Baron Birtcher got tired of going to record stores, only to find that part of his past had disappeared.
High on the list of favorite rockers who had fallen out of print was Honk, a Laguna Beach band that had been the Orange County rock scene’s top candidate for national recognition during the early to mid-1970s. When he was 13, Birtcher had taken his first date to a Honk concert at Dana Hills High School.
“Honk was one of about a dozen” bands from his teen-age days whose albums the 31-year-old Dana Point resident said he couldn’t find anywhere. “It had been continually frustrating me that I couldn’t find it in the stores.”
Most record collectors resign themselves to such frustrations. But Birtcher, whose family runs one of the West Coast’s biggest real estate development companies, had the means to do something about it. Along with two of his friends, businessman Mark A. Simon and D. Whitney Quinn, a musician and record producer, Birtcher is launching BSQ Entertainment Group. The new record company is aimed primarily at reissuing out-of-print albums that the partners--and, they reckon, a profitable market of like-minded rock fans--would like to see in record bins again.
Birtcher and Simon had been best friends since their childhood in Dana Point. “Mark and I spent I don’t know how many hours in front of stereo speakers,” Birtcher recalled last week as he and his partners sat in a carpeted room in the Costa Mesa recording studio where final mixing was being done on the first BSQ release: a solo album by former Honk member Richard Stekol.
Birtcher had gone on to play guitar in a rock band during his college years at USC. While he became a partner in the family development business, which is known simply as Birtcher, the huskily built rock fan with the trim beard and reddish-blond hair said he “always intended to do something in the music field.”
While Birtcher’s frustrations over hunting oldies in record shops were gradually giving him one idea, Richard Stekol’s frustrations in the music business had given him another: It was pointless to expect that he would ever get to record an album on his own terms.
“I was really soured,” recalled Stekol, who had sung and played guitar in Honk, then spent the late ‘70s with the Funky Kings, another rock contender that recorded for a major label but never made it big (other members included Jack Tempchin, who wrote songs recorded by the Eagles, and Jules Shear, who went on to build a cult following with a series of ‘70s and ‘80s releases). By 1987, after an unsuccessful three-year sojourn in New York trying to launch a solo recording career, Stekol had returned to Laguna Beach and set aside his aspirations for a career breakthrough.
“I would write songs and put ‘em in the drawer,” recalled Stekol, a wry, animated talker with silvery hair drawn back in a ponytail. “I got enough vicarious disappointment talking to my friends in the music business. I didn’t need to go through it first hand.”
Then, last October, the BSQ boys came calling. They wanted the 1972 soundtrack album Honk had recorded for the surfing film “Five Summer Stories” to be their company’s first reissue. Stekol and the other Honk alumni were willing, but negotiations became snagged because approval also was needed from the band’s old production company, which members say still owns the Honk name. Then Stekol asked the BSQ partners whether they wanted to hear some of those songs in his drawer.
The company’s plan was to establish itself as a reissues label first, then seek out an occasional new act as a sideline. But Stekol pulled out his guitar and played his songs for the BSQ partners, and, as Birtcher put it, “the quality of the material got us real pumped up.”
BSQ offered Stekol what he never expected to find: a budget to record an album and plenty of artistic leeway to record it as he saw fit. “I’m happy raising my kids and hanging around and writing songs,” said Stekol, 42, who has two young daughters and a wife who teaches elementary school. “But when somebody says you can make a record and do it your own way, and they’re going to put it out . . . . “
Stekol recorded with the Seclusions, a band of four other musicians he has played with since 1980. Among the members are steel guitarist Greg Leisz, who plays in K.D. Lang’s band, and keyboards player Dave Witham, who tours with George Benson. The as-yet untitled album, due out in March, is a wistful collection of folk- and country-tinged rock songs with a sound and sensibility that often recalls Jackson Browne’s first three albums. The highlight is “America Walking By,” an aching (and, unfortunately, all too timely) ballad in which Stekol, a former Marine sergeant who served in Vietnam, portrays the devastating impact of a young man’s death on his family. The song says nothing about warfare, but the insertion of that single word, “America,” in the chorus turns its depiction of private grief into a moving expression of public loss.
Stekol, who still plays periodic reunion concerts with Honk, said he is eager to tour once his album comes out. The BSQ partners, meanwhile, are trying to forge a distribution agreement for their releases, preferably with one of the major record companies.
“We’re hoping (Stekol’s album) will open doors,” Quinn said. “We want to be looked on as the people who do things right.”
While it gets ready to promote Stekol’s album, BSQ also is moving forward with its original purpose, approaching established record companies that hold the rights to old albums that Birtcher, Simon and Quinn want to reissue on cassette and compact disc.
The shopping list, Birtcher said, includes titles by such acts as Pure Prairie League, John Entwistle (the Who bassist who recorded a series of sometimes-brilliant ‘70s solo albums), Joe Walsh, Ambrosia, America, the Atlanta Rhythm Section and Moby Grape. The object is to resurrect only albums that the partners are enthusiastic about. “I don’t want to do some musical genre that doesn’t float my boat,” Birtcher said.
BSQ’s challenge is to persuade the big labels who may hold those copyrights that it can do a good job of marketing records that otherwise wouldn’t be worth the trouble of putting back in print.
“We’re just starting out and developing relationships and credibility,” Birtcher said. He envisions BSQ operating “a rung down in terms of mass appeal and sales volume” from Rhino Records, the Santa Monica-based label that has made its reputation with an extensive line of rock reissues.
Birtcher said he and Simon, the company’s two shareholders, are investing “into the six figures” to launch BSQ (Stekol said recording costs for his album were about $15,000). The idea is to keep the operation small and manageable and to focus only on music that the partners have a passion for.
“I’d be delighted this year if we could get three or four (reissues) out” in addition to Stekol’s album of new material, Birtcher said. “Ideally, I’d like to see us do one a month. The seduction is that you get so caught up in your dream that you go too fast.”
“We’re not looking for a quota of releases,” Simon said. “Just things that we have a real strong feeling for. We want it to be fun.”