Long Live Lookout Records

Green Day. Beloit Wisconsin, 1992.

Larry Livermore is responsible for getting a lot of great songs stuck in my head. Years before I played my first punk show, I memorized choruses on mixtapes gifted from my skater friends, which included tracks from Green Day, Operation Ivy, Crimpshrine and various other bands I had never seen, but would eventually come to know as part of Livermore’s record label.

As the co-founder and longtime honcho at the late Lookout Records, Livermore is probably best known for helping to launch the careers of Green Day and Rancid, and for putting out numerous records that shaped the subgenre of ‘pop punk’ in the US.

But to those who spent time in and around punk scenes in the late 1980s and 1990s, Livermore was also an active band member (The Lookouts), a near constant presence in prominent ‘zines like Maximum RocknRoll (MRR) and Punk Planet, a label owner who supported diverse talent (see Lookout’s releases from Avail, (Young) Pioneers, Neurosis, Spitboy), as well as someone who clearly wanted to document the sounds of the East Bay punk scene that emerged around Berkeley’s all-ages, DIY music venue: 924 Gilman.

If Lookout Records reaped the windfall of Green Day’s unexpected smash success in mid-90s, it did not come without its costs. Many punks came to resent both the label and Livermore for what they saw as the selling out of their scene, and Livermore’s public feuds with MRR’s notoriously prickly overseer, Tim Yohannan, fueled further backlash in the punk underground. By 1997, Livermore clearly had enough of both the indie record business and the drama because walked away from Lookout Records at the height of its success.

In the years that followed, Lookout would eventually gain an entirely new level of notoriety due to what could only be called a colossal implosion. It squandered all its money, cheated musicians out of royalties, and watched both its roster of bands and its back catalogue completely disintegrate before the label ultimately folded in 2012.

While Livermore has previously discussed the label in both his blog and his 2013 book, Spy Rock Memories, he has never really given a full account of what happened, until now. This winter, Livermore published a personal account of his experience with the label entitled, How to Ru(i)n a Record Label: The Story of Lookout Records. The book not only provides unique insights into the rise and fall of Lookout Records. It also shares an intimate, self-reflexive view of the person behind the scenes – a working class guy from Detroit who ended up fully immersed in drugs, crime, music and countercultural politics of the region before he joined the great migration of hippies and freaks that descended on Northern California in the late 1960s.

Two weeks ago, I had the chance to talk to Larry about Lookout, his time in the East Bay scene, his book, and the tangled relationships between music, politics, personalities and punk. The conversation ranged widely. The second portion will run next week.


Z: So why did you write the book? Why now?

L: I intended to write it for a long time, but I just wasn’t ready. I actually wrote a much longer version of it before, then got distracted for a long time. In some ways writing’s always been in me. I started when I was 9 or 10. My first story was about archaeologists excavating the ruins of Detroit (where I’m from) in the year 3000, which has been polluted by lead from old automobiles. Not exactly something you criticize in a car town.

Z: I imagine that telling the story of Lookout Records’ illustrious rise and notorious fall has to be nerve wracking as well as cathartic. How did it reframe those experiences for you?

L: I think it helped me to purge some demons and come to terms with my own responsibility after I already looked around for other people, places and things to blame. But you know, I was raised with that kind of old working class mindset or attitude that tells you everything’s eventually gonna go wrong. It’s that Catholic background and a fatalistic outlook that’s deeply inculcated – that i tucked in the book’s title – in Ru(i)n – is like original sin [laughs]. My parents grew up in the teeth of the Depression and WWII, so there was always this understanding that everything can go bad.

Operation Ivy. 924 Gilman, 1987.
Operation Ivy. 924 Gilman, 1987.

Z: That’s interesting, because one of the things I really picked up on in the book is the way you periodically talk about socioeconomic class and how it informs not just your disposition, but also the ways that it subtly structures people’s approach to making music and, of course, running a label. Those different sensibilities were obviously most apparent in the way things were run after you left.

L: Yeah, which is odd too because of the two young guys who ended up being my partners. The one who was probably the closest to my own views was from a stoutly middle class family, and the one who continued to run lookout after I left (Chris), was from a working class family – he had a very hard life – and yet…I think our differences were probably more generational. He was like the 2nd or 3rd generation after the hippies, when the whole complexion and philosophy of the country had changed.

The ’70s was actually quite traumatic for me, and a lot of people of my generation who got very caught up in the 1960s. The 1970s, as you probably remember, was often called the “me decade” and it was sort of epitomized by a lot of the great bands breaking up by 1970 and forming solo acts. That shift from collective to individual expression kind of summed up the times and, I think, ever since then there’s this kind of mythos of the individual as whatever I can imagine it to be…kind of sacrosanct. I think that was probably the generational divide – not just with Chris, but a lot of the younger people at Lookout. It was all just fun and games, not a life’s work, if that makes any sense.

I was just reflecting about this last night, actually. One issue I wish I had stressed a little more in the book was that a there was a similar kind of conflict within couple of the great bands on Lookout, where one or more of the members were from the working class and, to them, getting a band that could really have a future and the promise of a career was like a dream come true. Whereas there would be another member or two from a more privileged, middle-class background and to them the band was like “Oh, this is fun, but I think I might try to start something else right now, or start a new career, or put the band on hold for a while” – stuff that made no sense to me, or the working class guys in those bands.

To them, it also made no sense, like “How could you walk away from something they’ve been working toward and dreaming about all their lives?” And yet there were band members who had the kind of background where the parents say, “You can do anything and we’ll support you, and it will be fine, you know…follow your dreams!” [laughs] That’s the kind of dichotomy that emerged, and the new Lookout people were more of the latter variety, like “We’ll just imagine ourselves into a whole new record company with all new bands, and it will be amazing.”

Z: From my personal experience in bands, and from knowing a lot of working artists and musicians, I eventually came to the realization that asserting a posture where you can say, “Of course I don’t need to make money off of this,” is a very class based one, and I think it’s a perspective that a lot of people don’t necessarily think about as such. It’s a lot easier to have these particular laurels about music being inherently non-commercial, when you don’t have to sweat paying the bills.

L: You might be able to tell I’m chomping at the bit here, because that’s crucial. You know, years later there’s all this legend about how punk originated as a working class movement. That was PR hype. Malcolm McLaren and those guys were not, I mean…it was a fashion movement. Let’s get real. But to people from my background, I felt like I saw the same divide in the political communities of the 1960s and 1970s. You know with a lot of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) you have these rich kids playing revolution – people like Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dorn, and they’re like “Oh, we’re tired of playing revolution now…Daddy bail us out,” and now they’re professors and lawyers and what my friend Bruce Anderson calls “re-entry hippies.”

And then there’s the working class Weathermen, often people of color who are still in prison and/or still on the run because they had no return option. Whether it’s music or politics – and, of course, during my formative years in the ’60s, the two briefly intersected in dramatic ways – you got that same kind of class consciousness.

To people like me, it was never an issue of whether you should or should not make money from music. If you found any way that you could make a decent living and have a decent life, you did it. We weren’t too concerned with niceties. So, you know, when I got involved in Maximum RockandRoll, Tim Yohannan was militant about how you should never make money from music and, if you did, you were kicked out of the scene. It just did not compute for me. His attitude was that you should work at McDonalds 8 hours a day and then practice with your band, play free shows, and basically give away your records.

Neurosis at Owen's Pizza, 1985.
Neurosis at Owen’s Pizza, 1985.

Z: A lot of what got me turned on to punk and politics was the stuff that, at the time, made a break with MRR because at that time (less so in recent years) that sort of mindset reigned supreme about how you’re supposed to do everything. And that always seemed like a strange position for folks to hold who identify as hardcore lefties.

L: I want to make two points about that. One, I don’t know a whole lot about Tim [Yohannan]’s background – I know he was from Jersey, originally – but his view about why it was no problem to make your money elsewhere and basically do your music for free was because he had a good full-time job at the University of California where he basically only had to show up a few hours a day. And on top of that, MRR – though it did not pay its workers and Tim was very scrupulous about not taking money for himself – it did pay most of the rent for everybody who lived there. So, essentially, it was much easier for him to work constantly on the magazine for almost no money…but he had no conception of why that would be a problem for somebody else.

On the other hand, I had that perspective, like a lot of people who came from where I did, which is that people who have more money than we do are inherently assholes. So basically even though we wanted to make at least a working class wage from music, we felt guilty if we made any more than that. Or, rather, I shouldn’t speak for anyone else – I, myself, felt very guilty when Lookout started to make a lot of money, and among the ways I reacted to that was by making prices super cheap.

Lookout would have made several million more if I just charged regular prices, and had the same contract agreements that any other record company, including larger independents like Fat and Epitaph. If I had just done business the way they did, Lookout could’ve been 4 or 5 times larger than it was. Money in the working class, especially in the Catholic working class, is almost like sex. You know, they’re both very shameful topics that you don’t talk about in polite society, at least when I was growing up. And so I always felt very ambivalent about earning any money from the label.

Photographs courtesy of Andrew Hutchison, Wayne van der Kuil, and Murray B. Published under a Creative Commons license.