Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the Columbia building and joined Zappa, Bowie, Hendrix and a legion of other strange talents at one of music’s most creative labels – the upstart Rykodisc.
The Salem, Mass-based label gave a 10th birthday present to itself last year by acquiring Elvis Costello’s first 11 albums, which Columbia had put out on compact disc in so-so reissues that didn’t do justice to one of pop’s angriest songwriters.
Ryko has begun the Costello reissues with the same doting care they gave to their earlier big-name acquisitions, Frank Zappa and David Bowie.
The Costello reissues began with the boxed set “2½ Years,” containing digitally remastered versions of his first three albums: “My Aim Is True”, “This Year’s Model” and “Armed Forces”.
In keeping with Ryko’s aim to improve upon the originals, each album includes live, studio and demo bonus tracks, new artwork and funny running commentary from Costello about his frame of mind when the songs were written and recorded.
The boxed set includes a bonus disc, Costello’s 1978 live broadcast from the El Mocambo club in Toronto – finally, a decent-sounding version of a record that’s been bootlegged to death.
Ryko applies savvy marketing to help sell its stock. While the three studio albums can be bought separately, the El Mocambo disc is available only in the boxed set or by mail-order to customers who bought the studio records individually.
Likewise, when Ryko issued a two-disc collection of Bowie singles last fall, a limited-edition disc was thrown in containing a rare Christmas duet between Bowie and Bing Crosby. It was a one-time-only thing, timed for the holidays. In the future, the Bowie compilation will be sold on its own merits, minus Bing.
The strategy works; the extras Ryko tosses in help sell more discs and justify higher retail prices, while customers come away happy feeling they've gotten a bonus — a musical Crackerjack prize.
"When we were getting started, the major labels had a kind of text-book m.o. with regard to back-catalogue reissues, and that was to keep the packages as slim as possible so they could be sold at budget or midprice," said Don Rose, Ryko president.
That's what Columbia did with Costello's early albums in the mid-1980s, dumping them out as a vinyl afterthought. They were cheap, but the sound was poor and the album art and sparse liner notes were cramped in the smaller CD format.
"We had an opposite philosophy, which was to try to enhance and add value to older material to justify its sale at full price," Rose said.
Ryko's Costello reissues include such bonuses as live cuts "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives" and "Radio Sweetheart" — a song Costello calls his first "professional recording."
The next Costello reissues, "Trust" and "Get Happy," will be getting the same treatment. due out this spring.
Ryko's done business this way from the start. The label was launched in 1983 over a cocktail napkin in Cannes, France, as Rose and his original three partners jotted down notes for an independent label that would issue their kind of music on the new CD format.
At the time, compact disc players cost $1,000 or more and weren't viewed as a mass-market product. Rose's first listen came on a clunky Sony big as a breadbox.
Ryko's first release was "Comin' and Goin," a contemporary jazz album by the late saxophonist Jim Pepper. The label followed with samplers of music licensed from Rounder Records.
In 1985, Ryko scored a coup by gaining rights to reissue Zappa's vast catalog.
Bowie joined in 1988, giving Ryko reissue rights to his 18 RCA albums.The compilation 'Changes - Bowie" has sold 1.5 million copies, Ryko's best seller.
Ryko's catalog also has grown to include Jimi Hendrix' historic Radio One recordings for the BBC, Pete Townshend's first solo album and Mickey Hart's percussive explorations. Also on Ryko are such new hip bands as Boston-based Morphine, British folk-rockers the Oyster Band and Bob Mould's trio Sugar.