By Dave Thompson
Across a veritable smorgasbord of goodies, the Quicksilver Messenger Service collection is really beginning to quake. There has rarely been any shortage of releases to keep up with, but between reissues, remasters and archive exhumations, the crazy notion of building an extension purely to house the QMS hoard has never looked so tempting as it does now.
The lion’s share of the attention is probably directed toward the seven CD reissues masterminded by Culture Factory, rounding up the band’s studio output in the form of — deep breath — “strictly limited edition … vinyl replica … audiophile recordings … remastered in high definition.” Details that are splashed down the Japanese-style obi wrapped around each of the 5.25-inch square heavy duty cardboard recreations of the original album’s artwork.
No plastic jewel cases or digipacks, here. Inside and out, it’s as if the entire old album cover has been through a reducing machine, in all of its colorful glory … which does mean that the old eyesight is possibly strained by the print size, but it still looks better than any past CD edition.
The disc, too, is a work of artfulness, the label side printed in a faux-vinyl grooved black, with a loose interpretation of the “original” label planted in the center. If they’d added an inner bag to the package, it would be impossible to fault the care and attention that’s gone into each disc. (As it is, you’ll probably want to pick up something; the disc does bump around a bit in its pocket, although even that adds a touch of authenticity to the proceedings — all those genuine vinyl thrift store scores you’ve made, which also lack an inner bag.)
So, a quick reminder of what we get. The self-titled debut. The unimpeachable “Happy Trails.” “Shady Grove,” “Just For Love,” “Comin’ Thru,” “What About Me” and “Quicksilver.” Not all of them stone cold classics, of course; not all of them destined to spin forever on the CD player.
But when you play them, as indeed you should, the sound quality is as good as any that lurks in the digital domain, and better than any past Quicksilver reissue. Technical analysis is boring, but little bits leap out, bigger bits bounce around — guitars that were hitherto set on stun sound brighter and even more lethal than before; and there’s a depth to everything that, again, past CD “remasters” didn’t seem to concern themselves about.
There are, if you dig round the Internet a little, a few forums in which Culture Factory has been taken for task for maybe giving the look of their CDs higher priority than they offer the sound quality. If that was ever the case (I dunno, I never liked the albums that are being talked about there), it’s not an issue here.
Possibly, the Culture Factory website’s claim that “our CDs are already configured with all that is necessary for the optimal listening experience” does set a few alarm bells ringing … who decides what is “optimal”? Who defines “necessary”? Leave the sound alone! But in these cases, we’re cool. Quicksilver sound like quicksilver, and it’s actually worth raising the height of your CD shelf to squeeze these beauties onto it.
Or building that extension, because they are not alone. Cleopatra Records have also delved into the Quicksilver archive to produce both CDs and vinyl editions of a slew of Quicksilver live recordings, spanning the band’s entire career and these, too, are things of absolute beauty.
In many cases, the artwork is taken from original posters for the shows in question; where it isn’t, suitably atmospheric new art has been created — and if you pick the shows up on vinyl, you will wish you’d bought two, simply so you can hang the spare sleeves on the wall. All are double albums; all arrive in glorious gatefold sleeves; and yes, in the interests of full disclosure, I did write the liner notes that accompany each album. But we’re not talking about the liners. We’re talking about seven primal Quicksilver concerts: San Jose and the Fillmore in 1966; returns to the Fillmore in 1967 and 1968, Stony Brook in 1970, the Old Mill Tavern that same year, and Winterland in 1973.
And all of them blazing across four sides of vinyl, so the sound quality eclipses any past semi-bootlegs that may preserve the same concerts, as you trace the evolution of the band from the nifty bluesy covers act that opens the sequence, to the Americana kinda-country show that folded seven years later … but which peaks on the 1967-68 outings, as history would lead you to expect.
San Francisco had a lot of bands that fell into the psychedelic bag, but Quicksilver was the one that wriggled the most when the drawstrings were pulled, refusing to remain locked into one place, and shaking everyone else up in the process. And this is where they did it, onstage and on fire.
Sticking with 5-inch slices of black plastic lookalikes, Culture Factory has also been digging into the John Cale catalog, to remaster five albums from the first half-decade of his solo life. “Church of Anthrax,” his doomed-and-still-dodgy collaboration with Terry Riley; the neo-classical “The Academy in Peril” (pictured above), which even Cale retitled “Academy in Pearl Harbor;” and then the solid, rock trilogy of “Fear,” “Slow Dazzle” and “Helen of Troy” all reappear in high-def audiophile editions, with the original artwork beautifully restored (the cover of “Helen of Troy” remains one of rock’s most stirring), and the last round of equivalent reissues kicked soundly into the gutter.
These are Cale as he ought to sound, at least if you don’t have the original vinyl. The rock trilogy is snarling, astounding — yes, it has its highs and lows, and “Slow Dazzle” still flatters to deceive. But even there, highlights like “Dirty-Ass Rock ’N’ Roll,” “Guts” and that shattering revision of “Heartbreak Hotel” more than compensate for the more sleaze-by-numbers moments, and sandwiched in between “Fear” and “Helen of Troy,” you could forgive it almost anything.
The two could battle for supremacy till the cows come home, and you can’t see daylight between them. “Fear” appears the best known, thanks to its title track, “Gun” and “Barracuda,” while “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford To Orgy” is pure pop pristine that even Abba would blanch at. But “Helen” has her title track, “Cable Hogue” and “Sudden Death”; covers in the shape of “Pablo Picasso” and “Baby, What You Want Me To Do”; the glorious “I Keep a Close Watch,” a ballad supreme; and “Leaving It Up To You,” with some of nastiest lyrics of the age.
Cale later complained that Island had impatiently released his demos, rather than allowing him to finish the album. It doesn’t show, and it might even work in the album’s favor. Raw and unpolished, this is the album that half-invented punk rock.
The earlier two are a more acquired taste, but both have moments of sublime majesty — the sinister whispers of “King Harry” hissing out of the academy, “The Hall of Mirrors” waiting inside the church. Riley was not happy with the finished “Anthrax,” and it was scarcely the kind of album that lent itself to live work or radio, so it tends to be overlooked. All the more so since the one vocal track is not voiced by either of the protagonists.
But in terms of Cale’s overall career, amid a clutch of early albums that also included the baroque Beach Boy of “Vintage Violence” and the Euro-doom majesty of “Paris 1919,” and three albums with Nico also lurking within, both “Anthrax” and “Academy” are required listening, atmospherics teetering on the edge of experiment, a new form of classics that would inform his later work. “Words for the Dying” is the best known of this pair’s later offspring, and that, too, can be considered difficult in places. But here there’s a rage and a querulous curiosity that don’t know what the phrase even means. They simply exist in their own glorious time and place.
Rather like Cale himself.