Friday, 27 November 2015

Random Record Review: The Doors - The Soft Parade (1969)

Dismissed by Rolling Stone magazine upon its release as “musical constipation”, The Soft Parade has never had it easy. An inability to take risks and develop musically is surely a greater signifier of musical constipation than the rampant experimentation on display here. Part of the initial animosity towards the LP was based on the fact that five of the nine tracks on offer had already been available on 7”. From a 21st century perspective, where albums are exhaustively mined for hits, this criticism hardly stands up. Robbie Krieger said of The Soft Parade that “we liked it, but no-one else seemed to,” and Morrison bemoaned its lack of a “unified feeling and style”. What do they know! Artists are inevitably too close to their work to gauge its worth without their opinions being tainted by the trials and tribulations of the recording process and the mauling of critics.

The record’s sleeve is striking in its simplicity: a long-shot of the band huddled around a camera which, like the band members’ gazes, focuses squarely on you, the record buyer. Are The Doors scrutinizing their audience, trying to size them up? For much of their career the band had appealed as much to a pop audience as to the acid-dropping hippie revolutionary, so trying to second guess the expectations of such a diverse fan base was all but impossible. What better excuse to give their creativity free rein?

With The Soft Parade, Morrison had finally, explicitly revealed himself to be the counter-culture Sinatra. Always equal parts crooner and blues howler, Morrison’s regard for the Italian-American singer was well established. His suggestion that Sinatra record a cover of You’re Lost Little Girl in the light of his troubled marriage to Mia Farrow fell on deaf ears, but would undoubtedly have been an inspired song choice for Old Blue Eyes.

So, what of the music? For many, the most contentious aspect of The Soft Parade’s sonic tapestry is the introduction of, and heavy reliance on, horns and strings. And certainly, the opening horn blast of Tell All The People must have been a shock to long-term fans. Sinatra’s influence on Morrison is immediately obvious. However, within  the soulful lounge-rock stew is a potent, Robbie Krieger-penned call to arms.

Touch Me, the first single from the LP, is a jazzy, swinging tune with deft organ / drum interplay. Morrison sounds bored, or perhaps just drunk, but there is no denying how infectious the tune is. Shaman’s Blues has a sound that is instantly recognisable as The Doors. The horns have taken the night off, a darker, more intense Morrison is in the vocal booth and Robbie Krieger’s labyrinthine guitar, Ray Manzarek’s carnival organ and John Densmore’s inch perfect jazz drumming combine in a waltz-time concoction that must surely have been a huge influence on The Stranglers' Golden Brown. 

Do It would be as throwaway as many reviews suggest if it were not for the usual telepathic interplay between drums, organ and guitar. Easy Ride is a drunken Benny Hill Show hoedown and not nearly as bad as that description might suggest, whereas Wild Child has that woozy, unsettling, hypnotic, off-kilter rhythm of classic Doors. What am I saying? This is classic Doors. Morrison’s commanding voice is beautifully complemented by Robbie Krieger’s haunting, stoned slide guitar. The horns make their return for Runnin’ Blue in which fiddle and mandolin combine with Krieger’s hillbilly vocal for a love it or loathe it chorus. A middle eight that’s as dark as the chorus is hokey make this a song of contrasts (and so much the better for it.) Wishful Sinful is more wistful than wishful, with a string section lending a melancholy beauty to the piece. Someone in The Doors camp had almost certainly been listening to what Arthur Lee had been doing on Alone Again Or.

The centrepiece of the album is the title track. Clocking in at just shy of nine minutes, it is an unhinged, Morrison-penned album-within-an-album. Following the dreamy Wishful Sinful with The Soft Parade demonstrates just how masterful the track sequencing is on this LP. Only by listening to the album as a whole can it really be appreciated. iTunes cherry picking cannot do it justice. The track starts with a Morrison rant against delusional God-bothering (“you cannot petition the Lord with prayer”), then tumbles into a harpsichord lullaby which in turn morphs into a lysergic funk interlude before reverting to jazzy lullaby mode. The darker side of Morrison returns with some exquisitely obtuse lyrics (“the monk bought lunch”)  beneath which John Densmore’s drums steer proceedings towards a conga and organ groove-fest. Morrison becomes increasingly strident and impassioned over the band’s dirty, swamp-funk backdrop until his multi-tracked vocals, sounding like the bickering voices of a schizophrenic, take the song to its climax: “when all else fails we can whip the horse’s eyes and make them sleep, and cry” intones the Lizard King in gloriously cryptic fashion. What does it mean? Who cares? Would you really rather hear another lyric about how my baby done me wrong? This track is a true nugget, and not of the turkey variety either!

In the context of Janis Joplin’s post-Big Brother recordings and what Arthur Lee was doing in Love, The Soft Parade album makes perfect sense. Sadly, Jim Morrison’s reputation as an incoherent, drunken buffoon probably did more to harm critical perception of The Doors than their most challenging music ever could. Would The Doors’ body of work really have been enriched if this LP had never been made? Absolutely not! It would be much the poorer for its absence.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Tonar Wetgoat Vinyl Hygiene

It's hard to get too excited about a record cleaning brush, but if you're in the market for a brush to wet-clean your records, this could be of interest to you. Those of you who have read my review of the Moth Mk II Pro record cleaning machine will know that I have been using a Parastat record cleaning brush with my RCM. Whilst this has been very effective, I always wondered what reasonably priced modern brushes were readily available, and how they might compare.

There are dozens of brushes on the market, all with their own loyal supporters. Most of these I have rejected either because they are prohibitively expensive or because they wouldn't suit my cleaning regime on a practical level. I need a brush that is not only the same width as an LP, but that has similar dimensions to the slot on my RCM's vacuum suction pipe. I vacuum my brush clean and free of dirt and excess moisture after cleaning every side of vinyl, to avoid any cross-contamination; if the brush's bristles won't fit in the vacuum slot, then they're not going to get very clean. The Parastat satisfied this requirement, and so does my new Tonar Wetgoat cleaning brush. It's amazing how many supposedly purpose-made brushes don't.

The Tonar brush looks as attractive as could be reasonably expected of a mundane tool. At least the manufacturers have made an effort with the business-like colour and logo. Ergonomically, the Tonar brush is well designed: its generously-sized handle is comfortable to hold and helps to ensure that it doesn't slip from your grip during use. It could have been improved further by rounding off the sharp edges and corners of the brush's plastic body, but with careful use this shouldn't pose any problems.

The handle of this brush isn't as wide as the Parastat's which means that it can't be stood up when not in use. I always found it useful to be able to stand the Parastat on its spine when I needed my hands free to flip a record over. This prevented contamination of the bristles. The Tonar addresses this problem, after a fashion, by having a stepped body that, when lain logo-side down, lifts the bristles off whatever flat surface the brush is resting on. Whether this is an intentional function of design or a happy accident, I couldn't say.

Of course, the big selling point of the Tonar is that it has goat hair bristles. Being a natural fibre helps to prevent the kind of static build-up often associated with man-made fibres. The bristles are surprisingly soft - they must have come from one easy-living, well-groomed goat! - but seem to find a happy middle ground between being kind to your records and tough on ingrained crud. Because they are shorter than the bristles in the Parastat, this lends them the necessary rigidity and the structural integrity and strength to reach deep into the record grooves. In my experience, the Tonar has occasionally shed a hair, particularly when first used, but these are fine enough to be vacuumed away.

As far as doing what it is designed to do, that is, clean records, I can't see much difference between the results achieved by the Tonar and the Parastat: they both do an effective job. I would guess that the bristles of the Tonar are finer, so perhaps get a little deeper into the grooves, but I'm not hearing any night and day difference between the quality of playback after cleaning with the Tonar as opposed to the Parastat. The biggest difference is one of practicality: with heavy use, the Parastat's wooden body would begin to absorb some of the cleaning fluid from the wet bristles and was prone to swelling. On occasions this necessitated a repair when the handle came apart at its glued seams. There is no such problem with the plastic bodied Tonar brush.

The Parastat has served me well for years. The Tonar seems to be its equal, but only time will tell whether it continues to function at the same high level. One concern is that, being a natural fibre, the goat hair bristles might, over time (because natural fibres are more absorbent than man-made ones), become harder to keep clean. But at £13.99 from various vendors on eBay, giving the Tonar a try isn't going to break the bank.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Haunted By Vinyl Ghosts

On Saturday it was the annual street sale 'round my neck of the woods: a chance for local residents to set up a stall outside their home and sell, well, whatever takes their fancy, so long as it's legal. It's an opportunity to wander the streets, say 'hi' to a few unfamiliar faces, pick up that jar of homemade jam that you never realised you needed and let your kids root through the piles of Nerf guns, Horrid Henry books and loom bands that other people's kids have outgrown. It's a pleasant way of spending an hour which, ordinarily, finds me stocking up on DVDs of films that I've never got around to watching and am too tight to pay proper money for. This year I didn't find any DVDs I wanted. This year I found records!

The kids had got their Nerf guns, Mrs Shelf-Stacker had her jam and, just when it looked like I was going home empty-handed, a box of vinyl appeared, perched on a wall outside the local church. Any fears that I was about to spend a fruitless sixty seconds flipping through James Last and Tijuana Brass LPs were quickly allayed by the sight of Dylan's Blood On The Tracks peeking over the end of the box. It happens so often: I spend ages hunting for an LP, then when I find one (during our holiday to the States in the case of the Dylan classic), another crops up almost immediately, in pristine condition. Still, it had to auger well for the rest of the box, right? Too right!

Unless I needed an upgrade copy, I ignored albums I already owned, and grabbed LPs by artists including Captain Beefheart, Tim Hardin, Jimi Hendrix, The Band, Julian Priester, Jan Garbarek, The Ramones and Bob Marley. Seventy quid for seventeen albums: not give-away prices, but what's that, just over £4.00 each? Even before I got home and checked what Record Collector's Rare Record Price Guide had to say about the Artwoods' Art Gallery LP that made up part of my stash, I knew that it was quite a find. Irrespective of value, I was excited at the thought of hearing an album featuring Ron Wood's older brother, a young, pre-Purple Jon Lord and Keef Hartley. As it happens, I'd landed an extremely well-preserved first pressing of an album that, in mint condition, is worth £700.

But that's just half the story: by a weird and heart-warming coincidence - one that makes me think these LPs were destined to come home with me - it transpires that the gent who sold them to me, lived, some twenty years ago, in the house that I now call home. To think that the sounds on each of these records reverberated around these exact same walls all those years ago! After two decades of having been boxed up and moved from house to house (both here and in the USA), like wandering spirits these LPs have returned to haunt the very rooms where their sonic spell was first cast. It's enough to make me believe that every record has a soul. I'm listening to Jan Garbarek's Dansere as I type this - one of the most haunting and achingly beautiful pieces of music I've heard in a long time - and imagining the bricks and mortar of my man-cave welcoming the vibrations emanating from the disc like long-lost friends.

Monday, 31 August 2015

California Crate Dig

San Francisco, Mission District street art

I'm just back from my latest family jaunt Stateside - this time to San Francisco and various points south - armed once again with the indispensable VinylDistrict iPhone app. Not wanting to take any chances with getting my purchases home safe and sound, I got kitted out with a sturdy flight case before heading out. It's built like a brick shithouse and at £30.00 didn't break the bank.

I'm no stranger to the Golden State and its record stores, so was fully expecting rich pickings. Before leaving home I had compiled a US vinyl wish-list; not a comprehensive list of every record that I hoped to add to my collection, but a best case scenario, cream of the crop, fingers crossed kind of a vinyl roll call. Of the 75 LPs I brought home, eight of them were from my hundred-strong wish-list. I'm yet to decide whether that's a result or not.

The holiday began in San Francisco, one of my favourite cities and home to more nut-jobs and dead-eyed junkies than you could shake a shitty stick at. Walking through the Tenderloin, even in daylight, is like stumbling onto the set of Michael Jackson's Thriller video. The people there really have been left to rot. Those drug casualties who haven't completely given up on interacting with anyone other than their crack dealer haul their arses up to the Haight to hang out and provide a bit of authentic counter-culture colour for the tourists. It's all a million miles from the manicured perfection of Russian Hill and the commercial artifice of Fisherman's Wharf. Except, it's not - it's just a manageable walk away. But anyway... record stores. There are plenty of them.

Recycled Records, Haight Street, San Francisco

Last time I was here I got into an altercation with the guy at the checkout because he didn't think I needed a bag for my purchases. That was a decade ago. The staff are still on the glacial side of frosty, but at least the stock is interesting and the place is a manageable size. I was chuffed to find a copy of Wichita Fall's Life Is But A Dream and a Locomotiv GT album. A good start to the trip!

Amoeba Records, Haight Street, San Francisco

It looks like it's going to be vinyl nirvana when you survey the acres of racks that greet you as you cross the threshold, but the truth is that since my last visit the amount of space given over to vinyl appears to have shrunk, and much of what there is consists of new, sealed LPs - which I can pick up on Amazon any time - mixed in with the used stock. That's not to say that I came away empty-handed, but the pickings were slimmer than I had anticipated. Of the eight LPs I purchased, perhaps the most interesting was a self-titled album by Shotgun Ltd, which is an impressive and largely unheralded slab of hard rock and comes highly recommended. Incidentally, the staff member who sneered "we're not a toy store" when my wife and Kiss-obsessed kids asked if Amoeba sold Kiss action figures, might want to think whether a customer service job is really right for him. Prick!

Originals Vinyl, 3150 18th St #105, San Francisco 

This is more like it: a welcoming record store run by a friendly, enthusiastic, helpful guy who allowed me to listen to anything and everything before committing to buy. It seems that the smaller the store, the better the quality of the music on offer, and the better the service. I can't recommend this store highly enough. It's a bit off the beaten track, nestled in a tiny unit in what appears to be a small industrial estate, but Originals Vinyl is an essential stop-off if you're looking for vinyl, particularly 60s / 70s psych and hard rock. There's a pretty healthy jazz section too which provided me with a couple of gems. The cheaper stuff is at floor-level, but the low prices in no way reflect the fantastic selection of goodies on offer. Highlights of my haul included Ramatam's In April Came the Dawning of the Red Suns, The Yellow Payges' Volume 1, White Water's Out Of The Darkness and Larry Coryell's Offering, each for a measly five dollars. A fantastic little shop!

Logos Books & Records, Santa Cruz

Logos is definitely more of a bookstore than a record shop, but there is still a reasonable, if limited, selection of used vinyl to dig through. I came away after 15 minutes, having checked out all the vinyl there was to see, clutching Savoy Brown's Blue Matter ($3.00) and Spooky Tooth's You Broke My Heart So I Busted Your Jaw ($6.50), so it was certainly worth a look.

Streetlight Records, Santa Cruz

Streetlight is a nice store - if slightly confusingly laid out - and the staff are friendly. It's unfair to judge a used record store on its stock after just one visit, but despite full racks, I struggled to find much of interest. Prices are reasonable, but the stock when I visited was just a tad uninspiring. Richer pickings another time maybe?

Metavinyl, Cedar Street, Santa Cruz

The clean, simple logo that announces the store to the street presages the smart, minimalist interior. Clutter is kept to a minimum and the racks are arranged around the edges of the room to give an airy, spacious feel. The used and new vinyl is racked separately (halleluiah!) and clearly labelled. Prices of used vinyl are very reasonable, starting at a dollar.

It's always a test of my patience and parenting skills when my bored kids are rolling around at my feet, play-fighting and shouting at each other while I'm digging through racks of records. I think the store owner coped with their 'colourful' behaviour better than I did and, for that, I'm grateful, as I found a bunch of quality titles within Metavinyl's racks. I've been looking for a minty copy of Dylan's Blood On The Tracks for some time, and I found one here for a grab-it-and-run $8, along with Traffic's John Barleycorn for $5, Harvey Mandel's The Snake for $7 and The Resurrection Band's Awaiting Your Reply for $5, which, if you can ignore the god-squad lyrics, is a kick-arse, must-hear, heavy rock LP! Not that it was audible over the racket my kids were making, but ELO's Out Of The Blue was playing over the shop's system for the duration of my visit: that earns Metavinyl extra points in my book. The kids were given stickers when we left (presumably on the understanding that they never return.) My favourite of Santa Cruz's record shops.

Recycled Records, Lighthouse Ave, Monterey

With my family happily ensconced on the beach, I made the eight mile drive into Monterey and took full advantage of my freedom. Recycled Records has masses of well-ordered stock, some hard-to-find titles and bargain bins that contain the occasional gem if you're prepared to root through some pretty mundane stuff. I bought eight LPs including a couple of Keef Hartley albums, two by The Flock and Badfinger's Magic Christian Music, prices for which ranged from $5.50 to $11.50.

Sean, the co-owner of Recycled Records, is friendly once you've lured him from his little wooden booth and engaged him in conversation (I never did find out the purpose of the mysterious booth), and he was kind enough to steer me in the direction of my next digging spot a couple of miles up the road in Pacific Grove.

Vinyl Revolution, Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove

Pacific Grove is a well-heeled and attractive stop-off five minutes' drive down the coast from Monterey. Vinyl Revolution declares its presence with a sign executed in Master Of Reality-hued purple, a window box display of half buried LPs and the sound of a band in thrall to Black Sabbath bludgeoning its way from the store's sound system. Bob, the proprietor, looks like the Big Lebowski's biker brother and is affable and interesting company. Anyone who understands the brilliance of Captain Beyond's debut and Judas Priest's Sad Wings Of Destiny is alright in my book. A hand-made, wooden Scorpions logo adorns one wall of Vinyl Revolution - a remnant of a shop display from the time of Taken By Force. It really ties the room together.

Vinyl Revolution's stock is priced to sell. The records that I dug out from the bargain bins have clearly been well-used, but none of them is trashed: The Beatles' Yellow Submarine, Blues Project's Projections and Richie Havens' Alarm Clock for $0.25c each! My most expensive item was Triumvirat's Pompeii LP; a steal at a shade under four dollars. My only regret is that I didn't pick up a copy of a single by Bob's own band, The Tomb Weavers: an authentic-sounding, 60s-style garage band recorded in the store's back room. Top bloke, nice store!

Granny Had One, Main Street, Cambria

Cambria's real draw is the beautiful, wild beaches, but the town has much to recommend it too, with its large choice of restaurants and antique shops, many of which have the odd rack of vinyl lurking, waiting to be discovered. Prices are often on the optimistic side of realistic, but there's always something worth a punt. In the case of Granny Had One, I left with Grand Funk Railroad's All The Girls In The World Beware ($7.50) and Sea Train's hard to find debut ($8.50) under my arm.

Country Collectibles, Main Street, Cambria

The beauty of shopping for vinyl in places like this is that there's plenty of books, jewellery, antiques and vintage toys to keep Mrs Shelf-Stacker and the kids entertained while I flick through the surprisingly sizeable vinyl selection, amongst which I found a nice clean US pressing of Badfinger's No Dice on the Apple label for $20 - a fraction of the cost of buying a UK original back home. I realise now that my taste in music belongs in an antique shop after the sweet old lady behind the counter looked at my T-shirt and commented: "Black Sabbath! It doesn't get any better than that!"

Boo Boo Records, San Luis Obispo

For a fairly large store, I struggled to find much of interest here, in part because much of what's on offer is new vinyl. Having said that, I did pick up The Association's self-titled album ($3.00), Redwing's eponymous debut ($1.00) and Trouble's Live In L.A. ($10.00), so I can't complain. Prices seem very reasonable. The staff at Boo Boo Records are friendly, welcoming and kept the kids happy with stickers and badges promoting the recent, expanded reissue of Led Zeppelin's Coda. This is another store where it's probably unfair to judge it on the back of one visit because on a different day I'm sure there would be more interesting used records in stock to supplement the wide range of music-themed peripherals such as T-shirts, playing cards, mugs and key fobs.

Cheap Thrills, San Luis Obispo

When I first climbed the stairs to the vinyl section of Cheap Thrills, I thought I was in heaven. The place is huge. Not Amoeba huge, but pretty impressive nevertheless. Once I had got my bearings and had a tentative poke around, I realised that it was more manageable than I had at first thought, as great swathes of the racks house genres that are of no interest to me. The next thing I noticed - something that initially made me want to walk out empty handed - was that all the LPs are sealed in plastic sleeves making it impossible to check the condition of the vinyl. The urge to leave subsided once I'd spotted the signs explaining that records are visually graded and can be inspected at the till prior to purchase. Not something I'd encountered in a record store before, but fair enough. I needn't have worried as all the records I picked up had been very conservatively graded and, what's more, every LP comes with a free, brand new, protective outer sleeve upon request.

I had to pay two visits to Cheap Thrills to satisfy myself that I'd not missed anything. I came away with ten LPs ranging in price from $1.98 to $9.98, including a pair of Barefoot Jerry albums, James Gang Live, Sugarloaf's Spaceship Earth, Dreams' self-titled album and Zephyr's debut featuring Tommy Bolin.

Downstairs at Cheap Thrills is a labyrinth of CDs, comics, action figures, computer games, cables and connectors and anything and everything vaguely related to music and home entertainment. My kids filled their pockets with complimentary fridge magnets and stickers, and charmed the guy at the checkout sufficiently for him to give them each a Hotwheels toy. A superb store that I would live in if I was a local. And there's a customer car park.

One thing I noticed throughout California is that many record stores are racking new vinyl in amongst the used stock. I hate that. To me they are different things that have their own separate appeal and should be shelved separately. You wouldn't expect vintage apparel to be hung on the same rail as new clothes, or for used cars to sit alongside new vehicles on a garage forecourt, or for dog-eared paperbacks to be shelved next to the crisp, new books in Waterstones; same principle applies to vinyl. My over all impressions of my modest sample of California's record stores are that the prices are higher than on the east coast (although there may have been a nationwide price hike in the two years since my last visit to the States) and that, with the odd exception, small is beautiful when it comes to vinyl shopping: as with any retail experience, a smile and a spot of friendly banter goes a long way.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Number One With A Mullet!

Any regular visitors to this blog will know that I'm strangely drawn to facial frippery. Give me an LP with a gatefold sleeve stuffed with handlebar moustaches and mutton chops and I'll play you an album by men whose don't-give-a-monkey's attitude translates into sonic nirvana. Or, if the attitude gets lost in translation and the music's shit, we can at least have a giggle at some funny photos. But hey, let's not forget that other heroically leftfield fashion statement - one that's all too rare in 2015 - the magnificent mullet. Occasionally, I dig out an LP featuring a mullet sufferer to remind myself that this particular disability needn't be an obstacle to making some damn fine music. Other times I just point and laugh, depends how the mood takes me. And yes, I know 'mullet' doesn't rhyme with 'bullet', but that's artistic licence for you!

Without further hairdo, I mean ado, our first ambassadors of 'business-in-the-front, party-at-the-back'-chic are two of Sammy Hagar's sidekicks, Gary Pihl and Bill Church. Clearly their hairdresser was having a buy-one-get-one-free promotion that the guys just couldn't pass up. Some couples have matching tattoos, others plump for his-and-his barnet modification. I bet they complete each other's sentences too. Bless!

In all likelihood they were aiming for Ziggy Stardust. They landed closer to Linda McCartney territory. Whatever their inspiration, what is astounding is that the boys sported these mullets way back in 1980 and may well be responsible for popularising a look that defined a decade. Blame them, celebrate their vision - whichever way you see it - but credit where it's due, these guys were the fountainhead. Without them Billy Ray Cyrus would have looked like one of Jethro Tull's roadies.

The Pihl and Church mullets can be found on the rear sleeve of Hagar's Danger Zone LP: my fave by the Red Rocker by some distance. I picked it up on pre-recorded tape back in '81 and played that thing to death. I particularly enjoyed the menacing pulse of The Iceman featuring Journey's Steve Perry on backing vocals. See what you think. If it doesn't grab you immediately, you might want to mullet over.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Audio Aroma Flashback

They do say that our sense of smell is the sense most closely linked to memory, and I can well believe it. I just picked up some more vintage hi-fi bits and pieces that I really don't need (at a price that I couldn't pass up), which give off an aroma that takes me right back to my childhood. I have fond recollections of tagging along with my dad when he would visit the electrical department in Beatties department store in Wolverhampton to demo the latest Pioneer or Trio amplifiers. This would have been back in the early-to-mid 1970s, so the lighting section that we walked through on our way to the hi-fi department was a dizzying display of lurid lava lamps and swaying fibre optic dandelion lamps. They provided the perfect mood-setter for the racks of illuminated dials, UV meters and glowing receivers that awaited us. I could always smell the amps and tape decks before I caught sight of their aluminium facades. The smell seems to be unique to hi-fi components of that era. It is the smell of the air the moment before a thunderstorm, of ozone, of the cooling breeze coming off the sea at the end of a hot day. These days the only time I smell something similar is when I walk past the Kwik-Fit tyre centre, but there, it is tainted with the odours of rubber and oil. My wife thinks I'm insane because I insisted she inhale the air in my man cave, but to me it's more than a smell: it's pure nostalgia. It is for me what the smell of steam trains was to my dad: an olfactory gateway to happy childhood memories. It is, as if I needed one, another reason to own vintage hi-fi.


For the miserly sum of £25 I managed to secure a Philips Sound Project TA 12000 receiver, N2537 tape deck, AF 777 automatic turntable and a rather underwhelming modern pair of Acoustic Solutions AV-20 Mk II bookshelf speakers. Amazingly, considering that they must be over 35 years-old, none of these Philips components has lost that distinctive smell. If I close my eyes and breathe deeply, it's 1974 again and Slade are still in the charts. You don't get that with an ipod.

Being from another era, the receiver has those horrible slot and pin speaker inputs and din connectors which make it a challenge to hook up to my Linn Sondek and CD player. So, until I raid Maplins, I have had to content myself with listening to cassettes and that deceptively cheap and cheerful Philips turntable. The fast forward and rewind functions on the tape deck are painfully slow, but playback is good, and the whole unit has a bullet-proof, built-to-last feel to it. It's been fun listening, for the first time in years, to my tapes of Diamond Head and Y&T at the 1982 Reading festival. The backlit tape compartment and dancing level meters just add to the experience. The receiver is similarly tank-like of build with beautifully turned aluminium knobs, satisfyingly smooth and weighted response from the tuning dial and a nice 'n chunky, click-step, incrementally graduated volume control. And this thing weighs a ton. These receivers seemed to sell well and be highly regarded in mainland Europe, but rarely appear for sale in the UK, so information on them, in English at least, is a bit thin on the ground. I'll reserve judgement on the sound quality of the receiver until I've had the chance to hook up my usual sources, but initial impressions are very good. And it kicks out a meaty, for its time, 60 watts per channel.

One huge surprise is just how good that light-weight, fully automatic, Philips turntable sounds. It came fitted with a Philips GP 400 Mk II cartridge with spherical stylus which I was expecting to sound like a dog, particularly as I had no way of knowing how many hours service it had seen, but as it turns out, it punches well above its weight.

Talking of weight, the AF 777 turntable has a nifty, built-in VTF gauge which makes setting up the cartridge completely foolproof. Despite that, the previous owner had it set over the recommended tracking force, so I dialled it down a half gram and got this little deck singing. I've not entrusted anything other than my duplicate LPs to the mercy of that stylus so far, but it tracks wonderfully, without so much as a hint of inner groove distortion or sibilance. I'm planning on keeping this deck to give to my kids when the time is right, as its fully automatic operation and cheap-to-replace stylus will make it a perfect way to introduce them to vinyl. I wish I'd had a first turntable as good as this.

Read more about it here.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Re-imagining The Beatles #7 - Zoot

The Beatles have long been my favourite band. Why wouldn't they be? If it's power pop, piano balladry, proto-heavy metal, musique concrète, psychedelic experimentation or childlike whimsy that I want to hear, the Fab Four can provide it all with a verve and vitality that remains unequalled. Why then it's taken me until 2015 to get myself to a Paul McCartney gig is a mystery - perhaps a fear that he might not live up to expectations, or perhaps the cost of tickets (£125 each on this tour) played a part - but I finally crossed Macca's name off my bucket-list last month at London's  O2.

Macca puts on a show

McCartney is 72 years old, but you wouldn't know it to see him perform. His nearly-three hour show features a set-list that ranges from the oddball electro-pop of Temporary Secretary, through the drama and bombast of Live And Let Die, to the tender regret of Yesterday, even managing to shoehorn in a guest appearance by Dave Grohl on I Saw Her Standing There. McCartney's peerless back catalogue, the surefootedness of the band that he's assembled around him and the enduring cultural significance of The Beatles made the O2 show an emotional and life affirming event. During the opening bars of Paperback Writer it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks that I was watching an ex-Beatle performing on stage and the emotional weight of the moment got the better of me and my bottom lip. Elsewhere in the set a faithful run-through of Eleanor Rigby got me thinking about some of the cover versions of this Revolver classic that I've enjoyed. And so, in honour of the godlike genius that is Paul McCartney, I figured it was time to revive my Re-imagining The Beatles feature. 

There have been numerous attempts by bands to stamp their own identity on this Beatles classic. Notable examples include those by Vanilla Fudge who turn in a typically waffling, overwrought performance which gets bogged down in its own pomposity and self-importance; The Ides Of March who add stabbing horns and fuzz guitar wailing to the mix; and Pure Food & Drug Act featuring the one-time Canned Heat guitarist Harvey Mandel in full-on extended jam mode sparring with the fiddle player from hell.

All seem to have ignored the lyrical themes of loneliness and regret that inform the wistful sonic texture of the Beatles original and have toughened up the sound considerably. If you can get over the incongruity between the tone of the lyrics and the muscular reworking of the music in these covers, there is much to recommend them (even the Vanilla Fudge one if you're in the mood for a spot of earnest, po-faced, self-aggrandisement.)

Superb though these covers are, the best, and most brutal of all the Eleanor Rigby re-workings is by Aussie band Zoot who featured a young Rick Springfield (of Jessie's Girl fame) on guitar (but don't let that put you off.) I feel a bit of a fraud featuring this version here because I don't own the record. If you saw the prices it goes for on the rare occasions that it comes up for sale, you'd appreciate why I've yet to snag a copy. Any criticisms of Zoot's re-imagining of Eleanor Rigby (it's bludgeoning lack of subtlety, its disregard for McCartney's melancholic lyric) are all theoretically valid, but rendered moot by the sheer shit-kicking heaviosity of the riff that Zoot graft onto the song to transform it into a driving, proto-Metal monster. Like it or loathe it, there's no denying that it re-invents the Beatles' original. But is it better? Whoever posted this YouTube video seems to think so.


Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Blackcat Records - Taunton

I love visiting a record shop for the first time; flicking through virgin stock, not knowing what might leap into my hands. It's particularly thrilling to dig in an area far from home. On these occasions, records that the locals have become blind to, that they've grown tired of seeing cluttering up the racks, can benefit from a fresh pair of eyes. LPs that might be considered common or overpriced in one area can look cheap and desirable to an out-of-towner. And so it was when Wurzel, my West Country connection, introduced me to Blackcat Records in Taunton on a recent visit to Somerset.

The first thing I noticed about Blackcat is that it doesn't look like a complete shit-hole. I've spent enough time in record stores that have the appearance and smell of the final resting place of a soap-dodging hoarder to be quite taken aback at the sight of a well-lit shop that looks to have been hoovered occasionally. That's not to say that I'm averse to crate digging in squalor, but it's always a bonus to leave a record store without flea bitten ankles and the stench of mildew in my clothes.

So, where are the piles of vinyl littering the floor? Not at Blackcat: every record has a place in the racks. Even the lowly £1 bargains are neatly contained in crates tucked under the main stock. Records are organised alphabetically within genre, but your idea of what genre certain artists fall under may well differ from Blackcat's, so best to look through everything if you have the time. Brand spanking new records share rack space with pre-loved vinyl, particularly in the 60s Psych section which, unsurprisingly (given the rarity of many of the original titles), leans heavily on reissues to justify its existence. Records seem, on the whole, to be in great condition and priced to sell: not give-away prices, but temptingly reasonable. I picked up Kraan's Let It Out and Klaatu's Sir Army Suit LPs for £8 and £7 respectively.

I can't believe how many of the record shops I visit don't have a 'New Arrivals' section. Much as I love one of my local stores (Collectors' Records in Kingston-Upon-Thames), the lack of a 'New Arrivals' section means that I have to trawl through thousands of records that have been clogging the racks for months, years in some cases, to find any fresh stock. Fortunately, Blackcat doesn't commit this crime, having a prominent 'New Arrivals' rack next to the counter for regular customers with limited digging time.

The head honcho at Blackcat is a friendly, outgoing bloke despite feigning coyness when I suggested I might blog about his shop. Pay him a visit if you're in the West Country. Nice little shop!  

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Nagaoka U-Turn

A while back I wrote about my experiences with the Nagaoka MP11 cartridge. Perhaps my review was a tad premature. I should know from experience that I need to live with a new addition to my hi-fi set-up for some time before declaring my undying love. I've always been the same with women; there have been plenty of girlfriends in the past who, after a couple of dates, I convinced myself I could happily marry. As it happens, I've hardly married any of them. With something as important as a phonograph cartridge I ought to have known better than to rush to any conclusions.

I'm not one of those audiophiles who uses an oscilloscope, a spectrum analyzer and a bunch of graphs to determine the quality of my hi-fi. No, I prefer to use my ears, a stack of lovely vinyl and the hairs on the back of my neck. The only thing a graph will tell you is that you are badly dressed and will never have a girlfriend.

In short, my ears demanded that the Nagaoka be returned to its box, retired, put out to pasture. The more records I listened to with the MP11, the less I enjoyed the experience; the less I recognised it from all those glowing online reviews. To extend the girlfriend metaphor, it's like dating an attractive woman with whom, after a couple of dates, you realise you have no chemistry. There's no spark, no connection. The more you look for it, the more its absence jars and you wonder why your friends who fixed you up on the date were so enthusiastic about her. Actually, that analogy doesn't work, because there is nothing attractive about the boxy, beige Nagaoka, but it's true that I did find myself on edge waiting for that spark, for something about its performance to grab me. It seemed to suck the life out of every recording that it came into contact with; so keen not to colour the sound with added sparkle or warmth that it ambled through the record grooves announcing its dullness at every opportunity. What at first seemed like audiophile neutrality soon became the aural equivalent of damp creeping into a box of fireworks.

However I tweaked its set-up, the MP11 always seemed to have difficulty locating the groove at the start of a record, creating a rotation's-worth of anxious noise before stumbling into the run-in with a disconcertingly loud pop. And, in playback, when the end of a side approached, there would be just enough of a drop in sound quality to leave me in no doubt that we were headed towards those inner grooves. It's entirely possible that I never quite got the Nagaoka optimally set up, but I'm not convinced that a relatively low-cost cartridge should display such high-end fickleness if that's the case. You don't buy a Toyota and expect it to be as temperamental and high maintenance as a Lamborghini.

I have a new cartridge in my life now, but I've learned my lesson: although the early signs are that we may live happily ever after, I'll hold off saying more until I've got over that first-date infatuation. Watch this space.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Memories of a Long-Defunct Record Shop

Most people of a certain age have fond memories of a record shop from their youth. The fondness of these memories is not always in proportion to the reality of the retail experience, but nostalgia has a way of smoothing off the rough edges and presenting the past in flattering soft focus: that old 'the war-years-were-the-happiest-days-of-my-life' syndrome. In common with all teenagers I believed my home town to be the dullest place on the planet and, as commuter-belt towns went in the 1980s, Berkhamsted must have been a serious contender for that title. Woolworths and W.H. Smith both had record departments, but they were staffed by people who wore uniforms and looked like my parents. One day these people would be selling LPs, the next they might be on the pick 'n' mix - music was just another commodity to them. Thank God then for J & J Records.

The site of J & J Records today

If I close my eyes I can still taste the carcinogenic, metallic tang given off by all those sweating PVC sleeves in that tiny space. And it was a tiny space. The shop-front itself gave the illusion of a normal-sized store, but some architectural brain-fart had resulted in a premises that was not much more than a corridor; a tapering, almost triangular one at that. When you opened the door to the shop you could pretty much start rifling through the record racks on the opposite wall without crossing the threshold. The widest point housed the counter where two surly staff members took it in turns to be unwelcoming in the small space by the till. Tetchy, condescending and unhelpful: yes, they satisfied all of the traditional record shop personnel character traits! I remember returning a copy of Rose Tattoo's Rock 'N' Roll Outlaws twice because of a pressing fault and being accused of only returning it because I didn't like the music. I did eventually prise a third and playable copy from them which I still have some 35 years later. How I persuaded the patronising git behind the counter to exchange the LP again, I don't know. Perhaps I threatened to get my dad onto him.

To the left of the counter, along the back wall stood a rack of largely ancient 7" singles, mixed in with a handful of new releases. I remember a Canned Heat single that seemed to be a permanent resident. Periodically, I would pick it up, study it and wonder what strange sounds it contained. It never occurred to me to buy it and find out, but then those were the days when my pocket money limited me to just a couple of vinyl purchases per month: I couldn't afford to make mistakes. The staff could sometimes be persuaded, albeit reluctantly, to dig out a notepad and a sheet of carbon paper if you wanted to order something they didn't have in stock. This is how I got hold of my cherished copy of Blitzkrieg's Buried Alive 7"; a record that left me reeling when I heard it on Tommy Vance's Friday Rock Show. Sadly, I missed a trick, as it was Lars Ulrich not me who, inspired by the flip-side, Blitzkrieg, formed Metallica using that track as a sonic blueprint. Above the singles hung a black velvet-covered pin board filled with badges, many of them miniature, lapel-sized versions of those mirrors you could buy in the Seventies and Eighties with a band's photo and logo printed on the glass. I'm pretty sure I bought one of these with the ELO spaceship printed on it in red and black.

For a small shop, J &J certainly managed to cram a lot in. There were racks of LPs against the window between the counter and the door, beyond the 7" singles along the back wall, and inhabiting the shop's narrowest point at the end opposite the counter. I don't recall the stock being split up according to genre, but it must have been alphabetical at least. The staff didn't seem to differentiate between new and used records as they were all racked together. It was only years later that I was studying my copy of Kate Bush's Never Forever which I had bought thinking it was a brand new UK release, only to discover that it is, in fact, a Greek pressing.

No doubt there were albums in the racks that, if I had a time machine, I would snap up in a heartbeat given the opportunity. Surreptitiously, I always had my eye on a copy of Electric Ladyland which to this day I remember had a £4.99 price tag on it, but I was never brave enough to pick it up, let alone take it to the counter as I couldn't face the inevitable humiliation that would come from being accused of only wanting it for the sleeve which, being a UK pressing, happened to be plastered with a gatefold's-worth of naked women. My thirteen year-old self often thought that this album, with all those worldly-wise, confident, intimidating women staring out from the cover, not Hendrix's debut, should have been the one called Are You Experienced?. I sometimes lie awake at night wondering if I was shamed out of buying an original Track label pressing.

Despite the ritual humiliation, I loved that shop. Neither the misanthropic staff nor my pubescent awkwardness could diminish the joy of being surrounded by the vinyl treasures that I was starting to discover. Every record sleeve had a story to tell, some nugget of information waiting to be unearthed. Names, faces, studios, instruments, producers: I absorbed them all, and the more I learnt, the more I wanted to know. I spent many a school lunch hour at J&J, topping up my education. I was in heaven.

By the time I was sixteen, the VCR was king, and J&J wanted in on some of that video rental action. Somehow they managed to squeeze what seemed like a huge selection of titles into that tiny corridor. No doubt much of the vinyl was edged out to make way for Back To The Future, Weird Science, Porky's and Risky Business, but I can't say that I noticed as, by that time, a gang of us were making regular trips to Virgin, HMV and the Record & Tape Exchange stores in Camden Town, Notting Hill Gate and the Goldhawk Road, our horizons having expanded beyond our mundane little town. J&J was still an important part of our lives though. Where else were a bunch of sixteen year-olds going to get their hands on the soft porn and splatter movies that made up the bulk of our viewing when our parents were out of town? Of course, the writing was on the wall for J&J Records once it ditched the vinyl, lured by the easy money promised by the video rental boom. Funnily enough, even as a video outlet J&J managed to further my musical education. During an evening of teenaged drunkenness accompanied by a screening of yet another Electric Blue movie, I found myself transfixed, not by the soft focus, soft porn on screen, but by the pulsing musical accompaniment to a ridiculous fantasy sequence involving a naked woman, a bike and a long drop from a cliff. What's this music? Does anyone know who this is? Anyone? My friends all drew blanks. Realising that I couldn't hire the tape every time I wanted to hear it, I had to find out who was responsible for this amazing music. Fortunately, a few clues in the lyrics eventually led me to Steve Miller's Gangster Of Love: one minute and twenty-four seconds of stoned, throbbing, funky, head-nodding, west coast weirdness.

I have vague recollections of another J&J Records bricks and mortar shop on the edge of Hemel Hempstead market. I'm pretty sure that's where my copy of Prism's See Forever Eyes came from - a steal at 99p. From the little I remember, the Hemel store was little more than a broom cupboard, but sometimes there was a stall on the market selling vinyl which may have been a spill-over from the shop. J&J Records was best known locally though for its stall on Watford's Charter Place market. It was manned by the two Js (Janet and John Lang) who gave this modest business empire its name. As market stalls go, it was huge; certainly much larger than the two shops combined. I began my music collection in earnest here, picking up second hand cassette tapes for small change: Thin Lizzy's Live & Dangerous and Deep Purple's In Rock. Clearly first loves make a deep impression as I still rate those as two of my all-time favourite albums. Once I came to realise that tapes are a bit crap, I graduated to vinyl, digging through the market stall's many records for gems such as my original UK pressing of UFO's Obsession (complete with poster).

There was something almost other-worldly about buying records from a stall in a covered market, the air thick and funky with the smells of ripe fruit, dog biscuits, fish food and bacon butties, but despite that and the surly service in the Berkhamsted shop, my fondest memories are of that cramped, inhospitable space.

Click here for a local newspaper report on the demise of J&J Records and here for a website that archives information on Britain's record shops.