Thursday, September 10, 2009

Barbi and the Kens

A very with-it friend of mine circulates an occasional email list with links to mp3s from bands he is hearing a lot. I will listen to anything once and, sadly, I usually do. One day the list included a cover of "Walk On By" by Richard X. When I listened to it I immediately noticed that the female coldly speaking the words sounded awfully similar to Deborah Evans - of course you all know she was one of the female singers in the Flying Lizards, right? I emailed him to ask if it was her (I didn't use to be the most proactive googler) and he said "No - couldn't be." Pleased, I sat expectantly at my computer. After about ten minutes, another email appeared. "Wow it is her. Weird. Wonder where he found her?"

Now, since I don't have the three or four days needed to properly cover the Flying Lizards, I'm instead going to go on and on mindlessly about a band (this word may be a bit of a stretch) that employed a similar approach but yielded much less output. In all likelihood this band was a studio project of Bobby Orlando, AKA Bobby O, who founded the thoughtfully named O Records. To say this guy had his hands in a lot of stuff is an understatement. My favorite achievement of his, other than this record, is his production of the original version of "West End Girls" by the Pet Shop Boys. Spectacular. But nothing of his can top the Barbi and the Kens record.

The cover is very nice. A very cold-looking woman in a very stylish-at-the-time sweater. I guess that's supposed to be Barbi? The back cover consists of a cast of names and credits that make little sense. This band had a drummer? OK - maybe on a couple songs. If their name is Barbi and the Kens why is there a guy named Klaus? Despite the long list of credited musicians, the record itself credits all the original songs to either "O" Music or Intersong Music. That plus a quick listen to this record will tell you all you need to know - Bobby O put together some stuff in his NYC apartment and got some girl to sing when he said to sing. And if anyone ever tells you how good this band was live I'd think twice about that loan they're about to ask for.

Everyone knows this band for the song "Just A Gigolo" - an original, not a cover. It was played on WLIR in New York throughout the early 80's and it showed up on some of those compilations of more obscure 80's songs. But there's four songs here so let's get to it. This is a weird example of a record where every song is better than the one before it. The two songs on the A-side, "Pay My Bills" and "Uptown Downtown Cruising" are decent, tight new wave songs. "Pay My Bills" is kind of lame though. "Uptown Downtown Cruising" is a better quirky new wave song that shows Bobby probably saw the B-52's a few times. Or at least heard "Rock Lobster". Also, both songs manage to sound alarmingly like the Flirts. Hmm - it says here on my Flirts records that Bobby Orlando wrote all their songs.

The B-side is where the money is on this record. "Just A Gigolo" leads off. Here's a link to someone's youtube link with the song. I know, that's a pretty low-rent way to get a song posted and I apologize if you thought this was some kind of upscale blog. Cool song and all. 80's hit. If you picked this record up expecting it to have an 80's hit and some filler (I'm raising my hand slowly...) you would be wrong. There is an essential new wave song on here and it's not the one on the compilations. "Not Your Steppin Stone" is indeed the Monkees cover. It's a good song to begin with but it is been drastically overhauled as if the instrumental half of the Flying Lizards had gotten an adrenaline shot while Deborah Evans went about her business as usual.

To be clear, ANY Barbi and the Kens record is a rare one but they were never worth a thing - no one cared. But, when the cool people elected to make synthesizers cool again, someone (not me) got smart and put an mp3 of this up on an ebay listing along with the words "minimal synth". $150 later it was its own mini-legend, with some people kicking themselves for not having picked up a few copies when they were free for the taking.

Here's a clip. Bobby O should really get the band back together.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

1+2 er... One Plus Two - Watercolor Haircut EP

As a young lad, I became aware of a band called REM. They had put out a record called "Murmur" and they were from somewhere called Athens. I was in 5th grade - what did I know? I read about them before I heard them. They were the champions of something called "College Radio" along with another band called the Replacements. As it turns out, there was a lot going on in a lot of places in 1983 and the South was one of them. One band that came out of this frenzy was One Plus Two.

One Plus Two (or 1 + 2 - even they couldn't seem to decide - see above) was from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Their self-released 7" EP, Watercolor Haircut, came out in the late summer or fall of 1984. They went on to produce a demo tape, a 12" EP and a full-length LP, both on Homestead Records, Gerald Cosloy's pre-Matador label. For the EP, the band consisted of Holden Richards (guitar), Maryclyde Bridgers (drums), Eric Peterson (bass) and Andy McMillan (vocals). After the Watercolor Haircut EP was recorded, Peterson left to join the dBs and McMillan started Snatches of Pink with Michael Rank. They were replaced by Susan Kent on guitar and Rob (not Rod) Stewart on bass. Of the 6 people involved, it seems like Holden Richards was the driving force in the band, mostly because all the songs are credited to him.

The record consists of 4 songs. All are great examples of the sound that defined this new genre of music. I haven't said the word "jangle" yet but it's going to be hard not to do it. "Look Away" has shades of REM, Let's Active and Guadalcanal Diary. "Much More" starts off in the same way as those bands but gets a little punchier in the chorus. Probably this was pretty good fun live. "Over You" is another good one. The production (by Eric Peterson the bassist and Wes Lachot, who now runs Overdub Lane Recording in Durham, North Carolina) is good, actually, but it makes me wonder what could have been if they had been thrown in the studio with more equipment and experience. The slightly muted sound is very much like REM's at the time. But there's some potential for some seriously shimmering guitar that didn't quite come out. The last song, "Pictures" is not bad, but for me it's a step below the other three. Not quite as developed maybe but still not bad. Truth be told, I love this record too much to say anything bad about it.

When I came across across a copy of the Watercolor Haircut EP it proved to be a great artifact of American College Radio. Not just because of the music either. The copy had been delivered by Holden to a magazine editor / reviewer / writer named Steve. Steve (unless Steve's no longer with us he's got no excuse for letting this out of his collection) was asked to listen to it, hopefully review it well and send a copy back to 1+2 so they could add it to their ever-expanding press kit. You're so interested by now that you're wondering what was in the press kit? Luckily, I have scanned in everything that was stuffed in with this record when I found it. I guess it proves that Steve got it a little bit later than some others.

At some point during their Homestead stint, IRS Records (naturally...) put them on the MTV show/commercial they had called The Cutting Edge. I don't know what happened but One Plus Two didn't make it like REM did. Or even Let's Active or Guadalcanal Diary. But for me, this record is a moment frozen in time. Googling "Watercolor Haircut" will get you back about 10 active, non-ebay, links. It's almost like this record didn't exist. But it certainly does.

Holden Richards is still active in music. He has a website here. It's late and the dog is wondering why I'm not tucking him into bed so you'll have to do the legwork on the rest of the band.

Someone was kind enough to rip the Homestead LP, Once In A Blue Moon.

Friday, September 4, 2009

As I Was Saying...

When I started writing this blog I didn't have some grand idea about what I was going to do with it. Without thinking too hard I guess the idea was to write about ignored music. I did a little bit of that. I also wrote a few things that served two purposes. First, I related a story with some oddballs acting oddly. Second, I managed to brag shamelessly about some items in my collection.

Did I mention these things are in my record collection? Have you seen this? Or this? I guess not. Good thing I showed you or you'd never get to see it...

As much as I'd love to go on and on with this stuff, I'd eventually run out. Not before finding some way to work this into conversation...

...and reminding you that Pete de Freitas wasn't in the band yet when they recorded this, their first single, so it's actually fully autographed. I'd also find a way to explain, slowly, for maximum effect, that I have something really, truly awesome. Like what? Oh like this...

You : "Wait a minute - everyone knows the uncompromising, critically worshiped and massively influential Mission of Burma made 5,000 copies of that record, half in the color sleeve and half in the black and white sleeve. Why makes you think I'm going to care?"

Me : "Oh, I'm sorry. I meant to show you the other side."

You : "Oh please - you've shown me so many autographs at this point I'm numb to them. Why couldn't he write in the middle of the big blank space? And this isn't too hard to get anyway - I saw Clint Conley autographing records for someone backstage in the Mission of Burma documentary film"

Me : "Funny you mention that - that was me and this is the record he was signing. But I really meant to show you the record itself..."

So now that you know about how this relationship would have gone, I think we can all see it's best to end it now. Seriously, does any more need to be said about a band like Mission of Burma or the Psychedelic Furs or REM? Starting tomorrow, since it's too late right now, I'll get back to the point and write about records that no one ever noticed. Well, almost no one. No more of this high-fiving myself about how cool I am for having something so cool that you could never be as cool as me...




because you didn't find something so, so, so cool

one day

around 15 years ago

in the dirty back room of a store in Nowhere, Connecticut

you didn't find anything as impossibly, unbelievably cool as this...

OK, sorry, I'll stop. Mostly. Maybe. First up is the Watercolor Haircut 7" EP by 1+2.

PS - that's cool as you think it is. A Joy Division test pressing with a handwritten note from their manager and an original sticker for the first album.

Stopping again. Good night.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Equipment Problems

I am not an autograph hound. I also don't collect test pressings. But if one comes around, I'm not likely to refuse. While this attitude may make my girlfriend uneasy, it is true that there is a strong correlation between my need for something and the unusualness of it. What I'm saying is that I, like any collector, will jump on a good opportunity even if it's not exactly what I'm into at the moment. I doubt this is helping the uneasiness.

Autograph hounds know what to do. They somehow get 8"x10" glossies and know where to wait to get them signed by the person in the picture. They have a Sharpie at all times. Those of us who are more casual about it don't have it down pat. If I think I'm going to be in a setting where I could pursue a particularly interesting autograph, I will come prepared. Record jacket (no record needed), cardboard mailer to carry and protect the record and a Sharpie. I can be just as prepared as the regular autograph people. There's just one thing I can't seem to master : How to remain unflustered when interfacing with the person. I have probably done this about 20 times total. Not counting signing events - these don't count as it's akin to fishing in a stocked pond - each time has gone about the same. I usually fumble around with my words, the record sleeve, and the Sharpie. It's a lot like how I would envision myself in a cash-for-sex situation : One party is not really interested and feeling a little invaded while the other is bumbling, ashamed and humiliated.

A few years ago I was invited by a friend to an art opening in Peekskill, New York. The artist was Richard Butler. He had apparently been trained as a painter from a young age. He was having his first opening at the age of 50 or so. Why the gap between his schooling and his first opening? He spent most of his life as the singer for the Psychedelic Furs. Sure, I like the Psychedelic Furs, but they were never my favorite band by any stretch. Didn't matter - this was an easy opportunity. I prepared myself by digging out a 7" sleeve that's pretty rare (Martin Hannett produced the B-side of the UK single), a Sharpie and some cardboard to protect it. No problem.

I met up with my friend and we went to the gallery with a group. My friend knows some people who know some more people and he was lucky enough to be on a distant-acquaintance basis with Richard Butler. Although I had a track record of choking badly, I was confident that the introduction and Richard Butler's diminished status due to the lack of activity in his music career would make for a smooth interaction. My friend introduced me, we all shook hands and the three of us started talking like old friends about the opening. Sounds good right? He kept talking. That voice is familiar, I thought. Uh oh. He sounds like that guy in the Psychedelic Furs. Then it hit home. My mind raced. This man's voice had been part of the soundtrack of my life since I was in elementary school. This is the man who sang "Love My Way", which was integral to a key scene in Valley Girl. After my brother's wedding in 1987, I sat on the floor in the hotel with some other kids and watched videos all night. "Heaven" was one. This is the man who sang "Pretty In Pink". John Hughes named one of his films after a song this man sung. This man, standing in front of me in Peekskill, New York, was part of the fabric of my existence. As this realization came crashing down on me, my friend did me a favor and told him I had brought something for him to sign. I clammed up and started scrambling to find the Sharpie. I found it, opened it, and handed it to him with the sleeve. He happily went about signing it. Here's the results.

Not so good huh? That's because I opened the thin side of the Sharpie. I realized it as he was writing. Feeling like an idiot, I thanked him and shrank away. After all this planning I had blown it. I had completely underestimated his impact on my life. He and his band meant a lot to me and it had completely snuck up on me.

I struggled for several minutes with the idea of re-approaching him, solo this time since my friend was off talking to someone else, and getting him to re-do his John Hancock. How pathetic is this? Not pathetic enough, I guess, since I soon had enough Diet Coke in me to make my move. I got over to him and he had a very different look on his face. "You want me to do that again?" He looked more than a little uninterested and plenty invaded. I was holding up my end of this awful interaction by feeling completely ashamed. The incredible tension was broken by the gallery agent came up to him. My friend had bought a painting - the first one to sell. Turns out a little cash helps everyone get what they want.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Changing Criteria

One question I get from the back seat on an almost daily basis is this : "What is your favorite song?" Tough question. I prefer the just-as-frequent discussions about my favorite color. That's blue. The answer to the inevitable follow-up, "why?", is "just because". End of discussion. So easy. Favorite song is impossible for too many obvious reasons to list. So here's a question worth some time : "What's your favorite record?"

A lot goes into what makes a great record to someone like me. Here's three records that are unquestionably great.

The Dils were a punk band from California. They put out not one, but two 7"s in 1977. The first was on What? Records. The second on Dangerhouse Records. The one above is the second. No titles, no sexy pictures to draw you in. Just a statement that sums up punk very succinctly. It's not important what the Dils look like. It's not important what the song titles are. If you buy this record, you will get two songs averaging 1 minute 39 seconds. There is no disco, no boring rock, no AM radio tripe. The songs : "Class War" & "Mr. Big".

Hey Mr. Big - you look so big to others. Hey Mr. Big - well I can see you're nothing.


This is a split release on the Matt Label and Land Speed Records from 1993. Small 23 were from Chapel Hill, NC. They were part of the scene that spawned Superchunk, Portastatic, Merge Records and much more. Small 23 included a young Eric Bachmann, who later went on to Archers of Loaf and Crooked Fingers. What's so good about this record? Great, non-retro, punk with hints of Superchunk, Husker Du and Dinosaur Jr. It took two labels to bring you this record. The two songs were recorded in two different recording sessions. The front and back cover have pictures of two different children sloppily eating spaghetti. Prior to this record they were called simply "Small". So, perhaps in some quest to improve their odds, they added the "23". They did it carefully, scrawling it by hand under the nicely printed "SMALL". They forgot to make the same adjustment to the back cover or either label on the record. Oh well. It's so good, I have two copies of it, just in case.

Hands down one of the greatest records ever made. Punk music is great, at times, because the bands truly have no intention (or prayer, for that matter) of commercial success. Nothing about this record could have helped them achieve any kind of commercial success or acceptance. Every last thing is incredible. The band's name is "Pink Dirt". A song called "Hooker". Did I mention it's from Norway? 1979? If you're thinking my copy is somehow missing its picture sleeve, you're wrong. This is it. They decided it would be best to just (carefully, as you can see) write the band name and song titles on white paper sleeves. In keeping with this approach, the band also decided to pass on printed labels and just write the letter "A" on side A and the letter "B" on side B. The music is driving punk, half derived from the British and half its own. The thing completely falls apart at one point and the singer gives you some thoughts on a popular religion. Radio ready stuff. Somehow someone stuck a name, address and phone number of a distribution company on the sleeve. This record is everything that makes punk great. A group of kids in Norway in 1979 decided the world needed this record in it, that they needed to be heard. And you should thank your maker that they did.

The three records above have their own charms and have their place in a discussion of great records. They would never win. Not when things like this exist.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Habit Forming Behavior

Some people commonly refer to record collectors as “addicts” as though we have something in common with substance abusers. At least I can take comfort that I have yet to see anyone apply the non-suffix “oholic” to the word “record”. Still, the implication of the word “addict” is clear. As much as many record collectors would dispute the similarities of drug addiction with their habit, there is a tendency we share with those who develop serious substance problems. At some point it starts to make a lot of sense to begin buying large groups of records and reselling them off individually in order to finance the pursuit of the few that are really needed. Sound familiar? Thankfully, while it can earn one the label “record scum”, this practice is not frowned upon by police. Aside from the same overall business model as drug dealing, there is another similarity : You can meet some truly fascinating people when you transact business. Since the re-distribution of records is not illegal, this typically occurs on ebay – an almost anonymous forum. That leaves most of the human interaction to the other side of the equation - the supply side.

One way to buy record collections is by looking on craigslist for people selling their collections along with other stuff they never use anymore. This usually amounts to someone who wants a dollar each or to sell the whole mess for a single price. My approach is to make sure it’s somewhere around 50 cents to a dollar a record, that they’re in decent condition and that there are minimal Broadway soundtrack or classical records. As long as it’s decent condition rock or jazz you can usually turn it around on ebay and make money on volume. And if you’re lucky you can get some good stuff that brings a bit more. I email the lister, ask a few questions and, assuming it looks good, set up a time and place to make the drop. I mean deal. I mean exchange.

Recently, I looked through some ads and came across and interesting one. What happened is a strange incidence of worlds colliding. The ad looked like this :

“100 records for sale – Beatles, Kinks, more - $1 each”

I emailed the poster and went about my business. I didn’t get a response so I figured someone else had made off with the stuff. Beatles records don’t last long. I was surprised to hear back from the guy about a week later, saying he had “just gotten to check his email” and to call him if I was still interested. I called him right away. He told me the records were in great shape and that he could meet that night. I got the address and made the drive to his house around 8PM.

No matter the condition of the home, I usually have a variation of the same thought as I walk into a stranger’s house with some cash to buy their records. I ponder what it’s going to be like for the police when they are trying to find my body or what’s left of it. They will see the email thread in my recent messages. The email address on the other end will be closed and will have been last accessed from some Apple store in a mall where thousands of people use the computers. The address will turn out to be the home of someone who was out of town when this whole thing went down. There will be no clues to the identity of the person who lured me to this home. This hasn’t happened yet. I suppose I won’t be able to let you know when it does either.

Anyway, the house was a nice, well-kept home on a residential street. There was a man standing in the front yard talking on a cell phone. He was about 40, dressed in slacks and a white shirt. I noticed that he appeared to be an Orthodox Jew. He looked at me and waved me to the house. Without saying a word to me, he led me into a mostly dark house and up the steps. We pointed in the direction of some records on the floor and walked into the next room. As I squatted down to pick through the records I looked around the room and thought for a moment that the decorating taste seemed a bit dated for someone his age. No matter – I forgot this as I started to look at the records. Some good stuff. Nothing great but good condition first pressings of the first two Elvis LPs, several nice condition later pressing Beatles LPs and some other common classic rock mixed in with some show tunes and junk. I have to admit I was a bit surprised to find rock and roll records in the home of an Orthodox Jew. I assumed their faith would have led them away from this kind of music. I only paid this a moment’s thought until I came across this :

Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables : the first LP from the Dead Kennedys. The record that single-handedly altered my musical taste and opened the door to another world. An early 80’s issue of Star Hits magazine included a quote from a pop star explaining that he didn’t understand why some people feel you “need to be covered in vomit” to play music and cited the Dead Kennedys as an example. I saved my allowance, bought a copy of this record and my life was literally changed overnight. But now the question loomed even larger : What is this doing in the home of an Orthodox Jew? More punk records followed – Cockney Rejects, GBH, Devo, Circle Jerks, Gang of Four.

As this was being uncovered in one room, I became aware of the man’s ongoing phone conversation. He was talking loudly now, not seeming to notice or care that I was within earshot. He was talking to a woman, explaining that he had no reason to live. He had lost his career, he was unable to see his children, he was massively in debt – “and everything else”. He explained that the “witch” had tricked him and that he was ruined because of it. I started to feel some sympathy. Then he said the magic three letters : “T-R-O”. Anyone who has been through a particularly nasty dissolution knows these letters. Temporary Restraining Order. She had tricked him into violating one and his life had spiraled downhill ever since. I felt sorry for him now. He went on for a bit longer while I sorted out the records I wanted.

He hung up and came into the room. It was very awkward as we both knew I had heard every word of his conversation. I clumsily said something like “I couldn’t help to overhear your conversation – sorry to hear that’s going on”. I let him know I had some firsthand experience on a similar situation and he looked relieved. He sat down and immediately opened up to me. He explained that when he and his wife (the “witch”) were getting divorced she filed a temporary restraining order against him because she wanted the house to herself even though he was living in the basement and didn’t cross paths with her. The TRO was granted (they have to be), he moved to a friend’s home and a deal was worked out so he could have visitation with his children from Friday to Sunday. Here’s where it gets interesting. “The witch – she, she put this thing in the visitation order that said I couldn’t approach the house on foot. And Friday is the Sabbath so, you know, I can’t drive. That witch.” So the guy decides to walk to what he thought was 500 feet from the house and wait for his kids. Turns out he misjudged the distance and the police showed up and threw him in jail for a couple days for violation of a restraining order. Wow.

I thought this was pretty awful. What a witch. But we’re just getting started with this one. He tells me that since he violated the TRO it became a full-on RO. Nothing temporary about it. Then he blurts out : “ I just got out of jail THIS MORNING.” Now my mind is racing in different directions. With one thought I deduce that the reason he had “just gotten to check his email” is because they don’t have an internet connection in the slam. With another thought I fleetingly think this could be the day I don’t make it out of the stranger’s house alive. I foolishly assume that this restraining order violation is the reason he was in jail earlier today. Not so fast. He says he was in jail today on “some child support thing”. Then he clarifies, “I owe $2,500 but they think I owe $25,000”. I mumble something about such a huge discrepancy being hard to understand and he clarifies for me :

“Well I actually do owe $25,000 but I don’t have to pay it yet. If you don’t have any means of income you can get a payment extension. And I was in PRISON for EIGHT MONTHS in the Tombs in Chinatown so I couldn’t work.”

Oh. Now I understand. Thanks for helping un-confuse me.

He continues. “I got behind in child support because of my legal bills. So I committed a crime to try to make ends meet.” Oh please tell me what crime. “I started dealing ecstasy.”

This is as good a time as any to remind you about something : Orthodox Jew.

He then explains that he’s a lawyer. “Was a lawyer”, he clarifies. Felony conviction = automatic disbarment. He can’t work in the only field he has ever known. He used to work at *******, one of the highest end law firms in New York City. He explains that if anyone should be disbarred it’s the guy who runs the place, since he’s got deep ties to the mob. He says he only sold to people at his office (who says lawyers are no fun?) until one of them set him up with a “friend”. The friend turned out to be the heat, the fuzz, the law as they say. Oops.

When charges were filed he found out that, because of the witch and her restraining orders, he wouldn’t get a suspended sentence and would serve prison time. He cut a plea deal that specified he serve his time in the Chinatown prison rather than one upstate. He made it very clear that he was an experienced lawyer who had had lots of clients. It was very important to him that he not be sent to ANY of the prisons upstate. Certain things happen there that do not happen in Chinatown. He said he is very happy he did not go upstate. Sensing that we were now pretty close friends, I asked “How was it?” He said it was not bad. The food wasn’t too bad either. I asked him what he did and if he did a lot of reading since this is always what I envision myself doing when I eventually go to prison. “I did a lot of reading,” he said. “Tons of reading.” Then he went on to say he was eligible for parole after three months but decided to stay for the full term. I had to ask why. He said that, since he was disbarred and didn’t have a plan for how to make money when he got out, he would stay in until he had a plan. It didn’t seem like he was any closer to having that plan in place since I’m currently his only means of income.

This went on for a while. He received a few phone calls from someone who I could hear moving around in the living room downstairs. By this point the whole night was so bizarre I didn’t think twice and asked him if he wanted to talk softer so the person downstairs wouldn’t hear. He was very frank, “That’s my mom – she’s deaf so we can say whatever we want.”

Eventually we got to the records. He pulled out the Gang of Four record (Entertainment! mind you) and said “This band was incredible. This is their best record. I saw them at Irving Plaza.” He got to the Circle Jerks record. “I saw these guys in Stamford.” Turns out he had seen a lot of the local punk bands in the 80s. Dead Kennedys. “My favorite hardcore band. I know I look like an Orthodox Jew. I mean, I am an Orthodox Jew. But this stuff is awesome to anyone.”

$40 later and I made it out alive. I wished him luck. He needs it.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Tam Box?

As I made the gradual transition from "music fan" to "record collector" my criteria for purchasing one item or another changed dramatically. Over time I became far more interested in buying music I had never heard (or even heard of) than music with which I was familiar. To apply this pattern when shopping for other things would likely make your friends very inquisitive. I know this from experience - I am guilty myself. One example would be when when my friend showed up in her brand new car - a "Kia". I was amazed. She was not poor, nor stupid. Yet when faced with buying a new car and given all the familiar choices (Toyota, Honda, Ford etc etc) it seemed she had actually sought out a mystery car maker. As much as I mercilessly made fun of her for this, I was slowly adopting the same approach to shopping for records.

I was seeking obscure punk records made between 1977 and 1983. You either have to seriously know your stuff or go with the information you have - which boils down to what you can discern from what you are holding in your grubby hands. And by the way, "seriously knowing your stuff" entails knowing the origin, appearance, pressing size and other details of literally thousands of records. In 2009 there are a lot of us who can do it. But in 1995 it was not like this for me. I learned to look at certain factors to make a decision.

1) Year made. The closer to 1977 the better. 1984 or later, beware.
2) Label. No major labels.
3) # of songs. The more the better. Short songs = punk rock.
4) No remixes, alternate versions or dubs
5) How "punk" it looks - especially if the band is pictured
6) Guitar, bass & drums only is best. Keyboards/horns - proceed with caution

Carefully observing these guidelines will save you a lot of money and space. It doesn't guarantee punk records since a lot of powerpop will slip in. Now, powerpop is a genre some punk collectors despise but since there are plenty of powerpop collectors out there, those records are still worth having to trade for better things. I got to the point where I could go through a pile of records that no one, including me, had heard of and pull out a bunch of decent records just by keeping these rules in mind. I realized how important it was to be vigilant about this. When you get lazy (and it happpens) you wind up with records you can't give away unless you can get some other idiot to buy the thing for the same reasons you picked it up. The word guideline is not being used carelessly. Despite all best efforts, sometimes you just get a dud. See below...

Case Study
I was in a record store in the East Village around 1999. I come across a total mystery. It is below (front and back covers)

OK so where do we stand with our rules?

1. Year made. I didn't scan the record but it was made in 1980. In NORWAY. 1980 in the US or the UK was not as special - but NORWAY for gosh sakes. Angry, drunk, freezing people make for great angst. A very big check mark for rule #1.

2. Label. "Strawberry". Not a major label - but a bad, sissy name. Hmmm.

3. # of songs. Two. The minimum. Not looking good.

4. Remixes etc. None. Little better.

5. How "punk" it looks. Off the charts. A drawing of an extended middle finger on the front. Singer in a punk-ish looking shirt and leopard print pants. Guitarist in the background in leather. Punks these days have a uniform. Back then they had no clue so the best approach was to look as offensively stupid as possible with whatever you could get from around your house or the local thrift shop. Great. And who in the world would put a drawing of the finger on the cover of their record unless they have foregone all hopes of commercial success. This record scored strongly in this category.

6. Instruments. Obvious red flag is the keyboard. No horns though.

The price was $3. I bought it and got it home. The record is horrific white-boy reggae. Turns out there was a mini-wave of white reggae in Scandinavia in the early 1980's. Who knew? I've been trying to trade it for 10 years. The joke is on me - everyone knows it's garbage. I was the one who didn't know it. Where did I go wrong? Here's a some things I didn't notice.

1. Stupid song titles - but not punk at all.
2. Typed letters - no band-member printing.
3. The keyboardist is listed first - bad bad bad.
4. 2 guitarists. Not a lot of punk bands needed a second guitarist. The Clash did. Black Flag had one for a bit. So did Minor Threat. But they never had a keyboardist. I should have known.

Live and learn.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wine and Cheese

A common topic for authors, songwriters, screenwriters, etc. is the combination of two unrelated things bringing about a great, unexpected result. This is one of those. What you see above is quite possibly Ground Zero for the "college radio / alternative rock" movement. As with the ever-popular "who was the first punk band" discussion, this statement might generate a lengthy, passionate debate. So, in the interests of time, I'm going to apologize to Replacements fans right now. And that's enough from you, Thurston Moore. What you see above is a test pressing of Murmur, the first album by REM. This is, like it or not, a record that changed the course of things. It is a relic from a moment just before the music industry realized it needed to pay attention to places never heard from before. It is a combination of two unrelated things that brought this relic to me. Well in this case it was two things that are commonly lumped together, operating independently.

Cheese. Summer 1991. I am working in a store called "The Cheese Shop". I took this job because my friend was working there and they needed an extra hand. I thought it would be great to have a friend to work with. The hateful witch that ran the place thought otherwise and carefully scheduled us so we literally never laid eyes on each other in the workplace. The job was awful. Gourmet food preparation. The overpriced soup was really Heinz out of gallon-sized cans. The warm bagels were brought in cardboard boxes from some warehouse and heated in an oven. It didn't actually SAY they were made there but everything about the place led the customers to think they were. Needless to say, we were allowed to eat as much soup and as many bagels as we wanted. Don't touch the cheese though. DO NOT TOUCH THE CHEESE! I just wanted to know what it tasted like - please don't hit me Ms. Witch! Anyhow, every Friday at around 6:00 PM, Ms. Witch would pay me in cash. The highway home at that time was always jammed up so it only made sense to head down the road a mile or so to the local used record store.

Wine. There aren't a lot of careers that actually encourage drinking on the job but running a filthy used record store may be one of them. The gentleman who ran this particular store was typically in a pretty unpredictable state by the early evening. I had ingratiated myself to this man by driving him home a few times when it was raining at closing time and getting behind the wheel would have been an unwise move for him. With this in mind, I had learned to time my arrival to get the most for my money. On one muggy Friday evening during the summer of 1991, I drove to the store, cash in hand, hoping to catch my prey. I walked in and the conditions were perfect.

1) Empty bottle of wine on the counter
2) Second bottle of wine almost empty next to it
3) 1 glass
4) He's holding it

Yes! All I needed to do was make some small talk, refuse a few drinks and start the negotiation process. You see, I had already found the REM test pressing a few weeks prior to this. The problem was that I found it at noon on a weekday and he was as sharp as a tack. He told me it was going to cost me a lot. How much? A lot. "I can't even sell it to you it's going to be so much." So I put the record back, Well, not back where I found it. I put it somewhere else in the store, behind some junk, knowing I needed the right circumstances to get him to part with it. So in I walk. We say hello. He offers me some wine and then realizes he's got none left to offer anyhow. He tells me I need to listen to more Radio Birdman or Cramps or whatever he was always pushing. Someone else walks in and he turns his attention to them. I head to my hiding spot and pull out the record. I grab a couple other items, stick the prize item in between them and head to the functioning alcoholic / proprietor to get a price for them all. Nothing in the store was ever priced. Prices were decided at the moment of truth. When he gets to the test pressing he looks at it and says exactly what I wanted to hear :

"Don't you want one with a cover?"


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Our Daughter's Wedding

A few weeks back I committed a serious faux pas on the record collector circuit. I was participating in a Saturday morning in spring tradition - arriving first at a tag sale to get a look at the records. This guy had posted on craigslist something like "thousands of records for sale". I was not the only one to see this posting. There were about 5 other people there. The 5 of us are squatting, going through records in crates on the driveway. OK stuff but nothing great. The best thing there was a german pressing of a Kraftwerk 12" but otherwise it was mostly classic rock mixed in with some basic new wave and 80's junk. The dynamic at these things is very odd. Obviously we all have something in common because of what we're doing with our Saturday morning. At the same time we all are angling to see what the others have and if they're passing anything over out of ignorance, stupidity or poor taste. A little like the uneasy alliance with the Russians during World War II. Yes, we're on the same side, but what exactly are you doing over there?

So here's how I got into trouble. I look over and see a guy pull out a copy of the 1982 LP "Moving Windows" by Our Daughter's Wedding. I think for a second (obviously not about how to use my manners) and say, "That's a disappointment waiting to happen." The guy looks over and says "Huh?" I still haven't realized I am in the wrong. I go on to explain that the record is horrible garbage and, to back up my claim by displaying knowledge about the band, "don't expect a second 'Lawnchairs'." That was the end of the exchange. Seems like I'm just helping out a comrade? Wrong. After the guy puts it back in the crate, officially passing on it, I catch a glimpse of the guy running the tag sale. He's giving me a disapproving look. Now I realize it - I have cost him a sale. Even if it was a record in the $2 crate, it was still a sale. And I can sense by looking at this guy that he knows, from the same experience as me, that this record is hard to give away, let alone sell for money. He was on the brink of a major achievement - selling an Our Daughter's Wedding record that DOES NOT contain "Lawnchairs" - and I had cost him this glory with my untimely advice. I felt horrible. My total was $36. He did not round down to $35 even though he had to ask his wife for four singles to make change. I left in shame.

I got to thinking about this and realized that, while I can't fix what I did, my opinion of the record may have changed so it was time to listen to it for the first time since 1991. Perhaps doubling my time on this earth since the last time I heard it would change my perspective. So I have spent my evening listening to "Moving Pictures" by Our Daughter's Wedding. Here's my track by track review.

A1 : Auto Music : Some serious sequenced bass on this one. Pretty solid new wave song. No "Lawnchairs" though. This was one of the singles on the album.

A2 : She Was Someone : "...not just a girlfriend." Yuck. Not only is this no "Lawnchairs", it's no "Auto Music" either. Horrific new wave.

A3 : Elevate Her : This was also a single. Also pretty solid. The 12" of this is actually good. Yes, I have that too. In fact, I have everything this band ever recorded. Still no "Lawnchairs".

A4 : Track Me Down : Bad song. Braying, sassy vocals.

A5 : Daddy's Slave : Very minimal. The singing sounds like a bizarre hybrid of Was (Not Was) and Rick James. I love Rick James but this is not a good thing.

A6 : Longitude 60 : They trade vocals here. One guy intones "Longitude 60" or "Parallel 10" while the braying, sassy guy goes on about something.

B1 : Love Machine : "We could be a love machine". I hate to go back to Rick James here, but the music sounds like a lost Mary Jane Girls song. The thing is, if Rick James came up to you and said "we could be a love machine", you'd probably believe him. This guy is somehow less convincing.

B2 : Always Be True : "Don't ask any questions or tell any lies...tell any lies". The chorus is pretty good and it's got a good driving beat. And Mr. Sassy keeps it in check. Not bad. But still no "Lawnchairs".

B3 : Moving Windows : The title track. "They're looking in, giving me grins, sending me gestures and waves." Not a good song. Someone needs to tell Mr. Sassy that the words "night", "right" and "light" only have one syllable. "Rah-ah-height"

B4 : Paris : Starts like a nice slower OMD song and then the guy starts talking. "What I see, I like to touch. What I touch, I like to feel." "It's been great, it's our first date." Oof.

B5 : Buildings : With what's come before this song, no one could have expected this. This song was also released as a single. Offbeat, totally unobvious and suddenly it just takes off and turns into a truly great new wave song. Where did this come from? On their last shot, they actually may have topped "Lawnchairs".

They sign off the album with a synthisized voice thanking "the people who were on 84th street on the night of May 21st, 1982". What kind of party was this? I'm just going to assume that "Buildings" was inspired by this night. A high point to end their only album. A independently released 12" surfaced in 1984. I gave this another listen too. I'm just going to pretend "Buildings" was the last thing that came out of Our Daughter's Wedding.

After all this catharsis, I actually feel even worse about my faux pax. Not because I cost the tag sale proprietor his $2, but that I cost someone the chance to hear "Buildings". Well, don't say I don't try to right a wrong.

Our Daughter's Wedding: Buildings

Monday, June 22, 2009

One of a Kind

It's happened a number of times since I was 14. The first occurrence wasn't even records. I decided I needed a copy of every single issue of the Amazing Spider-man. Pretty tall order, especially when your job was working for $5.25 an hour in a hardware store after school. Nevertheless, when I finally called a halt to the proceedings, the only issues missing were these : 1, 2, 6, 9 & 10. Men find it necessary to recognize long, bloody battles with some form of monument. Waterloo, Bull Run, Moscow - they all have their monuments. After the war, I commemorated my struggle by constructing a wooden rack to hang on my living room wall to display the prime issues. Truth be told, the record replaced the comic at some point. Throbbing Gristle had something to do with that.

Throbbing Gristle, in case you need a refresher, was a 4 person industrial noise band from England that existed from the late 1970's through the early 1980's. Someone called them "the wreckers of civilisation" on the floor of Parliament. Their output was released by themselves or tiny independent labels who took an interest. I had heard them in high school from older members of the A.V. Club (yes, for real) and was intrigued. Then Mute did everyone a favor and reissued their official releases on CD in the early 90's. I got "Second Annual Report". One track led to a vivid recurring nightmare when I left it on repeat and fell asleep. This was no deterrent. I bought a copy of each reissued CD. End of story? Not quite.

The same thing happened as with Spider-man. I had to have it all. I made a checklist for my wallet. I started answering ads in the Record Collector to Brits selling their stuff. Over a few years I accumulated a serious collection. Most of the original pressings and all but the rarest bootlegs. Bootlegs were a grey area for TG - some of them were blessed by the band - so they needed to be had. They had only ever performed about 35 shows in their existence and they were all available to be hear in some form. And in the end, I heard them all. If you know anything about TG, you know that this means I must have acquired a copy of the mythical "24 Hours" set (on cassette kids, not those new-fangled CD reissues). I got it from some hippie in Oregon who had a website with the word "groovy" somewhere in the name. He gave it to me for a song - $500. If that sounds like a lot to you, guess again. It's worth 5 times that at least. End of story? Again, not quite.

The last gasp of this battle was a usenet auction in 1996. Someone in Chicago had some ultra-rarities. Buried in the list was a copy of the United 7". It said "unrel tp" next to it. This means "unreleased test pressing" if you're not in on the lingo. I managed to win it while the other, more exciting items went for big money. The United 7" was not unreleased so I needed to know what this was. I got it and it said "IR9005" on it and some other numberings. I couldn't tell what was up. The matrix numbers didn't match the normal pressing. I made some inquiries, got no answers, and decided that, since no other collector had bid on it, the joke was on me - this was a dud. End of story? Ah - you're getting the hang of this now.

Fast forward 10 years. Google is here. I am going through some records and come across my old friends, Throbbing Gristle. I take out the "unrel tp" and google this : "throbbing gristle"+9005. First result : Here's what it says :

IR#ArtistSong TitlesRelease DateOther Info
9005Throbbing GristleUnited / Zyklon B Zombie---Never Released

It seems IRS Records, in their effort to bring the unusual to the mainstream, must have signed a deal with TG and test pressed the record. Somehow the project got scuttled and the only memory of it exists on a web page listing the catalogue. And, of course, my basement. The dud was in fact all gold. Better than gold. In fact, it looked like it was one of a kind.

I knew Throbbing Gristle had reunited and played shows in England and Europe a few years ago. It was in the back of my mind that they may come to the US. I got a simple email from a friend earlier this year.

"are you going to coachella?"

The wreckers of civilisation were coming. They had split up in 1981. I was 9 years old. I got my ticket to a show in Brooklyn at a Masonic Temple (naturally...) and contemplated what to bring with me. A chance to make one of their releases even more rare by getting it signed by the whole band. There's no way to make a one of a kind item even more rare so I ruled it out.

Sure I did.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Trouser Press

If any single thing is responsible for this mess, it's the Trouser Press. I knew about the magazine but never bothered to get a copy. An updated edition of the book came out around 1991. I read it to see what it had to say about things I already liked. Seems odd - why would I need something to tell me that the things I like are good? That didn't stop me. I liked "Valley Girl" so I decided to read what I could about the Plimsouls. Turns out one of them (Peter Case) had been some band called the Nerves around 1976. Thankfully, my handy Trouser Press had an entry for them too. Oh they wrote "Hanging on the Telephone" not Blondie? Who knew? The "See also" section for the Nerves listed, very simply, Beat. Peter Case made the Plimsouls and Nerve-mate Paul Collins made the Beat. They made 3 records (2 on a major label), no one cared and Paul Collins vanished into the early 80's. I kept the Beat in mind and picked up the records when I came across them. And boy are they good. I played them on my college radio show. I pushed them on my friends by sticking them on mixed tapes. Slowly though, something a little sad happened : I forgot about them too.

Last week I was looking around ebay for something and I saw a listing for a Nerves compilation record that had recently been put out. Not only could you get to hear all their songs at once, you could get one signed by an original Nerve. And he was in New York City. The door was open and I have learned to walk through it. I sent the seller a message to see if I could get a copy from him and get some other things signed. I half expected an email back from some pony-tailed label guy telling me to forget it. But no, it was my day. Paul Collins himself wrote back and said, "Sure". He also mentioned that he was playing with John Wicks (more on him another day) on Saturday night at a record store in Bordentown, New Jersey. It's 2 hours from my house. 1981 is only 2 hours from my house? "See you Saturday", I said. When my girlfriend called I told her all about it. She humored me. She's actually gotten pretty good at it - it was barely perceivable this time.

I called the store on Saturday to make sure the show wasn't sold out. Why I thought there was a risk of this I don't know. There's a part of me that still faithfully assumes that something this good has to be known and revered, even if only in hindsight. I packed up my records in a bag and brought them with me. I made the drive and went inside. What kind of paradise was this? I can shop for used records and then see Paul Collins in the same room? It was like the day I found out about a club in New York where they have cupcakes upstairs and live music downstairs. About 25 people turned up to see the triumphant return of Paul Collins. It turns out he has been alive and well in Spain for all these years. My mind ran through the economics of the situation and the numbers were not good. They played the night before in another metropolis, Cortland. I'll save you the trip to google maps - it's near Syracuse. $250 at the door to split between Paul Collins, John Wicks and the opening guy (more on him later too). They were supposed to play for an hour. They played for more than two. Paul Collins, who formed a band that shared bills with the Ramones before there was even a such a thing as a Clash, sat before me and played his life's work. He spoke of it with unabashed pride.

After they finished there were probably 3 or 4 guys there with original copies of the Nerves 45, made in Los Angeles in 1976 when Paul Collins was 21. We wanted them signed. In 1991, the Trouser Press referred to these as "hopelessly rare records". Yet in 2009, in a small town in New Jersey, 3 or 4 of them surface at once, returning to their maker for some sort of ratification years after they wrote their legend with the members of Blondie and the Ramones. Thank you Paul Collins. And thank you Trouser Press.