Known as "Chairman Thau" or "the Mighty Thau", the US rock entrepreneur and music producer Marty Thau played a pivotal role in the emergence of two of the most influential acts of the 1970s. He was the manager of punk pioneers the New York Dolls and the founder of Red Star Records, the independent label that launched the visionary electronic music duo Suicide.
While neither achieved chart success, both created templates for the emergence of subsequent popular genres. The Dolls' collision of girl-group pop and garage rock was picked up by the Ramones and Blondie, two new wave bands Thau helped bring to the mainstream, as well as the Sex Pistols, The Smiths and Guns N' Roses. The Dolls' glammed-up look also became de rigueur for the hair-metal stars of the '80s.
The groundbreaking Suicide might have attracted the opprobrium of Clash and Elvis Costello fans when they supported them in 1978, but the minimalist pairing of vocalist Alan Vega and keyboard-player Martin Rev inspired the many synth-pop duos of the early '80s as well as the industrial and indie strands – not to mention Bruce Springsteen, whose current High Hopes album includes a cover of Suicide's 1979 single "Dream Baby Dream".
Born in New York in 1938, Thau studied communications, art and marketing at NYU in the late 1950s before joining music industry bible Billboard, where he sold advertising. He had a spell managing Tony Orlando and was then hired as radio promotion executive by Neil Bogart at the Philadelphia-based Cameo-Parkway label. Thau tirelessly plugged "96 Tears" by Question Mark & the Mysterians all the way to the top of the US charts in October 1966 and followed Bogart to Buddah Records, where he promoted the bubblegum hits of the Ohio Express, the 1910 Fruitgum Company and the Lemon Pipers.
In 1970 he switched to the Inherit production company, picking "Crazy Love", the single that turned Van Morrison's Moondance into the singer's best-selling album, and working with John Cale and Miriam Makeba. After a frustrating spell at Paramount Records he happened upon the Dolls performing at the Mercer Arts Center in New York. "I didn't know if I thought they were the greatest group I'd ever seen or the worst group I'd ever seen," he later reflected.
With the help of booking agents David Krebs and Steve Leber, Thau masterminded the rise of the Dolls as one of the most talked about bands of 1972. In the autumn he brought them to London, where they opened for the Faces at Wembley Arena and were courted by various labels; but they lost drummer Billy Murcia, who drowned in a bathtub after passing out from an accidental overdose. This setback added to their notoriety; the Dolls signed to Mercury for a $25,000 advance and recorded two albums.
However, the drug-fuelled lifestyle of guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan made them a volatile combination, and Thau stopped managing them in 1975 when future Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren took over and had them wearing red leather and performing in front of the red flag. Thau had produced the Dolls demos – issued in 1981 as Lipstick Killers – The Mercer Street Sessions 1972 – and performed a similar task for the Ramones, who signed to Sire in 1975 on the strength of the recordings of "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" and "Judy Is a Punk", which he produced at 914 Sound in New York.
In 1976, Thau was again in the studio as his friends Richard Gottehrer and Craig Leon co-produced "X Offender", the debut single by Blondie. He helped the group get their original record deal with Private Stock, though they only found worldwide success after Chrysalis took over their contract the following year.
By then Thau had launched the Red Star imprint with the landmark eponymous debut by Suicide, which he co-produced with Leon. Making the most of the distribution deal he struck with Bronze in 1978, and an offer to play a science fiction festival in France, he brought Rev and Vega to Europe, where they faced a barrage of missiles – an axe was thrown in Glasgow – before winning round audiences and planting the seeds for ambient and trance.
Red Star also issued the garage rock classic "All Kindsa Girls" by Boston band the Real Kids – and a prescient Marty Thau Presents 2x5 compilation featured the Fleshtones, Comateens and the first recordings of Brian Setzer, later of Stray Cats, but then fronting Bloodless Pharaohs. Thau also worked with punk firebrand Richard Hell but missed out on the B-52s; he offered them an album deal when they just wanted to make a one-off single. In 1983 he launched the Acme Music Corporation and scored an underground dance hit with "Jam Hot" by Johnny Dynell, subsequently sampled by Norman Cook for the 1990 Beats International smash "Dub Be Good to Me".
"I place myself in [the] independent maverick category," said Thau, who revived Red Star for the digital age in 2009. He had recently completed an autobiography and died of complications from renal failure.
Marty Thau, manager, label owner and producer: born New York 7 December 1938; married (one daughter); died Petersburg, Virginia 13 February 2014.Reuse content