You may not have noticed (although if you are a regular Goldmine reader, you will have), but the taste for boutique labels that was ignited a few years ago by Fruits de Mer is in no way confined to our so-collectible fishy friends. A host of others also lurk in the subterranean caves and corners of the modern market, each attracting its own host of devoted supporters; each planting its flag within that precious corner of collectordom where quality has streaked so far ahead of quantity that it’s sometimes easy to forget you are simply buying a record. You are investing in a work of art.
Himself a music writer and collector, John Blaney launched Mega Dodo a couple of years back, with a 45 and an album by the marvelous Mordecai Smyth. Since that time, the catalog has expanded to include similarly stellar releases by Icarus Peel, Octopus Syng, the Green Question Mark, Strange Turn, the Honey Pot, Mark and the Clouds, Ivan Ivanovitch (a Ukrainian performer whose debut transforms Paul McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre” into a creature of impeccable wonder) and Crystal Jacqueline, a name that should already be familiar to Spin Cyclists, as one of our top albums of 2013.
None have yet been offered a King’s ransom to sell photograph of their cat to Hello magazine, and none are really likely to in the near future. But alongside Fruits de Mer (with whom Mega Dodo share both musical taste and the occasional act), Mega Dodo are pioneering the most significant and in terms of progression and originality, forward thinking psychedelic rebirth since the early 80s.
It is also primarily concerned with vinyl. A handful of releases have (and will) made it out on hateful shiny beer mats, but as Blaney explains. “I think Mega Dodo's audience has a taste for well crafted songs, an eclectic taste in music and prefers to listen to music on vinyl.
“Although there's more than a whiff of psychedelia about the artistes the label has issued thus far, it's really all about the songs. It’s not about genres or stereotypes, it’s about creativity and well crafted song writing. There's also a collectors' attitude and a desire to own something tactile, rather than a WAV file or an MP3 on a hard drive. The internet has made it easier to reach our audience, but it's also made it more difficult to make ourselves seen and heard. Anybody with an internet connection can have a presence on the net. That means there are tens of thousands of bands and hundreds of labels all screaming 'look at me!'. So we tried to be different from the very beginning. We went with vinyl from the word go, and did a lot of work to come up with interesting and well designed packaging.”
Indeed, Martin Simmonds’ artwork for Mordecai Smyth’s debut album, Sticky Tape and Rust, effortlessly reflects its title, even down to the CD being packaged in... a rusty tin held together with sticky tape.
“I love all that kind of stuff,” Blaney says. Fondly remembering when the Durutti Column released an LP in a sandpaper sleeve, much to the chagrin of unsuspecting retailers and buyers... the Raspberries album that smelled of raspberries... the Airplane sleeve that folded out into an oversized cigar box... he admits “I want to do more of that.” Not only because it’s fun but because it attracts further attention. “We did a little advertising and were very lucky to find some friendly and helpful radio presenters and online bloggers. The bands have also worked very hard to promote their records and the label. It's been a team effort and I like to think of Mega Dodo as a workers cooperative. We're all working together and the label wouldn't have got this far if there had been any ego wars.”
It has not all been easy, of course. As Mega Dodo marches towards its third anniversary, Blaney admits that there have been some harsh lessons learned, the first of which was perhaps the most important.
“Curb your enthusiasm. When I started the label, I really thought it would be easy to sell a few hundred records. Boy was I wrong! I've learnt to be more cautious and to order fewer records and CDs.”
On the other side, he has been impressed by the sheer good-naturedness of life at this end of the industry pile “You always hear negative stories about the music business and how somebody has been ripped-off, but so far I’ve only encountered talented and generous people who are in it because they love music. They make music, write about music, have radio shows and run labels because they have a passion for it. So far, it's been like a very open, welcoming, and slightly dysfunctional family.”
It helps, of course, that Blaney’s own background went some way towards preparing him for life as a record company mogul.
“I left school with the vague idea of becoming a graphic designer. After a year at Art College, I realized I was never going to make it in the dog-eat-dog world of graphic design, and drifted into music retail. That was great for a while. I amassed a large record collection, some of which I still have; I was showered with promotional gifts and slowly gave myself tinnitus.
“But I could see the writing on the wall. Retail changed and not for the better. It was all about 'product' and 'shifting units' and had nothing to do with actually liking music and passing that passion and knowledge onto others. There are still great and passionate retailers out there, but the majors almost destroyed that important network. In the UK we had ‘The Chain with No Name’ that really made a difference to indie bands and shops. We need something like that more than ever now. Anyway, I decided to get an education and studied history of art at Camberwell (Syd Barrett's alma mater) and then Goldsmiths (Neil Innes and Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell are both old boys—literally!). Then I found myself working in a museum and writing books about music.”
Recommended to all are Blaney’s biography of the post split Beatles, Lennon & McCartney - Together Alone, pubished in 2007, and one of several Beatles books he has authored; and Howling Wind: Pub Rock and the Birth of the New Wave, an absolutely fascinating (and deliciously detailed) look back at how the British punk scene emerged not from the art seminars and revolutionary rhetoric of its headline movers, but from the ferocious backlash against corporate rock that developed on the local pub circuit.
Bands like Dr Feelgood, Roogalator, Eddie and the Hot Rods, Graham Parer and the Tyla Gang (whose recent reformation, apropos of nothing, has just spawned one of the most exciting live albums of the decade so far) all paved the way for the firestorm to come, and Blaney slots all the pieces into place. Not only historically, but culturally too. Indeed, in much the same way as Mega Dodo are such fervent supporters of vinyl, for all the correct sonic reasons, so Dr Feelgood struck a similar blow against the industry’s early 70s obsession with stereo and quad, by recording their debut LP in glorious mono.
Different format, same statement.
“I would love for Mega Dodo to eventually be a vinyl only label,” Blaney admits. “But there is still a market for CDs. Not everybody has a record player, so for the time being the label will be releasing CDs alongside vinyl. But vinyl is what everybody associated with the label loves. We did dabble with downloads - the Mordecai Smyth album is still available at your favorite digital retailer. But while digital formats have a place, I've stopped making Mega Dodo releases available as downloads. Downloads are boring and our audience much prefer a well crafted physical artifact.”
Indeed, Blaney is one of the small but ever-growing band of music lovers who see vinyl... if not as the savior of the mainstream music industry, as it wallows in its latest self-imposed doldrums, then at least as the liferaft that will carry the most deserving talents to safety.
“Remember when they said vinyl was dead? Remember when they said painting was dead? I suppose a certain online retailer would have us believe that the printed book is dead. Well, vinyl is going to be around for a long time, for the simple reason that people like to hold things, touch things, smell and taste things.
“You can't do that with a MP3, jpeg or ebook. A record is a tangible connection with the artiste that made it. You connect with the artiste on so many levels with a physical artefact, that you don't get with a digital release. I've no doubt that the market for vinyl will ebb and flow. At the moment it seems to be flowing. Who knows how long that will last? But even when it starts to ebb, there will always be the old and bold who'll prefer a hard copy to play, and a new generation to discover records and the thrill of tracking down that elusive Mega Dodo rarity from 2011.”
Ah yes, the rarities... and indeed, the catalog in general. With a cunning grasp on numerological sequencing, the label’s debut release, DODO 1, reversed its nomenclatural bird’s reputation for extinction in 2011; that was the Mordeca Smyth album, accompanied by a single, “Georgina Jones.” Subsequent albums have included a Christmas themed compilation and the aforementioned Crystal Jacqueline masterpiece, while Finland’s Octopus Syng have their new album, Reverberating Garden #7, released this month, and a startling brew of old and new it is too.
The label’s 45 output, meantime, has included one of Blaney’s own compositions, “Pink Litmus Shirt,” pressed in startling pink vinyl and worn by the mysterious Strange Turn... in actuality, the combined talents of Mordecai Smyth, Icarus Peel and Crystal Jacqueline, backing the enigmatic Sir Bastion Longfellow. Catch it soon on the soudtrack to the upcoming zombie flick Walking with the Dead.
Much the same team of Smyth, Peel and CJ is also responsible for the Green Question Mark’s Pegasus EP, this time twisting your ears around the psych madness of Marrs Bonfire - “a top bloke and a mean drummer,” says Blaney, who was responsible for introducing Mega Dodo to Icarus and Crystal.
And the there’s Ivan Ivanovitch.
“Ivan Ivanovich sent me a CD through the post with a just a return address written on it, nothing else. No covering letter, no biography, no photo...nothing. I thought his version of 'Mull Of Kintyre' was magic. The original plan was to have it pressed up on vinyl, and I did have two lathe cut 45s made up, but money was tight in the early days, it still is, so we went with a limited edition CD. Ivan has threatened to record a version of Cliff Richard's 'Devil Woman'. I'm still waiting, but should he ever get round to it you can rest assured that it will appear on Mega Dodo.”
“I've been very lucky because all the artistes and bands have found me and everybody who's approached me has been exceptionally talented. The only time I approached a band with a proposal, they'd just signed to another label that didn't want them releasing records for anybody else. That said, something interesting still may come of it. I can't say anymore than that at the moment.”
Not on that subject, perhaps. But Mega Dodo’s other ambitions roll on regardless.
“Future plans are to follow Robert Crumb's dictum: 'keep on trucking'. We've got new releases lined up by Mordecai Smyth and Icarus Peel, Octopus Syng, Mark and The Clouds and Sky Picnic.
“Next year is already looking pretty busy with a new Crystal Jacqueline album, a compilation of new interpretations of nursery rhymes in aid of Save The Children, a limited edition CD by The Honey Pot, and an album by Swedish band Peacock Farm. Looking a little further ahead, I'd like help a few established acts get their music out on vinyl. Too many established acts who release their own albums ignore vinyl because it looks expensive and time consuming to produce. Mega Dodo can change all that and get more musicians releasing their music on vinyl... the way it should be heard.”
There’s really not much one can add to that.