Saturday, February 04, 2012

List of the Month - the romance of the 'bargain bin'

Another cheap recycle of a post, but I'm feeling lazy this week (and my contributions on other blogs are occasionally so substantial that it doesn't seem so very indolent of me to try to extract double value from them).

Fellow Beijing music nutter Bucketoftongues threw out a challenge the other week to identify the 'Obscure Gems' of our record collections (and yes, we are both of such a generation that, at least initially, our music library was on vinyl).

As I was reflecting on my other blog recently, probably 25% or 30% of my c. 700 records were opportunistic - and often impulsively random - acquisitions from the 'bargain bin' selections in my favourite record stores (back in the 1980s, when I was an undergraduate, you could often pick up a lot of good stuff for only £2 or £3, and unwanted oddities for as little as 50p).

I had thought at first that most of the things that seemed to chime best with Mr Tongues' own picks were the handful of EPs I'd been moved to buy: the extended version of Pink Floyd's Money (though not, alas, the limited edition pink vinyl pressing, which I gather now changes hands between collectors for ridiculous sums), Eric Clapton’s mesmerising, bluesy soundtrack to the ’80s TV drama Edge Of Darkness, the Dead Kennedys’ In God We Trust, Inc. (which includes a brilliant version of the theme from Rawhide done at double speed!!), The Pogues’ Poguetry In Motion (a fill-in effort when they were between labels for a year or two; it includes one of Shane’s most beautiful love songs, A Rainy Night In Soho – a song that has particular resonances for me because I’ve suffered far too many cold and wet nights in Soho myself, and without a Victoria Clarke to console me), and - pick of the bunch, for obscurity and oddity, if not necessarily for the music - Star Fleet Project, a strange little solo release from Brian May of Queen (the title track is a rock version of the theme tune from a Japanese cartoon his kids were really into back in the early ’80s, followed up by a song of his own that couldn’t find a home anywhere else; while I appreciated there were some interesting things going on in the guitar playing, I just couldn’t get into them, and abandoned that side of the record after 5 or 6 plays [Star Fleet, in particular, is just a really annoying tune]; the thing is, he’d invited a bunch of top session guys over to his house to play this with him - and Eddie Van Halen!! - and the B-side is a 12-minute blues jam... now that is worth listening to). Yep, those seemed to be the real gems of my collection - that almost no-one else seems to have, or, very often, not even to have heard of.

However, further cogitation soon led to the following list of 'obscure gem' albums.

My favourite oddball record purchases from the 'bargain bin'

World Record, Van der Graaf Generator
I’m not much into prog rock, but these guys somehow got under my skin, and I collected most of their albums. This one is, I think, the best. Opening track When She Comes is a darkly obsessive anti-love song, long, complex, and unusually erudite in its lyrics (saying your girlfriend is “like something out of Blake or Burne-Jones” is going to go right over most people’s heads; I don’t think I got it the first time I heard it).

Product, Brand X
A late-70s electro-jazz project featuring Phil Collins, before his ego became a black hole. A very pleasant surprise. I seem to remember it was this album that had particularly amusing sleeve notes: e.g., saxophonist Raf Ravenscroft (who played on Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut album) “in his spare time is a Battle of Britain fighter station”.

Strange Frontier, Roger Taylor
I hadn't expected much from this mid-80s release by the Queen drummer, but it’s actually not bad (and he plays every part himself): it has a pair of particularly good covers, of Springsteen’s Racing In The Street and Dylan’s Masters Of War.

Commercial Album, The Residents
Surely the quirkiest of all quirky bands, and leading contenders in any funniest album name poll (Third Reich and Roll, Fingerprince). This was the only thing of theirs I bought, I think (a friend introduced me to them at college, and I mostly just listened to them round at his place.. or in the speaker demonstration room at my favourite hi-fi shop!). Interesting concept: 40 one-minute songs, accompanied by the suggestion that each one should be played three times back to back to create “a complete pop song”.

Cal, Mark Knopfler
The soundtrack album for an early Neil Jordan film about The Troubles, this draws heavily on traditional Irish melodies and instruments, and employs a couple of top Irish folk musicians, Paul Brady (mandolin) and Liam O’Flynn (uileann pipes). Though a little over-produced, it drips with the authentic melancholy of Gaelic folk music, and makes a great late-night mellow-out listen before bedtime. Later, a long CD was issued called Screenplaying, with highlights from this and some of Knopfler’s other film work (Local Hero, The Princess Bride, Last Exit To Brooklyn). This is all I’ve got now; I miss not having access to the complete album any more.

Over The Top, Cozy Powell
Debut solo album from the Rainbow drummer, with some very fine stuff on it. Killer, with Gary Moore guesting on guitar, is particularly good. And the titular track that closes the album is an arrangement of the 1812 Overture for keyboards and drums – which is indecently good fun.

Heavy Weather, Weather Report
I don’t know that this quite counts as “obscure”, since Austrian keyboardist Joe Zawinul’s electronic jazz ensemble was a long-running and very highly regarded band, and this was the apex of their achievement, their biggest selling album. The opening track, the irresistibly sprightly Birdland, was a pretty regular ‘wake up’ song for me when I was an undergraduate (which I posted as a musical pick-me-up on The Barstool just the other day!).

Built To Destroy, Michael Schenker Group
Again, MSG is probably not really “obscure”, but hardly mainstream either. This pick might suggest two other possible themes for music posts: Albums I Bought Just For The Cover (Schenker dementedly smashing his guitar over the rear windscreen of a Mercedes outside the stage door, while a slutty rock chick in the foreground looks on, trying not to be impressed); and Guitar Solos You Never Want To End (opening track Rock My Nights Away starts fading out just as he’s really getting going!!!).

Two I feel I should add, which I'd omitted from my original comment postings because they're really comedy records...

Greatest Hits, The Goodies
Wacky TV comedy trio The Goodies were one of the joys of my 1970s childhood, and managed to put out quite a few modestly successful hit singles too (Funky Gibbon was probably their biggest success, although their In-Betweenies spoke to me more [even then, and especially now]). The highlights of this anthology, though, were a rousingly rocky version of the hymn All Things Bright And Beautiful, a growly and demented rendition of Wild Thing (which is really how The Troggs ought to have sung it!), and Mommy, I Don't Like My Meat, the poignant complaint of a little girl who doesn't quite comprehend the link between her parents' financial difficulties and the serial disappearance of her pets. The former two were among my Play it LOUD! nominations a few years back (here and here).

Glompus van de Hloed's 'Tales from the Crypt'
A 1-hour comedy playlet - in the surrealist style of The Goons - which would appear to have been written for the radio, but for some reason was not taken up by BBC Radio 4, which would have been its natural home; and so it found its way on to record instead. A bizarre whodunnit featuring a Belgian 'paranormal detective' (who was so unsuccessful that he had to run a minicab service on the side), it was written by two of the best radio comedy writers of the era, Rory McGrath and Jimmy Mulville, and starred McGrath, the popular TV comedians Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones, and Andrew Sachs (a character actor best known for playing the bumbling Spanish waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers). It immediately became a cult item, copied on to tape for several of my friends, and shared between us as a secret treasure. I've heard it so many dozens of times, I can probably still recall it almost word for word. It is eyewateringly funny. [There are a few torrents of it advertised online, but I'm not sure I trust them. Will have to look into this further.]


Frost Dragon said...

Have you got anything by the Amnesiacs?

Froog said...

I don't remember...

Frost Dragon said...

No, that's Peter Gabriel. I was wondering if you had a recording of the seminal tone poem "Crash victim to marry" ?

MilvusMilvus said...

Glompus is still one of the funniest things I have ever heard. Interestingly, I've seen on another site that it was originally a Capital Radio serial, can't remember how many episodes, that was then squished into a 1 hour record. I still treasure my tape copy :)

Picking out the diamonds from the coal dust & dross of the Boots record dept bargain bin was worthwhile - I'd forgotten about so many of the ones you mention above!

Are there any bargains that you now think are the musical equivalent of cubic zirconia? Records that you bought, that looked nice & shiny, but, actually......

Froog said...

Frost Dragon, you now have me seriously worried about who you are. As far as I am aware, there are only half a dozen people who ever had a a copy of 'Crash Victim'... and I didn't think any of them ever read this blog.

Milvus, in all probability, the number of disappointing, it not downright awful, records I picked up from the bargain bin outnumbered the fortuitous gems; but I don't remember any of them. Not after 25 or more years.

Frost Dragon said...

So, my reading of your biography is correct, then. Do I win £5?

The Egregious Dr P had told me you were in China. SWMBO (Milvus Milvus) stumbled across your blog yesterday as she periodically checks the web in the hope of finding a copy of Glompus, and your blog came up in the search. She was suspicious when she saw the other records you featured, and followed through into your bio.

That's enough clues, you should know who I am now. Dr P should be able to find my contact info among his old emails, should you wish to communicate off-piste...

MilvusMilvus said...

I'm disappointed that you can't remember the Tomita!

Froog said...

I have spoken of Tomita elsewhere. Not sure why I omitted it from this list; possibly felt it was a bit too frivolous for the rather earnest music blogger with whom I was originally having this conversation.

Can this really be The Gasman? You've been in The Witness Protection Programme for 20 years! Great to hear from you again! Spooky how you can run into people again after so long via the Internet.

I wonder if anyone still has one of the 'Crash Victim' tapes (I'd forgotten that was the headline of the article until you just mentioned it)? Mine got lost in one of my many house moves some years ago.

I left the original Glompus record in the care of Neddy some years ago. I hope he's kept it safe.

Froog said...

Milvus, you are possibly the only person to whom I confided that - unlike most of my oddball purchases, which were sourced from the various record shops along The Cornmarket in Oxford in the mid-80s - Glompus was discovered in a branch of Boots, in the small Devon town of Barnstaple, near where my parents were then living. I am impressed that you still remember that after all these years.

Frost Dragon said...

You got there in the end. Was AWOL from the whole Old College scene for quite a while - considered it a closed chapter in life really, until hunted down by The Cornishman in 2010 and shamed into attending the gaudy.

Is there any way of starting a non-public correspondence? Appreciate the need for discretion on your blog.