At the peak of its success, Lookout Records was estimated to have brought in nearly $10 million thanks to the runaway success of owning the rights to Green Day’s Kerplunk when the band’s major label debut, Dookie, reached #2 on the Billboard charts in 1995. Today, Lookout Records doesn’t exist. How could the Bay Area outfit squander the opportunity almost every small-time label dreams of reaching? One of its founders, Larry Livermore, will tell you.
Lawrence Hayes (aka Larry Livermore) grew up in 1950s Michigan listening to doo-wop on the radio, then on to Motown hits like The Supremes as a teenager and going to seeing The MC5. Not long after, he was in California in the late 60s and early 70s as the Summer of Love and “San Francisco Sound” blossomed and soon wilted. Livermore says that eventually the scene needed a shake-up, badly. “Hippie culture had grown very smug, complacent, and self-satisfied,” recalls Livermore, “In other words, not all that different from the society it had originally rebelled against.”
A fan of the harder, Detroit sounds of his younger years, Livermore embraced bands like The Clash, Ramones, and Sex Pistols as he grew older. By the 80s the punk wave was in full form, but it wasn’t exactly a nurturing community, according to Livermore. “Any time a halfway decent venue would develop, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before it would get wiped out by drugs or violence.” Then, Gilman Street opened. It was 1987 and kids who had looked up to the more nihilist, older members of the scene now had an all-ages, safer place to play, hang out, and start to form bands. Livermore says the scene “exploded,” and within a year or two the “East Bay Sound” was born.
Livermore had been living in a cabin roughly 200 miles north of Berkeley in Mendocino County for much of the 80s, sometimes growing marijuana to get by. He began publishing a small magazine in Laytonville called Lookout! and started a band with future Green Day drummer Tré Cool, The Lookouts, in 1985, just as Gilman Street was being conceived by Maximumrocknroll founder Tim Yohannan (aka Tim Yo).
“Most of my friends were playing in bands, and even though I knew some of those bands were really, really good — better, in my opinion, than anything that was in the stores or on the radio in those days — nobody was willing to put out their records. Somebody had to do it, I figured, so it might as well be me,” says Livermore.
So, Livermore paired up with local insider David Hayes to release albums from their respective bands, and then Crimpshrine, Isocracy, and Operation Ivy, including the group’s only studio album, 1989’s Energy. But the near overnight success of the label left Hayes disillusioned with trying to become a business. In 1990, he split to start his own label, leaving Livermore and a teenage Chris Applegren to helm Lookout just as it started to take off.
Although Lookout was shaken by Hayes’ departure, the label pressed forward toward even more success, releasing albums from local favorites like The Mr. T Experience, the newly formed Rancid, and the soon-to-be world famous Green Day.
Lookout didn’t limit their roster to Bay Area bands, either. The label soon made gains in the Chicago punk scene thanks to a 1988 Operation Ivy tour, when the band was booked by Mass Giorgini at the all-ages club Spud Zero in Lafayette, IN. Giorgini was deeply involved the area punk community, and soon he was recording albums for Lookout with groups like Screeching Weasel, The Queers, and his own group, Squirtgun, at his Sonic Iguana Studios.
Not everyone was impressed. Tim Yo criticized the label for it’s almost mainstream success. Not surprising considering that his commitment to the D.I.Y. aesthetic was absolute. He had even broken from the 924 Gilman Street venue he helped found after less than two years. The criticism and exclusion of pop-punk bands from Maximumrocknroll led to a rift between the former friends, something Livermore regrets as the two never reconciled before Yohannan’s death.
In 1994, after Green Day had left Lookout Records for Reprise Records, Livermore and Tim Yo had a public dispute, with Livmore claiming Maximumrocknroll, which he had written for since 1987 and once deemed “the the most powerful punk rock institution on the planet,” had become “a lifestyle journal for retro-punks” in a column for the newly launched, Chicago-based zine Punk Planet.
Internal strife at the label intensified as well. Screeching Weasel grew frustrated with their agreements and profit splits, almost going to court over the matter until Appelgren intervened. Coincidentally, in 1997, the same year Biggie Smalls released “Mo Money, Mo Problems,” Livermore decided to leave Lookout Records, selling his stake to Appelgren.
“I was just sick of fighting with people all the time,” says Livermore. I complained that I didn’t like being “the boss,” but the ironic thing is that if I’d been a little bit more of a boss, many of Lookout’s troubles in the following years might not have happened.”
At the time of his departure, Lookout Records had opened a retail store, mail-order office, produced music videos, and sent thousands of promotional mailers to press across the country. Under Appelgren and his partner Molly Neuman, overly ambitious projects only grew.
“It’s ironic that, as annoyed as I got with David for leaving when he did, I wound up doing pretty much the same thing he had, and I also felt some of the same frustration at seeing what happened to the label after leaving,” says Livermore. Still, he says, it would be unfair to try to dump all the blame on Appelgren and Neuman. “I’m the one who quit and left the label in their hands, and so ultimately I have to accept responsibility for what happened,” he admits. “I needed to go through some personal transformations before I was ready to run Lookout as it should be run, and sadly, by the time I’d gone through those transformations, there was no more Lookout to run.”
Ultimately, huge promotional campaigns, big bets on bad bands, and the inability to pay royalties on time to its founding artists caused Lookout Records into a forced transformation in 2005, after bands like Green Day, Operation Ivy, Screeching Weasel and others rescinded their master rights, citing a breach of contract. Though the label attempted to scale down and found later success in Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, the changes were too little and came too late. In 2012, Lookout Records closed for good, releasing rights back to all of their bands who hadn’t already jumped ship to Fat Wreck Chord and other labels.
Today, Livermore sees the music industry as the old adage: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” His advice to others dreaming of starting a record label? “Cultivate a sense of humor. You’ll need it.”
Larry Livermore will read from his new book How To Ru(in) A Record Label: The Story Of Lookout Records at Green Noise (5857 SE Foster Rd) on Friday, February 19th at 7:00pm. The event is free and all-ages.