Graded on a Curve: Disturbing the Peace:
415 Records and the
Rise of New Wave
by
Bill Kopp

What do The Nuns, The Offs, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions, Romeo Void, The Units, Translator, and Wire Train all have in common? If you said they all shared San Francisco as homebase, you’d be right. Additionally, they all released music on 415 Records, a label founded in 1978 by show booker and deejay Howie Klein and fellow disc jockey and Aquarius Records owner Chris Knab. Over the course of a decade, their enterprise traversed a surprising amount of territory and exceeded expectations for a punk-aligned indie, including a restless association with the major label. It’s all covered in detail in Bill Kopp’s excellent book Disturbing the Peace: 415 Records and the Rise of New Wave, out now through HoZac Books.

For a state that’s suffered its share of derision over the years in relation to its artistic output, California’s punk and new wave scenes were substantial. And in terms of labels, quite a few great ones emerged starting in the 1970s, including Bomp!, Dangerhouse, Slash, Posh Boy, Frontier, SST and another San Fran label, Subterranean.

Before reading Bill Kopp’s book, which is exhaustive in a manner that lifelong music obsessives should wholeheartedly relish, I wouldn’t have necessarily added 415 Records to the above list, even though I was cognizant of the label and nearly all of the acts on its roster. However, after absorbing its contents and spending time with numerous 415 releases, I’m was impressed anew by Howie Klein’s and Chris Knab’s endeavor, which, like so many other indies of the early punk era, sprang to life to release music that no already established record label was interested in putting out.

That 415 (spoken not as four-fifteen but four one five, the Cali penal code number for disturbing the peace, don’tcha know) largely documented the San Francisco scene worked to the label’s advantage, as there was no shortage of weirdness in the city. And while it’s true that some of the best Bay Area punk acts either predated 415 (Chrome, Crime, Avengers) or emerged alongside the label to never release music on the imprint (Flipper, Negative Trend), 415 did put out crucial records by The Nuns, The Offs, The Mutants, The Imposters, Vktms, The Renegades, oddballs Pop-O-Pies, and synth-punks The Units.

After detailing the label’s formation, Kopp dives into documentation of the bands, devoting at least a chapter to every act on the label’s roster in roughly chronological order, even those who only issued one song on the 1980 compilation LP 415 Music. Kopp doesn’t skimp on the details (even a couple radio station promo singles get a mention), but he also conveys the info while giving ample portraiture to the individuals involved, so that the text is both encyclopedic and emotionally resonant.

There is no shortage of punk in the narrative, but it’s new wave that is referenced in the book’s title. Of course, the term new wave is often a catchall for punk-affiliated music of the pre-hardcore era, and that’s partly the impetus for Kopp’s usage here, but 415 also had its share of outfits that were legitimately new wave in style, starting with Pearl Harbor and the Explosions and followed by Romeo Void, Translator, and Wire Train. Then there was New Orleans transplants Red Rockers, who started out punky and then morphed into a new wavy entity.

With the exception of Pearl Harbor (who only issued one 45 on the label), the above batch of outfits receives extended coverage (that is, multiple chapters) in the book, as their history coincides with 415’s partnership with Columbia/CBS. Unsurprisingly, this major label hookup eventually spelled the label’s demise, a situation that might read as depressing had 415 not achieved far more than anyone could’ve reasonably expected for an indie of the era.

One of the highlights of the book is the chapter of the making of The Evil One by Roky Erickson and the Aliens (415’s roster wasn’t wholly San Fran-derived). It’s also cool to read about SVT, a power pop outfit that featured Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. And the chapters on Translator add up to a fulfilling whole; of all the bands who were part of the Columbia/CBS deal, Translator seemed to suffer the fewest ill effects, maybe because they had the least commercial success (well, other than pre-Consolidated techno dance outfit Until December, I guess).

Translator escaping relatively unharmed from the land of the major labels sharply contrasts with the cover photos of Red Rockers’ Schizophrenic Circus, which are both gobsmacking and highly amusing in their ill-advised badness. And these shots are just a few of the many in the book, in both B&W and color; from more sleeves to show flyers to performances to candid snaps of the story’s many participants, the photos solidify a well-rounded undertaking that’s likely to satisfy even the most persnickety mavens of rock history.

To these ears, the greatest Cali punk label remains Dangerhouse, with SST (before its eventual faltering) and Slash not far behind. But 415 Records put out far more than a couple worthwhile records. Bill Kopp’s Disturbing the Peace: 415 Records and the Rise of New Wave tells the label’s story with aplomb.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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