In a world in which the legends of Nuggets, Rubble, Pebbles and Bam-Bam (come on.., someone has to do it sometime) long ago set the gold standard for on-going series of thematic compilations… in which Piccadilly Sunshine and Killed by Death are the crucial barometer for anyone wanting to know what a difference a decade used to make… there has long been a glaring gap in the chronological market.
Yes, it was a long way from the best of 1967 to the spikiest, angriest of 1977. But it was even further to either from 1957, and that despite rock’n’roll already being the biggest brat in town. As author and Saint Etienne mainstay Bob Stanley explains, when asked why he launched a record label whose parameters end in 1962. Twelve months before the Beatles, five years before psych, and you can do the math for the rest.
“The rock era already has plenty of labels representing it,” he says, “and the 60s and 70s get the lion's share of ‘popular music’ retrospectives.”
What Croydon Municipal intends on doing is “introduce some people to [the] great pre-rock music - there's so much of it! Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer... there are so many amazing songwriters who are usually bundled together as ‘old music,’ and I'm trying to put a different perspective on them, allying them with the Brill Building or Motown rather than Broadway or Al Jolson.”
It’s not necessarily a pioneering stance. The great Italian Mood Mosaics series ranged through a similar chronology over the years, albeit with more overlap into later times; and there was that whole so-called “space lounge” exhumation/boom that eased our ears in the early 1990s.
Those collections, however, tended to be piecemeal rampages through the corridors of kitsch. Croydon Municpal, says Stanley, probably has more in common with Ace, “which is a reissue label I've grown up with. Obscure 45s, put together with decent artwork and informative sleeve notes, and the occasional stand-alone album.”
It’s a notion that the label’s very name reflect: “Croydon Municipal comes from a sense of civic duty. Council offices should be employing people to spread this music around. If they won't, I will.”
Albums such as Such A Much - R&B Girls of the 50s and 60s; TV Is The Thing - Fifties and Sixties Television Themes; and three collections of Popcorn sounds certainly meet this need, while Soho Blondes & Peeping Toms! more than lives up to its subtitle of Saucy Vocals and Piquant Pop From the '50s and ‘60s, as Stanley reveals.
“It's related to a specific era in Britain, musically and politically, which climaxed (if that's the word) with the Profumo affair - government ministers caught with call girls.
“The atmosphere of this compilation is secret parties in basement flats, dirty macs and bottle blondes, the strip club quarter of Soho. A bit of jazz, the odd crooner, all slightly sticky.
“Traditionally, the British have always seen sex as something to either not talk about at all or to make jokes about; the singles on this compilation are very much about the British take on sex.”
The Popcorn theme, on the other hand, offers a far more cosmopolitan brew.
Popcorn itself is… “slow paced, emotive, late fifties early sixties, could include ska or tangoes or Neil Sedaka. Very hard to define, but you know it when you hear it.
“I became aware of the term in the early nineties from looking at sales lists and wants lists in Goldmine and other collectors magazines, and knew that the scene originated in Belgium.
“It seemed fascinating (a scene that slowed records down, and uncovered Sam Fletcher's ‘I'd Think It Over’ before any UK northern soul people had cottoned onto it). So, in the pre-internet, around 1992, I went to Antwerp to try and find out more.
“It was a closed shop, no one wanted to give any secrets away back then. Now the 'slow swing' sound has a low key international following. It seems less obviously male than northern soul as well, and less precious, which appeals to me.”
All three volumes range across the scene’s boundaries, but the latest - Popcorn Exotica - might be the most far-reaching yet, as it leaps from Eddie Calvert to Acker Bilk, Caterina Valenta to Les Elgart and his Orchestra, and into the realms of the French Yé-yé boom, and a slice of pure heaven from Gillian Hills - an English singer, and later actress, who carved out a glorious pop career across the English Channel, before helping kickstart the modern Hauntology movement by starring in UK television’s The Owl Service.
Both sides of her career, says Stanley, are “very good and intriguing in their own way,” while he reminds us of a couple of other memorable roles for Ms Hills, alongside Jane Birkin in David Hemmings’ boudoir in Blow Up, and “Inadmissible Evidence, in which she plays Nicol Williamson's secretary - equally unsettling in its own way. What an odd career.
“My favourite 45 of Gillian's is her only English language one, ‘Look At Them’ from 1965, which I put on an RPM compilation called Folk Rock And Faithfull some years back.” Here she offers up "Maintenance Il Telephone," and it's an absolute corker.
Croydon Municipal is not all about compilations, though. Single-artist releases by Dory Langdon and Corky Hale have also appeared.
“I owned both of those albums and loved them. Both artists also had an amazing history, which meant they were a lot of fun to put together. The Dory Previn nee Langdon album had only ever been re-issued on vinyl in Japan, which seemed a terrible oversight as it's absolutely delightful.”
Doubtless there will be more. In the meantime, Stanley leaves us with news of what we can next expect from Croydon Municpal.
“A second volume of film themes is out in the summer, with some excellent 45s that have never been re-issued. Then I've got a three disc set planned… I don't want to give away too much for now, but it's got something to do with soundtracking the city I live in.”
In other words, the good work goes on.