It’s safe to assume that any record company that releases an album called The World’s Worst Records! and includes a free air-sickness bag with every purchase is not a company run by accountants. Indeed, at Rhino Records, a maverick Los Angeles-based label that prints its catalog in comic-book form and sometimes presses records on discs shaped like fish heads, the emphasis often is on laughs. For company co-founder and president Richard Foos, the bottom line is closely related to the punch line. “We’re realists,” he says. “We don’t seriously try for hits. We’re doing it because it’s a passion. Though we’re making a good living, we’ll never be rich or own lots of real estate. But we’re sure having fun.”
So are record-buying fans of the absurd, who helped Rhino, founded in 1978 by Foos, now 37, and partner Harold Bronson, 36, gross a healthy $3 million last year. Built initially on sales of off-the-wall novelty records that range from the weird (Boogie Woogie Amputee) and the wacky (wrestler Fred Blassie belting I Bite the Songs) to the wondrous (Annette Funicello singing Pineapple Princess), Rhino now releases up to 60 new albums a year. Unwilling to let a new technology go unmolested, the company has also begun releasing videos of movie clunkers, including Rock ‘n’ Roll Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy and Battle of the Bombs, which is a compilation that includes clips from trailers for such offbeat films as Terror of Tiny Town, a 1938 all-midget musical. “We always work with bizarre concepts, so film was a natural evolution,” says Foos.
Rhino Records began as a record store that Foos opened in 1973 with profits from an original $3 investment in used albums. Raised in suburban New York, Foos says that after studying sociology at Whittier College in L.A., he made a career choice. “It came down to ‘What do I enjoy the most?’ It was records.” And why the weird name? “I always liked the image of a rhino charging through things. In the beginning there were no business plans or bank loans. There was no overhead and no one financed us. It was like a rhino charging through and seeing what develops.”
One of his regular customers was Bronson, a self-described “record fanatic” who grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from UCLA and dreamed of becoming a record company executive. Sharing a keen sense of the ridiculous, Foos and Bronson “took a very irreverent attitude toward the music industry,” Foos says. “The music of the ’70s was very pretentious, very serious. We said this isn’t what music is about. Music is supposed to be outrageous and fun.” So inspired, the Rhino brothers charged into record production with a low-budget single by a street-singer named Wild Man Fischer. Profits from other novelties, like the Temple City Kazoo Orchestra’s version of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, enabled Rhino to purchase rights to songs by fading or forgotten groups, such as the Turtles and the Monkees. Nowadays such rock arcana constitute 80 percent of Rhino’s output.
Packaging and promotion have always been crucial to Foos and Bronson’s success. Teenage Tragedy, an album featuring Teen Angel, Patches and eight other adolescent dirges, comes packed in a wrapper that doubles as a tissue dispenser. The Best of Louie Louie LP boasts 10 cover versions of the Kingsmen’s party classic, including a track by the Rice University Marching Owl Band. During the record store days, promotional gimmicks included a free album to the person who best defaced a Glen Campbell poster, and a cash gift—a quarter—to anyone who promised to actually listen to an LP by Danny Bonaduce of TV’s Partridge Family.
Today the Rhino catalog features material by performers as eminent as Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers, and as obscure as Johnny Crawford—Chuck Connors’ son on The Rifleman—and Yogi Yorgesson, singing Who Hid the Halibut on the Poop Deck. The company also has its own stable of artists, including Phranc, who bills herself as the “All-American Jewish lesbian folksinger.”
Foos and Bronson see no end to the sort of ideas needed to keep Rhino the wackiest label in the music business. “As bizarre as we might try to be,” Bronson says, “real life is always going to be more absurd.”