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

 

Review: An Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels

In the introduction to his An Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels, author Josh MacPhee says that the book is the result of his “semi-obsessive need to organize things” along with a rediscovery of his love for music, something he had temporarily shelved by the early 2000s, “both by a disillusionment with the potentials of political punk and the seeming end of the vinyl record.” In 2014, while helping feminist activist and theorist Silvia Federici sort out her apartment, MacPhee discovered a stack of 7” singles put out by Italian political groups in the 1960s and 70s. These were not punk records, of course, but political folk music, a creative space he had not previous explored. His fascination with what he heard on these discs led to the 2015 political music exhibition, If a Song Could Be Freedom, at Brooklyn’s Interference Archive, of which MacPhee is a co-founder. After a couple more years of research into political music on vinyl, specifically records released by labels with a political agenda as opposed to those that just happened to carry political content, he published An Encyclopedia of Political Record Labels in June 2017 in an edition of 100. The initial run sold out almost as quickly as it was released. MacPhee then immediately set out to expand and revise the booklet, releasing a second edition a few months later. The new edition has entries for an additional 90 or so labels and has corrected many errors.

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The Encyclopedia is arranged alphabetically by label name, and most entries bear an illustration of the label’s logo along with a brief description. Reading the work from start to finish, from A to Z, the reader will jump between various political points of view, from decade to decade, and from continent to continent. By about halfway through, however, themes begin to emerge. It quickly becomes apparent how much influence the Chilean coup of September 1973 had on the politically conscious sector of the music world. This is evidenced by the large number of reissues by labels around the world of the music of Victor Jara, the Parra family, and Inti-Illimani, as well as by the number of records released in solidarity with these strong voices of resistance to Chile’s subsequent right-wing junta. Other streams of political activity that inspired musical production also reveal themselves: Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, the various African independence movements, and of course anti-Apartheid groups.

The book also reveals clusters of genre. Besides political punk, there are the recordings of an earlier leftist avant-garde scene in the 1970s, particularly in Italy. There is also “progg,” a Scandinavian sub-genre that was progressive in both the musical and political senses. Though the bulk of these labels released some variety of folk music, it quickly becomes clear that “folk” is far too broad a term. While what could be called Anglo-American protest folk—the stereotype most of us are probably used to when we think of political folk music—does appear, there is also nueva canción, nueva trova, and even field recordings of African musicians using traditional forms to express their political hopes.

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Despite its claim to be a compendium of political record labels, MacPhee’s booklet is clearly focused on the leftist and progressive end of the political spectrum. While many of the more abhorrent ultra-right labels emerged after the book’s 1990 cut off date, other labels that were clearly political, but right wing, are glaringly absent. J. D. Miller’s Reb Rebel label, founded in 1966, is an example. It’s understandable why MacPhee would not want to include a label whose output included records that literally celebrated the torture of African-Americans by the Klan, but it seems that, given its focus, a more apt title for the work might be something like An Encyclopedia of Progressive Political Record Labels.

It is works like this one that provide a refreshingly different lens through which to view cultural production in its vinyl form. This is a very valuable thing, as it is often from these sorts of books that previously undocumented micro-histories begin to emerge. MacPhee’s long-term plan is to eventually publish “a compendium of political record covers.” If his research on this project continues, hopefully we will see future editions of the Encyclopedia, with discoveries of even more little-known labels and more information on how those already discovered were interconnected.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Ordering Info from Justseeds

The Liberation Support Movement

Josh MacPhee first encountered the Liberation Support Movement while working in a “lefty” print shop in the late 1990s. There, on top of a stack of other publications, he came across a copy of LSM’s interview with ANC leader Alfred Nzo, which was published in 1974 as part of its Interviews in Depth series. As an artist, what first struck MacPhee was the cover design. “It was all so simple, but somehow perfect,” he says. The contents were also striking, dealing with the ANC’s armed struggle against apartheid, a very different tale than the organization’s official line since becoming South Africa’s ruling party. Having discovered this first pamphlet, he began seeking out other examples of LSM’s printed output. Then, a couple of years ago, a mutual acquaintance put him in touch with several LSM members.

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The Liberation Support Movement was founded in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1969 by anthropologist Don Barnett and several of his students at Simon Fraser University. Over time others joined, expanding the organization into a number of cells scattered across the North America, but eventually the group found a home in Oakland, California, where it consolidated. Members in other areas either moved to Oakland or left the group. The LSM was one of many emerging anti-imperialist organizations during the era whose focus had shifted away from Vietnam and towards other, lesser-known struggles in areas with active liberation movements: Southern Africa, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor, Eritrea, Oman, and Palestine. During its existence from 1969 to 1982, the LSM operated not only as a small press, issuing pamphlets and other material to publicize these struggles, but was also very active in a number of other areas. During its existence members of the group conducted information tours across North America, collected and sent tons of medical supplies and clothing to the MPLA in Angola, sent several teams to southern Africa to interview freedom fighters and to record music that was later released on a pair of LPs, produced a short film, and even trained a pair of SWAPO militants from Namibia in the fine art of offset printing.

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Josh MacPhee’s Liberation Support Movement: Building Solidarity with the African Liberation Struggle was published in 2016 by the Interference Archive, a Brooklyn-based organization of which he is a founding member. The pamphlet includes extracts from interviews he conducted with three members of the LSM—Ole Gjerstad, Steve Goldfield, and Rick Sterling—followed by a preliminary (but very thorough) checklist of the group’s output. The booklet’s bright colors and simple yet striking graphics echo the design aesthetic of many radical publications of the 1970s.

The history of small radical social movements in the US is tangled and complex. Individuals moved from one group to the next frequently and fluidly. Schisms were common, often resulting in the creation of new groups or the renaming of existing ones, and many seemed to pop up and disappear overnight leaving barely a trace. The traces that do survive are often in the form of the published output these organizations left behind. The discovery of a long-forgotten pamphlet or flier may be the first hint to a researcher that a previously undocumented group ever existed.

When researching small presses from this era, bibliographers are often frustrated by the lack of information available regarding the actual printing process. In the interview section, MacPhee helpfully includes a statement from Rick Sterling explaining that the LSM ran its own print shop, equipped with a Multilith 1250 offset press. The shop was originally located in Richmond, British Columbia, but was later moved to Oakland. Eventually the group formed a relationship with a politically sympathetic shop in Ithaca, New York, called Glad Day Press. Glad Day had larger presses and so printed posters and other jobs the group thought too large for its own shop. This sort of information might seem peripheral to the cultural historian, but is essential for the bibliographer.

Through collating the information he has collected over the years and publishing it in what is basically a very simple format, MacPhee has not only created a major resource for anyone interested in the LSM, but has also provided an excellent model that other researchers could use to present their own work. Very little bibliographical research has been done on the printed output of the huge number of radical leftist organizations of the 70s and 80s so MacPhee’s work fills a gap. I can envision this gap being further filled by a series of pamphlets (or their digital equivalents) on other imprints of the era using MacPhee’s model: a narrative of the organization’s history, wherever possible from the mouths of the people involved, followed by a checklist of all known output from the group. With each pamphlet detailing a single group or imprint, these publications could serve as entry points to wider and deeper studies. In the meantime, MacPhee’s pamphlet is essential for anyone interested in the topic (as well as for any institution collecting in this area.)

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Interference Archive: Publications

Liberation Support Movement from MSU’s African Activist Archive

 

This is Memorial Device: An Hallucinated Remembrance of Things Past

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On the surface, David Keenan’s This is Memorial Device is a clever, offbeat novel about the underground music scene in a small Scottish town from the late 70s into the first half of the 80s. The scene is a swirling vortex with a very local, but hugely influential, band called Memorial Device at its center. Keenan writes as someone who was there, vividly detailing the subtleties of taste and fashion that informed the era. He has created something of a 21st century epistolary novel, with various participants of the scene recounting their memories via letters, transcribed interviews, or e-mails.

One can’t help being a bit suspicious, though, that the novel is also something of an hallucinated roman a clef. Just a few pages into the book Ross Raymond, a character who might just be Keenan’s alter ego, grounds us in the scene’s musical aesthetic, “Every Saturday I would meet Johnny and we would travel to Glasgow and buy two LPs each: the first Ramones album, The Sonics’ Boom, Easter Everywhere by The 13th Floor Elevators, which is still the greatest psychedelic record ever made, Can’s Tago Mago, Metal Box by Public Image Ltd, the first Roxy album, This Heat, Nurse With Wound, So Alone by Johnny Thunders—in fact anything by Johnny Thunders, everyone in Airdrie was obsessed with Johnny Thunders.” Other characters voice other influences, the Only Ones, Suicide, or Throbbing Gristle (and in fact this novel is likely one of the few ever published to carry a blurb from Cosey Fanni Tutti on its cover.)

This is a culture where the record geek is king. This idea is strengthened by a section in which the character Bobby Foster recounts his experiences with Teddy Ohm, an older, biker type who “looked like Johnny Winter crossed with Frank Zappa crossed with Cher in the 1970s, effeminate but tough and kind of scarier for it.” Besides being the local drug connection, Teddy was also a dealer of the rarest vinyl, specializing in “weirdo private-press” discs, “like the Fraction LP, Circuit Rider, D. R. Hooker, garage stuff like the Bachs and Index” as well as the folkier end of things like Relatively Clean Rivers and Hickory Wind. As the private-press label collecting scene was still in its infancy even in the later 1980s—and was a very American phenomenon in its earliest days—this section feels like a fantasy of how things should have been. But it’s exactly this sort of savvy anachronism that makes the book endearing. There’s a certain type of reader who won’t have to look up any of the obscure band names mentioned and for whom the adventures of Keenan’s motley cast of characters will bring back memories of his or her own local scene. It is this reader-as-insider who may just find This is Memorial Device a warm, fuzzy read despite the dysfunction it honestly portrays.

In recent years the theme of memory has been very influential in literature, film, and music. This is evidenced by the spike in interest in the works of W. G. Sebald over the last decade or so, as well as the emergence of the not-exactly-parody blog Scarfolk Council and the nostalgia-haunted sounds of the bands on the Ghost Box label. For me, if This is Memorial Device has an overarching theme it has to do with what and how we remember. Lucas, the singer in Memorial Device, has a vaguely defined condition in which he has no long- and very little short-term memory. Like the notebook he carries in order to keep his world in order, the very name of the band seems to imply that the group functions as a tool to help him remember. Perhaps the band took its name from this notebook in the same way that other bands in the scene took their names from unlikely, random objects, incidents, or ideas. The format of the novel in which each chapter of the book is told by a different individual recounting his or her personal memories helps emphasize this theme of slippery remembrance. Sometimes the voices contradict one another. Sometimes they recount the same incidents painted with a different brush. This is not an exploration of multiple realities a la Rashomon, but simply what happens when different people try to remember the events of several decades past. For me, This is Memorial Device demonstrates that there is no single narrative that constitutes an objective musical history. The history of a genre, a local scene, or an individual band can only be pulled from a field on which multiple narratives interplay, driven by the always subjective, ever-flawed engine of memory.

—Stephen Canner