Crazy Eddie and the art of INSAAAANE branding.

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So the “heritage beer” thing has had some pretty good success in the past ten or so years. The idea that the beer your grandfather drank being resurrected has sustained brands like Narragansett and Rheingold based on the ancient historical presence that lingered in the decades since the product was discontinued or disintegrated through horizontal takeover. In terms of stereo/hi-fi/appliance stores, there is one old heritage brand that stands out above all the rest (particularly in the greater NYC area and into CT and NJ). The notorious and yet still loved Crazy Eddie Audio Discounter chain spread at its peak to over forty stores across four states, and was best known for its memorable and outrageous advertising.  Otherwise, it was known for its brazen and almost absurdly criminal activities in fraud, deceptive business practices, creative accounting, and so on.  The internal soap opera is ongoing today thirty years later, but more on that later. Why do people still love Crazy Eddie?

Crazy Eddie is one reason why this endeavor was initially undertaken, the saving of retail price decals.  Seeing the distinctive decals for the first time on the extant shrinkwrap on an LP was a jolt of my childhood instantly, like a glass of nostalgia lemongrass.  Crazy Eddie was Eddie Antar and members of his family in real life, but most people believed that the hyperactive man in blazer and turtleneck on the TV adverts was Eddie.  It was actually WPIX radio DJ Jerry “Dr. Jerry” Carroll, a firm believer in old-time radio personality (read: loud and no lack of shtick).  There’s dozens of the television commercials on the internet (and reportedly many crazier ones that they could never air), but the actual Crazy Eddie allowed Carroll to do whatever he wanted for the commercials, which also aired on radio.  Let’s just say, the man went hard towards creating the brand, making sure it lived up to its name.  So intent on the company’s craziness they were, that they also offered a large selection of records and tapes (depending on location) called Crazy Eddie’s Record & Tape Asylum.  And this is why one can find these records heavily in the NYC area, but they pop up in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and parts of Massachusetts.  They vary a bit, as you can see, color relating to price or price code, with the priced decals the easiest to find.  I’ve found enough of these that I started making extras into magnets, passed around to friends that still remember (one of which proudly wears a vintage yellow Crazy Eddie mesh cap at record shows).  Incidentally, Crazy Eddie promotional merchandise was produced in mass quantities, with t-shirts, puzzles, wallets, and keychains all out there and popping up on Ebay regularly.

The internet has made notable additions to the Crazy Eddie legacy, the best of which was the Crazy Eddie Tribute Page from the Pocket Calculator Show collectors’ site.  From there, they launched an entire forum for Crazy Eddie, to which former employees flocked with their mixed opinions, personal stories, and updates on who was where and up to what.  So indelible was the personality of the stores, that some former employees not only still use the Syrian slang that the Antars turned into store code, but have taught it to their children.  The Wikipedia page is a great overview of the overall history, there is a Facebook group for former employees, and the criminal CFO cousin of Eddie Antar (who turned Eddie in) has dedicated his work towards teaching about fraudulent accounting at White Collar Fraud. Oh right, the story on the fraud…  Eddie Antar’s antics in business go back to his insistence on blocking the exit of his first store when someone attempted leaving without buying something.  He built the Crazy Eddie empire through the 1970s and 1980s, boasting such a unprecedented level of growth in discount electronics (and his ego) that he decided to go public in 1983.  It was enough of a brand identified with the New York City region of the 1980s, that you can experience the television commercials in the Tom Hanks film “Splash” (1984) and the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle “Easy Money” (1983).  The Crazy Eddie stores, with their garish yellow and black presence were so pervasive and the brand so publicly established that the stock market took notice, but the inside accounting was at that point far ahead of its time in deft manipulation of reality.  They kept opening stores and the growth they boasted was an enormous hoax.  Long before Enron, Crazy Eddie broke the law to such a degree that they funneled cash out of the country in suitcases regularly, while double-counting boxes in warehouses, repackaging and selling used merchandise as new, and pretty much reinventing the art of cheating the system.  The best telling of the story, complete with family drama told in riveting and exhaustive detail, is the entire chapter in the forensic accounting tome Frankensteins Of Fraud entitled “The Antar Complex.”  To put this into perspective, another chapter told the full story of Charles Ponzi and the Ponzi scheme .  The Antar family was criminal to a then-unheard of  degree and swindled investors and employees out of millions of dollars before a prolonged trial (and Eddie’s flight to hid out in Israel to evade prosecution), and resulted in numerous jail sentences.  The money was never totally recovered, and when Danny Devito consulted recently with Antar himself to write his film of this already cinematic story, the prosecutors of the early 1990s lawsuit came forward again to restrict Antar from allowing Devito’s  team access to information that had not been used in court.  There’s a LOT more to it, but the point is, the BRAND still persists, in the minds and nostalgized memories of thousands.  People still riff off the old Crazy Eddie commercials (reportedly based on electronics trendsetter “Madman” Muntz, and a routine still used by those in the field such as LA’s Crazy Gideon) and the t-shirts are so prolific they are basically their own segment of vintage collectible t-shirt. And then, there are the decals.

The Music Scene + cut-out stores

The Music Scene

The Music Scene, unknown location, any info on this shop out there?

Cut-out stores are a long gone part of the record business, one that I am just barely old enough to know much about. The process of remaindering music that did not sell at stores (it “remained” in other words) for decades included cutting a corner on the jacket* and wholesaling it out to closeout stores.  The process is similar to what happens in print and periodical media when the cover is removed or barcode cut off the cover of a release that is returned after not selling. So records that don’t sell get shifted over to stores that specifically sell off records at discount prices. In the days when records that weren’t saleable or were overproduced, this is where a lot of stock ended up, otherwise it was destroyed and/or used for recycled vinyl. The thing about cut-out stores is that many of the most collectible records historically ended up in the cut-out cycle. Late and lamented record dealer, DJ, and exotica specialist Matt “Head Burn” Grace regaled me with stories about such places, talking about the stacks of sealed records by The Stooges or myriad psych acts that he saw back in the 70s and early 80s. Think of an act that was “ahead of their time” and a commercial flop on a major label, and chances are their best chance at distribution back when was through a cut-out store, where perhaps one of the more eclectic shoppers figured buying a record by a band like The Dictators on Asylum was worth the risk at a discounted price. This is the kind of memory we’d like to hear more about, and The Music Scene makes me think it was one of these vinyl closeout palaces. We miss you Matt, RIP.

Why pay more, indeed.

*The “cut-out” itself could be a cut jacket corner, a drillhole in the jacket, or a sawmark notched into a jacket’s edge. This indelible marking was sometimes (usually later on chronologically) used to denote promotional records as well.

Welcome to Death Of Retail, where we mourn retail record stores (and perhaps hardware stores in the future) by celebrating their label art, signage, point-of-purchase, and other distinctive pieces of design that are either extinct or on the way there.

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Note in this image:

  • Skippy White’s (Boston), alive.
  • Boston Beat (Boston), dead.
  • Alwilk Music (New Jersey), dead.
  • Tower Records (chain), dead.
  • Dynamite Records (Northampton MA), dead.
  • HMV (international chain), dead in the US, on life support in the UK.  Poor Nipper.
  • Last Vestige (Albany NY), alive.
  • Stereo Jack’s (Cambridge MA), alive.
  • Deco Dance (Staten Island NY), dead.
  • RRRecords (Lowell MA), alive.
  • The Garment District’s downstairs record room [the silver barcode decal], store alive but record room gone.
  • Mystery Train (Gloucester MA), two locations alive, different owners, in Gloucester and Amherst MA.