Presley’s Love Me), the album sank without trace, a subsequent tour lasted all of 12 dates and by the end Cher alleged that her hubby was back on the sauce, so off she went to find solace in the arms of Gene Simmons.

Pub rockers Brinsley Schwarz fail to bring the house down in transAtlantic hype fail (1970)

This was the Daddy of Record Company Fuck-ups. Even before it happened it was being called ‘The Hype of the Century’ – a PR outfit called Famepushers arranged for a chartered jet packed with journalists and film crews to fly to the States to watch virtually unknown pub rockers Brinsley Schwarz play at the Fillmore.

A fleet of stretch limos was supposed to meet the passengers – to make onlookers think they were witnessing… something – but the plane was delayed and by the time they arrived in New York everyone had gone to bed. And when the reporters got to the gig, BS were already halfway through their apparently disastrous set and most of the journalists were too drunk to even make notes anyway. Oh, and although word had already been put round that they’d signed a huge deal with Liberty Records, a little less hype had been attached to the fact that they were in fact third on the bill, below Quicksilver Messenger Service and Van Morrison.

So instead of having fame pushed at them, they had to make do instead with incandescent reviews of both their live performance and their debut album. Shame – but the band soldiered on, and their follow-up, wryly entitled Despite It All wasn’t bad and their bass player, one Nick Lowe, went on to become a beloved songwriter and entertainer.

Having Fun with Elvis on Stage, Elvis Presley (1974)

By 1974, Presley’s all-conquering return to live performance in the 1968 TV special, and triumphant early 70s shows were a distant memory and he’d become a tragic cartoon of himself. He’d forget or laugh his way through his best-loved songs, perform lying down, and even – with a presumably unconscious nod to his spiralling drug use – wander around the stage with a toy monkey on his back. He’d put on embarrassingly crap kung fu displays and embark upon meandering monologues about any topic which came to his addled mind.

So which fucktrumpet at RCA came up with this doozy of an idea? “Elvis is shit at the moment, so let’s record him twatting around on stage when he’s supposed to be singing, and release that.” Well, someone did, and officially released it was. Thirty-seven minutes of incoherent “banter” and misfiring jokes.

I’m not sure which is the most disturbing fact here – that there wasn’t a single good man in Presley’s entourage who was honest enough to tell him to get his shit together, or that this Cleveland Steamer of a record ACTUALLY MADE IT TO NUMBER NINE ON THE BILLBOARD TOP 20 COUNTRY ALBUM CHART.

Soundtrack to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Movie becomes first album in history to go “return platinum” (and that’s not good) (1978)

Frankie Howerd, Alice Cooper, Peter Frampton and the Beatles - what could POSSIBLY go wrong?

OK, so this soundtrack album released on rock manager Robert Stigwood’s RSO label was a hostage to fortune inasmuch as the ‘jukebox musical’ movie had already been released. And that’s ‘released’ in the same way that slurry is illegally dumped into rivers. Stigwood had acquired the rights to 29 Beatles songs and was determined to wring every last dollar out of his investment.

Based on a Broadway musical, the film was essentially lots of Beatles songs, performed mainly by Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees, with other efforts from Aerosmith, Alice Cooper and Earth, Wind and Fire, shoehorned into a plot that was so rickety it made Murder She Wrote seem like Dostoyevsky.

The inevitable soundtrack double album achieved the dubious distinction of being the first LP to “return platinum” – as record store owners removed four million copies from their shelves and returned them to distributors.

Aerosmith (Come Together) and Earth, Wind and Fire (Got To get You Into My Life) escaped with their reputations more or less intact and at least Stigwood’s label had the good grace to destroy hundreds of thousands of copies of the album. But Stigwood should have known he was in trouble when the standout track on the album was unanimously declared to be Steve Martin’s deranged rendition of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.

Metallica and Lou Reed Lulu, 2011

By this time, Metallica – well, James and Lars – had already started that vaguely creepy thing of talking about their band in the third person: “Metallica thinks this”…so it was but a small step to, “Metallica going to make record with Lou Reed, become darlings of the intelligentsia and alienate their remaining fans from the glory days of Master of Puppets.”

This wasn’t a vanity project so much as a suicide note, but one which Warners seemed only too happy to publish.

But let’s graciously hand Metallilou the benefit of the doubt and give the first track a listen, eh? Opening lyrics: “I would cut my legs and tits off when I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski in the dark of the moon.

Which is weird, because that’s also how Brandenburg Gate and the rest of this record made most people feel.

This is an ocean-going arsehole of a concept album, far worse than any half-baked double or triple album efforts by long-forgotten 70s prog outfits. And somehow they managed to find a way to force the project even further up its own fundament by conducting a series of excruciatingly awful bum-sniffing interviews:

“It’s a side of man that no one really likes to highlight because it’s not pretty – and we make it beautiful by using it in our art form, y’know?” (Hetfield).

“These are my guys, I’ve got to go exist with them in their orbit.” (Reed)

It would have been a much better idea if Metallica had collaborated with Lulu and covered Lou Reed songs.

Responding to the wholly deserved backlash from long-suffering Metallica fans, Reed said at the time, “I don’t have any fans left. After Metal Machine Music, they all fled. Who cares? I’m in this for the fun of it.” Fun indeed.

Which brings us neatly on to…

Metal Machine Music, Lou Reed (1975)

RCA can’t be blamed for enforcing the deal they had with Reed – but they CAN be blamed for releasing this. If Reed was in music “for the fun of it”, then this was the longest and most boring punchline in history.

This was an album delivered solely to meet contractual obligations, the musical equivalent of “you can stuff your job”. But did he have to make it last over an hour? Sixty-four minutes and 11 seconds, to be precise, of white noise, modulated feedback and gratuitous guitar effects?

The double album – I can only imagine the pain listeners felt as they flipped from side three to four – reportedly sold 100,000 copies in the US but the original pressing was withdrawn by RCA within three weeks of its release.

Ardent Records fail to back one of the greatest debut albums of all time (1972)

Big Star’s debut LP, #1 Record, would be a brilliant album in any decade. And it should have been the smash hit it deserved to be – but it was released in Memphis in 1972 with virtually no record company support and sold fewer than 10,000 copies.

Ardent was an offshoot of soul label Stax and it was Big Star’s misfortune that at the time, the parent company was more interested in promoting their star of the moment, Isaac Hayes.

Big Star’s debut received rave reviews across the board, and record stores reported frustrated fans calling up to ask why it wasn’t in stock – it was because the distribution just wasn’t there.

The failure took its toll on the band and founder member Chris Bell left. The follow-up, Radio City was made without him and again won great reviews but its commercial success was stymied by Columbia Records, who had taken over the Stax/Ardent catalogue and basically stalled its distribution. The group’s third album was judged to be commercially non-viable and mothballed, leading to Big Star’s break-up in 1974.

In the intervening years, the band has continued to win critical praise and reissued albums have sold steadily but that lack of early success, which would have been entirely deserved, did for them.

In the excellent documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (catch it on Netflix), former REM bassist Mike Mills sums up the band’s story: “There’s a sadness to it because those were some of the best records made in that decade and they just didn’t get heard.”