Unlike other labels subjected to exhaustive multi-disc retrospectives like this whopping ten-disc Revolutions in Sound: Warner Bros. Records -- The First Fifty Years, Warner Brothers never embodied a scene or sound: they've always embodied what a major label should be -- a dominant force that chronicles and dictates the sound of the mainstream. Coming out at the tail-end of 2008, when the influence of major labels is on a slow steady decline, Revolutions in Sound can be seen as a portrait of a time that's beginning to recede into the past: a time when there was such a thing as mass entertainment, when the pop audience all shared a common bond of hit records they either loved or rallied against. Perhaps the greatest things about this monumental box set is that it captures that colossus while also illustrating that for a while, majors did take risks. Of course, Warner was the riskiest of all the majors, never held back by an anti-rock & roll sourpuss like Mitch Miller, who struggled to keep CBS out of the tumult of the '60s (this with no less than Bob Dylan as the label's flagship rock artist). Instead, Warner embraced the underground, recording some of the strangest to shake out of the '60s, and that adventure fits a label that turned to rock & roll to help establish themselves as a real player at the turn of the '60s. The label had started as an outgrowth of Warner's film division, releasing singles by heartthrob Tab Hunter and other Hollywood-related ephemera -- all chronicled in the first tracks of the 199-track box set (the set is a gargantuan 320 tracks in its USB drive edition; the extra 121 songs fill out the details), which includes the theme for "77 Sunset Strip" and Edd Byrnes' "Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)" -- but in 1960, the label started to shift as they paid out a million dollars -- the largest record contract at that point in time -- to the Everly Brothers, giving them the one rock & roll act that was still actively recording and having hits as the '50s gave way to the '60s. The Everlys weren't the only act to help establish Warner in 1960: there also was Bob Newhart, whose Button-Down Mind was a blockbuster that year, giving the label two hits to build a house upon.
That process wasn't quite as simple as it sounds, as Warner spent the first stretch of the '60s with Kennedy-era comedy, novelties, and folk, never quite dipping head-first into rock & roll, outside of some surf and Bob Luman's "Let's Think About Living," (where he shook like Elvis). Warner didn't start to spread its wings until the back half of the '60s, after acquiring Frank Sinatra's Reprise -- the first of many purchases or distribution deals with smaller labels, almost all of which are included even if the contract later lapsed -- and starting to dig into the weird outgrowth of psychedelia. Warner had sunshine pop and Reprise signed Jimi Hendrix but they also got really, truly weird, taking risks on the acid-drenched Grateful Dead, underground rebels the Fugs, Hollywood eccentric Van Dyke Parks, and a host of other weirdos brought in via Frank Zappa's Straight, all represented proudly by Captain Beefheart. Warner wasn't all rock -- they still had Reprise running through the rat pack and they touched upon L.A. soul and funk, contributions that sometimes get overlooked thanks to the underground rock riches of the late '60s and '70s.
These were Warner's golden years and they stretched into the mid-'70s, as the label and its subsidiaries cultivated a stable of singer/songwriters -- Neil Young, Randy Newman, James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot, Gram Parsons, Bonnie Raitt -- and had some of the best and biggest rock & roll bands: everybody from the British glam and prog of Roxy Music, Jethro Tull, and T. Rex to the American blues boogie of Little Feat and the Doobie Brothers, with metalheads Deep Purple and rowdy ruffians the Faces falling somewhere in between. This wild, wooly time gave way to the slick, commercially oriented sound of the late '70s, when disco and soft rock sanded down the excesses, but before things got too slick Warner snapped up Sire, bringing the label punk godfathers the Ramones and many of their artiest offshoots, including Talking Heads, the B-52's, and Gang of Four. If from this point on the set sacrifices the aesthetic unity of the '60s and '70s -- as disparate as all those sounds were, it all seemed to fit -- it makes up for it in breadth, as Warner and their off-shoots had those post-punkers, the soft sounds of Christopher Cross and Al Jarreau, the dark neon club beats of Grace Jones, the exuberant Kid Creole, country superstars John Anderson and Rodney Crowell, metal gods Van Halen, superstar Madonna, moody British rockers New Order, Echo & the Bunnymen and the Jesus & Mary Chain, plus veterans like Paul Simon and Steve Winwood still doing great work, still selling records. More than anything, this period seems like the golden age of the major label, when the majors credibly touched on every bit of popular music -- when hip-hop surfaced at the end of the '80s, Warner had the controversial Ice-T, plus Digital Underground -- and could sell it. This was a time where it meant something to be on a major label, a paradigm that crested in the early '90s, then collapsed in the wake of corporate calculations in the later '90s. Although the last two discs on Revolutions in Sound cherry-pick this era well, it's still possible to hear the air go out of the balloon somewhere around 1996, after the Prodigy and Cornershop gave Warner two last bracing bits of the unexpected, and then everything settles down into pre-programmed niches, where there is a parade of forgettable active rockers and sensitive adult contemporary balladeers and even the Flaming Lips seem to fill a demographic need.
But that's the story of the majors: they started relatively small, got big and then got bigger, before they eventually all collapsed. To hide that would give Revolutions in Sound a bit of a false note, so it's good that the story ends anti-climatically. Because even with that slightly sour coda, it's hard to look at Revolutions in Sound and not feel a slight pang for the era of major labels and mass pop culture, especially because nobody did it as well, or as weirdly, as Warner.