Since this site and all its sister sites, in their various incarnations, originated 15 years ago from an attempt to create a comprehensive Rock-O-Rama discography, I thought it fitting to write a column on the history of that label. This is done without any input from the label itself or anyone affiliated with it. This is purely from the perspective of someone who has been purchasing these records for over 25 years.
The story begins simply enough in 1980, Herbert Egoldt founded a small punk rock label in West Germany releasing records by some obscure German punk bands. The sleeves were often simple and economically produced. The recordings sounded like they were done on a shoestring budget, which was acceptable for punk rock at the time. The mixes were not always the best and it has been said that some of the bands were not happy with the end result. Regardless, these were examples of some of the earliest homegrown German punk rock bands, and for better or worse, these records stand as the only monument to the existence of some of these bands.
It should be noted here, that even back in the early days, Rock-O-Rama began doing something that would forever leave its mark on the collector market. Beginning on the back cover of the seventh release, a rather quaint album by a band called Cotzbrocken and again on the next release, a sampler LP titled Die Deutschen kommen, and then as an insert in future albums up until around 1990, images of the label's back catalog were displayed. This was not just an assortment of some of the newest titles, not simply a list of all the albums that had come before, but pictures of each record sleeve. The cover art on many of these releases was quite interesting too. While pictures of some plate-lipped women or a close up of Boris Karloff as The Mummy didn't really tell you much about the music, it piqued one's interest much more than a posed photo of the band or some cheap looking, DIY style, photocopied collage would do. All you had to do was stumble across one Rock-O-Rama Record, and there in front of you was something of a scavenger hunt list of other albums to track down.
The year 1983 brought about some changes for Rock-O-Rama. The Skeptix became the first non-German band on the label. Herbert licensed some albums from Finnish label Propaganda Records and introduced Finnish hardcore to new audiences. Seemingly unimportant at the time, but perhaps the earliest hint of things to come, the first Oi! record on the label was released. This album by Die Alliierten was not the type of Oi! for which Rock-O-Rama would later become infamous, as it included an anti-racism song, but perhaps this was the one that indicated to Herbert that there was money to be made from the skinheads.
1984 brought the next Oi! album from Combat 84, but this was not recorded for Rock-O-Rama, Herbert was sold the rights to the album by another label. It was the next two Oi! albums that really started the shift in the label's direction, those being the debut LPs from Böhse Onkelz and Body Checks. Neither band was right-wing, though they do get lumped in with right-wing bands, but these records, the Onkelz in particular, have to be the ones that made Herbert decide to cater to the skinheads. Soon after these were released, Herbert began to phase out the punk and Finnish hardcore bands, or at least had them relegated to one of the many side labels such as First Floor or Erazerhead. Rock-O-Rama then signed the British "White Noise" band Skrewdriver. This was truly where the label's infamy began. Other bands from this genre followed and in 1986 the last punk record was released on the main label. Rock-O-Rama was now a skinhead label.
While the music changed, the packaging remained modest. Occasionally there would be a more colorful album cover, even a couple gatefolds. However, most were rather basic. The inserts disappeared, replaced by a printed inner sleeve; eventually that went away too. The 7-inch singles were no longer released on the main label, but now as the "Street Rock'n'Roll" series. These all came in a generic company sleeve and later in plain white sleeves unless the band made their own sleeves for them. Most of these were album tracks, though there were a few exclusives. Even the newly introduced CD editions were very low budget, some with xerographically reduced versions of the LP artwork.
As the 1990s came around, Rock-O-Rama seemed intent on releasing as much skinhead music as possible for as cheaply as possible. While I am sure this was quite profitable for Herbert, all this activity soon attracted the attention of German authorities. Though there are varying reports on exactly how this all went down, it seems clear that around 1993, Rock-O-Rama was raided by the authorities. At this point, Rock-O-Rama ceased to exist as a label. Production stopped on vinyl LPs, and CDs were then issued under other label names, or sometimes no label name. Some were intentionally made to look like bootlegs, while others were given a nicer treatment and were released under such labels as B.H. Records and Walhalla Records. Eventually the Rock-O-Rama name began to appear on the CD packaging, but only as the name of the mailorder distributor on an advert that you had to open the CD case to see. Many of these alternate label names were used over the next 10 years. Sometimes an album would be released on more than one of these labels. Though with all these odd changes at Rock-O-Rama, the one thing that remained constant was the cheap packaging.
Some bands supplied their own artwork, usually the better known bands. A few of them even got a multi-page booklet. Unfortunately many were churned out by whatever passed for the Rock-O-Rama design team by simply taking some old photo or painting related to German history and slapping the band name and album title on top of it. By 1997 the disc layout was standardized to use the album cover art, printed in blue monochrome. This was done across all the different labels. If Herbert was trying to keep the label undetectable, this wasn't doing it. In fact, it seems like the trouble with the authorities continued, as in 1998, seemingly growing tired of losing inventory to confiscations, Herbert stopped having the discs pressed and started using the CD-R format.
Having all the discs in CD-R format has an interesting effect on their value in the collector market. While these deteriorate over time, eventually becoming worthless, and also being prone to error during duplication, these were produced in much smaller numbers than the pressed discs. Some of these discs now command a higher price than the pressed discs, especially if they were banned or if they were among the last produced before the label changed hands in 2005.
Rock-O-Rama continues under new management to this day. They even release new vinyl editions of some of the back catalog every so often, including albums that had not previously been released on vinyl. There have also been some rather nice CD editions, though most of the new CD releases are somewhat economically produced, but at least they are pressed discs. Unfortunately, the latest "pressings" of the back catalog are of an even lower quality than the original CD-R editions. The discs themselves are on a black CD-R with black printing on a white printing surface on top. This alone isn't so bad, as some of the earliest CD-R editions were in a similar format, the bad part is the packaging. The inlays are now done on a standard ink-jet printer, making it virtually impossible to tell a genuine Rock-O-Rama release from a counterfeit someone might produce in their own living room. It should be noted that these editions are not really valued at all among collectors so someone bothering to produce and sell counterfeits is highly unlikely.
For 35 years and counting, Rock-O-Rama has produced music of varying quality for its niche audience. The label has been in some part responsible for launching notable careers as well as exploiting bands who will forever remain in obscurity. Really, that's what this label is: an exploitation label. Herbert realized from the start, that if you slap a "punk" or "skinhead" label on a record, that people will buy it and you will at least recoup your investment, if not make it back ten-fold. Release enough of those records and eventually you will have a few classics that will provide you steady income for years to come. You don't have to like the music this label released, in fact most of it is not very good, but you almost have to admire the way a simple punk rock label run by an outsider to the punk scene was able to generate so much controversy and nurture one of the most infamous sub-genres of rock music to come out of the twentieth century.