Posted on

Confessions of a Vinyl Addict – Part 3

England, Vienna, Scotland.

By Gary Atkinson

I soon discovered that in addition to Rory Gallagher playing his famous, well worn, Fender Strat, he also played some superb, acoustic, blues on his 1930s National resonator guitar. This was another key factor in everting my collision course with purist music collector madness.

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.

Scooter riders on their relentless search for lost souls, succumbed to music elitism.

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?

 

 

Standing in its own grounds, the windows of the Atkinson family home were flung wide open, during warm summers of the 1970s, and from them could be heard the music of blues concerts and festivals.

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.

Who in their right mind would spend money producing albums like these!?

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.

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…

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