Okay, what do you really want from a box set?
Loads of discs. That’s a no-brainer. They still proliferate, of course, but the appeal of the mere three or four discer has long been surpassed by more sprawling concoctions that tell the fullest story.
Stuff to play with. Booklets, posters, postcards.
A box. Obviously.
And a conversation piece. The Fonotone set that Dust-to-Digital hatched, that came with a nickel-plated bottle opener. The same label’s gospel anthology Goodbye Babylon, with its handmade wooden box and a fistful of genuine cotton. The Rhino girl groups collection that was delivered in a hat box. The Pink Floyd Immersion sets with marbles and coasters and silken scarves.
This is what we want. Something that you can leave on the coffee table, secure in the knowledge that, not only will your guests be pawing it and poring over it, they’ll probably also be trying to think of ways in which to make off with it when you’re not looking.
Let them try. Better still, put Postcards from the Deep on display, and let them try and play it. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
Hey kids, remember flexidiscs?
No? Or maybe yes, but with a grossly distorted image of how magnificent they are?
Oh, you really have a surprise on its way.
Lenny Helsing of Scottish garage-psych monsters The Thanes, explains. “As a bit of a vinyl maniac, I love flexidiscs.” He shares a few of his personal vintage favorites - his copies of :the Swedish Bildjournalen varieties, with groups like the Mascots, Lee Kings and Namelosers are rather tasty, as well as some punk-era and early indie specimens.”
Private Eye unleashed a veritable storm of flexible comedic gems during the 1960s and 1970s; the New Musical Express produced its own little library around upcoming albums by Curved Air, the Faces, Monty Python, Emerson Lake and Palmer and Alice Cooper. And so legendary are these (and so profound their impact on listeners) that, in the latter two instances, the flexis have themselves since been reissued on CD. And in one of the former cases... west country psych monster Icarus Peel recalls a once-popular legend about the Faces’s “Dishevelment Blues.” “Apparently they did not want to do it and produced the worse 12 bar they were capable of!! Such little respect, these old rockers....”
Not everyone is a fan, of course. Mike Stax admits, “I've never had much affection for flexidiscs, to be honest. I mean, who does? They always sound pretty ropey, and are easily damaged, and most times wind up getting lost or misfiled somewhere in your collection.”
Which is very true. But, you want to make that eighties completist you know through Facebook turn green? Reminisce about another British music magazine, the eighties-era Flexipop, with its monthly colored flexi by some of the biggest stars of the day. Paul Weller donated “Pop Art Poem” and a demo of “Boy About Town” (issue 2); Adam and The Ants recorded a version of the Village People’s “YMCA,” realigned as “ANTS” (issue 4); Soft Cell delivered up one track from their very first, privately produced EP Mutant Moments (issue 12); the Cure provided “Lament” (issue 22) and many more.
Gregory Curvey continues, “I collected a few Flexipop discs... ‘Looking For Footprints’ by XTC! (issue 16). I really didn’t care about sound quality at the time, just wanted to hear the song. The only drag was if the punch holes weren’t large enough the discs would get caught up on the record player spindle and couldn't spin.”
Hours of fun.
Particularly as they usually arrive in... shall we say, less than pristine condition. With a laugh, Lenny Helsing continues, “The sound can be very thin sometimes and it's a drag when you get a crease or two, cos then they become almost unplayable, but hey, like a lot of things in life, I guess it reflects something of the transient nature of material possessions!”
They are easily bent, torn and otherwise damaged, becoming utterly unplayable through the every-day wear and tear that would not even affect a vinyl disc. And just to make them even more entrancing, says singer Crystal Jacqueline, “they always seemed to jump.”
Which is also true. So much so that, half the time, you need to have a pocketful of small change handy, just to weigh down the tone arm. Otherwise it will bounce and boing all over the place. “But they were free,” concludes Jacqueline. So you win some, you lose some, and where else are you going to hear Dick Clarke imparting “inside stories” via a giveaway with 1973’s 20 Years Of Rock And Roll compilation LP?
Or the late English erotica superstar Mary Millington discuss some decidedly naughty things, while the needle goes SSSSSSSSSHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH in embarrassment behind her?
Or Slade talk to Melanie readers?
Nevertheless... to go back to where we began, that is probably not a quality that we look for in box sets. The bouncy bit, not the free bit.
Postcards from the Deep is, quite possibly, the last box set you will need to buy this year. Indeed, with a projected November release date, it will probably be the last one you’ll be able to buy before the holidays descend upon us, and streets and internet alike become clogged with last minute panic purchasers, all looking for that one indispensable cat toy that Tibbles will not reject in favor of a paper bag this year.
Postcards from the Deep also ticks all the boxes that we mentioned at the start of this piece. It is in a box. A cardboard clam shell, I believe. It has lots of discs... no less than ten! It has stuff to play with... postcards indeed.
And it has a conversation piece.
It is comprised entirely of flexi discs. Ten of them. All one-sided, all utterly see-through. All relating to the postcards that accompany the package and upon which, we are aghast to discover, the music was very nearly pressed in the first place. Only problems in locating the necessary Communist-era Polish postcard pressing equipment derailed the initial dream, but once hatched, the notion would not fade away. And so it became reality instead.
Well, as real as any box of ten flexidiscs released just in time for Christmas could be.
It will come as no surprise to regular readers to discover that Fruits de Mer are responsible for what we are about to receive. Britain’s best-loved psychedelic musical micro-brewery has already hatched a burgeoning market in modern-day collectibles, at least if e-Bay attempts to plug the gaps in my own collection are anything to go by.
Fiercely limited editions sell out within nanoseconds of going on sale, and normally that wouldn’t be of especial consequence. What is “limited edition” anyway, but marketing shorthand for “a piece of crap that you really don’t want, but if we tout its potential rarity, hopefully you’ll cave.”
Except Fruits de Mer records tend to be great. Tend to be records that you really do want. Tend to be so damned groovy that one of the hardest tasks around right now is joining in with the current Facebook fad for listing your all time ten favorite FdM tracks.
Er... right now, that would be the contents of Postcards from the Deep, wouldn’t it?
The Luck Of Eden Hall - “Psychotic Reaction” (originally recorded by Count Five)
The Loons - “Celestial Empire” (Dragonfly)
The Crawlin’ Hex - “I'm A Living Sickness” (Calico Wall)
The Thanes - “LSD” (The Pretty Things)
The Blue Giant Zeta Puppies - “Time Machine” (Satori)
The Past Tense - “Soul Fiction” (The Hippies)
Schizo Fun Addict - “Take A Heart” (The Sorrows)
Crystal Jacqueline - “You Just Gotta Know My Mind” (Dana Gillespie/Donovan)
Astralasia - “Brainticket” (Brainticket)
Icarus Peel - “The Avengers' Theme” (Laurie Johnson)
Ken Halsey of the Past Tense documents the flexi box’s genesis. “Back to the DIY ethic. Thats what I thought when Keith (FdM founder Jones] told me about Postcards From the Deep. Pressing into paper, totally mad, but to me thats what FDM originally started out as, something different. Wrap around covers, strange free gifts, basement recordings, that was the pull for me, back to the late 70’s punk DIY ethic.”
“As the project grew, it was found that the original postcards idea wasn’t going to work. so flexidiscs were suggested. That was really back to the early 80’s. I couldn’t recall the last time I got one of those. It was probably stuck to the cover of an early 80’s magazine. And thats how the idea went forward. “
There were some questions. Would anyone actually remember flexis? Would people be excited to get them in 2014? Apparently so. As the Blue Giant Zeta Puppies’ Tom Woodger puts it, “Ten bands? Yeah!
“Ten songs? Cool!
“Ten postcards (and poster!) with art by Mick Dillingham? Yes!!
“A box to contain it all? Great!!
“Flexi discs? Brillia.....hang on!
“Flexidiscs? That's mad!!.......totally mad!!....insane!.....totally insane.....That's Brilliant!! Sign us up!!!”
Halsey continues, “all the bands gave a resounding thumbs up, so away we all went to record our tracks.”
The decision as to what to include was generally left to the individual bands, but with Jones’s input never far from view. In fact, Past Tense’s choice of the Hippies’ ”Soul Fiction” came straight from the main man. “Keith originally put forward a list of a number of tracks he liked. It wasn’t compulsory to choose one, but ‘Soul Fiction’ stood out for us. As an instrumental, there aren’t any vocals to get in the way so you can go a bit more crazy.
“The idea was to really garage/fuzz the track up, but with the fact the release was originally going to be pressed into paper, we tried to get a happy medium by not going to over the top on distorting the recording as the pressing on card would have done that for us. Now that it’s flexidiscs, our track and probably others aren’t as fuzzed up as perhaps they should have been, but at least they are listenable!”
For the immaculately named Blue Giant Zeta Puppies, their involvement with Postcards from the Deep rounds off what has already been an eventful year’s end... late September having seen the release of their 12 Theories of Time Travel album, available as a name-your-own-price download on The Active Listener net-label, and a crunching corker it is as well. Spectacular, even, and so bloated with stupendous stand-out slabs of fuzzy, freaky, zappity zest that it seems silly to even try and play favorites with its contents. But if “Martians Don’t Surf” doesn’t make you argue “yes they do,” then you obviously have no soul. Download it now, before they see sense and make you pay real money for it. Because they should.
Tom Woodger continues. “The 'Puppies were very pleased (to put it mildly!), to be invited to take part. As a long time fan of 60s freakbeat, to be given the chance to contribute to a modern version of the kind of compilation I have come to know and love was only too good to miss.”
He reflects on a handful of favorites and we suddenly realize that yes, in a strange kind of way, these are precisely the spirit that the best FdM projects invoke. The Bam-Caruso Rubble series, See For Miles’ British Psychedelic Trip, The Perfumed Garden and so on, pioneering collections from an era before the psych revival became big business, and the only labels scouring for this stuff were the tiny labors of love that knew only that somewhere, somebody needed to hear this music - so here it is.
It’s not a truly accurate parallel, of course. Rubbleet al went for sixties arcana; FdM target its modern reflections. But the ethos is the same, and the end result too. You hear the Crawlin’ Hex blur through “I'm A Living Sickness,” all fiendish echo and cavernous rumble, and you feel the same sense of triumphant discovery today as the first time you hear the Calico Wall original way back when.
Back to Woodger. “Flexidiscs may not be the highest sound quality, but as the medium for a 304-Holloway-Road-in-yer-face-You're-Holding-Me-Down-compression-on-the-compression-gimmie-more-coffee-and-diet-pills-Crawdaddy-Simone style sound, I have to say it works for us!”
Plus, in case any turntable deprived readers are even now checking out the price of a flexi-friendly record player that isn’t a piece of modern plastic garbage, Woodger revels, “there will also be a CD of the tracks included in each set. We chose not to produce a longer version of our track for the CD (some bands have), as the three minute version on the flexi actually IS the long version. Our original 'single edit' ran under two minutes, but that's The 'Puppies for you.”
As is the manner in which they wound up with possibly the least giant blue zeta puppy-like cut they’ve ever handled. “We wanted to bring something new to any song we chose, to make it our own in some way, and there was the problem. As we ran through my freakbeat favourites (The Fire - ‘Father's Name is Dad’; The Buzz - ‘You're Holding Me Down’; The Open Mind - ‘Magic Potion’; The Eyes - ‘You're Too Much’) we just sounded like we were doing a 'covers band' style impression of the original.
“So we decided to try taking a song from a different genre, and performing it in a freakbeat style. I stumbled across ‘Time Machine’ by Satori, on a Collectables Acid Visions - Best of Texas Punk and Psychedelic compilation, and as soon as I heard it, I knew we had the track we had been looking for. The original is a brilliant, swirling, Thirteenth-Floor-Elevators-ish punk psych classic - we took it and came out with a sort of Joe-Meek-Surf-Freak-Beat version.... with a bit of help from H.G.Wells.”
Elsewhere, things go a little more to form. The Thanes’ decision to grab a Pretty Things cut, for example, was probably preordained... as Lenny Helsing reminds us, “The Thanes had already been part of the double vinyl set, Not Pretty, issued over a decade ago on Australia's Corduroy outlet; we do a very raw and basic take of ‘Honey I Need'. We were also both honored and privileged to play out live with the Pretties a couple of years ago in Glasgow, and had a great time swapping tales of vintage instruments with Dick Taylor and Phil May and chatting to them before and after the show.”
They too chose their song from Jones’s original wish list. “When I saw ‘LSD’ was on the list, I thought, ‘yeah we could do a pretty good instrumental take on that for sure.’ And funnily enough Angus McPake [Thanes' organist / guitarist] and I, independent of each other, both thought it would be a great idea to include sitar ... which is what we've done. Sitar and fuzz to give it that early psychsploitation feel that was going down on some LPs Stateside back at the time.”
Of course, the Pretty Things are also close to Ugly Things publisher Mike Stax’s heart, with his own band, the Loons, among the distinguished contributors to the FdM Children of Sorrowtribute album (“a radically re-arranged version of ‘Loneliest Person’.”)
“This time we got the opportunity to record another cover version, Dragonfly's ‘Celestial Empire.’ Dragonfly were this amazing psychedelic band from the Netherlands, who only released a couple of singles, both of them fantastic. They had a striking image, with wild face paint, not unlike Arthur Brown or a trippier forerunner of Kiss.”
The song has been in and out of the Loons’ live repertoire for many years, says Stax, “and Keith's flexidisc concept seemed like a good excuse to actually record it.” His personal dislike of the medium, meanwhile, was balanced by two very real considerations. Firstly, “the idea of having a release on such an obsolete and inherently dodgy format appealed to me on a perverse level.” But also, knowing of the flexi’s history of Soviet bloc subversion, back in the day of Communist rule, “I like to think we're doing something in the same spirit with this release -- getting our way-outside-the-mainstream sounds into the hands of that small coterie of non-conformist music fans who actually 'get' our kind of music.”
“And this,”continues Schizo Fun Addict’s Jet Wintzer, “is why Fruits de Mer is the coolest fucking label on earth.”
Schizo’s contribution to Postcards is the Sorrows‘ “Take A Heart,” a song that Wintzer describes as “my first falling in love with freakbeat , seeing them [perform it] live in what looks like some kind of auditorium, you can see it in old black and white YouTube. It’s just a wonderful snapshot that captures the zeitgeist of the era. Keith gave instant approval and we set out recording it on 1\2 inch 8 track reel to reel in our studio lair above the funeral home in New Jersey.”
Drums echoing out of a Grand Canyon of sound, spacey whips and whispers that could be the ghosts of Gong, the band’s original take packed what Wintzer calls “a very hard-edged vocal.” But then a brainwave came down from FdM HQ, “to redo it in a style similar to a scene from the original movie Bedazzled, this weird dude laying down what sounds like a megaphone spoken word with girl backing singers.” And despite some initial reservations (“we really liked what we originally did”), it worked.
Better than that. It really worked. Wintzer concludes, “the final mix is about two-thirds lead vocal as Keith suggested, and then we kept the screaming from the original for the final verse ,and man, the dynamic at that moment just rips. Keith really made the track better and I’m so psyched that we listened to him....”
Icarus Peel’s contribution of The Avengers TV theme also harks back to classic sixties visuals, and to another of FdM’s favorite hobby horses, previously aired on theDo Not Adjust Your Set collection of half a dozen period TV themes.
“I always loved The Avengers,” says Peel... and his eyebrows raise expectantly, as he waits for the penny to drop. Ah, so that’s who you named one half of yourself for. “I think the theme tune is fabulous. The Honey Pot drummer, Wayne Fraquet, always does these fast, tight little beats to warm up, so he was a natural choice to join in, and after that it was just having fun with as many guitars as I could squeeze on!!!”
Peel is present, too, on Crystal Jacqueline’s beat-booming cover of “You Just Gotta Know My Mind,” a Donovan composition written for singer Dana Gillespie - later of David Bowie and Mainman fame but, prior to that, a delightfully folk themed enchantress whose first album was produced by blues supremo Mike Vernon.
“I only recently came upon this song on the radio,” say Jacqueline. “At once I told Icarus to source and start work on it. I loved the words.” In a career that has, over recent years, turned in some truly groundbreaking and genre-resetting takes on songs that might otherwise have been considered forever set in amber, this might even be CJ’s most breath-taking yet.
Astralasia turn in a ferocious rendering of Brainticket’s “Brainticket,” which Marc Swordfish acknowledges is a personal nod to the Swiss-German cult to whom “we owe a lot”; while the Luck of Eden Hall - whose twenty-fifth anniversary this year will be celebrated by a forthcoming Goldmine retrospective - grabbed the Count Five at Gregory Curvey’s insistence, and transform them into the kind of oozing sonic blur that you night otherwise mistake for a cardiac episode, if you didn’t already know better.
“Do you remember the film Drugstore Cowboy? That was where I first heard ‘Psychotic Reaction.‘ I bought the film soundtrack and played it to death the summer of its release, and I really like the manic part of the song. It jumps off the cliff and speeds you toward the ground, only to be saved at the last minute.” He pauses, menacingly. “We had fun recording that part....”
And so, there you have it. They are postcards. They come from the deep. They’re in a box, they go flip-flop (if you wave them in the air. And let’s face it; who amongst us has never fanned their face with a flexidisc?), and for all the reservations you’ve read here, about flexis sounding funny and grungy and yuk, they really sound no worse than ... ooh, the average major label eighties CD comes to mind, and that was meant to be the best sound ever! Plus, with their own CD doppelganger also floating around the box, that means you get eleven discs, and that’s some serious heft for your money.
The final word, however, must come from Astralasia’s Marc Swordfish. “It was an honor to be involved with this. I just hope Keith doesn't decide to do wax cylinders next. They sound even worse.”