In pop music, there’s always been a market for budget product, initially in the form of cheapskate copycat covers of hits of the day (remember the Woolworths’ Embassy label?), later in cut-price cash-in productions by lesser-rank talents. Then, back when albums were starting to take off in the mid-to-late ’60s, the budget labels – especially in the States – began to lure “impecunious teenagers and parsimonious parents” who couldn’t afford “the real thing” into purchasing their cheaper products, bedecked in suitably gaudy, eye-grabbing sleeves but which contained altogether less substantial music, ersatz contemporary-styled tunes (or covers) played to order by combos (largely made up of session musicians) sporting fictitious group names. Occasionally this involved even sharper practice when a number of English pop and rock bands were “seconded” to contribute (often without realising) to the label’s productions.
The California-based Alshire label, owned by hustlers Al Sherman and Dave Miller, was probably the most prolific of these budget labels, and this gloriously exhaustive new three-disc set gathers together what might fairly be described as the cream of Alshire’s roster. The first disc delivers three of the label’s LP releases in their entirety. The album by The Animated Egg (a sobriquet concealing, among others, legendary Wrecking Crew hotshot guitarist Jerry Cole) is an unpretentious collection of energetic instrumental workouts ranging quite wildly in style and invention level but nevertheless surprisingly tasty – from R&B stompers like A Love Built On Sand to the funky Inside Looking Out, the janglesome Sure Listic to the Shads-beat of Dark, and (best of all) the moody fuzz-drenched strut of Sock It My Way. Even the cheeky Spencer Davis paraphrase of “T”omorrow is forgivable. The second and third LPs are instalments from the label’s long-running 101 Strings series. The first, Sounds Of Today, features fully-scored orchestral realisations of (mostly) flower-power-era hits, ranging from the inspired (Ode To Billie Joe) to the genially appealing (Never My Love), the thoroughly sanitised (A Whiter Shade Of Pale) and decidedly cheesy (San Francisco) to original “generic” mood pieces like the self-explanatory Karma Sitar and Blues For The Guru, which actually weren’t so bad, the prissy Stone Baroque, and the animated Strings For Ravi which could’ve cropped up on almost any trendy late-’60s spy-thriller soundtrack.. The final LP to grace Disc 1 is Astro-Sounds From Beyond The Year 2000, whose ten tracks take the basic brief – complete with some utterly ridiculous Barbarella-inspired track titles! – well past any wishfully futuristic sell-by date, This release the label even went as far as recycling several of the earlier Animated Egg tracks (for instance, Space Odyssey is the Animated Egg’s Sure Listic with extra swooning strings!), while a number of cuts resorted to embracing common effects of the day such as flange-phase-shifting and reverb, Even so, when listened to with hindsight, the sounds produced on this disc can be heard as prefiguring the electro-space-pop of the following decade. Let’s face it, for most of the time 101 Strings provided a more vogue-ish class of supermarket-mall muzak, tastefully tasteless even, and much of their output still possesses an unmistakable, evocatively retro charm.
Disc 2 gives us a representative selection of the music of “scandalously overlooked” Californian psych-rock chameleon outfit The California Poppy Pickers, which ranged from shameless covers (late-Beatles including Yeller – sic – Submarine, Creedence, Greenbaum, Stones, hippie anthems) to more inspired or obscure choices (Crystal Blue Persuasion) and pointless updates (Wipe Out 69) to originals ranging from rocker (Come Back) to classy pop-psych (Narrow People), breezy pop (Sunshine Summer Days), proto-Glitter grind (Bun Buster) and playful goofiness (Augie From Bakersfield). All a better class of workmanlike, and a cut above in terms of musicianship.
Disc 3 is a treasure-house of a compilation in its own right, presenting choice examples of obscure UK and US acts that ended up on the label through misadventure (largely through the involvement of notorious ex-Pye Records producer/arranger Jack Dorsey). There’s four tracks apiece by John Bunyan’s Progressive Pilgrims – including a ripping, phasing-saturated take on Sabre Dance and a distortion-riddled blatant ripoff of The Nice’s Rondo (here titled Mozart’s Dilemma!) – and Dr. Marigold’s Prescription (whose album came out on the budget label Marble Arch here in the UK).
There’s two cuts apiece by Autumn, The Heads Of The Family, Icarus and Jane & Eve & The Creations (the latter probably the most obscure of all these names), as well as two by The Mustang providing the acid-day equivalent of Johnny & The Hurricanes, and one apiece by Capt. Skid Marks (an awful alias for Amalgamation) and Brownhill Stamp Duty. Potentially craziest of all in the “shouldn’t work but it does” camp are the three tracks credited to Modern Sounds (four resolutely unidentified musicians) purporting reimagine and update the music of country legend Hank Williams for the acid-rock generation! Long Gone Lonesome Blues works particularly well…The final three cuts on this album return us to the world of 101 Strings – a pair of dubious pseudo-soft-porn lounge-core tracks from The Exotic Sounds Of Love and, as ironic set closer, a brazen throwaway cover of the Beatles’ world-beater All You Need Is Love that even replaces its Francophile intro for the William Tell fanfare.
This well-stocked set comes with a deluxe 32-page booklet sporting a truly magnificent essay by David Wells examining the work of the Alshire label in detail for the first time. The 82 tracks may include their fair share of howlers alongside the worthy curios, but it’s definitely recommended for those keen to explore another almost forgotten byway of psych-rock.
|Gary Miller: Mad Martins||The Sad Song Co.: Worth|
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