'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Run-Out Groove: Inside Capitol's 1980s Hits and Stiffs
Dave Morrell

16 May 2020

With its seductive siren song of fame, fun and fortune, the music industry seems like a wonderful world to be part of. But it's also a business, and for its employees that means a lot of hard work. As an experienced promotional representative for record labels, Dave Morrell was in contact with almost every part of the industry, from artists to radio stations to record stores. His fourth volume of memoirs, Run-Out Groove: Inside Capitol's 1980s Hits and Stiffs, covers a tumultuous decade in the industry, and shows how being inside that world can be exciting while also being exhausting and demoralizing.

Morrell started in the music business in the stockroom at Warner Brothers, and first worked as a promoter for that label in New York City. He moved over to RCA Records, and after a corporate shake-up, joined 20th Century Fox Records – just in time to shepherd the Star Wars theme up the pop charts – and then was hired by Arista Records.

In 1979, wearied by Arista's non-stop 24/7 demands, he was more than receptive when Capitol Records called to ask him to come to Los Angeles for a job interview. "On a cold winter day, to receive a call asking you to come out to California on a sunny day, and to walk into the home of Nat King Cole, where Sinatra and the Beach Boys recorded – it was so overwhelming. It was unbelievable."

Part of Morrell's interest in Capitol Records was that it was the Beatles' US label, and the label was on a hot commercial streak with acts like the Knack and Bob Seger. He said "yes" to Capitol's offer, moved to Los Angeles, and ended up staying at the company for ten years.

Morrell specialized in promoting Capitol's releases to FM radio stations, which occasionally caused internal conflicts when a record "broke big" in that market but didn't catch on anywhere else. "We could take something up the FM charts, and you could see the company getting revved up. But then they would think, let's get 100 adds [at AM stations] and it doesn't work that way. You can't just call it in."

Capitol's representatives also had to strategize when a record didn't take off as expected; one example was Crowded House's 1986 debut album. The band's primary songwriter, Neil Finn, had already had North American hits as part of Split Enz, and everyone at the label loved the band – "they were so funny, in the limo it would be like riding with the Marx Brothers" - but it took more than a few tries to get traction with the album. Morrell remembers that "when we took it to FM stations, we got love, but not enough right across America to jump on it."

The label then tried pitching the album to "alternative" radio stations, but that didn't work either. "And then we were losing our minds about what to do with this great album. We went to college stations, and that was really hard because there was a lot of turnover at those stations. Then we noticed that Simply Red, whose album had a similar vibe, was breaking in the adult alternative market. So we launched Crowded House at that market, and son of a gun, we were able to get up that chart. Then it crossed over to the other stations and brought that home for us."

But everything inside Capitol was not as cooperative. Some of the most astonishing parts of Run-Out Groove are Morrell's recreations of foaming-at-the-mouth expletive-laden conference calls with Capitol's sales executives. There was, he says, no such concept as a "toxic workplace" in the 1980s, and at the other labels where he had worked, "I would maybe hear from my boss once a year, and they never yelled". The corporate culture at Capitol was markedly different. One of Morrell's bosses got the nickname of "Cattle Prod" because he kept a cattle prod on his desk -- but, as it turned out, it wasn't a joke. That boss was later sued by an ex-employee who alleged that the executive had actually used the cattle prod on him.

While 1980s corporate culture might have accepted abusive tirades toward employees as an acceptable motivational technique (see James Foley's film adaptation of David Mamet's play, Glengarry Glen Ross, 1992), in retrospect, Morrell says, its main effect was to make the promotional staff feel "emotionally upset. Like any job, you put on a nice outfit, feel good about yourself, know that you're going to go out and play music for others. But think about it this way. You like a record, and you say to me, hey, I really like it. And I'd say, great! And then you get on a conference call and the boss could care less what you thought. Which hurts."

But Morrell also has happier memories of that decade. There were records from little-known artists that were delightful unexpected successes, like Katrina and the Waves' 'Walking on Sunshine': "I got the single in the mail, I didn't know who it was, I dropped the needle, and, man, I was dancing on the roof of my car! That was a one-listen hit." And then there were records that looked like winners but just didn't work out, such as Duane Eddy's eponymous 1987 album and Paul Shaffer's 1989 LP Coast to Coast. For Morrell, as a Beatles fan, the non-success of Paul McCartney's 'Spies Like Us' was particularly sad (although, he admits, "I've heard it a thousand times now but I can't remember how the song goes"). When asked if there was an unsuccessful record that he thinks should have been a massive hit, he immediately names Flesh for Lulu's Postcards From Paradise. "They were so into it, those kids, so animated, so much fun, and they were like the New York Dolls but with a melody."

Morrell left Capitol at the end of the 1980s, just as the industry was starting to undergo major technological changes, like the advent of email communication. He doesn't think these changes were necessarily for the better. With email, "there's no synergy between the two people, no inflection, no way to read it to see how it goes." But what really broke his heart is the industry's evolution away from the "camaraderie of Woodstock Nation" into corporatization and conformity. "Radio station managers have their marching orders now, and that's to run the station. There is no time in their day or week to spend any time talking to people about records." But technological change has also brought some improvements. Record stores, he observes, could be "culty and difficult", but now people who hear a song they like can go to YouTube or Spotify and discover a whole world of music that's new to them. "And that's a wonderful thing."

Now retired from the industry, Morrell still lives in Los Angeles and is working on the next volume of his memoirs.

Related Articles Around the Web





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.