By Dave Thompson
Another Record Store Day has faded into history. What will we have in the years to come to remind us of how we spent April 19, 2014? Well, if you were among the hardy souls who camped outside their local record stores to be first in line for the season’s biggies, your Dave Matthews and Jimmy Page collections will doubtless thank you for your fortitude.
Writers, however, need a good night’s sleep before venturing into the wilds of indie record storedom. That, and enough coffee to float a battleship. Rainbow Records in Newark, Del., had already done two hours’ worth of business before your faithful Spin Cycle correspondent pushed though the door, but there was no shortage of bodies bumping around the racks, snatching up treasures that ranged from the last two copies of Elektra/Folkways’ 50th anniversary repressing of “The Folk Box,” to a bumper crop of classic psych obscurities, re-pressed for every collector who would prefer to have a roof over his head than fork out the cash for original pressings of the Idle Race’s “The Birthday Party,” or a mono pressing of July’s eponymous debut; or vinyl copies of two of the Rough Guide series’ most stellar recent releases, “Voodoo” and “Psychedelic Bolllywood”; for re-pressings of the very first releases on New Zealand’s Flying Nun label …
And the Velvet Underground’s “Loaded” pressed on vinyl as eye-catchingly colored as the original cover art. It’s odd, isn’t it, the way that colored vinyl has made such a comeback through the auspices of Record Store Day?
If you remember back in the late 1970s, when multi-hued wax was the gimmick du jour, you will also remember the collectors grumbling that while it might look good, it rarely sounded like it should. Vinyl was black for a reason, we believed, and colored wax faded from view for much the same reason as picture discs. There was too much of it, and it sounded like a rude word.
Today? Such complaints are rarely heard, and we line up in our droves for the pleasure of transforming our turntables into rainbows.
Ahead of time, the Idle Race album was touted as being pressed on gold-colored vinyl, a fitting tribute indeed to the genius of the young, pre-ELO, Jeff Lynne, whose singing songwriting established “The Birthday Party” among the archetypal English psych albums of its age.
But once you get it home, it’s looks more the color of cat-sick — a dull, brownish-yellow that isn’t appealing in the slightest. But no complaints about the sound quality or the clarity of the music, nor the fidelity of the art work. Open the gatefold to reveal the “guests” at the Idle Race’s party, and meet every one of the great and the good of the era in question.
The July album, too, rejoices in color — a psychedelic splash that is as bright as a summer’s day. But that is not enough to make up for the fact that this time, the sound quality stinks. It’s muffled where it should be magnificent, distorted where it ought to be shining, and if I had a copy of the original to compare it with, I’d be able to tell you whether or not at least three minor skips have been pressed into the grooves of the first side.
It isn’t the first time, after all, that a vinyl repressing has surfaced with built-in flaws. David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” from a few years back was delivered with a bonus jump in the midst of “Star.” Sadly, it was not this year’s only one, either. Internet reports of the RSD reissue of The Doors’ “Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine” compilation has a rash of unscheduled jumps on the opening track, and in sufficient quantities to guarantee that it’s the stamper at fault, not the individual records.
Which makes us wonder precisely who handles quality control for new vinyl records? Is it an earless cat who may or may not have contributed a real-life sample for that gold vinyl pressing? And, a two-part question for any reader familiar with vinyl production methods. Do they still make test pressings of new records? Are they actually listened to carefully by someone who knows the record? Answers to the usual Goldmine address, please.
On a happier note, we move on from the ghastly to the gorgeous. The Rough Guide series long ago established itself as the premier guide to any of the musical genres or themes that it has turned its attention to, and their two vinyl offerings this year are a case in point. Both “Psychedelic Bollywood” and “Voodoo” sound fantastic as they dance across the manifold extremes of their chosen fields, while purchasers not only receive the now semi-ubiquitous download card, they receive an entire additional album’s worth of bonus material when they redeem it.
Two primal Flying Nun EPs added up to another RSD triumph. For the uninitiated, New Zealand’s Flying Nun can claim to be the southern hemisphere’s most influential indie label, home to a low-fi psychedelic ethos that initially was flavored with a host of homegrown talent — The Clean, The Chills, The Tall Dwarfs and The Verlaines — and then spread around the world.
Launched by Christchurch record store manager Roger Shepherd in 1981, Flying Nun’s early impetus was taken from the success of import releases on such U.K. indies as Factory and Beggars Banquet. Initially distributed through loose networks of friends and industry contacts, the first clutch of releases swiftly raised the label far above the amateur status Shepherd was expecting, and prices for those earliest releases have been climbing ever since. Stickers attached to the RSD releases let us know that original pressings go for $50 to $80 for The Bored Games’ 1982 “Who Killed Colonel Mustard” and $75 to $100 for The Chills,’ Verlaines,’ Stones’ and Sneaky Feelings’ EPs.
The Bored Games set appears in its own right, a limited edition of 1,000 copies; the others are brought together on the two disc Dunedin Double (2,000 copies), and both sound spectacular. CD releases for early Flying Nun material lacked an awful lot in terms of the music’s original low-fi excitement. The re-masters employed here, on the other hand, dig deep down into the grooves of the original vinyl to pull out every last nuance of sonic intention.
We’ll save the best for last, though: Wreckless Eric’s 1989 opus “Le Beat Group Electrique,” long lost in its original New Rose pressing, but brought back to shimmering glory in its new incarnation. The opening “Tell Me I’m The Only One” is up there with the best of all his songs — and when you remember that this is the man who wrote “Whole Wide World,” “Semaphore Signals,” “The Final Taxi” and “The Golden Hour of Harry Secombe,” that’s quite an achievement.
Of course, everybody reading this is going to have their own favorite finds from RSD 2014, be it the alternate version of the Sex Pistols’ “Bollocks” album spread across a boxful of 45s, or the reissue of the first-ever Joy Division EP; a bunch of classic Aerosmith, or The Everlys’ “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.” One thing’s for sure, though. No matter how many records you bought at Record Store Day, you’d better play them quickly. Back to Black Friday is just six months away, and there’ll be a whole new batch then!
A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” and “Record Album Price Guide 7th Edition,” both available for purchase at www.krausebooks.com.