Interview with wife Suzy Shaw | By Jeff Alexander
The 10th anniversary of Greg Shaw’s passing reminds us how irreplaceable his passion and vision is. Shaw’s celebration of rock ‘n’ roll subculture facilitated the growth of underground rock journalism and drew attention to the garage rock artists who undeniably shaped the world of punk. Through his first ‘zine (maybe the first ever) Mojo Navigator, Shaw worked to create a subculture that nurtured creativity and celebrated rock’s raucous lifestyle. A chance meeting with his future wife and partner Suzy in 1966 led to the duo’s lifelong romance with rock ‘n’ roll, and ultimately to the birth of their own ‘zine Who Put the Bomp, as well as Bomp! Records in 1974.
“I loved his generosity in helping out fellow record geeks in the early days of Bomp! and the enthusiastic way he encouraged people to make records or write or make some sort of contribution,” reflects Suzy Shaw. “The way he would light up – not often, but every once in a while – when he heard a record for the first time that he really loved. His writing was brilliant, the music and music-writing worlds couldn’t have had a better godfather.”
From ‘zines to record shops to labels, Suzy took a moment to reflect on how Greg’s prolific legacy has evolved over the years.
“The biggest change has been that anyone can hear virtually all the music Greg was passionate about, no matter how obscure,” she says. “In a way, that takes his favorite records and his work out of the realm of a small, intense cult and into the general universe of musical appreciation. But as long as his role as the instigator of impassioned musical fandom is secure – and it seems to be – that’s all for the good.”
Greg Shaw has earned a permanent place in rock’s lexicon for cultivating a lifestyle derived from music obsession. Shifting ideals of the turbulent ‘60s gave birth to independent, creative resistance. For Greg and Suzy, both were fortunate enough to witness firsthand the decade that set the country on fire.
“Probably the most important thing to keep in mind about the ’60s is that the six-year period from late 1963 to the end of 1969 saw more changes in politics, pop culture, drugs, music, fashion, technology, and social unrest than any other time in history. Some people could handle that rate of change. A lot of others couldn’t. A lot of others pretended it didn’t happen… See today’s conservative ideology.”
She added, “It wasn’t a monolithic experience – it differed widely depending on how old you were – a couple of years could make all the difference – where you were located, what you were interested in, and so forth. Mine and Greg’s ’60s saga was unique because we were right in the middle of [California], one of the epicenters of the cultural upheaval.”
Greg made it his mission to bring defiant melodies to as many people as he could. Rock music was still viewed as mostly entertainment and scribes presented it as such. His partnership with David Harris launched Mojo Navigator in 1966 and the paradigm was shattered. Today, the magazine is lauded as one of the first West Coast ‘zines.
“Greg had been editing ‘zines since he was a mere child, mostly sci-fi, and then a hybrid of sci-fi and rock, with Mojo Navigator. But magazines were just one way of bringing the music he loved and his point of view to people,” says Suzy.
Likeminded artists pushed for rock ‘n’ roll to be more than mere entertainment and clearly Greg served as one of the biggest ambassadors for that change. Who Put The Bomp debuted in 1970 and served as Greg’s outlet to painstakingly chronicle every note that ever rang out from the groups he deemed worthy of coverage.
“Regarding journalism, Bomp was always about musical passion and good writing,” Suzy clarifies. “Anyone who shared those attributes with Greg was welcomed enthusiastically. A lot of writers who were published early on in Bomp went on to become prominent, but more than that, Bomp‘s attitude that you could devote a lot of attention to illuminating some obscure corner of music history – and do it entertainingly – infected fanzine culture and, intermittently, more mainstream music publications.”
Who Put The Bomp sought out the new, the obscure, and the wild. Greg’s mission even earned him the unique opportunity to catch a Sex Pistols gig at the infamous 100 Club. Relaying the gig to readers, he conveyed insight as strong as Steve Jones’ power chords, “What they represent may be a typically Shepherd’s Bush aggro-backlash that’s sociologically unique in 1976. Rotten has Tom Verlaine’s charismatic intensity, though without the avant-garde pretensions that put me off in so much of the New York scene.”
Suzy was quick to state that the initial punk revolution was smaller than what mainstream media attempted to portray.
“It’s hard to convey now what a minority interest it was back then. Only a few thousand people in the U.S. cared about the Ramones, even fewer about The Sex Pistols and The Clash when they came out. Fortunately, most of those people were writers and musicians, so these musical developments got disproportionate attention from the start and ended up influencing the entire music world to this day. But when Greg saw The Sex Pistols in a small venue in England, it would have been farfetched to imagine any of this amounting to much.”
She added, “Now I see Sex Pistols t-shirts for babies sold at the mall. We didn’t see that coming.”
The Shaws’ astute views of music attracted the kindred spirits of impactful artists such as Iggy Pop, Joan Jett, the infamous impresario Kim Fowley, and The Dead Boys and Lords of the New Church frontman Stiv Bators.
“Stiv and I were great pals,” recalls Suzy. “We saw each other a lot until the late ‘80s when he got involved with speed and it changed him completely. He wasn’t the same sweet, funny person I had come to know. He loved to order books using my name and address, and I’d come home each day to find my porch piled high with an assortment of boxes containing books on ‘1001 Ways to Cook Chicken,’ ‘How to Fix Your Toilet,’ and ‘Civil War Stories.’ He also liked to do his ‘old southern guy’ voice, you’d never guess it was him, never! He’d call and prank our salesman Bo, keeping him on the phone for hours asking stupid questions, and then yelling ‘IT’S STIV!’”
Bomp’s release of Bators’ solo records highlighted the singer’s passion for ‘60s power pop, much to the chagrin of his diehard punk fans. It’s here that Bomp! Records showed versatility and the ability to highlight unique sides of artists that fans may overlook.
Shaw remained true to his vision of sharing rock ‘n’ roll treasures with a broader audience. Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye echoed Shaw’s view that rock should be celebrated, collected, cataloged, and packaged for future generations to revel in. Kaye’s 1972 Nuggets collection complimented Greg’s excitement for ‘60s garage rock and captured seemingly forgotten tracks that defined the genre.
Suzy elaborates, “The original Lenny Kaye Nuggets package made the music that was being constantly discussed in the pages of Bomp available to a new and wider audience. Plus, it provided the opportunity to expand on the whole concept by distributing the Pebbles series. It’s a finite audience, but it’s still a powerful musical force now nearly half a century after the fact.”
Bomp! Records attracted “rock geeks” and fanatics of all kinds, and the label served as a gathering point for fellow artists who rejected the stale ideas of tired radio stations and critics. For Greg, it was never the bottom dollar but the ultimate goal of fostering a subculture based on the common belief that the music meant everything.
He once wrote, “Us independent-label guys rarely sell many records. Our records are more like fanzines – statements of our crackpot views so wildly against the prevailing trends that we are laughed into the lunatic fringe, where we hope to form a community of misfits.”
For Suzy, these misfits included Germs frontman Darby Crash. Crash’s infamous stage persona somehow made its way into the Bomp! office, much to her delight. “Darby was a huge pain in the ass for me. He liked to put on a good show and that usually included destroying things, like offices and record stores, so I can’t say I was ever all that happy to see him. I would just be thinking about the cleaning supplies I would need when he was gone.”
The “lunatic fringe” was in full effect during California’s punk explosion with bands like The Weirdos at the forefront of the chaos. For Suzy, the time demonstrated the niche that Bomp! created. “As far as the label, I think that the eagerness that artists showed in trying to get a deal with the label showed we were filling a need. Also, the pickup of many of our artists, like The Shoes, The Plimsouls, Devo, Iggy Pop, etc., demonstrated that we were on top of a musical movement that the big companies wanted to get in on.”
Yet, irony sometimes prevails in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, as Greg once got into the corporate world back in ’72. The following excerpt from Suzy’s book Bomp! Saving the World One Record at a Time details Greg’s editing job with Phonograph Records Magazine, which was a branch of United Artists Records:
“Our most serious offense it seemed, was the complete lack of a fancy-ass car. Our sensible Toyota would get us nowhere in this town. A Mercedes was needed for the very minimum of communication, and we also had no business cards or executives of any sort. If we wanted to play the game we needed to play by the rules.”
And with every acquisition of a performance car, an owner can’t wait to push the boundaries. Suzy concluded: “Turns out they (Mercedes) can go 170, but as is the way of the world, soon enough the flashing lights could be seen in the far distance and I had to persuade Greg to slow down rather than speed up.”
Another memorable corporate experience centered on Josie Cotton’s Johnny are You Queer? record. The hook-infused single earned notoriety due to its premise of a vixen unsuccessfully courting a suspected gay man. Through careful promotion reminiscent of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, Bomp! earned a spot on the national news program 20/20. Suzy shared the unlikely experience in Who Put The Bomp! Saving the World One Record at a Time:
“Our resident promo man, Rich Schmidt hatched a plan to stir up even more controversy around the song, and worked with our art director to design a logo for a non-existent group called Parents For Decency. We sent the letter out to Christian groups and gay advocates alike in the hopes of battle lines being drawn.”
The gamble paid off as a real Christian activist group picketed KROQ, the leading independent California station hosted by Rodney Bingenheimer. Local news stations were tipped off at behest of KROQ who urged counter-pickets. The Bomp! staff anxiously watched the television hoping for national exposure. Suzy writes:
“We might have actually done it, we might be on TV! And then there it was, our very own single, with the Bomp! logo spinning on a turntable on the NEWS! The story was covered for at least 36 hours and national news programs like 20/20 ran with it… The ruse was a success and Johnny are You Queer? went on to be a huge KROQ hit.”
Bomp! was arguably one of the top tastemakers of the underground community. The audience may have been “finite,” but the supporters were rabid fans.
“Greg never doubted for a second that he was doing something unique and positive,” Suzy says. “He was well aware of his place in history. He was always so far ahead of the game, maybe because of his early sci-fi background. He was really good at anticipating the future.” She offered the following excerpt Greg penned back in 1978:
“Imagine 20 years from now, if every teenager could sit in his bedroom with a computer screen and terminal (and stereo speakers attached) and call up anything he wanted, from Billy Ward and the Dominoes to Ed Banger and the Nosebleeds – see what they looked like, read extracts from fanzines and historians who wrote about them, cross-referenced to other artists and sources, and above all to hear the music, and maybe even see film footage if any exists.”
Greg Shaw embodied what true DIY ethics were about, but, despite being a trailblazer and ambassador for rock ‘n’ roll, he and Bomp! weren’t necessarily a financial success. Instead, his life’s work stands the test of time because he united fans who were as profoundly affected by the riffs as he was.
“At one point, we had the magazine, the store, distribution, and several labels going at once,” says Suzy. “The big challenge is that neither one of us were really business oriented. Most of the time, we were one step away from bankruptcy. I look back in amazement that we managed at all.”
Greg’s passing in 2004 presented Suzy with an opportunity to shine a new light on the label. She began reaching out to former scribes and revisiting the words and records that inspired Greg. She paired with Mick Farren and exhaustive research began for what ultimately became Who Put The Bomp! Saving the World One Record at a Time.
“I suppose most people would expect that I would say it was very nostalgic,” she says, “looking through the past, but that’s not at all the case. For one thing, I’m surrounded by a lot of the photos and images from the magazines at our office. They are all over all walls, I see them every day. Nostalgia is more about wishing you were there again, that it was ‘the good old days,’ but I’ve never stopped doing what I was doing then, it’s a continuation. And it’s never been more fun.”
Suzy continues to run Bomp’s mailorder as well as her label ALIVE. For her, nothing has changed too much. She soldiers on in the very same spirit she and Greg created decades earlier.
“The ALIVE label has the same spirit of Bomp!, which is to give new artists the opportunity to release their music. We are constantly working with young bands; they are the now and future of rock ‘n’roll. It’s a part of my life that has never changed, it’s what we do.”
Despite her extensive experience, Suzy’s passion is unwavering, and her positive energy stands in stark contrast to many of her fellow music veterans.“The easiest thing in the world is for veterans of any kind of scene or era or movement to grumble about these kids today just don’t match up to the way it used to be, and they lack all energy and passion. Generally, that’s crap. People who are motivated to form bands and make music, whether they were playing high school dances and hoping to make a local 45 back in 1965 or touring in vans and posting songs on the Internet now – or playing high school dances and making local 45s now, some people still follow that model – are just as passionate about it as they used to be. The music they make may not sound as authentic or interesting to listeners accustomed to the music of earlier eras, but the spirit is the same.”
She adds, “It may not be the golden age of rock anymore, but there’s still a fire and an energy that deserves to be documented and kept alive.”