Alex Cosper Interviews Howie Klein

Conducted April 7, 2019 on

Listen to Howie Klein Interview

Not many major label recording artists have talked about artist-friendly music industry leaders, but former Reprise Records President Howie Klein stands out as one who did offer artistic freedom. As head of Reprise from 1989 through 2002 and VP of Warners Bros. Records, he oversaw one of the hottest artist rosters ever that included Depeche Mode, Erasure, The Cult, The B-52's and more. Prior to the interview I asked Howie who his favorite acts on the label were and he mentioned Green Day, The Smiths and Morrissey.

Unfortunately, like an amazing sandcastle washed away by a storm, the interview Mike Halloran and I did with Howie Klein failed to get recorded on April 7, 2018 due to a technician who mixed up the wiring. People listening to that day, however, were able to hear the live stream. Luckily, it was such an insightful interview that it remains vivid in my memory, so I will do my best to recall what we talked about, which focused on Howie's career in the music industry.

I asked Howie to talk about how his college days at Stoneybrook University in New York led to his career in music. The story began with him meeting an A&R executive from Elektra Records named Danny Fields, who signed The Doors. At a Doors show in New York, Howie recalls taking the psychedelic drug DMT (dimethyltryptamine), which he does not recommend to anyone. He said "I was very high." Later Howie revealed, "I've never had a beer in my life." The combination of the magic of Jim Morrison and the emerging counter-culture vibe inspired Howie to promote protest bands such as The Fugs. Then after college he decided to explore the world.

"I didn't have money," says Howie, "so I relied on the kindness of strangers." He visited several countries including England, where he met the Sex Pistols. After reflecting on his world tour for about 20 minutes, Howie said, "now, a long time ago you asked me a question that I hope I answered." I laughed and said, "you did." When he returned to America from his multi-cultural journey in the early seventies, he thought the American rock music scene had become too corporate while his friend Danny Fields urged him to get back into the music industry. He enjoyed underground music, particularly the hard driving sounds of punk rock.

In 1976 Howie landed a radio gig at freeform station KSAN in San Francisco, where he believes he hosted the first all punk show on commercial radio in America. Howie credits jocks Rodney Bingenheimer at KROQ and Oedipus at MIT college station WTBS for mixing in punk a year earlier. But Rodney didn't play just all punk (he mixed in Rod Stewart and other British pop/rock artists) and Oedipus was not on a commercial station until years later at WBCN in Boston. At KSAN Howie regularly interviewed artists, including the Sex Pistols, who ultimately got him fired.

The Sex Pistols were falling apart when they played their final show at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in January 1977. Prior to the show Howie was able to secure the interview due to meeting them in England. He interviewed them on both KSAN and San Jose station KOME, where the band used explicit language that led to a surge of complaints from the community, as the program director told Howie he had to take him off the air.

But all was not lost for Howie, who launched 415 Records (named after the area code) in San Francisco with a few partners in 1978. The label immediately signed The Offs, who released a single called "Everyone's a Bigot" in 1978. Then 415 signed The Nuns, who had opened the Pistols' final show. They released a unique punk single called "Decadent Jew" in 1979. Other signings included Romeo Void, The Units and Wire Train.

In 1981 Columbia Records made a distribution deal with 415 after Howie shopped his roster to various labels. Romeo Void caught the ear of Cars' singer Ric Ocasek, who agreed to produce the band in Boston. The result was a groundbreaking modern rock hit called "Never Say Never." The band went on to crack the national top 40 in 1984 with "A Girl In Trouble (Is a Temporary Thing)."

A few years prior to selling 415 Records, Howie wound up working for Seymour Stein at Sire Records in 1987. It was a label flooded with modern rock and innovative pop artists. The roster included The Ramones, Talking Heads, The Pretenders and many more, but Stein wanted to concentrate on developing just Madonna and let Howie handle the rest. Then in 1989 Klein was promoted to General Manager of sister label Reprise. Six years later he was named Reprise President as well as VP of Warner Bros. Records. I asked Howie about his philosophy on artistic freedom and he said since the artists were putting their careers on the line, he believed what they released was up to them, as they had to live with what they put out.

One of the rising punk-flavored bands that took off was Green Day, whose album Dookie was huge in 1994 and went on to sell over 10 million units. At the KRQQ/Los Angeles Weenie Roast in June 1994 singer Billie Joe Armstrong pulled down his shorts onstage and mooned the crowd. I asked Howie, "was that all Billie Joe?" He replied, "absolutely, in only the way that he would have it."

I asked Howie how well the knows Madonna and he said "not very well." He went on to say that at first he didn't like her dance pop music but later learned to appreciate it as art. He said the same about Fleetwood Mac. Mike Halloran, who grew up in Detroit, told Howie that Madonna was a big fan of the early punk acts out of the Motor City.

As we began to wrap up the interview after an hour I told Howie, "we didn't even have time to talk about the AOL-Time Warner merger, one of the biggest flops of all time." Howie resigned in 2002 over the merger and issues that affected artistic freedom. Wordsmith Halloran quickly flipped the topic from AOL to AOC (Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez) and the three of us agreed we like the congresswoman from New York. I asked Howie if we can interview him again and he said, "sure, anytime." He is now a political activist who joins the Nicole Sandler Show every Thursday and writes a regular progressive blog at

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