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The Sympathy for the Industry label turns 10

By Mark Jordan

DECEMBER 21, 1998:  I love my label/ And my label loves me,” sing recent Memphis transplants the Chubbies on their new 45 single, a cover of an old Nick Lowe tune called, of course, “I Love My Label.” Though Lowe wrote the song in the mid-’70s for his beloved English label Stiff Records, the sentiment seems just as genuine for this punk-rock duo made up of Jeannette and Christene (no last names).

That’s because the Chubbies aren’t signed to one of the major labels, huge faceless corporate entities more obsessed with the bottom line than the bass line, where the staff could completely turn over from one day to the next. Instead, the Chubbies record for a tiny but prolific independent label run out of a guy’s house in Long Beach, California, one of those outfits that exists not to make millions but to make music.

An avid record collector with more than 10,000 45s, Long Gone John started his Sympathy for the Record Industry label in 1988 on a lark.

“I used to co-edit a paper out here called Endless Party, a music paper,” says Long Gone John. “At one point somebody was going to put out a record by a band and they stepped out of the project and I stepped in. I did this record for a local band called the Lazy Cowgirls and sort of stumbled through the whole process and thought, well, I’ve done that. That’s the end of that shit. Then all of a sudden I was absolutely deluged by friends with bands asking me to do their records. So obviously there was a great need for it to exist. So it did, and so it does.”

This week, as he closes the book on his 10th anniversary year, Long Gone John will make the long-overdue pilgrimage to Memphis, home base for some of his biggest acts, for a special Sympathy birthday concert featuring a quartet of acts from the label’s roster. Over the past decade, Sympathy has released some 550 records by more than 400 bands, “bands from all over the world. A lot of L.A. stuff, a lot of Japanese stuff, a lot of English stuff, and a lot of Memphis stuff also.”

In fact, besides such high-profile acts as Rocket From The Crypt, El Vez, and Hole, who put their first single out on the label, Sympathy has built a considerable portion of its national reputation as home to some of the luminaries of Memphis’ blues-punk scene, a musical movement that has garnered praise nationwide but remains somewhat underappreciated at home, to say the least.

Long Gone John first encountered Memphis through releases by Cordell Jackson and Panther Burns, an early Memphis punk-blues outfit. Then, in the early ’90s, Jeffrey Evans, a member of the influential Ohio blues-punk band the Gibson Brothers who had recently moved to Memphis, approached Long Gone John about releasing his side project, the Monsieur Jeffrey Evans and La Fong single “Music From Binghampton.” Evans eventually left the Gibson Brothers and formed ’68 Comeback, which still releases records on Sympathy.

Through Evans, Long Gone John met the Compulsive Gamblers, who recorded most famously for Sympathy in a later incarnation, the Oblivians. Sympathy has also released solo records by band members Jack and Greg Oblivian and put out the soundtracks to local exploitation-film auteur Mike McCarthy’s masterpiece The Sore Losers and the companion piece Shine On Sweet Starlet. In the coming months, Sympathy will issue new releases from ’68 Comeback and Jack Oblivian, and a new record by the reconstituted Compulsive Gamblers is in the works.

“Though I do lots of different kinds of records by very different kinds of bands, the thing I think I like about the stuff coming out of Memphis is that somehow it’s carrying on the tradition of the genuine spirit of rock-and-roll and at the same time is outside of that. … It’s the new Memphis rock-and-roll without trying to fucking duplicate it.”

For his 10th anniversary, Long Gone John celebrated by issuing a two-CD compilation titled The Sympathetic Majesty’s Request, covering 48 bands from the label’s first 200 releases. He also commissioned the Chubbies to record the Lowe song for a special 7-inch release.

“I was always into 7-inch records,” says Long Gone John, whose label has probably issued 350 of the little discs. “I sort of see 7-inch records as the ultimate rock-and-roll artifact – perfect three-minute hit-and-run little songs. I usually don’t have the attention span for a whole album.”

Once the anniversary year is over, however, Long Gone John will get back to business as usual, issuing his records from his tiny Long Beach house/office with only himself on staff.

“I don’t have many successes,” Long Gone John says. “I sell modest amounts of records. It’s just that I put out a lot of records. I don’t have any amazing success stories. But I think the biggest story is that here I am 10 years later still doing it by myself out of my home, and I have a minimum of three or four new releases every month.

“I have no aspirations of being much more than what I am today. Because as long as I can do it myself, keep myself out of trouble staying busy, I think I’m being successful. I don’t want to be Warner Bros. Records. … I’m happy to succeed on little levels. I never set out to do this anyway.”


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