Asylum Essentials: A Tribute to a Defining '70s Label

Asylum founder David Geffen
Photo Credit
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Although it began its existence relatively recently as labels go, Asylum Records is rightfully viewed as one of the most important and influential labels in rock history, and you can attribute that to two men: David Geffen and Elliot Roberts.

In the process of pitching Jackson Browne to Atlantic Records, Geffen met with failure but gained a valuable suggestion from Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun, who – upon being assured that he’d “make a lot of money” if he signed Browne – told Geffen, “You know what, David? I have a lot of money. Why don’t you start a record company? And then you’ll have a lot of money.” In turn, Ertegun and Geffen worked out a deal where Ertegun would put up the funds to start Asylum Records, Atlantic would distribute their product, and the profits would be split down the middle.

Looking at Asylum’s discography, you can see just how crucial the label proved to be in defining a great deal of the sound of the ‘ least in America, anyway. As such, we’ve put together a collection of 10 singles which served as some of Asylum’s key moments during their first decade of existence.

Judee Sill, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” (1971): They always say you never forget your first, so we’d absolutely be remiss if we didn’t include the first artist ever signed to Asylum. Sill – who got an early boost in profile by writing the song “Lady-O,” recorded by The Turtles – released two albums for the label and began a third before dying of a drug overdose, and while she was never massively popular from a commercial standpoint, she earned her place in history with her self-titled debut as well as its first single, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” produced by Graham Nash.

Jackson Browne, “Doctor My Eyes” (1972): Originally a far more bleak song, Browne’s first single was revised after its initial demo, with Browne dumping the more pessimistic lyrics and livening up the music. Mind you, the harmonies provided by David Crosby and Graham Nash helped a considerable amount on that front, too.

READ MORE: 'Saturate' the Market: On Jackson Browne's Debut

Jo Jo Gunne, “Run Run Run” (1972): Formed in Los Angeles in 1971 by former Spirit members Jay Ferguson (who later went on to have solo success with the 1978 single “Thunder Island") and Mark Andes, Jo Jo Gunne led off their self-titled debut album with this track, which – although it wasn’t a massive hit in America – actually climbed into the top 10 of the U.K. singles chart.

Eagles, “Take It Easy” (1972): Co-written by Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne, the former had begun composing the song in 1971 for his own debut album but couldn’t seem to bring it home to completion. Frey, one of Browne’s neighbors at the time, liked what he’d heard of the song and asked about its whereabouts, and Browne admitted that he hadn’t been able to come up with a line to follow “Well, I’m a-standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona.” In response, Frey offered up “It’s a girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me,” and a songwriting collaboration was born. Produced by Glyn Johns, “Take It Easy” features Frey on lead vocals, with both Randy Meisner and Don Henley providing harmonies for the second verse. Bernie Leadon offers up harmony vocals as well, but his most notable contributions to the song are with his lead guitar and double-time banjo playing. It all added up to a hit for the band, with the song climbing all the way to No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100.

READ MORE: June 1972: the Eagles (and Jackson Browne) "Take It Easy"

Tom Waits, “Martha” (1973): Over the years, Tom Waits has gotten a bad rap in the mainstream for his instantly-recognizable vocal style, one which some have described variously as being caused by too much whiskey, too much smoking, and possibly gargling with acid. Whatever you may think of his voice, however, there’s no question that the closest it’s ever been to a mainstream sound was when he first got started, and this track is one of the most beautiful things he’s ever written or sung.

READ MORE: Tom Waits Didn't Love the Eagles' Take on "Ol' 55"

Linda Ronstadt, “Love Has No Pride” (1973): While it’s easy to argue that the most memorable song from Ronstadt’s debut Asylum album remains her cover of the Eagles’ “Desperado,” this co-write by Eric Kaz and Libby Titus was the album’s first single as well as its most successful, climbing to No. 51 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hitting the top 10 on Canada’s easy listening chart.

READ MORE: The Lovely Linda: Our Favorite Linda Ronstadt Tracks

Joni Mitchell, “Help Me” (1974): Her highest-charting hit in both America and her native Canada, hitting No. 7 on the Hot 100 and #6 in the Great White North, this love song found Mitchell being backed by Tom Scott’s L.A. Express. If it’s not the perfect encapsulation of the Mitchell sound, it’s pretty close.

Bob Dylan, “On a Night Like This” (1974): After spending years on Columbia, this song was from Dylan’s only studio album for Asylum. Originally entitled Ceremonies of the Horsemen, a title change which caused a delay in release, Planet Waves hit No. 1 based on its advance sales alone, and this track gave him a minor hit single, hitting No. 44 on the Hot 100.

John Fogerty, “Rockin’ All Over the World” (1975): In the immediate wake of leaving Creedence Clearwater Revival in his rear view mirror, Fogerty released his debut solo album, The Blue Ridge Rangers, but since it was actually credited to the titular Rangers, it’s fair to say that his self-titled 1975 album for Asylum was his real solo debut, with this track kicking things off in spectacular fashion. Oddly enough, Fogerty’s version of the song wasn’t the biggest hit: his single hit No. 27 in America, but the cover by Status Quo hit No. 3 in the U.K. and was the band’s opening number – and the first song performed – at Live Aid.

Andrew Gold, “Lonely Boy” (1976): While we probably could’ve – and maybe even should’ve – gone with Gold’s “That’s Why I Love You” to close out this list, we went with a sentimental favorite that came out the following year, since it’s also his biggest chart hit, having climbed to No. 7 on the Hot 100. Additionally, Gold was also part of Linda Ronstadt’s band, so he was already part of the Asylum family before releasing his own album on the label, making his inclusion on this list a solid one no matter how you look at it.

READ MORE: Remembering Andrew Gold - A Pal and a Confidante

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