So if you were a music nerd — which many of you are — and you heard about a record label that was years ahead of its time in the Do It Yourself (DIY) indie-rock aesthetic, music video, punk iconoclasm, controversial publicity displays, idiosyncratic promotion, overarching label identity, and oh yes, some of the most cutting-edge experimental music in the pantheon… well, you’d want to know more about that label, right?
I’m pleased to tell you about Ralph Records.
If you are familiar with The Residents, chances are you have already heard about Ralph. The anonymous San Francisco quartet started the record label in 1972 for the sole purpose of releasing their own product: first and foremost, their debut double-single, Santa Dog. It remained their label until 1987, when they headed off to Rykodisc and left Ralph in the hands of their former sales manager. They regained possession of it in the early ’90s and converted it to their mail-order company, RalphAmerica, which it remains to this day.
That’s FAR from the whole story of Ralph – although, funny enough, that’s enough. A band starting their own label, which they run all by themselves on all fronts from accounting to cover art to manufacturing and distribution, all the way back in 1972? That’s innovation, baby! That’s DIY before there was DIY! Even the Beatles hired people to run the business and design the sleeves when they started Apple, and Ian MacKaye’s Dischord wouldn’t come around for almost a decade.
The thing that made the Residents and Ralph Records different was that they didn’t start it as an investment, like the Beatles, or as part of an overall ethical-musical statement. They started the label because it was the only way to get their music out.
After releasing three more albums, two singles (including one by another artist, Schwump) and Third Reich ‘N’ Roll, one of the very first important music videos, The Residents transferred Ralph Records to their management company, The Cryptic Corporation, in 1976 (Fearless Leader Eric Olsen has interviewed Homer Flynn, one of the members of Cryptic, on this very site). And that’s when the label really hit its stride.
Remaining in San Francisco, they marketed the Residents as a real commodity, behaving like a kind of concept-art company (complete with bizarre promo items, ‘zine-like catalogues, and a series of sampler EPs entitled Buy Or Die!) and bringing their faceless charges to international acclaim and success–including their masterpiece, Eskimo, released after a gigantic fiasco at Ralph.
When all that went down, Ralph started signing other bands–many of which went on to become either cult favorites or avant-garde titans. Snakefinger, the Residents’ longtime session guitarist and visionary in his own right, came first. His successes were followed up when Ralph enlisted Art Bears, Chrome, MX-80 Sound, Tuxedomoon, Renaldo & the Loaf, and Nash the Slash, among others; all obscure names, but all well known as brilliant and original musical experimenters. The big names (in the ivory-tower sense of the term) were Fred Frith, Eugene Chadbourne, and Yello, whom you know from that damned ubiquitous “Oh Yeah” song from Ferris Bueller but who are actually highly respected names in the electronic-music scene.
It was a weird roster — and it showed in the music they put out — but it was among the most consistent, original, and groundbreaking work of its era. Unfortunately, it came at just the wrong time. Ralph began signing new acts at the moment of the new wave’s peak: when it looked like the underground was going to rise up and become the new mainstream.
So they jumped on what they thought was the future, and the future promptly exploded in their faces: after a series of disasters, MTV destroyed the new wave movement via assimilation, and Ralph got crushed in the tidal wave. Cryptic fell apart, the Residents were creatively drained, and the label had to let its roster go and rebuild from the ground up with new artists and different approaches.
Nevertheless, it remained relentlessly creative and subversive, no longer a key underground player but a self-contained world of fantastic music on the vanguard of every subsequent movement. Industrial, ambient, dance club, J-rock, even math-rock all had roots in the late-period aegis of Ralph Records.
All of the above is true. Now don’t some of you rock geeks want to know more about this stuff? Interesting tidbits, anecdotes, descriptions of the music and the artists that made it?
I do. And I actually do know it. I’ve spent three years researching, listening to the records, studying their creations, visiting San Francisco, and interviewing nearly all of the participants and eyewitnesses of Ralph’s odyssey. This puts me ten chapters into a book about the label. I’m about to write a book proposal and start sending out queries. But before I did, I just wanted to put the word out that such a thing is in progress. I know there’s an audience out there, so if you’re interested, here’s hoping a Ralph Records biography will be in your hands soon!
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