January 15, 2012

Lookout Records RIP: Yesterday Rules* and other memories

In the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, on Saturdays, I would take the bus into downtown Vancouver to shop for records, on a weekly journey of musical discovery.

Back then, there were plenty of new bands that I simply had to take a chance on to find out if I liked them or not, which was an expensive gamble for a teenager. I developed a system of trust that was based on what indie label the record was on, and it worked like a charm for years.

I had my favourites, like Sub-Pop from Seattle, K Records from Olympia, Og Records from Montreal, Dischord from Washington DC, Norton from New York, Hangman from Chatham England, and Sympathy for the Records Industry from Los Angeles. But my very favourite record label, the one I would get the most excited about when I flipped over the record and saw that logo (above), was Lookout! Records from Berkeley, California.

I LOVED the punk rock energy of the records that came from that label, from bands like Screeching Weasel, the Queers, the Ne’er Do Wells, Green Day, Pansy Division, Operation Ivy, and the Mr. T Experience. It was pop-punk, mostly based in what the Ramones had blueprinted, but sonically advanced through much more audible singing; sometimes angry, sometimes funny, but always stressing melody, melody, melody, with more hooks than a Desolation Sound tackle box.

In 1995, my dreams came true when my very own band The Smugglers “got signed” to Lookout! Records. Suddenly, we had that logo on the back of our records!!! Lookout’s logo had changed by then, but I insisted that the classic, original logo appear on the back of our records.

We were thrust into an incredible community of bands who welcomed us with open arms (mostly because we always brought the party) as we joined an independent record label at its very height, run by a creative nucleus that included Larry Livermore, (one of the most influential figures in the American indie underground), Chris Appelgren (the artist who created many of the most iconic Lookout logos, covers, and artwork), and Molly Neuman (the woman who co-founded the riot grrrl movement a few years earlier in Olympia).

L-R: Larry Livermore (Lookout co-founder), Jess Hilliard, Evan, Chris Imlay, John Denery (the Hi-Fives), Grant Lawrence, Nick Thomas (The Smugglers)

We’d take part in star-studded Lookout! Records showcases at music events like the CMJ Music Marathon in New York and South By Southwest in Austin. The Lookout showcase would be the hottest at the festival, always selling out with a line around the block.

The stack of bands would include The Queers, the Mr. T Experience, cub, Pansy Division, the Hi-Fives, and the Smugglers, and a full-on raging rock ‘n’ roll party would erupt for five hours on stage to a riotous crowd. In later years, we’d be joined by the Groovie Ghoulies, the Criminalsthe Donnas, and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists.

Lookout Records showcases in New York would always attract all sorts of luminaries, such as Joey and Johnny Ramone, Joan Jett, Bob Mould, Kim Fowley, Lemmy from Motorhead, William Shatner, and various Saturday Night Live stars, making us performers on stage pretty much just as starstruck as those in the audience.

Having Lookout’s trademark of quality on the back of our records was the turning point in our “career”, launching us way beyond Canada for successful tours across the USA, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Just like the “Mint Records Effect” in Canada, all international promoters needed to hear was “Lookout Records” and we’d get the show/the tour/the guarantee.

We eventually released three full length records (Selling The Sizzle, Rosie, Mutiny in Stereo), one live album (Growing Up Smuggler), one EP (Buddy Holly Convention) and one split EP (Summer Games, with the Hi-Fives) in our ten year span on Lookout.

Today, while working on my new book in France, I found out through Ted Leo’s blog, that after 24 years, Lookout Records has officially called it quits.The label hasn’t released a new record since the late 2000s and was existing only on back catalogue, but apparently that has also ceased as of the end of 2011.

So… thank you Lookout Records for making a teenager’s dream come true. It was one of the most exciting, visceral periods of my life so far, and whenever I see that classic logo I’ll always remember the good times.

Lookout Records 15th Anniversary Party, Great American Music Hall, San Francisco CA.

What’s your favourite Lookout Records memory/release/band/show?

* The Mr. T Experience 2004 album title.

(10) Comments

  1. You probably have no idea, how much I am looking forward to this next book Grant. This blog post, doesn’t help.

    Favourite Lookout band? Operation Ivy (Jaded, Sound System, Unity) or Green Day. I mail ordered both of these bands on CD.

  2. Christian says:

    Green day was the best lookout band, but Pinhead Gunpowder and MTX are very close. I also love plenty of stuff from SW, Queers, PD, etc etc. This label meant a whole lot to me. It’s sad.

  3. Justin says:

    I was pleased to see this post on Facebook. I was in a band in Berkeley at that time. I was on very small records. One of my favorite memories is Blatz And Filth live. Jesse was naked, throwing marshmallows and mayo on the crowd. The venue management was pissed. So many fans stayed after the show to help clean up… Till the wee hours. Or there was the Green Day playing Santa Rosa high with the puppet named Gravey. And Neurosis!!! And and and

  4. Glen says:

    Awww… thanks for the sad, but not unexpected news Grant. As a big fan and pusher of Lookout Records music to friends and through community radio in the late 80s and 90’s this is a sad day. My crappy old band had the fortune to open in the 90’s for MTX, cub, the Ne’er Do Wells, and of course The Smugglers, and they (you) we’re great folks as well as really fun musicians. The classic MTX line-up years (Frank, Jon, Aaron and Alex) produced some of my favourite releases of all time, and for that – if nothing else – I’ll always be grateful to Lookout.

  5. Tyler says:

    Op Ivy’s “Hectic”, which I mail ordered along with the t-shirt. Mr T Experience for vinyl and swag. Those were the biggies. It was a good run! Now I buy them for my kids.

  6. Grant Lawrence says:

    Hey Glen – thanks for the sharing your memory… are you Victoria based? What’s the name of your old band? I feel like I would know it immediately as I recognize your name.

  7. Echos Myron says:

    Top 10 Lookout! Releases:

    1. Ted Leo/Pharmacists – Hearts of Oak
    2. Ted Leo/Pharmacists – The Tyranny of Distance
    3. Screeching Weasel – My Brain Hurts
    4. Screeching Weasel – Anthem for a New Tomorrow
    5. The Mr. T Experience – Our Bodies Our Selves
    6. Pretty Girls Make Graves – Good Health
    7. Ted Leo/Pharmacists – Shake the Sheets
    8. Screeching Weasel – Kill the Musicians
    9. Avail – Dixie
    10. Cleveland Bound Death Sentence – S/T

  8. Grant Lawrence says:

    11. The Smugglers “Selling The Sizzle”

  9. Evan Mendell says:

    My best Lookout related memory was hanging out with THE SMUGGLERS in Canada! A tad late to post, sorry.

    Nice to see my pic with you lot. I think I only have one other with you guys.


  10. Grant Lawrence says:

    Nice to hear from you Evan! Good times!

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