As the holiday gift-buying season approaches, reissues and box sets will be vying for consumer dollars. With the decline in physical album sales, I feared that only the most mainstream artists would receive the deluxe treatments that I’m sometimes a sucker for. There’s certainly no shortage of big names. For example, back in April Metallica reissued long-awaited remasters of their first three albums. However, no alternative options were given other than to get everything — four vinyl LPs, five to six CDs and a DVD, for the whopping price of nearly $140 each. If that seems a bit obnoxious for a band that owes their initial popularity to hardcore metalhead tape traders, well, it is. But if the market can sustain that kind of bloated pricing, that’s their perogative. Eventually (after the holidaze no doubt), more reasonable versions will become available. Other reissues include Lou Reed, The RCA & Arista Albums Collection (October 7, 17 CDs, $160), including nearly all his 70s and 80s albums which Reed himself remastered shortly before his death. Much more affordable are Otis Redding – Live At The Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings (October 21, 7 CDs, $49) and just out last week, Led Zeppelin, The Complete BBC Sessions (3 CDs, $19). There’s of course dozens more, from Nina Simone to Bruce Springsteen. However, the collections that excited me are from decidedly more obscure artists.
Firstly is the magnificent box set lovingly assembled by Numero Group of nearly the complete recorded output of Australia’s The Scientists, A Place Called Bad (4 CDs, $38). Australia’s pre-punk, punk and post-punk scene has always been somewhat underrated due to being geographically removed from the rest of the action in the UK and the U.S. The Saints mostly got the credit that was due them, but Radio Birdman, not so much. The Birthday Party kind of kid thanks largely to the strength of Nick Cave’s later career. Perhaps most overlooked of all were The Scientists, despite the fact that they an important part of the scene. Kim Salmon (Cheap Nasties, 1976-77) joined the Exterminators, who then became the Invaders, and by 1978, were known as The Scientists. They self-released their first single, “Frantic Romantic”/”Shake (Together Tonight)” in June 1979, and their debut self-titled album (otherwise known as The Pink Album) came out in 1981. At that point they were still a mix of rough-hewn garage punk, and plenty of melodic power pop. Then they broke up. Salmon reformed the second of many iterations of the Scientists the next year, with a much more sinister concoction of swamp blues and garage noir that shared a lot of kinship with what The Birthday Party, The Cramps and Gun Club were doing at the time, with additional influences from The Stooges, Suicide and Captain Beefheart. (whose “Clear Spot” they cover, originally included on the Fast ‘n’ Bulbous tribute album in 1988, part of the inspiration for the name of this site) “This Is My Happy Hour”/”Swampland” announced their new sound in December, and was fleshed out by the Blood Red River EP in 1983. Taking their cue from The Birthday Party, the band relocated to London in March 1984. Unfortunately, they were a little late to capitalize on the fertile post-punk scene there, which was already in decline by then. You Get What You Deserve (1985) should have been an instant classic at least at the level of The Jesus & Mary Chain’s Psychocandy, but at that point, their music was perhaps a bit too brutal for the scene at the time, and they were stuck in their cult status. Contrary from most of their contemporaries, they doubled down on their dark weirdness, boiling down their sound to an even more uncompromising, stripped down, hostile black core on Weird Love (1986) and Human Jukebox (1987) that did not expand their audience, but would in retrospect earn much respect from folks who also appreciated the challenging works of the Butthole Surfers and Scratch Acid at the time.
Numero Group chose to carefully curate the set by choosing key performances, rather than redundant versions of the same songs. Fleshed out with a disc of live cuts, it’s the definitive version of their work in chronological order. For fans of post-punk and garage noir, it’s absolutely essential.
The mid-80s were a weird time in music. While it was a sort of nadir with a lot of formerly great post-punk and new wave artists making poor production choices in trying to achieve a more mainstream sound, there was still a lot going on. Beyond career peaks for The Smiths and XTC, the UK also saw great albums from The Chameleons, The Woodentops, And Also The Trees, Love And Rockets, The The, Talk Talk, That Petrol Emotion, Public Image Ltd., Felt and also Hunters & Collectors, Died Pretty, The Church and the aforementioned The Scientists in Australia. Nearly forgotten by many, but revived for this box set is Screaming Blue Messiahs, Vision In Blues (5 CDs, $50). Formed from the ashes of Motor Boys Motor, they played a hybrid of rockabilly blues and post-punk that hit harder than most of their peers aside from the likes of The Scientists. The set features all their recordings, starting with an extended version of the Good And Gone EP (1984), which is fascinating stuff, showing them developing their sound from fairly stripped down garage rock origins. The arrangement of “Let’s Go Down To The Woods” is strikingly different, with the chiming guitars that remind of of Big Country. Like a lot of people, my introduction to the band was their first full-length, the mighty Gun-Shy (Elektra, 1986). While it does have a somewhat dated 80’s production sheen (and that damn drum sound), they managed to retain a dense, muscular feel with slashing guitars, thanks partly to producer Vic Maile (Motörhead, Girlschool, Godfathers). I played the shit out of that cassette, with their cover of Hank Williams’ “You’re Gonna Change,” “Let’s Go Down To The Woods” and “Killer Born Man” some of the most evil sounding music I heard at the time outside of Metallica and Slayer. 30 years later it still sounds vital, a true lost classic that deserves to be heard.
In comparison, Bikini Red (1987) was a disappointment. However, all these years later, stripped of the expectations of surpassing their debut, it’s pretty fun. The jokey songs (“I Wanna Be A Flintstone,” “I Can Speak American”) are pretty dumb, but it’s still a colorful, enjoyable rock record at least at the level of Hoodoo Gurus (featuring former Scientists members) Blow Your Cool! or Lime Spiders’ The Cave Comes Alive! from that year. Totally Religious (1989) has them trying valiently to maintain their edge while also achieving some kind of mainstream success, and failing. The live disc, Live In Zurich, 7.12.1989 shows they were a smoking live act until the end, and would have been much better served touring with more compatible bands like Scientists, Hoodoo Gurus, The Woodentops, or Godfathers rather than David Bowie’s Glass Spiders tour.
Meanwhile in the U.S., 1986 was a kind of slow year, aside from the thrash metal scene that was taking off in a big way. The Feelies put out their classic but perpetually underrated The Good Earth, Bad Brains were at peak strength, Boston post-punkers Dumptruck were brilliant but a cult concern, Sonic Youth was in an upward arc with EVOL, and R.E.M. had their transitional but solid Lifes Rich Pageant. Hüsker Dü’s major label debut Candy Apple Grey was the beginning of the end. R.E.M.’s producer Mitch Easter, meanwhile, was developing a fruitful relationship with a west coast band loosely affiliated with the Paisley Underground, Game Theory. Their third album, Big Shot Chronicles was considered by many as their best, with some of their most straightforward, catchy songs. That doesn’t mean they were making easily digestible alt pop. There’s still experiments that would have fit in with the likes of Big Star’s Sister Lovers, their skewed jangle completely unique and challenging. I was hooked since I first heard songs from Real Nighttime (1985) on college radio, and my Big Shot tape got a tone of play as I attempted to decipher Scott Miller’s cryptic lyrics and off-kilter melodies. While my favorite remains the sprawling double album Lolita Nation (1987), which Omnivore already reissued earlier this year, I can see why many would choose this as their favorite. The band had a new lineup and sounded tougher this time around, exuding energy on the opener “”Here It Is Tomorrow.” The spare beauty of “Erica’s Word” seems to be part of the DNA of Spoon, which is confirmed in the new liner notes, along with a tribute from Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt. “Too Closely” and “Regenisraen” are as sophisticated and inscrutable as Miller ever got, while “Like A Girl Jesus” is his most fragile. The original album closes with a loose, jammy version of “Linus And Lucy.” The reissue adds bonus cuts “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” “Seattle” and a live cover of “Sweet Jane” among others, but for some reason leaves off “Girl W/ A Guitar” and “Faithless,” which Miller originally released digitally for free not long before his death.
Big Shot Chronicles may not be among the top 10 best albums of that year, but it remains an essential chapter in fresh and original sounding indie pop, its influence still heard today. In fact, a fund-raising campaign was completed earlier this year for members of the band and an all-star cast of guests to complete the recording of unreleased songs for the sixth Game Theory album, Supercalifragile, due in 2017. I chipped in, along with hundreds of other enthusiastic fans, because while Miller put out several other great albums in the 90s with Loud Family, we’re always keen to hear anything that Game Theory did.
I own the full albums of a good number of bands on this comp — Stray, The Open Mind, The Deviants, The Pink Fairies, The Groundhogs, Hawkwind, Deep Purple, Jerusalem, Edgar Broughton Band, Dark, The Move, Gun, Third World War, Sam Gopal, Uriah Heep, Andromeda, Fleetwood Mac and The Taste. But the quality is so high among these choices of psych prog and proto-metal bands, I figured the rest must be worth having too on this new Cherry Red/Grapefruit compilation, I’m A Freak Baby: A Journey Through The British Heavy Psych And Hard Rock Underground Scene 1968-72 (3 CDs, $25). The price is right, and for people who don’t own those albums but are interested in these genres, it is essential. It opens with “All In Your Mind” by Stray, one of the most brilliant hidden gems of the psych prog era, who put out several albums worth owning. Signed to a contract way back in 1966 as young teenagers on the strength of precocious musical talent rivaling Free, Stray have plenty of experience with mod and psychedelia. But it’s the sprawling proto-metal of the 9:23 opener “All In Your Mind” that prompted Pentagram to cite them as an influence. Iron Maiden would later record that song as a B-side. The band is tight and cohesive despite exploring additional genres like prog, jazz fusion and Hawkwind-like space rock. Some of their more driving moments even remind me of some early MC5, but more musically diverse and complex. The aforementioned Hawkwind are represented with an early single, “Sweet Mistress Of Pan,” under their original name Hawkwind Zoo. Sam Gopal is Lemmy Kilmister’s pre-Hawkwind/Motörhead band where he sings lead and plays guitar, and “Escalator” is a corker. That’s just a taste of the stature of these 48 tracks.
There’s other compilations available that mine similar territory, but there is little overlap with this. Highly recommended.
Blow Your Cool: 20 Prog/Psych Assaults From the UK
Cosmarama: Blow Your Cool 2
Forge Your Own Chains: Heavy Psychedelic – Ballads And Dirges 1968-1974
White Lace & Strange: Heavy Psych & Power Fuzz
The Room of Loud Sound: Heavy Psych from the USA 1968-1972 (White Lace & Strange Vol. 2)
Visit to Spaceship Factory: 20 Gems From Early Years of Prog
My biggest reissue purchase of the year was also the largest box set I’d ever gotten so far, even bigger than my complete Motown and James Brown sets, the massive The Isley Brothers, The RCA Victor and T-Neck Album Masters 1959-1983 (23 CDs, $99), which came out last year. I experienced a bit of buyer’s remorse, because I already had perfectly fine masters of most of their albums up through 1973. The set did offer remasters of albums I had been keenly interested in during a previous Isley kick a few years back, including Live It Up (1974), The Heat Is On (1975), Harvest For The World (1976), Go For Your Guns (1977) and Showdown (1978). While they’re all solid albums, they also were the beginning of diminishing returns, and I definitely overdosed on too much Isleys at once. However, it’s a beautiful thing to be able to buy such a long-running band’s nearly entire discography at a fairly reasonable price. You can now find the set used for as low as $53, which is only $2.30 per disc. Following their trailblazing career from bluesy R&B to Motown soul to psychedelic funk and even some disco is definitely worth it in the end. The Temptations, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Funkadelic/Parliament and many more all owe The Isley Brothers.