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A behind-the-scenes look at America's wackiest record label

Here’s the place where Gene Simmons, the Ramones, and William Shatner share shelf space

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Gene Simmons
Corbis Images

When Rhino Records started 21 years ago, no one took the company seriously — including founders Richard Foos and Harold Bronson. Pushing such goofy fare as an all-kazoo cover of Led Zeppelin’s ”Whole Lotta Love” and ”The World’s Worst Records” (which came with its own barf bag), the label could have been a one-note joke. But over the years Rhino earned respect for its hip compilations, which lured a wide (and weird) array of artists to its door. ”Some days you’ll have Johnny Ramone and Gordon Lightfoot in the office, or Gene Simmons and Pat Boone,” says VP David Dorn, whose job perks have included lunch with Mel Brooks and golfing with Alice Cooper. ”It runs the gamut from kitsch to legends.” EW Online took at look at the surreal and the sublime history of America’s weirdest record company.

Why it pays to be nice to the guys in shipping
Since all employees are welcome to pitch ideas, some hits have come from unexpected places. The ”Golden Throats” series, which features woefully bad songs from celebs like Leonard Nimoy, Telly Savalas, and Mae West, grew out of an employee battle in the shipping department. ”These two guys would bring in albums they found at flea markets trying to top each other for worst song, and we compiled it,” recalls Bronson. Though Foos says ”we like to think the songs are so bad they’re good,” stars who’ve been featured aren’t always so appreciative. ”I think William Shatner’s kind of on the fence,” says Bronson. ”You can tell he’s kind of uncomfortable with it, but it’s balanced for him by the ego recognition.” Uh, it must take a lot of ego to balance his woeful cover of ”Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”

How Rhino sank the ”Titanic”
Believe it or not, there’s one piece of the ”Titanic” fortune that James Cameron can’t lay claim to thanks to the King of the World’s own oversight. After musicologist Ian Whitcomb was hired by the filmmaker to dig up authentic tunes for the ”Titanic”’s on-screen orchestra, Cameron opted for music that wasn’t as historically accurate. ”Since he was angered that the filmmakers didn’t have respect for the original material, we got the project,” says Bronson. The result, ”Titanic: Music As Heard on the Fateful Voyage,” was not only a commercial hit but also a Grammy winner. Take that, Celine!

Why working with your idols isn’t always easy
Since Rhino often rereleases music from bands who’ve been broken up for years, or even decades, producers can find themselves in some sticky situations when old bandmates come together. ”Recently I had to deal with four of the Ramones, and there’s not a unanimity in that band,” says A&R exec Gary Stewart. ”I had to try to balance four different sets of opinions and attitudes.” But a case of the warm fuzzies ultimately got the better of the aging rockers. ”At the end, the gaps seemed to close,” says Stewart. ”Some of the people who hadn’t been talking started talking, and they did an in-store appearance together, which was the first time they had sat in a room together in four or five years.” Hey, punk icons have feelings too.

Why Rhino parties are more fun
Stewart remembers that after one particular Rhino Hanukkah party in the early days of the label, he was stuck performing janitorial service after the party wound down. ”There I was, picking up garbage in a three-piece suit,” he recalls. ”Andy Kaufman was there, and he had been challenged by this woman to wrestle. So he just went at it with this woman in the middle of the floor.” Though Kaufman won the brawl, he showed good sportsmanship. ”Afterwards, they sat and had a discussion about what she could do to improve and beat him next time.” Jim Carrey, are you listening?