Monday, 23 December 2013

Slade? Must Be Christmas!

 In the UK at this time of year, you can't leave the house without having Noddy Holder bellow "IT'S CHRISTMAAAS!!!" at you from every shop doorway. Depending on your personal taste, this can either be a reason to barricade yourself indoors and shop online for all your presents, or act as an annual reminder that Slade were one of the greatest charts-hogging bands that this country has ever produced. On 10th December London's Evening Standard newspaper reported that Noddy Holder and bass player Jim Lea, writers of Merry Xmas Everybody, will earn an estimated £512,000 of royalties from their yuletide classic this (and every) year. Now, that's what I call a pension plan! As an integral part of my childhood, I can't help but love the song. I daresay Noddy and Jim don't give a monkey's what you may think!

But, there is so much more to Slade than that song and their well-known chart hits. When a band has the kind of era-defining singles chart success that Slade enjoyed in the early Seventies, it is easy to forget, or remain blissfully unaware of the fact, that they were a damned tidy hard rock band. Early material, released as Ambrose Slade, then under their abridged moniker, demonstrates a band that, whilst clearly in possession of some serious chops honed on Hamburg's Reeperbahn, had yet to fully distill their own style from their R&B, Motown and Psychedelic influences. In many ways this search for an identity is what makes the Beginnings and Play It Loud albums so listenable. With covers of songs popularised by The Beatles, Steppenwolf, The Amboy Dukes, Marvin Gaye, The Yardbirds and Frank Zappa rubbing shoulders with confident, well-crafted originals, this brace of albums will surprise anyone dumb enough to have dismissed Slade as a cheesy novelty act.

Beginnings offers up Genesis, a slow-burning, atmospheric instrumental with swirling, phased guitar, propulsive bass and wind sound effects. From the same LP, Pity The Mother couches delicate finger-picked acoustic guitar, a sensitive vocal performance, tension-building violin sawing and acid-fried lead guitar runs within a tune that pays homage to the kind of rattling dynamics that Pete Townshend employed in Tommy.

Choosing just one stand-out from Play It Loud is quite a task, but I'll plump for Dirty Joker which is a noisy, groovy and yes, dirty, three-and-a-bit minutes of Hard Psych complete with sitar-aping guitar, hand claps, heaven-rattling vocal harmonies and an unusually tasty spot of bass wankery.

For any of you wanting your seasonal fix of the big Christmas tune, check out this brief and decidedly unseasonal live rendition (with vocal duties handled by a raucous and adoring crowd) taken from Slade's triumphant Reading Festival set in August 1980. Not a version that's likely to chalk up as much airplay as the original single, but a nice way of documenting the affection that British punters have for this outstanding band. Merry Xmas Everybody!

Tuesday, 19 November 2013


It's been a while! My laptop has decided to die on me. It's been a long, drawn out death with the plucky machine still holding on by the tips of its micro chips. I'll keep this brief as it's likely to spit out its dummy at any moment.

I saw these items listed on eBay and thought that they were a nice addition to my earlier post bemoaning the state of some of the photos people use to sell their LPs. Initially, when I saw the snaps, I applauded the seller for using a visual pun on the albums' titles to add interest to his listings. What a genius, using a spot of visual humour to boost his chances of flogging some two-a-penny LPs! Err, perhaps not. I soon realised that all his LPs were photographed in the same way regardless of their title. Oh well, accident or design, it still tickled me!

Meat Loaf LP going like a Bat Out of Hell!

'Rush Through Time' by Rush inhabiting another dimension

Here's where I began to twig that the seller might not be a master of photographic wit....

Iron Maiden's 'Number of the Beast'

No, that last one doesn't quite work, does it!? Whatever, get yourself over to eBay while you still can. These albums are going quick!

Monday, 30 September 2013

Offensive Record Sleeves

If you do a Google search you will find numerous links to 'the worst album sleeves ever', some of which aren't so much bad as unintentionally comical and shoddily conceived. In my book, that makes them a damn sight better than the glut of clichéd, computer-generated fantasy artwork slapped on every neo-Prog and AOR release of the last ten years. These I find offensive. Soulless, unimaginative Roger Dean wannabes the lot of them! Other LP jackets are, I believe, tarred with the 'worst ever' brush rather unfairly. The Scorpions' Lovedrive LP always features in these lists, but to me it's blindingly obvious that the band, and sleeve artists, Hipgnosis, had their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks when they thought up, and brilliantly executed, a design which is striking, provocative and, no doubt, helped to stimulate album sales into the bargain.

The same excuse can not be made for the original sleeve for Virgin Killer which bypassed provocative visual humour in favour of a thoroughly offensive, exploitative image. I won't reproduce the cover image on my blog if it's all the same to you as I don't particularly want to end up on a register for nonces. There are many sleeves from the 1970s which get cheap mileage from images of, and allusions to, 'jailbait', but I can't think of any as cynical, blatant or unpleasant as the Scorpions one. There seems to have been a strange and insidious cultural tolerance of the sexualisation of minors during the 1970s, which probably goes some way to explaining how scumbags like Jimmy Saville, Jonathan King and Gary Glitter were able to satisfy their prediliction for the underaged without being censured by their peers. There definitely seems to have been an element of amused tolerance in the Seventies' music industry: a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, roll of the eyes, "oh, what is he like!", chuckle, chuckle, let-him-get-on-with-it attitude. For those who weren't serial sexual predators of children the intervening years seem to have acted as an amnesty. People like Jimmy Page who, back in the Seventies, is said to have been in a relationship with the underage Lori Maddox who, rumour has it, lost her virginity to David Bowie at the age of thirteen. Bill Wyman and Mandy Smith anyone? I'm not suggesting a witch hunt, but Christ, haven't attitudes changed! Lostprophets frontman Ian Watkins' recent arrest on child sex charges would suggest that the days of turning a blind eye to the unhealthy sexual appetites of some rock stars is at an end.

Meanwhile, back in the Seventies, Silverhead achieved the seemingly impossible by coming up with cover artwork for 16 and Savaged that equalled the tastelessness of the album's title. It's a great album, with Michael Des Barres in fine voice, but without the excuse of social commentary, it seems that the band was using the subject of teenage rape as titillation.

There's a whiff of Spinal Tap's Smell the Glove about Scene Stealer's First Offence album sleeve, with its 'clever' (in prominent inverted commas) twist being that the schoolboy is the aggressor, not the victim. Not that the scantily-clad woman is likely to be ushering the boy into her boudoir to help him with his homework! It's pretty tacky however you interpret it: does the first offence of the title refer to child abuse or rape? You decide.

 Many sleeves that have provoked an outcry are best taken with a pinch of salt; you have to pick your battles. The image on the cover of W.A.S.P.'s Animal (F**k Like a Beast) single was one that I always found comical in its calculated bid to shock. It's hard to take offence at a man who, once upon a time, nearly blew his own bollocks off in the name of entertainment when his firework-stuffed codpiece backfired on stage.

Not all record sleeves that make for uncomfortable viewing do so because of allusions to sexual taboos. Alquin's Mountain Queen has a photograph on the rear sleeve of a fat man taking a beating while amused bystanders look on. The fact that this is clearly not a staged photograph makes it especially unsettling. How the image relates to the music contained on the album I've never managed to work out. Is it gratuitous or does it pick up in some way on a lyrical theme that I've managed to miss?

Despite the stiff competition (and this selection just scrapes the surface of what is out there), the album sleeve that I find most offensive adorns the 1978 reissue of the Stoney and Meatloaf LP that originally came out in 1971 with different, superior artwork. A lazy concept, shoddily executed, has resulted in the ugliest album sleeve I've ever clapped eyes on - it turns my stomach every time I see it. There's no justification for this vomit inducing portrayal of tepid, unappetising food, even if it has been arranged to resemble a pre-diet Mr Loaf. Perhaps the fact that the reissue leaves off some of the better tracks found on the original LP is what ties the lukewarm cover concept to the LP's half-baked contents.

Okay, you're right, Virgin Killer is worse.

Monday, 2 September 2013

New England Vinyl Road Trip

I've not long since returned from a trip across the pond to New England with Mrs Shelf-Stacker and the short-stacks. All too predictably, I'd done my research before setting off and was moderately confident of finding the odd, half-decent record store during two weeks of driving on the wrong side of the road. I confess to having been a tad concerned that New England might be just a teensy bit too prim and proper to offer up the kind of vinyl pick-up joints that I crave, but I needn't have worried. I can happily report that, in addition to the innumerable clapboard houses and lobster shacks, the states of Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut and New Hampshire are home to more record buying opportunities than any sane Englishman could ever expect a wife to tolerate on a family holiday.

In Your Ear, Cambridge, Massachusetts

There's nothing like an unkempt entrance to get me excited!

The first visit to a record store on a trip like this always presents a few dilemmas. Do I buy everything that catches my eye? Will I see the same LPs elsewhere, cheaper? Do I get an album that's high on my wishlist even though the condition isn't perfect, or do I take the chance that I'll find the perfect example further down the road? In Your Ear is a little gem. There's masses of stock, certainly too much for me to get through in the time I had available, so I'm haunted by thoughts of what I might have missed. The Rock section is extensive, with two rows of additional stock shelved under the main racks. The Psych section is small but perfectly formed: I know I walked away from a couple of albums that I should have grabbed when I had the chance but, fortunately, I can't remember what the hell they were. I left with ten LPs ranging in price from $0.99 cents to $5.99 including albums by Grand Funk Railroad, Mom's Apple Pie, Bob McBride, Five Dollar Shoes and Oregon. In a theme that repeated itself in record stores throughout New England, In Your Ear's staff were welcoming, helpful and really friendly.

Mine, Mystic, Connecticut

This place is not exactly a record store, more an indoor flea market-come-antique shop with half a dozen crates of vinyl of varying quality lurking amongst the crockery and jewellery. Pickings were slim when I was there, but who's to say what treasures might turn up at other times. Pricing is straight forward, with LPs at $4.00 a pop or three LPs for $10.00. I was happy to leave with three albums under my arm including Cher's 3614 Jackson Highway, the album she recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 1969. It features covers of material by Dylan, Buffalo Springfield and Dr John: a world away from The Shoop Shoop Song!

John Doe Jnr Records, Greenfield, Massachusetts

Greenfield is somewhere that probably doesn't see too many tourists unless, like us, they're passing through on their way to the coast or the mountains. It's an honest, unpretentious, blue-collar town and, as such, I had high hopes for John Doe Jnr Records. To buy myself a bit of extra time I forwent lunch to concentrate on the serious job of crate digging. Before disappearing to a diner over the road with the sprogs, Mrs Shelf-Stacker spotted a pristine copy of Captain Beyond's Sufficiently Breathless for a very reasonable $15 (my most expensive purchase on this trip) and engaged the super-friendly proprietors in conversation. Kids in record stores, even ones as well-schooled as mine in how to behave around vinyl (Don't touch! Ever!), aren't always particularly welcome. The couple who run John Doe Jnr Records not only tolerated my kids using their store as a racetrack, but seemed to find them utterly charming. It may have had something to do with one of their children sharing a first name with one of my boys. Cool people! Prices here range from $2 up to $25 and beyond. The store is rammed with quality merchandise and the prices, from the perspective of someone used to overpriced UK record stores, are very reasonable. Many of the thirty LPs I bought here came from the $2 bins including albums by Mother Earth, Ian Matthews (a Vertigo swirl copy of Tigers Will Survive), Brian Auger, Pacific Gas & Electric and Lee Michaels. I also picked up a pair of 180 gram repressings for $10 apiece (Stone Circus and Josefus) and other vinyl ranging from $3 to $8. And, as if the prices weren't reasonable enough already, the owners gave me a generous discount at the till. I left Greenfield with a smile on my face.

Toonerville Trolley Records, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Undoubtedly the prettiest record store I've ever been in. The owner's carefully selected in-store soundtrack of Cool Jazz lends the establishment a relaxed, sophisticated air. Just the place then to pick up a copy of Grand Funk Railroad's E Pluribus Funk! A steal at $3.00! Add a sealed copy of Pig Iron's bluesy, horn-rocking debut from 1970 for $8.00 and a selection from the dollar bins and I'm more than happy. Next!

Arts Gift Shop, Stockbridge, Massachusetts

Stockbridge is exactly the kind of place that came to mind when I tried to envisage what New England might look like. Immaculate, white clapboard houses set in leafy lanes, teashops as far as the eye can see, picket fences, fluttering stars and stripes, sidewalks cluttered with slack-wearing octogenarians... In short, not somewhere likely to provide a digging opportunity. Well, you'd be surprised! Stockbridge has had its own brush with the counterculture. Tucked away in an alleyway beside the Arts Gift Shop is Theresa's Café, formerly known as Alice's Restaurant, immortalised in an Arloe Guthrie album and a film of the same name. Guthrie tells the true story of his arrest for littering by an overzealous, hippie-hating police officer and of his successful attempt to avoid being shipped out to fight in Vietnam. Judging by the sizeable stock of vinyl from the Sixties and Seventies that fills the many boxes upstairs in the Arts Gift Shop, Guthrie was not the only undesirable longhair in Stockbridge. Condition is a bit of an issue, with some of the LPs I passed over clearly having been poorly stored since they were last played, but at $15 for any four LPs, I couldn't miss with a shrink-wrapped copy of Bloodrock's debut, Savoy Brown's Raw Sienna, Edgar Broughton's Wasa Wasa and an album that I took a punt on because it looked intriguing, Definition by Chrysalis. It's turned out to be a stonking, fuzz guitar-fuelled slab of psychedelia and, I've since learnt, featured in a Shindig article last year entitled 50 US Psych Albums You Need To Hear where it's described as a "masterwork" and "an unalloyed gem". I can't argue with that! The Arts Gift Shop is well worth a visit. In addition to the records, it has a great selection of music, film and comic book related T-shirts, posters and memorabilia.

Pitchfork Records, Concord, New Hampshire

Okay, so my kids' behaviour in Pitchfork Records didn't exactly endear them to the owner, but he was still friendly and smiling when I handed over my cash. This is a store that I stumbled upon by accident and am I pleased that I did! I found albums here that have been on my want list for some time, including Don Ellis' Electric Bath and Billy Thorpe's Children Of The Sun. Prices range from $2 (or three for $5) upwards. The most I paid for an album was $8.00. If CDs are your thing, then there are acres of them in store too.

Enterprise Records, Portland, Maine

According to Tim, our Grand Funk Railroad-loving Portland Fire Engine Company tour guide (tourists + kids = sightseeing tour on the back of a fire truck), the town has shrugged off its recent down-at-heel past to offer a ton of reasons to pay a visit. The only downside of this is that it leaves little time to spend rooting through its record stores. The branch of Bull Moose in Portland stocks primarily CDs, DVDs, Games and overpriced new vinyl, so thirty seconds was all it took for me to decide it wasn't for me. Enterprise Records however is exactly my kind of store. Even though not overflowing with stock, what is in the racks is high quality and very cheap. I immediately spotted another Grand Funk LP to add to my collection for a paltry $0.75 cents and, albums by Cold Blood ($4.50), Big Brother & the Holding Company ($1.00), Bloodrock ($6.00) and Deep Purple ($8.00). I mentioned to the proprietor in passing that I had no idea how I was going to get all my LPs back to the UK and he promptly dug out a perfectly proportioned box for me which would easily accomodate seventy LPs. What a nice guy! I promised I'd spread the word about Enterprise Records. It's a great little digging spot! Pay a visit if you're in Portland.

Bull Moose, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Yes, the man on the right really is that tall!

Unlike Bull Moose in Portland, the Portsmouth branch, has a very healthy stock of used vinyl. I managed to find so much quality stuff in the $3 section that I hardly had time to glance at the main stock. It may well have yielded some choice items, but much of what I saw seemed overpriced considering the treasures I was digging out of the cheapo racks. I ended up coming away with another twenty-one LPs including classics from Moby Grape, The Guess Who, Matthews Southern Comfort and The Sweet. I also found another LP that was high on my wishlist, namely Fusion by Michal Urbaniak. To describe this album as Jazz Fusion doesn't do justice to the experimental insanity of the music it contains. Again, the store staff went out of their way to be friendly and helpful, pointing out the various sections and signing me up to their frequent customer scheme for a discount on my purchases despite being made aware that the seven hour flight pretty much guarantees that I won't be a regular customer.

A few choice items from the haul

Getting ninety-one LPs back from the States unscathed ended up being less of a problem than I expected. A few went in my hand luggage. The aforementioned box, a roll of gaffa tape and thirty feet of bubble wrap ensured that the rest were well protected. The US Department of Homeland Security decided to check out the contents of the box after I had checked it in at Boston Logan airport. The only evidence that they had taken an interest in it was a bunch of stickers on the outside, so I presumed they'd given it a bit of a shake, let an Alsatian sniff it and waved it through. It wasn't till I cut through the thirty feet of bubblewrap at home and found an explanatory leaflet inside the box that I realised they'd been through the contents. That's stealth for you. I still don't know how they got in without seeming to have removed any of the gaffa tape or bubblewrap. I guess David Blaine is on the payroll.

I have to give credit and thanks to the creators of the indispensable Vinyl District iPhone app which led me to record stores that, without its help, I would never have known existed. Get it on your phone now. It's FREE.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Re-imagining The Beatles #5 - John Keating

Although vastly superior to the better known Walter Carlos Switched On Bach Moog showcase, John Keating's two Space Experience albums operate in roughly the same ballpark, that is, the reinterpretation of well-known tunes with the aid of some of those newfangled, in the early 1970s at least, synthesizer thingies. Keating's LPs reflect the prevailing fascination with the moon landings and the optimism that man's explorations in outer space had generated. In the Seventies, new music technology, in the form of the synthesizer, would prove to be the catalyst for a tidal wave of sonic experimentation and the kind of explorations of inner space that guitar effects and multi-track recording had facilitated in the 1960s.

Space Experience - Mexican, Quadraphonic pressing

A respected musician and arranger for Ted Heath's Big Band as well as for artists such as Adam Faith and Petula Clark, John Keating is perhaps best remembered for writing the theme from the TV cop show Z-Cars. His Space Experience LPs could often be heard putting amps, speakers and turntables through their paces in hi-fi stores in the 1970s. The superior recording quality and stereo imaging made the records a shoo-in for use as demonstration discs. I wonder how many Pioneer record decks and Trio receivers were sold as a result?

Although not enjoying the credibility of synth experimentalists Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Keating's LPs hold up pretty well. Whenever a Space Experience track looks in danger of tipping too far into the realms of cheese, a fuzz guitar break or a flurry of Techno-anticipating farts and bleeps will haul it back from the brink. Keating employs a selection of ARP synthesizers alongside a troupe of highly respected session musicians to create a simmering casserole of Lalo Schifrin and John Barry-esque soundtrack music, space-age Lounge tunes and Blaxploitation Funk, infused with Techno squelches, wah-wah guitar and nascent electronica. Unlike Switched On Bach, some of the tracks on the Space Experience LPs are originals. Far from being filler, Keating's tracks are definite highlights.

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds has a guitar sound that immediately brings to mind Brian May, albeit in the context of a track which oozes a strong whiff of fromage. The simplistic synth line on the chorus is perhaps a touch too cheesy, but the trippy sounds elsewhere more than atone for this minor misstep and make for an interesting take on the Beatles' classic. A cover of the Star Trek TV theme features heavily orchestrated strings to complement the burbling synths and whacka-whacka guitar funk. The Unknown Planet, a Keating original, is part Bond theme, part Sixties spy show soundtrack, part psychedelic loungecore and undoubtedly the highlight of these two discs, with everything but the kitchen sink employed in its sonic palette. Of the two LPs, the first Space Experience album is the superior beast. By the time of the second LP, the insidious influence of the emerging disco scene had led Keating down a path of over-orchestrated, Barry White and Love Unlimited Orchestra-style, easy listening disco-lite on too many of the tracks.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Got It Taped!

There are so many petty irritations in life: finding that a bird has emptied itself on my parked car; emptying my own bowels before realising that my kids have used the last of the toilet roll; TV programmes that feel the need to constantly recap what I have just seen (I'm not a bleedin' goldfish - I can retain information long enough to follow Dickinson's Real Deal unaided!); people who think the eighth letter of the alphabet is pronounced 'haitch' and those who think 'mischievous' is pronounced mis-cheev-ee-ous (where the hell are you getting that extra ee sound from?).... I could go on, and very often do, but by far my biggest gripe is when I buy an LP and find that a previous owner has decided to festoon the sleeve with yards of sticky tape in some deranged attempt to protect it from damage.  Guess what dickhead, you just damaged it!

If this sleeve vandalism pisses me off so much, why would I buy an album that's been modified in such a way? Well, I wouldn't knowingly, but some ebay sellers don't feel the need to mention this particular modification in their descriptions. My National Head Band LP came with a particularly unpleasant brown packing tape adorning every straight edge. The tape's sufficiently ancient to be drying up and lifting in some places whilst clinging on like a treacle-oozing limpet in others. Do I attempt to remove it or put up with this unsightly, sticky mess? No question: it's got to go!

In my experience this form of sleeve trashing is peculiar to records from the 1970s, and I have a hunch that the people who perpetrated this crime are the same ones who felt the need to cover their school text books and jotters with wallpaper during that decade. It's entirely possible that you have no idea what I'm talking about, but I can't believe that I'm the only one with memories of kids at school who got out the sellotape and whatever old scrap of wrapping paper they could cadge off their mums to fashion a bespoke dust jacket for their copy of Stig of the Dump. Maybe sellotape (Scotch tape if you're from over there) was a bit of a novelty in the Seventies and nobody knew when to leave it alone. If you're really unlucky, you might pick up an LP where someone's gone mad with the Dymo label machine, punched out their name on one of those little sticky plastic strips and stuck it to the sleeve. That little bugger ain't coming off!

Sleeve Killer

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Vintage Trouble (and Strife)

It took me a while to warm to Vintage Trouble. I tossed Classic Rock magazine's freebie sampler CD onto the reject pile after one play and forgot all about them. Then, last year, I happened upon a cheap copy of their The Bomb Shelter Sessions album on vinyl and figured that I could always sell it on if it failed to move me. It's going nowhere: what a fantastic LP!

Combining elements of Soul, Blues and Rock, but with the emphasis most definitely on Soul, The Bomb Shelter Sessions is a complete breath of fresh air in an era where most backwards-looking bands settle for apeing their Sixties and Seventies heroes rather than using them as the inspiration for creating something new and vibrant.

Classy on record, in a live setting Vintage Trouble prove that they are undoubtedly world class. It's no accident that both The Who and The Rolling Stones have been falling over themselves to enlist them as special guests on their respective tours. I dragged the (vintage) trouble 'n strife (Mrs Shelf-Stacker) along to the Electric in Brixton on Monday night to check out their show. And a show it most certainly was, with a captivating, perfectly-paced set that delivered soul, groove, humour and strutting sexual energy. The band seamlessly combined material as diverse as the intimate and delicate protest song Not Alright By Me with the rocking fireworks of Blues Hand Me Down without ever abandoning the Soul at the core of their DNA.

Vocalist Ty Taylor has a once in a generation voice that is equal parts Al Green, Otis Redding, Terence Trent D'Arby and Ben Harper. His boundless energy and between song patter make him a thoroughly arresting frontman. Don't be fooled into thinking that his musical accomplices are a faceless backing band though, not with such engaging personalities to complement their musical chops and unwavering groove. Special mention must go to Nalle Col's slide guitar on Run Baby Run and to drummer Richard Danielson's moustache which looks like it was stolen from the set of Deadwood. Spectacular!

Monday night's gig was one of those where the audience hung on every word, sang along to every lyric, punctuated every beat with their raised hands and noisily acknowledged the band's stellar performance. I can't claim that everyone in attendance on Monday night was united in their enthusiasm. Sadly, Mrs Shelf-Stacker spent half the evening thumbing her Blackberry. If only that was some kind of a sexual euphemism! But no, she just didn't get it. Not one bit. Obviously there weren't nearly enough galloping riffs, songs about Satan or moments of foot on the monitor posturing! Perhaps Vintage Trouble could address these issues before they tour again.

What better reason to bring the Face Fungus-ometer out of retirement than that magnificent 'tache!

An aptly Deadwood honouring, Western-themed Magnificent Seven!