It began with a friend's status update on Facebook, proudly announcing the imminent arrival of a newly purchased turntable, anticipating the opportunity to play "vinyl records". (Bravo for not calling them 'vinyls'!)
She posted a very nice image of a Crosley turntable - on a shelf in a shop, looking nice and new, despite also looking like the kind of vintage turntable that would have the 'warm' sound of 'tubes'.
So I googled 'Crosley'. And discovered, courtesy of a phonophile's YouTube clip, that it's just one of any number of mass-produced turntables marketed under a vintage brand name, out of China. Affordable. It certainly wasn't this easy when I bought mine, a good 15-0dd years ago. Although, I'm a bit happier, in a smug sort of way, about my one: I bought an authentically old turntable - not as old as these new Crosleys are made to look - that had been reconditioned, along with an amp and pre-amp, from Egg Records. There was an old-age pensioner who used to recondition them. He looked a lot like Hoggle from Labyrinth.
After the phonophile's Crosley profile, I discovered this brilliant paean to the pleasures for collecting records. The best discumentary ever. Simply entitled Vinyl.
Today's record nerdery requires digging into my past.
My first introduction to the Chipmunks Alvin, Simon and Theodore, took place back in about third grade (1980) with the heavily TV advertised album Chipmunk Punk. I probably didn't recognise any of the song snippets at the time - 'My Sharona' and 'Call Me' - because I was a daggy kid; I knew I loved the Beatles, but it'd still be a couple of years before I'd by my first record ('The Beatles Movie Medley' 7-inch single, with 'I'm Happy Just To Dance With You' on the flip side, in a plain sleeve, from a shoebox full of singles at Mall Music, in 1982). So I wasn't going to know the 'punk' (actually 'new wave', if anything) songs like Blondie's 'Call Me' and 'My Sharona' by the Knack. (Okay, maybe Blondie are a punk band; the Knack weren't… much more than one-hit wonders in Australia at least. More on them in another blog, I promise! You can wait, I'm sure.)
What I didn't know about the Chipmunks back then was a lot. At least until some feature-length animations from later in the ’80s made it to television. Maybe there were some other cartoons that made it to Australian television. There was a boss guy called David Seville who yelled at Alvin a lot to keep him in line. In fact, there must have been a Christmas special, because I can remember parody lyrics to 'Deck the Halls' where Alvin sings, "Don't forget your gift to me…" that causes Seville to yell, "Alvin…!" while the Chipmunks are fa-la-la-la-la-ing.
I didn't know that David Seville was the 'real' voice of Ross Bagdasarian, who engineered the high-pitched musical shenanigans way back in 1958 - after he'd already had a hit with a similarly high-pitched novelty song, 'Witch Doctor', also under the name David Seville. (You know the song - with the 'Oo ee oo ah ah walla walla bing bang' chorus.)
Here's David performing it on The Ed Sullivan Show:
Bagdasarian/Seville's next single after 'Witch Doctor' was 'The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)' - where he got to use his novelty gimmick again. He performed that song on Ed Sullivan with hand puppets. It proved popular enough to warrant an album. By the time of Chipmunk Punk, David Seville was being played by Ross Bagdasarian, Jr.
As loathsome as The Chipmunks might be, just remember: without David Seville and The Chipmunks - or perhaps, just without 'The Witch Doctor - there'd be no David Bowie's 'Laughing Gnome'. And wouldn't the world be a poorer place then!
Here's another thing I didn't know about the Chipmunks: they originally looked like Chipmunks. Really.
Many years after Chipmunk Punk came out, I was working in a cool record shop called Egg Records, where I stumbled upon a copy of Let's All Sing with the Chipmunks. An original pressing:
I guess that's hardly earth-shattering news, seeing as the Chipmunks' most recent reboot sees them looking like chipmunks again. But after that album, the Chipmunks appeared in a comic book, and then on television in The Alvin Show, their images overhauled for these projects. (David Seville also got somewhat of a re-tweak). They now looked more like the Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera style of animation, popular at the time. The album was reissued, tying it in with The Alvin Show (as Theodore's libretto shows).
But that's not the only overhaul their image had - a few years later, Alvin and the Chipmunks were given Beatles wigs, Theodore lost the Alvin Show libretto (and Alvin and Theodore's right hands were slightly adapted) for an EP of Beatles covers.
I scored this at Revolve Records - an Erskineville emporium of eclectic vinyl, just a short walk away from Egg. Perhaps it was issued when the album and film of A Hard Day's Night were doing good business; everyone else was cashing in on the Beatles-led British Invasion in America, so why not the Chipmunks? No doublt the Beatles' version of 'A Hard Day's Night' had already topped the charts, since the cover of the record suggests this release shares the same title. But the back cover and the record label gives the title as The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles Hits, with 'All My Loving', 'I Saw Her Standing There' and 'Do You Want To Know A Secret' comprising the rest of the tracklisting.
So how faithful are the arrangements to the originals? Are they rockin' quartet recordings, or orchestral versions with sped-up vocals over the top? Do you want to know a secret? I've no idea. I've not listened to the record. Nor will I. I probably got it for the cover more than anything else. And the fact that it's an Indian pressing makes it a little more interesting. That's right; even though it's on the Liberty label, the fine print tells me it's "Made in India by: The Gramophone Co., Ltd. Calcutta". Technically, EMI - the parent company that owned Parlophone, to whom the Beatles were signed, was also The Gramophone Company, Ltd., (fine print on labels and covers would also have explained that, until EMI was restructured in the 1970s) so it's kind of fitting.
There was a full-length album of Beatles covers recorded. The vinyl proves quite expensive nowadays.
Before I let you get on with your life, I'd just like to point out that Theodore-in-a-Beatles-wig, in either version of the Chipmunks as Beatles, looks quite a lot like northern comic Eric Morecambe in a Beatles wig. (The Beatles appeared on The Morecambe & Wise Show in 1963; music hall comics Morecambe & Wise would go on to be the most successful television comics of their time.)
I apologise in advance for any offence perceived in or caused by some of the images in this blogpost.
Ask me what recording I'm most embarrassed to admit I own and you probably expect it's something Paul McCartney-related - because you probably belong to that demographic still convinced that Lennon was the genius who died too young, and Macca, the one who sold out too early. Although you'll wonder why I have so many pressings of the same single, that you can't tell the difference between (it's okay, I can). Or it's something by Yoko Ono, because, of course, she 'can't sing' and 'broke up the Beatles' and all that other nonsense that makes you a day-tripper, no matter how much you claim to love the Beatles.
Clearly, the most embarrassing recording I own, is a particular piece of vinyl dating - I assume - from the mid-'70s. It's an Australian compilation album, on the Majestic label, called Souled Out (Majestic NA 450).
Some background: Majestic was an Australian TV-advertised label. Like many other TV-advertised labels, it leased masters from other labels to put together top 40-type compilations of current hits, or hits of particular artists. Initially distributed - and then taken over - by K-Tel, Majestic (and then the Australian version of K-Tel) was the local version of K-Tel International, a label that originated in Canada. An abbreviation of 'Kives Television' - a Winnipeg, Manitoba station founded by Philip Kives - the label existed in order for the station to make money through mass-marketing. By the 1980s, K-Tel proved to be the biggest source of compilation albums in most of the markets it existed in. And - (this may come as a surprise) - it still exists, issuing music digitally. (Lousy mastering and poor pressings were the norm for TV-advertised albums; this is much less of a problem with digital downloads.)
Anyway, back to this particular embarrassing record. I haven't owned it all my life. I picked it up a few years ago, probably for a fiver from Egg Records in Newtown (or even their city store, while it still existed), most likely at the end of a shift behind the counter. In fact, I reckon I would have paid less than five dollars for it; it would have been in the five-dollar rack, but the beauty of the Egg Records five-dollar rack is that you can have ten records for $25, and that's probably what I would have done to secure this particular specimen.
It's an Australian pressing. I doubt it could exist in any other territory. Because it claims to be a compilation of 'soul music' (ie black artists performing black music). There are a handful of artist photos around the border - but the central image is an illustration. A 'caricature', if you will. It's a horrible blackface golliwog image, wielding an acoustic guitar at a microphone.
Perhaps you could could perpetrate so racist a record cover anywhere in the world in the '70s. But remember, many Aussies were still scratching their heads in recent years, not quite understanding how or why a Michael Jackson parody on one of the reheated soufflé editions of Hey Hey It's Saturday was racist. It was a Red Faces sketch utilising blackface, leaving Harry Connick, Jnr with the reddest face of all. Meanwhile, mainstream media was still trying to work out how or why it was racist. That was in 2009. This record in the 1970s? I wasn't old enough to remember ads for it, or how it went down. I'm sure there was no furore in Australia back then.
I'm not questioning the offensiveness of the image, and I accept I'm as guilty of racism, presenting it here, even though I do so 'ironically'. I know I should destroy or discard the album. It's not quite like owning Nazi paraphernalia, but it differs in degree, not kind. I have friends who have walked out of potential employers' offices when they've spotted a golliwog doll on a shelf; I don't react so strongly, but I also haven't spent a lifetime being harassed by cops and fellow citizenry purely because of the colour of my skin. I do feel a bit guilty owning the record and bringing attention to it.
However, if you've read this far without having to close your browser, please allow me the indulgence to continue.
Much as you'd rather put out your eyes, or at least wash them with methylated spirits, please take a moment to consider the image. For starters, note the shiny mirror-ball disco boots. Note also the musician's classic "keep on truckin'" pose, as made famous by Robert Crumb.
Had the 'soul' genre of the music not been illustrated by blackface caricature, the cover would be 'cutting edge'. Ish. Instead it's a rather rude misappropriation of Crumb's work.
And then there's the title pun. 'Souled out' is supposed to sound like it's filled to the brim with soul music. But to have 'sold out' has negative connotations in the music biz.
The best part is one of the truly evocative tracks on the compilation is that proud clarion call by Aretha Franklin: 'Respect'. Pity they compilers of this release showed none to her and her fellow artists.
In conclusion, I can only regard this album as a compilation for people who kind of only sort of slightly like soul - you know, the mainstream cross-over hits - without understanding any of the other cultural aspects or politics that go with it. And it can only exist in a culture that doesn't realise just how racist it is.
And yet, I hold onto the record, even though I know better. Should people walk out in disgust when they spot it on my shelf?