We “crate diggers” (as we’re known) — obsessive collectors of obscure vinyl albums that end up in old milk crates in someone’s garage sale or a flea market or thrift shop — often come across some seriously unusual and rare finds. We buy these discs because of a curious album cover design, or a label affiliation to someone famous, a guest appearance by a significant superstar musician, or simply because. And sometimes we get lucky and find an actual gem.
Here are some recent finds you might enjoy.
Pinball by Brian Protheroe — On the Chrysalis label, this 1974 album is a curious slice of Brian Wilson-inspired pop music from a fellow who went on to achieve some stardom in theatre. According to Wikipedia, the single apparently went Top 40 in England back in the day. It’s an interesting recording that crosses many boundaries, from early ’70s Beach Boys to Van Dyke Parks to vaudeville. And it even has an endless run out groove that sounds like someone typing. Cool stuff, easily worth the buck I paid for it. You can find a hits collection up on Amazon, and given how many times the song has been posted on YouTube, clearly someone else remembers this artist.
Birtha — This eponymously dubbed 1972 debut is a fine slab of marketing malfeasance if ever there was one. An all-girl hard-rocking band with shades of Janis Joplin with Big Brother and Ike & Tina Turner, they were probably signed to ride the wave of interest in bluesy female-fronted rock bands in 1971. That the album cover was utterly wrong for the music — a ’50s Wurlitzer style jukebox seemingly rocking’ side to side — didn’t help matters. And their drummer was named Liver. You can’t make things like this up folks. LIVER! (Can’t you just hear the fans chanting, “Liver! Liver! Liver!”)
Sarcasm aside, it’s a fun record of that sort of wailing early blues rock people were playing back in the early ’70s, more akin to Black Sabbath and Mountain than The Runaways and The Go Go’s. Proto Joan Jett perhaps? What is perhaps blowing my mind more than anything is that this album on CD is being sold for $285 on Amazon! Apparently Birtha still has fans. Fear not, though; if you want to hear what all the fuss is about, you can find it cheaper up on eBay on LP.
Randy Burns and the Sky Dog Band — This may be my favorite of the recent crate dig finds. What really struck me about this record, which was released on Mercury Records in 1971 (and which looks like it should be a hard country western boogie), is just how much it sounds like a lost cousin to Billy Joel’s first few albums and some early Harry Chapin.I picked up the album in a bargain bin for two bucks (a white label promo copy that had survived a fire!) out of curiosity over David Bromberg’s presence on it.
I was pleasantly surprised to find it a very engaging listen, with some solid tunes that probably played well alongside others of the period — early singer-songwriter stuff. According to his website, when Randy played The Troubadour, the Los Angeles Times said, “Randy is the best country flavored rock singer since Graham Parsons, who was, and is, as good as anyone before him.” Maybe therein lies the challenges in marketing Randy’s music back in the day: if they were trying to pin him as country-western singer/songwriter, they missed the boat. He had too many strong pop hooks for that. You can hear that clearly with 20/20 hindsight.
A track like “August Woman” reminds me more of a piano-less twist on a theme akin to Billy Joel’s “Ain’t No Crime” (from his eponymous major label debut two years later). “Seventeen Years on the River” and “To the Women of My Life” are both great tunes that up the Billy Joel flavor, adding in piano and dramatic build-up (à la Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection and Madman Across the Water) to the mix and could have easily found a home on either of Billy’s first few albums. I could go on. This is a really solid album and clearly should have deserved more attention than it got. The good news is that Randy is still recording music and playing shows, so you can still support the guy. Visit his website and buy some of his stuff. I’m going to look for some more of his music. I like this.