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A guide to Asylum Records in 5 essential albums

In the psychedelic ’60s the Sunset Strip was soaked with LSD, counter culture rhetoric, and free loving ways. Iconoclasts of the movement will say it’s all a bunch of hogwash, but the truth that cannot be tainted is the music. As society nervously approached the hangover of the ’70s, artists were feverishly searching for the sound that would define the era. A major player in this arrival was Asylum Records.

The musical embodiment of the decade and the sun-soaked sound of LA, Dave Geffen founded Asylum Records in 1971. The New York native came to characterise the musical embodiment of the times with the signing of incredible folkies such as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Linda Rondstadt, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, who all became Los Angeles archetypes.

Their most notable and devoted signee however, Tom Waits. This is the story of the iconic Asylum records and its 5 most essential contributions to music.

Asylum Records

Asylum Records defined the sun-soaked sounds of California throughout the 1970s with a plethora of defining records and signings.

Breaking out the Asylum

Dave Geffen cut his teeth as an agent at the William morris agency. Formerly, he had no interest representing singers. Instead he was interested in movie stars, though someone told him they don’t trust managers as young as him.

Thus, he sought after musicians, his first client was singer Laura Nyro. A year later he was managing Crosby, Stills and Nash, but after a year he decided he preferred being an agent than a manager so he turned them over to his friend Elliot Roberts. Again he became unhappy as an agent so he was back to Roberts and talked him into a partnership management business, and Asylum Records was born.

The first artist on Asylum was Jackson Browne. Browne asked Geffen to also sign two musicians who were living upstairs from him in a duplex, he said they were too broke to pay rent.

As a favour Geffen signed them both, John David Souther and Glenn Frey. Souther became a solo artists while Geffen helped Frey put a group together. Geffen got Don Henley, Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon together and told them all to practice. When he finally deemed they good enough he recorded them as the Eagles, and one of America’s finest bands was born.

In Asylum’s first year Geffen also signed Linda Ronstadt from Capitol Records and Joni Mitchell from Reprise Records.

The biggest coup for Geffen was signing Bob Dylan for a two record contract after becoming disillusioned with Columbia Records. When Columbia issued the dreadful album of outtakes titled Dylan without his permission, Bob was irate and went over to Asylum in 1974. He cut two albums that year Planet Waves and Before the Flood, with the Band as a backing group. After this short stint with Asylum, Dylan returned to the Columbia fray.

Hotel California is now a quintessential American album celebrating both lifestyles that Take It Easy and the sardonic, hedonistic ways of Los Angeles natives in the 1970s.

One of the most wildest trajectories of all rock artists in the 1970s was Tom Waits. A regular presence in San Diego coffee houses and the late ’60s, Mothers of Invention, Tim Buckley, and Linda Ronstadt manager Herb Cohen, discovered him and scored him a record deal with the fledgling Asylum.

Fascinated by Beat jazz and the seedier byways of Los Angeles, Waits created his own world within the words, concocting sprawling scenes of gutter characters, strippers, barflies, hucksters, grifters and vagrants.

He released seven definitive albums with Asylum before moving onto Columbia. These include the iconic Closing Time (1973), Small Change (1976), and Blue Valentine (1978).

Roughly two years after founding Asylum records, Geffen sold out to Warner Brothers and became president of the new Elektra-Asylum merger in 1973.

Essentials

Eagles – Hotel California (1976)

A zeitgeist capsule of America in the 1970s, the Eagles hit their peak on Hotel California. Shortly after they would widen divides that led to their demise but at this moment, they were masters. If you want to know what LA sounded like in the ’70s, this is it.

Tom Waits – Small Change (1976)

Tom Waits is a brilliant chronicler of American history. Nobody captures their surroundings quite like Tom, even if it is somewhat mythologised. Abandoning the rambling Kerouac excursions of his last album, Nighthawks at the Diner, Waits returns to melody and forms a, dare I say, brilliant album.

Bob Dylan – Before The Flood (1974)

The second of Bob’s two albums with Before The Flood expresses the malevolence of some of Dylan’s earlier work. The live album flaunts the Band as a rocking chair to Dylan to lean on in times of doubt. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door is a highlight, putting Dylan’s acuity to the test.

Joni Mitchell – For The Roses (1972)

Situated right between her two best albums, Blue and Court and Spark, Joni Mitchell finally got her first Top 40 single: You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio. This album especially shines where she explores her crumbling relationship with James Taylor.

Jackson Browne – Late For The Sky (1974)

Certainly Jackson Browne’s best early ’70s album, Late For The Sky is drenched in seriousness and ballads. Where it does wander towards the down-beat and ponderous, The Road and The Sky and Walking Slow bring it back to waist deep waters.

 

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