Private Press Vinyl, Chaos, & the Sublime

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Edmund Burke: Early theoretician of private press vinyl collecting.

I first began buying records in Indianapolis thrift stores at the very end of the 1970s, just after I learned to drive. In most of these places, 45s were a nickel or a dime and LPs were a quarter or fifty cents. I would pick up anything that seemed offbeat, anything that transgressed the boundaries of “normal.” I had no model for this, I knew no one else who went out on their own looking for obscure vinyl. Later on, I began to meet others, but none of us thought of ourselves as collectors. Few of the records we found had any real commercial value at the time, so they were traded, discarded, or sometimes donated back to the places they were purchased. There was little fetishism in my crowd. We were sonic explorers.

By the early 1980s my aesthetic had been seriously influenced by punk and post-punk, especially the more experimental fringes of that scene: bands like Throbbing Gristle, James Chance, Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Suicide, or DNA. This ignited my appreciation of dissonance and atonality. Trying to find examples of these qualities, I began to look for records that I called “primitive,” but others might call “amateurish.” On these discs, lack of technical ability often led to the suspension of the usual rules of musical composition and performance, resulting in idiosyncrasy. These were not novelty records. They were not to be laughed at. I took them seriously.

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700 West ad. The Daily Reporter, Greenfield, Indiana, May 27, 1972.

I knew that these discs were most always either self-released or put out by local labels so tiny that they may as well have been, but it wasn’t until the publication of the late Patrick Lundborg’s Acid Archives in 2006 that I began to think of them as “private press.” Looking through the volume, I came across records that I had owned over the years, now selling for four or five hundred times what I had paid for them. Between my earliest days of thrifting and the mid-2000s, it was obvious that an army of taxonomists had been at work. Stories had been pieced together, narrative connections made, labels, artists, and producers well researched. Labels like Justice, 700 West, or RPC were now “legendary.” Not only had “private press” become a category, but a fully formed subculture of collectors had developed around it.

A curious thing about this area of collecting is that it covers such a wide variety of genres. In one of the larger areas of the field, any disc featuring traits that could possibly be called “psych” is heavily sought after and often carries a hefty price tag. But connoisseurs of hard rock, southern rock, Christian prog, loner folk, and other hybrid genres are also well represented. Although these collectors tend to be more open-minded than their major-label-collecting counterparts simply because of their attraction to this obscure material, many of them are still entering the fray looking for something whose boundaries are roughly predetermined. This is also the zone usually inhabited by the collector willing to fork over four figures for a “holy grail” disc.

Sympathetic with the psych collector, but operating in what often seems a parallel universe, is the sonic explorer who is less concerned with the boundaries of genre or rarity. This sort of collector is searching for new information, new experiences, and is seeking a personal connection to the music, regardless of what other collectors think. He or she is likely to get excited about an unknown lounge record with close to zero resale value simply because the female vocalist sings a very flawed, but mesmerizing, cover version of the Captain & Tennille’s “Muskrat Love.” This zone is the one I inhabit, and in my opinion is much closer to the spirit of serendipitous discovery that made the early days of searching for unknown vinyl so much fun.

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Mystic Zephyrs 4, 1974.

The aesthetic shift required to develop a true appreciation of much of what these records contain is considerable. Once reached, it can be a lonely place. Few, if any of your friends will understand it, much less share it. But what is actually happening when this material is regarded not as novelty, but seriously and with true appreciation? How can an individual seriously enjoy both the Zombies and the Mystic Zephyrs 4?

If Acid Archives was the introduction to the most collectible of private press discs, then 2012’s Enjoy the Experience was in part a celebration of the other end of the private press spectrum: the maybe-or-maybe-not-collectible. In his introduction to the book, Johan Kugelberg hits the nail on the head when he says that to approach this material is to meet the sublime, in the sense that Edmund Burke meant it. In essence, Burke challenged the classical notion that pleasurable experiences are always the result of beauty, the picturesque. In his view, pleasure could also be derived from an encounter with darkness, the horrific, or chaos.

The music on private press records does not always follow the rules of form that in the classical mind were synonymous with those of beauty. Being unconcerned with those rules, it is by definition chaotic. Burke provided us with a theoretical foundation in which this encounter with chaos can also be an encounter with the beautiful. He called this the sublime. Whenever a private press collector begins a dig through a cache of unexplored vinyl, it is an attempt at communion with chaos, with the abyss. It is a search for beauty outside the usual norms, outside one’s zone of comfort, a search for the sublime.

—Stephen Canner

 

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