The Most Annoying Music in the World

“How do they sound? Perfect! They can’t play a lick! But mainly they got the right attitude, which is all rock’n’roll’s ever been about from day one. (I mean, not being able to play is never enough.)”  —Lester Bangs, on The Shaggs

I didn’t set out to become a vinyl collector.  The first couple of records I owned myself as a kid got so scratched up through carelessness and deliberate “misuse”—I wasn’t exactly trying to imitate the DJs who spun hip-hop beats, or “breakdancing music” as my friends and I called it, but I was fascinated by how changes of speed and direction altered the recorded sound—that they were nearly unplayable.  Later on, my dad encouraged me to record my new albums to tape so the vinyl wouldn’t get worn out.  Combine those experiences with a few warped records encountered here and there, and I was left with the impression that vinyl records were a lot more fragile than they really were.

Nevertheless, when I was a teenager records became irresistible to me for a couple of reasons.  The arrival of the compact disc in the late 1980s convinced many people that vinyl was going the way of the vacuum tube, and lots of them dumped their record collections for pennies, or for nothing: it wasn’t an uncommon sight for a box of old records to be left on the curb with the trash, free for the taking.  When I was scouring garage sales and junk shops throughout the 1990s, the number, variety, and sheer strangeness of the records I encountered (not to mention the low prices for which they were selling) made them much more desirable than when I was a kid and they seemed both fragile and overpriced.  Many people were upgrading their collections to the new format (there were recurring jokes along the lines of Dennis Miller’s complaint that he was buying Meet the Beatles for the fourth time), but there was also a generational turnover: among the outlets I frequented were garage sales by downsizing retired couples, as well as estate sales.  In some cases the audience for the first wave of “easy listening” and “mood music” LPs was aging out, and their grown children had no interest in keeping the music that had (undoubtedly) driven them into the waiting arms of rock and roll in their own youth.

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Indeed, for a few years, practically any place that sold used goods—antique stores, flea markets, thrift shops, and more—would have records, and I was always, always compelled to look through what they had to offer.  When I was a student at Wichita State University, there was a regular (every three semesters) sale held to raise money for the music department, and I’d spend a good part of the sale week between classes browsing boxes of donated records (along with books, sheet music, and other items).  My collection swelled.

Classical music predominated at the music department sale, but there were always oddball items as well.  Like a lot of teenagers, especially in the “whatever, man” ‘90s, I was driven to search for the tackiest, most ridiculous items I could find in order to mock or celebrate them as “so bad it’s good.” I’ve mentioned following the Dr. Demento radio show; the good Doctor would sometimes feature what he called the “Audio Torture Chamber,” a selection from a truly excruciating (usually deliberately so, but not always) record.  That’s where I first heard snippets of Lou Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music and “the world’s worst orchestra,” the Portsmouth Sinfonia.  As a collector and aficionado of the weird, I wanted in on that action.  Maybe it says something about me that I loved being able to put on a record that elicited squirms, groans, and protests from my captive audience.  It was at least a more dramatic response than the assumed coolness that would come over them when I tried to play something, you know, good.  (Whether it was any more genuine, or they were just playing up their reaction for my benefit, I couldn’t say at this remove.)

In general, the less specialized the store was, the better: record stores were (generally) staffed by people who had an idea their wares were valuable—although the weird stuff I was looking for was usually in the bargain bin anyway—but thrift stores weren’t picky, and everything might be priced at fifty cents or a dollar apiece, cheap enough that I could gamble on a promising cover.  Years later, when I saw the hip-hop DJ documentary Scratch, I learned about a gizmo some of the crate-diggers used to audition records before they bought them: a motorized toy truck with a needle on the front and a tiny speaker inside.  The truck would “drive” around the record, the needle keeping it in the groove as the sound played through the little speaker.  Brilliant!  As it was, I usually had to rely on the appeal of the cover or my sketchy knowledge of the artists involved.

Yes, I have this in my collection.  Be jealous!

Yes, I have this in my collection. Be jealous!

And what covers they were!  The LP was a miracle of packaging and marketing: its twelve-inch square cover was a perfect canvas for beautiful (or at least striking) art, suitable for framing, an advertisement for itself.  If the music inside turned out to be good, that was an added bonus.  Sometimes the contents were merely conventional: with the right cover and some creative liner notes, a collection of military band marches could be sold as Music for Baton Twirlers, and an album of bump-and-grind studio jazz packaged as How to Strip for Your Husband.  In both cases, the music is pretty good, but what sticks are the pop art covers and the impulse toward functionality, toward treating music as an accessory to one’s lifestyle, common enough in the hi-fi ‘50s.

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I was already exploring this territory when RE/Search PublicationsIncredibly Strange Music series arrived and handed me a map to make sense of it.  Founded in San Francisco by series editors Andrea Juno and V. Vale, RE/Search began as underground ‘zine Search & Destroy; by the time I encountered them, it had developed into a series of books dedicated to “fringe” topics: freaks, body modification, cult films, and challenging artists such as J. G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, and Brion Gysin.  Incredibly Strange Music Volumes I and II were Numbers 14 and 15 in the series, published in 1993 and ’94, and the series’ format showed its magazine roots, consisting of interviews with musicians (including the Cramps, Eartha Kitt, and Jean-Jacques Perrey in Vol. I), collectors, and assorted eccentrics, as well as short articles on aspects of the recording industry.  First and foremost, the series was a celebration of the incredible diversity of music recorded on vinyl (especially in the heyday of the LP, from the 1940s to the ‘70s), most of which was in danger of being forgotten.  A theme that runs through many of the interviews is that, in addition to vinyl’s superiority over the CD (a given for many audiophiles at the time), a vital popular heritage was in danger of being swept away because only the established classics were being converted to CD.  People were throwing records away in order to go digital, but many of their vinyl albums might never make that transition!

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Incredibly Strange Music became, in effect, a guidebook to the kinds of records I might find, and an informal checklist of specific artists and titles to look out for.  Records were about more than just music: for example, Mickey McGowan, proprietor of the “Unknown Museum,” listed such categories as bird recordings, sound effects, promotional, soundtracks, celebrity recordings, outer space (often including electronica), comedy, children’s records, and whistling records, among others, when discussing his collection.  Recovering once well-known artists like Indian organist Korla Pandit or the exotic, multi-octave vocal phenomenon Yma Sumac from obscurity was another goal of many of the collectors interviewed.  A feeling common to many collectors, and reinforced by the interviews in Incredibly Strange Music, was one of cultural archaeology: we were all doing important work, rescuing the cultural flotsam that wasn’t considered significant enough to preserve in libraries or conventional museums.

Music of the hopelessly inept was another “incredibly strange” kind of music discussed, but it was a recurring thread, whether considering the “turn your poems into songs” racket, vanity records that allowed amateurs to put together professional-looking, if not –sounding, projects, or small-time regional acts that didn’t have what it took to crack the big time.  Then there were such unclassifiable acts as The Shaggs (who I think I also first heard on Dr. Demento’s “Audio Torture Chamber”), a group of sisters whose father, Austin Wiggin, Jr., had dreams of turning them into pop stars, despite their lack of musicianship, charisma, or even the ability to keep a steady beat.  Were The Shaggs really “better than the Beatles,” as Frank Zappa reportedly claimed?  Not according to standard definitions of quality, but there is something otherworldly about their spacey, off-key recordings, and there is an endearing charm to their guileless enthusiasm.  For those who seek out this sort of “outsider music,” it’s not uncommon to express wonderment that such a thing exists at all: some of The Shaggs’ recordings are so out there that it’s easy to forget they were conceived of as a pop combo, but their repertoire won’t let us forget, mixing covers of songs by Tom T. Hall and the Carpenters with stream-of-consciousness originals like “My Pal Foot Foot.”

The implication that professional product is too slick to be authentic, and that music like The Shaggs’ comes straight from the heart (or the id, or possibly from another dimension), and is thus more honest, is one that’s been around for a while, and it can be problematic.  Not necessarily wrong, mind you—there is always a point at which the inquisitive listener seeks to go beyond what they’ve grown up with, what they’ve been exposed to by their parents, the radio, and the surrounding culture.  Something like The Shaggs may be just what it takes to start such a listener exploring, and I’ll accept the sincerity of Zappa’s praise of The Shaggs, or that of early Shaggs booster Tom Ardolino (who claimed to hear a resemblance between the Shaggs and early Ornette Coleman), whether or not I agree with it.  Such praise can often be backhanded, though: would notorious perfectionist and technician Zappa have wanted the Wiggin sisters in his band?  I think we know the answer to that.

Any appreciation of outsider art that veers into ironic “so bad it’s good” praise, celebrates a lack of craftsmanship or obscurity for its own sake (especially as a form of one-upmanship: “You probably haven’t heard of it”) can be interpreted, deservedly or not, as either mean-spirited or simply contrary—in either case, inauthentic.  You might even invite the dreaded “hipster” label.  Similarly, the assumption that an outsider artist can be “redeemed” by official recognition or appropriation by someone in the establishment is troubling.  As much as I love Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, for example, its existence doesn’t validate the gonzo creations of its eponymous hero: it doesn’t have to, for they exist on their own and are worthy of consideration as works of art, however naïve.  To treat them any other way is to perpetuate an unfortunate tendency of the fine art world to draw on folk/ethnic/commercial/outsider sources that are conveniently defined as “non-art” in order to be transformed (i.e., exploited) by a “real” artist, or to recognize the occasional genius working outside the system only after they are safely dead.

Still, anyone who feels that the Shaggs are being condescended to should compare their career to that of the Cherry Sisters, who were in some ways the Shaggs of the 1890s.  According to author Irwin Chusid in Songs in the Key of Z, “Effie, Addie, Ella, Jessie, and Elizabeth Cherry of Marion, Iowa, were by contemporary accounts the worst act in showbiz.  Their program, Something Good, Something Sad, was so atrocious it triggered a perverse public hysteria: it played to sold-out New York houses for 10 weeks.”  The Cherry Sisters’ mawkish, humorless performances (“an evening’s worth of hokey, moralistic one-acts, derivative ballads, and awkward ethnic routines,” in Chusid’s words) were greeted with such vitriol that a wire-mesh screen had to be erected across the stage to protect them from vegetables and other missiles thrown by patrons.  Promoters (including Oscar Hammerstein) knew exactly what they were selling, but the sisters at least pretended not to know—they claimed the rowdy crowds were hired by jealous rival actresses to sabotage their performances.  Were the Cherry Sisters playing along or hopelessly naïve?  They never let on, but were able to tour across the Midwest with their show, and earned upwards of $200,000, according to some reports.

A funny thing happened as I explored the world of kitschy, tacky music: I found things I genuinely liked, in an unironic way.  I was already having a good time, of course—I wouldn’t have wasted so much time and money looking for these things if I weren’t enjoying myself—but at some point I crossed the invisible line between “Get a load of this!” and “Hey, this is really good!”  A lot of the music I gravitated to was only “incredibly strange” in the sense of its separation in time, coming as it did from past decades with very different ideas of what was cool.  For example, Lawrence Welk was the epitome of squareness even before I was a kid, but the musical chops of many of his stable of performers were for real.  I was already interested in ragtime and early jazz, so I was receptive to Jo Ann Castle.  Ditto with Myron Floren: I liked the accordion—again, maybe because it was so dorky, associated with performers like “Weird Al” Yankovic, but also because it just sounded cool—and Floren could really play.  There was a whole galaxy of once-popular instrumental virtuosi that I’m still discovering.  My recent column on banjo groups led me to Eddie Peabody, whom I hadn’t encountered before:

Part of the process is simply hearing enough to find what you respond to.  One of my favorite albums that I found in high school was called Dutch Band Organ, and it contained lively, full-sounding arrangements of syncopated pop tunes like “Cuddle Up A Little Closer” and “Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?”  It is the standard by which I have judged other band organ records for twenty years.  Similarly, I have a hard time imagining what the world was like when The Three Suns (a trio of accordion, organ and guitar) were representatives of sophisticated popular music, but I’m glad I found them (their early records, like Cocktail Time, are more impressive to me than the later records where they team up with a full orchestra).  Turntable artist Christian Marclay has commented on his attraction to “deeply unhip” records for his collage-like performances, and I share that interest: I’m always on the lookout for recordings of oddball instruments like the banjo, accordion, or chimes, the seeming underdogs of popular music. They deserve to be heard, too.

Much has changed since Incredibly Strange Music was published.  The entire RE/Search series captures a moment, a transitional period between the underground culture of the 1970s and ‘80s and the internet culture that makes it much easier for like-minded people to find each other and share information.  Many of the recordings featured in the book are easily heard online now; in fact, a great many of the vinyl oddities that were expected to disappear forever have made the transition to CD, however belatedly.  Labels like Collector’s Choice and Sepia specialize in this sort of material.  Even Dutch Band Organ is on CD now, something I never, ever would have expected.  Of course, the CD as a format is now on the wane, replaced by streaming, even as vinyl records have made a comeback, but the older audience that presumably favors these reissues isn’t known for being early adopters, so they may be a better bet for CD manufacturers, for now, anyway.  As for me, I love the options I have now, and I’m glad vinyl has continued to be relevant, but I’m glad I was in a position to explore the LP heritage at a time when it seemed like it might be gone for good.

The Pleasures of Anthology, Part Five

A few years back I was browsing a new-and-used record store in Kansas City.  It will surprise no one that my affection for old book sales also extends to the crates of old records at music stores, and I used to spend many happy hours browsing their shelves.  I drifted down into the basement, where there were quite a few CDs and records, including 78s, of early jazz, one of my passions.  I was looking over a CD of guitarist Eddie Lang’s collaborations with violinist Joe Venuti, chatting with the clerk, a guy with a handlebar moustache, horn-rimmed glasses and a Hawaiian shirt (this was about fifteen years ago, before such a combination would be so commonplace as to be a hipster cliché).  He was justifiably proud of the store’s selections of 78s, but when I mentioned I didn’t have a 78 player and mostly relied on compilations, he sniffed, “I don’t like to let anyone else tell me what I can and can’t listen to.”  The conversation was effectively over.

I didn’t take it too personally.  A run-in with a snooty record store clerk is practically as much a rite of passage as throwing away one’s old comic books only to regret it later, and in the broader sense I agree with him.  As much as I respect the anthologist’s art, I’m all too aware of how much is out there that won’t be repackaged in modern formats.  I have a 78 rpm record player now, but hardly any discs to play on it.  I’m grateful for such online institutions as the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project, which makes very old and/or rare recordings available, the only filter being the rate at which its curators can acquire and digitize its holdings, but at the time of this conversation that would be a few years in the future.

What strikes me in hindsight is how different the attitude toward compilations is among music fans and readers of short stories.  I’ve never heard a sci-fi reader turn up his nose at a Groff Conklin anthology and say, “No thanks, I’ll stick to my issues of Astounding and Unknown Worlds.”  Very few will bother to track down a Kurt Vonnegut story in Playboy when it can easily be found between hard covers.  True, hardcore record collectors are also a minority, but the concepts of authenticity and authorial voice are different in the two areas.

To a large degree, this is due to the ephemeral nature of print magazines and the vital role anthologies have played in both keeping stories alive and developing a canon of widely-known and –respected work.  As anthology expert Bud Webster compellingly argues in his Anthopology 101,

There were paper drives here in the US well into the 1960s, and had been since the war years; thousands of old magazines were recycled in these drives, not counting the ones that were simply tossed out after reading, or the collections “cleared away” by well-meaning mothers when their sons and daughters went off to college.  Were it not for the anthologies and their editors and publishers, much of the science fiction we grew up reading and wondering over might never have been reprinted.

It should be obvious that this goes double for comic books and triple for newspapers.

By comparison, there was nothing ephemeral in the way recorded music was packaged and sold.  Quite the opposite: before the advent of recording, a performance could be heard only once and was then gone forever.  Recording, in the words of David Suisman in Selling Sounds, stopped the flow of time “as a dam holds back the flow of a river,” storing sounds indefinitely in the grooves of a cylinder or disc.  The permanence of records didn’t always live up to the hype (records could warp, scratch or crack from mistreatment, or wear out through overplaying; even compact discs weren’t quite as invulnerable as they were originally made out to be), but it represented a huge change, and one that took nearly a decade for both consumers and producers to get their head around.

From about 1890 to 1900, Edison cylinder phonographs and competing disc-based gramophones were known as “talking machines;” Edison predicted that his device would find its greatest utility in business as a dictation aid, and a great deal of the recordings commercially sold were famous speeches, passages from the Bible, and the like.  Up until the turn of the century, such machines were little more than a novelty.

Criticisms of “disposable” pop music and novelties are as old as the music industry itself, and that label adhered to both Tin Pan Alley pop songs (which pioneered the kind of built-in obsolescence associated with “one-hit wonders” and prefab stars), most commercial records, and the machines themselves. It was the Victor Talking Machine Company, a competitor of Edison and Columbia, that realized they could sell more machines by creating a musical product with cultural cachet—in modern terms, hardware sales could be driven by providing desirable software—and in 1902 the Victor Red Seal series was born.

The Red Seal records featured respected musical artists (most famously the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso; the Red Seal artists were predominantly European, an important signifier of quality in American culture) performing operatic excerpts and other high-status repertoire, recorded with the best quality possible.  Just as important, the Red Seal records were set apart from the regular “Black Seal” series by their packaging (the “Red Seal” refers to the red paper labels on the records) and by a higher price; they were even listed in a separate section of the Victor catalog, printed on pink pages.  Their desirability was part of a marketing strategy; even Victor’s executives admitted that the Red Seal records didn’t sell as well as the Black Seals, but they were an effective advertisement for the line as a whole. More to our point, as Suisman says, “the Red Seal records were quintessentially middlebrow; they presented an ad hoc assortment of digestible classics [the length of a record side was only two to four minutes] as a timeless and definitive canon.”  They made it psychologically okay to value records as something other than a passing fad, and transformed the fledgling industry.

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So we’ve established that records, once they found a foothold and adjusted listeners’ expectations, aspired to a permanence that fiction might only attain when safely preserved in book form.  There is also the difference between recorded sound and print media: the words of a story are the same (barring drastic editorial change) whether in a magazine or a book; they can even be translated into another language. In some cases, the book versions of stories are more definitive, removing editorial changes (or misprints) and allowing the author’s original voice to come through more clearly.  By contrast, the promise of audio recording is its faithfulness, the idea that you are hearing a piece of music just as it was performed by the artist; what could be more authentic than that?  The transfer of music from one format to another has been fraught with controversy among listeners; indeed, Victor and the other record companies had to work very hard to make their limited recording facilities sound as good as they did before the introduction of electrical recording in 1925 (they weren’t necessarily trying to convince listeners that a recording was “just as good” as a live concert; they counted on the fact that for most people, a record would be as close to hearing Caruso as they ever got).  In converting monophonic recordings from 78s to LP, producers sometimes introduced “fake stereo,” the aural equivalent of colorizing a black and white movie. The debates over the merits of analog vs. digital sound are well known, and the primary appeal of mp3s has been convenience, not sound quality.

Finally, there is the context of the individual song itself, and I think this is where anthologies become suspect for many purists.  In my next installment, I’ll look at the concept of the album, and its rise and fall in importance to recorded music.