By Dave Thompson
If you have ever collected music, and particularly if you’ve ever sold or even marketed it, you should drop by some of the online forums sometime. Not because you will necessarily be bowled over by the sheer quality of the ongoing discourse (although you might), but simply to discover the kinds of things that your fellow collectors and potential purchasers require.
Used CDs should have bubblewrap inserted across the disc to prevent movement during shipping. LPs should be removed from the outer sleeve and shipped within a separate plastic sleeve. Packing materials at least equal to the weight of the contents should be securely wrapped around the product.
You will discover that residue left by the white sticky seals that “lock” CD jewel cases is considered an identifiable flaw; and that a mint, still-sealed album can be regarded as Near Mint at best, should its jacket or shrinkwrap feature a manufacturer’s sticker.
You will also learn that no sealed album should even be described as Mint unless the seller is confident that there are no manufacturing flaws within, and that includes the wrong label being placed on the record, a printing error in the lyric sheet or an unexpected pop on track three.
And you will discover that every compilation album ever released, and every rock book ever written — even those that state their purpose categorically on the cover (“a collection of all their U.S. number ones”) — is a waste of wax because this track’s rubbish, that one was badly edited and there’s a bunch of unreleased and possibly non-existent demos that I read about on the Internet that are far superior. Or, “Well, it’s not written the way I’d have done it.”
With all that in mind, it feels somewhat disingenuous to open this edition of Spin Cycle with a book that effectively dismisses every one of those very valid points, and wants simply to talk about the music — however you consume it, whatever format you may find and whatever condition it might be in. The only thing that matters is that you listen to it.
“Tape Leaders” is an encyclopedic effort from musician and author Ian Helliwell whose subtitle says it all — “A compendium of early British electronic music composers” (Sound On Sound Publishing – ISBN 978-0995495807). And, if you have any interest in this field, it is indispensable.
The fact is, no matter how heavily indebted to the pioneering electronic musicians the last few decades have been, there remains a vast hole where knowledge ought to lie. Yes, we all know the easy names — Brian Eno, Ron Geesin, John Tavener and Delia Derbyshire (creator of the Doctor Who theme, as influential in this field as Chuck Berry and The Beatles are in others), but what of Barry Anderson, John Baker, Don Banks and Janet Beat? And we’ve not even got into the Bs properly.
“Tape Leaders” fills this void with a series of colorful, informative and, most of all, affectionate entries for more than 100 names, all of them active in the electronics field prior to around 1970 — the era before their specialty truly found its way into the rock and pop mainstream, even as it impacted hard on films, radio and TV. And shook those worlds as it did so. Again, to pick an easy example, Delia Derbyshire’s assault on Ron Grainer’s theme for Doctor Who is now one of the most famous TV themes of all time. But can you even imagine what it sounded like when it first materialized in 1963?
Deliciously illustrated and deftly designed, the book supplements its survey of the pioneering “who’s” with a similarly informative summary of the “why’s” and “wherefore’s”; and even adds a CD comprising 15 pieces of music, to emerge not only a master class in, but also a glorious tribute to, the men and women who bleeped, squeaked and burped their way into the consciousness of 20th century culture, and whose impact is still being felt today.
Another genre that has been sorely overlooked in terms of serious analysis, combining scholarship with a sense of fun, is disco — a fate that some readers, no doubt, believe it deserves, but which nevertheless screams out for remedy. For thoughtful analysis, as opposed to cliched pouting.
Almost two decades have elapsed since Vince Aletti published “The Disco Files 1973-78,” a week-by-week survey of new releases and DJ favorites, drawn from his weekly columns in Record World magazine; since then, and before that, too, the best we could hope for was another “Gee, it was the ‘70s and we had joy, we had fun”-style guide to kitsch and fashion (on the occasions that those two things ever separated).
Now, however, comes “To Disco With Love” (Flatiron Books – ISBN 978-1-250-06845-3), David Hamsley’s exquisitely illustrated hardbound trawl through “the records that defined an era.”
It is not a reference book per se; rather, it’s focus is on the album art, in which guise the subtitle is thoroughly justified to the point where the text offers little more than captions for anyone who doesn’t remember who the performers might have been and what their greatest hits were.
Artists and designers receive occasional name checks (although not as many as you’d wish for, without wearily turning to the credits at the back of the book), and there is maybe a little too much scene-setting hyperbole — “for some, the disco was a place to bathe in steamy heat, the wetter the better.” But the layout is glorious, and the choice of sleeves, some 250 of the things, could not be bettered.
Disco still awaits a serious analysis that combines scholarship with a sense of fun. But at least it now has the photo section it deserves.
Artwork also dominates “Record Series of Japan” by Shawn Chambers (ISBN 978-0-692-50043-9), a 500-page guide to “the series and sales campaigns of rock and pop Japanese pressings from 1965-2000,” which in turn translates to full and profusely illustrated discographies of some 160 of the best-known series of reissues and repackagings that have characterized the Japanese record market.
The emphasis is on Anglo-American releases — Phonogram’s Attention! series, with its contents ranging from The Platters and Nana Mouskouri to The Nice and Black Sabbath; EMI’s “Best Album Library” (1981), featuring Cliff Richard, The Beach Boys, Blondie and Frank Sinatra; Sony’s Gift Pack 71 series, with Dylan, Chicago and the Percy Faith Orchestra … and more.
Every series is fully detailed, with full discographies, label art, sleeve and obi examples and so forth, together with representative promotional material, press ads and so forth; and while it is limited in that it concentrates only on reissues (imagine a book dedicated to, for example, EMI’s 1970s “Masters of Rock,” Island’s 1980s “Island Masters” and BYG’s “Rock Generation” series), still it is remarkable to find an American-made discography of hard-to-find imports so beautifully presented and informed.
A labor of love from beginning to end, you may never need to refer to its contents once. But you will likewise never tire of browsing its pages.
Specialization is also key to “An Encyclopedia of South Carolina Jazz & Blues Musicians” by Benjamin Franklin V (University of South Carolina Press, ISBN 9-781611-176216) — as its title suggests! Just shy of 300 densely-packed hardbound pages, well-illustrated and profusely detailed, it’s the story of the almost 150 years worth of the state’s jazz, blues, soul and R&B musicians. One helluva story.
It’s arranged alphabetically, as one would expect, but appends each entry with discographies, key compositions, hometowns and further reading references, on top of the usual biographical data. In fact, the only thing it doesn’t do is hold you down and play you the records — but it certainly points you in the direction of an awful lot of the things.
Equally fascinating is Franklin’s decisions to allow that data to speak for itself — his concern was in pinning down the personal details of every musician — parents, family, education, career, even the cemetery where he or she now lies.
It’s a staggering piece of work, with Franklin’s own detective work traceable through references to censuses; military service; birth, marriage and death records; and so forth. But it’s also eminently readable — particularly among the older musicians, these fragments are themselves fascinating, recalling a world that was lost years ago, and again leaving you hungry to learn more. And this one covers just one state. Imagine a series that rounded up all the others!