April 3, 2012
In a charity shop last year, I found a copy of Flint's only album. It had the look of a record that has defied waves of fashion and taste, the kind of homemade album put together by club singers, cruise-ship crooners or local bands covering the hits of Bread or the Carpenters . These were private pressings (or vanity pressings, if you're being less charitable): albums that were made in small quantities to sell at gigs or pass on to the Simon Cowells of their day in the hope of getting a record deal. Such privately pressed albums boomed in the 1970s. For the most part, they make for tedious listening.
But the Flint album caught my eye because it had a couple of original songs on it, one called A Night in Spennymoor. I've never been to the Durham pit town , but was intrigued. It might not have been enough to get them signed to EMI, but Flint had found something alluring and sensual about Spennymoor and were willing to spend their own money to get their vision across – in moody, ambient funk.
In America in the 1970s, thousands of people wanted to press their visions on to vinyl. A forthcoming book, Enjoy the Experience , chronicles hundreds of these vanity pressings. Some are school projects; quite a few are Christian; and many are by genuinely eccentric people, some of whom – like machine-gun toting, ambient psychedelicist Bobb Trimble – have had their work rediscovered and reissued.
While they generate a collective aura of strangeness, it's safe to say that most of these records don't really resemble each other, or anything you might be familiar with. They fall well short of mainstream pop norms, even though that's often what they were aiming for. The collector and archivist Paul Major, who contributed to the book, calls these records "real people" music, since their makers had no label middlemen to mediate their sound. For Major, the meter-scrambling, loose tuning of Attic Demonstration by Kenneth Higney is "a masterpiece of expression. There is so much honesty in Ken's music. It will make you question your most basic assumptions about the connections between life and art."
Enjoy the Experience has been put together by Johan Kugelberg, a giant Swede who was behind 2007's excellent Born in the Bronx book about the birth of hip-hop. Kugelberg shares Major's fondness for Higney: "In the 1970s and 80s, rock critics in Sweden would go on and on about how honest, straightforward and authentic artists like Elvis Costello, Springsteen or Neil Young were. I remember being baffled. Those rock stars just seemed to me like an ordinary social construct, like a highway overpass or a commute, compared to Kenneth Higney, who'd bring out a sense of the sublime, like a breathtaking view of an eroded mountain pass."
In the age of YouTube, it is hard to imagine just how hard it was to distribute music back then. Kugelberg says that, for him, "a large part of the reason that much of that vinyl is so delightful is that the tediousness of producing it put off a lot of the less inspired or idiosyncratic musicians".
Much of the music featured is on YouTube, but the book comes with a handy digital download of choice cuts. Take the clean-beyond-belief Inquire Within by Carol-Leigh Jensen and Hank Mindlin, who sound like a real-life Brady Bunch singing a corny 70s jingle: "Be the first one on your block!" And, of the many keyboard players featured, Gary Schneider stands out with his Joe Meek-like version of The Breeze and I, which utilises a hyper drum machine, a vocoder and some odd wooshings.
Weirder is 6.4 = Make Out, by Gary Wilson. If the title seems confusing, you'll be none the wiser once you've heard it. Possibly, he means he'll make out four-tenths of the way through a sixth date. Wilson hung out with John Cage (briefly) and played at CBGBs (once), but he was too eccentric to work with collaborators or build up a fanbase.
Kugelberg is planning a huge vanity pressing exhibit at the Milk Gallery in New York this summer. "These records are so aesthetically powerful because producing them was not a political or artistic act. It was to have a product to sell, and that slice of American do-it-yourself ingenuity naturally brought about an endless stream of delightfully bizarre graphics and sounds. As you look at more and more of these homespun record covers, and listen to more and more of this homemade music, it becomes vernacular, dare-I-say folk art." Could he single out a favourite? "I love all of them, even the 'ordinary' ones or 'boring' ones. I love it when people self-start."
It may not have the most exciting cover – a simple but still pulse-quickening use of Letraset – but for me Reachin' Arcesia takes some beating. It was the work of John Arcesi who, in March 1953, was signed to Capitol and recorded with Frank Sinatra's arranger Nelson Riddle. He was also voted third most promising "new singer" by Billboard magazine that year.
After some adverse publicity in Time magazine (Arcesi was ridiculed when his agent claimed his voice could literally send women into a trance), the singer retired from the spotlight, re-emerging in 1972 with Reachin' Arcesia, which combined a skewed psychedelic backing with a keening Scott Walker croon and stream-of-consciousness lyrics about a life of disappointments. By now a widower in his 50s, Arcesi put his whole life on one piece of passionate vinyl. The recording's amateurism may take some getting used to, but the result is gripping and close to awesome.
Capitol may have thought Reachin' Arcesia was too personal, too intense, too weird to release. But Arcesi's unique vision still clearly means a lot to some people – the last time a copy of the LP appeared on eBay, it sold for $1,600.
• Enjoy the Experience is published by Sinecure Books ( sinecurebooks.com ) on 21 May, price £45. Early copies will be available on Record Store Day, 20 April.