In the ‘70s, Warner Brothers records released an amazing series of compilations. They were officially dubbed the “Loss Leaders” for exactly-what-it-says-on-the-box reasons; for a paltry $2, you’d get a double LP (some were single-platter, at least one was a triple), packaged with an ample book of liner notes and stuffed with songs from superstars, cult artists and new signings alike. The idea was that though you bought it for the huge hit or rare track by Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart, or whoever, you’d also end up hearing left-field stuff by the Fugs, Deaf School, Talking Heads, Wild Man Fischer, Captain Beefheart, et al ad infinitum. If any of the lesser-known tracks connected with listeners, that would translate into more records sold at full price. They made dozens of those comps, and a great many of them were compiled and liner-noted by Barry “Dr. Demento” Hansen. They were available by mail-order between 1969 and 1980, when the campaign abruptly and sadly ended.
(It merits mentioning here that the final Loss Leader, 1980’s Troublemakers, features Gang of Four, PiL, DEVO, Wire, and John Cale, and so might be of extremely high interest to a hell of a lot of this blog’s followers. I’d even venture to guess that that very comp could be the very record that made a few of our readers realize they were mutants to begin with.)
Warner resurrected the “Loss Leader” idea in name only for a couple of giveaway comps in 1995 and 1999, but the cheap-o label sampler idea was such an obvious winner that indie/underground labels began to take up that torch the ’80s, and some of those collections have become legendary. In 1997, Matador records released a ridiculously generous 2XCD comp called What’s Up Matador, which sold at a very low retail price. The idea was the same; Teenage Fanclub, Pavement and Guided By Voices would sell the comp to people who would hopefully then get hip to quality lesser-knowns like Bardo Pond, S.F Seals, and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 (and by the way, getting hip to Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 wouldn’t be such a terrible use of your time), and hopefully those smaller bands enlarged their audiences.
That comp came out when I was neckdeep in my college radio years, and naturally it got a ton of spins during my airshift, but what I wasn’t aware of—because I was a dumb dipshit who never even once bothered to read the liner notes—was that What’s Up Matador was also a completely bonkers video compilation. No mere digest of promo clips, the video was shot as a fake children’s TV show, with preposterous “educational” segments by the label’s roster of weirdo musicians, hosted by the then-renowned TV smiler Bill Boggs (I recognized him from a late night satellite dish infomercial). Segments include a pedalboard demo by Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, a marvelous storybook history of Matador illustrated by Railroad Jerk’s Marcellus Hall, a damn near obscene theremin demonstration by Jon Spencer, and a hilariously stilted fake interview with Liz Phair. The video was written and directed by Clay Tarver, guitarist for the Matador band Chavez (one of my top-tier favorite overlooked ‘90s bands, as it happens), who was kind enough to take some time to talk with me about it.
CLAY TARVER: I had been doing some video work, and when Matador was going to put together this compilation, I pitched this video idea because I wanted to do more of that. I really racked my brain about what would be the most ridiculous thing to do, and the idea I started with was to do a sort of Reading Rainbow type show. It seemed funny to me to have someone like Jon Spencer sitting down reading to a bunch of kids, but to do it in a way that made more fun of Jon Spencer than it did the kids. Then it all came together when we cast Bill Boggs with the idea to make it as straight as possible. The guiding creative principle was to make it not winking or campy, but to do it like a real show. Bill knew Matador was a hip thing, and while we didn’t want to fuck with him or make him the butt of the joke, we also didn’t want to correct him in those moments when he wasn’t entirely clear on how sarcastic this would be, that we were making fun of indie music as much as we were making fun of kids’ shows.
I also got an illuminating earful from Matador label honcho Gerard Cosloy…
GERARD COSLOY: We wanted to do a Matador compilation similar to things like the Warner Brothers Loss Leader comps, Blasting Concept, Wailing Ultimate, as a cheap introduction to the wonderful world of Matador, and we needed a concept. We had the idea to do an accompanying video just cobbling together a bunch of videos from the period, but that wasn’t very ambitious, so we wanted to have a narrative to it. We kept thinking about infomercials and instructional films, and we also thought about very awkward situations, like how this could be for children, like a child’s primer on the world of Matador, or record manufacturing and whatnot, just to add to the incongruity of the whole thing. Clay understood the idea right away. Some of the vague inspirations included the WOR TV show Wonderama, Uncle Floyd, Major Mudd, these sorts of kids shows with very poor production values, that are a little too earnest and a little wrong.
We were initially thinking of going for the laugh factor instead of playing it deadpan, and one of us—meaning me—had my heart set on Richard Bey, who was a shit-TV fixture on the East Coast from that era, who had a very exploitative, silly show. I thought he’d be perfect because he was so smarmy and creepy and weird, the least hip human being in the entire world. Having him in front of a room full of kids talking about music would be wrong in every conceivable way. His casting agency wanted some astronomical amount of money for him, they wanted something like $15,000. I think we budgeted something closer to $3,000. The agency suggested Bill Boggs, which was kind of incredible, because in a lot of ways he was a much bigger coup with a way more respected resume. He’s hosted daytime TV, he had a late night show in New York, I think he was the original executive producer of The Morton Downey Jr. Show. His credentials a both a totally generic host and as a guy who’d worked on really wacky TV was impeccable. He was just perfect for the job, because he was so deadpan that it made for much better comedy. Bill gave it a measure of gravitas—and it doesn’t make any sense, because there’s no way you could watch this and think it was real!
In conjunction with the launch of a new “This Day In Matador History” web site that seeks to engage music fans with the label’s now 27-ish years of output, the What’s Up Matador video is being released online for the first time ever today. Until now, it’s been a VHS collectable, and it was bundled as an add-on to the later Everything Is Nice DVD. As it happens, the mechanics of the cassette format led to a fucking hilarious manufacturing error in the video’s initial run.
Here’s that story in Gerard’s words, it’s pretty amazing:
GERARD COSLOY:The video duplication company that was in charge of manufacturing and packaging the VHS tapes was also handling the Michael Flatley Lord of the Dance videos, which were very very popular, he sold hundreds of thousands of those—God knows to who. There was a manufacturing error, and I don’t know exactly how many, but a good portion of the early shipments of What’s Up, Matador, people got their videocassettes, put them in their VCRs, and instead of seeing Bill Boggs, Ira Kaplan and Liz Phair, they were seeing Michael Flatley dance routines! We had a number of kinda angry consumers, and I hope that we got them all the right videotapes once the dust eventually cleared, but it was a long time ago. There was some ill will over that which probably cost us some word-of-mouth. I think we tried to explain to people that the Flatley tape was like $60 and they only paid $15. Our customer service back then wasn’t very sophisticated.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Yo La Tengo’s delightful cover of The Cure’s ‘Friday I’m In Love’
Black Devil Disco Club returns with Nancy Sinatra, Afrika Bambaataa, Jon Spencer & more
Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard: College baseball stud pitches no-hitter