Posted on

Confessions Of A Vinyl Addict – Part 2

By Gary Atkinson

“…Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”

The first albums that I bought were cheap, ‘budget range’ ones. The Marble Arch label was owned by Pye Nixa, which had licensed material from Chess records in the early 1960s. As a schoolboy in the late 1960s, I could just about afford these, at 14s 11d, that’s just short of 75p or $1.14. My first purchase was a compilation simply titled The Blues, which had several of the Chess heavyweights on it, including Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Little Walter and my first introduction to the mighty Elmore James with his powerful, electric slide-guitar opening to ‘Sunnyland’. From there on, each Saturday, I went into town on a record-buying trip. Quickly, I devised an expedition route taking me round all of the city’s record shops, the grand finale being Hammond’s department store where, on most Saturdays, it would be mayhem in the record department on the top floor. Everyone would be crammed around a pentangle shaped island of record racks filled with LPs and in the centre of the pentangle were staff, often struggling to serve one customer after another. Around the perimeter of the department were several listening booths, which would invariably have queues of teenagers waiting outside clutching their next prospective purchase. With very little money in my pocket, early forays consisted of little more than gazing longingly at LP sleeves. Eagerly, my eyes took mental snapshots of covers, fonts, titles, sleeve notes and their writers, musicians, producers, recording studios, record company names, everything and anything that would help unpick the mysteries of this huge realm of record collecting that lay in front of me.

No sooner had I exhausted the offerings of the budget labels, then I made a wonderful discovery – a ‘book and record exchange’. Newly opened on Carr Lane just south of the city centre, it was run by a chap called John Sheridan, a brooding, quiet-spoken man. With lengthy, grey, hair, sometimes tied in a ponytail. I could never quite tell whether he was friend or foe. A little daunting, both visually and characteristically, he was not unlike the Professor Dumbledore character played by Richard Harris in the Harry Potter movies, and this walk-in magic box of vinyl could have been comfortably placed in Diagon Alley. Late, on a cold December afternoon, in 1969, as a fresh-faced thirteen-year-old, I walked into the shop and found the blues section. Immediately, I practically passed out, having come across Blind Willie McTell’s 1940 Library of Congress sessions on the Storyville label. Completely beside myself, I walked up to the counter and handed the empty sleeve over to Sheridan. He looked down at the sleeve over his wire-rimmed glasses, studied it for a moment and then looked back up at me. ‘You want this?’ he asked in his soft Irish voice. The word ‘this’ was accentuated by him glancing down at the sleeve and then quickly back at me. It was as if to say, ‘Do you know what this is?’ My ears detected a tone of menace, perhaps concern, as though he’d said, ‘You young fool. Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?’ The LP was put into a plain brown paper bag and with it I stepped back out into the darkening wintry air. As I walked quickly away I felt, for the first time, an odd sense of having just done something that wasn’t quite right, something that was quite at odds with my contemporaries. Why were my hands soaked with nervous sweat? Why was my heart thumping? Why did I have a sense of excitement and guilt mixed together? It was practically as if Sheridan had metamorphosed into a shady drug dealer and the drug was vinyl.

I took my LP home and seconds after the stylus kissed the vinyl of my new friend, in my bedroom, I was hit by the driving sound of McTell’s first few intense bars of music, played with great zeal on his Stella 12-string guitar. It had an immediate and life-changing effect on me; the nearby River Humber turned into the Mississippi, the flat, fertile farmland around me became the Delta, and Hull, as anyone could surely see, had turned into Memphis, or was it Atlanta or Jackson? I could never quite tell. Life was now an ongoing explosion of discovery as more and more music came into my bedroom, served on a platter of vinyl.

**********

By the time that I was fifteen I had become a nigh-on unbearable purist. It was vintage, pre-war blues recordings from the 1920s and ’30s or nothing. I had stopped watching Top of the Pops and had no interest in what was happening in the charts. The whole thing was a tedious, puerile abomination. Anyone not able to understand the sublime integrity of the records I was prepared to trade my soul for was, in my eyes, little more than an imbecile.

It was clear to all concerned, including friends and family, that my collecting habits had become serious and possessed a worrying air of longevity. My mother had become concerned about how I was spending my money. My father put up a case for my defence, but he had an ulterior motive. Some years later, he confessed that when I used to go to him, appealing that I had found a bunch of ‘must buy’ records and was short by a pound or two, he would subsidise me, convinced that I would eventually tire of all of this and the collection would become his. Sadly, his plan backfired on him and he never saw his vision come true. Yet, even though my mother’s concerns had been, to some extent, alleviated, I was very mindful of them and would return home from a Saturday record-buying binge with an odd looking, twelve-inch square, flat chest, having stuffed my latest haul up my jumper to dodge parental customs and excise. It was then a quick-paced walk to the stairs, which I would ascend, two or three at a time, trying to remain calm and without raising any suspicion.

Things got even better. Shortly after, Sheridan opened up a second, bigger shop a mile or so from the north-west of the city centre on Princess Avenue. It was a shrewd move. This Victorian, double-fronted shop, with its large windows, was situated within the university student’s accommodation area. By this time, I had left school and had settled into my first ‘proper job’, as an office junior in the huge Dickensian accounts section of the City Engineers Department of the Hull Corporation. The wonderful thing about this was that we had an hour and a half for lunch. Instead of having an electronic clocking on/off machine there was a register, a large book with a pencil tied to it. The lunch period stretched over three hours, from twelve to three o’clock. There were around fifty people in that office, many young teenagers like me. Shortly after starting, I was told by my young colleagues that if I wanted a long lunch all I had to do was ask someone who was staying in the office over lunch to sign me back in at 1:30. Consequently, I would often sign out at 12:00 and go on a three-hour record-browsing rampage, usually making a bee line for Sheridan’s Princess Avenue shop.

It was the uncertainty, the not knowing what would be trawled up in the nets, as I bobbed around the book and record exchanges on those lunchtime and Saturday expeditions that created the excitement leading up to a “find”. The majority of records were from established collections and were usually a few years old, at least. This gave me a chance to do some catching up on many wonderful releases that appeared before I became a collector. One such LP I bought at that time was a Sonny Terry album on the Topic label, released in 1964, having been released in the USA on the Folkways label by Moses Asch in 1958. Some records had been brought in from bigger cities and were far more interesting than what I could buy, new, in town – such as a 1957 copy of Jesse Fuller’s rare Frisco Bound album on Cavalier. And get this, it was SIGNED ‘Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller’ on the front.

Student feverously works out finances, in a desperate attempt to try and avoid worst case scenario; selling blues albums to raise money for rent.

Visiting the Princess Avenue shop, nestled deep within student-bedsit land, it didn’t take long for me to work out the weak points in  the student fiscal calendar. I soon learned that those students who liked blues and had brought with them some excellent LPs from afar, also had a tendency to hit a financial crisis at around Christmas, Easter and the end of the semester. Although I admired their musical taste and sympathised with their impecuniousness, the advantage proved time and again to be mine. Going through the racks was like panning for gold. Striking it lucky depended on a sequence of events. For example; Blues LP owning student from one of the country’s bigger cities, after considering various options, is now attending Hull University. Student decides, at last minute, not to return to family home for the break and unexpectedly meets girl or boy of his or her dreams at Christmas or New Year’s Eve party. Student develops relationship. With relationships comes happiness, good times, festivals, pubs, cinemas, clubs, endless phone calls etc. By Easter student is lost in heady romantic whirl which has cost quite a bit more than student expected or budgeted for, but for the moment he or she doesn’t care. Eventually, after a reluctant look at student’s bank statement, student starts to wake up from ‘to hell with the money, I’m in love’ dream. Student is brought out of his or her trance by their rapidly depleting bank balance. They are back in the bedsit room and find, under discarded fish-and-chip paper and empty cans, the deadly, final demand for rent. Student franticly calculates how many weeks to go before the summer break and considers options. Parents? Luck has run out. New partner? Too early into relationship. Try and get job back working behind bar of nearby pub? They won’t have student back because of that disgraceful behaviour towards one of the customers and then not turning up the next day for work. Despite reducing weekly food budget and living on a diet of cheese on toast and the odd tin of beans, student has suddenly arrived at a fiscal crisis. Last option is the nuclear one. Go to Sheridan’s on Princess Avenue and get money for blues LPs. Meanwhile, record-buying fiend, Atkinson, walks into the shop and BINGO! With a slight tremble in my hand and an intent stare at the covers that, only hours before, lived in student’s nearby bedsit, I hear the stylus settle down onto the vinyl and I swear that Robert Johnson and all his Delta blues chums begin the opening bars of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’. The whole predictable process has been like the effect of a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the planet. Indeed, the student would probably agree that my having struck gold in the vinyl mine was the result of his chaos. Like a vulture perched on a telegraph wire biding its time, all Atkinson had to do was wait for financial disaster to hit before he would swoop on his prey and gorge himself on another orgy of sound.

**********

Two labels were of particular interest to me in the early days. One was the Yazoo label, based in New York, which had been established by Nick Perls, a young, independently wealthy East Coast collector of old blues records. Yazoo albums were very well put together with excellent sound restoration, re-mastering and informative sleeve notes. The Roots label was equally interesting, but compared to Yazoo its LPs had an anarchic quality about them. There were no concessions towards sound restoration and no sleeve notes whatsoever. Only occasionally would original recording dates be shown. Nevertheless, of the two labels, Roots albums seemed to dig deeper into the recorded legacy of obscure blues recordings. The only other information given on the backs of Roots record sleeves was a mysterious Viennese address and the name Johnny Parth. Little did I know, as I bought these records, second-hand as a young teenager, that this name would mean a great deal to me some twenty-five years later.

Left: Yazoo’s first vinyl LP, originally released on the Belzona Records label in 1967 before a legal challenge forced a name change to Yazoo Records. Right: RL 301, the first Roots vinyl LP, which was released in 1970. After seeing these labels for the first time, I had to have everything that they released.

**********

 

Posted on

Confessions of a Vinyl Addict – Part 1

The first time I met the blues

In 2013 I was asked to write a piece for the book publisher Faber. The inspiration for the request was a collaboration between Document Records and Jack White’s Third Man Records which had just taken place. What was required of me by Faber was an insight into how I became a record collector and how, many years later, I received a phone call from Jack White asking me if I would work with him in producing some pre-war blues albums on vinyl. This also happened to be during the early days of the current vinyl revival.

Of course, the bulk of this story goes hand in hand with my addiction to music and in particular, the blues, which began as a passion for me when I was a child and with that I have adapted the piece so that it focuses more on my early days of discovering this wonderful music and how it effected me. With these scribbles, I hope that you too will be inspired and join in by telling how you first encountered the music which means a great deal to you; perhaps blues, jazz, gospel, old-time country or anything else. What was the first record that you bought? How did you first hear this music? Do you have any stories about a particular record buying experience? What effect has the music had on you and your life?…

*************

Confessions of a Vinyl Addict

By Gary Atkinson

Part 1: Warmth and catching the record collecting bug

Talk to any collector of vinyl records, or those who fondly reminisce about the days of singles, EPs and albums, and it is a safe bet that sooner or later, in their attempt to describe just what it is that puts vinyl up and above any other format that carries the recorded sound of music, they will use the adjective ‘warm’. ‘I don’t know what it is. It’s got that warmth; do you know what I mean?’ Yes, I do, but unless you have heard it and experienced it radiating from the speakers, like the comforting warmth of a 1960s three-bar electric fire on a cold winter’s day, then it is difficult to articulate what is meant by it. Being caught in its glow is quite a difficult thing to describe. I dare say that someone with a PhD in physics might be able to tell you exactly what it is, in scientific terms: the average decibel range, the frequency, how it hits the ear drums and sets off our sensory system within that part of our brain that takes care of, well, that sort of thing. You can hear it when the stylus makes contact with the outer perimeter of a vinyl disc, the ‘lead-in groove’. Straight away and for a few seconds before the anticipated music begins, there it is – the sound of warmth. If one needs a visual metaphor, it is like watching the cream being poured onto the back of a polished, silver teaspoon, before it caresses and delicately glides over the dark, whiskey-laden coffee that lies beyond.

Standard recording contracts, or any contract which involves the production and distribution or licensing of a sound recording, carry a ‘Territory’ clause outlining where in the world the recordings will be sold or used, for example, either as records or in films or TV advertisements. In the distant past, it was not unusual for the territory to be defined as ‘the world’. However, within the last couple of decades this clause has been broadened out and in some cases states ‘the world together with the universe which may from time to time be visited or occupied by man’. This additional wording is an attempt to cover any type of electronic or digital transfer of music downloaded via satellites some 150 to 450 miles up in space, whizzing around the planet at a decent 17,000 mph. You don’t find any of that warmth in outer space.

As the digital revolution erupted and poured into the average household with CD players, and computers with CD-burning abilities and access to the Internet, for a time it looked like the digital carving knife of the recording process and the silver CD that it would be served on would cut out the warmth for ever. The clearest thing that could be heard with the advent of the digital CD was the death knell for vinyl. Ironically, after the record industry had more or less thrown vinyl out with the metal master’s electroplating bath water, some of the early rock and pop CDs featured the scratch and crackle sounds of vinyl, including albums by Beck and Gomez. Yet, though such noises (becoming something of a soundtrack for the retro era) came through loud and clear, the subtle sound of warmth, like a record’s organic, steady breath, was no longer there.

Prior to MP3s, listening to and sharing one’s records was a social activity. Here, we see four bright, young things, all helping to put one record into the player, whilst another one listens to it.
Now, listening to music is an increasingly personal experience, which can be used as an alienating barrier to social activity. Yawn.

I have tried to imagine young teenagers inviting their friends, girlfriends or boyfriends up to their bedrooms, sweeping a hand in front of their computer screen or iPod and proudly saying ‘So, what do you think to my record collection?’ Surely, one of the best ways to get to know someone, break the ice, discover what someone is about, acquire an insight into what makes them tick, was to flick casually through their record collection, with such comments as, ‘I’ve got this, it’s great,’ or, ‘Brilliant, I didn’t know you had this,’ or, ‘Bloody awful!’ followed by smiles and a mixture of dissent and amusement as you pretended to Frisbee the offending article across the room. Real gems would be met with ecstatic groans and gasps of admiration. Records carry within their grooves every emotion known to the human race, from hot passion to cold dejection, from elation to despair. Curiously, the records themselves can create passionate feelings and intense debate themselves, with stories being told about where they were bought, the description of the record shop, the occasion, who they were with and even the weather at the time. For the first few years of collecting I wrote the date, where I bought the LP and, occasionally, how much I bought it for on the inside of every LP sleeve, along with my signature. A practice which I now regret stopping, because pulling an inner-sleeve out of those earlier purchases brings back some marvelous memories. Now one can go into someone’s home and not have any clue as to whether they are huge music fan or not. Gone are the experiences, memories, the full gamut of emotions of a person’s life presented there in a tangible, tactile, three-dimensional form. With a record collection, there on the shelves is the music, but there also is the companion that you share the music with – the record. So often I have not only heard the phrase ‘I love my music’ but also ‘I love my records’, as if these were two separate entities, inexorably brought together. Will anyone in the future be talking about the joy of downloading? Is it really as exciting as going to the record shop for a browse, a pre-planned or unexpected purchase? Will they talk about how they gazed at the WAV file, absorbing the design of the icon, which is just the same as millions of others, before playing it? And will we ever hear the phrase that has people nodding knowingly in agreement, ‘I love my MP3s’?

*************

I was born at the time when 78 rpm shellac records, the CD of the day, were coming towards the end of their fifty-year reign. Although vinyl had been around for a few years, it was not until the late 1950s that the new vinyl ‘single’ or ’45’, as it was also known, began to sell in great quantities. By the end of the fifties it was all over for the heavy, easily breakable, ten-inch 78, and there was no looking back for the new, easily portable and practically indestructible 45.

When I left the Cottingham Road maternity hospital in Hull, East Yorkshire, having recently been born there, in January 1956, records were already waiting for me at home: rock and roll 78s by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley, skiffle by Lonnie Donegan, Johnny Duncan, Chris Barber and others were all there in quantity. But then there were records from where my father’s heart truly lay – jazz and blues. Jazz by people like King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory; blues by such artists as Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Bessie Smith, Roosevelt Sykes, Fats Domino, Jimmy Yancey and more. There were also new vinyl 45 EPs by the likes of the Everly Brothers and many of the names that were already on the 78s.

By the time that I was about four years old, my father and I were already having record-playing sessions. Before I could read I would choose records according to how attracted I was to the colours and design of the labels. I clearly remember choosing Brunswicks because of their dark, chocolaty colour and ornate design. ‘Georgia Bo Bo’ by Louis Armstrong became an early favourite, as did the riotous ‘Steamboat Stomp’ by Jelly Roll Morton, initially chosen by me not because of Jelly Roll’s fantastic skills and artistry as a jazzman but because of the curious little dog sitting by the horn of a gramophone on the red HMV label.

My father loved this music. He was not an expert on it. He wasn’t bothered about who recorded what when. Matrix numbers, issue numbers, labels or recording dates were not important to him. All that mattered was the music. It was his fix. Even though he lived over 3,000 miles away from where this music came from and a world away from the society and lifestyle that went towards creating it, he seemed to instinctively empathise with it and those that performed it, and as I later learned more and more about this music, the more I realised that his instinctive, self-educated understanding of it was so correct.

By the time that I was seven or eight years old, he would explain in his own layman’s way, as the records played, how a piece of music would work. ‘OK, so the band has established the melody. They’re all going with it, but, now listen, each one of the band is going to play their own interpretation of the tune. Here comes the piano player –‘ He would pause and let me take it in. ‘Now, here comes the clarinet player. He’s playing the same thing but he plays it differently to the piano player –‘ Another pause as we both listened, and so on. Finally, he would say ‘And now they’re all going to come back together and all of those interpretations will become one sound, but if you listen you can still hear each musician putting in their own version.’ It is only now, looking back, that I realise that I was already, at such a young age, getting my own private lectures on jazz, blues, syncopation, improvisation, and so much more. But I wasn’t self-consciously a blues fan. It was all quite normal to me – for this music to be played in the house, with all of the family loving it. In fact, as I began to visit my friend’s houses, I found it increasingly odd that this music was not being played in them.

*************

When I was eight my brother, Mike, six years older than me, began to buy ‘singles’ at a fairly regular rate. Again, his leaning was towards the blues. Over the next few years the Atkinson record library swelled with additions by the likes of the Spencer Davis Group, the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, the Rolling Stones and the Animals.

The first record that I purchased was ‘Love Is Strange’ / ‘Man With Money’ by the Everly Brothers, which I bought (with my own money) at the age of nine. The record shop was owned by a blind chap. He wore a brown dust coat and would courteously ask, in a soft, well spoken voice, ‘Would you like to listen to it?’ There was no listening booth. Instead, there was a record player, with its lid up, sat on the counter. Carefully, but without one wrong move, the old chap would put the record of your choice onto the turntable, steadily lower the stylus, and then listen to the record with you. ‘Would you like that?’ he would ask, as the record came to an end and the automated mechanism clattered its way to putting the tone arm back onto its rest. This was 1965. Happier and safer days one might say, but it wasn’t. Later, perhaps only by a few months, the blind old man was mugged, beaten up in his own shop and left for dead with the till cleared out.

*************
With the arrival of Mike’s EPs and LPs came the added bonus of some sketchy but nevertheless significant and welcome information to be found in the sleeve notes. They gave clues about those who were influencing the blues boom of the early 1960s. Odd names like Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Slim Harpo and Howlin’ Wolf were cropping up, along with Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson. At the same time, Mike was visiting a folk and blues club in town. Whilst the electric British ‘R ‘n’ B’ bands were mimicking their heroes and bringing their music to a new and delighted audience, so too were musicians performing material by the older pre-war blues artists. By the late 1960s and early 70s, Mike was bringing home LPs by people such as Jo-Ann Kelly and Stefan Grossman. Notes found on the back of LPs by these artists brought attention to stranger names – Memphis Minnie, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Son House, to name a few. But the LP Mike bought that had the greatest effect on me was Oh, Really! by Mike Cooper. For some reason, despite all that I had heard before, this album, with its hard-hitting country blues, bottleneck playing at full throttle on an old 1927 National resonator guitar practically blew me off my feet and into another dimension. I had heard nothing like it before. It had the effect of a starting pistol. Something went off in my head and that was it. Perhaps it was the timing; where I was in life, hormones, fertile imagination, an explosion of creativity going on in my head. I don’t know. The effect of that album was an event waiting to happen. My brain had been filling up with highly inflammable music over the years and all that it was waiting for was someone to unwittingly stroll in and light a match. That someone was Mike Cooper and the match was Oh Really! With that I started to buy vinyl with a vengeance. It was 1969, I was thirteen and I was yet to hear Son House…

*************