Thursday, 20 November 2014

Drowning in Jim Reeves!

Yep, Jim Reeves made (and sold) a hell of a lot of albums and, briefly, I seemed to own pretty much all of them. Them and a bunch of Top Of The Pops cover version LPs as well as albums by Dolly Parton, Barry Manilow, Leo Sayer, Showaddywaddy, Jive Bunny, Roger Whittaker, Bucks Fizz and Val Doonican. My taste can take unexpected turns occasionally, but trust me, none of those got anywhere near my turntable. Thing is, I lucked out again a few weeks back when I responded to one of those all too rare ads for a record collection offered gratis on Gumtree and managed to get my reply in before anyone else. And yes, despite the Jive Bunny LP I did get lucky because, amongst the hundreds of diabolical 'as advertised on TV'-type compilation LPs and other landfill favourites, there were some vinyl gems.

I did wonder about the quality of the records in the collection when I turned up at a modest West London address on a rainy October evening to find the records all boxed up and ready to go, stacked and packed in such a way as to offer little chance to idly flick through them. The couple offloading them couldn't get them in the back of my car fast enough. The collection, described in the advert as being a mix of styles including Sixties and Seventies rock, reggae and punk, had me fantasising about pristine first pressings of The Beatles, The Stones and Hendrix, with a smattering of Sex Pistols rarities. When Mr Offloader let slip that the collection contained a lot of his mum's old records, the Songs From The Emerald Isle LP that drew my gaze suddenly looked to be a harbinger of doom. Still, I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, even if that horse is of the Trojan variety and covered in thick dust and the odd stray pube.

As I drove home with records filling every last nook and cranny in my car, each red light offered the chance for a quick flick through the crate of vinyl on the front passenger seat. Black Lace's Party Party featuring Agadoo. Oh Jesus! Max Bygraves' Singalongamax. Noooo! Then, my fingers walked their way to a copy of The Open Window album on the Vanguard label. Not so long ago I got outbid on this LP on eBay. Result! I decided at that point that even if there was nothing else worth hanging onto - the rain, the dirt, the heavy lifting, the inevitable trip to offload everything else at the charity shop - this album alone made it all worthwhile. The blurb on the rear sleeve attempts to sum up the bizarre and intriguing music on the LP:

"The Open Window has been described by reviewers as a chamber-rock-jazz trio, a pop-classical ensemble, and a folk-rock-raga group, and all the names fit, except that they leave out the honky-tonk piano rolls and the Russian chants."

The release date (1969) and the cover art should give you some idea that, intentionally or otherwise, the Juilliard School of Music-educated musicians on this LP find themselves paddling in the murky, indistinct edges of psychedelia. Perhaps drugs played no part in the creation of this music, but it would most definitely provide a suitable soundtrack to the ingestion of perception altering substances.

It wasn't going to be easy hiding a car-load of vinyl from the missus, so I didn't even try. I think she was just so relieved that I hadn't come home with another pair of speakers that she barely passed comment. Forgoing the surgical gloves and chemical warfare suit that the job demands, I immediately set to work and began searching for gold amongst the crud. At least 200 LPs and as many 7" singles found their way into the charity shop pile without a second glance, but soon I started to find the odd interesting item. The promised punk materialised, albeit not in any great quantity. Apart from a pair of Clash singles and some punk-lite from Toyah, I discovered a couple of Oi! LPs, an Angelic Upstarts album and two Sham 69 albums, both of which have been signed by Jimmy Pursey.

Jimmy Pursey autograph

When not in the mood for Jim Reeves, it seems that Reggae, ska and 2-Tone were the order of the day at Mr Offloader's pad: Specials, Bodysnatchers, Selecter, Madness, Desmond Dekker, Judge Dread and various Trojan label releases, as well as a few interesting soul, funk, beat and folk albums.

I was chuffed to find both stereo and mono US pressings of Deliver by The Mamas and the Papas as well as their If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears LP.

Another US pressing is this album by Spanish band Los Bravos. The title track is one of those that has been aired so often that it's impossible to listen to it objectively, but the rest of the album is surprisingly good Beat / Garage Rock.

The most interesting finds came from rooting through the singles. Amongst the Eighties pop dross and Seventies novelty tunes were lurking some beauties, including South African pressings in picture bags of seven inchers by The Tremeloes and The Square Set. Despite having the same title, they are completely different songs. These don't crop up every day, especially in the UK.

The real treasure in the collection though, has to be an advance promo copy of the ridiculously rare 7", and sole release, by Canadian garage band The 5A.M. Event, who can lay claim to being the only Canadian band to have played at The Cavern Club in Liverpool. According to Popsike, the cheapest copy of this to sell on eBay made £220.

Out of the 400+ albums and 500+ singles in this haul, I've saved about 50 LPs and 150 seven inchers. Of those LPs there are about a dozen that'll find a place in my collection, the rest I'll either sell or trade. One of my local charity shops has gladly taken everything else. Surprisingly, the none-more-metal Mrs Shelf-Stacker asked to keep The Very Best Of Barry Manilow to file alongside her Iron Maiden and Anvil albums. She's full of surprises!

Maniloi! Part of an eclectic collection

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Nagaoka MP11 Put To The Test

A couple of weeks ago I installed a new cartridge. The Ortofon MC Vivo Blue was getting a bit long in the tooth, so when I got the chance to buy an unused Nagaoka MP11 Permalloy cartridge for under £40 including postage, I grabbed it with both hands. I wasn't kidding myself that the MP11 would be in the same league as the Vivo Blue, but I had heard that it's a very well regarded cartridge.

Crucially, the Nagaoka is a breeze to install and set up. Even the fiddly little nuts and bolts that secure the cartridge to the tonearm's headshell didn't present too much of a problem once I stumbled on the idea of lightly pushing the nuts into a blob of Blu Tac to hold them steady while I tightened the bolts. Fingers are not made small enough to get a grip on these things, and I don't trust myself with tweezers so close to a delicate cartridge assembly. I have a selection of cartridge alignment tools, all of which leave me bellowing expletives like a scalded Wookie with Tourette's. They piss me off royally! All of them that is except my simple, laminated paper, Audio Origami protractor designed by someone called Seb. If you ever read this Seb, thank you! More info on which set-up tool might work best for you can be found at vinylengine.

I won't go into all the tedious detail of how to install and set up a phono cartridge because other people are better qualified than me to bore and baffle you with all that VTA and azimuth stuff. If you make sure your tonearm is parallel to the surface of your records when you play them, check that your stylus is perpendicular to the vinyl when it sits in the groove, and ensure that your tracking force is set somewhere in the middle to the upper end of the recommended range in order to minimise record wear, then you won't go far wrong. No piece of expensive kit is as essential to successfully setting up your cartridge as your eyes and your ears. If it looks out of whack or sounds like crap, tweak it until it doesn't.

Whenever I install a new cartridge on one of my turntables, I have a selection of go-to albums that  I use to put it through its paces. Obviously, when choosing your go-to LPs you want records that you know really well otherwise you'll have no idea how well the cartridge is presenting the music in the grooves. You will also want to chuck a few challenges in the cartridge's way to see how well it copes. I sometimes use my Shure Audio Obstacle Course LP to see how well a new cartridge acquits itself, but with the best will in the world, it doesn't exactly make for an enthralling listen. Here then are some of the records that I use to test my cartridge set-up:

Roger Waters - Amused To Death
This is a beautifully produced album with a three dimensional soundstage. Apart from the wealth of musical talent on show, the cartridge has to cope with presenting everything from quietly spoken narration and the distant barking of a dog to the sound of a cataclysmic explosion. I always forget when the explosion is coming and it scares the beejesus out of me every time. Even with the demands that it places on a phono cartridge, it's terrifyingly realistic.

Queen - The Game 
Inner Groove Distortion (IGD) is your worst enemy. In an ideal world every side of vinyl would end with a nice mellow acoustic instrumental number so that your cartridge never has to break into a sweat during those cluttered side-ending grooves. Save Me can sound shrill and distorted at the top end with a poorly set-up or underperforming cartridge: those high-pitched, massed harmony vocals are a real test. John Deacon's bass sound is magnificent throughout the album and is reason enough to give The Game a spin.

Ted Nugent - Ted Nugent

Robin Trower - Bridge Of Sighs
Ted Nugent's solo debut and Bridge Of Sighs are always early visitors to the turntable when I install a new cartridge because, for me, they perfectly encapsulate that warm analogue sound that a digital set-up has no chance of replicating. These albums are a perfect complement to a vintage system, especially one that features a tube amp and British speakers.

Pollution - II
Confusingly, this is the band's third album. Pollution's lead vocals are generally handled by Dobie Gray (best known for his solo hits The In Crowd and Drift Away), but Foolhearted Woman features the soulful Joplinesque shriek of Táta. That banshee wail, high and hot backing vocals that tip well into the red, a slab of vinyl that has seen years of hard service, and the fact that this song is a side-closer all conspire to make this a bitch for a cartridge to track. A good cartridge, well set up, will dig through any record wear and find the undamaged portion of the groove. The MP11 is clearly a good cartridge.

Billy Joel - The Nylon Curtain 
Much like Queen's Save Me, Joel's Goodnight Saigon, coming at the end of a side as it does, and featuring a massed chorus of vocals, can sound like an indistinct mush if your cartridge isn't up to the challenge. The Ortofon cart treated this supposed challenge with contempt, sounding as sweet on the inner grooves as on the opening track. I wasn't expecting the Nagaoka to emerge from this particular challenge with its dignity intact, but it copes admirably. It's possible to make out the individual voices that make up the football terrace chant of  "we'd all go down together".

Fleetwood Mac - Rumours 
Christine McVie's vocals on Songbird can be a real test for a cartridge, often falling victim to sibilance and distortion. The MP11 pretty much avoids this pitfall and does a fine job of picking out the subtle acoustic guitar underlying the piano. Apart from anything else, this is an album that has continued to rise in my estimation over the years. It's such a beautiful collection of songs. I really can't pick a favourite between the Peter Green and the Buckingham / Nicks eras.

Godley & Creme - Consequences 
This is a weird and, at times, wonderful album. I'm not sure that I've ever got through it all in one sitting, but one track pulls me back in time and time again. The Flood is like beautiful, sonic water torture, building from a single repeated drip to the titular inundation, with some heavy guitars along the way. When I think I have my cart set up just right, I sit back and let this track, quite literally, wash over me.

Pentangle - The Pentangle
Folk music has to be sufficiently far removed from its hey-nonny-nonny, finger in the ear, Morris dancer-soundtracking norm to find favour round here, but something of the quality of Pentangle's debut album has an open invitation chez Shelf-Stacker. If you want to know what it would sound like to have Danny Thompson playing his double bass in your front room, get your cartridge properly installed, drop the stylus on the last track on side one (Pentangling) and prepare for your jaw to hit the floor. You can almost hear the calluses on Danny Thompson's fingers. Gobsmacking!

Once I'm feeling suitably smug and contented with the sounds being conjured from the grooves by my newly installed cartridge, nothing can beat prolonged immersion in Pink Floyd, The Alan Parsons Project or some early Sabbath.

If you purchase a Nagaoka MP11, one thing you will notice is how much the sound changes and improves after a running-in period of thirty hours or so. After this time there is an almost immediate smoothing off of any rough edges and a general improvement in the over-all refinement of the sound. Any harshness is tamed, the bass becomes more defined, and you stop listening to the cartridge and begin losing yourself in the music - which is how it should be. So, how does the MP11 compare to the Ortofon that it replaced? Well, the first thing you notice about this cartridge is how bleeding beige and ugly it is. It reminds me of an oatmeal-coloured Lada Estate that my mum used to drive. Its unsexy blockiness does however make it very easy to align. The MP11 provides less detail in the mid-range and is not as forward in its presentation as the Ortofon, but apart from that I'm struggling to find any glaring flaws in its performance. It tracks beautifully and is forgiving of less-than-pristine records. I certainly don't feel like I'm slumming it with this highly affordable cartridge and I doubt it will be the last Nagaoka cartridge that I buy.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Buyer Beware: eBay Vinyl Horrors

"Excellent condition" Beatles LP

I'm rarely happier than when the tips of my fingers resemble those of a 30-a-day smoker. If you are in the habit of digging through crates of filthy vinyl, you'll know what I'm talking about - that nicotine-like, digit-coating grime that turns the act of eating a bag of Doritos into a life-threatening experience. You'd think I'd be grateful for the internet and the opportunities that it affords me to sit in the comfort and comparatively squalor-free surroundings of my own home, scrolling through a seemingly endless menu of vinyl tasties that are just a wine-fuelled, caution-to-the-wind bid away from being mine. And yes, I doff my hat to the online auction houses for their ability to liberate me from my cash, but, to my mind, the hands-on experience of rooting through a box of real records is not only more fun, but less likely to result in disappointment. 

I won't pretend that, on occasion, I haven't failed to spot a game-changing edge warp or a stylus-wrecking pothole in my hurry to hand over the readies for a used LP, but on the whole, if I take my time to thoroughly inspect a piece of vinyl, then a record shop or a car boot sale - the REAL PHYSICAL WORLD - is the way to go.

On eBay, sellers seem to fall into one of three main categories:

At the bottom of the heap, and best avoided, are those who have most likely fished a bunch of records out of a skip and are selling them alongside commemorative chinaware, super-sized women's clothing and the front, nearside wing of a Mk II Ford Escort. Buying from these vendors is as risky as having Stevie Wonder set you up with a blind date. They usually provide, at best, one blurry photo of the sleeve and a single line description that inevitably employs the meaningless phrase "good condition for age". Diminishing condition is not an inevitable consequence of age. If a record has been cared for it makes no difference whether it was pressed in 1969 or 2014. The methods for assessing its condition are the same: look at it and listen to it. Sniff it if you must. On the odd, rare occasion, you, the buyer, might get lucky and get a pristine rarity for peanuts, but chances are that you'll receive a record that looks like that same Mk II Escort has been performing doughnuts on it. Even if, by some fluke, the record was in decent condition at the time of being listed, by the time you receive it wrapped in a wafer thin sheet of brown paper on which the vendor has carved your address in green biro (exerting enough pressure to permanently etch the details of your residence into the LP's sleeve and possibly the surface of the vinyl too), you will wonder what ever possessed you to buy from a seller with the eBay ID 'pitbull-luvver69' in the first place.

They have a feedback score of 24,538 and a 99.9% positive rating. Impressive ! Well, not especially, as the flipside of those stats is that 245 people have been sufficiently pissed off to leave them negative feedback. However reputable a dealer is, they do not have time to listen to the records they sell and, in my experience sometimes barely glance at the vinyl to assess its condition. They know that with their huge volume of sales, your timid neutral feedback and comment that the 'Near Mint' record that you received was covered in greasy fingerprints and sounded like the soundtrack to a chip pan fire, will get buried under the daily avalanche of 'Top seller. A+++++++++++' comments.

My recent experience of purchasing Eric Burdon and The Animals' Winds Of Change album neatly sums up the pitfalls of buying from high-turnover dealers. I bid on and won the first stereo UK pressing of Winds Of Change on the blue and tan MGM label in VG+ condition. What I received was an utterly trashed copy of Burdon's Love Is LP.

After he had accepted his error and agreed to pay my return postage, the LP winged its way back to the vendor who then sent me a mono pressing with yellow MGM labels. If it had played okay, I'd have cut my losses and settled for the mono copy, but it was in really shoddy condition, played with pretty much constant noise, intrusive clicks and heavy crackle.

That mono Winds Of Change LP

I did eventually get a stereo copy of Winds Of Change (not the UK pressing that I had won, I should add) and a postage refund, but only after weeks of chasing. Unbelievably, I left positive feedback, probably out of relief that the sorry episode was at an end.

For my money, these are the sellers most likely to provide a satisfying online record-buying experience. They have decided that after years in storage it is time to offer their cherished record collections for sale. The downsizer's listings contain all the pertinent photographs to help identify the pressing and condition. They have done sufficient research to know what to put in their listings to grab a collector's attention, but not so much as to have unrealistic expectations of an item's value. There is usually the caveat in their listings that they no longer own a turntable, but that when put in the loft thirty years ago, the records all played well. A no quibble refund generally adds to the reassuring noises that the risk-averse buyer wants to hear. My purchases from downsizers have, on occasion, been accompanied by emails detailing their memories of when and where they originally bought the record that they have just put in the post to me, with sincere wishes that I enjoy the music as much as they have. This is as close to the experience of buying face-to-face as you will get in the virtual world of online auctions. When the record arrives it is packed so sturdily and with such care that getting into it requires the kind of tools that firefighters use to cut people free from car wrecks.

Some online buying experiences beggar belief. Perhaps I should have known better than to bid on a copy of Miles Davis' Agharta LP which was being sold by a vendor who deals primarily in books and comics. His listing contained two photographs; one of the front cover, the other of one of the record labels. Rather than provide specific details of each record he had for sale, he opted to use the following catch-all description, reproduced here from his listing, typos-and-all:







For those of you unfamiliar with the Agharta album, it is a double LP. Imagine then how thrilled I was to receive a cigarette paper-thin package containing just one of the two discs. As I pointed out to the vendor, even somebody unfamiliar with Miles Davis' catalogue should have been able to work out that a record with sides 3 and 4 printed on the labels is likely to be part of a two record set. As for taking care to point out any problems with playback, my photo below would suggest that there was a fault that was immediately apparent without the need to test-play the record.

To add to the joyful experience of receiving half an album, the gatefold sleeve opened with a gentle ripping sound as a result of a sticky deposit smeared therein. Needless to say, I procured a full refund. Don't ever let a seller's policy of not refunding the cost of postage put you off. I see no reason why a buyer should be out of pocket because of vendors who, through laziness, stupidity or dishonesty, fail to accurately describe the items they have for sale. I have always found that an email beginning "I am not in the habit of leaving negative feedback, but...." works wonders.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Car Booty

My local car boot sale has been kind to me recently. A couple of weeks back I picked up a mono first pressing of Cream's Disraeli Gears on the Reaction label for £2.00. It's sleeveless sadly, but somewhere down the line I'll pick up a trashed copy with a decent cover and all will be good.

Last Sunday I ignored the overcast skies, hoping that the sellers would follow suit, and headed to my favourite field full of tat. I'm not a morning person (to put it mildly), so dragging my corpse out of bed early on a weekend is not a decision I make lightly. Turned out to be a good move.

You see a broad cross-section of humanity at a boot fair: cosy families selling off the toys their kids have outgrown, blurry-tattooed shysters offloading bootleg electricals, herds of clinically obese take-away tourists mobbing the burger vans at 10am, hippie chicks trying to drum up interest in their hand-made trinkets and knick-knacks, enough people on mobility scooters to fill a multi-storey car park and guys like me, courier bag slung over the shoulder, trying to beat all the other predators to the vinyl treasures that are lurking somewhere in this sea of stone washed denim, Breville sandwich toasters, clapped-out Flymos and foot spas.

The dealers and flippers are easy to spot. They're unsmiling, make no attempt at conversation with the stall holders and clearly resent their competition, that is, the people who buy records for the music contained in them, not for profit. Two weeks ago I had one of these low-lives take a record out of my hand while I was looking at it. I explained to him in unambiguous terms what I thought of his behaviour and he backed off. If he'd waited ten seconds I'd have put the record back in the pile and moved on. As it was I ended up buying a record that I didn't especially want just to spite him. Petty, but satisfying. Perhaps I'm a bit of a hypocrite as I do buy records sometimes and sell them if they don't do it for me or if they're not an upgrade on my existing copy, but they're not a commodity to be turned around for a quick profit. It's all about the music.

If I'm going to relieve a stallholder of a record that they may have cherished for years, I want to hear their stories. Some of the same faces are there every week: the guy who deals in jazz and dog-eared music biographies; the woman who is selling off her husband's vinyl collection in dribs and drabs to boost their retirement income; and the couple who used to be in a band and are offloading their blues records to help fund their next trip to Memphis. Then, this weekend there was a charming lady called Lynne who, hidden beneath the usual boot fair detritus on her stall, had an easily overlooked box of vinyl. As I pulled the records out of the box she became misty eyed as she recalled that her first boyfriend had bought them for her. Did she really want to part with them I asked? The usual story: nothing to play them on any more, and "at least they're going to a good home". I handed over £15 and walked away happy, clutching three LPs by Matthews Southern Comfort (first pressings on Uni / MCA), Procol Harum's Shine On Brightly (mono first pressing on Regal Zonophone), an Incredible String Band album and The Who's Who Are You. Some of them have inscriptions on the sleeve from Lynne's first love. These records have a history. I like that.

I've discovered the brilliance of Charles Mingus recently, so was chuffed to find a near mint copy of his The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady album for a fiver. Continuing the Jazz theme I unearthed a copy of pianist Andrew Hill's Point of Departure LP which was hidden under a pile of godawful hits of the eighties-type albums. It looked like it could be interesting as I recognised the names of some of his collaborators from other albums in my collection. At a quid it seemed worth a punt. As it turns out it's a typically essential mid-Sixties Blue Note album with stellar performances from all concerned. I'm sure that's not news to anyone with a deeper knowledge of Jazz, but Hill's name is new to me.

My interest in vinyl leans heavily towards the long playing variety, but I'm a sucker for a 7" picture sleeve and early singles by classic, or for that matter, obscure bands from the Sixties and Seventies. How could I resist a couple of German 45s by Elton John and Paul Simon each wrapped in a picture bag? A pristine Ray Charles E.P., Slade's In For A Penny, a brace of early Stones singles, the Small Faces' All Or Nothing and Queen's Seven Seas of Rhye are some of the highlights of the dozen-plus seven inchers that begged me to take them home.

I eventually procured a nice original copy of Ten Years After's Ssssh LP after ten minutes of trying to get the stallholder to commit to a price. He seemed uncertain what to charge for any of his stock and was clearly relieved when I made him an offer. He accepted without hesitation. At £7.00 I think I got a good deal. The afore-mentioned pension fund-boosting retirees let me take away a minty copy of The Beatles Live At the BBC double album for £13.00. A steal!

I was about ready to call it a day when a final rummage through what appeared to be another box of uninspiring, commonplace vinyl dross revealed the magic words Half-Speed Mastered - Special Limited Edition in an eye-catching yellow band along the top of an LP sleeve. I've been trying to lay my paws on a half-speed mastered LP for some time now. They tend to go for silly money, money that I'm reluctant to spend, but word is they sound vastly superior to a standard pressing. Or, as the promotional guff that accompanies the records states: "You are about to hear recorded music as you've probably never heard it before." A bold claim. I nonchalantly waved the LP in the vendor's general direction and disinterestedly asked how much he wanted. And so, for a quid I have a minty, half-speed mastered copy of 10cc's Greatest Hits 1972-1978. I have to say, in common with many of the titles given the H-SM audiophile treatment, the original pressings of 10cc's albums ain't too shabby anyway (it's not as if anyone's going to knock out a high fidelity pressing of Stormtroopers Of Death's Speak English Or Die LP anytime soon), but having said that... wow!!! There is a supernatural, inky blackness between tracks and a clarity of detail and imaging that kid you into believing that you are sat in the control room at Strawberry Studios listening to playback in the company of Lol Creme and Kevin Godley.

So many great records for the price of a night down the pub! And without any hint of a hangover or beer gut. Inevitably, this being England, the rain will set in soon and take up residence for the next six months, robbing me of my source of al fresco vinyl sustenance. Fingers crossed for another few weeks of fine weather!

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Random Record Review: Alien - Cosmic Fantasy (1983)

No rhyme, no reason. This is the first of what I hope will be many reviews of records selected randomly from my collection.

In the days before anyone had thought to give this stuff its own condescendingly dismissive category (Hair Metal), the brand of music made by bands like Alien, Quiet Riot, WASP, Madame X and their ilk was just Heavy Metal with an eye-catching image. I hate these revisionist tags that get appended to bands years after the event. All of a sudden, after years of being Heavy Metal, prior to which they were a Hard Rock band, Black Sabbath are Stoner Rock. What bollocks! Like stoners restrict their listening habits to Sabbath and their thousands of (pale) imitators! I can just hear the music police now: "Sorry son, I'm going to have to confiscate your jazz cigarette until you finish listening to that Creedence Clearwater Revival album." Wait a minute, jazz cigarette? You don't mean to say that men with saxophones partake too? Surely not!

So, we're clear then, Alien aren't Hair Metal! Having said that, if the rear cover photo is anything to go by, someone close to the band had ready access to a sewing machine and a pair of hair tongs. No, they absolutely, probably aren't Hair Metal and if more evidence is required, just look at how the band has broken the unwritten law of Hair Metal (that it's a boys only club) by - whisper it -  having a girl in the band. Good luck spotting which one she is. I'll give you a clue, she's not the one called Brian.

Okay, so what about the record? It starts with a china boy cymbal crash and a smorgasbord of spacey sounds. I can just picture Alien stumbling through the dry ice onto their Bacofoil and tinsel-festooned stage with this as their intro tape. A few spooky backwards masked spoken vocals, which I shan't translate for you as I value my stylus too much, add to the bargain basement atmospherics. Any misapprehension that we're listening to a Hawkwind outtake quickly evaporates with the decidedly meat and potatoes, NWOBHM-style riff and sub-Vince Neil yelp that heralds the arrival of Cosmic Fantasy, a track that is more earthbound than celestial, but dumb fun aplenty nevertheless. The riff sounds like a variation on one that's been used to good effect by both Bad News (Warriors of Genghis Khan) and Scorpions (Crazy World). Some convincing twin kick drums drive the song along. Sonically, we're in Raven and Tygers of Pan Tang territory here.

Star Lover features vocals that soar to almost waist height, weighed down by lyrics that undoubtedly benefit from being largely unintelligible. The guitar solo sounds like a couple of stray cats rutting in an alleyway.

Headbangin' features lyrical gems like "we're a hard rockin' band, we're  playin' as loud as we can, just trying to get what I need, headbanging in the street" and one of those 'momma always told me...'-type lyrics that are the bread and butter of third-tier Metal bands. What is it with Heavy Metal bands in the 1980s wanting to share the mundane advice their mothers gave them? It's either that or we have men who haven't seen the inside of a classroom for a decade or more, telling us that they're too cool for school or that they don't give a damn what their teachers tell them. Roxann Harlow's kick-arse twin kick assault provides an unfaltering rhythmic foundation on which Alien's two guitarists trade solos, but there's nothing much to distinguish them from one another - same tone, same style - serviceable, but nothing that would have had Tipton and Downing looking nervously over their shoulders. I can confirm that this song is indeed suitable for headbanging and is vaguely reminiscent of early Mötley Crüe.

Side two's opening gambit, Don't Say Goodbye,  sounds like a stab at writing something radio-friendly. It features an uncredited female on co-lead vocals (presumably drummer Roxann Harlow). On this evidence, Alien might have wanted to get her out front more regularly. A choppy rhythm guitar combines with a sensitively picked chorus-effected guitar with pleasing results.

Final track Cosmic Fantasy shares more than just its title with its namesake on side one, as it is, as far as I can be arsed to ascertain, exactly the same track. What's the point of that then? To its credit, I had no overwhelming urge to take the record off before it had finished, so I guess the song ain't so bad. A bit more backwards mumbo jumbo and some cheap and cheerful sound effects give the impression that Alien have returned to whatever planet they came from. A mini-LP, short and sweet.

As is often the case, the stories that attach themselves to a band after they call it a day help us to contextualise and evaluate their music and its ranking in the rock 'n' roll footnote hierarchy. Singer Frank Starr found his true home when he resurfaced in the early Nineties in the decidedly un-cosmic, back to basics, and rather marvellous biker-boogie band, The Four Horsemen, resolutely shaking off any lingering whiff of that Glam / Hair stigma.

Bass player Damien 'The Beast' Bardot (AKA Michael Bruno) died of cancer after 25 years on death row in Florida for the murder of a man (Lionel Merlano) at whose apartment he'd been drinking. The victim was bludgeoned with a crowbar before being shot in the head twice at point blank range. Bardot is said to have returned to Merlano's apartment numerous times to steal the victim's stereo equipment and other electronics before the body was discovered three days later. Bardot / Bruno continued to proclaim his innocence throughout his incarceration.

Bardot on death row

Unsubstantiated internet reports suggest that Roxann Harlow is now a successful business owner. She also rescues animals, and counsels troubled young women. Thank god for that ray of sunshine! Another blast of Star Lover should cheer me up!

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

R.I.P. Dick Wagner

I was sad to hear that guitar hero Dick Wagner died today aged 71 after battling ill health for a number of years. Everyone who dies after an illness is described as having battled ill health, but in Wagner's case it is no lazy cliché as he fought to overcome a stroke-induced paralysis of his left arm and relearnt how to play guitar. Fans of Kiss, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper will no doubt be aware of his contribution to some of those artists' finer moments. It was my love for Wagner's own band, The Frost, and their Through The Eyes Of Love album that lead me to discover that he had spent much of his career writing and playing on many of the records that I grew up on: Destroyer, School's Out, Peter Gabriel's solo debut and so on. Check out Wagner's official website and prepare to be amazed (yes, he really did play guitar on Aerosmith's Get Your Wings album!) Sometimes he was uncredited, all too often he remained unheralded. By all accounts he was a self-effacing, consummate professional. All I know is that he was a shit-hot guitar player who wrote some killer tunes! R.I.P.

Thursday, 3 July 2014


Speakers keep falling into my lap. It's not as painful as it sounds: I just seem to have the knack of acquiring speakers for very little money. I need four pairs for the various amp / CD player / turntable combinations in use around the house, but if I cart home anything beyond that I get one of those looks from the trouble and strife. You know, one of those looks. The full-on Medusa treatment. At last count there were eight pairs of speakers doing a lousy job of going unnoticed in various parts of the Shelf-Stacker abode, and that doesn't take into account the pair of B&W's in the loft being kept for spare parts. At one point there were three pairs of speakers in the mancave alone. Wifey's comment that "it's starting to resemble Stonehenge in here" prompted a spot of rationalisation and reorganisation. A dust-gathering pair of Kef Concord MkIVs soon fell prey to eBay and a pair of mystery floorstanding speakers (anyone heard of Promenade Prom 3 speakers?) that Freecycled their way into my life, albeit briefly, have found a loving home with friends in Somerset. Incidentally, I'd love some info on the Promenades if anyone out there knows something, anything, about them.

 L-R: Celestion Ditton 44, Promenade Prom 3, B&W DM14

Promenade Prom 3 with Celestion UL8 behind

Celestion UL8s - underrated and affordable

It's tough getting rid of speakers as they all have something different to offer. Yes, they sometimes have glaring deficiences, but then so do I and, so far, I've not found myself left out for the bin men. The Kefs had a thuggish dependability and, like a death row killer reciting poetry, they could surprise you with their sensitivity. But sweet Jesus, they were ugly! A word of advice, if you want to stand any chance of getting your better half to tolerate yet another set of speakers, make sure they complement the decor. A recent early morning jaunt to a car boot sale yielded just three LPs - my wife's relief when I carried my modest spoils through the door without the aid of a forklift truck was palpable. Imagine her delight when she discovered a hefty pair of beaten up old Wharfedales (sporting a poorly executed, DIY paint job) deposited in the hallway. It's like all her Christmases had come at once.

Wharfedale Dovedale 3 with marriage-wrecking paint job

In these situations, speed is of the essence. You can't leave your treasures sitting around advertising your fecklessness. Your wife doesn't give a rat's arse that they are a three-way design with a 12" woofer, or even that they only cost a tenner (she'd happily pay someone twice that to take them away), no, she just wants ugly shit kept out of her house. Within two hours of bringing these strays home I had sanded the cabinets to remove the offending, scuffed, matte black emulsion paint and massaged them with bees wax to bring out their hidden beauty.

Transformation in progress

Actually, I beautified just one of them on that first day, partly because it was hot and filthy work, but mainly because I wanted the missus to see the contrast between the two speakers. I do recall an expression of surprise and words along the lines of "job well done!" What I don't recall is hearing her begging me to keep them, but I've bought myself a little time - time that I'm thoroughly enjoying! I'm listening to Roger Water's Radio K.A.O.S. LP as I write this, and it sounds so rich and involving through the Wharfedales. If you have the chance to buy a pair of Wharfedale Dovedale 3s, particularly for a ten pound note, and it's analogue warmth that you want, don't hesitate to snap them up.

Wharfedale Dovedale 3 - sanded, waxed and polished

Wife-friendly Wharfedales

Temporarily usurping the Celestion Ditton 44s in the mancave

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Right Place, Wrong Time?

A few weeks back I visited a selection of my usual West London charity shop haunts in, what turned out to be, the wrong order. After picking up nothing but a copy of an, admittedly useful, reference book (Jazz: The Rough Guide) in an otherwise treasure-free shop, I sauntered into the next store to see a young, pony-tailed guy hunched over a rapidly emptying crate with a pile of some two dozen LPs by his side. How could this be happening? This shop never has anything apart from the usual dust-gathering James Last LPs. I couldn't help it, painful though it was, I had to see what I'd missed out on. After a quick chat, during which I discovered that my nemesis was actually a nice fella who'd just got into vinyl and was trying to build up a collection, I took the plunge and looked through his finds. He had some choice items, but thankfully, most of them I already have, so I'm happy for him - he's got his collection off to a great start. The only album I was tempted to do a runner with, and it was the one I saw him studying when I first walked in, was a mono, first pressing of Dylan's Blonde On Blonde. Bugger! Fortunately, either his taste or his budget didn't stretch to the entire crate as he left me a decent original copy of Quicksilver Messenger Service's Happy Trails and a London Records first pressing of ZZ Top's Tres Hombres for £1.50 each, plus an armful of 7" singles on the Two-Tone label. Not a bad haul, but I'm still gutted about that Dylan LP!


More recently though, I was the one in the right place at the right time. I was digging through an uninspiring and all too familiar crate-full of vinyl cast-offs in another of my local charity shops when some bloke began quizzing me about my taste in music. Now, I love to talk about music almost as much as I enjoy listening to it, but not when I'm in the zone. Give me a plump sofa, a spinning disc and a bottle of red and you have my undivided attention. When my head's in a box of vinyl I'm in my own little world - keep out, trespassers will be shot! Maybe I should learn to be less of a dick, particularly as, it transpires, this guy was getting around to asking if perhaps I might like his ex-girlfriend's record collection which was languishing in the back of his wardrobe - free of charge. Despite his assertion that "it's all crap", numbers were exchanged and, to cut to the chase, I am now the proud owner of said collection of over 50 LPs consisting almost entirely of Bowie's and Bolan's back catalogues. Jesus, did this guy's girlfriend have a thing for Marc Bolan! Some of the LPs are so trashed that I'm considering a sideline in vinyl craft tat, but most of them cleaned up sufficiently well to be worthy of their place in my collection. I have the feeling that offloading the ex-girlfriend's record collection was a therapeutic experience for my benefactor, so we're both happy.

A selection from the Bolan / Bowie haul

You don't half get a glimpse into someone else's head when you dig through their record collection, especially one as focussed and time capsule-like as this one! It's almost as revealing as a sneaky peak at their diary. Much as the former-owner of these LPs had no idea how to treat her records, it's obvious that she loved the music contained in the grooves and every word and image on the sleeves. Posters that would have originally been with the LPs have long since disappeared, no doubt frayed and faded beyond repair after years of being pinned to a bedroom wall. Some of the early Tyrannosaurus Rex LPs had been purchased as two-for-one double album reissues, which obviously didn't sit well with her as she took it upon herself to hack up the gatefolds to create two single LP sleeves to give the illusion that they had been bought as separate albums. Who was she trying to kid, especially as she had used a combination of parcel tape and electrical insulation tape to join the constituent parts together? There is something quite charming about the naive, teenaged fan-ness of her efforts though.

TOOFA becomes one

Tyrannosaurus Wrecked!

A couple of the LPs don't have their original sleeves. Whether this is because they were stuck on a bedroom wall, lost at a party or bought sleeveless from a bargain bin way back when, who knows! Undeterred, the Bolan / Bowie fan created her own customised replacements in a Spinal Tap pre-dating, plain black design, by painting various godawful 1970s easy listening sleeves with thick, black emulsion paint. I wonder if her parents knew the fate of their Klaus Wunderlich LPs?

T. Rex. None more black

I thought I'd stumbled upon a rarity with this gatefold sleeved UK pressing of Bowie's Pin Ups, but no, it's a single sleeved album that has been turned into a Frankenstein's monster of a gatefold with donor parts from another dismembered easy listening sleeve, the Pin Ups album insert and the sleeve from a Bowie maxi single. Creative yes, but what a horrible mess!

Pin Ups gatefold 'rarity'

Inside the custom-built gatefold sleeve

The easy listening innards

And check out this subtle repair job!

Despite some of the horrors described and shown here, I count myself fortunate to have found enough quality items to fill most of the gaps in my less-than-comprehensive Bowie collection (where has the brilliant Station To Station been all my life?) and I now own more T. Rex albums than you could bang a gong at. Random accidents of geography and timing like the one that brought these LPs to me are what make record collecting such a buzz.