By that, of course, I mean Now Sounds. Launched in 2007 by Steve Stanley, the producer of over 50 titles for the Rev-Ola label, Now Sounds celebrates the rich and varied melodies created between 1964 and 1972, though the label isn’t limited to that period. A labor of love for its founder, Now Sounds has established itself as the go-to label for fans of this golden era of both songwriting and record production.
We’ve seen a career anthology from the Wondermints, and reissues from familiar artists like Dion, The Association, Gary Lewis, and The Cowsills. Now Sounds has also unearthed gems from the likes of Tina Mason, the Tuneful Trolley and Jamme, produced by “Papa” John Phillips. This week, the label releases its expanded edition of Paul Williams’ sunshine pop classic Someday Man. The 1970 album, with a title track familiar to many Monkees fans, is one of the gold standards of pop songwriting and polished production, with both duties performed by Williams and Roger Nichols. Stanley’s much-anticipated reissue doubles the length of the original LP, and continues the label’s fruitful relationship with Williams and Nichols. (Fine complements to Someday Man are the similarly-expanded edition for Williams’ early band The Holy Mackerel, and the return of Roger Nichols and the Small Circle of Friends with the group’s Full Circle set.)
The Second Disc couldn’t be more pleased to talk shop with Steve Stanley of Now Sounds! Dig the photo of Steve with legendary musical wunderkind Emitt Rhodes, and after the jump, join us where Steve candidly offers his thoughts on the rewards and challenges of releasing catalogue music in today’s fractured music business. He also gives some scoops about what’s next for Now Sounds. And after you’re done reading and find yourself waiting for your copy of Someday Man to arrive? Remember to tune in every Monday to LuxuriaMusic.com from 6 pm to 8 pm PST to hear Steve’s radio program, The Now Sounds. You’ll be thanking me later!
Steve, our readers may know you from any one of the varied credits on your CV: as a musician, a DJ, an author, a record producer or a graphic designer. Could you share with our readers how you got your start in the music business, and what led to the founding of Now Sounds?
I was a musician first, playing in a number of bands, including The Acitones and Single Bullet Theory. I entered the business side of things when I was 24, as a sales rep for Navarre. I was working as a waiter at the time and didn’t have any experience, really, but I hit it off with the GM, Frank Mooney, and he hired me. I travelled all over Southern California in my ’60 Chevy Biscayne, singing the praises of Navarre’s odd family of labels, which included a lot of rap, new age, contemporary country, techno–pretty much everything I didn’t want to listen to! But I didn’t care because Navarre gave me an instant education in the music business and a lot of freedom to travel, hang out in record stores without having to work for them, and most importantly, not wait on tables!
After working for Navarre for a few years, the legendary Bob Keane of Del-Fi Records [Ritchie Valens, Bobby Fuller, Sam Cooke] headhunted me to be his National Sales Manager. He even tried to take out a life insurance policy on me!! From there I A&R’ed and co-produced several releases, including Del-Fi Girl Groups, and Delphonic Sounds Today. At night I’d teach myself various graphic programs and launched my own graphics firm, Now Designs, in 2000.
While I was still at Del-Fi, Joe Foster of Poptones visited our office. He wanted to license some Del-Fi material. Those releases never materialized, but we kept in contact. A year or so later, Joe asked me to work on a release for Rev-Ola: Eternity’s Children. From there, I went on to single-handedly A&R, produce, annotate, and design over 50 releases for Rev-Ola–including many of their best-selling titles–by artists such as Mark Eric, Claudine Longet, Bergen White (For Women Only made both MOJO and UNCUT‘S Top 20 Reissues of 2004), and The Merry-Go-Round.
All of those albums are essential listening, Steve. And congratulations on the MOJO and UNCUT plaudits! They were well-deserved…as I was familiar with Bergen’s work for Elvis and in the country realm, I was surprised and pleased to discover his wonderful covers of songs by Barry Mann with and without Cynthia Weil, and another of my favorite writers, David Gates. I’m sure For Women Only would be right up there, but what reissues, either for Now Sounds, Rev-Ola or another label, are you most proud of?
[It’s] a hard choice. There’s so many…Today, the reissue for which I’m the most proud would have to be Book a Trip: The Psych Pop Sounds of Capitol Records because not only it did it not exist before I compiled it, but also because it was a real challenge to pull off, license-wise. Most importantly, it has some truly brilliant music that would otherwise never see the light of day–certainly not from the original masters! And fortunately, Book a Trip is now getting the best reaction we’ve ever had on a release.
It really is an amazingly infectious disc, and sheds light on just how much great music got “lost in the shuffle” back in those heady days. You uncovered many of those hidden treasures for Now Sounds’ sister label under the Cherry Red umbrella, Rev-Ola. At Now Sounds, are you autonomous in terms of the releases you select and produce?
After six years of producing, annotating [and] designing releases for Rev-Ola, I launched Now Sounds in 2007. I A&R all of the releases for Now Sounds and call on the efforts of excellent mastering engineer Alan Brownstein, my wife, Sheryl Farber, who herself has worked in the reissue world for a long time and is a three-time Grammy nominee, and Andrew Sandoval, who coproduced the Dion and Gary Lewis releases with me. I also enjoy hearing suggestions from music fans, as well as friends in the industry.
I hope some suggestions come your way from our readers, Steve. You’ve reissued albums by both the famous and the shoulda-been-famous. Do you have any memories that stand out about your favorite bit of feedback from a reissued artist?
There are so many that it’s really hard to choose…I think the most gratifying release I’ve worked on, in terms of the emotional impact I personally witnessed on the artists, was The Everpresent Fullness CD for Rev-Ola. The Fullness were a short-lived Sunset Strip band that recorded a few great singles for White Whale in 1966. They played with Love, The Lovin’ Spoonful, and many other legends of the era. A few years after the group disbanded, White Whale–for reasons that remain unknown–issued an album of the band’s material; a very shoddily assembled LP that certainly wasn’t mixed by the band’s brilliant producer Bones Howe [The Turtles, the Fifth Dimension]. The band members weren’t even aware of the record’s existence for another 20 years! Although most of the White Whale masters no longer exist today, Bones Howe, genius that he is, kept all of the band’s multi-tracks stored away for forty years, and they were in pristine condition!
Wow! Go Bones!
So I had them digitally transferred over at Penguin Studios and got two of the band members–including Paul Johnson of The Bel-Airs’ (“Mr. Moto”)–together for a mixing session with my friend Nick Walusko of Wondermints/Brian Wilson Band. The two old bandmates were literally in tears in front of us. They couldn’t believe they were hearing their 40-year-old music finally sound the way they wanted it to. It was a moment I can never forget.
That is one amazing story! Experiences like that must really underline just how important, and worthwhile, your work is. The music of the mid-to-late-1960s is unabashedly my favorite era in pop/rock; while great music can be found from any time period, the invention, creativity and inhibition – and stylistic variety! – during that period was just unprecedented. And to think, so many disparate styles sat comfortably alongside one another on the pop charts. That era also seems to be when record production itself, in addition to songwriting, hit its apex. What do you think makes this music still so relevant today, as I firmly believe it still is?
This is a subject I’ve pondered for years. I still marvel at the fact that during that era, most albums were cut in a few weeks, maybe a few months at the most. And yet, they sound more thought out than most of the music coming out today. Most people did what they did best on records back then. Arrangers arranged. Singers sang. Writers wrote and often didn’t sing if they couldn’t. That scenario is practically unheard of now.
Also I think what makes that era still so exciting for me to listen to now is simply hearing musicians playing together simultaneously in a room without the aid of computers. It’s a more human expression and you can feel the difference. Also, in the 1960s there was a very intriguing juxtaposition of older producers–many with a Tin Pan Alley musical background–working with younger, largely unschooled rock musicians. A lot of the best ’60s music was really cross-generational. And you also had limited technology, which made one have to think ahead on the final outcome before you started recording. The no-holds-barred approach of limitless tracks is usually too much for most musicians to comprehend. Many often lose the ability to focus on the final outcome.
This is such a wide open question, so I apologize. But do you have a personal favorite songwriter or producer who may have influenced you in either of those fields?
I don’t have one favorite songwriter–I have many. They include Randy Newman, Lennon and McCartney, Nichols and Williams, The Brill writers: Goffin/King, Mann/Weil. Russ Titelman is a great and underrated writer. Producers I tend to obsess over include Phil Spector, Curt Boettcher, Bones Howe, Gary Zekley, and Jerry Riopelle.
Can’t argue with any of those choices! In fact, with the exception of the rightly-celebrated Spector, all of those producers seem underappreciated to me. And while I think many of the rock cognoscenti has “come around,” it’s still frustrating to see those Brill writers dismissed by some as “hacks,” when nothing could be further from the truth! There’s so much great work to choose from, by those folks you mention and so many others, but is there any “holy grail” album you’d love to reissue, if rights, licenses and the like weren’t an issue? Or an artist whose catalogue you would love to tackle, and haven’t yet been able to?
I get asked this question a lot. The biggest obstacle in reissuing music is the major labels’ own lack of understanding what they own. For example, there are numerous compilations I’d love to create which would undoubtedly include many obscure cuts for which original paperwork is time consuming to access–if available at all. Most major labels would rather not spend time searching for their own contracts. This is why you see a lot of reissues released with few or no bonus tracks. At best, you’ll see bonus tracks that were singles that weren’t included on original LPs. But many artists left songs in the can that are often as good as what they released. Sadly, most of these tracks are virtually un-licensable because [of] the time [and] effort it would take for the majors to locate paperwork and enter them into a database.
It’s virtually impossible today to read about the music industry and not read about the majors’ troubles. How do you feel the much-discussed current state of the record industry has affected Now Sounds, if at all? Do you have a dedicated audience you can rely upon to purchase the titles you’ve been releasing?
These days there is an intense climate of fear at the majors. It’s a shame because at a time when the business is most challenged, it’s difficult for people to be creative and take risks. And while digital sales are still nowhere making up for the loss of physical product, the push is inevitably toward digital, with very little concentration being paid toward the physical formats. I, however, think they can coexist.
Despite the challenging financial times we’re operating in, I know we have many fans who are buying each release–regardless of whether they have heard of the artists or not. I’m getting emails from fans around the world that tell me they trust in what Now Sounds releases. They’ve come to expect a certain quality. That is incredibly gratifying to me.
Honestly, I think we’re in a bit of a golden age in terms of wonderful reissues still coming our way, and your releases on Now Sounds are a major part of that! There’s certainly more than enough news for us at The Second Disc to cover each day. Do you have any thoughts on “the digital revolution” and the future of reissued/catalogue music? As a consumer, I look for detailed liner notes, strong art direction, solid mastering and bonus tracks when I purchase a reissue, virtually all of which are nonexistent when buying a track digitally. I can’t praise your attention to detail enough, little things like replicating the Liberty or A&M or Warner Bros. labels on the CDs. What a great touch.
Thank you so much. I like adding those subtle touches. For me, an album has always been a musical AND visual experience. As a kid, I remember being as entranced by an album jacket as I was by the music. (Sometimes the sleeves were better that the music!) And the labels themselves were also a part of that visual experience. I like to carry that over into the latter-day CD age.
The digital revolution won’t be televised because everyone would rather just skim through it the next day on YouTube! Seriously, I still can’t get excited about downloading an intangible file on my computer. You can’t download the experience of holding a piece of art in your hands. And records are pieces of art. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Who wants to wake up on Christmas morning to a download card under the tree? That being said, we need to acknowledge that downloading is here. I think beautifully executed packages can coexist with the no-frills digital version. It’s just a different experience.
I couldn’t agree more. What are the biggest obstacles to reissuing a classic title on Now Sounds? The most rewarding aspect?
Like I said earlier, the biggest challenge to reissuing is getting the major label to sign off on a license. The most rewarding aspect is hearing from an artist who–for 30 years or more–believed he failed at creating good art, and seeing him discover a whole new generation of listeners who love it.
I’ve also noticed a bit of a mono renaissance of late; last week saw the release of Sony’s Bob Dylan mega-box of mono albums, and I’ve enjoyed your mono reissues of titles such as The Association’s Birthday and Gary Lewis’ Listen! Do you have a mono vs. stereo preference, personally?
My favorite mix is always the one that sounds the best to me. I’ve heard wonderfully alive stereo mixes and flat, uninspired mono mixes, and vice-versa. I hold no allegiance to either format. I do believe, however, that engineers in the ’60s were naturally more adept at optimizing mono, and singles of that era were generally recorded and mixed with AM radio in mind. So you could make an argument for mono being truer to a producer’s original vision. But, again, whatever sounds best to me is what I prefer. There were several cuts on Book a Trip that appeared in stereo for the first time ever. For example, “Seventeenth Summer” by the Sidewalk Skipper Band sounded much more exciting to me in stereo, so that’s what I used.
With Birthday, and Listen!, I simply wanted to make these original mono mixes available for fans to make up their own minds about what they think sounds better. Intriguingly, many audiophiles have said they believe Birthday in mono is vastly superior to the stereo. I’m honored to have the opportunity to not only help keep this vital music alive, but also to be able to present familiar music in an alternate manner. Mono mixes were just as “authentic” as the stereo ones, but many have been lost to history.
Which is a perfect segue to talking about your latest release, which features a number of mono bonus tracks. Of course, it’s Paul Williams’ Someday Man, and I couldn’t be more excited about it! Do you remember the first time you heard Someday Man, or a Paul Williams/Roger Nichols song? I’ve always thought that Paul’s work follows you as you grow older. A young person today might first know a Paul Williams song via the Muppets, a song such as “The Rainbow Connection.” Then he’ll probably encounter “We’ve Only Just Begun” or “An Old-Fashioned Love Song” or “Rainy Days and Mondays” somewhere along the line in a film, on television, on the radio. Then when and if he digs deeper, he’ll discover the riches of Small Circle of Friends, or Someday Man. Once I did, I never looked back!
I remember hearing “To Put Up with You” for the first time in the ’90s and thinking, “I’ve known this song all my life.” Perhaps I had heard another version of that song, but I don’t think so. Roger and Paul’s work is both familiar and otherworldly… I’m so glad you’re excited about those two releases. Talk about two dream projects! I’ve always wanted to reissue the Someday Man and Holy Mackerel albums. I still can’t believe we were able to do so and access all of the relevant bonus material. The Now Sounds reissues of Someday Man and Holy Mackerel double the length of the original album releases.
“To Put Up with You” is one of my favorites, too, by Paul and Roger, or anyone else, for that matter. I could listen to that track and “The Drifter” over and over again; they’re pure pop bliss. I can’t believe “To Put Up with You” hasn’t had more cover versions. For a while I was on a “Drifter” collecting jag, comparing the versions by Steve Lawrence, Heidi Bruhl, Kenny Lynch…they all are a bit of a kick, especially Steve’s! Thinking about it, the “California sound” permeates many of your releases including Someday Man. Do you think there’s something about the Golden State that has influenced and inspired so many artists? I hope our readers are familiar with your wonderful album with The Now People…certainly anyone reading this interview should be!
You’re right. There’s something about California–particularly Southern California–that has inspired such tremendous creativity that in some ways is unparalleled. Perhaps it’s the pioneer spirit that somehow inspires the inhabitants here–a still-extant belief in a limitless frontier… Even when so much that I love about L.A. seems to be vanishing before my eyes, I still feel constant inspiration from simply being here.
Thank you for your kind words [regarding] The Now People. We’re trying to capture that essence of the California sound, and put our own stamp on it.
So can I ask what’s coming next for Now Sounds?
We have On My Side, The Cowsills’ final album from their original incarnation coming out in November. All from the original masters. I’m really excited about that one. The album kind of sounds like a cross between Surf’s Up-era Beach Boys and CSN&Y, if you can imagine that. Also The Collage, a group that recorded a great LP for Smash Records in 1968 is coming in January. Lots of other exciting releases for next year are in the works. Check this space for further updates!
I promise to cover all of these releases here at The Second Disc, Steve. That Cowsills album sounds quite tantalizing, and should be quite a treat! It’s always a thrill to discover just how much more there is to a band than the AM hits – “The Rain, the Park and Other Things” or “Hair,” for instance – everybody knows. I’m sure our readers will be awaiting them, too.
Finally, could I throw some suggestions your way? I’d love to see full albums by Boyce and Hart (not to mention their demos!), and Claudine Longet, both of whom you previously compiled to such success. Second Disc readers might know that Burt Bacharach is a major influence on me. Some of your reissues, such as The Golden Gate, have given us wonderful Bacharach-inspired music. Have you ever thought of a collection of those Burt-inspired tracks, or even a set of groovy, lesser-known covers of his work, such as Tina Mason’s “Are You There?” – thanks for that great album find! I’d also love to put votes in for the A&M crowd of Montez, Mendes, the Baja Marimbas, etc.; Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent’s great sunshine pop-inflected work from across the pond; and the ’60s studio work of Rupert Holmes, another Second Disc favorite. I hope I haven’t asked for too much…!
Not at all. Thank you! These are all wonderful suggestions. I’ll explore these further and keep you posted on new developments. Second Disc is a fantastic resource! Good luck with everything and thank you so much for your support of Now Sounds.
Thank you, Steve, on behalf of both Mike and myself; it’s been a real pleasure!
Steve Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and please take a moment to visit www.nowsounds.co.uk for all the news of what’s happening “Now!” Steve hosts The Now Sounds radio program every Monday from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM, PST on www.LuxuriaMusic.com!