England, Vienna, Scotland.
By Gary Atkinson
Whilst working, as an Office Junior at the City Engineers department of Hull City Council, I was approached by two close work friends. ‘Do you like Rory Gallagher?’ Dave asked. ‘No,’ I gave as a reply to a question, which, in my music-elitist view, needed no consideration. ‘Why not!?’ exclaimed Dave, genuinely puzzled. ‘He plays blues.’ I looked at him, mystified as to how he could come to such a ridiculous conclusion that a) Rory Gallagher played anything that could pass for blues music and that b) I would give such a singer that screamed his way through a song whilst playing screeching, electric-guitar, a microsecond of my time. Had the Hull City Corporation’s palatial Guildhall buildings have been mine, I would have told him to ‘Get out!’ Dave looked at me, obviously wanting to say more. Yet it was clear that he knew that, for the moment, he was not going to be given a way in to the impenetrable fortress of Atkinson’s world of music, despite his best of intentions.
On the Saturday afternoon following the conversation with Dave, the countryside’s tranquillity was shattered by the roaring noise of motor scooter engines. I opened the front door and to my astonishment watched a small armada of Vespas, liberally adorned with mirrors and headlights, pull into the drive of the house where I then lived with my parents, in the village of South Cave, twenty miles west of Hull. Sat as a passenger on the leading scooter was Dave, holding tightly onto a bunch of LPs. Each scooter had a driver with a passenger holding their own bundle of albums. Dave apologised for the intrusion but said that it was important. Apparently, he had been bothered by our discussion regarding Rory Gallagher or, more to the point, the lack of it. It had played on his mind for the rest of the week as to how intransigent I was about music and had decided to take matters into his own hands and demonstrate the error of my record-buying ways with a damn good record-playing session.
I had little option other than make several cups of coffee, provide a dish of Rich Tea biscuits and invite them to the usually prohibited area of my room. I was then subjected to a crash course in what one would miss out on if one bloody-mindedly stuck to one thing only in one’s life. The first thing they played me was Free Live by Free. As the record turned, Dave pointed out the intricate, relationship between the guitar playing of Paul Kossoff and the bass playing of Andy Fraser. I was a little taken aback that such things could be discussed about a rock record. Surely, this was the preserve of the blues, jazz or classical connoisseur . . . wasn’t it? Next came the Rolling Stones, Rory Gallagher, Santana and Pink Floyd. The whole afternoon was like a week in rehab. I struggled and sweated my way through, trying to resist the demons. The gathering of people in my room, with their knowing looks and appearing as if they were in some kind of trance, all focused on the sounds of Hell emanating from the sacrificial turntable, made me want to resist. A voice in my head murmured, ‘Get thee behind me Satan and be gone with your vile, rock albums.’ The whole scene was like the final chapters of a Dennis Wheatley novel. But I began to get drawn in and I found myself going with the sounds filling the room. Oh god, I was becoming enchanted. It was like two-timing. After my friends left, with their faces saying, ‘Our work is done, we must go now’, I could hardly look my blues albums in the face. What would my heroes think? What if I ended up liking this music more than I liked the blues? Could I really end up dumping my blues records; the best friends that I had?
It would not be too long before the answer came. I bought records by everyone, from Son House Mississippi John Hurt and Kokomo Arnold to Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Bob Marley and The Stranglers. My head had been turned. Everything was up for grabs. The music was played loud, particularly when everyone was out and it was just up to me and my records to entertain ourselves. When summer arrived, the windows were thrown open wide and with the help of my collection, South Cave became the Newport Blues Festival, the Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival. Concerts by Free, Taj Mahal, Muddy Waters, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and others blasted out.
My record collecting carried on, unhindered and unabated, for the next couple of years or so. Sheridan started up another shop on Anlaby Road, Hull. Although one of the early Virgin Record stores had opened in Hull around the same time, for me, Sheridan had become the Richard Branson of second-hand vinyl-record shop owners. I was already eternally grateful to him. Would he go on to create an empire of Sheridan Second-Hand Railway, Second-Hand Airline Exchanges, and Sheridan Second Hand Banking Exchanges? Only time would tell.
This was still in the era where the working-class calendar of life was already marked off for you when you were born; ‘Go to school, leave school, get job (factory or office may be optional), get married, have kids, retire, die’. All of it being the earlier the better. By the age of nineteen I was on my way. Got job, found the girl. A year later, got married, got a mortgage, had our own bungalow and dog. We were married for fourteen years, much of it very happy but for reasons that I still cannot fathom, the records slowly began to remain in their sleeves. By the age of twenty-five we had moved over to Lancashire, set up a business, and brought our second child into the world. Within another five years the business had gone bankrupt and we had lost everything. We were left with nothing more than a few sticks of furniture and some clothes. I had a Dobro guitar and the record collection, both of which I held onto dearly to retain my sanity.
Eventually, we were both back in work. Good jobs, well paid, all expenses, the lot. I hardly noticed the transformation, as, in Thatcher’s Britain, we both, in our late twenties, began to metamorphose into a pair of grotesque, money-chasing yuppies. All artistic taste, creativity and cultural contemplation, along with the wisdom, consideration and empathy towards people that it comes with – things that we both had when we first began to go out with each other – left through the back door, helped on its way by an unceremonious kick up the arse by a £120 pair of Italian brogues. My record collecting, guitar playing and painting had stopped, replaced by an increasingly bland, mindless, status-symbol driven lifestyle. Finally, at around the age of thirty-two, I became the victim of our joint success. Like a mountain goat, grazing on grass growing by the quiet and tranquil railway line of life, I was suddenly hit by the huge, speeding locomotive of destiny, and on the front of it was written its unexpected destination: ‘Divorce Junction’.
At the same time, through my work, I had become friends with Gillian. I first met her when, late on a winter’s afternoon, I visited a small graphic-design business that she helped run from her home, a Victorian terraced house just to the north of Manchester. I looked around her office, as we spoke and noticed one or two things that made me suspect that she might be into music. I broached the subject and she replied by asking me what sort of music I was into. This question had always been an awkward one for me in the past. During the sixties and early seventies mentioning the word ‘blues’ in Hull usually drew a blank expression. At the most someone might have a stab at it. ‘Oh right, yeh. Me dad’s got some Acker Bilk records.’ Or ‘What, ya mean like Sarah Vaughan?’ And then there was the standard, ‘I ‘ate blues. It’s all the same and it’s so bloody miserable.’
Surprised to hear such a question, having not been asked it for some years, I thought I would play it safe. I had learned to reply ‘jazz’, rather than ‘blues’. It was less complicated, and I usually didn’t have to explain myself any further. ‘I’m into Jazz,’ I remarked. Preparing myself for the inevitable, I was completely wrong-footed when she replied, ‘What kind?’ and then reeled off a small but very credible list of jazz musicians that she liked. A little stunned, I decided to let my guard down and venture a little more information. ‘Well, I do like jazz. In fact, I like all sorts of stuff, but my main love is the blues.’ There was an uncomfortable silence, and I thought to myself, ‘That’s torn it, this conversation will stop right here.’ As I began preparing my ’Lovely to meet you, I’ll be back in touch’ speech, Gillian stood up and said, ‘Follow me.’ We walked from her front room into the hallway and then into the dining room. ‘What the hell’s going on?’ I wondered. She went to the back of the room where there were two original built-in cupboards on either side of the chimney breast. First, she opened wide the two doors to the left cupboard followed by those to the one on the right. Whilst gazing ahead of me, I slowly stooped slightly and gently and quietly placed my briefcase on the floor. There in front of me was a huge LP collection. In it was nearly every Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed album produced. Eventually we became a couple and the record collecting kicked back in with a vengeance.
I stood, looking at the cupboard shelves, filled with hundreds of blues LPs. For the first time in years, I had found a kindred spirit. I felt a jolt of energy inside of me and I sensed a flicker of a flame coming form the ashes of my life. My record collection would also be introduced to another one and between them there would arrive more albums. I was in love.
By the mid-nineties we were living in Scotland. I had begun to write for various magazines, mainly as a reviewer. Having enthusiastically told one magazine’s review editor that I was interested in early blues and gospel music – ‘The earlier and more obscure, the better – I received a small package of Document CDs. The first I gave my attention to was a full album of very obscure 1920s by two Afro-American Preachers (sermons with Singing). Their complete recordings were laid out in chronological order. Outraged, I paced over to the computer and began to write my review. I strafed the page with such words as ‘ridiculous’, ‘appalling’ and ‘unlistenable’. Why would anyone in their right mind, I asked in disbelief, want to reissue the complete works of such a group, using recordings that were at best uncomfortable listening, partly because of the performances and original quality of the sound recordings, and at worse impossible listening because of the terrible condition of the original records used for transfers to produce the masters?
The remainder of the CDs in the package were part of a seemingly endless A to Z of obscure female blues singers who had made only two to perhaps half a dozen recordings, mainly during the 1920 and ‘30s. My review gave them little better treatment than the preachers and their congregations, now laying, verbally bullet riddled, in their Perspex CD case.
When the magazine arrived, I went straight to the review section, satisfied with my literary outburst and ready to bask in the glory of seeing my thoughts and comments in print. And there it was. But then I realised that a huge amount of other Document CD reviews was there, throughout several review pages. My eyes began to narrow as I tried to take it in and make sense of it all. As I read the other reviews, it became clear that this Document label was unlike anything else I had come across in all of my years of collecting. I spoke to the reviews editor, who told me that the owner of the label, Johnny Parth, was a mad Austrian who appeared to be on a mission from God to reissue every blues and gospel recording made, from the first, dating from the late nineteenth century, to at least 1943, following all that were in the appropriate discographies covering that period. After that it was difficult to listen to and understand what the editor was saying. The phone was held limply in my hand as I gazed into the far distance, my jaw having dropped slightly.
It became clear to me that at nearly seventy years old Johnny was a serious collector of the scariest kind. Indeed, one of his albums, produced on vinyl, prior to the CD era, had a plain white, card sleeve, and as part of the title on the LP label it simply said, ‘For Serious Collectors Only’. Worryingly, he meant it.
In the past, I noticed that record collectors (perhaps this is unique to blues collectors but I suspect not) had a natural urge to start amassing the tracks of particular artists, scattered throughout their collections, on records, spool tapes, cassettes etc., in a certain way. And this was it: the full recorded works in chronological order. This was what the Document label was doing, because Johnny was just doing what came naturally as a serious collector. As a result, the Document label was not trying to pander to anyone; it was not following the commercial norm. It was making available, in a natural and recognisable way, the complete history of early blues, gospel and spirituals recordings, from the very beginning through to World War 2 and beyond. With each and every CD booklet came informed notes by experts and a detailed discography. It didn’t cherry-pick. It wasn’t interested in “best-ofs”. This was an attempt to preserve, for as long as possible, an Afro-American musical heritage. The best, the good, the worst, everything. Realising this, I became hooked. Here was everything that I had been looking for from my first days of record collecting. Though my preference was still for vinyl and shellac, from then on my reviews of Document CDs became far more positive, little knowing what lay ahead.
Next week, the fourth and final posting of ‘Confessions of a Vinyl Addict’, in which my life in music and records is changed completely by two international phone calls.