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.