The History of A&M Records, Part Five

The History of A&M Records, Part Five

Written by Rudy Radelic

The 1980s proved to be even more successful for A&M Records than previous decades. (Previous articles appeared in Issue 160, Issue 161, Issue 162 and Issue 165.) In the late 1970s Illegal Records, a small independent label run by Miles Copeland, released a record by his brother Stewart’s band – The Police. At the time featuring Henry Padovani on guitar, the single “Fallout” was the first Police single, and the band eventually edged out Padovani in favor of British guitarist Andy Summers. They soon recorded their first album, Outlandos d’ Amour, with a budget of £1,500.

While Miles Copeland was not too enthused by the music the trio made with Andy Summers in the lineup, he did take an immediate liking to “Roxanne,” and used the song as a springboard to sign the group to A&M. Not only would the band start making hit records, their song “Every Breath You Take” would become A&M’s longest running Billboard Hot 100 single, spending eight weeks at the top of the chart. Once The Police essentially disbanded in 1986, Sting would continue with the label for several more years in more of a jazz/rock direction.


Miles Copeland also successfully ran the A&M-distributed I.R.S. Records (International Record Syndicate) label. The label and its subsidiaries featured such groups as The Fleshtones, the Cramps, Buzzcocks, Wall of Voodoo (“Mexican Radio”), Skafish, Klark Kent (who mysteriously bore a striking resemblance to Stewart Copeland), Suburban Lawns, the Tom Robinson Band, and the Stranglers, and would top the Billboard Hot 100 with The Go-Go’s “We Got The Beat.”

In the same era, a musical theater troupe called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, taken over by Danny Elfman from his brother Richard, recorded the soundtrack for Richard’s film The Forbidden Zone, and appeared on the Gong Show without getting “gonged.” Shortening the name to Oingo Boingo, the band became a favorite in Los Angeles, and cut a handful of records for A&M after waxing a four-song EP for I.R.S. Records. Today, Elfman is one of the preeminent film score composers in the industry, and original Oingo Boingo guitarist Steve Bartek has worked with him all these years as his orchestrator.

While the following tune is perhaps politically incorrect to today’s ears, Elfman has stated that in those days, he wrote lyrics to mock or make facetious jabs at certain groups of individuals, often grabbing ideas from a newspaper article he had read. The song is nothing without the equally bizarre video, which handily summarizes the early Oingo Boingo spirit. “Little Girls” leads off their first (1981) full-length LP, Only A Lad.


Many of the bands listed above made an appearance on the 1982 documentary film Urgh! A Music War. While it never received wide distribution in theaters, and has had only spotty releases on video (in nearly complete form on VHS, and edited for the made-to-order DVD), the soundtrack album was released on A&M, and both the film and 2-LP set have become cult favorites. The two-record set included live performances by Devo, The Police, Echo and the Bunnymen, Klaus Nomi, Gary Numan, Wall of Voodoo, Dead Kennedys, Oingo Boingo, the Cramps, the Go-Go’s, John Otway, Skafish, and plenty of others. The full video can be found on YouTube as a playlist. Here is a sample, featuring Devo.


Changing styles more often than the weather, classically-trained British artist Joe Jackson released his power pop and slightly reggae-influenced debut album Look Sharp! In 1979. After a few records with the record’s lineup, he would drift into contemporary Latin and jazz sounds and explore many other musical avenues, including some of the neo-classical works he had written while studying music (on the overlooked 1987 album Will Power). His incisive lyrics often dealt with relationships, and his earlier albums were his own variation on the angry young man approach that Elvis Costello took with his early albums. Here’s a single from Jackson’s second album, I’m The Man.


Joe Jackson wasn’t the only one with a heavy dose of wit. The lads from the UK, Squeeze, had their own musical twist. Full of clever wordplay courtesy of the Chris Difford/Glenn Tilbrook songwriting duo, and at one point featuring Jools Holland on keyboards, the group would release a handful of albums for A&M, including the hit single “Tempted” which featured Paul Carrack (Ace, Roxy Music, Mike + The Mechanics) on keyboards and lead vocals. An example of the group’s wordplay can be found on the title track to their Cool for Cats album.


The Human League was one of the synth-pop artists A&M had in their catalog. Their smash hit, “Don’t You Want Me,” is arguably both an earworm and an annoyance but, once you learn that they were attempting to channel KC and the Sunshine Band, the song makes sense…especially the chorus. The band would have other hits on A&M, including “Human” and “(Keep Feeling) Fascination.”


Bryan Adams first made his appearance on A&M via a 1978 Canadian single, “Let Me Take You Dancing,” which was shortly thereafter remixed and sped up by producer John Luongo, becoming a dance club hit that Adams to this day disowns, as he was disappointed by the sound of his sped-up vocals. (You won’t even find it on YouTube.) Since then, many of his songs have become staples of rock radio, including “Cuts Like a Knife,” one of his breakthrough singles and the title track of his third album.


It’s rare for a band to break out from Australia or New Zealand but, if Men at Work could do it, so could the New Zealand based group Split Enz. Their first album for A&M and their commercial breakthrough outside of New Zealand, 1980’s True Colours, was originally released in four album jacket color variations, with side two laser-etched with graphics. This is “I Got You,” their best-known hit.


Singer/songwriter John Hiatt spent several years at A&M recording a handful of albums, one of which was his successful record Bring The Family, on which the following track “Memphis in the Meantime” is featured. The album’s “Thing Called Love” became a major hit for Bonnie Raitt.


UB40 took their name from a British unemployment benefits attendance card. Their brand of reggae pop brought them worldwide success. Their take on Neil Diamond’s “Red Red Wine” (which UB40 knew from a recording by reggae artist Tony Tribe) had two chart runs, the second of which in 1988 took them to the top of the charts in many countries around the world. This song appeared on the cover songs album Labour of Love, released in the US on A&M. So influential was their version that Diamond began doing the song in concert in a reggae style.


The next installment in the A&M Records 60th anniversary series will take us from the 1980s into the 1990s with other notable A&M successes.

Header image: Joe Jackson, courtesy of

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