Rock 'n' roll will never die, but has it sold out?

The insider scoop on Warner Bros. Records – before cash was king

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Stan Cornyn's rich history of a key pop music conglomerate is one of the few books to make sense of this complex field. It begins in the '30s on vinyl 78s, with Warner Brothers' first label, Brunswick. It ends in 1999, when Time Warner released compact disks through the Atlantic Recording Corp., Elektra Entertainment Group, and Warner Bros. Records (WBR). It is the story of a firm and a business that used to have fun making money and music. Now, Cornyn suggests, it focuses on making money – humorlessly.

"What we had accomplished in '69 we had forgotten by '99," he writes. "When money changed from being a wondrous shower and became ruler over all, everything suffered. Swarms of suits had, in the end, endorsed greed over boogie."

"Exploding" isn't very well-written. Its business-book formula, though efficient, grows tiresome, and so many names are dropped that they blur. But Cornyn more than compensates with his anecdotes, attitude, and more than three decades of insider status.

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Names the names

Fans of classic rock will enjoy Cornyn's account of the bitter clash over Bob Dylan between David Geffen and Jerry Wexler, who, respectively, recorded definitive pop and soul music. The suits, too, get their due and dimension, including the collegial Steve Ross, the passively manipulative Jerry Levin, and the highly political Robert Morgado.

Cornyn forged the image of Warner Brothers Records as the hip place to work and the hip label to buy. As head of WBR Creative Services, he crafted indelible copy, even conspiring in an elaborate hoax: The Masked Marauders, a 1969 album released on the one-off label, Deity. Its creation followed a bogus review in Rolling Stone by then-staffer Greil Marcus under the name T.M. Christian. The album allegedly featured several Beatles, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, and "a drummer as yet unnamed."

It sold 40,000 copies and is now available from Rhino Handmade, a limited-edition, Internet-only arm of Rhino Records, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group. Which proves that rock 'n' roll – even fake rock 'n' roll – never dies.

Rock does, however, go corporate. "Exploding" traces the indisputable rise and murky fall of a key force in pop music: The Warner Music Group. It tells how the bean counters took over from the rapacious, creative types who pioneered pop and rock and soul. Exhilarating at first, fascinating by reason of the personalities and machinations it details, the book is fundamentally wistful.

It likely is all true, too. Cornyn and GQ-Rolling Stone editor Scanlon doubtless were subjected to due diligence by the sharpest-eyed legal eagles – not to mention cleared by Stone founder-editor Jann Wenner, who persuaded Cornyn to set it down, finally giving him breathing room to write an "unauthorized" account.

Third time's a charm

This is Cornyn's third attempt at a WBR biography and the first to see print. In the '60s, when WBR was flying high in more ways than one, he tried to write an "official" history but ran afoul of Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, who, like Wenner, is a major pop power. A second effort foundered in the late '90s.

Cornyn doesn't shy from controversy, citing rhythm 'n' blues artist Ruth Brown's attempts to recover royalties Atlantic should have paid her when she recorded for it. The label, duly credited as an R&B juggernaut in the '60s and '70s, never admitted to what various 1960s R&B artists termed "plantation accounting." Instead, it salved its conscience by contributing $1.5 million toward the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in Washington. Meanwhile, Ertegun, who signed (and reportedly cheated) Brown, soldiers on.

As does music released through the Warner Music Group. While they may not have the cachet they had before rock turned classic, Warner-affiliated records occasionally spark with individuality. Cornyn's cantankerous chronicle effectively and enthrallingly humanizes a business so big, you might overlook its personality.

• Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.

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