Mystery Vinyl and the Art of Detection

There are few greater joys to the researcher-collector than acquiring a new piece of vinyl about which little or nothing is known. When an Internet search and the standard reference books fail to turn up any information, an exercise in inductive reasoning begins. After taking into account the record’s provenance, chiefly considering where and how it was found, the next step is to research the label itself. By checking Discogs or 45cat it is often possible to find other releases on the same label. This can provide hints as to geography and date, as well as give a bit of context based on what other sorts of records the label released. Looking at songwriting credits can sometimes provide the names of band members. Any information about who produced or engineered the record can also be helpful. Publishing information can be another clue, as sometimes a particular publishing imprint is known to be associated with certain individuals or a certain city. Examining the matrix numbers etched into the dead wax can be a hint as to where the record was manufactured. Since the numbering schemes of the big pressing plants of the 1960s and 70s have been heavily researched, it’s often possible to date the record this way. The last resort of the frustrated researcher is often to listen to the record for lyrical content. Does the vocalist reference a town or a local landmark that might be a clue as to where the artist was based?

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Sometimes a record fails to provide even these most basic points of entry to the researcher. An example is a 45 on Angelus Records by a band called Acid Test. The disc, “What Do I Love?” b/w “Make Her Mine,” released as Angelus WR 4803, stubbornly refuses to give up much information. A reasonable amount is known about Angelus Records as it was relatively prolific, operating in Los Angeles from at least the early 1960s until the late 1970s. It was a custom label that primarily released forgettable gospel records, although odd gems like Stone Garden’s “Oceans Inside Me” 45 or the Moon Blood LP by Christian psych band Fraction do turn up. Besides a rough guess as to the year of release based on the catalog number—late 1960s—there is nothing else on the disc to help the researcher. No songwriting credits or other names, no publishing information, and the number inscribed in the dead wax is only a repeat of the catalog number. According to the collector grapevine, there are two known copies of the Acid Test disc, one found in Spokane and the other in northwest Montana. This hints that the band may have been from that region. Often, this sort of circumstantial information is all that is “known” about a disc.

A mystery disc in my own collection that yields a bit more information, but barely, is Cynthia Kellems’ “Sonata” b/w “Lily-Lavendar” on the Where Rainbows End label. This appears to be a vanity label created by Kellems herself. The copyright is given as “1979 Ms. Brown.” There is no publishing information except for a reference to BMI, but a search of the BMI repertoire database turns up nothing on Kellems. The numbers on the dead wax (X-5344/Sonata and X-5345/Lily-Lavendar) do not jibe with the format of any pressing plant I’m familiar with. The dealer I bought it from told me that he acquired it in San Francisco in a batch of records that had previously belonged to a radio station. There seem to be a number of people named Cynthia Kellems in the US, and I reached out to one of them, a southern California realtor. She seemed amused by the question but confirmed that she was not the same Cynthia who made the record and, despite the less- than-common surname, had no knowledge of who the mystery artist might be.

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This record is almost completely unknown, but has the potential to become something of a cult favorite, especially if it were comped along with a nice collection of similar material. Despite its relatively late copyright date, it is dark, avant-outsider folk, which gives it the feel of an earlier era. The record fits the “loner folk” category, and some might go as far as calling it “downer” or even “wristcutter folk.” It really doesn’t sound like anything else, though. To get an idea, imagine that the Fair brothers of Half Japanese had a morose little sister who decided to become a folk singer, or that one of the Wiggins sisters from The Shaggs locked herself in her room late one night with an acoustic guitar and laid her heart out into a cassette recorder. The dissonant guitar playing is inept to the point of brilliance. There’s something so primitive about it as to sound nearly ancient. The lyrics seem to be Cynthia’s poems set to music or perhaps even completely made up on the spot. There’s a free-associative vibe that makes it hard to tell whether we are in the presence of composition or improvisation. This is folk music sui generis.

One possible hint as to the geographical origin of the record is found in the lyrics. With Kellems’ odd delivery buried under layers of reverb, it’s often difficult to clearly understand what is being said. But at one point in “Lily-Lavendar” she clearly says, “Sons of Catalina shall titillate you gently.” The United Sons of Catalina was a Filipino-American fraternal mutual aid society that existed in several cities in California prior to World War Two. Is this nothing more than a coincidence, a songwriter creating a poetic image that just happens to coincide with something in the real world? Or does this line mean that she was aware of the organization, either through a family connection or by seeing the name on the sign of a decaying local lodge building? If so, this would imply that she was indeed based in California. As rickety as this sort of reasoning is, it is a good example of the very fragile framework upon which initial research into a disc like this is often built.

The dead ends can outnumber the leads, and the researcher is often left with no more firm information than existed at the beginning of the process. This is a common situation with the most obscure discs. What sometimes happens is that someone involved with the record, or a family member, discovers a blog post or a Youtube video and comments on it. More than one vinyl mystery has been solved this way. Hopefully, Cynthia or someone else with inside knowledge of this disc will see this post and help us shed light on it.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Cynthia Kellems: “Sonata” b/w “Lily-Lavendar”

The Semiotic of Resistance: Blossom Toes in Czechoslovakia

On September 14, 1969, London’s Observer ran an article written by Colin Smith, who later became well known for his coverage of the conflicts in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, and Kuwait. Unlike his later reportage from war zones, this article dealt with the pop music scene in Prague. In September 1969, Czechoslovakia had recently endured—celebrated is not the right word—the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion. After what began as a popularly supported liberalization and democratization of the country, Prague was entering its second year of what would turn out to be two decades of disillusionment.

When Smith visited the country in September 1969, however, he found that a vibrant youth culture had survived despite recent events. The young people of Prague, in contrast to “young East German tourists in their baggy grey suits,” “would not have looked out of place up the West End on a Saturday night.” The Prague version of King’s Road chic involved cheaper imitations of London fashion: “gaily colored nylon battle blouses and heavy mod shoes made in Yugoslavia.” Many of them also wore small lapel badges bearing pictures of Alexander Dubček, the recently deposed First Secretary of the Communist Party who was largely responsible for launching the previous year’s reforms.

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Blossom Toes: If Only for a Moment LP, July 1969.

The occasion for Smith’s article was the rare tour of a British psychedelic rock group in the country. Blossom Toes arrived in Czechoslovakia around the first of the month for a 16-day tour of the nation. It appears the group likely played a number of shows in provincial towns, but research so far only turns up confirmation of two gigs in the country. Some time early in the month, the band played an outdoor show in Jihlava, about 80 miles southeast of Prague. In recounting this event Smith describes Blossom Toes’ music as “a strange hybrid of beat and electric guitar Asian jazz.” He adds that the “teeny-bopper audience threw coins and lighted cigarettes on the stage” because the band wouldn’t play rock and roll. From our point of view in history both the description of the band’s music and the audience reaction might seem rather curious. But in September 1969 Blossom Toes were touring on their second album, If Only for a Moment, released the previous July. Whereas the songs on the group’s first album still contained more or less identifiable pop music structures despite a heavy dose of lysergic fuzz, a few tracks on the second album showed the group moving in a more fluid, psych-blues direction. Although the concept of rock music deconstructing itself into bluesy psychedelic soundscapes was already becoming familiar to cosmopolitan American audiences, it was still a very new thing in the backwaters of the Iron Curtain where most familiarity with Western music came from the big capitalist pop stations: Radio Luxembourg, VOA, and the BBC. Interestingly, the song the Jihlava teens most wanted to hear was “Back in the USSR.” Smith found this a curious choice in that the song was basically “a panegyric to Russian womanhood,” until he realized most of the audience only understood the title. “The emphasis was on back,” he says.

In Prague, fans were more familiar with Blossom Toes’ current direction, and were more tuned into the UK scene in general. The band originally had a number of concerts scheduled in Prague, but they were all cancelled “for political reasons.” Somehow, late in the tour, “ a chance meeting with some Czech beat musicians in a basement night club” led to a hurriedly arranged show at Prague’s illustrious Smetana Hall. To put this into context, this would be as if a European band arrived in New York City to find that its club dates had been cancelled, only to soon find itself booked at Carnegie Hall through a chance meeting.

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Prague’s Smetana Hall

The main point of Smith’s piece in the Observer was to illustrate how the western trappings of pop music functioned as symbols of resistance in Czechoslovakia. Long hair on men, “battle blouses,” and cheap Yugoslavian “mod shoes” transmitted a message as clearly as did more overt gestures like wearing a Dubček lapel badge. Smith stated it clearly, “Among young people, even the educated young, Western pop music seems to be synonymous with the resistance.” Acts of resistance could be as simple as illegally putting up fliers to advertise the Smetana Hall show, or walking past the Russian commandant’s office in Bratislava with tiny transistor radios tuned to Radio Luxembourg.

It’s not clear how Blossom Toes’ 1969 tour of Czechoslovakia transpired. Who booked it? What forces behind the Iron Curtain approved it only to cancel many of the shows once the band was in the country? What is clear is that Blossom Toes were an unlikely symbol of resistance. While their second album opens with “Peace Loving Man,” probably the closest thing to a political song they ever recorded, much of their repertoire was made up of tunes like “I’ll Be Late for Tea” or “Mrs. Murphy’s Budgerigar,” hardly the stuff to encourage Molotov cocktails in the streets. The resistance, it seems, was in the form, not the content. Perhaps this absence of an overtly political posture was a factor in allowing them into the country in the first place. There’s little evidence that the band was considered particularly radical in the UK or in Western Europe. But because they briefly entered a space with its own prevailing semiotic—where symbols meant different things than at home—for a couple of weeks in 1969, Blossom Toes were revolutionary.

—Stephen Canner

Resources

Blossom Toes: Peace Loving Man