This day being the first day of the rest of my life, I have launched a new blog, La Vie en Albums. Music has been and is still such an important element of my life on earth, so I have decided to take a key album each week and (re-)appraise it. May it generate some interesting musical discourse!
Fourteen shillings and sixpence (or something like that). Little price; big impact. The inexpensive sampler album that kept on giving – for a few years, anyway.
I bought it in 1970 at the age of 15: a crucial time of many people's musical development. At that time, I was still listening almost exclusively to the Rolling Stones and, in particular, their two greatest hits compilations, High Tide And Green Grass and Through The Past Darkly (with its exotic hexagonal sleeve and its deliberately unflattering portrait of the band on the cover). But I had heard a single or two by Traffic and liked what I heard.
Then came Nice Enough To Eat. And then, as Fluff would intone on his radio shows, the music changes... (cue orchestral chords). It introduced me to the multifarious delights of Chris Blackwell's Island label, about which I knew virtually nothing at that time. More importantly, it introduced me to the wonderful world of underground or progressive music. Ah, how fantastic to be considered progressive if you listened to music that not everybody else was listening to.
The album triggered a frantic campaign to catch up and be as progressive as I possibly could. Since I didn't get much pocket money, the sampler became the quickest and least expensive way to delve into the underground. There were the two big CBS samplers, Fill Your Head With Rock and The Rock Buster (if I remember the slightly disappointing follow-up correctly); there was the sister sampler from Island, You Can All Join In; and there was the Decca sampler with the embarrassing title, Wowie Zowie! The World Of Progressive Music. Surely some marketing man's idea of a sick joke.
There was also an Atlantic sampler, called I think What Is Soul? But that was more for girls and boys with dodgy sexual preferences. Girls always know more and always grow up faster. Soul music was waiting around the corner, but first I had to get progressive music out of my system.
Thanks to the joys of anal retention, I can tell you that there was 53 minutes of music on the album. I timed each track as it played on my first stereo (from Boots' audio department) and noted down the time in indelible ink on the cover, thus destroying any value that the album might have to vinyl collectors. Although to sell it would be like getting rid of a family heirloom.
Side One kicked off with 'Cajun Woman', a track from Fairport Convention's Unhalfbricking album (the one with a band member's slender parents on the cover, whom I mistook for infamous spies for some strange reason). It was followed by Mott the Hoople's Dylanesque version of Dough Sahm's 'At The Crossroads' from their eponymous first album with its reproduction of a mesmerising Escher print. I always considered Mott the Hoople to be one of the finest ever names for a band, right up there with Half Man Half Biscuit, and loved the fact that David Bowie gave them 'All The Young Dudes' when their career was in the doldrums. 'Meet At The Crossroads' took me eventually to Doug Sahm's glorious garage-rocking 'She's About A Mover'.
After Mott, there was Spooky Tooth's very heavy 'Better By You, Better Than Me'. Strange how life goes, but their heavy guitarist, Luther Grosvenor, would eventually turn up in Mott the Hoople as Ariel Bender. That name represents another marketing mistake, because why change your name if you were blessed at birth with a name like Luther Grosvenor? Doesn't make sense.
Then came a track by Jethro Tull from their Stand Up album, 'We Used To Know'. When 'Living In The Past' came out, I built up a small collection of Jethro Tull singles – until the terrible afternoon in the rugby changing room when my best friend and me were accused of being teeny boppers after our conversation about Jethro Tull was overheard by bigger boys. Man, you didn't buy 7" singles if you wanted to be considered progressive.
Side One concluded with Free's bluesy 'Woman' and a long rambling track by Heavy Jelly, 'I Keep Singing That Same Old Song'. It and they remain a mystery to this day. Whatever happened to Heavy Jelly? I believe they had something to do with Jackie Lomax, whom The Beatles signed up – briefly – for their Apple venture.!(upload://9h7czr7WqGmsxiWXybdm7A0gy93.jpg)
If Side One was a bit of a curate's proverbial egg, Side Two was the promised land. It opened with a bang in the form of a smoking pig in shades and headphones: Blodwyn Pig's 'Sing Me A Song That I Know' from their Ahead Rings Out album. And then came two glorious ethereal tracks that remain as fresh as the day your dentist fitted them. I still listen, in another format, to Traffic's flute-acious 'Forty Thousand Headmen' and Nick Drake's 'Time Has Told Me'. Ah, poor tragic Nick Drake. It's typical that I considered it the weakest track on this side at the time. Now, of course, I believe it to be one of his masterpieces. If only I and a few thousand others had seen it at the time, we might have stopped him from topping himself.
And then came '21st Century Schizoid Man', with its distorted vocals and Robert Fripp's far-out fuzzed guitar. It blew my mind. I became for a few years a King Crimson maniac, even daring to buy their 7" single, 'Cat Food', because I was too impatient to wait for the album. Fortunately, I didn't write timings in biro on the 'iconic' gatefold album sleeve of the very pink, very anguished shrieking man. But I couldn't listen to it these days.
After which, there was 'Gungamai' by Quintessence, a slice of soft Indo-jazzy rock. And talking of gatefold sleeves, briefly I had an album of theirs whose front cover opened up to reveal some kind of Hindu shrine. Or that was the idea, anyway. I had to take it back, because there was a defect in the pressing that offended my sensitive ears. They didn't have a replacement and I couldn't be bothered to order another. Probably worth a packet these days, with a gimmicky cover like that.
Whereupon the album ended in a strangely strange but oddly normal way, courtesy of Dr. Strangely Strange. They came from Dublin and I saw them once as a boy in Belfast. The Strangelies played a twee kind of dippy-hippy folk music that sounded then every bit as good as Tyrannosaurus Rex. An obscure record company would release the album from which the final track on this life-enhancing sampler derived, Kip Of The Serenes. With bonus tracks, too. I shall not be seeking it out.
I shall, however, re-file this 'ossum' album with the other discs by Various Artists. It was 14/6 well spent. God knows when or even if I shall play it again. But at the time it was rarely off my first stereo record player, the one whose arm would raise at the end like a fascist salute.