Monday, April 18, 2011
Mr. Rogers' Cabinet of Curiosities: Dissecting "Epitaph For A Legend"
Various Artists - Epitaph For A Legend 2CD digipack with 40 page booklet (Charly/International Artists Snax 620)
The 1980 IA retrospective, Epitaph For A Legend, is now on its third or fourth go-round in the digital era. This 2010 iteration from Charly is, by all appearances, the 'definitive' version, if such a term can accurately be ascribed to an album that's mostly famous among record collectors for being so remarkably un-definitive.
A large part of the problem with Epitaph is its maddening lack of self-definition. Is it a greatest hits package? No. IA only had two of those, and neither are here. Is it a rarities package? No, because several of the rarest singles are excluded. Is it a smorgasbord of previously unissued goodies, carefully selected for quality? No, nearly one-third of the 27 cuts had been released. Epitaph, then, is 'none of the above,' a jumbled potpurri of sounds, presided over by their original producer and Svengali, Lelan Rogers. Epitaph less resembles a dignified 'epitaph' than it does a hastily-organized rummage sale held by distant relatives after the death of an eccentric but somewhat appreciated uncle. Some jewels are to be discovered, to be sure, but one has to dig through piles of rubbish to find them. For example, Bubble Puppy, IA’s biggest group, are nowhere to be found on Epitaph -- the first clue to the buyer that things here are quite amiss. (Years would pass before we realized why: the Puppy had been produced by Ray Rush, not Rogers, and Lelan was only-too-happy to keep the focus on two bands he produced, the Elevators and the Red Crayola. Despite its Top 20 status, 'Hot Smoke & Sassafrass' passes unmentioned in Jon Savage's interview with Rogers, enclosed within both the original double LP and this CD.)
And it wouldn’t be an IA album without a garish, hand-drawn cover too amateurish-looking even for a tax write-off or vanity labels. Each of the original 12 LPs are given their own tombstone (the singles apparently weren’t given a proper burial -- an unintentionally ironic statement on the album’s contents). Anyone expecting, say, a photograph or two of the bands has clearly set their expectations way too high. In the packaging department, Epitaph for a Legend fully complements the DIY non-aesthetic of contemporaneous early garage-psych bootlegs like Boulders and Texas Flashbacks.
Retrospectives of this sort almost always include some information on the artists. Even the most oblivious, only-in-it-for-the-money discount label knows this. But clearly this, also, is expecting too much of Lelan Rogers, who instead of providing information on the bands or recordings, merely inserted his 1978 Jon Savage interview into the original package, as if it constituted the final word of IA. Actually, the interview raises more questions that it answers (not the least for its omission of Bubble Puppy), and much of what Rogers says is of questionable accuracy. It is not wholly without value, but I believe much of what he said has since been supplanted by better research. This is not to denigrate the man too much. We should not forget that Lelan's job at all times was to sell records, not write history books, and at least he was making an effort to do something, within his limitations.
Lelan Rogers, amidst his paisley curtains, working the phones in an attempt to create a hit, 1960s.
Mistaking the enthusiasm of a few LA, Texas, and UK record collectors for a larger, general interest, Rogers pressed several thousand copies of Epitaph, but his naïve optimism for the revived IA label was soon met with cold reality: only a few hundred copies actually sold at the time of release, and Lelan was forced to wholesale the rest at cost to Midnight Records in New York (where it’s been a list staple now for decades). It probably never occurred to him that sales might have been stronger had the album been responsibly packaged and logically laid out. Lelan’s timing was off, too – interest in obscure sixties labels and music was only then getting off the ground (Pebbles Volume 1 had just appeared), and years passed before a real market developed for this kind of thing. If he had waited until 1986, and had spent a little more thought on packaging and track selection, Lelan might well have had an underground 'hit' with Epitaph.
Billboard 13 October 1979
Charly has seen fit to finally give the album the proper liner notes it should have had back in '80 (there are still no band photos). Mole from the Higher State has sorted out what was originally released and what wasn't, helpfully filling in whatever info has come to light over the last three decades. Jon Savage’s interview with Rogers is presented here yet again, with a thoughful new introduction for context. Remarkably, Jon reveals that his introduction to IA came in 1971, when he discovered a copy of Easter Everywhere at Doug Dobell's 77 Charing Cross record store. He was thus as prepared as anyone to chat with Lelan, whom he recalls 'had exactly the right amount of passion mixed with just that hint of carnival chicanery' -- one of the 'old school' of record business operators who could work the phones and BS with enough DJs enough to help create a hit, even for a local two-bit operation like IA.
The Chayns - Night Time (Is The Right Time)
Epitaph begins with a bit of a let-down: a San Antonio garage band’s inept and redundant version of the Strangeloves. This was released on the strictly-local 'Alamo Audio' label first, and, after apparently becoming a minor hit, was licensed by IA for some hoped-for larger distribution that never happened. (This 'buy-in' was unusual; most of what IA released was recorded by them.) One wonders if Lelan was even aware of the Strangeloves’ vastly superior version, which hit #30 in the Billboard Hot 100 in late 1965.
The Patterns - In My Own Time
This is more like it: an unknown group tackling a little-known Bee Gees album cut. Would have made a respectable single at the time.
The Chaparrels - I Tried So Hard
Another unknown group, but presumably the same Houston bunch who put out 'Roxanne' on the Notsuoh label when IA passed on them (comped on the Houston Hallucinations LP). One of the few real surprises of Epitaph, 'I Tried So Hard' is an energetically fuzz-driven, harder-rocking cop of 'Along Comes Mary' that practically screams 'hit.' Though Lelan presumably produced the original session, no explanation is given as to why it was left unreleased.
Thursday's Children - A Part Of You
One of Houston’s better rock bands of the era, Thursday’s Children had two highly regarded singles for IA. They didn’t sell, and were rare and unheard at the time of Epitaph. Surely that meant their inclusion was warranted here, yes? Er, no. Instead we’re treated to 'A Part of You,' which is decent, but sounds demo-y, and not nearly as good as any of the four single sides.
The Rubayyat - If I Were A Carpenter
Strangely credited to Electric Rubayyat on the original Epitaph LP, we now know that this was Danny Galindo’s post-Elevators group, comprised of Austin and San Antonio players (including Bill Hallmark from the Golden Dawn). This was released as a single in early 1968, and is a pleasant though pedestrian cover of the Tim Hardin/Bobby Darin hit from two years prior. The American Blues released a stronger version at approximately the same time.
Sonny Hall - Poor Planet Earth
Forgettable novelty nonsense from a washed-up lounge/country singer, completely out-of-place here. This didn’t deserve its’ original 45 release, much less a reappearance on what was supposed to be a rock/psych-oriented retrospective.
Inner Scene - Communication Breakdown
Led Zeppelin goes to the garage. A fun, originally unissued version, though, like the Rubayyat’s 'If I Were a Carpenter,' redundant, and hardly worth dredging up when far superior material was left waiting in the wings.
The Red Crayola - Hurricane Fighter Plane
Mono version of the master take of this psych goodie, the closest any Texas band got to sounding like early Pink Floyd; presented here sans the extraneous 'freakout' noise (and lousy fidelity) of the familiar fake-stereo version heard on Parable for Arable Land.
The Red Crayola - Pink Stainless Tail (Demo) / Nickle Niceness (Demo) / Vile, Vile Grass (Demo) / Transparent Radiation (Demo)
Rough drafts for songs that were re-recorded for Parable. Lelan obviously had a soft spot for this group, whom he thought were 'gimmicky' enough to hit as a novelty act, a la the Mothers of Invention or Tiny Tim. One demo would have been appropriate here; four is excessive overkill.
The Emperors - I Want My Woman
Los Angeles-area group who recorded this for Lelan’s Sabra label in 1965. Nothing to do with IA, therefore perfectly appropriate for inclusion on Epitaph.
Lost And Found - 25 M.P.H.
Basic demo of a dull, unissued song from this underachieving Houston group. Their IA album Everybody’s Here captures a third-rate Elevators copy band that never really outgrew their roots as surf instrumentalists; however they rallied to create a fabulous single-only release, 'When Will You Come Through' in ’68. That would have been the logical choice for Epitaph, but any listener still expecting logic at this point in the programme is an exceptionally slow learner.
CD 1 thus concludes with just 14 tracks, at least six of which are redundant and/or mediocre, and less than 40 minutes of music.
Big Walter - Breakfast In Bed
Besides Lightnin’ Hopkins, pianist Big Walter Price was the only African-American artist to record for otherwise lily-white IA. Walter had recorded some R&B for Peacock in the fifties, and 'Breakfast in Bed' is basically ossified early fifties R&B dusted off and given a contemporary rock gloss. Like the 'The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions' LP, it’s 'blues rock' not likely to please either blues or rock audiences. Certainly not bad, though for curiosity value only.
Dave Allen - C. C. Rider / Saturday A.M. Blues
Dave Allen was a white bluesman who had some singles for Jin and a worthwhile 1969 album for IA, Color Blind. It's apparent from listening to these two that they are from the same session that produced Big Walter's 'Breakfast in Bed.' Neither are as good as anything on Color Blind. 'C.C. Rider' is a generic version of the done-to-death standard, and 'Saturday A.M. Blues' is a forgettable Lightnin' Hopkins imitation.
Lightnin' Hopkins - Conversation With Lightnin' Hopkins
This could have been entitled, 'Conversation With Two Incoherent Drunkards' and no one would have known the difference. This is apparently Lelan attempting to 'interview' Hopkins, an excerpt of a three-hour tete-a-tete recorded during the Free Form Patterns sessions.
Lightnin' Hopkins - Black Ghost Blues
A good outtake from the otherwise forgettable Free Form Patterns LP. Typical Hopkins.
Roky Erickson - Interview with Roky (KSAN 4/1/78)
A complete waste of space. 'Roky, what do you think of the Sex Pistols?'
The Spades - You're Gonna Miss Me / We Sell Soul
The first LP appearance of Roky’s pre-Elevators garage band, originally released on the Zero label in Austin. That might raise some eyebrows: 'What are they doing on an IA comp, then?,' you might ask. Dunno, though it must have been exciting to obtain these two rare, practically unknown tracks at the time. Though far superior vinyl rips could be (and have been) made from the 45 using today’s technology, that would be expecting too much, and Charly has opted instead to use the dreadful needle-drops done in the ‘70s for the original LP.
Roky Erickson & Clementine Hall - Splash 1 / Right Track Now
Two 'unplugged' Elevators songs, exposing their folk music roots and sympathies. Mysteries when they appeared on Epitaph, years of archaeological research has established that these are Easter Everywhere outtakes.
The 13th Floor Elevators - Wait For My Love
By far the most significant track on Epitaph when it appeared was this previously-unknown Bull of the Woods-era pop-rocker from Stacy Sutherland. Recorded after Lelan left IA, it is the most commercial song in the Elevators’ entire canon (after 'You’re Gonna Miss Me') -- and yet, astonishingly, was rejected both as a single and an LP track. The band achieves a tightness largely absent from the ’68 sessions, and 'Wait For My Love' compares favourably to Moby Grape’s first LP – not a sound one would readily expect from the Elevators. An inferior rewrite, entitled "Til Then," did finally make it on Bull of the Woods.
Aurally, this sounds like a second-generation tape dub, and since the exact same version appears on the 2009 box set, we must assume that it’s all that survived. A newly-remixed version was released as a new IA single this month (April, 2011).
The 13th Floor Elevators - 60-Second Radio Spot for 'Bull Of The Woods'
Interesting radio commercial from 1969, aimed at a San Francisco audience, where it was presumed they still had a following (though we now know that they hadn't appeared there since '66).
The 13th Floor Elevators - Fire Engine
Mono single mix. Mildly different from the stereo version, but something like the mono single version of 'Levitation' would have been a far better choice. But that would have actually required some thought and deliberation.
CD 2 finishes the programme at a mere 13 tracks: four pedestrian blues numbers, two 'spoken-word' pieces, two Spades tracks unrelated to IA, two acoustic Elevators demos, and one great track, 'Wait For My Love.' An exceptionally poor showing.
And there you have it. Twenty-seven tracks on two CDs, well over half of which would have been rejected for Pebbles Volume 89; nothing at all by two of IA's greatest bands, Bubble Puppy and the Golden Dawn (and no explanation for their exclusion); four tracks that have nil to do with IA; a clutch of unremarkable demos; a couple of rambling spoken-word pieces; and – almost by accident! – a few great tracks that almost justify the hype. All in all, Epitaph was/is a textbook example of why label owners should leave this sort of thing to the fans. It could have been great. But the same could be said of IA as a whole, couldn't it?