When it comes to music, I have little nostalgia for vinyl. I much more prefer the internet equivalent of crate digging to the old school variety, where, along with the limits of physical space you had unlimited opportunities to inhale large quantities of dust. It has to be admitted, however, that those physical limits did provide an obsessive like myself with something of a shield against the wages of his own worst impulses. On the internet, you see, the rabbit holes are bottomless. Nevertheless, my endless plummeting down said holes still on occasion proves worthwhile, leading to a discovery that forces me to gawp in renewed awe at the digital world’s capacity to be an infinite Alexandria of obscurities.
Case in point: Recently, while searching for a serviceable digital version of The Rezillos’ “Destination Venus” to play on the next Pop Offensive, I found one on a bargain priced, download-only compilation called The Best Vintage Tunes: Nuggets and Rarities. There appear to be dozens of these compilations. This particular one was numbered “Volume 6”, while I found others that were numbered “Volume 27” and “Volume 35”.
Of course, I am not ruling out the possibility that these volumes are numbered randomly, as there is much about the Best Vintage Tunes series that seems haphazard. Produced by an outfit called Soul Vibes — which, as far as I can ascertain, originates from somewhere south of the border — the content of their typo-laden track list appears to be made up of what I assume are tracks either in the public domain or obscure and forgotten enough to make copyright violation a reasonable risk. However, how the cover copy of The Best Vintage Tunes characterizes this content is “TAKEN FROM THE OLD 78 RPM RECORDS, 1920 ”S TO 1950 ”S”.
Needless to say, that statement is belied by the presence of The Rezillos’ “Destination Venus” on the collection, along with that of a number of other obscure punk era 45s. (I may be old, but I didn’t listen to Spizzenergi’s “Where’s Captain Kirk” on 78.) Also somewhat questionable is the cover’s claim — under a banner reading “¡BEST QUALITY!” — that these tracks were the product of “Expert remastering and restoration of original recordings by Tony Levin”. A Google query in search of a Tony Levin worthy of name checking was made complicated by the prevalence of Peter Gabriel bassman and Chapman Stick maestro Tony Levin, who, I guess, could have remastered the songs on Best Vintage Tunes, although, if he did, I would be very interested in hearing the reason why. In any case, one listen to Best Vintage Tunes reveals that its songs were in fact mastered from vinyl discs whose pop and crackle suggests they were all a well-loved part of somebody’s record collection, which makes the audiophile pandering seem all the more puzzling.
All that aside, I do not want to give the impression that Best Vintage Tunes’ cover copy is entirely misleading, as it does, after the first fourteen of its twenty-eight tracks, deliver a scratchy sounding collection of Latin big band music that it’s easy to imagine was sourced from old 78’s. What’s more interesting, though — or, to me, at least — is what those first fourteen tracks comprise, that being a decades spanning collection of international pop and novelty songs on a theme of space travel and extraterrestrial contact. That, of course, is something that, if advertised as such, I would have bought unhesitatingly. But instead I had to unwittingly stumble across it under the guise of Best Vintage Tunes: Nuggets and Rarities Volume 6.
Not that I would have it any other way, mind you. The aforementioned haphazardness of Best Vintage Tunes’ construction, with its vague suggestion of a mercurial curatorial presence (who… what? Lost interest? Got fired? Had a stroke?) only adds to the compelling sense of mystery that my mind has set to swirling around it. So many are my questions that, in the few scant days since I have purchased it, Best Vintage Tunes has come to figuratively loom above me, transmitting an intent as undecipherable as its origins, like the monolith in 2001.
But putting such mysteries aside, what really matters is that, when taken at face value, the first fourteen tracks on Best Vintage Tunes provide a fascinating pop culture history, chronicling the late 50s – 1960s fascination with space travel from its inception through to its recycling in the 80s and 90s as new wave kitsch — and all from an international perspective, no less. First off, we have “Los Ovnis” (“UFO”), a brassy piece of late 60s lounge psychedelia from Spain’s Fernando Morales, followed by the Rezillos’ track, which gives us a bracing taste of that Scottish band’s cartoonish brand of go-go revivalism (this is, after all, a group whose female singer, Fay Fife, appeared on TOTP in a plastic Wilma Flinstone dress).
After the Rezillos comes “Martian Hop”, a 1966 novelty tune, complete with Chipmunks style vocals, from Wildwood, New Jersey’s Ran Dells, which features the pioneering use of a sine-wave generator (lifted, according to Wikipedia, from a recording by Dutch electronic vanguardists Tom Dissevelt and Dick Raaymakers). Then it’s back to new wave territory for the B-52s’ “Planet Clair”, which, though I was never a big B-52s fan, I enjoyed hearing again, especially for Ricky Wilson’s angular guitar playing. This leads into “Where’s Captain Kirk”, a 1979 single from the antic novelty punk band Spizzenergi. (Nostalgia alert: I saw this British band, in their “Spizz Athletico 80” phase, at San Francisco’s Mabuhay way back when, though the memories I took away from that gig had less to do with them than the then-unknown opener, a three piece from Boston called Mission of Burma.)
From the bridge of the punk rock Enterprise, Best Vintage Tunes then takes us through a trio of non-English language tunes. The first is “El Idioma del Robot” (“Language of the Robot”), a playful, Latin inflected cut from the what-some-might-call-unfortunately-but-I-call-awesomely named Panamanian vocal quintet The Gay Crooners (who, I am compelled to mention, make an appearance in the lucha film Neutron contra el Criminal Sadico). Then, providing a bookend to the Ran Dells, we have Italian bandleader Filippo Carletti’s twist-friendly “Mr. Marciano”, which, like “Martian Hop”, also sports a chipmunk style Martian vocal, in addition to borrowing a substantial part of its melody from Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater”. Closing out the set is “Planeta”, a pleasantly percolating track from 1990s Spanish electro-pop duo Metal y Ca, which further adds to this collection’s surmounting evidence that, throughout pop music history — and “Space Oddity” aside — musicians have, when confronted with the lofty idea of traveling to the stars, been far more often inspired to silliness than to philosophizing.
Returning to the English language, Best Vintage Tunes next offers up a rare obscurity that, of all its tracks, is probably the one you would least expect to find on a compilation advertising itself as culled from “the old 78 RPM records”: “Cosmonaut” (aka “I Wanna Be a Cosmonaut”), a lo-fi shouter from Billy Bragg’s late 70s punk band, Riff Raff. This is followed by the Cramps’ “Rock on the Moon” and then by “Apollo XI”, a song from Latin singer Manuel Miranda that, perhaps appropriately, sets a far more heraldic tone than much of what has preceded it. It also offers an interesting layering of outer space sound effects atop a galloping country western backing reminiscent of “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, reminding us once again of modern synth pop’s long gestation in the primordial ooze of novelty music.
Following Miranda’s stentorian tribute to the moon landing is Best Vintage Tunes’ arguable high point, “Rock Old Sputnick”, a 1958 blast of pure rockabilly stomp from Cincinnati’s Nelson Young. Sounding like it was recorded live at a rowdy hoe down in an old church hall, the song boasts a jubilant primitivism that stands in defiant contrast to its then high tech subject matter. “We’re gonna rock old Sputnick to the moon”, drawls Young, and judging by his tone, neither Eisenhower, Kruchev, or the laws of jet propulsion are going to get in his way.
Best Vintage Tunes’ interstellar musical journey approaches its end with a final visit to Mars, 1967’s “Los Marcianos”, a pleasant dose of Spanish pop psychedelia, complete with copious backwards tracking, from singer Manolo Diaz. This is followed by the closer, “Aliens in Our Midst”, a 1977 single from Sacramento experimental punk band The Twinkeyz which is perhaps the collection’s strongest nod toward punk rock obscurity. Boasting a vague whiff of glam posturing, spacey guitar noodlings, and some deeply disconcerting vocal manipulations, this is truly a transitional single, bridging the gap between the druggy stargazing of the early 70s and the tongue-in-cheek, B movie inspired paranoid fantasies of the new wave. It’s also worth noting how, in little more than ten years, we went from the friendly aliens of “Martian Hop” — who plan to “throw a dance for all the human race” — to this song’s more insidious, dread-inducing variety — who may, in fact, be us. It’s a far from fitting lead in to Bobby Ramos’ big band number “Sin Timbal”, which follows it into Best Vintage Tunes’ old timey second half, but certainly a fitting capper to all that has preceded it.
Taken as a whole, what the first fourteen tracks on Best Vintage Tunes offer, aside from a silly good time, is a parade of metaphors that shift with the eras and styles that produced them. Both New Wave irony and mid 60s camp appropriate space travel as a sci-fi movie cliché, removed from lived history, to serve as a light hearted stand in for our shared desire to escape the ordinary — to “Rock on the Moon”, in the Cramp’s case — or, in the case of The Rezillos, as a narrative framework in which to playfully address such sober topics as loneliness and longing. For Nelson Young, a satellite’s breaking free of the Earth’s pull becomes an expression of the liberating power of pure rock and roll. But perhaps more telling is what happens to our pop song aliens as the decades roll on, going from winsome little green men to chilling symbols of our own alienation from ourselves and each other.
Such metaphors also serve me in describing Best Vintage Tunes, which, while offering a fun escape from the everyday, also seems disconcertingly like a fragmented communication from an alien intelligence. Cloaked, TARDIS-like, in the guise of a dodgy mp3 compilation of quite possibly sketchy origins, it lures in the unsuspecting cheapskate, only to whisk him or her away on a retro futuristic journey through time and space. Having myself returned from that journey, I feel duty bound, despite the skepticism and flat out derision it will no doubt earn me, to spread the word of my encounter. Hidden as it is, the vast statistical unlikelihood of Best Vintage Tunes being found by those to whom it would most appeal makes it so. For, friends, it is that most sought after of UFOs: an Unexpectedly Fabulous Object.