Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sire Records: Rivers of Babylon

It’s the fourth week of the month and every month we feature a specific record label. This time around it’s Sire Records. Founded in 1966 by Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer, the label’s initial foray into the recording industry was bringing lesser known British artists to American audiences. Chronicling the label’s history is as difficult as charting the romantic encounters of Elizabeth Taylor, as you will see in the next several paragraphs.

When the label began issuing releases in 1968, it was initially distributed by London Records. It switched distribution to Polydor for 1970 and 1971. By 1972, Famous Music Corporation took over distribution which was transferred to ABC when that label purchased Famous Music in 1974.

Distribution was again shifted in 1977, and this time to Warner Brothers who purchased the label outright in 1978. By 1994, Sire was moved by Warners Music to the Elektra division where it remained for three years until it was spun off as an independent label. From 2000 to 2003, Sire and its former distributor London Records merged. That short romance was annulled and it is currently an independent label distributed once again by Warners Brothers Records.

During its heyday, Sire Records was the home for many interesting artists – some of which we will feature during this week. Some of the better known artists in the Sire corral are Madonna, The Pretenders, The Talking Heads, Modern English, Focus, and the Climax Blues Band. This list only scratches the surface. Since the label was known to seek out British (and other European) independent acts, many Sire artists released in the US on the label were signed to other companies overseas.

One such artist, who was signed with Hansa Records in Germany, was Boney M. In 1978, Boney M. revisited The Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon.” While based upon Psalms 137 and 19 with additional Rastafarian overtones, Boney M. altered the lyrical content to that which would be acceptable in the sight of a Judeo-Christian context.

“Rivers of Babylon” was a #1 record in the UK, Germany, Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Several of their other recordings were number one records in various countries; however, “Rivers of Babylon” remains as band’s only hit proper in the US with the highest chart position being #30. Its performance in Canada was similar, as it peaked at #25 in the Great White North.

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