Sunday, 16 January 2011

In Praise Of Ace Records (And A Nod To Sartorial)

As folk who've been with us for a goodly while will know we have endless time for Messrs Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. In the mid to late 90s Dan started to be a lot more visible than he had for nearly two decades. Memorably he appeared at The Russell Arms and The QE Hall in 1994. The latter as part of a magical songwriter's circle with Guy Clark, Joe South, Allen Toussaint and Vic Chesnutt. Sadly Vic is gone now, as is Charlie Gillett who curated, and Mike Hart who I attended both that and the Russell Arms in the company of. Mike's cassette recording of the Russell Arms show remains a treasured possession.

When Joss and I and company took over BoB in 1996 we were all well into the Memphis scene and story ; we took a trip there together in September 1996 and met Jody Stephens and Jim Dickinson and set in train the connections that led to the BoB 50th Issue CD in early 1998. That opened with Dan's 'Jewel Of My Heart' an (the?) outtake from the recordings for his 1994 Sire album Do Right Man. If there's one thing I can say with real pride it's that I put out a record on Dan Penn.

Of course all the Ace gang were at those London shows and the various ones that followed over the next few years; Borderline, the Embassy Rooms (with Bob Neuwirth supporting) and the theatre, the name of which escapes me, where they were supported by Nick Lowe. That just shows you how long Ace Records have been going, and I guess sometimes we take them for granted. But when I look on my shelves I see such a mixture of their stuff; all lovingly packaged with proper sleevenotes and booklets, with intelligent sequencing; and just realise what a fantastic job of retrieval they done over the years and continue.

In 2010 I spent a lot of time listening to Georgie Fame's Mod Classics, really enjoyed the How Many Roads: Black America Sings Bob Dylan compilation, finally gave the three CD Southern Soul collection the attention it deserved and from there got into Doris Duke.

Also spent time with You Baby a collection of performances of songs by PF Sloan and Steve Barri. This was one of a continuing series of comps they've done themed around producers and songwriters; there's been two volumes around Bert Berns, one on Jerry Ragovoy, one on Lee Hazlewood, and a good few more. Now they've got round to Dan and Spoon and this one may run and run. Coming out next month it's a mixture of the well-known and the fascinating.; Percy Sledge's 'Out Of Left, Field', Charlie Rich's 'A Woman Left Lonely', Tony Borders' 'I Met Her In Church', and The Box Top doing 'Everything I Am' just to name a few. I've had a guide copy of it for a couple of months and it's been Penn season again in BoB Towers.

Then I was digging through files on an old Mac and came up with what follows. I used to write an imports column for Pop Culture Press who were based in Austin. It was basically about stuff coming out of English reissue labels and in the summer of 2008 I did a piece around the Rock On comp that Ace put out that year. It never ran as PCP never published that projected issue and their online plans never materialised. So here it is, mainly about Ace but a nod to Terry Edwards' Sartorial label towards the end:

If you came out of Camden Town tube station turning left into Kentish Town Road, at any time between the mid-70s and the late 90s, you’d almost immediately hear some classic rock’n’roll music. It came out of a little shop whose windows were filled with album sleeves and festooned with gig posters. Inside a remarkably tiny space was rammed with records. There were album sleeves everywhere; walls, ceiling, racks. Picture sleeves hung from above the counter. It was a veritable cornucopia. 

This was Rock On. It opened in September 1975 as the third concern trading under that name. Ted Carroll, music lover, and tour manager of Skid Row, had visited Big John’s Oldies But Goodies Land in Boston in late 1970 and been inspired. The following summer he’d set up a market stall in Portobello and three years later another, under the management of Roger Armstrong, in Soho Market. 

At a time when rock was turning increasingly serious, the album predominated, and singles were downgraded, almost derided, Rock On were pioneers. They searched out old records from a decade and more before and bought them in quantity when they found them. They were crucial in sowing seeds that flowered in the punk revolution. The people who formed the bands of 1976 had been hanging around the stalls for years and soaked up their ethos. 

In 1975 too Rock On spawned Chiswick Records who put out singles by names like the Count Bishops, the 101’ers, the Hammersmith Gorillas, Johnny Moped, and the Nipple Erectors. Three years later Chiswick launched a reissue arm and called it Ace. The rest is now history as Ace has flourished for three decades making readily available a massive treasury of rhythm ’n’ blues, soul, rockabilly, country, folk, psychedelia, and much else too. It has rummaged throughout the US finding the tape archives of long dormant labels and bringing their contents to a new audience. It has licensed material from legendary imprints like Vanguard, Takoma, and Fantasy. And there’s no sign of it easing off. 

Rock On is a tribute to the shop; a collection of the songs you’d hear if you ventured near. It’s the tunes that are the lifeblood of a generation of London musicians and music lovers. Slim Harpo’s ‘Shake Your Hips’, Vince Taylor’s ‘Brand New Cadillac’, the Flamin’ Groovies’ ‘Slow Death’, Jerry Byrne’s ‘Lights Out’, and a lot more too. Presented inevitably in true Ace fashion with pages of commentary, anecdotes, photographs, that both enhance the package but also send you looking for more. 

A favoured Ace format is collections themed around producers and arrangers. This year has seen both Bert Berns and Jerry Ragovoy celebrated in this way. Berns, from New York, was dead at 38 before the end of 1967, but he left a rich legacy having worked with artists of the calibre of Solomon Burke, the Isley Brothers, and Van Morrison. As Bert Russell he wrote ‘Twist And Shout’, ‘One Way Love’, and ‘Here Comes The Night’. The Bert Berns Story - Twist And Shout covers the years 1960 to 1964. It runs from his first hit song, the Cuban-tinged ‘Push Push’ by Austin Taylor for the independent Laurie Records, through to the version of ‘Here Comes The Night’ by Lulu that he produced for her, and Decca Records, on one of his few visits to London. 

Ragovoy, also New York-based, had worked with Berns and is one of the major figures of East Coast soul and R&B. Songs he wrote, or recorded, are now legendary. The Jerry Ragovoy Story: Time Is On My Side 1953-2003 includes that very title song by Kai Winding, the Danish trombonist, with Dionne Warwick and Cissy Houston singing the choruses, and ‘Cry Baby’ from Garnet Mimms, more widely known in Janis Joplin’s version. Ragovoy was also behind the phenomenal ‘Stay With Me’ where Lorraine Ellison, backed by a 46-piece orchestra, chills the spine and set the nerve-ends tingling. 

Meanwhile on the West Coast in 1965 the 19-year-old P F Sloan was working as a songwriter for Lou Adler. He had his moment in the sun when Barry McGuire took his ‘Eve Of Destruction’ high into both the US and British Top Tens. His authorship of that tune was unjustly damned as exploitative of the protest movement. In fact it was a fine example of his blending of late-teen angst and proto-folk rock. There’s much more of it to be found on Here’s Where I Belong. The Best Of The Dunhill Years 1965-67, predominantly comprising the bulk of the two Dunhill albums, Song Of The Times and Twelve More Times. Sloan had been writing since the age of fourteen, and Johnny Rivers’ ‘Secret Agent Man’, Herman’s Hermits ‘ A Must To Avoid’ and the Searchers’ ‘Take Me For What I’m Worth’ are all his. 

Another marvellous, but now lost, shop in Camden was Compendium Books where one could gain an introduction to writers like Derek Raymond. Almost 20 years after its publication his disturbing, brutal, and uncompromising I Was Dora Suarez is recognised as profoundly influential both as crime and London novel, though it remains a deeply uneasy read. 

Raymond was the alter ego of Robin Cook; a louche Old Etonian, and habituĂ© of Soho drinking holes. A natural raconteur with a voice reflecting his milieu, though he compared it to that of an ‘iron parrot’. He got together with James Johnston and Terry Edwards of Gallon Drunk in the wake of their From The Heart Of Town album and they provide eminently suitable settings for seven considerable extracts from the book, which Cook reads nervelessly, surrounding them with dark metropolitan noise, unstable jazz, incongruous musical boxes, and Chopin. It’s now reissued on Edwards’ Sartorial Records. 

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