There is a famous circular tower in Los Angeles that is hard to miss on the city skyline. Located just north of the famed intersection of Hollywood and Vine, the Capitol Records building stands only 13 storeys high – the maximum allowed when it was built in 1956 – but many have looked at it over the years and asked, “Is it meant to resemble a stack of vinyl records? What does the flashing red light at the top of its 90ft spire mean? Is that a band playing on the roof?”
The respective answers are: no, it isn’t – any similarity to a stack of records is coincidental and was never intended; the light flashes Morse code and is currently blinking ‘Capitol 75’ in recognition of Capitol Records’ 75th anniversary; and as for bands playing on the roof, it depends when you visit – former Beatle Ringo Starr recorded a music video there in 1974, and in 2013 Arcade Fire streamed a whole concert of the band playing to the city. In December, the spire is covered in lights to resemble a Christmas tree. Perhaps more significant than the building itself, however, is what has taken place inside. While the Capitol Records label was formed in 1942, it was more than a decade old when the tower designed to consolidate its offices and serve as a monument to its success was commissioned. Part of it Aincluded the construction of Capitol Studios, where Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Nat King Cole and Sir Paul McCartney have recorded, producing some of the greatest songs and albums of all time.
It was probably more than the company’s three founders ever imagined. Johnny Mercer, a singer with moderate success, was the initial driving force, partnering with Glenn Wallichs, the owner of Wallichs Music City, a famous record store in Hollywood, and Buddy De Sylva, a producer from Paramount Pictures. With no major record labels on the West Coast, Mercer wanted a means of distributing his own music, perhaps signing other acts, and after gauging interest from Wallichs, he reached out to De Sylva for financial support. Capitol Records was born, with the three setting up an office above Wallichs’ shop.
Being the only music label in Hollywood, with most of the competition in New York, posed an advantage from the start, and Capitol Records soon became the choice of the movie studios for releasing the soundtracks to its musical adaptations, such as The King and I and Oklahoma! These proved successful alongside the artists it had signed – the company’s first breakthrough in the late-1940s being Nat King Cole. To gain attention, Capitol became the first label to give its records free to radio stations, which was a move quickly adopted by its rivals. As it entered the 1950s, however, the decade for Capitol was to be defined by one man: Frank Sinatra. Previously a huge star at Columbia Records, a series of personal and professional problems had seen Sinatra’s star fade. The press criticised him for his misadventures with pals like Dean Martin, political views and alleged mob connections, leaving many to believe that his career was already over. As his daughter, Tina, explains in a new book, 75 Years of Capitol Records, published by Taschen, “Dad’s world was crashing in on him, but he was never going to stay down. He knew there was a second act.” Miraculously there was – and Capitol took full advantage. Signing him to the label in 1953, the singer immediately began releasing one hit after another, from Young at Heart to All the Way, backed up by a sequence of albums that made the LP a new art form in pop music – Songs for the Lovers and In the Wee Small Hours among them. With a role as Private Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity (which won him an Oscar) Sinatra’s comeback seemed complete. “So many stars aligned for Dad at that point,” Tina Sinatra confirms.
It was Sinatra that made the first recording at Capitol Studios in 1956, with the album Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Colour. His old Georg Neumann U 47 microphone is still housed there, and it’s often used in today’s studio sessions. It must be quite the treat for artists and sound engineers, working in the same space as stars of that stature and making use of the studio’s other unique features – the echo chambers 30ft below, for example, provide reverberation and were designed by blues legend Les Paul. But while Capitol worked with and discovered many big names from the world of music, there are also those it missed out on – if only executives had taken Colonel Tom Parker seriously when he marched into their offices in 1952, looking for a record deal for his latest discovery. When Capitol decided it wasn’t for them, Elvis Presley literally left the building, signing with rival company RCA instead.
But who needs Elvis when you have the Beach Boys and The Beatles? For Capitol, the first was a local act, signed in 1962 and hailing from southern California. With their interests in surfing and hot rod cars, two of the big teenage crazes at the time, they seemed like a marketing dream. “Driving into the Capitol parking lot every day made me feel as if the group had hit the big time,” the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson wrote in his 1991 autobiography, “even though the record label regarded us as a teenage novelty.”
After hits like I Get Around, however, the balance of power between Capitol and the group shifted, with Wilson emerging as bandleader and producer. “Brian was the only artist on the label who decided what his band recorded and what they released,” Ken Mansfield, who worked for Capitol at the time, reveals to author Barney Hoskyns in the Taschen book. “He would walk in the building and say, ‘Here’s my next record,’ and there was nothing we could do about it.” However, certain executives did take issue with Pet Sounds – widely considered today as one of the most influential albums in music history – and complained to Wilson that there were no more than two hits on it. More experimental than previous releases, Capitol failed to market it effectively at the time.
The Beatles were just as perplexing for the label. In 1955, British record company EMI acquired a 96 per cent stake in Capitol, which seemed like the perfect platform to help the band break America. However, Capitol felt that The Beatles would not translate overseas. “British deference to American say-so prevailed,” describes Hoskyns, “with the band’s manager Brian Epstein having to push for unsatisfactory licensing deals with independent labels Swan and Vee-Jay.” Only when Capitol heard that I Want to Hold Your Hand had UK preorders of a million did it finally take notice – and in doing so quadrupled its annual revenues over the next five years, from $30 million to $120 million (AED 110 million to AED 440 million). That “American say-so” still lingered, however, and Capitol tampered with many of the band’s albums, removing and adding tracks as it saw fit. If The Beatles ever complained, it never stopped them working with Capitol or staying with the label for their respective solo careers.
While the 1960s were a boom period for Capitol, the decades that followed, right up to the present day, proved challenging. After scoring a huge release in the early 1970s with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, the label’s fortunes changed. It signed one of the biggest stars of the 1980s in Tina Turner, and through EMI had success with Duran Duran and Iron Maiden, but overall it was a period of decline. “Things started to slow down and we didn’t seem to be able to deliver,” recalls then-president Don Zimmerman. Other artists like the Beastie Boys, Garth Brooks, Radiohead and even MC Hammer helped the label live on into the 1990s, but the new century saw its most troublesome period yet.
By 2006, EMI had announced that it was selling Capitol Tower, but the label would continue to lease space. The story, however, does end on a high. After launching the career of Katy Perry in 2008, and with EMI being acquired by Universal Music Group in 2012, it looks like Capitol is having a resurgence. Much of its revival seems pinned on Sam Smith, who sang the theme tune for the most recent James Bond movie, Spectre, winning a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar, and in the eyes of Capitol echoes Sinatra and the glory days.
If the label really is back to its best, that would be a fitting way to mark its 75 years. It was a company that started off small, took on Hollywood, built a tower and won, for a time at least, and deserves a return to form. As Sir Lucian Grainge, CEO of new owners Universal, says, “Our recent success with Capitol represents a promise we made – and kept – to artists, music fans and the industry that we would support and grow this incredible label.” Roll on the next 75!
75 Years of Capitol Records, published by Taschen, is available now, US$150, hardcover, www.taschen.com