A year already since my return to the joy of flicking through racks of LPs in record shops and charity shops to find the gems. From a standing start of no LPs at all last August I’ve now progressed to something like 200 of them. LPs I wanted to get again by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and Kate Bush are arriving steadily. And a good number of brilliant new LPs – Bird, Ben Watt, The Pearlfishers and Elbow are here too.
But one of the great joys of this adventure has been the accidental finding of things I didn’t know I was looking for at all. Mostly in charity shops and many for very little money at all. Not all these charity shop finds work out and many are back where I found them within the week. But here I want to feature a ‘Top Ten’ of these fortuitous finds.
1. ‘Free’ by FreeThis was their second LP, a classic pink-label Island album from 1969. After a slightly frantic start with their first ‘Tons of Sobs’ they hit their stride with this one by slowing things down. The song writing partnership of Andy Fraser and Paul Rodgers is in full flow and the playing together of the four of them is perfectly done. The hits don’t come until the next album ‘Fire and Rain’ but this one is easily the equal of that. I remember going to see the band very early in the 1970s at the Liverpool Stadium. Mott the Hoople were supporting them and played a wonderful set of raucous rock’n’roll which I didn’t think Free would be able to follow. They did though, by coming on and starting quietly and slowly and building gradually and delicately. They remain, to this day, the most perfectly balanced, sinuously integrated group of musicians I have ever seen. And this glorious LP brings it all back, the quiet power of Free.
Top moment: ‘Woman’ – first track on Side Two. Sounds as much like a hit as ‘All Right Now’ would become.
2. ‘Superstarshine vol 14’ by Tim Hardin
A Dutch album from the early 70s and part of a series of ‘Best ofs’ that also included The Move, The Bee Gees and The Beatles, plus, I’m guessing, local acts such as Sandy Coast and Supersisiter that I’d never heard of.
Anyway this one is a selection of the best songs from Tim Hardin’s first two mid-60s albums on Elektra, essentially containing all the songs for which he’s now remembered. Gentle laments like ‘If I were a carpenter’ and ‘How can we hang on to a dream’. I saw Tim Hardin in Liverpool once, late in the 70s, towards the end of his drugs wracked life (he brought the habit back with him from Vietnam). He was rambling, meandering and ‘improvising’ when someone called out ‘Play us something we know!’ He paused, looked up and said sadly ‘Well there were only ever a few songs, just a few songs, and they were a very long time ago.’ They’re all on here, fragile but real.
Top moment: ‘Tribute to Hank Williams’ – ‘Goodbye Hank Williams my friend, I didn’t know you, but I’ve been places you’ve been’
3. ‘The Manhattan Transfer’ by The Manhattan TransferThese would bland out straight after this album into a mega successful but not particularly interesting cabaret act. But on this first LP they are a top quality jazz and soul band and it’s no surprise at all to find them on the Atlantic label in the same years as they were releasing the greatest works of Aretha Franklin. The musicians are the top New York session players of the mid-70s and the whole thing is a complete and joyous entertainment, kicking off with ‘Tuxedo Junction’ and ‘Sweet Talking Guy’ and never letting go.
And it didn’t cost me anything! The charity shop where I bought it was charging £1.50 per LP but letting you have a second one for nothing, and this is it. Some charity shops see LPs as one step away from landfill, you see. So it’s always worth a quick flick through the massed ranks of Max Bygraves and Black & White Minstrels LPs to come up with a gem like this.
Top moment: ‘Occapella’ – always a sucker for a bit of Allen Toussaint New Orleans funk.
4. ‘The Great War of the Words’ by Brian KennedyBrian Kennedy’s gone on to have a fair old mixture of a career in Riverdance and Van Morrison’s band, as well as making his own records, some of which are good and some containing ‘Danny Boy’.
But it all started very strangely and very interestingly on this first LP, from 1990. Because it’s produced by Tim Friese-Greene. Yes, the producer of the classic Talk Talk albums. So that’s what this sounds like, Talk Talk but fronted by a melodious Irish voice.
Sarah and I saw him sing this album at the Liverpool Empire, first gig we ever went to together. He was supporting Everything but the Girl and we walked in a bit late to find this magical drummerless band creating sounds like we’d never heard before. Sound we were both sure would become massively popular once everyone got to hear them. It was never to be, but when I drop the needle onto the record in our house now it demands and gets our complete attention. A thing of utter beauty.
Top moment: ‘Captured’ – the first track. ‘Oh I just heard a melody and it almost made me cry’. After that you are, well, captured.
5. ‘The Special Magic of Stan Getz vol.2’ by Stan GetzNot sure what the ‘Volume 2’ is all about but this is actually a later re-release of his 1961 album ‘Cool Velvet’ where Stan plays his tenor sax against a background of smooth strings. Even writing that it sounds like it could well be a horrible thing, but far from it. The strings don’t intrude and they allow him full room to improvise around American classics like ‘Round midnight’ and ‘The Thrill is Gone’. Every record player deserves to play what even himself described as ‘The glorious sound of Stan Getz’ and when this comes on it’s like he’s in the room.
Top moment: ‘It never entered my mind’ – When Sarah’s Dad, Frank, died in 1999 she would play this over and over, while I was learning enough about jazz to put the music together for his funeral. Frank’s song, now and always.
6. ‘Mirrors’ by Peggy LeeSarah had this LP when I first knew her, though it had later gone the way of all vinyl. So I was delighted to find it again, this one at the regular Lark Lane Record Fair (next one on Sunday 24th August).
This comes from 1975, relatively late in her career, and a strangely beautiful album of what Wikipedia calls ‘neo-cabaret art songs’. All written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller and a world away from what they’d write for Elvis and the Drifters in the 50s and 60s. It’s a rich mixture that we don’t listen to too often, but when we do it’s always a grand and special occasion in the presence of one of the 20th century’s finest voices.
Top moment: ‘I Remember’ – A tiny song of shimmering perfection.
“I remember when you loved me,
I’d lie on my bed, hands under my head,
And remember when you loved me”
7. ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ by Jennifer WarnesIn 1987 Leonard Cohen and the music business weren’t getting on at all. His most recent album, the one containing ‘Halleluja’ had been rejected by CBS. So his friend Jennifer Warnes made this gorgeous selection of his songs to celebrate him and remind anyone who needed reminding just how special he is.
And in the CD years I did have a copy of this, but like so much else it’s only started really working for me again now the LPs are back. It’s about rhythm and subtlety and the warmth of the human voice. And there aren’t many better human voices than Jennifer Warnes.
Top moment: ‘Joan of Arc’ – where Leonard himself turns up as the voice of the fire.
8. ‘Don McLean’ by Don McLeanI didn’t think I much liked Don McLean and had never previously bought his albums. I’d also grown heartily sick of ‘American Pie’ years ago and thought I could easily live the rest of my life without hearing it again. Then Sarah was preparing a funeral service with a Liverpool family who wanted it as the ‘coming in’ music. So I came home one day and found Sarah listening to it on YouTube and was surprised by quite liking it again. Maybe sometimes songs just need to rest for a decade or two?
Soon after I picked up the ‘American Pie’ LP in our local Oxfam, loved it all, and then noticed they had this, his ‘difficult’ third LP too. Before investing the mighty £2.99 it was going to cost me I looked through Spotify and iTunes to see if I could check it out first. But it’s not there. So little appreciated back in 1972 it’s never become part of the great digital store in the sky.
But it’s very tuneful, very musical and I would say he’s a socialist too, in that American Springsteen/Pete Seeger kind of way. So, all good and much loved round here, if nowhere else.
Top moment: – ‘Oh my what a shame’ – exquisite regret.
“In this moment I recall your face and I wonder if you still think about me,
Occasionally I still think of you,
And I watch the river flow and I know I must let go, but it’s oh so hard
For the waves are all around my small canoe,
I had always hoped this boat could carry two”
9. ‘So Lonesome I Could Cry’ by Charlie RichCharlie Rich is a particular favourite of mine and I would say that his ‘Feel like going home’ is my favourite song. I haven’t found that on an LP yet but earlier this week I came across this in the local Barnardo’s for a paltry 99p. It’s a perfectly performed gem. All songs by Hank Williams and played with restrained love by Charlie and some Muscle Shoals musicians.
Five years after he’d had his big hits (‘Behind closed doors’ and ‘Most beautiful girl in the world’) and by 1978 Charlie’s already back on the kind of small country label where he spent most of his out of the spotlight career. No matter, these are major songs sung with the reverence they deserve by a voice I know I will be listening to for the rest of my life.
Top moment: ‘My heart would know’ – again, the very beginning of the record. A quiet, gospelly start: ‘My lips could tell a lie, but my heart would know’ and you’re immediately in that place where country music and Southern soul are the same thing.
10. ‘Greatest Love Songs’ by Nat King ColeYes, we’ve got stuff from the Great American Songbook by Frank Sinatra and even Harry Nilsson. But regularly, as the evening winds down and it’s too late for any more Peter Gabriel or Pet Shop Boys this is what we’ll listen to. The best singer who ever lived? Very probably.
We’ve got other Nat Cole records. A jazz one where he plays a lot of piano and a greatest hits one where great stuff is mixed in with terrible dross like ‘Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer’. But this one is pretty well perfect. Starting with ‘Stardust’ and carrying on through ‘Autumn Leaves’ all the way to ‘The Party’s Over’. An indulgent treat where we can sing all the words both believing we sound a bit like him! Like all the others featured here this LPs grooves are packed with a happiness we simply never found in anything digital.
Top moment: ‘Walkin’ My Baby Back Home’ – the bit where they ‘start to pet’ and she has to borrow his comb. Music from a different time.
There we are then. I enjoyed that. Feel like I’ve just listened to 10 of my favourite LPs.