As the new box set released by Numero Group amply illustrates, the tiny/short-lived but influential New York label of the late ‘70s helped set the standard by which all subsequent indies would be judged. Above: Terry Ork wheeling and dealing.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
From 1975 to 1980, New York’s Ork Records released just 13 records. The most commercially successful of these sold just 6000 copies. And yet, during a spectacularly fertile period for NYC punk, Ork was involved in nearly every band that mattered — from Television (whose first-ever single “Little Johnny Jewel” came out on Ork in 1975), to Richard Hell and the Voidoids, to post-Big Star Alex Chilton, to the Feelies, to pre-dBs Chris Stamey.
Cut to 2015, and Numero Group’s vast box set (two CDs or four LPs) Ork Records: New York, New York collects everything that Ork ever released, as well as a fair amount that, because of financial constraints, it never got around to pressing.
The music comes packaged with a book-length oral history of the label and its artists, which weaves dozens of interviews into a dark but fascinating narrative about American punk’s infancy; the fat, nearly 200-page book displays lots of equally riveting archival photos along with poster and record sleeve reproductions. And for those who want to order direct from the Numero site and pony up an extra $10, you get a bonus 45 of two previously unreleased Feelies tracks which, by all accounts, rock.
The story starts in the early 1970s when Terry Ork (born William Terry Collins) turns up in New York City in the thrall of Andy Warhol’s factory scene. Drawn in at first more by film than music, he ends up working at a Cinemabilia, a Greenwich Village bookshop focused on movies, and there meets lanky, ambitious Richard Meyers (soon to be known as Richard Hell) and through him Tom Miller (later Verlaine). The two are working out songs as Neon Boys, which later turns into Television with the addition of Richard Lloyd, Fred Smith and Billy Ficca, and Ork arranges their first show at the Townhouse Theater in 1974. A year later, they record “Little Johnny Jewel” for a label that doesn’t even exist yet, naming it Ork Records, after the guy who had helped them out.
The single, a sprawling, loose-jointed, guitar noodling, seven-minute jam breaks nearly every rule in the as-yet-unwritten punk rock rule book. Lloyd, pictured below in a photo taken from the box set’s book, threatened to quit if it were released. It sounds, even now, like a dystopian fever dream, the drumming abstract and jazz-like, the guitar parts barely touching each other, and yet within it, that spiraling guitar mayhem that would define Television. The disc was sold only by mail and at shows, but it sold, and Ork Records was off and running.
Richard Hell was an odd fit with the musicianly Television, and he split almost as soon as the band started first for the Heartbreakers and later for his own Richard Hell & the Voidoids (picking up Robert Quine in the process). Stiff Records released Hell’s Another World in the U.K. but Ork got the U.S. rights. Like the Television track, it sounds jagged and primitive and hyper-modern all at once; tracks like “Blank Generation” and, especially, the sparse, bass-led “(I Could Live With You) In Another World” stutter in asynchronous angst, a shriek of hysteria masked by primitive cool.
Ork Records caught Alex Chilton on the long slide from Big Star, maybe not punk rock in sound, but certainly in lifestyle. The box includes eight songs from this inebriated era. A radiant Big Star-esque “All of the Time,” a loosely anthemic cover of the Stones’ “Singer Not the Song” and a geographically confused but charming “Bangkok,” are the highlights; a ridiculous, British-accented “Summertime Blues” is the nadir.
The other big name, snared early on and then lost, was the Feelies, then still in their twitchy, punk rock phase. The box offers blistering, hair-on-fire renditions of “Fa Ce La” and “Forces at Work,” kicking in an early studio cut of “The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness” and a cover of Bacharach and David’s “My Little Red Book,” as a bonus cut for premium buyers. Judging by the rawness of the two non-45 tracks, the bonus materials would be well worth having. Let me know, when you get them, how they sound.
It is probably also worth noting that the Ork box includes the song that reportedly gave BLURT magazine its name, Lester Bangs’ sprawling, Robert Quine-assisted “Let It Blurt,” which is as free associatively unbounded and vitriolic as the man’s record reviews. “Bitch bitch bitch bitch,” indeed.
In among the luminaries are a lot of bands that people have forgotten: The Erasures, churning a jittery state-side cousin of the U.K. female centric bands like Delta Five and Kleenex/Lilliput, Prix sounding very Big Star-ish at times (and also TFC-esque; their “Everytime I Close My Eyes” featured Chilton on backing vocals as well), the Marbles, the Idols, the Revelons. It’s an era on a couple of discs, famous and not famous, good and not so good, as sticky with god-knows-what as the floor of CBGB’s.
The whole enterprise came to a halt in 1980 when Ork came under investigation for criminal fraud and disappeared. First wave punk was pretty much over by then. A new line of Our Band Could Be Your Life post-punkers were starting to break through, though not in New York, and indeed, not anywhere in that same concentrated way. Ork Records: New York, New York opens a window to the past that you can’t go through or even really see through, but it is just wide enough to let the music in and that is a very good thing indeed.
Below, listen to a couple of BLURT faves, Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple (of the dB’s, natch) who are both included on the Ork box.