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.