Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Mr. A & Mr. M: The Story of A&M Records, on EPIX

Like it or not, A&M Records truly shaped the sound of the 1960s and 1970s. They were the record label home to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, the Carpenters, Captain & Tennille, Carole King, Sergio Mendes, and Burt Bacharach. They also signed 1980s-defining bands like the Police and the Go-Go’s. Even though they are no longer an active label, they have more than enough history to fill the two-part Mr. A & Mr. M: The Story of A&M Records, directed by Ryan Suffern, which premieres this Sunday on EPIX.

Herb Alpert was a scuffling musician when he founded Carnival Records over a hand-shake with Jerry Moss, a relatively green record promoter. Turns out the name was taken, so they simply dubbed themselves A&M. Musician-led labels historically had a hard time of it (arguably, Charles Mingus’s Debut was one of the most prolific at that point, which is saying something), but they had an early breakout hit with Alpert’s Mexican-flavored over-dubbed trumpet stylings on “The Lonely Bull,” which got them off and running.

Instead of talking heads, Suffern uses archival interviews and disembodied voices accompanying footage of the era to tell the labels history (employing the techniques seen in
Ailey and Billie). Ironically, the record label opened their studio complex on the grounds of the old Charlie Chaplin Studio, the one-time home of the silent star (but he did write the tune “Smile”).

Frustratingly, Suffern never discusses the years Creed Taylor’s CTI Records operated as an imprint at A&M. (There are entire art books dedicated to CTI covers, but the history of their association is admittedly complex.) Several important jazz artists are briefly referenced during the two-parter (including Gerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck), but the only jazz-related artist who gets any serious discussion is A&M’s first big, non-Alpert signing, Sergio Mendes, who came along just in time for the Bossa Nova explosion.

Of course, there is plenty of Sting, the Police, and the Go-Go’s. There is also good coverage of Peter Frampton, Joe Cocker, Styx, and Supertramp. The tragedy of the Carpenters is handled with sensitivity and might just lead to greater respect for the lite FM staples. However, the profile of Yusuf Islam (a.k.a. Cat Stevens) deceptively leads viewers to believe the public outrage at his endorsement of the Iranian Ayatollah’s death fatwa against Salman Rushdie was merely because of his conversion to Islam. We have to fact-check that one with a “pants on fire.”

That is a big truthy shortcoming, but it is still hard to beat the nostalgia of this kind of programming. Moss and Alpert (primarily seen and heard in a 2012 joint-interview) still had an easy-going rapport and it is always fun to see vintage records covers. Despite its oversights,
Mr. A & Mr. M is recommended for pop music/pop culture fans when it premieres this Sunday (12/5) on EPIX.