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Collecting Collections: Hunting for Obscure Tracks and Cool Themes in Compilation Albums

Sections: Love Hz

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Get ready for the most obvious statement in the history of history: I like music. I like music so much that I collect it across a lot of formats, from old 78s and 45s to newfangled high-resolution download files. One of the often overlooked — and often easy to find — area of record and CD collecting is the plethora of collections compiling music from a wide variety of sources. Sometimes a compilation is a particular label promoting artists on their roster. Other times it might be a radio station celebrating a live music series. Sometimes, retail stores and companies put together discs showcasing artists that represent the essence of a particular technology, service, or consumable they are hawking. Recently, while digging through a bargain bin, I picked up what appeared to be a very obscure collection on LP that sparked the whole idea of this column about the great overlooked gems that can be found in compilations like this:

Brum Beat was reportedly “first published February 1st 1964,” issued on the regional Dial Records label. Arguably the dawn of the so-called British Invasion, this collection was designed to call some attention to the hoards of bands heralding from the city of Birmingham, England (aka Brum), who were being overlooked in favor of the Mersey Beat sound emanating from Liverpool (i.e. The Beatles, Gerry & The Pacemakers). None of these bands went anywhere as far as I have been able to determine, but it is notable in that it includes a track by The Senators, called “She’s a Mod.” Whether you consider this song particularly Mod or groovy itself is irrelevant — the band does, however, include a drummer who would in less than 10 years’ time be a part of a band that would be as big as the Beatles in influence, arguably bigger in terms of breaking live concert attendance records: John Bonham of Led Zeppelin.

Troublemakers (Warner PRO A 857, 1980) is another fascinating compilation — a 2-LP promo from Warner Brothers that emerged at the dawn of the ’80s during the punk and new wave explosion — a sort of grandchild of their fab “Loss Leaders” series from the late ’60s and early ’70s. This set is pretty cool, as it includes a number of rare and then previously unreleased tracks (some still may be) here in America by the likes of The Sex Pistols, John Cale, The Modern Lovers, Devo, and others. You can find it around in the used bins at many music stores.

New Wave (Vertigo 6300 9020) is another fantastic UK collection of punk/new wave anthems, including some tracks that were at one time hard to find. Now it’s simply a good listen and convenient to have all these songs in one place, such as Talking Heads’ “Love → Building on Fire,” Patti Smith’s “Piss Factory,” and other seminal tracks by The Damned, The Ramones, New York Dollas, and The Dead Boys.

The Flexipop Album is another essential UK promo LP collection of exclusive singles made for the now defunct Flexipop Magazine each issue of which contained a plastic “sound sheet” type disc that was playable on a turntable. This is a lovely black vinyl disc, however (with equally lovely artwork featuring profile shots of the two Microcephalic sisters from Todd Browning’s legendary real-life horror classic, Freaks, named Pip and Zip [real names: Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow]), featuring non-LP cuts from the likes of XTC, Soft Cell, Blondie w/ Fab Freddie, Pretenders, Depeche Mode, The Jam, and others.

Rock, Rock, Rock (Chess LP 1425), the soundtrack from the motion picture of the same name, featuring performances by ’50s rock & roll pioneers like Chuck Berry, The Moonglows, and The Flamingos, has eluded me in good condition until just this year, but I’ve been looking for it for ages. It was worth the wait. Now I want to see the movie! Apparently this was the first album put out by Chess Records in the 1950s!

Thru’ the Back Door (Mercury SRM1-3849) is a cheesy-looking compilation that was everywhere in the cut-out bins in the early ’80s, but was notable for one reason: it included a bonus 45 RPM single with picture sleeve of The Who in their pre-success incarnation as The High Numbers, playing two early tracks (“Zoot Suit” b/w “I’m The Face,” songs which had surfaced on the soundtrack to The Who’s movie Quadrophenia). The real gem on this album is an obscure band that, as far as I know, didn’t make any other records aside from this one killer power pop single called “No Way.” The group was unfortunately named The Donkeys (you can’t make stuff like this up, folks) but it is a kick-ass tune. Check it out.

Getting back to that Loss Leaders Series I mentioned a moment ago: Warner Brothers put out a series of promotional albums in the late ’60s and through much of the ’70s that were sold via mail-order only for two bucks each. Most contained album tracks from artist of the day, but some contained rare B-sides and such. They often sported very cool cover art, and were generally an easy way to get turned onto a lot of new music for next to no cost. You can find these albums commonly today in the $1 bins at places like Amoeba Records and thrift shops everywhere. Definitely worth searching for!

One of the cooler ones to look out for is called Zapped, featuring none other than Frank Zappa on the cover.

There were two versions printed, the earlier one being less cool but rarer now. And of course the music is a great introduction to the sounds of Zappa’s universe at the time, including music by Captain Beefheart, The GTOs, Jeff Simmons, Alice Cooper, Wild Man Fischer, and others who were recording for the label and its various subsidiaries.

Others, like the 3-LP Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies (Warner Bros PRO 423) set, can fetch some money on the collectors market since it has a way cool cover.

The Adventure Club Sessions — a promo CD from Dallas, Texas, radio station 94.5 FM — features all exclusive live performances by some amazing artists, including XTC, Jellyfish, James, Frank Black, Suede, and The Posies. It’s actually the latter band’s track in an utterly gorgeous unplugged version that makes this collection so essential to fans of harmony music; “Will You Ever Ease Your Mind” sounds like some lost love-child from a musical orgy involving The Bee Gees, Jackson Brown, Crosby Stills & Nash, Pink Floyd, and The Move. The radio show is still on the air so tune in for a taste of some amazing tunes.

Live from the Archives is another series of amazing radio-station-based compilations — this time from KFOG -FM in San Francisco, benefiting SF Food Banks — culled from live-in-the-studio appearances by a multitude of artists from around the world, as well as native San Franciscans. Many of these discs are now quite hard to find, so they have risen in price on the collectors market. I have a handful of them now, and pick them up when I can find them reasonably priced.

Live On Lettermanis a fun compilation of ’90s performances from The Late Show, including Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, Jerry Garcia, R.E.M. and others. Great fun and definitely worth hunting down.

Wrapping things up is another compilation of great tunes you can only find in one place: The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball, the soundtrack to the 3rd fundraiser for Amnesty International, is arguably the best of the batch in that it includes some great music by Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Bob Geldoff, World Party, and others. But the essential track is the album opener, a live rendition of Kate Bush doing “Running Up That Hill” (from her then-still-huge hit album Hounds of Love) featuring Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour on guitar. I hope they put out this video on Blu-ray someday. Here’s the track on YouTube:

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