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Iconic British singer and songwriter Morrissey has just released his first new album in five years. And it's out on Harvest Records - a label that was itself iconic in the 1970s. It was the home of Pink Floyd among others. Now after languishing for decades, Harvest has been revived. But in this age of single-song downloads and online music streaming, can a record label mean as much to its fans? Christopher Werth has the story from London.
CHRISTOPHER WERTH, BYLINE: With so much music available online how do you decide what to even check out, never mind buy? Mark Rye who worked for Harvest Records in the 1970s says back then, there was an easy answer - that little sticker in the middle of a vinyl record known as the label.
MARK RYE: At that time, it was very much an identifier for the kind of music. So I would buy everything - virtually everything that was released on Island Records. And I would buy virtually everything that was released on Harvest because it defined the kind of music that you would like, so certainly you would check it out.
WERTH: Harvest Records began as a small subset of EMI, the giant British recording company. But its identity was that of an underground label, created by EMI to tap into what was then the cool new music scene in Britain known as progressive rock.
BRIAN SOUTHALL: What is progressive rock?
WERTH: Brian Southall was a press officer at EMI in the 1970s. He says think long guitar solos, odd rhythms and obscure lyrics.
SOUTHALL: The bands that were signed to Harvest always wanted to push the envelope. And the guys who worked at Harvest wanted to sign bands which were not traditional pop-rock bands. They all had a twist to them.
WERTH: Like Pete Brown and His Battered Ornaments.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
PETE BROWN: (Singing) The outside was coming in.
WERTH: Or Soft Machine co-founder Kevin Ayers
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LADY RACHEL")
KEVIN AYERS: (Singing) She climbs up the stairs by the light of a candle, and the door with no handle is closing behind her, again.
WERTH: Or the Scottish songwriter and poet Ivor Cutler.
IVOR CUTLER: One day my brother took fence - jumping onto the kitchen bed, he opened the cupboard above - threw himself up and shut the door.
SOUTHALL: It was basically straight Scottish poetry. And it was wonderful. No one questioned the fact that they wanted to sign him and no one questioned the concern that he possibly didn't sell. What it was about was carrying the traditions of mad English music.
WERTH: That freedom to experiment was even evident in the way the label literally set within big corporate EMI, says Mark Rye.
RYE: The Harvest office was just this dark corner as far away from everybody else as you could get. It had cushions on the floor rather than desks and chairs. It was very much a distinct part of EMI.
WERTH: Then came Pink Floyd's "Dark Side Of The Moon" in 1973.
(SOUNDBITE FROM SONG, "SPEAK TO ME/BREATHE")
DAVID GILMOUR: (Singing) Breathe, breathe in the air. Don't be afraid to care.
WERTH: By then, Harvest had released Deep Purple's second album, and Pink Floyd's double LP opus Ummagumma. But with "Dark Side Of The Moon," the label went from a dark corner at EMI to a major player in both Britain and the United States. The album remains one of the biggest selling records of all time.
RYE: "Dark Side" surprised everybody.
WERTH: But Rye says Harvest disappeared precisely because it lost that identity from mad underground English music. In the 1980s it seemed the label tried to be everything to everybody. It released Iron Maiden.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUN TO THE HILLS)
BRUCE DICKINSON: (Singing) Run to the hills.
WERTH: And Duran Duran.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRLS ON FILM)
SIMON LE BON: (Singing) Girls on film, girls on film.
WERTH: Harvest was eventually tossed into the dustbin of rock 'n roll history. And so is this idea that labels could act as curators of our musical taste - says Jeremy Silver of Semetric, a company that advises the music industry. And Silver says that's a loss.
JEREMY SILVER: In this day and age when we have so much music being produced and so many new bands, the idea of having a label that represents a genre, or a spirit, or an ethos, seems to me to be very intelligent way of bringing new audiences to bands they might not otherwise know.
WERTH: There are a handful of labels, like Nonesuch and ECM, that try to conjure an ethos. Sony recently revived the storied Okeh label, a pioneer in early 20th century African-American music, with mixed results. Now Capitol records has resurrected Harvest - not in London but in Los Angeles. And Capitol's British-born CEO Steve Barnett says fans should not expect that old Harvest sound.
STEVE BARNETT: We have a lot of history and we're very respectful of that history, but it doesn't burden us in terms of what we want to do for the future.
WERTH: As a result, Harvest's present-day lineup includes a star like Morrissey
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORLD PEACE IS NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS")
MORRISSEY: (Singing) World peace is none of your business.
WERTH: Along with the less well-known Niall Galvin, a.k.a. Only Real, a twenty-something one-man-band from West London.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
ONLY REAL: (Singing) Lost youth in the soft-roof Cadillac, skin of tulip and corpse through having that. I would have the g-side choose the best, then a daddy mount side she said I'd leave with that.
WERTH: Now if this sampling doesn't sound like an identity, Barnett says it will.
BARNETT: Can, in this modern day, a label stand for something? You can't actually say yes to that now, but I can guarantee if you come back in two years, you will agree with me. You're right Steve. Harvest stands for something.
WERTH: Although exactly what it will stand for is something Harvest may still be trying to figure out. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Werth in London.
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