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 two 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 he 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 textbook 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 of "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. They're 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.
Back then, the CD industry was centered in Japan; in Japanese, Ryko means "sound from a flash of light."
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.
"We were just bowled over by the sound and the possibilities," Rose said.
"It was actually the silence that blew our minds. The ear becomes accustomed to hearing the rumble and surface noise you get with vinyl. But that noise was missing."
Rose could see the mass-market potential for a format that could be programmed to play endlessly, without supervision; such convenience fit right in with an age getting accustomed to the microwave, the home computer and the videocassette recorder.
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. Zappa, frustrated by the apathy of the major labels when it came to reissuing his work on CD, enthusiastically signed on with Ryko.
The label has doted over the three dozen Zappa reissues it has released.
Bowie joined in 1988, giving Ryko reissue rights to his 18 RCA albums. The compilation ChangesBowie has sold 1.5 million copies, Ryko's best seller.