TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In 1974, Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye released her single "Hey Joe" on their own label. A mystery man named Terry Ork was paying attention, and soon Ork Records was born. It only lasted a few years, but with the release of the entire Ork catalog and a collection from the archival label Numero Group, we can hear what happened, warts and all. Rock historian Ed Ward has the story.
ED WARD, BYLINE: It all started with six notes played on a bass.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SONG, "LITTLE JOHNNY JEWEL")
WARD: The song was "Little Johnny Jewel," and the band was Television, a project founded by prep school friends and dropouts Tom Miller and Richard Meyers who came to New York to write poetry and wound up starting a band. By the time "Little Johnny Jewel" hit the stores - the few who'd handle it - they were calling themselves Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, and Hell was already out of the band. Hell had been working as a clerk at Cinemabilia, a bookstore specializing in film books and posters and owned by Terry Ork, real name William Terry Collins, a bearded, roly-poly kid who'd come from San Diego where he'd run a bookstore called The Tiny Ork. Once he got to New York, he crashed the Warhol scene in the back room at Max's Kansas City, discovered heroin and came out of the closet. Ork took over Cinemabilia, and one day, the guy running his mail-order division asked him to come hear his band. In no time, Terry Ork was managing Television. And when the band started making demo recordings that went nowhere, Ork decided to follow Patti Smith's lead and start his own record company. In September 1975, "Little Johnny Jewel," at seven minutes cut into two halves, came out on an Ork 45. Richard Hell, who found himself stuffing copies of the record into envelopes and mailing them off, needn't have worried about his shot at stardom, though. He'd been working with a band called the Voidoids who'd recorded three songs that Stiff Records in England wanted to put out. Terry Ork, who never went for niceties, got there first.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLANK GENERATION")
THE VOIDOIDS: (Singing) I was saying let me out of here before I was even born. It's such a gamble when you get a face. It's fascinating to observe what the mirror does but when I dine it's for the wall that I set a place. I belong to the blank generation and I can take it or leave it each time. I belong to the generation but I can take it or leave it each time.
WARD: The Voidoids were an unlikely bunch with a 30-plus lawyer, Robert Quine, playing guitar, a young guy with dreadlocks, Ivan Julian, on second guitar, and a heavy metal drummer, Marc Bell. Fronting it was Richard in the torn T-shirts he'd made his signature look. As for the song, fans eventually discovered it was based on an obscure 45 called "Beat Generation" by Rod McKuen, of all people. Nor were Television and the Voidoids the only hopefuls signed to Ork. A band from Haledon, N.J., made a tape they hoped to release.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FA CE-LA")
THE VOIDOIDS: (Singing) Get a message out to MaryAnn. Tell her everything is all right. Get a message out to Mom and Dad. Tell them everything is all right. Fa, fa, fa, fa, fa ce-la. Fa, fa, fa, fa, fa ce-la.
WARD: The Feelies had also attracted interest from Stiff, and for one reason or another, the two power-packed tracks they recorded for Ork never came out. Business and organization were never big on Terry Ork's agenda, which is why the sudden appearance of Charles Ball, a straight, rich and adventurous kid from suburban Bronxville, was so important. He was so blown away by seeing Television that he sought out Ork and in almost no time was the label's president. Crisp and business-like, Ball started contacting other important managers and the hipper record company guys. One of his first important connections was with Jon Tiven, a guitarist and producer from Connecticut whose high school friend, Doc Cavalier, owned a recording studio, Trod Nossel, which supposedly meant tree of many branches in an unspecified Scandinavian language. But Tiven's first recordings for Ork weren't made there.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREE AGAIN")
ALEX CHILTON: (Singing) Well, I'm free again to do what I want again. Free again to sing my songs again. Free again to end my longing to be out on my own again. Well, I had me a girl. She couldn't understand me or my ways or my need to be a man. Now I'm going to try to, try to make her understand. Baby, Baby, I'm again.
WARD: A huge fan of Memphis band Big Star, Tiven took note when their front man, Alex Chilton, exited the band and broke it up and started making solo appearances at CBGB in New York. Determined to help Chilton reach fame as a solo artist, Tiven went to Memphis and put him in the studio after sobering him up somewhat. "Free Again" was one of the fruits of that session and got Ork and Ball interested in the tape. They put it out, and suddenly Jon Tiven and was the head of A & R for Ork Records. By this time, the big stars of the CBGB punk scene - Blondie, The Ramones, Talking Heads, not to mention Television and the Voidoids - had signed deals with major labels. But there were more where they'd come from, and the club's reputation was drawing bands from the rest of the country. And, drawn by Trod Nossel's $5 an-hour recording price that Tiven had negotiated for Ork artists, they were attracted to Ork. Among them were Chris Stamey, a North Carolinian who'd had a pop band called the Sneakers, who fit perfectly with Alex Chilton.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE SNEAKERS SONG)
THE SNEAKERS: (Singing) She's such a lonely girl. She sits at home. She cries a lot, cries a lot 'cause she's got everything. Such a lonely girl, a self-addressed forget-me-not. Cries a lot 'cause she's done everything. Somewhere there's laughter, there's dancing on air. Somewhere the fun is somewhere there's champagne.
WARD: And although more records came out of Ork during 1978 and '79, there were unavoidable problems. For one thing, even at five bucks an hour, Terry wasn't paying his studio bills. For another, people found Charles Ball abrasive. He and Ork were watching a band one night when Ork mentioned that they weren't new wave, they were no wave. A new genre was named and soon Ball founded his own label, Lust/Unlust, to record it. As for Ork, he folded his label massively in debt and eventually disappeared to Europe then returned and spent three years in jail back in the U.S. between 1991 and '94, and died of cancer in 2004, his mysteries largely unrevealed even with the release of this collection.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Austin. The music he played is from the anthology, "Ork Records: New York, New York," on the archival record label Numero Group.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Brittany Howard, the lead singer of the band Alabama Shakes. She also plays guitar and writes most of their songs. Their second album, "Sound & Color," is nominated for six Grammys. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.