Library of Congress Releases Audio Archive of Interviews with Rock ‘n’ Roll Icons

Back in the mid-to-late 1980s, some of the fig­ures we con­sid­er Rock and Roll icons were near or at the nadir of their pop­u­lar­i­ty. With Duran Duran, The Police and Michael Jack­son at the top of the charts, artists like George Har­ri­son, Bob Dylan and even David Bowie had put out their last great records and were wait­ing for the nos­tal­gia wheel to turn.

Enter Joe Smith, record­ing indus­try exec­u­tive and for­mer disc jock­ey. Over two years in the late 80s, while pres­i­dent of Capi­tol Records/EMI, Smith record­ed near­ly 240 hours of inter­views with a cat­a­log of major musi­cal artists from Mick Jag­ger, Bowie and Paul McCart­ney to Yoko Ono, George Har­ri­son and Lin­da Ron­stadt.

Smith used excerpts of the inter­views for the book Off the Record, pub­lished in 1988. Now retired, he has donat­ed the archive of unedit­ed audio inter­views to the Library of Con­gress. The Joe Smith Col­lec­tion will fea­ture talks with more than 200 artists. As an indus­try insid­er Smith had extra­or­di­nary access. It’s not that these artists aren’t already heav­i­ly inter­viewed and doc­u­ment­ed. It’s the inti­mate tone of the con­ver­sa­tions that pleas­es and sur­pris­es.

In a leisure­ly con­ver­sa­tion with Smith, David Bowie (above) talks about tak­ing class­es from Peter Framp­ton’s father in art school. Yoko Ono, inter­viewed in late 1987, comes across as still liv­ing in the shad­ow of her late hus­band. By now, Ono has a big­ger rep­u­ta­tion as an artist in her own right. Lin­da Ron­stadt, who Smith signed to a record­ing con­tract, reflects on her years per­form­ing at L.A.’s Trou­ba­dour night­club dur­ing the rise of coun­try rock.

By now each of these super­stars has writ­ten his or her mem­oir and the gold­en era of major labels has been dis­sect­ed by musi­cal dig­gers. So lis­ten­ing to these inter­views from the 1980s takes on a nos­tal­gic feel of its own. Smith’s ques­tions sound naive now. Isn’t it amaz­ing, he remarks to the leg­endary pro­duc­er George Mar­tin, that the Bea­t­les were so heav­i­ly influ­enced by African-Amer­i­can blues?! It’s sweet to hear leg­endary artists and an indus­try insid­er stum­ble upon obser­va­tions like that one, which have now been so thor­ough­ly digest­ed.

Smith tran­si­tioned from broad­cast radio to record pro­mo­tions, even­tu­al­ly ris­ing to exec­u­tive ranks as pres­i­dent of Warn­er Broth­ers, Elektra/Asylum and Capi­tol Records/EMI. He signed the Grate­ful Dead, Jimi Hen­drix and Van Mor­ri­son, so it’s no sur­prise that Mick­ey Hart is inter­viewed, shar­ing an inti­mate sto­ry about his father.

So far, audio for only 25 inter­views is avail­able on the library’s site. More inter­views will be uploaded over time, includ­ing one with Smith him­self in which he talks dirt about his rela­tion­ship with for­mer busi­ness part­ner Frank Sina­tra.

Kate Rix writes about dig­i­tal media and edu­ca­tion. Read more of her work at and

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