20081217-warner-1.jpg
THE IDEA OF major labels as a destructive force — elevating commerce over art, radio-friendly pap over actual talent — is as pervasive as it is oversimplified. Things are much more complicated than that basic equation, which allows for no gray area.

In this regard, Warner Brothers Records typifies the major label as a moneymaking cog in a larger corporate machine.

It was founded in 1958 by Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers Studios and a notoriously Machiavellian exec who cut the other Warner brothers out of the company. His motivation was strictly financial: The teen idols who starred in the studio’s films were recording hits and making money for other labels. Why should another company profit from Jack Warner’s commodities? From that bottom-line-minded beginning rose a juggernaut responsible for some of the most influential acts in popular music.

According to the new box setRevolutions in Sound: Warner Brothers Records The First 50 Years,” the fledgling label had a shaky start in the late 1950s, releasing adult pop albums of polkas and stale crooner types that failed to capture the dollar signs in Warner’s eyes. Its successes were, to say the least, unexpected.

Signed after their heyday on Cadence Records, The Everly Brothers had a surprise hit with “Cathy’s Clown,” their first single for Warner, and Peter Paul & Mary helped usher in the popularity of the folk revival in the 1960s. But the album that reportedly saved the label was by an unknown comic who before signing had never performed in front of a live audience: “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” was the label’s first smash record and its first to receive a Grammy nomination.

For a brief period, comedy was the label’s focus: Allan Sherman and Bill Cosby both released best-selling albums for Warner Brothers, as did Steve Martin and Richard Pryor years later. As the label grew to include Reprise Records (purchased as part of a film contract with owner Frank Sinatra), Warner Brothers began to pull more rock acts under its umbrella: The Kinks, The Grateful Dead and, perhaps most significantly, Jimi Hendrix. Over the next four decades, the label added to its roster celebrated pop composers like Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman, sensitive singer-songwriter types like James Taylor, global pop stars like Madonna, metal gods like Black Sabbath and alt-giants like R.E.M. and Green Day.

Revolutions in Sound“chronicles this illustrious history in fascinating detail. The label is releasing its autobiographical set in two versions: one with 10 CDs collecting 199 songs and another with a USB drive loaded with 320 tracks. Accompanying the set is an exhaustive coffeetable history of the label written by Warren Zanes, the former frontman for The Del Fuegos, who made the bulk of their records for Warner imprint Slash. Packed with photos of artists obscure and famous alike and with testimonies from executives and talent, the book could be extremely elaborate liner notes for the music, or else the music merely a multimedia complement to the book.

Daunting in its breadth — “77 Sunset Strip” to “Icky Thump” — the set is a monument to the label’s financial savvy as well as its eye for talent. It seems silly to make the art vs. commerce argument when Liberace and Napoleon XIV (“They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haa!”) are on your roster, but releasing “Are You Experienced? ” and “Village Green Preservation Society” and “Ooh La La” and “Purple Rain” and “The Soft Bulletin” proves Warner Brothers was doing something right.

Written by Express contributor Stephen M. Deusner