Bob Biggs, who led the upstart Los Angeles punk rock label Slash Records to national prominence in the ‘80s, died Oct. 17 in Tehachapi, CA. He was 74, and had suffered from Lewys body dementia.
Spawned by a loud, funny tabloid publication that touted the hard-edged acts that poured out of the Hollywood basement club the Masque in the late ‘70s, the small, savvy and stylish Slash label latched onto the best of the local crop, and later extended its reach, with the help of major label distribution, to sign some of the best talent from other alternative music scenes around the country.
“I wouldn’t describe myself as a music fan and specific styles of music don’t interest me,” Biggs told the Los Angeles Times’ Kristine McKenna in 1987. “But I wouldn’t put out a record I didn’t find some merit in. I put out records I think are necessary and the challenge of getting a mass audience to agree they’re necessary is what’s fun for me.
“If I were a consummate fan I’d be incapable of making certain business moves because I’d consider the music too precious. My job is to find — or create — a market for a record and that requires me to be a bit ruthless at times. You have to be willful to run a record company and if you ever play victim you’re dead. This business is about survival of the fittest and it requires mental toughness and the ability to bluff.”
Members of Slash’s best-known acts took to social media as word of Biggs’ death spread on Saturday.
“RIP, Bob Biggs,” Faith No More bassist Bill Gould wrote on Twitter. “Much love to all the folks who shared the Slash experience with me. It was madness and I am grateful!”
The Dream Syndicate’s singer-songwriter-guitarist Steve Wynn wrote on Facebook, “Slash head honcho Bob Biggs showed faith in a band like us and gave us a vaulted context amidst the best label mates to make the rest of the world pay attention to what we were doing.”
On his Facebook page, former Blasters guitarist-songwriter Dave Alvin called Biggs “a very charming, visionary rascal. He was a great painter/artist, a high concept mover and shaker as well as a smooth, slightly shady jive talker with a brilliant and insightful ear for musicians/bands/trends on his label, Slash Records. I have to add that he gave us Blasters a chance when no other label would.”
Biggs was born in Whittier and attended junior college in Cerritos, where he played football. He went on to attend UCLA on a football scholarship, but jettisoned athletics after injuring a leg. He graduated from UCLA with a degree in art, and showed his work in local galleries while building furniture for sale.
In 1977, Biggs’ Pico Boulevard studio was next door to the offices of Slash magazine, an attitude-flexing new publication catering to the burgeoning L.A. punk rock community. Slash’s publisher Steve Samiof approached Biggs for a loan to record the unpredictable punk act the Germs, and he kicked in $600 for the recording of the three-track “Lexicon Devil” EP, which the magazine sold via mail order.
Further investments by Biggs — who became managing director of the magazine — in Slash’s infant independent imprint followed. In 1979, Slash released its first LP, the Germs’ raucous LP “(GI),” produced by former Runaways guitarist Joan Jett.
By the 1980 release of “Los Angeles,” the debut album by the top local punk band X, Biggs (who helped design that album’s stark cover, which featured a large, fiery “X”) had bought out Samiof’s interest in the magazine, which shuttered later that year.
Pulling on a Budweiser, Biggs explained his label’s simple philosophy in “The Unheard Music,” W.T. Morgan’s 1986 documentary about X: “First of all, you sign good bands. You don’t sign a bunch of s—.”
In early 1981, the label issued the soundtrack for “The Decline of Western Civilization,” a documentary directed by Biggs’ then-wife Penelope Spheeris, which featured both class-of-‘77 L.A. punk bands and new hardcore acts like Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. Biggs and Slash magazine staffers, including the label’s early producer and A&R man Chris Desjardins, were featured in the film.
Through 1981, Slash’s profile rose with the release of a second X album, “Wild Gift” (which was named album of the year by the Los Angeles Times’ critics), ferocious punk outings by the Gun Club and the Flesh Eaters on the new Ruby Records subsidiary and the label debut of the Downey roots-rock band the Blasters.
At the end of that year, the latter act’s self-titled LP became the first record distributed via a two-tiered deal with Warner Bros. Records. Over the next three years, the relationship bore fruit with the release of albums by such prominent bands as the Dream Syndicate, Fear, Rank and File and Los Lobos (the latter of which collected Slash’s first Grammy Award, for their debut EP “…and a time to dance”).
In 1984, the label issued a title that would become one of its biggest sellers: the eponymous debut (actually recorded as demos) by Violent Femmes, an acoustic trio from Milwaukee. Though the album would not reach the national album charts until 1991, it was from the beginning a college radio standard (thanks to songs like “Blister in the Sun” and “Gone Daddy Gone”) and a dorm-room staple. To date it has sold an estimated 2 million copies.
Through the ‘80s, Slash continued to move well beyond the confines of punk with albums from Boston’s rock quartet Del Fuegos, the tongue-in-cheek folk-punk act the Knitters (featuring members of X and the Blasters) and the Wisconsin roots band the BoDeans. The year 1987 brought the arrival of the San Francisco band Faith No More; Biggs designed the cover of their label debut “Introduce Yourself” and co-directed their first video for a remake of the group’s “We Care a Lot.” The label also released its first platinum album, the chart-topping soundtrack for the Ritchie Valens biopic “La Bamba,” featuring Los Lobos’ music. Both the LP and its title single reached No. 1 in the U.S.
Slash peaked in 1989 with Faith No More’s “The Real Thing,” the band’s first set with new lead singer Mike Patton. Pushed by the ubiquitous top 10 funk-metal single “Epic,” the million-selling collection climbed to No. 11 nationally; the band’s tireless touring kept it on U.S. charts for 60 weeks.
However, Biggs’ ability to catch lightning in a bottle had begun to elude him by the end of the decade. Despite quality signings like New Zealand’s the Chills, L.A.’s ferocious female rockers L7, the roots unit Grant Lee Buffalo and the hip-hop inflected New York combo Soul Coughing, the label’s roster was burdened by a large number of undistinguished acts that failed to catch fire.
Escalating friction between Biggs and his business partner Mark Trilling prompted the 1995 sale of Slash to London Records, the PolyGram-owned imprint that had distributed the label overseas since the early ‘80s. Biggs became a London executive, based in New York, and succeeded in convincing the company to let Slash release music from the German industrial band Rammstein.
In 1999, when PolyGram Music Group president Roger Ames moved to Warner Music International, London’s assets were sold to Warner Music Group, and Slash’s catalog moved back to Warner. Slash’s Beverly Boulevard office, which had been operating with a skeleton staff, was shuttered.
In 2003, following Biggs’ return to California, Ames gave Biggs his blessing to release new music under the Slash shingle. Renting a small Hollywood Boulevard office and operating under the corporate handle “Up Yours Inc.,” Biggs restarted the imprint with a tiny staff of former Slash employees. The label managed only one release, an album by the New York band Shiner Massive, before high losses forced its closure.
Biggs spent his later years working in a spacious studio adjacent to his hilltop home on an 80-acre spread in Tehachapi. His artwork appeared on the cover of Swans’ 2014 album “To Be Kind.”
He is survived by his wife Kim and son Monte.