Some people collect jazz disks. Others like '60s picture sleeve 45s. Still more seek out rare country LPs. And some brave, sweet souls stockpile private press LPs.
What are those, you ask? To put it simply, once upon a time there were firms that you could bring a master tape to, and they would press and package an album for you – usually in small quantities. Also called vanity pressings, these records are often shrouded in generic sleeves (beaches, sunsets, etc.) that gave little clue as to the music contained therein. Because people just dropped of their tapes and picked up their records, these platters existed outside of their era's mainstream music industry. One could look at them as tiny time capsules – an alternative music history.
What kind of performers and institutions took advantage of this service? Schools and colleges pressed up their spring band concerts to sell to eager parents. Lounge bands and resort combos sold them to tourists as cheap souvenir. Perfectly competent local musicians from any given style, from folk to jazz to classical to mustache-laden southern rock, saw these as their first steps to a greater success that never came.
And, thank goodness, a few outright nutjobs cobbled together the dough it took to get their warped worldview onto wax.
This massive tome is a love letter to the private press universe. The affection and enthusiasm of the authors and editors is undeniable, and, dare I say, infectious. Rather than just parade one baffling cover after another (and there are so many noodlescratchers here), they wisely mingle wonderful photographs of forgotten masterpieces (all in full-color) with detailed articles celebrating the musicians and collectors who inhabit this strange netherworld.
The sum effect is that of a couple of dozens of issues of a great underground zine obsessed with this arcane area laid end-to-end, reproduced with great care and attention to detail. A lengthy interview with collector and dealer Paul Major – one of the earliest collectors of what he calls "Real People Music" – sets the scene beautifully. Pages from his printed mailorder catalog, along with some of his wondrous descriptions, are also featured. From there, you can take in fascinating bios of beloved private press performers written with genuine zeal.
Sure, I'd say that only 1 in 100 or so of the LPs featured here are actually worth listening to...but those that are are absolutely fascinating. Fortunately, the cult around this kind of stuff has grown so strong that you can actually get good, reasonably priced reissues of disks like Peter Grudzien's "The Unicorn" or Kenneth Higney's "Attic Demonstration." If nothing else, there is a really nicely assembled two-CD set based on this book (sold separately) that makes for great background music whilst flipping the pages.
Not for the faint-of-heart, but incredibly absorbing, this highly recommended book is well worth the relatively high price and may just have you scouring the shelves of your local Goodwill for the next New Creation...