June 1 2016 11:40 AM

Former record store employee remembers the rise of the Verve Pipe

The Verve Pipe prepare for a show at East Lansing's WhereHouse Records in the early '90s.
Mary C. Cusack/City Pulse

In the 1990s, there was no job more awesome than working in a record store. Only a privileged few of us got to experience that awesomeness, while the rest of the plebeians wallowed in jealousy. Except for my dad, that is, who frequently reminded me that it “doesn’t take a degree in psychology to put a record in a bag.”

This wasn’t just any record store, though. This was the iconic WhereHouse Records in downtown East Lansing, the big store on the second floor at 515 E. Grand River Ave. In those crazy days, the store stayed open past midnight on new release days so that hundreds of MSU students could grab the new Pearl Jam album, run back to their dorms to listen to it all night — and likely sleep through their first class the next morning. We were the Ticketmaster masters, cranking out old-fashioned paper concert tickets faster than you can take a selfie. People would camp out on the concrete landing — often peeing in the stairwell in the middle of the night — just to get front row center for Phish.

Our store had a great stage and we hosted many local and national acts, including They Might Be Giants, Fat Amy, Jonathan Richman, Train and Goober & the Peas. (Jack White may have played drums with Goober & the Peas on that show, but no one remembers for sure. He wasn’t the Jack White back then. He wasn’t even the guy from the White Stripes yet. He was just a dude who sometimes played drums with Goober & the Peas.)

The Verve Pipe, of course, were practically regulars. (Thankfully, the one time that someone got electrocuted on stage, it wasn't Brian Vander Ark. That guy from Train would have been too short to play a rock star in “Rock Star.”) The band released its self-produced album, “I’ve Suffered a Head Injury,” in 1992, followed a year later by “Pop Smear.” They played every show they could get, building a following that drew the attention of the major labels. To be blunt, we sold the crap out of those albums, possibly more than any other store. We were Verve Pipe Central.

When the major labels started taking notice of the Verve Pipe, we fielded a few inquiries from A&R reps. One call came from RCA as the label was getting ready to seal the deal. I probably gushed a little too enthusiastically to be deemed credible, but I only told the truth — the band outsold many national acts in terms of units (industry jargon for CDs and cassettes) and “The Freshmen” was a sure-fire hit. The rep asked if they were easy to work with, I assume because no label wants to unknowingly sign a bunch of high maintenance prima donnas. I assured them that this was a bunch of sincere, hard-working Midwestern boys — and that they were pretty easy on the eyes, too.

After RCA signed the band and released “Villains,” the label called on a regular basis to track sales. The label released “Photograph” as the first single, and at the time I didn’t understand record company single-release strategy. “Photograph,” despite being a catchy track with a great video, wasn’t charting as high as I expected. I railed at the rep on the phone — and later in person — about how they should have released “The Freshmen” as the first single. I remember that the rep evaded my question in person, perhaps not wanting to reveal what is now an obvious strategy: Put out a strong track first to get the public’s interest, then follow up with the sure-fire hit. The strategy worked. “The Freshmen” was the second single and broke into the Billboard Top 10. It also opened the door to national television appearances.

One of the highlights of that era was our “Late Night with the Verve Pipe” party. In August of 1997 the band appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman.” We stayed open all night hosting a viewing party. We already had a mass of televisions, and we added a projector and big screen. The staff received special “Late Night” shirts that infringed all over the CBS copyright. Whatever, this was a big deal. Local boys made good and all of that. People packed every square inch of the floor, some staking their claim hours in advance just to share the communal experience of seeing “our band” on national television.

I’m not sure anyone would corroborate this now — the RCA rep swore me to secrecy at the time — but at one point the Verve Pipe was on the verge of being booked on Saturday Night Live. My understanding was that it fell through because the host, who turned out to be Pamela Anderson, wanted the Rollins Band. If I’m being completely honest, I wasn’t too upset. I crushed on Henry Rollins as much I as did Verve Pipe keyboardist Doug Corella. But the Verve Pipe would have probably sold more albums after the episode than Rollins Band. That guy just scares people.

It’s hard to put into words what it felt like to be peripherally involved in the success of a local band. The whole WhereHouse chain felt invested in the band. It felt like the sky was the limit, because we knew that the quality of the songwriting and performances were so strong. It helped that aside from snazzier clothes and frostier tips, the guys didn’t change. They stayed humble and gave us backstage passes to some of their big shows when they could.

In retrospect, considering the musical trends of the 1990s, the Verve Pipe may have been a bit ahead of their time. (I’ll remind you that the top hit of 1996 was “Macarena.”) The Verve Pipe’s solid power-pop sensibilities would fit in well today with groups like Coldaplay, X Ambassadors, and Imagine Dragons. Still, it’s quite a legacy to sell three million albums and have your hit frequently picked as a senior class song. Record stores might be almost extinct — stay strong R e c o r d Lounge and FBC! — but the view count for “The Freshman” on You- T u b e will continue to tick up. Its over 3.6 million today.

P.S. Donny Brown, did you ever find that Cheap Trick drum head you were gonna give me?

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