By Dave Thompson
Amid the sea of new vinyl descending upon collectors from every direction, one label has caught the punk-and-thereabouts imagination like no other. Drastic Plastic is based in Omaha, Neb., operating out of a record store that has just celebrated the 31st anniversary of its founding, and boasts a catalog that reads like a maiden’s prayer come true.
Hey kid, you want the first two Clash albums sounding better than you’ve heard them since you forked out for the U.K. imports back in ’77, ’78? Step right this way.
You want classic releases by Crispy Ambulance, the Au Pairs, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, A Certain Ratio, Motörhead and Agent Orange? All here.
When Drastic Plastic first opened, owner Mike Howard knew that Omaha lacked any kind of source for its fledgling punk-music-lovers to find punk records, explains the label’s Neil Azevedo.
“Almost instantly music fans with unique and subversive tastes, early punkers and teenage soon-to-be indie kids began frequenting the store’s aisles, having found the only record store in Omaha that spoke their language,” Azevedo says. “Word spread quickly about the unique, oddly-stocked, almost-scary boutique that carried all those records one heard about but didn’t know where to find.”
Records were only a part of the store’s appeal. It became the center of Nebraska’s skateboarding culture and stocked everything from studded wristbands to subversive greetings cards. A separate merchandising wing, Impact Merchandising, sprang up, and in 2010, Howard and Azevedo pursued the idea of making vinyl records, particularly for the seminal punk and post-punk releases that weren’t available on vinyl anymore. The idea grew organically out of a desire to stock them in the store.
“Coming from the a fan’s perspective gave us a unique take on what we wanted in terms of titles and quality: We wanted the records to sound great, but similar to how we knew them in their original incarnations. Same with art — we wanted jackets, inserts, inner-sleeves, etc., to be faithful recreations of the original artwork, with updates to reflect the status of the rights holders and other details that change over time,” he says.
The one thing there isn’t? A systematic formula for choosing releases.
“Essentially, we come up with a bevy of potential titles of stuff we ourselves would like to own, listen to or carry in the store, and we hunt down the rights holder in order to begin a conversation. We have a small committee that brainstorms as many potential releases as possible, and we keep it pretty close to our mission of punk and post-punk,” Azevedo says. “Our process and focus is always by title — not rights holder. The varied nature of our roster reflects that, I think.”
“The original British release had a significantly different track listing than the U.S. release and was never pressed in the US. In fact, it turns out it was the best-selling import record of all time. We called Sony over and over until we reached the appropriate personnel, and the rest, I guess, is history,” Azevedo says. “That, by the way, was a great sounding record remastered from the original analog tapes and manufactured at RTI.”
You don’t have to take Azevedo’s word for it; check out some of the Clash forums. Members are drooling over the sound quality of Drastic Plastic’s offerings.
“We couldn’t have been happier with our Clash releases, and the woman I work with at Sony is a blast,” he said. “Everyone I’ve dealt with at all the majors always leave me with the impression that they are true fans and care deeply about the unquantifiable, intellectual value of the music, despite that they buy and sell said product for a living.”
From the best-selling import album of all time to niche releases on a small Manchester-based independent label may not be the most accurate description of Factory Records’ early output — it was the home of Joy Division and New Order, after all. But still, seeing swaths of the label’s finest moments suddenly reborn in Nebraska does rank among my own favorite vinyl surprises of recent years.
“We approached James Nice of Factory Benelux about Crispy Ambulance, Section 25 and The Wake early on, as we are huge fans of the Factory catalog. He was a pleasure to work with and a very funny guy. He was excited that we were committed to recreating the unique die-cut cover for Section 25’s ‘Always Now,’ but suggested we use the redesigned CD cover for Crispy Ambulance, as evidently the band preferred that design to the original. We are always happy to work with rights holder’s desires for finished product, but we argued the case that regardless of what it is, one cannot recreate history, and history is in part what we were after, and to that end many fans would anticipate and love seeing the cover they grew to associate with the music and subsequently love. Also, new fans would appreciate the authenticity of capturing the original design. He agreed.”
In keeping with what has become industry standard, all Drastic Plastic releases appear on 180-gram vinyl, with heavy-duty sleeves. How important are those in the modern vinyl market?
“Heavyweight vinyl is superior to lightweight vinyl because of its durability and its ability to offer a presser a better possibility for finding the sweet spot for maximum sound quality, so I’d say very important,” Azevedo says. “Because of a special relationship we’ve developed with Quality Record Pressings, an amazing pressing plant not too far from us in Salina, Kan., our newest offerings will be done on even heavier weight: 200 gram, and 150-gram colored vinyl, so we’re super excited about that.” The label’s old colored records were pressed on 120-gram vinyl.
These upgrades in quality and attention to detail are just what fans and collectors love, but don’t always get with today’s pressings. Perhaps that’s because Drastic Plastic’s philosophy is a bit different.
“Everything we put into our records is about care and honoring the original music with as special a presentation as we can possibly afford,” Azevedo says. “We hand-number everything. Art is painstakingly reproduced to be faithful to the original releases. The mastering is also done as a deliberate reflection of the original vinyl release, albeit with an optimization of sound, given the strides in technology. We place all records in polyvinyl inner sleeves (regardless of whether it includes a printed paper inner sleeve or not) and resealable outer sleeves.”
But when it comes to one of this column’s favorite whipping-boy topics — Digital Sound vs. Analog — Azevedo is torn as to exactly how he’d find a line in the sand, let alone draw one.
“My thought as a listener is that whatever one personally likes, that is the format to which one should listen and let the naysayers on either side of the argument be damned. It’s about filling your mind and body with music. That is all. Personally, I own and listen to both. I like both, and I don’t want to part with either,” he says. “My thought as a vinyl manufacturer is that when making vinyl records, access to the analog masters is always preferable, because it gives one the largest range of sound and therefore the most options to make the recording sound amazing and faithful to the original.
“We deal with a lot of obscure titles, so analog is often not an option, though, so digital is way better than nothing, even when it comes to vinyl. Much can be done with a digital source to make a vinyl record sound pristine. I don’t believe in a purist perspective on either side of the argument. As a practical-ist, I guess, I’m always about asking what we can do vs. what we can’t.”
What Azevedo and the Drastic Plastic crew can do right now is promise a range of upcoming titles that should keep most every like-minded Goldmine reader regularly checking the label’s website (http://www.drasticplasticonline.com). Ministry, The Cramps, Mott the Hoople, Johnny Thunders, David Johansen, the Circle Jerks, the Anti-Nowhere League and a reissue of the three first Birthday Party records.
A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of Goldmine’s “Record Album Price Guide” 7th Edition and “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990” 8th Edition (Krause Publications, $37.99, www.krausebooks.com). Look for more from Dave in his Spin Cycle blog.