Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Quad, Shellac, Myth and American Primitive Music

                        Hey everybody! Here's a Record Collector - spotted in his natural habitat:

I recently saw this amusing spoof on the unlikely resurgence of vinyl LP culture. Record freak culture can get as weird as any other collector culture that’s for sure. As much as I can sometimes relate to the fascination with the objects themselves, I’m really in it for the sound experience. In some cases the best sounding version of a given title isn’t the vinyl LP, at least in my collection. Here’s a recent example for me – The Harry Nilsson Box set.
Oh, this thing is a God-send. The vast majority of Harry Nilsson’s output was released by RCA during the Dynaflex era and a bit before (late 60s – early 70s). Therefore, collecting Harry on vinyl can be very frustrating. Sometimes you’ll get a good sounding disc, other times you’ll end up with a dog. This box set of compact discs – such a currently outmoded format – is the best solution. It sounds great and has so much bonus material it isn’t funny. I still have some Nilsson LPs, but I couldn’t be happier with this awesome new box set – highly recommended!

So there you have it – vinyl is not always the final word in best sound. Some titles have been served quite well with digital compact discs. It’s all about doing the research and making wise purchases (at least if you are restricted to a budget). I certainly have made some fairly expensive mistakes over the years, but that’s life.
In coming months I am gearing up to make a giant leap forward in my Quadraphonic record obsession. It will involve saving some extra pennies and possibly selling off a few things, but I am hoping the results will be worth it. Ever since I picked up some quad LPs at the local flea market when I was a young lad I’d dreamed of how albums might sound in surround sound. Modern formats make this easy, if not inexpensive. Yet there is a new technology available that promises to give new life to old quad records. But it is not for me just yet………..I shall say no more until the time is right……….

A more fruitful endeavor in format obsessive-ness for me has been 78 RPM disc collecting. Just last weekend I scored some really old 78s. Have a look:
 Through the magic of the internet I was able to date every single one of these discs. A handful of them hail from before 1925 and the advance of electric recording techniques. These acoustically recorded discs are about as primitive as it gets, this side of wax cylinders. The music is not so much of the issue. With these records I’m more interested in the experience. Hearing sounds from discs nearly 100 years old is just a mind blast no matter if it’s hillbilly yodeling or bagpipe music. I have a few 78s of more recent vintage, mostly because I just like the music. Here are two favorites:
Ever since Ten Years After did Woody Herman’s “Woodchoppers’ Ball” I’d been willing to give the original man’s group a shot.
This is apparently a B-Side, but it’s a top-shelf performance in my book. Especially the great vocal by Mary Ann McCall. This is too good for me NOT to post here. Dig this:
And here she is:
How 'bout some vocal doo-wop rock and roll?
I don’t know if this is an original release or what (since the flip side features a totally different group), but I’m sure this is the version of WPLJ that inspired The Mothers of Invention remake in 1969.

Having a wide range in taste for music helps when collecting old 78s. I’m just as happy to find old polka records as I’d be to find pre-war blues, though the latter is a neigh impossibility, really. I’ll never compete with good old Joe Bussard and his ilk. If you want to see how 78 collecting is really done, have a look at this documentary:
Joe Bussard has his critics, but he certainly is enthusiastic and I like that. I stumbled upon that film when looking for more information on him. Bussard cut quite a striking figure in the recent John Fahey documentary. Bussard was responsible for one of my favorite moments in that film where he’s playing a wild old tape of him and Fahey messing around in the recording studio. Hilarious stuff!

John Fahey was a name I’d read about for years. Mainly connected to a great box set his latter-day record label released on Captain Beefheart called "Grow Fins".
 When this came out in 1999 it was a shocking release. Long before youtube, there was even a disc of film clips with The Magic Band that I’d only ever read about. Whoever this Fahey guy was, he must be hip enough to get behind such an amazing Beefheart box project. But that was it up until about a year ago. Then I stumbled upon this book in a thrift store of all places:

The title is what grabbed my attention and seeing it was a book by John Fahey really piqued my interest. To say that this book blew my mind would be like, oh – sounding like the faux-record collector geek in the clip above! Heh heh. What really gave me the heebie-jeebies was discovering how Fahey was also a classical music enthusiast and a thrift store maven (as I had become in recent years). He would have appreciated the irony of his book being discovered in such a place. The written side of Fahey actually gave me a better understanding of how to listen to his music. I’d heard the Live in Tasmania album off youtube years before and I didn’t get what was the big deal. Seemed like okay guitar music to me, but nothing like Lenny Breau or something.

What I was missing was the connection to the MYTH. Here’s another 20th century figure who really understood the power of myth. Fahey constructed a whole mythology context to place his musical creations in. Even so far as to author short stories posing as album notes for his early releases. And those early albums were put out by his own record label – Takoma Records. Hang on. The same Takoma that put out the first Fabulous Thunderbirds album in the late 70s? Yep. Denny Bruce was Fahey’s business partner. When Takoma was sold to Chrysalis Records in the early 80s, the T-Birds contract went with the sale. Hence, the classic T-Birds records being on that label.

Oh, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg with Fahey. Beyond starting a record label to record his own music on in the early 60s, he was a key figure in bringing many surviving old blues singers to the folk festival circuit in that era. Booker White. Skip James. Son House. Folks might not have heard these guys later on were it not for Fahey’s detective work. But that’s not all. Fahey also helped to pioneer the steel sting guitar as a solo instrument. As improbable as it seems to me, before Fahey it was considered unusual for instrumental steel string guitar music to be taken seriously as a genre. He learned old blues and bluegrass fingerpicking styles from the old forms, yet he used them to perform slightly avant-garde original compositions which borrowed equally from blues, folk, modern classical and Indian music. Yet, with all this eclectic mishmosh going on, there was a mythology tying it all together. Fahey called his genre American Primitive. Totally fascinating stuff. If you’re looking for something to watch I will recommend the recent documentary. It’s on netflix – check it out.
Now, Fahey was certainly a CATALYIST of the highest order and pretty strange, but he pretty much knew his mythmaking was a careful act of creativity. Lately I’ve been listening to one of his contemporaries who also designed his own myth, but actually lived it like a religion – Robbie Basho. Now, Basho really deserves his own entry here, but his talent was not merely guitar oriented. He also possessed one of the most original vocal styles I’ve ever heard. I bought this album as a “blind purchase” and was immediately drawn into the fascinating talent of Robbie Basho.
This was Basho's only release on Blue Thumb records in 1970. I decided to modify the cover art slightly to keep this place family-friendly. Aside from the provocative sleeve art, the music is quite amazing, most especially due to his incredible voice and very esoteric sense of cosmology.

Basho's life was cut short during a freak chiropractic accident at the young age of 45 in the mid-80s. His legacy continues to grow, just like that of John Fahey. Now, normally I am loathe to offer music downloads on this site, but this one was offered for free through the Vanguard website in 2007. These were unreleased recordings dating from about 1975 for a record that Vanguard never issued in those days. For reasons still unknown it was indeed posted for free so I'll pass it on here:

I know I've deviated from the promised new music focus a bit lately. As a follow-up I have to admit I broke down and bought the Young the Giant first album on (can you guess?) VINYL. What I need to do is get their new release (on vinyl of course) and hope they buck the system and stay together for years and years. I'd follow them just to see where they wind up. And, it's worth mentioning that Guy Clark's "My Favorite Picture of You" won a Grammy Award since I posted about it back in January. Why? Because it's great! Once in awhile justice is served through the system. Indeed. Happy Listening until next time!