The A&M Records Story, Part Six: The 1980s into the 1990s

The A&M Records Story, Part Six: The 1980s into the 1990s

Written by Rudy Radelic

The transition from the 1980s to the 1990s would be a bittersweet moment. In 1989, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss sold A&M Records, the largest independent record label ever, to PolyGram. While Alpert and Moss had some contractual agreements in place, it did not take long for the relationship to sour, and the former owners sued PolyGram for breach of contract.

Despite all that, there were still some notable releases of interest spanning the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, while the label still had an identity of its own. Sadly, as PolyGram was subsequently purchased by Seagram Co. and folded into Universal Music in 1998, the label essentially became nothing more than a branding logo and perhaps an office in a corporate building as part of the Interscope label group.

That was a long way from A&M’s long-time location on the old Charlie Chaplin movie lot at 1416 N. La Brea in Los Angeles. In January 1999, the Chaplin lot would close, and A&M Records ceased to exist in the minds of many; that was “Black Thursday,” when employees received word that studio operations were being shut down, and a black band was placed around the building’s A&M logo, which spun for decades on the property. (The Jim Henson Company now owns and operates the studios.)

There were still noteworthy and popular recordings past 1989, and even “the boss” put out his last A&M record in 1992, after the sale: Midnight Sun. Here is the final track from that Herb Alpert album: “Smile,” co-written by the former inhabitant of the A&M lot, Charlie Chaplin. A fitting coda to 30 years at the label Alpert and Jerry Moss created.


In the mid-1980s, Steely Dan had long since disbanded, and fans were unaware of any attempt for the group to reconvene in the future. Until that eventually happened, there were a few projects that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker worked on over the years. One project that they both had a hand in, along with legendary producer Gary Katz, was the Rosie Vela album Zazu. Being the closest thing to a Steely Dan “reunion” made more than a few fans hopeful, and the album became something of a cult classic in the meantime. (Steely Dan eventually released Alive in America on Giant Records in 1995, followed by two more studio albums in 2000 and 2003.)


Also loosely related to Steely Dan, the Liverpool group China Crisis recorded a couple of albums for A&M in the mid-1980s, with Walter Becker returning to the group to produce all but three tracks on their second A&M album Diary of a Hollow Horse. (Becker had previously produced their Virgin album Flaunt the Imperfection.) Longtime Steely Dan associate Roger “The Immortal” Nichols worked his engineering magic on the Becker-produced tracks.


The Phoenix-area band Gin Blossoms had a minor label release in 1989, but joined A&M in the early 1990s, first releasing the EP Up and Crumbling in 1991 prior to their successful albums New Miserable Experience and Congratulations…I’m Sorry. “Allison Road” is from the EP.


After an aborted debut album produced by Hugh Padgham, Sheryl Crow made an immediate impression at A&M. While her 1994 single, “Leaving Las Vegas,” took a while to gain traction, the surprising success of the single “All I Wanna Do” eventually propelled her album Tuesday Night Music Club to sell seven million copies and win three Grammy Awards. “Strong Enough” was another successful single from the album.


Coming out of the Seattle music scene from the mid ’80s and beyond, Soundgarden first released a handful of songs on the fledgling Sub Pop label (which would bring the world Nirvana), and then an album on the independent SST Records label before signing with A&M. Their first couple of albums started the momentum that resulted in their smash 1994 album, Superunknown, which featured the blistering hit single “Black Hole Sun.”


Hailing out of Fargo, North Dakota, blues-rock performer Jonny Lang made waves with his debut A&M release, Lie to Me, in 1997, and released a handful of successful follow-ups for the label into the 2000s.


A&M touched every point on the musical compass, and few bands rocked as hard as the New England-based metal/hard rock band Extreme, featuring vocalist Gary Cherone and guitarist Nuno Bettencourt. They were popular in the Boston area, and when A&M signed them in 1987, it gave the band national exposure through their self-titled debut album. While their music had elements of harder rock, it was an acoustic ballad, “More Than Words” from their second album Pornograffiti that took A&M once again to the Number 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100.


A final curiosity to wrap up this list is an A&M compilation album from 1994: If I Were a Carpenter, a tribute to one of A&M’s most successful acts. The album features an array of alternative rock bands and artists covering the Carpenters’ hits, with varying degrees of success. Perhaps the most popular, and unusual, of the tracks was the cover of the Bonnie Bramlett/Leon Russell classic “Superstar” by Sonic Youth.


Our next installments in the A&M 60th anniversary series will explore other musical genres that A&M has released, including Latin American music and jazz.


Header image: Gin Blossoms, 1996 A&M Records promo photo by Danny Clinch.

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