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Accidental Genius

When Bomp! Records manufactured promo tee shirts a couple of years ago that proclaimed: "Bomp! The label that invented punk, garage, power-pop . . . and possibly everything else in the last 30 years," some people were pissed off by the bold claim. The label meant it as a joke, but the really funny thing is that others have indeed given the label credit, not completely undeservedly, for all those things throughout the years. Bomp!'s celebrating 25 years as a record label this month, but the saga really begins much earlier than that.

It all started with the chance meeting of founding partners Greg and Suzy Shaw in San Francisco more than 30 years ago. "I was a runaway," recalls Suzy, "and I met Greg when I was walking down the street and asked him for a quarter. The next thing you know, I'm in the music business." This is a woman who has never had any particular affection for music. (She actually holds some notoriety in certain circles for falling asleep at a Ramones concert during the '70s.) Greg only remembers: "When I met Suzy, she kinda liked the Beatles." But he has no idea if she still likes them -- or anyone else -- these days. If pressed to reveal what she thinks of a certain new product, she's been known to reply: "It's okay for music." Fittingly, a photo of a young Suzy with her fingers in her ears is imprinted on one of the CDs of the label's new anniversary compilation, Straight Outta Burbank, a double-disc collection that features material from the past five years; the label's previous anniversary compilation, Destination Bomp!, covered the first 20.

Greg, on the other hand, is the ultimate music fan. His record collection would take up the entire square footage of most people's homes. Beginning in 1966, when he was still in the Bay Area, he began what was possibly the world's first rock fanzine, Mojo Navigator, featuring the first interviews ever with the likes of the Grateful Dead, the Doors, and Janis Joplin. Aspiring rock critic Jann Wenner frequently showed up at the 'zine's collating parties, asking for Greg's advice. Wenner soon used that advice to start a little magazine called Rolling Stone.

Mojo Navigator folded in '68, and Greg and Suzy (who had since married) fled the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene for the wilds of Marin County, just outside San Francisco. It was there that Greg started Who Put the Bomp! magazine (named after the 1961 Barry Mann hit) in 1970, quickly attracting some of the era's best writers -- Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Ken Barnes, and the patron saint of all rock critics, the late Lester Bangs. It was at Greg's house, in fact, that Bangs wrote his famous 70-page essay on the Troggs, titled "James Taylor Marked for Death" (reprinted in the Bangs anthology book Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung) during a several-day speed and alcohol binge. "He had only heard 'Wild Thing' before that, so I played him all nine Troggs albums, and he went nuts," reveals Greg. Not surprisingly, Greg was the only person who would publish the piece at the time, believing that Who Put the Bomp! (later just Bomp!) magazine "was the one place where professional rock critics could write about the things they really loved."

In 1972, Greg and Suzy headed to Los Angeles after Greg accepted a job at U.A. Records, where he handled a variety of tasks, including publicity, A&R, compiling the label's Legendary Masters series of albums, and editing the label's in-house publication, P.R.M. (or Phonograph Record Magazine). He turned the new magazine into more of a consumer rather than a trade publication, and its circulation soon rivaled Rolling Stone. Lisa Fancher, a former Bomp! employee ('77 to '81) and owner of her own successful indie label, Frontier Records (which she founded in 1980), remembers P.R.M. fondly as "the greatest free magazine in the world." Many of the writers from Bomp! magazine (which continued publishing until March 1979) followed Greg to P.R.M., along with some new ones, including the Turtles' Flo & Eddie, soon-to-be Angry Samoan Metal Mike Saunders, and pioneering female rock critic Jaan Uhelzski. Throughout this time, Greg also freelanced for several other publications, including Creem and Rolling Stone, though he claims his five-year tenure as the singles columnist for Creem ended in 1974 when he was fired for refusing to name the Allman Brothers' "Ramblin' Man" his Record of the Year.

1974 was also the year that begat the Bomp! Records label. Although he was certainly busy enough already (in addition to his other duties, Greg had started working on projects for Sire Records, including the History of British Rock album series), Greg couldn't deny a request from the Flamin' Groovies (who were having no luck getting signed, despite their Dave Edmunds-produced demos) to put out their record. The band's single "You Tore Me Down" became Bomp!'s first release. Eventually, Greg would help get the Groovies, the Pretenders, Talking Heads, and Ramones all signed to Sire, although the label rejected his two other choices -- the Sex Pistols and Devo. (He also later sent R.E.M. out of his office and over to I.R.S. Records, because he felt they could do more for the band than he could with his limited funds.)

Casablanca -- the home of KISS and Donna Summer -- was the closest thing to an indie label at the time, but over the next 25 years, approximately 500 artists would somehow get tangled up with Bomp! and its family of labels (Voxx, Alive, Total Energy) by either recording for them, appearing on various compilations, licensing old material to the labels, or simply seeking Bomp!'s help with distribution. Among them: Iggy Pop, Spacemen 3, the Weirdos, Devo, Stiv Bators, 20/20, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Bobby Fuller, Ray Campi, the Germs, Redd Kross, the Fuzztones, DMZ, the Dead Boys, Beachwood Sparks, the Plimsouls, the MC5, the Romantics, Josie Cotton, the Pandoras, the Flesheaters, Tell-tale Hearts, the Dwarves, the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs, the Barracudas, Kim Fowley, the Modern Lovers, the Shoes, the Dils, the Zeros, Tav Falco, the Lazy Cowgirls, U.S. Bombs, and Davie Allan. And that's just the proverbial tip.

In addition to the label, magazine, distribution company and mail-order company (which Suzy began running in 1971 to sell hard-to-find records to collectors), Greg and Suzy eventually opened a Bomp! record store. Greg even made brief jaunts into the worlds of nightclubs (the garage revival-scene hangout the Cavern Club, which attracted several national news crews, including ABC-TV's 20/20, during its 1985 to '86 heyday) and band management (the Flamin' Groovies, the Dickies). Only the label and the mail-order business remain in 1999, but all the ventures -- no matter how brief or disastrous -- seemed to give the couple peculiar insight into how the music business works and how to survive in it. They've never grown rich doing it -- unlike most of the indies that followed in their wake, they've never joined forces with any of the major labels -- but they've endured longer than any independent rock label in the country.

I've always viewed myself as a developer of scenes. I don't really look for isolated bands. I look for a movement that I think is going in the right direction, and then I put my energy behind it.

-- Greg Shaw

After recording punk bands -- like the Weirdos, the Germs, and Devo -- that no other label would touch at the time, Greg and Suzy opened the Bomp! retail store in 1977. It was pretty much the only L.A. store where fans could buy punk records. Weekly in-store appearances by the likes of the Damned, Blondie, Cheap Trick, the Dead Boys, Eddie and the Hot Rods, Devo, and the Weirdos made it "a gathering place for everybody who was into this scene," recalls Greg. Future cult icons Kid Congo Powers (the Cramps, Gun Club) and the late Jeffrey Lee Pierce (Gun Club) worked at the store. (Suzy recalls that Pierce was a terror. "I'd go into the back of the store and ask him to turn down the music, and he'd scream, 'Fuck you, bitch.'") When other record stores started carrying punk records, the couple felt they had served their purpose, and since the Bomp! store never made any money at all, it was closed after a year.

Lee Joseph, president of L.A.'s Dionysus Records (which he launched with the help of Bomp!'s line of credit), says, "Greg will refute this, [but] he invented the term 'punk rock.' He claims that some record collectors were using the term in the early '70s to describe '60s garage bands like the Standells. But Bomp! magazine ran a feature article on regional punk bands in 1972. So others maybe used the term before, but he was the first to print it."

Ironically, many music fans view Greg as a sort of Mr. '60s, thanks to his endless series of Pebbles compilations featuring '60s garage obscurities that he's been putting out since 1979. But Greg says he simply viewed many of the later punk bands as a natural progression from the earlier garage scene. In the wake of the Pebbles series (originally planned as a Sire one-off project titled Nuggets 2, a sequel to Lenny Kaye's 1972 seminal garage compilation), many labels started popping up to mine the vaults. "If it wasn't for Greg Shaw, there wouldn't be a Dionysus, there wouldn't be a Crypt, there wouldn't be a Norton," claims Joseph. "The whole '60s garage thing that won't die really traces itself back to Greg's research, even more than to Lenny Kaye's."

In an article titled "The Scorn Papers," Lester Bangs listed Greg Shaw as one of the possible inventors of punk rock, but definitely the inventor of a thing called power-pop. In fact, a feature on power-pop graced the cover of Bomp! magazine in 1978. But, again, Shaw issues a denial: "I don't claim credit for the term. In the magazine itself, we credited Pete Townshend with introducing the term. I will say that I was the first one to try to popularize it at the time."

Unfortunately, the move got him crucified in the punk community. Many thought Greg had wimped out, especially after scores of God-awful skinny-tie bands on the Sunset Strip adopted the term and tried to infiltrate the airwaves. Greg says he was never talking about those bands. He saw the form as "a hybrid style with the power and guts of punk, but drawing on pop songcraft." Yes, he considers 20/20 and the Shoes to be power-pop, but the Sex Pistols fit his description as well.

In fact, Greg considered the late Stiv Bators' post-Dead Boys career as a Bomp! solo artist to be a perfect example of power-pop. (And if anyone's heard Stiv's Bomp!-released cover of the Choir's "It's Cold Outside," it's easy to understand why.) Perhaps this appreciation has something to do with the fact that Bators also provided the label with endless sources of amusement. He'd appear on L.A.'s KROQ and tell listeners to call the label for free records; he'd call various Bomp! employees' homes at 4 a.m. to make sure they were asleep; and he'd order them C.O.D. sets of Time-Life books and plumbing manuals (the latter of which Suzy admits to using). Yet they could never really stay mad at the charming punk power-popper for long. "This guy who used to work here," recalls longtime Bomp! employee Paul Grant, "once called us up, sounding broken, and told us: 'I just paid for Stiv's plane ticket and I don't know why!'"

Suzy and Greg's marriage died before the Bomp! record label was even born, although they "forgot" to get divorced until '78. Nevertheless, their odd partnership has remained unbreakable. They haven't spoken in five years (Greg works out of his home; Suzy in the company's Burbank warehouse) and communicate exclusively via fax. And yet their business relationship endures out of a respect for each other's role in the grand scheme of things. Greg has learned not to interfere with the business side; Suzy has never wanted to get involved in the creative side. "If I was arguing with Greg, saying, 'Wait a second, I don't think I like that record,' it would be chaos," she admits. For his part, Greg acknowledges that Suzy "pays the bills, gets the records made, collects the money, and sells everything. That's 90 percent of it. I do the creative side, but anyone can go out and say, 'Hey, that's a cool band.'"

According to former workmate Fancher: "If there was just Greg Shaw but no Suzy, there would be no Bomp!. Because she puts out all the fires that he starts. Greg's intelligence hovers around the 200 mark, but he has no people skills at all." But, of course, without Greg's passion for music, the company obviously wouldn't exist either. Fancher, the label's self-professed "prodigal daughter" (who has continued to return to the label for brief spells up through last year and who penned the liner notes to Straight Outta Burbank), says Greg "turned me on to pretty much every band that I've ever liked." Perhaps Dionysus' Joseph hits the mark best when he describes Greg and Suzy's continued pairing as "accidental genius."

When asked why she has stayed in the music business so long when she doesn't give a damn about music, Suzy takes a practical stand: "I've been doing it all my life and I'm good at it. What else am I going to do? Flip burgers? What are my other qualifications?" Actually, any company would be more than lucky to have her. "It's shocking the people she gets paid by -- people that nobody gets paid by," reveals an in-awe Fancher. Suzy's secret? "It's the cookies, man." Every Christmas, she bakes thousands of cookies in a dozen different varieties that Bomp! then ships to a list of all of its good business associates. "Believe me, nobody stiffs us in November!" she says, laughing.

"A lot of times, people who collect money don't get their calls taken. But I know these people, and they all take my calls because I'm nice to them," she continues. "I think that I've gotten further that way than I would with screaming and yelling, which is what most guys end up doing. Maybe it's better for someone who's more gentle -- a woman, perhaps -- to collect the money." And when charm and baked goods don't work? When dealing with one particularly delinquent client, Suzy explains that she "took a potato, put a label and stamp on it, and fixed a little note to the back that read, 'Please send money; we don't even have money for paper anymore.' I got paid the next day, because it made them laugh."

The personal weirdness at Bomp! doesn't end with Greg and Suzy's partnership or Suzy's collection techniques, however. Greg and Suzy aren't the only ex-lovers working together at the company. Out of the six employees, five have been involved in interoffice marriages. Betsy Palmer, Greg's third wife (their union lasted from '85 to '86) and a former member of a Bomp! band, came to work as the label's publicist earlier this year. And Paul Grant, Suzy's second husband (their union began in the late '70s or early '80s -- neither of them remembers exactly when), returned to help out with the mail-order business in '97. (Grant originally came to the company in 1978 as the editor of Bomp! magazine; after it folded, he continued to work at the label doing various functions until '86.)

Suzy also lived with Epitaph Records head Brett Gurewitz for a time in the '80s. (Bomp! distributed the first single by Gurewitz's old band, Bad Religion, and Gurewitz then engineered and did other production work on several Bomp! projects.) Today, Greg proudly claims that "Suzy taught Brett everything he knew about the business, and he went on to have the most successful independent label ever." But Suzy downplays her role: "Brett says I taught him the record business, but I don't think so, myself."

Suzy's current husband, Patrick Boissel, has been involved with the label since '93, when he immigrated from France following a serendipitous meeting at a European music conference. Boissel runs his own labels, Alive and Total Energy, in loose affiliation with Bomp!, retaining complete creative control over his projects, but sharing business functions like shipping and promotion. He has also become Suzy's emissary when business matters between Greg and his first ex-wife can't be resolved via the fax machine. With the exception of Suzy and Greg, all the combinations of exes still talk and get along quite well. "I'm going to have to marry Greg next," jokes Grant. "And I'm not looking forward to it. Neither is my girlfriend. After that, there's Betsy. . . ."

For the first time in a while, Greg Shaw claims to be looking eagerly toward the future of Bomp!. During the past decade, he hasn't worked with many new bands except the Brian Jonestown Massacre, concentrating on reissue projects like the Pebbles series instead. While this has partially been because of a lack of interest in most of the '90s musical scenes, it also has had a lot to do with his health. A diabetic since the age of 10, his disease worsened several years ago to the point that his kidneys failed, and he required dialysis treatments every three hours. He credits Patrick with keeping his Bomp! business in order when his illness prevented him from doing things himself. In May of this year, however, Greg received both a kidney and pancreas transplant, which he claims cured his diabetes.

Feeling better than he has in ages, Greg Shaw claims that part of the label's ongoing 25th-anniversary celebration (which included a massive concert/party held earlier this month featuring performances by Wayne Kramer, Brian Jonestown Massacre, the Zeros and others) is to "let the world know that I'm back and I'm ready to rock." Although he quickly adds, "But I still don't want any demo tapes!"

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Sabrina Kaleta