The 99 Records (pronounced nine nine) story is really the story of a guy called Ed Bahlman and the events that surrounded his life for a few short years in the early 1980's.
This piece was written for the Discopia website but because the music released on 99 Records was one of the main inspirations behind starting Optimo, I have decided to add it to the Optimo website too.
I was blissfully unaware of 99 Records at the time. It was only in the early 90's when I heard Carl Craig and Derrick May both play 'Moody' by ESG and 'Optimo' by Liquid Liquid that I became enchanted. I went on a mission to find those records and along the way learned that there were other great releases on the label too. My sister lived in New York in the early 90's and over the course of several trips to visit her I was lucky enough to find some of the 99 releases before the prices went crazy. I should point out that despite being a vinyl junkie, I do not consider myself a record collector or a completeist per se. I think 99 is about the only label where I have had a 'collectors' head on. Partly this is through the club being named after a 99 release, and also through speaking to people who were there at the time, other fans and digging up stuff on the internet, becoming entranced with the whole 99 records / Ed Bahlman story.
99 records was started by the aforementioned mythical, visionary Bahlman and named after its location in the basement of 99 MacDougal Street, just off Bleeker Street in New York's West Village. Originally it was a hip clothes shop run by Ed's girlfriend Gina Franklyn (a Londoner who incidentally was the first person in the States to import Doc Martens). Later Ed turned part of the shop into a record shop - 99 Records - which became a hang out for all sorts of muso types. The shop was one of the very few places to sell imports of many of the releases on Ed's beloved UK indies (he would go on trips with Gina to the UK and bring back the first copies to reach the States of many releases) and you could actually hear the records before you bought them, which was pretty much unheard of in New York back then. Gina would later split up with Ed and open a clothes shop called 99X on 6th Street. It still exists to this day but is now on 10th Street. Today the MacDougal Street shop is an Indian restaurant whose owners looked a little perplexed when I (in true saddo style) took some photos of it a few years back.
Ed was very involved in the New York music scene, putting on gigs and doing the odd bit of production. Sal Principato from Liquid Liquid recalls that he was 'thee hip underground guy at the time'. Right at the start of the 80's, he was really inspired by UK labels such as Y Records, On U Sound and Rough Trade and thought New York needed something along those lines, so after some gentle persuasion decided to start a label. Luckily this coincided with a very fertile period in New York's music scene. Importantly, Ed had a very clear idea of the sound he was looking for and was involved in mixing and producing many of the 99 releases.
Some of the information here may not be entirely historically correct but I've tried my best to stick to what I know to be fact. I think perhaps the best way to tell Ed's story is through the records he released. There were only 15 of them but almost everyone is a classic. Let's get to it.
99 - 01 - Glenn Branca - Lesson No. 1 For Electric Guitar / Dissonance. 12" 1980
Glen Branca who performs to this day (currently in an ensemble with 8 guitars, bass and drums) is a legendary figure on the New York (and indeed global) music scene and has been enormously influential. He was initially known for playing in the No Wave acts The Static and The Theoretical Girls (check their wondeous 'US Millie' track if you ever get the chance). He then went on to compose symphonies performed by a 'guitar orchestra' of multiple players. His sound was instrumental in inspiring Sonic Youth and he was a giant in what is known as No Wave. No Wave was a very brief but incredibly creative movement of like minded individuals trying to make music without referencing the rock music of the past, nor having too much concern about their ability to play. In recent years, No Wave has had much more coverage than it ever did at the time with many new bands being inspired by this era. Really, No Wave is a whole other story and defining what is No Wave tends to lead to much confusion. 99 often gets lumped in with No Wave, but bar the Branca and Y Pants releases it's not strictly No Wave at all. Confused?
Branca was a frequent visitor to the 99 shop and would moan to Ed about the lack of independent labels, particularly compared to the UK where there was an explosion of small indies happening. With his music already recorded, Branca persuaded Ed that it would be cheap to release and thus persuaded him to start the label. The line up on this was stripped back to a more or less conventional rock line up (including future Sonic Youth founder member Lee Renaldo) but it sounds anything but conventional. 'Lesson No. 1' sounds huge. A massive drone of guitar with a metronomic beat pulsating underneath. The Branca releases are very different to the rest of the 99 catalogue and a lot of people find them too extreme to listen to, but apart from being important historical documents, they are mighty, mighty slabs of sonic greatness.
99 - 02 - Bush Tetras - Too Many Creeps / Snakes Crawl / You Taste Like The Tropics. 7" 1980
Bush Tetras were an (almost) all girl New York band started by Pat Place after she left The Contortions. Apart from Pat on guitar, the line up was Dee Pop on drums, Laura Kennedy on bass and Cynthia Sley on vocals. Bahlman picked up on them really quickly and put out this 3 track EP which ended up being 99 Record's biggest hit. 'Too Many Creeps' became a staple in new wave clubs around the States and even made Billboard's dance charts. It went on to sell 30 000 copies which gave 99 Records the funds to put bands into the studio and release the next few records. While 'Too Many Creeps' is the best known song, I actually prefer the low down and louche 'Snakes Crawl' on the b-side which has the best lyrics they ever wrote. Bush Tetras only did this one 7" for 99 as Ed was very reluctant to let other labels release them in other territories and after this release they recorded singles for Fetish and Stiff Records in the UK. They reformed in the mid 90's and have played sporadically ever since
99 - 03 - Y Pants - Off The Hook / Beautiful Food / Favorite Sweater / Luego Fuego. 7" 1980
Y Pants were three women artists - Barbara Ess, Virgina Piersol and Gail Vachon. They mainly played at art spaces and had their own unique sound derived from the their unusual instrumentation. They based their sound around an amplified toy piano and toy drum set and a ukelele played through a distortion unit. Later they would add an electric bass and a synth. Barbara was well known for her fanzine 'Just Another Asshole' and as well as being Glenn Branca's girlfriend had played with him in The Static and The Theoretical Girls. He produced this debut ep.
The lead track from the ep - 'Off The Hook' is a cover of The Rolling Stones song and despite the unusual instrumentation fits in very well with the ESG / Bush Tetras sound. It has a very primitive rhythm but sounds like a blueprint for what would today be called punk funk. Branca did a great production job on it and it has some lovely touches such as the addition of a faked phone conversation. The other songs are more No Wavesque but all the Y Pants songs have a certain unique naive charm to them. They only existed for a couple of years and went on to release an album called 'Beat It Down' on Branca's Neutral label which was produced by another New York legend, Wharton Tiers. After that, they returned to their art pursuits which is what they continue to do to this day. Apparently they still keep in touch and all meet up every year on each other's birthdays.
99 - 04 - ESG - You're No Good / Moody / UFO / Earn It / ESG / Hey! 12" 1981
ESG's story is long and involved and I'm not going to tell it all here except to say that ESG were a group of sisters (the Scroggins) along with a male friend Tito on congas (who would later pass away) and that the name stands for Emerald Sapphire Gold. Anyway, one day Ed was invited to be a judge at a talent show. ESG were playing and lost but Ed was captivated by them. He offered to (unofficially) manage them and started getting them shows around New York at clubs such as Hurrah's and Danceteria. One of these was as support to A Certain Ratio and after the show, Factory Record's Tony Wilson asked ESG if they would release something on Factory. Wilson got them over to play at the opening night of the Hacienda and put them in the studio with legendary producer Martin Hannett. Legend has it that Hannett was only available because Joy Division had booked studio time that had to be cancelled following Ian Curtis's suicide. The first three tracks on this ep were produced by him and originally came out as a 7" on Factory. The 99 release added three tracks recorded live at Hurrah's in New York early in 1980 and had completely different artwork designed by Gina Franklyn. 'Moody' and 'UFO' from the EP have ended up being two of the most sampled records of all time.
99 - 05 - Vivien Goldman - The Dirty Washing EP - Launderette / Private Armies / P.A. Dub. 12" 1981
Vivian Goldman was a very well connected journalist from London who wrote extensively about the punk and post punk scenes for NME. She used her contacts to pull in Keith Levine, Adrian Sherwood, Robert Wyatt and John Lydon amongst others to make a 7" which was released on her own tiny UK label Window Records. Whilst on a visit to New York, she took a tape of it to Ed's shop and he fell in love with it right away and decided he had to put it out on 99. The 99 version is called 'The Dirty Washing EP', has completely different artwork and adds the 'P.A. Dub' which had appeared on the first New Age Steppers LP on On U Sound. Sadly Vivian never pursued making music and this remains her only ever solo release which is a shame as her lyrics and voice were unique and fabulous. She did however continue to write songs for other artists such as Massive Attack and has gone on to become a globally renowned writer as well as an expert on Reggae who still writes to this day.
99 - 06 - Congo - At The Feast / Music Maker / Music Maker Dub. 12" 1981
I'm not sure how Ed got this for 99. Congo is Congo Ashanti, one half of The Congos, the legendary reggae act from Jamaica. This is a Lee Perry produced track by The Congos from the same sessions as their classic 'Heart of The Congos' album from 1977 that up to this point had remained unreleased while 'Music Maker' is a slightly later Congos track from the 1979 sessions for the 'Congo Ashanti' album that had also been unreleased up until this point. The Congos were in essence a duo comprised of Cedric Myton and Roydel 'Ashanti' Johnson aka Congo Ashanti so I'm not sure why this is credited just as Congo. Odd.
99 - 07 - Liquid Liquid - Group Me Group / New Walk (live) / Lub Dupe (live) / Bellhead (live) / Rubbermiro. 12" 1981
Liquid Liquid were originally a much more punk sounding band called Liquid Idiot who released one 7" before reforming as Liquid Liquid and basing their sound around a much more percussive framework. They would invite members of the audience to bring their own percussion to their gigs and at one of these, they were so impressed when Dennis Young brought a marimba that they invited him to join. They listened to lots of reggae, Fela Kuti, gamelan, samba as well as a lot of then current post punk music but developed their own unique sound which they called 'big beat' (a term some English producers would use more than a decade later for something entirely different).
Bassist Richard McGuire had heard from Glenn Branca that he was having a release on 99 so dropped a tape off at the shop. Ed checked out one of their downtown shows and decided they were ideal for 99. This first release is predominantly live and shows what a formidable live act they were. 'Bellhead' in particular sounds incredibly powerful for a live recording - the force of Scott Hartley's kik drum is quite astonishing and even today on a modern club soundsystem it sounds fantastic. With a distinctive sleeve designed by their own in band artist, Richard McGuire, this was an impressive first release. Oddly, 'Rubbermiro' from this ep would later appear in an episode of Miami Vice.
99 - 08 - Maximum Joy - Stretch / Silent Street / Silent Dub. 12" 1981
Ed was desperate to license Pigbag's 'Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag' from Y records. Y's owner Dick O' Dell (who would later start Guerilla records) was really trying to push the Bristol band Maximum Joy (featurng ex members of The Pop Group) so said he would only license the Pigbag if Ed released a Maximum Joy record first. Ed agreed and put out this EP on 99 (Same artwork as the Y release). Initially the plan was that 99 would release Y records in the States with Y releasing 99 records in the UK. This didn't work out and when it came to 99 releasing the Pigbag, Ed felt too many copies had been sold on import and decided to release Pigbag's next record instead. When he heard it he didn't like it, (he was right - it's not that great) decided not to release it and that was the end of any arrangement with Y.
99 - 09 - Liquid Liquid - Successive Reflexes EP - Lock Groove (in) / Lock Groove (out) / Push / Zero / Eyes Sharp. 12" 1981
The second Liquid Liquid ep developed the sound further, introducing the idea of reworking or remixing a piece with the two (almost jazz) versions of 'Lock Groove'. The majority of the production on this recording was by long time Liquid's cohort and archivist Bruce Tovsky at Sorcerers Sound in New York. He parted ways with them before he got to mix it and Bahlman took over. Tovsky (who has put together an as yet unreleased Liquid Liquid live DVD) and the Liquids are firm friends to this day. At this point Liquid Liquid were developing at such a pace that along with ESG they were becoming thee bands that 99 would become renowned for releasing.
99 - 10 - ESG - Dance / The Beat / Moody. 12" 1982
Could ESG cut it in the studio without Martin Hannett's production? This showed that with Ed's help they most certainly could. The 12"s real title is 'ESG Says Dance to The Beat of Moody' and it is recorded so that 'The Beat' and 'Moody' segue from one to the other without losing a beat. The version of 'Moody' is more full sounding than the original and it was this Bahlman produced version that would become a dance anthem at all the clubs in New York and lead to ESG performing at The Paradise Garage and other legendary clubs. Oddly, at many of these performances they would be singing to a backing track rather than playing as a band as that was how most acts did personal appearances back then, as the idea of an actual band playing was too weird for many club promoters and audiences. ESG head honcho Rene Scroggins thought it weird that they wouldn't want the whole band too, so would charge the same amount as she would have if they were performing properly.
For reasons unknown, this was the only 99 release in 1982. Ed was inundated with demos by New York bands but perhaps he felt none of them fitted his strict sonic aesthetic?
99 - 11 - Liquid Liquid - Optimo / Cavern / Scraper / Out. 12" 1983
This record is what ultimately destroyed 99 Records. This EP was Liquid Liquid's most accomplished recording so far and 'Optimo' and 'Cavern' became big club hits. 'Cavern' became a huge hit in the newly developing hip hop scene and the 99 shop was inundated with people looking for the record with THAT bassline. It would go on to sell almost 30 000 copies. At this point in time, sampling was a very new phenomenon and no one was really sure what the legal situation was with regards to sampling other people's records. 'Cavern' was such a big hit around New York that summer that it wasn't long before Sugarhill Records, the first label to commercially exploit hip hop, appropriated the bassline for the backing to Grand Master Flash's 'White Lines'. As they were fans, initially Liquid Liquid were delighted that Flash had used 'Cavern' but when it became a global hit their attitude changed somewhat. Ed in particular was outraged and contacted Sugarhill to try and get payment. Sugarhill hadn't actually sampled 'Cavern' but had got The Sugarhill Band (who would ironically later become Tackhead, the biggest band on his friend Adrian Sherwood's On U Sound label) to replay the bassline and also appropriated other elements of the song, right down to Sal's words (Sal's "slip in and out out of phenomena" was changed to "something like a phenomenon"). This was when the nightmare began.
Sugarhill were renowned for shady business practices. The raps on their first hit release 'Rappers Delight' were stolen from other rappers and they weren't known for paying out to anyone. Various stories have been told that indicate Ed was threatened and there are tales of Bahlman being 'taken for a ride in a car', Sugarhill people intimidating employees and customers at the 99 store and vague mentions of Mafia involvement. Nevertheless, despite intimidation, Bahlman pursued this through legal channels and eventually it came to court. In a case that would set precedents with regard to sampling law, the judge ruled in favour of 99 and Sugarhill were ordered to pay out. Unfortunately, partly due to their shady business practices, Sugarhill didn't have the money to pay and filed for bankruptcy. This was the final straw for Ed who had put all his energy and money into the case and by all accounts was now a broken man. He decided to get out of the music business and urged all the artists on 99 to do the same. Unfortunately, when Ed left the music business he also left ESG and Liquid Liquid somewhat in the lurch as they had no contracts with him and the rights to their records would remain in limbo for years. As Liquid Liquid were on the verge of imploding anyway, this wasn't too much of a problem for them but it would cause huge problems for ESG in the years that followed. To this day Ed still fiercely guards the master tapes to all the 99 releases that he regards as his.
The story doesn't quite end there. Some years later a dj friend of Richard McGuire's informed him that Duran Duran had covered 'White Lines' so McGuire hired a lawyer and went after them. An out of court settlement was agreed upon with Duran's lawyers and the Liquids finally got their payment. By this time Ed was long gone and it's not even known whether he is even aware that justice was finally served. 'Cavern' has gone on to become a bona fide hip hop classic and has been used in several films. That bassline is possibly one of the most famous and instantly recognisable in the history of music. For someone who never really considered himself that much of a musician, this is a fact that to this day amazes McGuire.
'Optimo' from this ep gave the club its name and led to a friendship developing with Liquid Liquid that is ongoing. They played Optimo in Glasgow in July 2003 which was one of the greatest nights of my life.
My friend Michael Goodstein in New York has informed me that there is in fact another 99 - 11 release credited as 99 - 11EP. This is a 7" single with 'Bellhead' on one side and 'Push' on the other. What makes this especially interesting is that they are different studio versions than those previously released. It turns out that Liquid Liquid used to hang out in this New York bar and wanted to have one of their records on the bar's jukebox. As it only played 7"s, they recorded and pressed this up just so it could be put in the jukebox. There are only around 200 of these and it is for sure the rarest 99 item in the catalogue. If anyone has a spare copy.....
Thanks to Michael for the scans for the 7".
99 - 001 LP - Glenn Branca - The Ascension lp 1981
Lesson No. 2 / The Spectacular Commodity / Structure / Light Field (In Consonance) / The Acsension
This LP sold an astounding 10 000 copies which for something so left field was quite astonishing. It was scored for 4 guitars, drums and bass, and is a masterpiece which would later resonate in releases by My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Mogwai and Sigur Ros amongst others. This quote from Acute (who would later reissue the Branca 99 releases) pretty much sums it up perfectly. "The Ascension features 5 compositions, none a moment too long or too short, none too leftfield to be inaccessible, none too mainstream to be boring. Just 40 minutes of sheer guitar bliss".
99 - 002 LP - Singers and Players - War of Words LP 1981
Singers and Players were one of many studio bands produced by Adrian Sherwood where he would get the cream of Jamaican musicians living in London and various singers to collaborate and record albums. Over the course of many trips to the UK, Ed had got to know Geoff Travis from Rough Trade and Adrian Sherwood very well and had formed a particularly good relationship with the On U Sound boss. At this point On U Sound was more of a production house, recording and producing records which On U would then license to other labels. They were very keen to have their records released in the States so agreed to let Ed release this album. They couldn't have given him a more suitable album to release as this particular Singers and Players album contains some of the heaviest sounds they ever recorded, very much in fitting with Ed's sound aesthetic. The Bim Sherman sung 'World of Dispensation' and Prince Far I sung 'Quante Jubila' almost sound as if they were recorded with 99 specifically in mind even though they weren't. A year later On U Sound released the album themselves in the UK.
99 - 003 LP - ESG - Come Away With ESG. LP 1983
Come Away / Dance / Parking Lot Blues / You Make No Sense / Chistelle / About You / It's Alright / Moody (Spaced Out) / Tiny Sticks / The Beat / My Love For You
ESG's mighty debut album combined three previously released songs with 8 brand new Bahlman produced numbers. He also reworked 'Moody' in what is to my mind his finest production moment. With crashing waves of dubbed out electronic sound, this version is a sonic monster and a sign that Bahlman was now 100% confident with his studio abilites. 'Chistelle' is named after ESG main woman Rene's baby daughter who would end up playing in the band many, many years later. The other tracks are a mixture of songs and instrumentals with 'It's Alright' and 'You Make No Sense' going on to become club classics. Perhaps lackng the rawness of their early releases, it is still a fine collection.
While the Sugarhill fiasco was happening and before the outcome of the court case, Ed released one last record -
99 - LL1 - Liquid Liquid - Dig We Must / Flextone / D.D.Dig We Must. 12" 1984
After quite a gap this came out and was the very last release on the label. By this point, founder member, bassist and sleeve designer Richard McGuire, partly disillusioned with the whole Sugarhill debacle had left to pursue his career as an artist (which he still does successfully to this day). Richard McGuire's departure is obvious in the sound of this record which is by far and away the weakest Liquid's and (99 Records for that matter) release although the very short 'Flextone' on the b-side is great (I got to re edit this for a re release as the b-side of a Dennis Young solo single in late 2004). Ed was getting more into technology and the idea of the remix but the drum machines, samplers and synths he employed when producing this make it sound very dated whereas all the other 99 releases sound timeless. Still, it's interesting to ponder what Ed would have gone on to do in a production capacity had he not jacked the whole thing in. I guess Liquid Liquid knew the magic had gone too as shortly after this came out they called it a day too. Sadly not the greatest end to such a great label.
One other record sometimes turns up billed as being a 99 records release but isn't. New York's Konk pressed up their first record, a 7" called 'Soka Loka Moki'. Ed agreed to distribute it for them and the sleeve of the record has 'Distributed by 99 Records' stamped on it. But, it's not a 99 release. 99 also distributed a few other records including 'Lawn Chairs' by Our Daughters Wedding which when signed to Capitol became a top 40 hit. The first two Def Jam releases (best forgotten) were also distributed by 99 and Ed receives a thank you from Rick Rubin on the sleeve of the classic 'It's Yours' by T-La Rock for helping him find distribution for it.
So, what happened to Ed? I have asked ESG and Liquid Liquid but none of them have heard anything about him since the late 80's. He seems to have vanished without a trace although a rumour has circulated that he lives a reclusive life on Long Island and another has suggested he still lives in Brooklyn. He was spotted at a Sonic Youth concert in NYC a few years ago but that's about it on the Ed whereabouts front. Glenn Branca and a few of his associates from back in the day claim to be in touch with him but report that he doesn't ever return calls. When I was in Japan last year, I saw someone wearing a '99 Records' badge and also a badge that said 'I know where Ed Bahlman lives' which was pretty funny as there are only a handful of people on the planet who would get the joke. Sadly the guy wearing the badge didn't speak English (which makes his badge choice even odder!) Whatever Ed ended up doing, it had nothing to do with music.
For a label that pretty much defines a brief era in New York's musical history, it is sad that it is on the whole only known by a small coterie of music freaks and it's even sadder that it ended under such a dark cloud. I would love to think what it could have become and what it would have released had it continued. One interesting thought about the direction 99 may have taken had it continued is that in 1983, Ed was very keen to release Hashim's seminal 'Al Naafyish' electro 12" which instead came out on Cutting. However, 99's influence on music today still looms large with many of todays' hip young gunslinging bands owing a debt to the music that Ed pioneered. The renewed level of interest in this era led to Liquid Liquid briefly reforming for a few shows in 2003 and recording some new material as well as re recording some old material for DFA (possibly the nearest thing we have to a modern day 99 Records). ESG still play and record as well as having their music feature in TV ads!
So you want to buy some 99 records? Well, if you do, be prepared for a long and expensive search. They all can go for serious money on Ebay, if they show up at all that is. The 99 issues of the Maximum Joy, Vivien Goldman, Singers and Players and Congo records are particularly hard to find. 99 never had distribution outside the States so not too many copies of the releases ever made it to the UK. I believe that at one point, after the aborted arrangement with Y, Rough Trade were considering distributing 99 in the UK but this never panned out and you are very unlikely to stumble on copies in second hand shops in Britain.
If you aren't too fussed about having the originals but want the music, most of the ESG releases are available on the Soul Jazz ESG compilation, the first three Liquid Liquid 12's are on the out of print Mo Wax / Grand Royal Liquid's comp (which sadly doesn't even give Ed a credit for originally releasing them on the sleeve) and all the Liquid Liquid and ESG releases were bootlegged in the UK a few years ago. Watch out as these sometimes turn up on Ebay masquerading as the originals. If you see one in the flesh, it's pretty easy to spot the difference as the sleeves aren't printed on the original thick card, they have plastic inside sleeves and the labels are the wrong way round. As for the rest, the Glen Branca releases are both available on cd on the Acute label, The Bush Tetras is available on a ROIR Bush Tetras compilation on vinyl and cd, the Y Pants is available on a cd on the Periodic Documents label, 'At The Feast' by The Congos is available on 'Heart of The Congos' on Blood and Fire while 'Music Maker' is on the Blood and Fire 'Congo Ashanti' reissue, the Singers and Players is available on an On U Sound cd and Vivien Goldman's 'Launderette' is available on Gomma's Anti-NY comp and her 'P.A. Dub' is on Select Cuts 'Wild Dub / Dread Meets Punk Rocker' comp.
But, you can't beat the originals on that heavy US vinyl and with those thick card sleeves and the ghosts of 99 MacDougal Street echoing from their grooves.
Thanks to Spiegl for taking the 99 MacDougal Street photo after I deleted all mine by mistake. For a much, much more in depth piece on 99 Records, try to get a copy of the Tuba Frenzy fanzine which has a brilliant 99 Records feature.