Lookout! Records: 1987-2012

Lookout! Records, the California-based independent record label that helped usher in the modern era of pop punk as we know it via such bands as Green Day and the Queers, has closed down after twenty-five years of operation. Somewhere, the laces of an anonymous teenager’s black Converse high tops have become irreversibly knotted out of frustration and sadness.

Founded in 1987 by friends Larry Livermore and David Hayes, Lookout! Records quickly aligned itself with San Francisco’s East Bay punk clique by issuing discs from that scene’s giants (Crimpshrine, Operation Ivy, et al). The signing of a nascent trio named Green Day in 1988 would prove to the be label’s wisest business decision; when that group exploded onto MTV seven years later, their first two efforts for Lookout! became an unexpected revenue goldmine. Of course, by that time, Lookout! Records had also cemented its reputation as the underground’s premiere purveyor of pop punk, having released pivotal albums by such melodically-inclined outfits as Screeching Weasel, the Queers, and the Mr. T Experience.

Things behind the scenes at Lookout! were not always as upbeat as the records they pressed; a legal kerfuffle nearly broke out in the mid-’90s after Screeching Weasel front man Ben Foster began publicly taking Livermore’s business ethics to task RE: the group’s 60/40 contract (which in fact favored the band). At the brink of lawyering up, the label decided to simply re-sign Screeching Weasel to a contract where everything money-wise was clearly spelled out. Around the same time, Larry Livermore sold his stake in the company, although he would always remain the figure most closely associated with that iconic eyeball logo.

Livermore’s departure marked the beginning of Lookout!’s decline as new management had apparent difficulty handling monies. Dodgy bookkeeping was the complaint most often leveled at the label as one flagship act after another jumped from Lookout! to competitors such as Asian Man and Fat Wreck Chords. Such maneuvering always hurt, but no blow proved bigger than Green Day’s July 2005 decision to pull their first two albums from their former home over alleged unpaid royalties. Lookout! Records would never fully recover from the defection of their poster band (and only seven figure generator); just a year later, the label ceased issuing new releases to focus on selling their storied back catalog.

Lookout! Records was to me in the ’90s what Stax was to kids in the ’60s. It was just a goldmine for all who loved snot-nosed Ramonesy junk. They released the three best Queers albums (Beat Off, Love Songs For The Retarded, Don’t Back Down), the two best Screeching Weasel albums (Boogadaboogadaboogada!, Anthem For a New Tomorrow), every Donnas album I’m embarrassed I don’t own, the only Mr. T Experience album I wasn’t embarrassed to own (Everyone’s Entitled To Their Own Opinion), and the best-sounding thing Furious George ever recorded (the Goes Ape! EP). I can’t think of another record label I ever consciously, or even subconsciously, pledged my allegiance to like that.

That said, it would be a stretch to say it’s a shame Lookout! is finally folding after x amount of years. They had a nice little dynasty for probably three times longer than they thought they would. Also, if you’re sitting on two Green Day records and you still can’t manage to pay Pansy Division on time, well, your business license should probably be revoked anyway.

Then again, what do I know about running a record label? Diddly squat. I just snap up what they poop out. Who knows, maybe a couple of those Pansy Division albums cost several million clams to make.

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3 responses to “Lookout! Records: 1987-2012”

  1. ds says :

    Thanks for the backstory, I had no idea there was trouble in paradise for so long.

  2. Larry Livermore says :

    There wasn’t. The writer is misinformed. There was no problem with unpaid royalties prior to or during the Weasel events of 1996 and 1997. The issue was not that Screeching Weasel weren’t being paid – they were; every penny, and always on time – but that Ben Weasel wanted to tear up his contract in favor of a new one that would give him more money and more favorable terms than all the other bands. That’s what the legal battle was about. Go ask any of the other bands. Lookout paid its royalties like clockwork every three months; this was one of the reasons so many bands wanted to be on our label. In fact, we often paid our bands in advance if they needed money for touring or merchandise or living expenses; ironically, Screeching Weasel was the band that most frequently availed themselves of this privilege. Lookout, under its new owners, eventually did run into trouble keeping up with royalties, but not until many years later, largely as a result of some bad business decisions, one of those being the ever more hopeless attempt to placate the implacable Mr. Weasel.

  3. jamesgreenejr says :

    Okay, I double-checked my source on this (that lengthy East Bay Express article by Rob Harvilla) and I see how I worded things in a sentence or two there to make it sound like the label had royalty and/or bookkeeping issues before Larry departed. This was not apparently the case and I’ve reworked my original piece to reflect that. Apologies!

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