Monday, January 06, 2014
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 soufflÃ© 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.
Of course, Crumb's also famous for his portraits musicians - a series of images collected as R Crumb's Heroes of Blues, Jazz and Country.
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?