It was a muggy, humid August night, August 18th to be exact. The reason I’m emphasizing this particular day is because it’s also my birthday. So, on this particular day back in 2006 I headed out of my apartment to the great vast land which is New York City. Actually, I lived in Brooklyn, next to living dead stench of the Gawanus Canal, and I headed to the same drinking hall I went to at that particular era of my life. This hole was a cute spot on the outskirts of the war zone/art/ghetto colony section of the South Bronx. Don’t worry, I had to check behind my shoulder a few times when I first made the trip up to the spot. The spot, that we fondly called the Rail, is literally underneath the Bruckner expressway. For some reason on this night I began my festivities alone, as none of my friends were available just yet to drink. So I stumbled into the bar and asked for a tall glass of beer and a shot of whiskey. As I drank up my 25th birthday fears, hatred and sorrows mixed with belligerent joy I struck up a conversation with the guy sitting across the bar from me. I started talking to him about a research paper I had just completed about the historiography of Punk music. With a faint shrug he downed his shot and subtly began to divulge that he was the roadie/tour assistant to such great bands as the New York Dolls, the Ramones, and others. He was one of them!!! I couldn’t believe the luck, or at least the divine works that sat me next to this man. But he was part of the New York City Punk scene in the 1970s. He knew them all, the bands, the roadies, the drunks, the addicts, and the businessmen who made the music come to life on a piece of vinyl. I ran down a bunch of names, pretty much all Jews, and then I asked him…..”do you know Marty Thau?” and he responded in the positive. “I know him and the work he did.” Marty Thau passed away days ago, but his influence, panache, and bombastic sheer will to explore new sounds made it possible for us to understand where and how it all came about.
Marty Thau was a true blue New York Jew who grew up in the city and attended the local university. He grew up in the world of music, and being that it was so overtly Jewish, it seemed like a natural fit. Before he went into the business as an owner, manager and producer he worked for various boutique or specialty music labels. Working with Buddah Records and its bubblegum pop tune format, my parents have some Buddah Records of cute music, which became somewhat successful for its consumers. One such example is the group Ohio Express’s hit “Yummy,Yummy,Yummy.”
But he also oversaw classic renditions of sweet soul, with some Christian overtones, such as the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day” released in 1969.
After his tenure at Buddah Records he joined on as a partner of a friend Lewis Merenstein (of course another Jew), and became part of Inherit Productions. The roster of artists for the label was so diverse, yet so dynamic that he and his partner oversaw the creation of some of the most amazing, and underrated, American music. He worked and sometimes produced artists such as Miriam Makeba, John Cale, and Van Morrison.
By 1972 their partnership had ended and Thau took a job working for Paramount Records. He admitted that it was a miserable period of time, and he was overjoyed the day he resigned. So overjoyed that he took his wife out for a scrumptious meal and then a light stroll. They happened to see a performance by what is now considered THE proto-Punk band, The New York Dolls. Thau was told about the Dolls by a friend by the name of Danny Goldberg (Another Jew who would later manage Nirvana and become president of Warner Brothers and Atlantic). After seeing the band he was very impressed and saw that this is the new sound of Rock and Roll.
The New York Dolls were needed so badly amidst the landscape of bloated, blow hard bullshit that was popular Rock at this time. They took the idea of Glam that was incarnated in the form of Bowie and Bolan, along with other groups like Slade. However, not only did they adopt the androgynous look, yet used female fashions that would be perceived as a threat to their audiences and the general American order.
Marty Thau’s credits extend to other groups as well such as the formidable and intimidating group Suicide. Suicide, consisting of two Jews – Alan Vega and Marty Rev, was such a raw and confrontational act that they are a rarity of wonderful performance that doesn’t translate that energy to the record. Still, they managed to release great material including a solid first album that was entirely produced by Thau. One example is the hard hitting “Frankie Teardrop”
And of course the opening track to the album, which is an iron clad onslaught brought on the listener with the strikes on the machines. Vega weaves the story of the “Ghost Rider” as he screeches through the narrative that America is killing its youth.
If the power synth sounds familiar it should. M.I.A. sampled it on the song “Born Free” from her third album Maya.
Another interesting note is that Thau was also responsible in recording the first Ramones demos. He worked with them on the two songs which would be “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and “Judy is a Punk.” He didn’t want to manage them, but the myth goes that these songs were heard by Sire records head Seymour Stein (Another charismatic music scene Jew). The recordings compelled Stein to sign the to his label, hence Thau missed a chance to work with them. However, he deserves the credit.
He was also involved in the recordings of Blondie’s great single “X-Offender.”
Although he didn’t produce the track he had some input. Of course as they say the rest is history as they rose an East Asian tour and rose to fame.
He also worked with other great and not so great bands of the Punk era, as well as what he termed (and actually coined) New Wave music. He worked with Richard Hell (Another Jewish artist) & the Voidoids.
And later with groups like the Fleshtones,
In this eulogy to the man who’s mind and sheer will made this all work. Historians speak of the agents of change, or trying to give certain people agency who were voiceless. Thau was far from voiceless, but he like others show how the Punk music scene was over saturated with Jews. Coincidence? I’m Jewish so I don’t believe in that.
RIP and Z’L to Marty Thau