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Music

Exploring the wonderfully weird world of America’s private pressing phase

@TomTaylorFO

Lee Arthur Carter, otherwise known as ‘Viper the Rapper’, released almost an album per day in 2014. Tracks such as ‘F—k Earth Im Gon Wage an Interstella War’, ‘I Grew Gills And Survived Tha Houston Flood’ and the YouTube homage ‘I Be Possesin’ And Hauntin’ Tha Bones Of Sum Demonic Crazy Skeleton Toy Tonite’ were huge hits amongst his 30,000 or so ardent fans around the world. And whilst Viper may well be very much an oddity of the internet age, there is a long-chartered history of American outsiders that stretches out behind him, underpinning the Red, White and Blue relationship with fame and how it pervades society. 

In the Land of the Free, anyone can have a dream, unless, of course, you aren’t a white man of middle-class status or above in which case you can have a dream by all means, but you’re going to have to have God on your side and every other deity you can think of to bring it to fruition. And if you were a minority with a dream prior to colour TV then it was about as attainable as, well, colour TV. It is much to Uncle Sam’s credit, however, that this gaping chasm of opportunity hasn’t stopped people from eyeing the main chance from afar and often taking the leap. The cultural boom of home-recording lived and died on this very tenet of Americanism. 

Cultural hegemony is a phrase used to describe the way in which America exports iconography around the world as a subtle means of control. In short, it refers to the impoverished locals sitting around in some war-ravaged village in a subjugated country suddenly saying to their friends, ‘America can’t be too bad. I mean have you ever had a Coca Cola and listened to Elvis? I think it’s pretty clear from the shit we’re eating, drinking and listening to that we’re the baddies here.’ The complicating factor when it comes to American cultural hegemony, however, is that it seems to prove most effective on home soil.

This image of freedom, this notion that anything is possible, and everyone gets a fair shot, is upheld by the likes of Elvis Presley who snake-hipped his way from a lowly life into the history books. Hell, Marilyn Monroe started out in an orphanage, got a job painting army supplies in a war-effort warehouse and ended up rattling a White House bed, if that is not proof of social mobility then what is! The reason these two primed examples have been selected by yours truly resides in the fact that they emerged a matter of years apart in the great explosion of pop culture. 

This rise of youthful arts finally did away with the idea that music and anything else that induced fame belonged to the virtuosos—the days of pompadour prodigies who could play a symphony backwards for kicks before they could walk was over. Enter the folks who had something to say and if they said it in the right way then surely everyone would hear it. This in itself was also a first. By the dawn of the 1960s just about everything was new, from the Planned Parenthood act of Connecticut in 1965 bringing the pill into people’s lives to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and stereo sound, sex on TV and lava lamps. 

(Credit: Press)

Suddenly, the stilted lives of the 1950s were shaken up as though humans had invented fire for the second time. You could finish work, rush into town, hear an entirely new genre of music pumping from some new thing called a jukebox, pick up a gal or fella, head home and listen to the brand-new Van Morrison record in crisp hi-fidelity sound, get it on without any fear of parenthood putting a stop to all the fun in the months following and wake up to colour TV news about a President losing half of his brain. This was bound to blow the minds of an entire generation, how could it not!

Enter the rise of private pressings whereby people took the matter of making records into their own hands and had their own vinyl made out of hard-earned savings. For better are for worse there are gatekeepers in the art world as there are in every walk of life. The difference is that art is subjective. If you want to be a surgeon, you have to pass a test, if you want to be the next Usain Bolt only your times will tell, however, if you want to be a musician you don’t even have to be able to play an instrument, just ask anyone who knew Johnny Rotten. Private pressing circumnavigated the gatekeepers of the art world and got straight to business. 

When this new notion of substance over skill combined with the inherent glossy-eyed aspirations of Americans and increasing disposable income, the maddening world of private pressing burst open almost as an inevitability. For all the negativities that undermine this madness and the staunch illusion of social mobility that it masks, it is people like Bobbi Blake who pressed a record about liking yellow things including notably orange tangerines that makes the U.S.A. a truly wonderful place. These records really seem to escape circumstance and aim for the stars, fire the wrong way and end up deep in the underground. Therein they are joyously sheltered from the stratosphere to relish in forevermore. 

This musical microcosm flourished following the birth of pop culture when everyone was after a piece of this newfound thing called fame or at the very least wanting a quick 15-minute feel of it. Perhaps the greatest case of this is the American Song-Poem Anthology. This capitalist enterprise involved folks sending off poems and a few hundred dollars to be turned into songs by established but disenfranchised session musicians of the day. 

Naturally, the poems were far from submissions from some Joni Mitchell / Toni Morrison hybrid and, instead, pertained to subject matters such as the empowering affirmatives of the president in ‘Jimmy Carter says Yes!’ to the tale of a blind man’s penis in the song predictably and then suddenly unpredictably titled ‘Blind Man’s Penis (Peace and Love)’ which contrary to what you might think, has a heart of gold somewhere amid the maddening lyrical dirge.

(Credit: Press)

The issue was that this scheme and many similar enterprises that popped up resulted in widespread chronic depression among the skilled musicians who once wanted to pervade over jazz clubs with their name on the door, but instead wound up trying to turn ‘The Duck Egg Walk’, a track about a man who eats a duck egg every day and ends up moving in with a farmer and his family after seemingly turning into a duck, into a pop hit. Coupled with often magnificent artwork, the albums are both a charming oddity to marvel at, and a worrying portent of what was to come. 

Albeit ostensibly the private pressing craze faded away in the 1980s, there is an argument that it simply moved online thereafter. Now, we often see a similar fable to the American Song-Poem Anthology unfurl the world over only to a much more cynical and destructive degree whereby credible creatives are squeezed out in the saturation of fame. It was charming back then, now it almost seems engineered where even oddities are championed on an arbitrary basis.

But away from the commercial infection of the mainstream where sometimes both skill and substance have ceded territory to style, the charming world of private pressing still registers online. There were some genuinely great private pressed records back in the day not just joyously laughable ones and these can still be found when the YouTube algorithm lucks out. But just like all the best private pressed records whether that be the berserk or the magnificent, it is always best when sincerity proves to be at its heart and not some sinister grab at a slice of the fame pie.

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