Loss Leaders

Regular Cedar blog readers know that while most of the essays here are thoroughly thought-out and well-researched, mine tend to be a bit, um, haphazard. It's true: I usually come up with my subject on my morning bike ride back to the writing desk. But after last week's debacle I was determined to approach this differently, maybe take a little pride in the craft. I was working up a pretty good line of inquiry and thereby giving myself a decent shot at coherence, when I passed a couple of fellow bike riders and caught this snippet of conversation:

'...what happened was the drummer got really wasted and tried to open a wine bottle with a knife. Cut the shit out of his hand...'

C'mon: how am I supposed to fight that? I can't unhear it any more than I can drown out the subsequent procession of drummer jokes. (Q: Why do guitarists put drumsticks on the dash of their car? A. So they can park in the handicapped spot.)

Fortunately, a more useful distraction brings me back: Main Figurehead's succinct and right-on-the-money three paragraphs about the vinyl 'revival' and its realities. That subject is catnip. Turns me feral.

I was never sucked all that deeply into the 70s audiophile world, although I did acutely feel frustrations over the limitations of the vinyl medium. Off-center cuts and the resultant wow drove me mad by degrees. Non-linear tracking styli would distort the sound of certain end-of-side tracks (huge example for me: 'Prairie Rose' by Roxy Music). And it was nearly impossible to find three flat 'Yessongs' discs in the same package.

The chase for better sound always seemed to bring results that were incremental and short-lived. A new stylus helped for awhile, as did a fresh import copy of a key album. I was particularly given to loudspeaker experimentation, but to this day I have still never heard a more pleasing sound than that from the ancient Dynaco A-25s to my left and right in this very office. And in the end, the truth was out: after just one play of a new album, what you were left with was used vinyl.

I have since learned the value of DACs (Digital-to-Analog Converters). In a digital music delivery system, even a modestly priced one can have a bigger impact, dollar-for-dollar, than any other sound upgrade a listener would care to make. My Sonos system (admittedly not cheap) comes with a built-in DAC. A single A/B test graphically demonstrates the improvement. Whether a psychological effect or not, it is my belief that a good 320kbps rip sounds better on my relatively rudimentary equipment than any vinyl recording I heard in the best of listening conditions.

Much has been written here about what has been lost with the disappearance of vinyl, in particular cover art and liner notes. I'll add one more: the label.

'Label' still has cachet. It is part of the calculus when any garage band or laptop composer is considering the next step. A label's roster, its A&R, its governing philosophy: these factors weigh heavily in thinking processes throughout the music world.

What's lost, though, is the label itself. These days a 'label' is a logo that is generally only known to its employees. Maybe the design makes it to a business card or perhaps a banner at a live show (right alongside Mountain Dew). But the actual label ceased being something to look at and appreciate when vinyl lost the late-80s format war.

What is your pick for coolest label ever?

It's tempting for me to go with Apple (great design, legendary story, clever A-side whole/B-side split), or Stiff (unassailably cool late 70s roster and self-deprecating humor ('If they're dead, we'll sign 'em.')).

In the end, though, it's the 1968-72 edition of Warner Brothers Records. The label itself was fairly spartan: green, with a small orange and blue reproduction of the classic 'WB' logo. At the time (before the label gave itself over to the whimsical 'Burbank' look with its palm tree avenue and West Coast soft-rock connotation), Warner Brothers offered not only the most interesting variety of music in a single home, but the best promotion: The Loss Leaders.

Those of a certain age remember Warners's $2 twofers: 80-minute samplers from their roster, generally top-notch material including a few rarities. Starting in 1969 and then throughout the subsequent decade Warners put out 32 of these mixes, all for two bucks each (except for the occasional single-disc or three-disc edition, which were priced accordingly). The core of this series was comprised of the early multi-disc sets: Songbook, Record Show, The Big Ball, Schlagers!, Looney Tunes & Merry Melodies, Hot Platters, and The Whole Burbank Catalog.

I pulled my copy of Big Ball off the shelf, and had a look at Side 4's label: Ed Sanders, The GTO's, Captain Beefheart, The Mothers of Invention, Wild Man Fischer, Pearls Before Swine, and The Grateful Dead. That's part of what a major label roster could look like in 1970.

WB Loss Leaders offered my first listens to The Pentangle, Small Faces, Joni Mitchell, Black Sabbath, Little Feat, Beaver and Krause, Tim Buckley, T. Rex, Ry Cooder, Alice Cooper, and Bonnie Raitt.

And this, the closing track from the one 3-LP set in the series, Looney Tunes & Merry Melodies: my show 'n tell fossil for this week's edition of Beanstalks and Boneyards. The singer is Turley Richards, as produced by Edwin Hawkins. Do yourself a favor and stick around all the way through.

Over the last decade or two, this headline has popped up from time-to-time: 'Is Guitar Rock Dead?'

Sometimes seems that way. Nowadays this over-plowed field is as unlikely a setting for a flourishing Beanstalk as its neighbor, modern blues. But as long as there are kids, garages, and amplifiers, guitar rock will stand. Here is 3:37 of proof (after 15 seconds of commercial. Major-label material, dontcha know. Wonder whether The View will ever pay back that advance?).