Damn The Machine (Book Review)
Released: 2017, Deliberation Press
I was extremely excited to read this book. When I discovered that it had been published I knew I must own it. I’m a big fan of Noise Records from essentially day one and as much of a Metal nerd that I am I rank my favourite record labels and Noise is waaay up on the list, just for the sheer percentage of killer bands they signed and supported. Anything cassette (and later CD) with a Noise Records logo on it was pretty much an instant blind buy for two decades. Thus it is my delight that the story of Noise Records has finally been told.
DAMN THE MACHINE itself is very nicely presented. It features cover art by ‘Away’, from Voi-vod. I’m not the biggest fan of his art but it is a good choice, because, in my mind, it is a representation of the Berlin Wall. We learn that the first office of Noise Records was in a rough part of Berlin, right near the wall. It also makes sense as well because Voi-vod was an early Noise signing. The title is a bit weird as well, but it also makes sense when you read about how many people ‘damn the machine’; the ‘machine’ being the record industry. It is a recurring them all through the book. There is a nice forward by Hansi Kursh (Blind Guardian), author David Gehlke also pens a few introductory notes and the afterword is written by none other than Noise founder, Karl Walterbach, so all the bases are well covered. DAMN THE MACHINE is loaded with photos as well from across the ages. And the book is a big bomber at just over 500 pages long. It could have been double the size! One of the highlights is an exhaustive Noise discography. An examination of the discography confirms that I have 90% of the full-length studio albums Noise ever released with some exceptions when they started to dabble in nu-Metal in the late 90’s, so I guess I’m a fan of the label!
I devoured this book. This story is long overdue and Gehlke spent hours and hours interviewing label boss, Walterbach. The narrative follows your standard chronology, with the life and times of Walterbach, his life as a student, political activist, squatter and eventually criminal as he spent some jail-time for his crimes. When he was released he left behind his political past and discovered music. Intelligent and hardworking, like many label owners, he sort of fell into the role of supporting and promoting local punk bands. After quickly tiring of their limited skill and marketability, the bubbling Metal underground of the early 80’s caught his ear and it was off to the races. Operating out of a phone booth the shrewd businessman parlayed a few dollars from his hard work at 9-5 jobs (he avoided drink and drugs) into a real ‘job’. He eventually opened a small office, hired a couple of staff and never looked back, until after two decades he sold the company for an undisclosed amount (over a million dollars) to Sanctuary in January 2001.
There were so many interesting stories that an old Metal wardog like me lapped up. For example the story of Running Wild signing autographs for excited East German border guards two days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Or the time that Skyclad who were a bit annoyed they had to do a lip-sync industry showcase gig for a bunch of suits at 11:00am, spontaneously decided they would perform skyclad (aka nude). All of them. Completely. There are so many good stories, the book is full of them. Gehlke interviewed a ton of people, bands, promoters, agents, labels, managers and keeps it all on a even keel. Many of the more well-known controversial times are documented in full detail, such as the infamous EMI vs.Noise Helloween lawsuit which almost broke the band and the label.
I should spend a moment discussing the over-arching them of the book. It is no secret that Karl Walterbach was a tough and self-interested businessman who did not truly love all the aspects of his bands. There is no shortage of bands who have very publically bad-mouthed him to the their fans, in the press using their fame as a platform. They range from virtually hatred from Tom Warrior of Celtic Frost to a host of others who feel that Noise wronged them. Sometimes perception becomes reality, and I’d suggest 66% maybe even as high as 75% of his artists did not like working with him and his businesses practices. Most bands say they were very happy to get their start with him but he never supported them. They damn the machine, the industry, and more specifically Walterbach. Walterbach has never truly had the opportunity to respond until now and to his credit, points out the many issues that many bands had, both personally and professionally, that made it harder for them to succeed. Throwing money at a second or third tier band is not always the answer, nor the best business move! It became apparent that bands who believed their own hype, who saw their picture in a magazine or three believed they were owed a lot more when the actual numbers were stark. Many of these bands were only selling 10,000 units, but because they were new and exciting and darlings of the media, they perhaps came to have an unjustified sense of entitlement. The reality is that is was very expensive for Noise to send a band on tour in North America, feed them, pay for gear, transportation, accommodation when only a few hundred were showing up at gigs and their record only sold 10,000 copies. Then some bands would complaining he was ‘cheap’ because he wouldn’t pay for their (often) excessive drinking habits with free beer! There are two-sides to every story and it must have been very frustrating for Walterbach to deal with artists for 20 years. The book provides a very fine balance and in the end, yes, Walterbach is a tough businessman. I can only say to young bands, get a lawyer, get a manager and read your contracts! The real pleasure for me was reading and learning about this inside information. To end on a positive note, despite ill feelings from some ex-roster bands, it is irrefutable that Noise was one of the best labels for Metal in the 80's and 90's. They kicked-started the career of so many bands that still enjoy careers today. We the fans who enjoy the music of Tankard or Kreator or Helloween to this day, owe Noise a debt of gratitude.
DAMN THE MACHINE now stands as one of the most entertaining and important books about an independent Metal label ever published. This is mandatory reading for all Metal fans for those of us who were there for the ride and those who want to know what it was like in the freewheeling days when Metal could be lucrative despite no mainstream support.