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The reason Asylum records refused to release the Tom Waits classic 'Swordfishtrombones'


If you search through the vast tomes that have been written about Tom Waits, then one of the most recurring words in the glowing reams will no doubt be ‘singular’. From his voice fit for a whisky quaffing forest monster to the brilliant way he defies usual revered standards by perfectly pairing solemnity with high spirited humour, there ain’t many out there quite like Waits. 

That much was clear from the get-go. His early jazz club piano pieces seemed like the Humphrey Bogart figure perched on the edge of every dive bar had endured a Dr Frankenstein-style lobotomy and half of his brain was replaced by some crazed Tom Wolfe before he slumped down behind a drunken piano. In other words, Asylum knew what they were getting into when they signed him. However, things took a turn with Swordfishtrombones in 1983. 

As it turned out, prior to Waits presenting Swordfishtrombones to Asylum, a lot had changed for the star. He had just met his wife Kathleen Brennan while he was working on the Francis Ford Coppola film One From the Heart and she encouraged him to weave in all the elements he had always dreamed of using in the tapestry of his sound beforehand. 

For Waits, this meant he had to break from his long term producer Bones Howe. As the producer recalled: “He called me up and said, ‘Can we have a drink?’ He told me he realised one night that as he was writing a song, he found himself asking ‘If I write this, will Bones like it?’ I said to him that we were getting to be kind of like an old married couple. I said I don’t want to be the reason that an artist can’t create. It was time for him to find another producer. We shook hands and that was it. It was a great ride.”

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The resultant self-produced album was a smorgasbord musical influences and instrumentation. Cacophony created atmosphere like the chorus chatter of a bar had suddenly become orchestral. What had previously been a smoke-filled sonic plume of candlelight and moon basked backed alleys, was now a kaleidoscopic swirl of urban life in motion. It was terrific and is now rightfully regarded as such. 

However, at the time, Asylum were so shocked by the change that they failed to see the wood for the trees amid his new creative wilderness. Label President Joe Smith put it rather bluntly when he declared his reasons for refusing to publish the album. “With this record,” he said, “You will lose all your old fans and gain now new ones.”

They refused to budge on this opinion in the following months and remained steadfast in their opinion that the record was a disaster that would never sell. They offered very little in the way of explanation aside from the fact they hated it. It took Waits a year to pair up with the new independent label, Island. The rest, as they say, is ancient history.