In praise of Bear Family Records

1It didn’t make too many headlines, but one of the most exciting announcements of the last year or so was the news that the MVD Entertainment Group, one of the largest independent distributors in the US, is now handling the Bear Family catalog, restoring to the racks what is effectively the gold standard of CD box sets.

Launched in 1975 by German collector Richard Weize (there’s a full label history available here), Bear Family is best known in the US for a succession of vast, career-devouring box sets that, quite frankly, make most other anthologies look like a couple of 45s and a newspaper clipping.  Vintage rock’n’roll, country, folk, bluegrass, blues, rockabilly… basically, if there’s a “classic” genre to be explored, Bear Family has dipped at least one paw into the waters, and emerged, in many cases, with everything you ever wanted to hear.  As it say elsewhere on the website, “Bear Family probably did not invent the boxed CD compilation, but set defining standards worldwide.”

Okay, a few points to make.  Bear Family do not have exclusive rights to much of this material – you can probably find a lot of it elsewhere, on budget CDs and cheapo compilations, or even on sundry better-heeled compilations.  But if you want more than the music… the finest remastering, the best-researched liners, the most complete discographies and sessionographies, too; LP sized boxes crammed with music and reading; terrific artwork and so on and so forth, you really shouldn’t cut corners.

Bear Family boxes are not inexpensive.  Even on the discount market, it’s a sad fact that imported German boxes that weigh anything up to eight pounds a time are not going to turn up at pocket money prices. But check out what you’ll be getting.

You want to hear four CDs worth of songs celebrating, denigrating or poking fun at the atom bomb?  Check out Atomic Platters, six discs (the box includes a DVD and a spoken word set) of thermonuclear thrills. You need 195 different versions of “Lilli Marleen”?  Ten discs of 1930s calypso, or twenty-six years worth of the country music chart all available separately… here’s one of them)?

You want the complete works of Gene VincentRoy AcuffThe Sons of PioneersBill Haley?  Remastered to perfection and boxed up with a hardbound book that puts your coffee table’s usual inhabitants to shame?  Bear Family has been described elsewhere as the musical equivalent of the DVD world’s Criterion Collection, but the analogy is flawed.  You’d need a couple of shelves to hold Criterion’s entire collection.  You’d need a couple of houses to hold every Bear Family release, and a couple of lifetimes in which to listen to them all.

2This special Spin Cycle celebration of Bear Family is split across a couple of parts.  The first, here on the Goldmine website, rounds up some thoughts on half a dozen past Bear Family boxes; the second, next month in the print magazine, takes a look at some of the Family family’s most recent releases, beginning with boxed extravaganzas rounding up rockabilly curios from the states of Texas and Florida.

We begin, however, at the beginning… not of the label, but of recorded music itself.  Well, nearly.  Released in 2000, Round the Town – Following Grandfather’s Footsteps delivers four CDs worth of London music hall performances from the early twentieth century.

Is it exhaustive?  Probably not.  But 106 tracks, many of which had only ever appeared on 78 (or even cylinder), transport you back to a side of English social life that rarely makes it into period dramas… the first season of Upstairs Downstairs flirted with the life and loves of a showgirl, and there was a long running TV variety show entitled, of course, The Good Old Days.

No, if you really want a taste of the times, turn to the likes of Ray Davies’s sixties songbook (“Harry Rag” is the defining moment), Ian Dury, the Bonzo Dog Band, bits of Squeeze… people like that.  Or the opening renditiion of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” with the Fabs introducing the next act.  Pure music hall.  And if you don’t believe me, ask your parents.  Your mother should know.

The sound quality isn’t perfect – the source material dictates that.  Even with the best will in the world, and remastering facilities too, it’s impossible to transform a much-used and abused 78 into supersonic digital clarity.  But it certainly sounds better than any other attempt at recreating the music, and if the modern viewer scans the list of artists (Ella Shields, Morny Cash, Florrie Forde, Vesta Victoria…) and barely recognizes a handful (George Formby tops the list), then that only amplifies just how important this box set is.

A lot of these performers were superstars in their day.  Today… well, you decide.  And read the book while you’re doing so.  Beautifully illustrated and detailed, every performer receives a biography, and you realize how much you simply didn’t know.

The songs are very much what you’d expect, light-hearted for the most part, a little risque in places, sometimes silly (“Does this Shop Stock Shot Socks with Spots?”, “They All Walk the Wibbly Wobbly Walk,” “Boiled Beef and Carrots”), sometimes droll.  But rarely dull, and usually so catchy that you suddenly understand why the likes of “I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside” (recorded in 1909), “Henry the Eighth” (1911) and “Yes, We Have No Bananas” (1923) are still being sung today… and why almost everything else on here should be.

We leap forward a few years.  Tennessee Jive tells the story of Nashville independent labels between 1945-55; eight discs this time, and a 276 page hardback book that between them document that thrilling span during which country music pulled itself out of the various other forms in which it had hitherto lurked, to formulate a solid single genre.  Without, of course, allowing for any singularity whatsoever.

It’s astonishing, playing through the box, just how wide a landscape was being tilled back then…  bluegrass, hillbilly, medicine shows, blues, and that odd little hybrid that would soon be rock’n’roll are all here, and again there’s as much of a thrill in encountering new names as there is in discovering new sounds.

4And it’s an easy shift to make, from a day spent there to an evening in the company of Bear Family’s Lonnie Donegan and Vipers box sets, eight and three discs respectively, which between them tell the lion’s share of the story of skiffle.

The dominant domestic musical form in Britain through the late 1950s, skiffle is one of the best known, but least understood, terms in all of rock’n’roll history.  The simplistic vision of a handful of reformed folkies bashing out borrowed dustbowl epics on an array of household implements – broomstick bass, washboard percussion, granny’s elasticized corset – is, of course, rooted in some form of fact.

But it went beyond that.  In 1955, rock’n’roll was still a distinctly American phenomenon, and one that the Brits simply couldn’t compete with.  Guitars were expensive; amps weren’t cheap, and as for drum kits….  Like the proto Punks of two decades later, young musicians took one look at the technological arsenals of their idols, and then fled for the hills.  The punks returned with used budget guitars and loudly buzzing amps; the skifflers came out with whatever they could find in the cupboard under the stairs.  And, though the means were different, the ends were very much the same: the creation, through muddle and mutation, of a uniquely British musical genre.

Donegan was the father of skiffle.  It was he, in concert with jazzmen Chris Barber and brothers Ken and Bill Colyer, who formulated, then crystallized, the music in a mass audience’s mind; who so totally redefined what had hitherto been a 1920s term for impromptu jam sessions.  If one wishes to pursue the punk analogies further, Donegan was the Johnny Rotten of his age, and More Than “Pye in the Sky” is the story of skiffle’s rise and…. not fall, precisely, because it lived on in the earliest strivings of so many British beat bands (the Beatles among them), but it did go off the boil on its way towards absorption, the usual story of too many labels touting too many zeroes as the latest hot talent in a crowded scene.

Released in 1993 (a catalog inside my copy lists just fifty-nine other Bear Family boxes for your pleasure), the booklet is a mere sixty page paperback.  But it’s LP-sized of course, and as detailed as you could wish.  And the discs are as thorough as they ought to be, kicking off with Donegan’s earliest recordings, still a member of Barber’s band, in 1954; pursuing him through stardom with a string of superlative hits; and traveling through to sessions in 1966, when he recorded the England soccer team’s official World Cup song, “World Cup Willie.”  And, in between, if Donegan squeaked in the studio, it’s here.

3It’s exhaustive, then, but never exhausting – Donegan’s brilliance shines through everything he touched, be it the vintage Americana of Leadbelly and Guthrie, or a look back into his homeland’s past, and a taste, indeed, of old music hall.  Funny how these things go round in such circles.

Bear Family’s other major skiffle box tells the story of Wally Whyton and the Vipers.  10,000 Years Ago is slender by the best Bear Family standards – three discs, and a thirty-six page book.  But big things come in little packages.  As the Vipers themselves would tell you.

Formed in early 1956, at London’s fabled Bread Basket Coffee Bar, by Whyton, Johnny Booker and Jean Van den Bosch, by July the group had a residency at the legendary 2 I’s, the proving ground for so many of Britain’s earliest rockers.  It was there, in September, 1956, that the band was discovered by producer George Martin and, within two months, Parlophone was releasing the Vipers’ debut single, “Ain’t You Glad.”

Over the next six months, the Vipers Skiffle Group released five singles, earning two successive British Top Ten hits, “Don’t You Rock me, Daddy-O” and “Cumberland Gap,” plus a Top 30 berth for “Streamline Train.”  They might, even at this early stage, have been doomed to forever play second best to the unstoppable Lonnie Donegan, but in the world of British skiffle, the Vipers Skiffle Group had no peers.

Donegan, after all, was already beginning to embrace the music hall traditions which would characterize much of his best-remembered work; the Vipers, on the other hand, were absorbing rock’n’roll as though it were going out of fashion, creating a fusion whose rudiments remain integral to even the most contemporary modern British band.

Whyton himself constantly underplayed this element of the band’s appeal.  Talking about the Vipers’ early days in 1986, he acknowledged, “if I was aware [of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley], it was something that didn’t appeal to me.  Even now, very strange, I can’t take Presley.  [And] I always thought Bill Haley looked like a bundle of shit tied up.  I didn’t really go for his music.  I suppose I was pretty much a musical snob.”

Whyton’s refreshing honesty notwithstanding, the group’s importance can best be gauged, somewhat ironically, through the later work of three band members whose stint in the Vipers is barely remembered even by the participants.  Hank Marvin (one week), Tony Meehan (three months) and Jet Harris (six months) were all Vipers during the confused period following the departure of original member Van den Bosch; the trio would, of course, soon become better known as members of Cliff Richard’s backing band, but catch their early live sound, across Cliff’s Rock’n’Roll Years boxed set, and the benefits of their apprenticeship are there for all to hear.

Applying the hiss of the Vipers to the roar of sundry Presley standards, the group took Whyton’s vision to the next level.  And within five years, the Beatles would have taken it even further, and there would be no looking back.  Even today, and even in the U.K. itself, there is a tendency to regard the Fab Four as British Pop’s Year Zero.  Without Cliff and the Shadows, though, there could have been no Beatles – and without Wally and the Vipers….

5So what about Cliff? On the Continent, Bear Family’s four disc contribution to his discography in 1996, is not primal snarling Cliff; rather, the bulk of it dates from just a few years later, with our boy firmly embracing Family Entertainment status, and doing it in a variety of foreign languages!

Cliff had already been given the boxed treatment once, courtesy of EMI’s Rock’n’Roll Years collection of hits and hen’s teeth, and it should have been hard to top that set.  In terms of sheer collectible content, however, On The Continent wins the day, bringing together every single track he recorded for exclusive European release in one of the four foreign languages deemed representative of his biggest non-English-speaking markets: German, French, Italian and Spanish.  And if the idea of hearing “Congratulations” rendered into any one (or, in fact, all four) of those tongues does not immediately strike you as compulsive entertainment, then you probably don’t need to know that the collection does not end with released material.

Out-takes and alternates also creep in, for a total of 102 tracks, spread across four discs (the fifth recalls an early 1960s interview with the German magazine Bravo).  And there is also a beautifully designed 96 page hardback book, recounting the singer’s European adventures in words, pictures and record covers, plus a full sessionography, covering the collection’s contents.

It was EMI’s German office which first suggested, in December, 1960, that Cliff record a unique German language version of his latest hit, “Fall In Love With You,” as a gift to his local fans; it was the immediate success of the venture which prompted a follow_up just three months later, “Theme For A Dream.”  Both of these singles, in their original form, have remained Holy Grails of a kind for Cliff collectors: “Fall In Love,” for its totally rearranged backing track; “Theme” for its exclusive b_side, “Vrenelli.”  And both remained isolated offerings for another couple of years – it would be 1963 before Cliff again wrapped his tonsils around a foreign language, when the unprecedented continental success of his Summer Holiday movie demanded a slew of immediate follow-ups.

Comprising both new material and rerecordings of familiar hit songs, the When In Spain album, obviously, was performed completely in Spanish: the When In France EP was sung in  French; When In Rome was rendered in Italian.  All three sets are presented here in their entirety, each rounded out by a string of singles recorded and released in their respective territories towards the end of the 1960s: “Questions” (French), a rerecording of “On The Beach” (Italian), and the eternal “Congratulations” included.

The performances are, generally, superb.  Unlike such misbegotten renderings as the Beatles’ “Sie Liebe Dicht,” Bowie’s Italian “Space Oddity,” and sundry other well-intentioned continental concoctions, Cliff sounds as assured and unflappable as ever, no matter what tongue he’s performing in.  It is also interesting to compare the backing tracks with the familiar English language releases: on many occasions, local sessionmen would overdub a touch of regional flavor to the original tape, essentially creating a whole new recording.

Although all Cliff’s foreign language recordings were successful in their intended markets, Germany remained Cliff’s strongest continental audience, and he constantly rewarded that loyalty in song.  Between his return to language classes in 1963, and his career reinvention in 1974, the singer would record fifty-four songs in German, maintaining an average of two exclusive 45s a year through the 1960s, and topping this impressive record off with a series of German language sessions through 1967-68.  Versions of “Visions,” “A Girl Like You,” “What Would I Do,” “All My Love,” “London’s Not Too Far” and “Twist And Shout” all emerged, the highlights of what emerges as an incredibly cohesive, and absurdly previously unavailable, album.

Other peaks on the German discs, surprisingly, include great swathes of the early 1970s material which has hitherto been overlooked by all but the most devoted fan: titles such as “Anabella Umbrella,” “Sally Sunshine,” “I’m Not Getting Married” and “Shoom Llama Boom Boom,” after all, scarcely bode well for anyone awaiting the next “Move It” or “Dynamite,” but Cliff acquits himself well, and Norrie Paramour’s production, of course, remains sterling.

Cliffs final foreign recording, appropriately enough, was a German rendering of “You Keep Me Hanging On” (“Es Gehoren Zwei Zum Glucklichsein”), in 1974.  It was that song, after all, which announced his return from the increasingly directionless MOR which had plagued his early 1970s work; it was that song, too, which reminded him that there was another foreign market out there, which wouldn’t need anywhere near as many language lessons.  And one day, perhaps, somebody will compile all of Cliff’s American releases into one boxed set.

Until then, On The Continent stands as the ultimate study of a musical arena into which too few performers ever dared venture… and from which, even fewer emerged unscathed.  Cliff was one of those who did.

6While the UK skiffled, and listened to Cliff, America… well, America did lots of things, but there was no denying that the Kingston Trio were a big part of them.  Bear Family have, in fact, released two ten-disc collections of the trio, The Guard Years and The Stewart Yearscomprising, respectively, the original band’s run of glory prior to Dave Guard’s departure in 1961, and the five years that followed with John Stewart to the fore.

Of these, the Dave Guard box is probably the most exhilarating, catching the band in an age when folk music was still the preserve of more scholarly types, with smart clothes and nice accents, and none of that snarling protest business that came to the fore a little later.  Yes, you could even call it anodyne, but that is, irony of ironies, mere snobbery speaking.  Without the Kingston Trio to set the pace, much of what was later to occur would not have – in terms of folk’s popularity, it was they who did the groundwork, they who found the audience, and they, having found it, who presented the public face of folk that more roughly-hewn performers would set about demolishing.

“Tom Dooley,” of course is here, together with every other release the original Trio made; plus a slew of out-takes and oddities, foreign language recordings, 7-Up commercials, and a full recounting of their appearance at the Newport Folk Festival (which itself deserves a box set, if anyone from Bear Family is reading this).  And it’s true, ten discs of the Kingston Trio can occasionally feel like too much of a good thing, although you could say that about most box sets and most artists.  The key, however, remains the fact that the music is out there if you want it.  Because the alternative is not being able to hear it at all.

7Another jewel from the more-forgotten fifties is Eartha Kitt’s Eartha-Quake, a five disc recounting of her RCA years, stunningly illustrated (as it should be, of course), and again packed with both released and unreleased material.  The hits overflow, the attitude is high altitude (“I Want to be Evil” is still stupendous; “Mink Shmink” is dismissiveness personified), but, most of all, Kitt’s earthy growl, and the delicious sleaze of her best backing tracks conspire to make this the perfect late night listen.  Leopard-print pants and sheets not included.

Finally (and, perhaps, appropriately), we turn the clock back to yet another side of the 1950s… one that you might not necessarily associate with any particular artist or musical genre, but which hung heavily over the scene regardless.

The fear of nuclear annihilation is not, after all, the catchiest theme for a pop song.  Polemic, yes.  Protest folk, yes.  Cynicism, yes.  But twanging guitars and bumpity-rhythms, simplistic rhymes and a twinkle in the eye?  Not so much.

But that is what makes the aforementioned Atomic Platters so much fun.  We are all, perhaps, well-versed today in the sheer idiocy of the official line of the Eisenhower years; indeed, one wonders how (or even if) anybody believed that lying on the floor and covering themself with a blanket was any kind of protection against a blast that leveled entire cities in seconds.

The DVD disc that closes this magnificent box rounds up a slew of civil defense movies, a chance to relive some of the daftest advice ever given out in the name of public safety – although, of course, we know why they did it.  Better to convince the public that they have a chance of surviving, than just to admit “sorry, you’re toast.”

Likewise, the two spoken word albums that devour disc five, If The Bomb Falls and The Complacent Americans.  Calm and authoritative, these are your guides to surviving both the bomb and the fall-out… and don’t forget to “provide some tranquilizers to ease the strain and monotony of life in a shelter.  A bottle of 100 should be adequate for a family of four.”

The heart of the box, however, are the four music CDs, 128 tracks that range from period radio alerts and further Civil Defense epics, to songs that, quite honestly, really don’t seem seem to be taking things too seriously.  “You Hit Me baby Like an Atom Bomb.”  “I’m Gonna Dig Myself a Hole.”  “A Bomb Bop.”  “Uranium Fever.”

Rock’n’roll, rockabilly, country, swing, all forms of musical life are here… Bing Crosby, the Louvin Brothers, Tommy James (“The Commies are Coming” – such truculence!), Roosevelt Sykes, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Teresa Brewer, calypso giant Sir Lancelot, Bill Haley and the Comets, Doris Day, Groucho Marx… there’s a lot of names you probably won’t recognize lurking within, but there’s a lot that you will and, as usual, the book, 286 hardbound pages, will fill in all the gaps for you.

Reading, however, is hard when you’re staring in amazement at the speakers, wondering did he/she really just say that?  Or, alternately, did people really think like that?

Here’s Ann Margaret extolling the virtues of being the last woman left in town, with only thirteen men from company (“there were two men every morning, seeing that I was well fed, one sweetened my tea, the other one buttered my bread”); there’s Jackie Doll and his Pickled Peppers demanding General MacArthur drop a bomb on the Commies; here’s Sammy Salvo having nightmares about “A Mushroom Cloud”; and there’s Red River Dave mourning the incarceration of Francis Powers, and imagining him spending his time singing “the Star Spangled Banner.”

If you lived through the 1950s, this is one hefty big box of nostalgia for you.  If you didn’t, here’s the history lesson your teachers tried to forget.  And, if you can’t afford the full box set, there’s a Single Warhead edition that boils the music down to a single disc, and throws in a few extra songs as well.

Bang.

So that’s it, a quick and easy guide to what Spin Cycle, at least, ranks among the greatest Bear Family boxes of all.  Not the best sounding, because they (almost) all sound spectacular.  Not the best packaged because, again, they all look fantastic.  And not even the best-compiled, because when you’re digging as deep as you can go into an artist or genre’s archive, and have as many discs as you want at your disposal, there’s not really any way of improving things.  So, just the ones that tickled a fancy today.  Of course there’s more than a few bunches missing, of course, but if you hop over to the MVD store, you can fill in the gaps from there.

Part two of this article will appear in the next issue of Goldmine, available at Barnes & Noble and independent record stores everywhere.

 

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