Saturday, May 14, 2011

Kurt Linhof on the Decline and Fall of International Artists

Above: Kurt Linhof (second from left) with the Spidels in San Antonio c. 1966.

After decades of research, we now know plenty about the International Artists label during their early glory days of 1966-67. Far less attention has been paid to its shadowy and mysterious final year before declaring bankruptcy and shutting the doors in resigned anonymity in 1971. Unbelievably, what had been one of the most promising up-and-coming record labels in the Southwest just a couple of years before was by then a hemorrhaging mess of a company, having careened from the top of the pop charts with "Hot Smoke and Sassafras" to shambolic nothingness in no time.

One of the few surviving witnesses from this dark period is musician Kurt Linhof. A member of the San Antonio '60s band The Spidels (pictured above), he was in Houston working with The Children when he heard about a job opening at International Artists in early 1970. He was soon working 100 hours a week refurbishing the Brock Street studio, a renovation that never actually reached completion. Very little was recorded at IA during this final period, and only a few singles and one album (Endle St. Cloud's disappointing Thank You All Very Much) made it to vinyl. Kurt reveals all the gory details in our conversation below.

Remarkably, the surviving Children reformed for a session at IA (now Sugar Hill Studios) in 2004. Linhof recalls, "It was amazing to click like we had in '72-3, or whenever the last time together was. I think we figured 32 years since we'd all been together at once. It was kind of magic that we were still right in the groove together. The studio sounds much better than it used to and is so comfortable to work in."

Kurt is better known today for his line of Linhof custom guitars. A true guitar and amp guru, he is also working on finishing what should be one of the definitive books on Fender amps, entitled The Pre-CBS Fender Amp Collectors and Investors Guide.

KURT LINHOF: In 1969, I went up to Virginia to go to Antioch's experimental branch, then gave that up after a semester. When I came back in January '70, I played bass with the Children and took a job at International Artists, recording test sessions while helping wire the new 16-track board. They were pretty much bankrupt, so I was getting $2.50 an hour, working over 100 hours a week. We had to get this 16-track up, 'cause they had no income. They tore out the old recording shit to rewire it. We put in, like, 52 miles of wire. It was a 16-track; it was a big deal. It never worked, either. Because instead of hiring a real engineer to design it, they hired this guy that'd just come out of Elkins Institute (laughs)...and paid him, you know, four dollars an hour (laughs) to design this massively complex state of the art studio.

What is the Elkins Institute?

It's like DeVry Institutes are today. It's a tech school, trade school. I applied that summer, the summer of '70. Honest to God, they wouldn't let me in 'cause my hair was too long (laughs). I couldn't even pay 'em money to be a student!

This was in Houston?

Yeah. I was assigned as production engineer for a new band IA had found named Denim. And this is what's really cool: I was 19, and I got a credit in Billboard as Production Engineer (of Denim). I think it was the July 18th (1970) issue. I thought it was front page, it was actually on page 18, after seeing the copy. "Producer"....can you imagine? I was 19. I'd been riding the knobs for all of about two weeks.

Below: Billboard, July 18, 1970.

This board, we could never get more than 9 channels working. Once you got into the tenth channel, the whole system would go into some sort of parasitic oscillation (laughs)...all the meters would peg and everything would blow up.

So, it really wasn't happening. And they called in experts -- we bought a bunch of real expensive modules -- and they called in experts from Tektronix or whoever had built the modules, and they couldn't figure 'em out. 'Cause this guy from Elkins had designed this Frankenstein system with hundreds of ground loops.

They never really got the studio working. They'd hired Dale Hawkins as the President. The guy who wrote "Susie-Q." And Dale showed up once in awhile. He never, ever oversaw me on a session. Even though I was his lead engineer, I guess. There were two of I don't know what I was. But anyway, Hawkins would show up once in awhile and one time -- he had a sidekick named "Steve" -- they both came to the studio one day wearing zoot suits. Dale had an Eldorado convertible. And they had a chrome-plated Thompson (machine gun) with 'em, playing gangsters. Driving around Houston, drinking, with a Thompson under the seat...a chrome-plated Thompson.

Below: Dale Hawkins.

It was crazy. The whole place was bugged. J.L. Patterson and what was that other guy...

Bill Dillard?

B.J. Dillard. And J.L. Patterson. I don't know if they were friends, or...they didn't show up much, either. They'd come sometimes late at night, sneak up to the upstairs office, and have meetings. I'd see 'em around, because I was working 24 hours a day. Anyway, the place was bugged. They had wires running back to their houses so they could listen to each other and what was going on at IA in their absence . I forget who bugged who. Either B.J. had done it, or... J.L. had the place bugged, so he could listen to what Dillard was saying about him behind his back.

Dennis, the Elkins engineer, had helped wire this up. And Dennis was also probably helping build the blue boxes, where you could make free long distance calls. There was a little of that going on. And either Patterson or Dillard was into that deal. Don't know who they sold them to, but it was a "living."

Yeah, I think Patterson went to jail for that later.

That's right. And Dennis knew about it but didn't get busted. Dennis got hired away and went to work for IMC Drilling Mud. They probably paid him like seven times what he was making there (at IA).

Below: International Artists Studio. Click to enlarge.

Do you remember Dennis's last name? He's not credited on any of the IA records or papers.

Bledsoe, but he didn't do any of the "art", he was strictly a wire jockey. And apparently had no music talent at all. He also owned a PA system. Homebrew. Real powerful. He would rent it, but he would have to run it. He rented it out to Steve Miller once, who had his own guy running it. But Dennis had to babysit it. And they had it turned up too loud. Dennis turned it off, unplugged it, and said that, you know, "You can't use this." This was at a gig! Dennis took his toy and went home.

Did you ever see guys like Ray Rush or Fred Carroll at IA?

I think Fred Carroll came around once or twice, but there was nothing to do... 'cause there was no system.

The other famous thing about IA that I remember was, for monitors, they used three Altec A-7 Voice of Theater speakers (because they had used 3-track Ampexes forever). Those giant things you'd find in an old movie theater? They had three of those. And the control room was the size of a small kitchen. So there's these giant boxes in your face. It's no wonder early IA's recordings sound like they do (laughs). 'Cause that's what we mixed on. God, it was...I ran a mix, I think it was for Denim, and I came up to Denver. Walt Andrus had given me the name of a guy, Dick Darnell, who had the best studio in Denver. I took this tape that I had done and put it on his system -- he had a flat system, a real recording studio -- and it was the worst sound I'd ever heard. And that was my work. I was up there, kind of looking for work. Fat chance with that example...

So you thought you'd play him this tape, he might be impressed...

Yeah. I play this tape and it was unbelievably bad. God, it was awful. It brought me right back to where I belonged. I even spun a few untouchable settings on the monitor system to balance it - and of course, blamed it on IA's system, but it was just as much my lack of training as our terrible mix facility. Darnell wasn't happy.

So even Bubble Puppy had left IA by this time?

Yeah. "Hot Smoke and Sassafrass" had sold 600,000 copies or something, and it bought IA new carpet and a new sofa. They were very proud of that. Really. They talked about it. We (The Children) did some gigs with them around south Texas, made no money, then they headed for L.A., to become "Demian", after apparently "borrowing" their IA masters one night. That's all hearsay, but I have no reason to doubt it.

My Favorite Memory was - the front closet in the waiting room was completely full of "defective" Elevators record returns. Thousands of 'em. I took a few. They were "defective" I think because of the jug. (Laughs) People would listen to 'em and go, "What's that noise?" I'm serious. Like a record store owner in Arkansas would put the record on, and hear that jug, say, "there's something wrong with this record," and send it back. And it was also just returns, because the Elevators -- they're not gonna sell in Arkansas. Just too fuckin' weird, man. But there were boxes of 'em. This whole closet was full of albums and singles. There were thousands, literally. A good percentage of Elevator records were probably in this closet!

So how long did you work there? A few months?

Yeah, maybe three or four months. Maybe six. And, like I said, Dale Hawkins was never around. And he was on some sort of big retainer, I guess. But he got my name in Billboard. I mean, he still had that kind of clout.

International Artists in Billboard, March 15, 1969

The music industry trade press took very little notice of the International Artists label. That's what makes this 1969 article in Billboard so surprising. Datelined "New York" (?), we learn that IA is currently planning an ambitious expansion after a "management overhaul" eight months prior. The circumstances of that overhaul are unknown, as Bill Dillard, Noble Ginther, and J.L. Patterson, "Houston businessmen" (no mention is made of the law firm), were in charge before the overhaul. Lelan Rogers was long gone by this point, and Ray Rush was now the general manager. (Fred Carroll was also back in the fold by then, but is not mentioned.) The idea that IA would be releasing "a minimum" of two albums a month is quite puzzling when we consider that the label only released three LPs total between then and the bankruptcy in 1971. The Shades LP never materialised.

Bubble Puppy was hitting with "Hot Smoke and Sassafrass" at the time but, they, too, didn't get a mention.